Neil Coppen

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Seventy five strokes - a true story

April14


At 5’oclock Mrs Webb was woken by the first signs of dawn flapping in the curtain. She rose quickly, taking a moment to rub arnica on her knees, fiddling with the knob on her bedside radio to locate the classical radio station- one of Chopin’s prelude’s were playing , minor or major she could not decide. She would remember to ask Dorothy Jennings over tea, Dorothy would be able to name it off a hum. She would not forget it.

While relieving herself in the bathroom Mrs Webb watched her false teeth grinning from a glass perched on the sink. Once she had secured fixed them in place she took a moment to scrutinise her reflection. She had been beautiful, had spent enough hours in her lazy chair flipping though photographs of her youth, to be certain of this. Now she searched for a semblance of that face - that girl- her existence indiscernible, retreated into a heap of wrinkles and wobbly chin skin. She mulled over the passing of time- her twenties (bliss) forties (surprise) sixties- (shock) and now seventy fifth? What now? ‘The years’ Mrs Webb muttered; ‘surreptitious little devils, creeping up on one when they least expected.’


Mrs Webb had her day carefully planned, birthdays involved accommodating more people then she was used to. She would swim at six, take tea at twelve, birthday lunch with her grandson at one and afternoon tea (to squeeze in her sister) at two. Should all the engagements run according to plan, she would be nestled in bed by half six. Only this morning she felt despondent- the sight of her tired face, the groan in her knees, aching back enough to make her reconsider facing the day at all.

 Morning’s were an open invitation to the deficiencies of age, things always seemed to get better as the day progressed. She must keep that in mind, must not be defeated, she must select a dress from the closet and finalize her decision over what jam she would settle for on her tea time scones. Strawberry or apricot? apricot or strawberry? Small things, trivial things that helped take one’s mind off the more pressing concerns.


Mrs Webb had read in her Readers Digest that specialists recommended the elderly keep their eyes and minds active by reading. She now read for twenty minutes each morning- usually a random passage from the Bible. While not particularly religious she had turned to the scriptures in preparation for the things one should start preparing for at her age. After a few psalms she felt suitably reassured, enough to unpeg her damp bathing suit and matching cap from the line and make her way across the railway track to the beach where the old age swimming club was out in full alacrity. Some waved, wishing her a good morning. The few, in possession of sound memory, added a happy birthday to the end of their greetings. Lil Morrison and Ethel Lewis were on the beach, watching their doddery old husbands breast stroking beyond the breakers, their conversation concerning ,rather predictably, the majesty of the morning (“Breathtaking isn’t it Lil!”) the water temperature (“Summer’s on its way, hey Ethel”) and wave conditions (“Still as a pond, not a ripple”). Mrs Webb, in no mood to feign perkiness issued a polite wave as she scuttled past. “Happy Birthday” Ethel shouted after her, followed by Lil “Happy Birthday old girl”. She would not compromise, not today- for it was through solitude that she hoped to forge some sort of a reconciliation with the first morning of her seventy fifth year.


Standing, with water circling her waist, Chopin still lingering in her ears, Mrs Webb took in the sight: the mountains stretched across the horizon, crisp and clear as the day they had been created. She turned on her back and let the water relieve all weight from her limbs. The chill causing a rush of blood to forgotten places, an instant and revitalizing burst of energy. Stunned by the sudden cold and overwhelming clarity of the world, Mrs Webb felt herself buoyant, reborn. Imagined she were seeing it all for the first time. She took a serene little sigh and let her eyes shut, beginning with her backward strokes –focusing now on the lapping in her ears, the meditative splashes of alternating arms. The sun inching higher, warming her face as it went.

“The last time I looked over at her” said Mrs Benson-a pre breakfast bather and bingo club acquaintance, in her tearful statement to the Fishhoek weekly that afternoon, “She looked like an angel, an angel in a little red swimming cap”.


Today, Mrs Webb thought, I shall do a stroke for every year I have lived-yes, seventy five was ambitious but not impossible. She would not let herself be defeated by a number- two seemingly insignificant digits. The first thirty strokes she accomplished with ease. It was on the forty-fifth that she worried she might not succeed, on the sixtieth she wished she had not lived so bloody long, and on the seventy fifth that she vanished from out of the ocean –and off the face of the earth—completely.


A strolling couple on the beach reported a brief disturbance in the water, the sight of Mrs Web slipping beneath the surface never to return.  A fisherman on the near by rocks however claimed he saw her backstroke right into the monsters mouth (its unmistakable grin and fin flashing in the morning light). Humming Chopin and smiling to herself, smiling (he said she was) as she imagined her grandsons face over the birthday lunch –that never was– or attempting to resolve the great jam debate: strawberry over apricot? Apricot over strawberry?

 It was a niggling in Mrs Webb’s side, no more inconvenient than what she had woken up with that morning, certainly nothing the nurse at the home couldn’t medicate when she returned to the shore. A concise pain followed by a pungent fishy smell, an epiphany of ‘Apricot!’ and then silence.

posted under Short stories

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