We met as children. When I was seven, pale and skinny and already taller than all the other boys, a new girl joined our school class of scruffy and boisterous children. Her name was Judith Mirsky, and she had an English accent. She was demure, with an impassive face, straight brown hair and deep chocolate eyes. In her ochre-coloured school uniform, she looked like a sepia-tinted photograph. Next to us, with our ruddy cheeks and bright sea-grey eyes, she was like a glimpse of the past.
She glanced around the classroom at us from under a long fringe and hid her small hands in the pockets of a brown coat that was too big for her. But despite her apparently timid nature, despite her alien accent and appearance, she was greeted with curiosity rather than hostility.
In class, she was quiet, but knew the answers. Out in the schoolyard, Judith was transformed. She ran faster than anyone else and laughed harder than anyone else. A red flush seeped like blood from two pin points high on her pallid cheeks; her eyes turned jewel-bright amber. She became abrupt and sharp, the kind of girl who would pinch you when you weren’t looking, but not hard.
Judith and I were not exactly friends. And yet, her presence was notable throughout my childhood. We would bump into one another at the supermarket. Our mothers stopped to make small talk, and we made faces at each other across the laden shopping trolleys. She came to my ninth birthday party, and broke Steven’s action figure, because he wouldn’t let her play pirates with the boys. When we were in fifth class, we were both enrolled for swimming classes at the local swimming pool.
I had been to the beach on July days when the dull Irish sun deigned to shine. My father had waded into the sea with me, water streaming in rivulets through his chest hair, and held me afloat in the water, his big hands under my torso. I kicked and splashed, but as soon as he let go, I sank spluttering under the waves.
My experience thus far with swimming had therefore not instilled me with much confidence. Emerging from the warm, damp changing room into the cool air of the connecting corridor, I walked carefully along the ledges of the green tiled pond of disinfectant to avoid getting my feet wet. The clamouring echoes of the pool made my head ring, and I could feel goose bumps erupting on my skin as I approached the edge of the water. Several of the shivering children lined at the edge of the pool were in my class, and Judith was one of them.
There was no part of me that wanted to learn how to swim. Even my toes seemed to curl up in dismay at the prospect. They retreated back from the edge of the swimming pool with a mind of their own. ‘No!’ my knees shouted in agreement. The hair all over my body strained away from my skin in a desperate attempt to distance itself from the body that was, inexplicably, about to immerse itself in this expanse of deep water.
The children who could swim were separated from those who could not.
‘I’m a mermaid’, Judith said, poking me sharply in the ribs before joining the other group. I was eleven, far too old for believing things. But, I wanted to believe her. When I watched her small, lithe body writhe and contort under the water, I could almost, at times, see a flash of a tail fin, a scaly underwater glint.