What’s odd about this wasteful year, not to mention all the disasters that followed on its heels, is that Cheever predicted it, in a manner of speaking. A decade earlier, he wrote a short story published in the New Yorker on 18 July 1964. ‘The Swimmer’ is about alcohol and what it can do to a man; how conclusively it can wipe out a life. It begins with a characteristically Cheeverish line: ‘It was one of those mid-summer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”’
One of those people is Neddy Merrill, a slender, boyish man with an attractive air of vitality about him. Trotting out into the sunshine for a morning dip in his host’s pool, he’s struck by a delightful idea: that he will make his way home by way of a ‘string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county’. He names this secret road of mixed waters Lucinda, in honour of his wife. But there’s another liquid path he also follows: a chain of drinks taken on neighbours’ terraces and yards, and it’s this more perilous route that leads him downwards by degrees to the story’s uncanny and tragic end.
High on his marvellous plan, Neddy swims through the gardens of the Grahams and the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, the Crosscups and the Bunkers. As he passes on his self-appointed way he’s plied with gin by ‘natives’ – whose customs, he thinks to himself disingenuously, ‘would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination’. The next house he reaches is deserted, and after he’s crossed the pool he slips into the gazebo and pours himself a drink: his fourth, he calculates vaguely, or perhaps his fifth. A great citadel of cumulus has been building all day, and now the storm breaks, a quick paradiddle of rain in the oaks followed by the pleasurable smell of cordite.
Neddy likes storms, but something about this downpour changes the tenor of his day. Sheltering in the gazebo, he notices a Japanese lantern that Mrs. Levy bought in Kyoto ‘the year before last, or was it the year before that?’ Anyone can lose their footing in time, can misstep a beat or two of chronology. But then there’s another queer flicker in temporality. The rain has stripped the maple, and the red and yellow leaves lie scattered on the grass. It’s midsummer, Neddy thinks robustly, and so the tree must simply be blighted, but this sign of autumn gives him an unpleasant shot of melancholy.
The sense of foreclosure deepens. At the Lindleys, the jumping ring is overgrown and the horses seem to have been sold. Worse, the Welchers’ pool has been drained. The Lucinda, that magical, abundant river, has run dry. Neddy is staggered, and begins seriously to doubt his command of time. ‘Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?’ He pulls himself together though, rallying enough to cross Route 424, a portage more effortful and exposing than he’d expected.
Next he braves the public baths, with their whistles and murkish water. No pleasure there, but he’s soon up and out, clambering through the woods of the Halloran estate towards the dark, dazzled gold of their springfed pool. But here comes another offbeat, a sense that the world Neddy is travelling through is somehow strange to him, or he to it. Mrs. Halloran asks solicitously about his poor children, muttering something too about the loss of his house. Then, as he walks away, Neddy notices his shorts are hanging around his waist. Is it possible, he wonders, that he’s lost weight over the course of a single afternoon? Time is slopping around like gin in a glass. It’s still emphatically the same day, but now the warmth of midsummer has dissipated and the smell of wood smoke is articulate in the air.
Excerpted from The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing. Copyright © 2013 by Olivia Laing. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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