Image courtesy of Caroline Stevenson: Seebestattung, Hainburg an der Donau. 

SWC writing prompt: Water to Water 

Write a story or poem which starts in a swimming pool but ends in the ocean.

Water to Water

By Caroline Stevenson

My first Viennese swim didn’t just mark the start of a new chapter in my life, but also the start of a friendship. I never hung out with Cousin Jane as a child, owing to the fact that she was already 26 when I was born and, what’s more, she worked overseas. In Austria, so I’d heard. I’d met her on a handful of occasions; the big family ones like a 90th birthday party or a funeral which would lure her over to the UK. Her reputation preceded her, and I found out more about her indirectly if she came up in conversation with other family members. My half-brother would interrupt the thread of a discussion concerning her simply to state “I like Jane. She speaks her mind”. I found out via my Dad (Jane’s uncle) that she had toyed with the idea of becoming a long-distance lorry driver after deciding that persevering with that Cambridge degree in Medicine wasn’t the right path for her – much to her mother’s dismay. These little previews of her character had a common thread: they all acknowledged and respected the fact that the woman had balls. When I accepted an internship in Vienna shortly after graduating, Jane’s international abode suddenly became relevant to me, and she was the first person I contacted for advice. And my goodness, did she deliver. Dealing with Austrian bureaucracy wasn’t swifter as a result, but it didn’t feel like a maze I was hopelessly lost in. She was pleasingly old-school in many respects and insisted on picking me up from the airport in person when I first touched down on 9th January 2011.

My “You Are Here” mark on my beginner’s map of Vienna was to the southwest of the city centre; more specifically, it was Jane’s foldout couch in her living room while I was looking for a space in a flatshare. Within my first week, I tagged along with her to her Saturday swimming class, and from then on my map acquired more pinpoints through Jane’s recommendations, which gradually grew into a more complex web of haunts and hangouts. The water-based socials continued when she introduced me to Vienna’s outdoor Freibäder that summer, by which point our relationship had been fast-tracked from distant to close. Having grown up bilingual, she would speak in a unique combination of German and English, describing a morning spent darting around town to complete various errands as “fahrting around”, which would induce a snigger the first couple of times I heard it, though I swiftly grew to accept it as a Jane-ism.

She warned me that Vienna is like an armchair: you might only opt to sit in it with the intention of staying a short while, but once you’re in it, you’re in no rush to get out of it again. I’ve often quoted that description, always giving her the credit, and have often been told by the listener that they are going to steal that description too. It has yet to be bettered, though she never professed to being a writer herself. Heck, I only planned to be in Vienna for six months, and meanwhile twelve years have flown by.

The fact that Jane stayed in Vienna for over two decades is a testament to all that the city has to offer. She wasn’t one to twiddle her thumbs. When she found herself unemployed in her 50s and couldn’t get a job offer matching her skill set, she took up beekeeping and made honey, signed up for a carpentry course, grew her own veg on an allotment, brushed up her Russian skills and was also President of the Women’s International Motorcycling Association in Austria, just by the by. But her itchy feet became too restless, and she was looking into spending her retirement in Brittany where she could go on all the coastline walks she fancied while walking her dog, Cody. 

It was those walks with Cody which began to spell out trouble in spring this year when she noticed herself getting out of breath quickly. She was annoyed, but not concerned. There was a wave of flu going round at the time; she certainly wasn’t the only one to cancel the cinema social on 7th March to see Tár. She was no hypochondriac, but neither did she ever ignore signs of ill health. She went to the doctor and was admitted to hospital for scans. Blood clots and a shadow on the lung were detected. Just before Easter, the C-word. And no, not Covid. Over Easter weekend, she woke up to discover she could no longer move her legs. It swiftly became apparent that she was never going to return home again. And despite the seismic shift in her circumstances, there was never a sorry word for herself. It was all about getting Cody a new home and making sure her 20-year-old son Maxwell would be equipped. 

After she told me she didn’t have the concentration span required to read a novel in her hospital bed, I brought her a collection of short stories by Shirley Jackson to delve through, but she handed it back to me a couple of visits later, too exhausted to continue. There’s still a napkin in the book marking the last page she reached, partway through The Renegade. I can’t bring myself to remove it. After Shirley Jackson failed, I bought a novel by Christopher Brookmyre – an author I had never read but whose works Jane admired – with the intention of reading it to her in snippets. I hoped it wouldn’t prove too tiring if she was already familiar with the plot, but the cancer kept outpacing my well-intentioned ideas. She even apologised to me for not being able to stay awake on her last day. I held back the urge to tell her “Don’t apologise” once again, determined my last words to her weren’t going to be a command or sound like a scold, and simply held her hand instead. Jane’s final chapter was brought to a close on 30th June 2023.

We had huge differences of opinion on some subject matters, most recently when it came to EU-membership and Covid measures – two things which affected me significantly as a British, formerly-EU citizen who would often draw the short straw with international Covid restrictions. Not all of my friendships have withstood such opposing views, but even when discussions between Jane and myself could get rather heated, we would always reach the point where we could agree to disagree and stick the kettle on. 

If I had known I would never receive another jar of honey she had made, I would have made a note of the occasion on which I used up that last spoonful and given it a greater sense of ceremony. I wouldn’t have made an earlier exit from that Christmas market social if I had known it would be the last time we would clink boot-shaped mugs and sup disappointingly sugary Glühweins together. For the first and last time ever since living in Vienna, I forgot to wish her a happy birthday on her actual birthday this year. I was wrapped up in a whirlwind of rehearsals and performances at the end of February and realised one day too late, and I will always regret that.

I can’t stand it when someone dying of cancer is described as “losing their battle”, as if their odds of survival were lessened by them not trying hard enough. Oh, if only they’d put a bit more effort into showing that metastasis who’s boss, the phrase seems to suggest. Jane was very much victorious in dealing with the hand which fate dealt her. She went on her own terms and refused to be “kept officiously alive”, no matter what the cost to her dignity. She had friends and relatives fly in from as far afield as Kenya, Mexico and the Cayman Islands to say goodbye in person. No further proof is needed of a life well lived which made a huge impact on others over the span of 62 years. Hats off, Jane. The words “bar” and “raised” come to mind. I defy anyone to describe her as a loser of anything. 

It was only with the turn of this decade that Jane finally bought herself a smartphone, and she wasn’t on Facebook or Instagram. In a world where lives are plastered online and there’s an unspoken expectation for lives to play out and be judged on social media, it’s becoming rarer to find people who genuinely don’t care what other people think of them and who exert plenty of positive influence simply because they want to, and not because it comes with the reward of garnering a bunch of followers and upping one’s own profile. It’s sad for the world in general that there are fewer people like Jane around, and not just for the people who knew her. 

On a more selfish and self-pitying note, however: our annual pub quiz team at The Golden Harp is perennially screwed.  Dammit, Jane, we need your encyclopaedic knowledge on the team. You ARE the Imperial College Alumni pub quiz team. 

Ok. Mini-wallow over. You weren’t one to wallow in self-pity, so I’ll crack on with following your example. I will plant something in your memory like you asked, instead of bringing flowers, and will do my best not to overwater my charge.

It’s now time to wish you bon voyage. 22nd July is the date scheduled for your ashes to go swimming off into the Danube and out into the world’s oceans. As if a little thing like death was going to stop you from going on adventures.

We didn’t paddle the same waters for long enough, but I’m grateful I got to join you for some of the course. So long, Jane, thanks for stopping by, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. 

And I say that with a nudge and a wink, knowing full well you won’t listen.

Caroline Stevenson

Caroline Stevenson

Sunday Wrters' Club member

Born in Manchester, Caroline has been living in Vienna for over a decade and in that time she has kept herself busy with a variety of jobs in the culture sector.
These jobs have largely entailed helping to organise musicians or writing translations on their behalf (e.g. working behind the scenes at the Volksoper and also writing the English surtitles for their productions). Alongside delving into creative writing on a regular basis, she plays violin for the Sinfonia Academica orchestra and is also in the band for the musical theatre show “Let’s Fly Away” (more info on the Facebook page).

Portrait of Caroline courtesy of Markus Raffeis

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