School: Penicuik High School, Midlothian
Pull, kick, breathe, pull, kick breathe, pull…pull...? But my arm is caught in something! I try and wriggle free, but it digs into my flesh. I thrash my legs furiously, trying to stay afloat but I only get more tangled. I gulp down salty water and try to keep my head above the surface. But the harder I try to free myself the more water I swallow, the more my lungs burn, the heavier my limbs become…
I sit bolt upright, gasping for air and mop sweat from my brow.
“I can’t keep doing this!” I tell my therapist the next morning. “Since I was five I’ve dreamt of nothing but swimming the English Channel, for Grandma… I wanted to do it for both of us… but I failed.” I blink back tears and idly trace my scar.
“Blaming yourself won’t fix it, Linda,” she sympathises. “It isn’t your fault that you got caught in plastic…It’s a miracle you’re not dead too!”
“I may not be dead, but my life’s still over,” I huff.
She looks at me earnestly.
“My whole life is swimming! I’ve spent years preparing for this! Now I can’t even get in a stupid pool. What’s wrong with me?”
“It’s PTSD, completely normal after something traumatic. I think you just need closure, is there anything you can think of that might help you move on?”
I consider this for a moment but all that comes to mind is finishing the swim.
“Maybe helping someone else cross the channel?” she suggests kindly.
“I mean…maybe?” I frown slightly. “Anything’s worth a try, right?”
The blue plastic covering my shoes crunches against the slippery white tiles with my every step.
“Hello everyone, my name is Linda Hopling and I’ll be your swimming tutor for the foreseeable future.”
Twelve kids aged 11 to 16 are sat before me, all smiling hopefully.
“You’re all here by choice, so you can leave whenever, if-ever, you want. But I have big plans for this little group, so try and stay with us.”
They slip into the pool, chatting and laughing as they go. I start by seeing what they can do, and I’m pleasantly surprised by their skill. One-by-one they push-off and glide seamlessly through the water, their figures distorted reflections. After their turn, they hop onto the blue tiles lining the pool and soak in their surroundings. Reflections dance on the surface of the water from the skylights above, I follow their eyes up the streams to the steel beams crisscrossing overhead. Stealing my eyes back to the swimmers, I continue to be impressed.
“Right guys, I can see real promise in all your techniques…but how’s your stamina?”
“38 lengths Miss Linda,” says Elliot.
“43!” Susie trumps him smugly, only to be outdone by Mikey.
“59, Miss Linda!” and so on.
“You’re all pretty good for your age, but by the end of this you should all to be able to swim 1340.”
I smile at their shocked faces. “At least.”
“If you stay with me you’ll all get to swim the English Channel.”
“OH! You’re Linda Hopling! That’s why I recognise you,” blurts Innes. “You tried to swim the channel about 6 months back, but you couldn’t because you got caught in plastic!”
Gasps of recognition then murmurs of surprise spread among them. I don’t know how to handle this, so I flash them a watery smile and pull up my sleeve to reveal the scar winding around my arm.
“But if you nearly died…why on earth would you send a bunch of kids across it?” Elliot asks, slightly dismayed.
“For Grandma,” I say without hesitation. “She died trying, stormy weather… too proud to call it off, it cost her her life. I was only 5. I’ve always known the dangers, but I wanted to do it for her…But I couldn’t.” I clear my throat and try to continue. “You know that saying, ‘those who can’t do, teach’? I thought that could apply to me.” I sniff and look up, determined not to cry. “I could teach you…and be the reason you swam the channel…and I could live up to her memory.”
The floodgates open. I feel so stupid; crying in public, in-front of a class I’m teaching no less! But as I sob into my hands, frozen in place, someone hugs me, then someone else too, and I don’t feel so bad. We all stand for a few moments until I pull myself together.
“Right, ahem. See you all Saturday?”
Saturday flies past, and so do the other sessions. Everybody’s putting in loads of effort and improving rapidly. And they continue to do so. The end of our sessions is looming ever nearer and even though we’re still improving, the progress seems to be slowing. They’re more tired when they arrive and I haven’t a clue why that might be.
“Good work today guys. As you know, there’s only 3 sessions left until Channel day and although we’ve all reached the 1340 mark I’d like to put as much distance between us and the minimum as possible, you never know what the tide might bring. And one more thing…” I remind them all how important it is to be well-rested, then send them on their way.
I pull up my car to see them off but there are about 40 extras. We must’ve picked a popular day? As I step out everyone cheers, my kids run up to hug me.
“Wha…What’s going on?!”
“We’re going to clean the Channel!” exclaims Susie.
“We got loads of people to help,” Elliot points around “That’s why we were tired, we ran extra training for them.”
There is a loud blast from a whistle, I look over and see a lady in a pencil-skirt with a clipboard, she must be from the Channel-Swimming-Association. The kids charge towards the sea with mesh bags strapped to their backs. A gaggle of parents surrounds me and start expressing their gratitude and awe, I receive their words with tears of joy.