As a boy M had often walked by the lake. It mesmerised him in winter when it was glassy and in summer when it mirrored the sun’s reddish rays. He’d play on its banks in warm weather with his friends. Some of the boys would take off their shirts, jump in, and splash around in the water, then come out shivering in their drenched trousers. But M, who couldn’t swim, never joined them in the water, until one day one of his friends promised him to reward him if he did. The water was icy even though it was summer. He felt the lake would swallow him whole. His friends swam away and left him there, watching him from a distance as he spluttered and gasped until he struggled to the grassy bank, slipping and sliding on the glass-smooth pebbles on the lake’s bed.
Later, he didn’t remember whether his friend had kept his promise and rewarded him with a bank note or a book. But he always remembered the cold white water and his spluttering fear of drowning. Along with these fears he was afraid, too, of making new friends, who would leave him to flail in icy water as his playmates had done that summer day. At boarding school in his teens, he was congenial with his fellow-students and courteous to his teachers. He joined in discussions and debates. But he usually walked alone.
M liked walking alone and when he went home on his holidays from his first term at university he would set off on his own and stroll for miles, watching birds and squirrels on the greening branches of trees and rabbits and other little creatures scurrying in the bushes. One day, near the end of spring, he was walking on the path that led to a wooded hill, when he saw a deer sprinting ahead, a creature that seemed both remote and unafraid of him. It seemed to be leading him on, up the hill. Almost in a trance, M followed.
In a short while and M found himself at the peak of the hill at the edge of a lake he was sure he had seen before, though he knew it couldn’t be the one he had played by as a child. He had lost sight of the running deer, as if it had vanished into the silver ripples of the lake. The walk had made him hot. He was perspiring and had long since drunk all the water in the bottle he had carried in his rucksack. He bent down, and sipped lake water from his cupped palms. Then he took off his shirt and vest and splashed cold water on his face and head. The sting of the water made him gasp but he went on splashing himself, bathing his shoulders and bare chest until he was shivering in the sunlight. He rolled up his trouser legs nearly to the knee, and washed his feet and his calves. For a moment he had the urge to dive deep into the lake’s depths, but for now the bracing feel of its water on his skin was enough. When he had refreshed himself, he lay down on a reedy slope dotted with yellow-breasted white flowers, and closed his eyes for a while.
For a moment he wondered how it would be if someone were beside him to share the water and the sky and the silence. Then suddenly in his daydream he saw himself in his university classroom, seated beside a classmate who had always been friendly to him, in spite of M’s reserved demeanour. Often the boy had offered advice, or to lend and share books. He had asked M, more than once, if he’d seen a certain film, or if M had ever used the swimming pool on campus, but before he could invite him to join, M had make awkward excuses to escape to his hostel room and the company of his books. Then one day the boy ran after him and told him he’d received a parcel from home with bread, biscuits, fruit, nuts and sweets which were hard to come by in the city and expensive too. Would M like to share a meal with him, right there on the campus, that day? M abruptly refused. After that he felt the boy had begun to withdraw.
But now, in the sunlight, he began making all sorts of plans for his return – he would make more of an effort with his classmates, and though he knew himself too well to think he’d ever make overtures to strangers, he would at least respond to the friendly gestures of others. But before he left and packed his bags, he was going for another dip in the lake. And when he went back to university, he would enrol for swimming lessons.