Lilli_Gouache ‘Lilli’ in gouache and charcoal. Illustration copyright Mrs Bovary.

There is a little swimming school whittled out of the railway arches of Stamford Brook Underground not far from where we live. It is where Hubert is learning to swim. The school is only for children. As such it has an air of doll’s-house absurdity with its pastel colours, miniature furniture, little gates forbidding access to little rooms … It is at once perfect and dreadful. The heat from the pool and the mummy-speak cause the air to be thick.

We are in and out within the hour, no longer. I dispatch the baby into a pen while I undress Hubert and put his swimming trunks and cap on. The baby rattles the bars and stops suddenly every now and then to express her terror as the underground train thunders overhead. Then we go through to the pool glimmering under the corrugated steel of the railway arch and I hand Hubert over to a soggy torso bobbing about in the water, taking the form of a Spaniard called Antonio. His mouth is bursting with teeth. I carry the baby downstairs and watch Hubert swim on a giant flat-screen television from a bench against the wall in the waiting room. Also waiting are non-swimming toddler siblings who hurl themselves around the room, inflicting grievous self-harm, while their nannies pore over holiday brochures and telephones. Mothers watch this spectacle gleefully, for rarely is their sacrifice so deliciously validated.

I give the baby a bottle and overhear a conversation. Two women are watching their sons swimming. Each has one child. One woman is an archaeologist and is set to go to North America on a dig in a fortnight. The other is four years into a medical degree. The way they talk is light. They are excited. Their happiness is luminous. They agree that they enjoy travelling alone but they find the evenings hard. “It’s nice to have someone to talk about the day with.”

Later in the lobby I put Hubert’s shoes on. We are preparing to leave. The baby watches from her buggy with a rusk in her hand, her face bright crimson; the air is stifling. One of the women sits beside me and puts her son’s shoes on. I want to say something to her but I can’t find the words. And then I worry that if she asks me something, I would have nothing to say.

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