Ed Luker


Forgetting a coin for the locker, never bringing his goggles, leaving his shampoo in the showers, Harvey found comfort in the small mishaps of his swim routine. It was their lack of consequence—how these mistakes would not really make anything that much worse. He stroked the puffy scar just above his knee. Three times a week he went to the pool, without fail. Thirty minutes in, the chlorine stung his eyes. Only Harvey could put his life back together—that’s what Craig drilled into him. 

He kissed his fingers and pushed his feet off the wall. Among all of the endless learning experiences, swimming was the lynch-pin of self-improvement. What he loved was the constancy of the routinethat neither the pool nor the water ever changed, only the people in it. There was a lane. He would swim up it, pivot, and return back down. His fingers swelled a little. His eyes would sting from time to time. But his limbs, how his limbs would glide through the heavy silken liquid. Swimming was a way to escape all the monsters that lurked in his head.

He could race past anyone, all the unfamiliar obstacles, the thrill of competition blocking out the endless blather in his mind. As the swollen flesh of an old man’s bingo wings chopped above the surface of the water, he breathed. overtaking the bloated pensioner no less than eight times before completing his session. Tussling his hair dry, through the steam in the mirror he faced a man once his worst enemy. He fingered the ‘Six Months’ leather tassel in his pocket and left the changing rooms.

Discipline. Short of knowing where to find it, Craig suggested he write the word everywhere. And so he stuck it to the front of the fridge, fixing post-it notes to the back of the bathroom door, the inside of the kitchen cupboards, the top of his Playstation controllereven taping the word to the top of his alarm clock. How he had wasted a whole life time disregarding routine for whatever caprice or fancy presented itself. He walked toward the bus stop, checking the time. A photo of his recovery route map flashed up on his phone screen: ‘Discipline —> Fulfilment and Happiness’. 

“Jeez, what’s your problem?” 

A woman lay on the pavement in front of him.

“Hello? Are you deaf or what?” 

He considered pretending he was. 

“You’ve just totally wiped me out.” She thrust an arm toward him. He lifted her up, having few alternatives. 

“Strong, aren’t you?” She softened her New York accent.

“Yes.” What else could he say? His only conversation the last two days had been with his neighbour about the redevelopment work next door and the Essex bricky who accompanied him. 

“And modest, too.”

“I like to work out.”

“Oh, don’t be so serious.” She surveyed his body, “It’s just a shame about your manners.”

“I’m sorry, I just wasn’t looking.”  

“Well, you really sent me flying. But play your cards right I might forgive you.” She directed her good mannered indignance into Harvey’s sternum.

“I guess I just didn’t see you.”

“Well, look where you’re going next time.” She walked away. He got on his bus. 

He prepared his dinner of packet tortellini. Tipping the packet into the bubbling water, splashing the work tops; into his soul streamed the distant light of others. He struggled to open a packet of rocket leaf salad; how he had learned to live alone, with only God by his side. Who was he to decide that their interaction was charged with sexual possibility? She was just being friendly. He grated some mild cheddar on top of the pasta, the rocket wilting into the steam in the bowl. Maybe he should look where he’s going and not gawp at beautiful women when they’re in need. He cracked far too much pepper. He finished the pasta, lay on the sofa, and dozed off to the sounds of a reality show about people working in a windowless storage facility.

He clambered out the pool. There was never enough time for rest. He’d barely slept after knocking on Sarah’s door the night before. He just wanted to check into see if she wanted to talk. She wasn’t home. He posted an envelope through the letterbox and spied packing boxes. Had she met someone else? No. It was too soon, surely. He got changed, and went to the office, trying to forget about Sarah. He messaged Craig:“I just swam my best time,” shaving three seconds off his record.

Top work fella.” Craig responded.

Cheers, couldn’t do it without you.” Harvey tapped, walking toward the bus stop.

“Do you always have your face buried in your cell?” It was the New Yorker he’d sent flying.

“Errrm, I just had some good news.”

“What’s that?”

“I just beat my best swim time.”

“Well that’s more of an achievement than ‘news’,” she used her fingers to do air quotes. They talked more about his swimming achievements in the cafe. She drank a latte, he a mint tea. A young Turkish woman polished glasses behind the yellow counter where a steel urn browned outside and in, water slopping out occasionally. The wall was decorated with a huge print of London Bridge in greyscale. How long since he’d sat and had a conversation with a woman. His mother was too angry, saying he’d “sabotaged everything.” For all the difficulty of small talk, excitement coursed through him. Emilia passed no judgement as they shared their travails. He could still be a person without having to divulge his failings, he knew that. But, there was just something about her that compelled him to tell her everything: “We made good money. And that’s how we’d cut loose.”

“And now?”

“I was lucky to get this new roleway less stress.”

“You must be good to find your feet so soon. You should be proud.”

“It’s just hard to be kind to yourself after all that.”

“But that’s just how we grow isn’t it?” 

“True,” he said. He couldn’t imagine how she had ever hurt anyone.  

How afraid he was of disappointing people. The shame still swilled in his gut.

“And you know,”  she said, “my partner refused to take me back when I was at rock bottom. I realised I didn’t need his forgivenessand that’s how I’m in London. By some strange twist of fate I’m now lodging with this woman who kicked out her loser husband after he cheated. I haven’t had a drink in over a year.”

They shared recovery tips and complained about the costs of health, laughing at the expense of gym membership, health supplements, meditation apps, climbing sessions, and acupuncture, in that order. The conversation flowed. And what’s more, he barely had to say anything.

He took in the crisp, autumnal air. Crossing toward Chatsworth Road, round the corner from his old house, he saw Sarah some twenty metres away. Was it really her? The strange shuffle of her chubby thighs in a skirt. It had to be. He walked faster. It’d been so long. He called out. She drove off. 

Staring at the clock at his desk, the need to purge work coursed through him. “Coming to the pub Harves, for a soda of course?” his boss prodded. After a quick swim the plan was bowling with Craig, but his babysitter had cancelled. Having nothing to lose, he messaged Emilia. She accepted. 

Emilia was shit-hot at bowling. Her furry peacock-coloured coat whipped around her ankles in a brilliance of fluff. With a little eyeliner and blusher, she looked sort of gothic, but in a hot way. He watched her paste him, knocking strike after strike. 

“Let me get you another soda,” he said.

“I’ll come with you.” They stood at the bar. Splenetic pop music thumped in the background. Young couples purchased alcoholic slushies the colour of disappearing coral reefs. “Don’t you ever miss it?” she said, gesturing to the bar.

“All the time. Apart from tonight.”

“Why’s that?” She knew.

“What are you drinking then?” He avoided the question.

“I’ll have a soda with extra lime cordial, and a kiss. Please.”

He leaned forward and planted his lips on her forehead. “Wow, did you really just do that?”

“I guess I did?”

“When did you turn into such a pussy?” She took her lime and soda and walked away from the bar.

In the half light of closed eyes he could have been dead. Heaven looked an awful lot like a beige new build. Yes, it was his flat. His head throbbed. He used to think only alcohol gave you hangovers. He picked up his phone, a voice note from Emilia, just under two minutes. He pressed play: “Hey Harvey, look so I’m really sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that, especially not about something as stupid as a kiss. Not that the kiss would’ve been stupid. Obviously I really wanted you to kiss me, just on the lips, not the forehead. It’s not a problem, at all, that you didn’t want to. I just thought that you liked me, you know, like more than a friend, and if you just want to be friends that’s totally fine. I don’t wanna push you into anything you don’t want to be in. But also a forehead kiss? L – O – L, a bit painful, but also fine. Anyway, I guess if I never ever hear from you ever again that’s totally cool. Hope you’re good, mister forehead kisser. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Two more voice notes. He threw his phone across the room. A large envelope lay on the door mat. He opened it with a dirty butter knife, burnt toast crumbs sticking to the torn seal. Divorce papers from Sarah, with a hand-written note attached: “Stop coming to my house. Stop trying to talk to me. I don’t want your money. Just leave me alone.” He sank to the floor and wept. 

He went for a run. He filled the bath and sobbed in the tub. 

Before his crisis, the meaning he’d made of reality was a big fat zero, filling the centre of that zero with whatever, spiralling inside a sewer pipe of shit. Then, he found God. But God wasn’t answering right now. Thankfully, Craig did: “First, breathe. Slow everything down. You need to let the pain in. If you resort to temptation, that’s the coward’s way out. Tell me your word again.”

“Discipline.” he sobbed. 

“Good man, Harvey.” Craig hung up.

His counselling sessions made everything inescapable, throwing firecrackers into a void he’d always felt. He remembered when Chelsea won the league in 2006. He was at the Bridge with his dad when William Gallas opened the scoring with a header from a corner. They beat Manchester United to win the title. It was his eighteenth birthday. All around him, men leaped in delirium, slapping against one another. He felt nothing. “Stop being so muggy,” his dad said, slapping him round the back of the head. It was only the gear that allowed him to reach the ecstasy he saw in the men around himto fill in the hole of shit. There was no playing recovery on easy-mode, that’s what Craig always said. 

He took himself out for a long walk, ending up deep in the Lea Valley, kicking the fallen leaves around a murky pond. The further he walked the more all the noise softened and the darker the sky became. By the time he got back home he was exhausted, his dreams suffused with the sounds of the show about workers condemned to lightless storage units, a reverberation of grunts and forklifts.

God compelled him to the pool. It was about the time that Sarah would normally be leaving for her weekend shift on the ward, when he would have crashed through the door still high, leaving her speechless and disgusted. He pivoted on the wall and surged back down the lane of water; how he yearned to nest his head in her freshly shampooed hair. He built his swim into a symphonic pursuit to banish his needs. With each thrust of his body he would free himself of all worldly temptation with the music of his body.

“Six months! Who knew time even disappears even when you do fuck all, hey Harvey?” his boss said. Harvey forced a smirk. “I’m joking mate. We’re all so grateful to have you on board. Everyone has been singing your praises, you’re the Stakhanov of account management.” He didn’t even work that hard. 

“Right mate. Your review should go smoothly. But as the process of your appointment required consideration of your recent errrm . . .  wellbeing issues, we’ve built a small panel to discuss your progress. We’ve even got a welfare advocate from our sister company on the board to ensure fair assessment.”  In the grey-panelled, fishbowl of a meeting room, the pair crowded over a laptop. Floating heads slowly beamed into the meeting platform, names flashing first. ‘Emilia DeSantis.’ And there she was on the screen, her dark hair slicked back into a corporate visage.

The meeting was over in fifteen minutes. Some faceless HR bod expressed that while Harvey’s efforts were admirable, perhaps there were reasons to doubt he could maintain his progress. Emilia mounted a strong defence, delivered in a manner that gave no indication that they were anything but strangers. Harvey confirmed he had faith in himself, thanked each member of the panel before thanking God. “Top work, Harvey-O,” his boss cracked. “The look on that guy’s face, huh, jeez, what-a-prick. Look, Harves, in celebration of the fact we aren’t gonna fire you, what do you say to a wee dri . . . a lime and soda after work?” 

“I can’t tonight, I’m booked at the pool.”

“Tireless, fearless, that’s why we hired you.” His boss pointed two fingers. When he got home from the pool he had a voice note from Emilia, just four seconds long: “I need you inside me. 

Ummmmm, is that appropriate? Seeing as we’re colleagues.” he replied.

When are you free? 

Craig’s favourite caff, Harvey’s food was barely edible. But he didn’t care. It was good to just talk, as men. “So how’s things then?” Craig looked Harvey straight in the eye. 


“What’s new?”

“I passed my review.”

Craig lifted his mug of builders tea up to Harvey’s tall glass of mint leaves. “That’s great, mate. “Love life?”

“Nope.” He smiled.

“Come on.”

“Honestly.” Emilia now had a spare toothbrush at his place. Shitting where he atethat was what Craig had said got Harvey fired. But Emilia wasn’t a junior; Harvey wasn’t her manager. Technically, she wasn’t even a colleague. 

“And what about your swimming?” Craig asked.

“Just been busy.”

Emilia cooked them a risotto. “Riz-OH-toe,” he loved how her accent stretched out the vowels. He’d insisted they go to her flat. Refusing, she let him choose the film. These days, they fucked less and talked more. Well, she did the talking. He struggled to express himself. This helped her maintain the fantasy that there were parts of him she was yet to uncover. Chopping asparagus, she waxed about the new pilates class she’d been going toa hybrid that required large elasticated bands. Participants were encouraged to unleash their demonic child, Emilia found the classes “really empowering,” her throat hoarse. “You should spend the afternoon screaming more often.”

She could feel the grains crunch between her teeth. He pretended it was perfect. That was what it meant for men to demonstrate affection. She knew that she should have left the risotto to simmer at a slightly lower heat. But he insisted she use his “powerful” new induction hob, praising its speed. His feigned enjoyment made her happy. She didn’t want contempt for her cooking. That was what it meant for women to receive affection. He lay on the sofa and started the film. She lay herself on top of him and nestled into his arm pit. He picked up her arm and placed it on her belly. “Ooof, squidgy,” she said in a high-pitched voice, poking her finger below his ribs. He ignored her, absorbed in the opening scene of the movie, a Korean thriller about a lone climber who plummets to his death. The detective inspected the corpse on the rock below the cliff and named the dead man’s wife a key suspect.

“How’s swimming?”

“I thought we were watching the film.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“You said you hadn’t?”

“I don’t mindI can watch it again. Anyway, swimming?”

He paused the movie and let out a groan.

“What’s wrong?” she grabbed his arm. “Please, just don’t.’ He rolled her off him and went to the bathroom. When he came back, she had her coat on. ‘You’re leaving?”

“I don’t indulge grumpy men.”

He woke up early. Her behaviour was not his problem. Tracing the lane up and down, affection had made him lazy. He wasn’t swimming for Emilia, no. He was swimming because he didn’t need her nonsense. He walked to a farmers’ market after his swim and spent close to ten pounds on a smoothie of beetroot, kale, cucumber, apple, pear, and acai berries. Deep purple, it was called ‘The Bruiser’. It tasted expensive enough to reassure him that he wasn’t going to die soon.

“Harvey, it’s you. What are you up to?” It was Sarah. 

“Hi-hello.” He clutched his juice. “I like to get a juice at the weekends.”

She was with a friend, young, another nurse, holding the lead of a dog.

“Very good. How is it?”

“It’s fine.” The labrador  sniffed his knee. “It’s quite nice actually.” 

“I hope you don’t mind me saying hello.” 

“I can’t stop you.” He bristled.

“Look, can we talk some time?”

“As long as you don’t take me to court.”

“Just finished a night shift, so excuse me if I’m a little out of sorts.”

“Not at all,” he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. They parted ways. “Send me a message Harvey.” 

Clear the air, he thought about what it meant, about the grace of God. He’d call Emilia. She picked up straight away.

“I can’t talk for long Harvey, I’m going to the airport.”

“Where are you off?”

“I’m leaving, Harvey, leaving England.”


“I just realised something, something important. Bye Harvey.” She hung up.

He went to message Sarah, no longer blocked.

when shall we talk? 

For the rest of his walk home he checked his phone every twelve minutes. 

He called Craig. No answer. 

At his desk, he finally got the response he’d been waiting for: “Hey, sorry, exhausted after the night shift, when works for you? One evening after work? I’m off Weds, so you could come by when you’ve finished?

He started typing out a message, “I’m swimming on Wed–.” He deleted it. “Weds good,” and pressed send. 

There were twenty three hours at a desk between Harvey and Wednesday evening. He tried to cast the arrangement out his mind. But he was compelled to Sarah, the soft ardency of her voice, her thick blonde hair, her chubby thighs, the way her green eyes collapsed as she cried, how her face wrenched itself into a smaller shape—the amount of times he had made her cry, how she let him hurt her again and again. How much he loved her, even when she found him fucking his junior in their bed in the house that they bought together. How he insisted on this love even when he continued to fuck the junior in their house after he’d been caught. How she beat him, landing punch after punch to his torso, because he was a liar and his love would never be more than a lie. He put up his hands to fend off the blows. The sound of her screams in his ear as she beat him with a rolling pin. He smashed every plate in the kitchen. Coming back from the pub early, after doing gear with Nick from work, he found her packing to leave him, hunched over the suitcase in the stairwell. “I,” he screamed, smashing a plate. “Love,” he smashed a second plate. “You,” he beat his fists against his own head. He begged her to stay. She sobbed, the zip of the bag caught. She beat her fists against his chest and then against his back and she sobbed. She picked up the rolling pin and ran at him. He slipped. His knee fell through the coffee table. He lacerated his thigh. She sobbed more. “This is all your fault, Harvey.” He bled. She sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

He walked through the door of the house that was once home—the boxes gone. Sarah smelled good. How his gut trembled. The leather sofa squeaked beneath him. Her brother was getting rid of “nice stuff.” Harvey had never liked Sarah’s brother. 

“Where’s the sofa I bought?” he said. 

“I gave it to the hospice. I guess there’s no easy way to say this,” she said. He clenched his stomach. “But, I’ve been thinking . . .  and maybe you should move back in.”

“You said you never want to speak again.”

“I was angry. You hurt me.”

“What’s changed?”

“Lots of things. I’ve changed. You’ve changed.”

Harvey nodded. “I was so lonely on my own,” she continued, “I had a lodger here. Anyway, we shared our problems. And, I still love you, Harvey, I really do. I don’t know if anything can change that. I’ve tried to move on and now I want you back. At least I think I do, or it feels like what I want now.”

“What happened to the lodger?”

“She went back to New York. And I miss having you around. So what do you think?” 

“Isn’t this something we shouldn’t rush?” He believed in lovein his love.

“You’re right, you’re right, you’re always right.” she started to sob.

He put his arm across her back. “Maybe it’s a great idea. I just don’t want us to go back there.”

“God, maybe it’s too much. I’m sorry.”

“Can I think about it?” 

The pair sat on the sofa, touching the backs of each other’s hands. Their skin bristled. He kissed her cheek, put his shoes on, and walked toward the door. On the coat rack he saw the furry peacock coat. “I’ll call you soon,” he said.

Ed Luker is a writer, poet and cultural critic. He has published two collections of poetry: Heavy Waters (The87 Press, 2019) and Other Life (2021, Broken Sleep Books). His writing has recently appeared in Frieze, Tank, Plinth, and Elephant Magazine. Based in London, he is currently working on, Educated Pains, his first novel. He runs the substack Below Deck. His website is edluker.co.uk

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