courage fiction short story

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Wonder

In Elaine Dillon's short story, her main character unlearns a childhood of fear – one stroke at a time.

by Elaine Dillon 

Teacups. Or Things to Fear #1

Dad says, if you try hard enough, you can drown in a teacup. In two stern bobs of an Adam’s apple, he downs his tea, bringing the cup down hard against the saucer. He centres the base of the cup in the middle of the plate with a scrape I can feel somewhere between my shoulder blades.

Delicate pink roses pattern Grandma’s china. The heads are bent earthwards, as if they haven’t yet had a chance to turn their faces to the sun. Or they might be wilting.

I consider the volume of liquid in the cup; the amount of water I must never swallow through my nose.

Things to Fear #2

Don’t take sweets from strangers, you hear me?

The man must be a friend of Dad’s. They stand, hooting long plumes of hot air at one another, under the high street Christmas lights. From the pocket of his soft leather jacket, the man removes a fat toffee. The red foil sparkles, joyful as a tree ornament. He holds it by a wrapper twist, offers the other end to me. I shake my fringe onto my eyelids and turn my face away. Just in case it’s a test.

Lessons. Part One.

I let the others line up, playing for time because the fire alarm will go off. The instructor will change her mind about the whole damn exercise. Somebody else will panic, fold onto the dirt-ridged tiles, and the teacher will place her understanding hand on a shoulder, whispering, It’s okay. You don’t have to. You don’t.

But everyone meets the water with their fingertips, without hesitation. Giggling fluorescent swimming caps collect in a corner, and turn in my direction. The instructor avoids eye contact.

Toes curled on the edge, I tuck my chin, raise my arms. The chlorine-scent bathes warm on my eyelids. I crouch, but with no evidence of commitment, the teacher presses the pads of her fingers into my back. It is just a nudge I am not ready for.

My whole body stings onto the surface. Graceless, I slow-motion flap with my eyes scrunched shut, begging God my body isn’t pointing the wrong way.

Things to Fear #3

See if I ever catch you smoking, I mean ever, I’ll kill you. I mean it, I’m not joking. I’ll kill you.

At 8, these are words a girl can drown in.

Things to Fear #4

He sits at his breakfast table pulpit, holding aloft his red-top bible. The sermon begins.

See that? That girl’s ages with you. On life support. Her own dog did that to her. They can turn on you at any minute.

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Not for the last time, I have to be my own rescuer.”

School Trip

The others seem to know what to do when the wave machine starts; when to jump and when to plunge. I am rhythmless. Waves surge over my head, the shapes of bright bodies softening around me. My breaths gurgle when I snatch the surface for a second. I don’t want to make a scene but it occurs to me there’s a very real chance I am drowning this time. I try to wave at the lifeguard, dragging water into my lungs, one teaspoon at a time. On the outside though, I just look like everyone else. I wonder how many teaspoons make a teacup.

Years later, I realise all I had to do was turn my back on the waves, walk to the shallow end. That was all I needed to do. But I cling to the side, my arms stretching like gum until I figure out how to use the swell, and haul myself out onto the side. Not for the last time, I have to be my own rescuer.

The Teenage Years. Or Other Fearful Things

Nightclubs

Curries. Most foreign food

Failing exams

Running so hard you look ill. In fact, anything that draws attention to yourself

Boys

Restaurants. Socialising in general

Scented candles

Leaving the CD player on overnight

Accidents don’t happen; they are caused.

Holiday

There are five steps and then you are chest-high. I say this, and she can see me. Chest-high. Mosaic blues shimmer round me like a promise. Mum shifts from foot to foot on the steps. Behind her, the sun is too bright; her face is a black hole.

I wade forward, stretch out my wet fingers. She grasps them in a double-handshake and steps down. And again. On the last step the water comes just over her chest and she breathes a soft, Oh. The tears are sliding down her cheeks.

Things to Fear #5

I want you to promise me something. Stay out of caves. Those boys. Those poor, poor, boys.

Things to Fear #6

I tell my husband, every time I turn the drum, making sure I have every last sock, I imagine the washing machine suddenly restarting, and ripping my arm off. I don’t worry that it will happen, I know it’s irrational; impossible even. But a picture, a few seconds long, flashes into my mind.

I can’t remember which parent mistrusted these machines.

We calculate the number of times I must’ve emptied a washing machine over our life together. 15 years by 52 weeks by (a conservative) 3 washings a week. 2,340 washings. 2,340 thoughts of an arm, torn from its socket.

Things to Fear #7

6 people die by cow every year. I’m serious, I want you to listen to me. Stay. Away. From. Cows.

I find a stat that says 2,500 left-handed people die every year, trying to use products designed for right-handed people. My southpaw father says You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Today, I find my voice, ask him Why not? When the newspaper is your gospel?

But later:

And watch those half-marathons. You only get one pair of legs and they’ve got to last you all your days.

I ask him if it would make him feel any better to say I told you so. He looks away, and I know he’s seriously considering the answer.

Lessons. Part Two.

I sputter out another length. Bringing my arms down with inelegant slaps, I lift my head up like I’m not supposed to when I turn.

You’re getting better. Relax into it, and slow down. You’re doing fine.

I try to believe he’s not paying me lip service, and I realise this is the hardest thing, harder than the techniques; to trust new words that aren’t 30 years old.

And I need them. I need them like air.

One day, soon

I am a blade. Slick and dark, I slice along the swell, the water beneath throbbing and shrinking. The ocean is a lullaby. Her waves sing in my ears, the only voice I hear when I turn and breathe the salt-air. And my own when I exhale. You’re fine. You are.


Elaine Dillon is still quite new to this writing business. She recently quit her HR job to spend more time writing, and to figure out if she’s any good at it. Though she placed third in the 2018 Storgy Flash Fiction contest, she’s still not convinced she isn’t just hiding.

1 comment on “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Wonder

  1. Pingback: What doesn’t kill you makes you wonder – Elaine Dillon

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