Like Swimming, by Max Dunbar
artwork by Neil Coombs

It was her body, and what would come from it, that was under discussion, but Donna Penn was no longer part of the dialogue – indeed, was no longer really listening to it. Neither her husband nor the consultant seemed to notice or mind.

‘Is there a risk of side effects?’ Ian Penn was saying.

‘There’s a risk with any kind of medication. The leaflet quotes everything from drowsiness to hallucinations but I must stress, Mr Penn, that these side effects are only experienced in very rare cases –‘

What Donna liked about this office, right at the top of the surgery, was the great curving skylight on the ceiling. It gave the room a grace and style that so many contemporary buildings lacked. The sky up there was a murky white overcast, but nevertheless she found herself leaning back against the table, bending her neck for the view.

‘And these pills,’ Ian rubbed his nose with his index finger, ‘they increase the number of eggs that Donna’s producing.’

‘That’s exactly right.’

‘How many eggs do we need for a viable operation?’

The man showed more interest in her body during this discourse than he had in the last three years of their marriage. No, that wasn’t quite right. Her body was still of interest – not as a sexual plaything, true, but certainly as a means of carrying on the name.

She felt an upsurge at her elbows. She wondered if there was a draught, and knew there wasn’t.

The consultant was a wide, youngish man with a blotchy complexion. Rolling a biro between two fingers, he said: ‘Basically we insert a needle through the vagina into each ovary. The eggs are sucked into the needle.’

Ian stared at him with an almost unholy fascination. ‘Simple as that, eh?’

‘Not always. On occasion we have to use laparoscopy – that’s a small telescope with a light attached. What we’d do there is make a small cut in the stomach…‘

Now they reminded her of that downplayed machismo Ian had displayed with the guy at Reliable Repair, when the Vauxhall’s suspension had gone that time. Donna tried to concentrate and couldn’t. Lately it seemed her powers of concentration were going, making her wonder if at twenty-eight she was developing early onset Alzheimer’s. That disease had taken her favourite lecturer at Edge Hill, where she’d got her architecture BA – Jesus, that had only been seven years ago.

Soon after graduating she’d got off with Ian Penn – ‘Een Penn’, the lads called him – in a Slater Street bar. A year later they were married. She had a vague idea that she wasn’t supposed to work. Her portfolio got shelved in the box room and the years clocked on. Soon she started sleeping a great deal – the less you do, the less there is to do, the less you feel like doing. Ian seemed happier with the situation, would have been completely so if not for her lazy ovaries. Hence, the visit to the Penns’ family GP, and the referral to this specialist.

Again she felt the draught circle the underside of her arms.

‘And that’s where I come in, right?’

‘Yes. You will need to produce a sperm sample. We store it for a little while and then the healthiest sperm will be used to fertilise the eggs. We mix the sperm and the egg and leave them in a laboratory dish for sixteen, twenty hours.’

‘And then two days later, that’s when she has the progesterone…’ Ian, showing off his internet research: his voice was getting that tone of pre-emptory one-upmanship that characterised every argument, every conversation, everything he said and did. Donna felt her concentration lapse again, but not in that lethargic wool-headed way she’d grown used to. This was something else. She looked up at the skylight again, and down at the carpet.

Her feet were not touching the ground.

There was no doubt about this. The light was bright and stark and she could see the shadows her plain and sturdy shoes cast on the beige carpet. She was levitating.

Slowly and carefully she pushed down with her arms. Her body rose three clear feet, as if she’d found purchase on the air.

This was the first time she’d done such a thing in public, but neither of the men had noticed. Ian was saying something about egg collection and the possibilities of mishaps – because once you reach thirty-four your womb’s unviable, you know – and she pushed again, pushing the air down as it lifted her up.

She was hovering six feet off the ground, facing the carpet, almost stationery but for the tiny corrections of inertia on her floating body. She could see the worn bald patch at her husband’s crown. She pushed –

And now she had what you’d call a bird’s eye view of the office – the slabs of desk, PC, chair; the circles of the two speaking men. Faintly she heard her name called. Then Ian was looking directly at her – really at her. His face registered what, for him, was an almost unknown emotion: total astonishment. In that moment she almost loved him again.

Clearly and distinctly she heard the consultant cry out: ‘What the fuck?’

But by now Donna Penn was thrashing her way through the air to the skylight. If this reminded her of anything it was undersea swimming with her dad in Lake Geneva, where they’d spent every July. Even at seven she was a natural, the old man said, and this is what it was like, the air was water and it was all about propulsion, nothing more –

Donna bobbed against the skylight like a trapped bird. She looked around for some sort of catch – maybe this thing was too high to open. No, there was a lever there, like the ones on the kitchen windows at their home back in the Wirral.

Ignoring the shouts from below, she reached for it.

She took the lever from its metal knots and pushed, kicking with her legs to maintain her altitude. The segment of window opened onto the sky: as dull and overcast as before, but the air tasted phenomenal.

Donna soft-pedalled through the opening, enjoying the chafe of the window frame on her open waist. And now she was hovering just above the surgery’s pink-terraced roof. Now a few feet above it. She could make out the grey battery of their Vauxhall in the car park. Hear the dim rush of cars and conversation. Donna Penn, nee Williams, had learned how to fly.

No, this wasn’t just sweeping the dust off the ceiling back at home: this was the big time. Even at this height she could see people rushing from the surgery’s doors, make out some kind of traffic altercation on the Wallace Road.

Donna pushed and pushed.

Now the surgery was no more than it would appear on an Ordnance Survey map or Google Earth: just a nameless dot surrounding by other anonymous sentinels of human lives laced with silver ribbons of access and egress.

Donna kicked off her sensible shoes and watched them disappear.

She pushed and thrashed against the air, getting on an even keel so she was moving forward as well as upward. The landscape broadened into the checkerboard green of fields and farm, the wide blue-grey of the Mersey, the hives of cities.

God, I wonder how this looks at night!

She recognised Liverpool’s Radio Tower, jutting into the sky – you could make out the RADIO CITY logo at the apex. There was a harsh and rapid flutter as birds raced past her: she tipped, regained the balance with a thrash of her arms, and watched the triangle of flying creatures – swans or geese – as it receded.

Horizontal against the ground, she pushed and wheeled and backstroked across the land.

The air had a tang up here, a thin quality to it, and she thought of the way mountain climbers got dizzy and had to take oxygen masks when they went too far up, and although she did not feel disorientated – indeed, she had never before experienced this crisp clarity of thought and vision – she kicked upwards with her legs and dipped a little.  

Push and kick and push, it was all about propulsion and the displacement of the air, the air was water, and the buzz of endorphins in her head –

And then she saw the ragged foam curve of the ocean.

She was pretty sure she was above the west coast. America was beyond, America where so many of her coursemates had gone to work and travel.

She wondered how long it would take to reach the USA. She thought today she’d find out.

Donna Penn, who was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, pushed with her arms and kicked with her legs.

Soon the land was behind her and nothing below but the shining vastness of sea to all horizons. How long was a transatlantic flight? Maybe a while, and she hoped she had the energy. She felt like she did.

After all, as the Morphine song went, it was a lot like swimming.


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