I haven’t swum properly in years, and it shows. It shows in my body, first of all, in this too-tight Nike swimsuit purchased from ASOS in the sale, and it shows in the way I approach the water: hesitant, giggly, like I’m going on a date.
At 11 I was a really good swimmer. At least, I remember being really good. Being really good amounted to multiple swimsuits, chlorine-stained, stuffed in the airing cupboard to dry between swims, and ugg boots lined with fetid wool which was never really dry, and a quick snap of fingers to put on my swim cap. We swam at the Navy pool, 30 metres long, all dark grey concrete and no frippery at all. It had white lines at the bottom so you could follow the lanes with your head down, each ending in a T so you knew when you had time for two strokes and a turn, or a bashed head. The lane ropes were made or large, hard plastic floats, rough enough to make your fingers bleed if a stroke went awry. The deep end was properly deep, deep enough that I couldn’t swim strongly enough to touch the bottom for a couple of years, deep enough that even when I could, coming back up was uncertain. Where was the top, and would I find it?
And at the sides of the pool, deep gutters where the water ran in and out, and in which you could lose your cap and goggles, sucked in the filters and into the beyond. Once something went into the filters, you never got it back.
I think I only swam twice a week, but when I look back it feels like I was there every night. It was always dark and floodlit, and we never wore proper clothes: only dressing gowns and slippers. I don’t remember what the changing rooms looked like; I’m not sure I ever went in. It was only: home from school, stuff full of toast, change into swimsuit, get driven to the pool, laps, laps, laps, towel, dressing gown, home.
I remember being good, but I’m not sure that I was good. All I remember was the lap clock, and boards, and pull buoys. I really hated pull buoys: small pieces of foam you held between your knees to stop you kicking and put more strain on your arms. I hated the boards even more, because I relied heavily on my arms, and when I had to swim with only my legs I’d get cramp in my toes, and with the cramp, the certainty that I would drown in the dark deep end.
I went back to swimming in the Brockwell Lido, halfway round the world and bright blue rather than black, but otherwise much the same: long, laned and freezing. I entered the pool with the confidence that I was a good swimmer and came up gasping, the freezing (16 degrees, but it felt colder) water clutching at my chest and drawing my lungs in. I was out of breath before one length was through and I thought: this is age. All these years of describing myself as a good swimmer, lies.
My body remembers how to float, though. It likes the surface, and something in muscles remember the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, and so it is only after 1000 metres that I really stop. It feels like longer, but also part of me feels like I never really left the water: pulling off my cap, feeling the water in my untrapped hair.
And then later, in the changing rooms, looking at my face. I never remembered those red red rings around my eyes and across my nose, risible in their intensity, and I think that’s simply because I looked in the mirror less. Now, of course, I don’t leave the pool without showering, shampooing, blow-drying, snapping on a bra and sticky knickers, trying to disguise my red-rimmed face with foundation, concealer, powder, mascara, try to disguise the fact that I was submerged and sweating only ten minutes prior. I feel sad about that while knowing that if I attempted the 35 minute walk home, through the centre of Brixton, clad in nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, I might die.
There’s a contraption in the changing room that I’ve never seen before: a mechanised wringer, into which you fold your sodden swimsuit, and pump the handle, so that it spins at speed and loses most of the water. I’ve never seen one before, and I get gently mocked for that, by gentle ladies with grey hair and no makeup at all, who seem like they might live here.
On the way out, one of my gentle mockers walks on the wet concrete of the outdoor shower and falls, hard, on her back, her head meeting the concrete with a sound that makes the bones of my own skull grind. She’s surrounded by people in seconds, but lies there stunned, a fish, before she starts to yell at the staff, at the wet patch, at her attendees to bring her a towel. She’s brought 3 towels before someone finds the right one. She seems fine, but she is smart enough not to swim. She walks back into the changing room with her goggles in her hand, and someone puts an orange cone in the centre of the slippery patch.
When I went to intermediate school, I stopped swimming lengths and started playing water polo, and that’s where I learned that there is swimming and there is swimming. Suddenly, I was playing underwater rugby, male and female hands gripping at arms and fabric, coming out of the pool with bruises and tears, and I thought I might have found something worse than cramp that took you to the bottom of a cold dark deep end. One thing I took away from it was egg beater, a way of moving your legs when floating that keeps you at a steady height, and conserves energy. Sometimes, on holiday, in a blue Mediterranean sea, I swim out a little deeper than I need to, and remind my legs and my knees of the motion. They always remember.
There’s a casual water polo league at the Brockwell Lido, if you can play water polo casually, which I’m not sure I believe you can, but I like the idea of it, as a way of remembering how to stay afloat.