Last weekend saw the big shut down, with the majority of seasonal pools turning off the plant and hanging up the keys until next spring.
So my thoughts naturally turn to cold water swimming. By way of a bit of variety I thought I'd share a short story I wrote about cold water swimming. It's loosely based on an encounter I had at Clevedon Marine Lake, and I wrote it for an event at Lido Brynaman; a glorious celebration of creative arts and performance in the empty pool tank. Reading the story aloud, standing at the top of the slope down to the deep end, was a fine experience and seeing the audience basking in the sun, on the terraced poolside above, it wasn't hard to imagine how fine this pool could be if restored to become Wales' second lido.
And if you feel inspired to write about pools or swimming Angie, from Jubilee Sea Pool, is organising a flash poetry competition to celebrate the pool being open right through October for the first time ever. Details are in the picture at the bottom of this post.
By the way - the story features a little swearing. Cold water swimming often does, one way or another. If you're of a sensitive disposition I suggest you adopt the strategy I used when I realised there were children in the audience at Brynaman. It is a strategy borrowed from a teacher I know, who uses the word 'biscuit' as an alternative to a curse. And the phrase 'it's biscuiting freezing' has a certain ring to it.
THE F WORD
“What are you doing in there? You must be fucking freezing.” The small boy holding his hand doesn’t even flinch at the expletive.
I look over my shoulder. It’s a pointless thing to do given that I know I’m the only one in the lake. But I still feel compelled to check, to be certain that he’s talking to me.
“Swimming” I say. He can’t see my eyes behind my mirrored goggles, so he can’t see them rolling in despair. I’m wearing a swimming costume, two silicone caps and a pair of goggles. Of course I’m swimming. I didn’t just fall in, dressed like this, while out for a stroll. That’s not how it works.
“But it’s January. You must be freezing.” There it is again – the F-word, this time without the accompanying cursing. The small boy has already lost interest, and is trying to untie my thermometer from the steps where I leave it to work its mercurial magic while I swim. To be fair to him the thermometer hangs beneath a bright yellow plastic duck, and he must be about 6. It’s hardly a surprise that he finds it more interesting than his father’s lack of understanding of basic physics.
“It’s not freezing, it’s about 5 degrees. No danger of ice forming just yet” I quip. My attempt at some educational levity is met with the sort of stern gaze that by rights he should be focusing on the small boy, who has now untied my thermometer and is making off to the rocks with it. Theft, it seems, demands no comment.
“I might have to jump in and save you. I said to my son that I’d probably have to jump in and save you. I’ll stay here, just in case.” The despair in my eyes is replaced with alarm. If he jumps in someone will need saving, and it won’t be me. If the cold shock doesn’t cause him to inhale salt water as he gasps like a landed cod, then the inability to make much use of his arms and legs as the blood supply to his extremities shuts down will almost certainly leave him unable to swim in all those clothes. I spend a moment idly wondering whether I could drag him and his sodden corduroys back up the steps by myself. I doubt it. I wonder whether I could stay in water of this temperature for long enough to keep his airway clear while I shout and scream, vainly hoping that a dog walker on the field the other side of the sea wall might hear and investigate. I doubt it. I wonder whether the small boy could be trusted to run like the wind to the nearby pub and summon help. I doubt it.
“I wouldn’t worry. I was just finishing anyway” I lie. I hadn’t had enough, but the prospect of being ‘rescued’ by him makes me feel a bit sick. As does the way he’s looking at my cleavage. I feel suddenly grateful that the water here is murky and he can’t see the rest of me. And I feel just as suddenly ungrateful when I realise that I’ll have to get out right next to him, and turn my back on him as I walk to my clothes. I float on my back for a few minutes, staring up at the neutral sky and hoping that he might take the hint and bugger off. But he doesn’t. I’m starting to feel cold now, I’ve been still in the water for almost 10 minutes thanks to his unsolicited interruption. Without the internal heat generated by swimming I can feel the fine tingle in my skin give way to that flat, dead feeling that I know means I should get out regardless. I don’t want to have to squeeze past him at the top of the steps but I haven’t any choice. He seems monolithic in his malevolence. I’m not sure whether my thinking is beginning to get a bit muddled as the cold sets in; is he malevolent, or is he just a self-appointed hero in a grubby anorak?
The fact that I have to wonder whether I’m thinking straight drives me to the steps. I need to get out, and I need to get out now. I look at my watch. I’ve been in the water for 26 minutes. That’s 11 minutes more than I’d planned, all of it spent inactive, and I know I’m not well acclimatised this winter. I haven’t been in the water regularly enough, and I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’ve been feeling the absence of that doughnut of natural insulation around my middle, and without it the cold laces its fingers through my ribs and squeezes my organs hard.
I wrap my hands around the cold metal of the handrail. Every time I do this I’m reminded of the time, when I was about the young thief’s age, that I got my fingers stuck to the inside of a supermarket freezer. I was curious at first, pulling and flexing them to test the pain of the stretching skin. Then I was afraid I’d be stuck forever, when I realized that pulling my fingers free would be too excruciating for me to bear, and began to cry. I’m always relieved when I can uncurl my fingers from the handrail without the help of a laughing manageress and a jug of warm water. My mother’s hard face, pinched with anger and embarrassment still springs all too readily to mind.
I’m looking down at my feet as I reach the top of the steps. Partly to avoid his gaze and partly because I know that the feedback my feet give my brain is unreliable. They already throb, tight with pinching cold, so any additional pain won’t register. I watch them carefully until they slip inside my crocs. Once I know they’re safe I lift my gaze, still avoiding his and leaving the mirrored carapace intact over my eyes. He turns to watch me walk back to my clothes, and I feel his eyes on my back. For the first (and I hope only) time I regret the words ‘some like it cold’ being emblazoned across the rump of my swimsuit. They give him an excuse to look.
It’s been years since I stopped feeling self-conscious in a swimsuit, hours spent in the warm acceptance of other swimmers encouraged me to accept that the way I look really doesn’t matter. But I regress as I walk away from him and by the time I reach my towel I am painfully aware of my lumpy bare flesh, a bright pink beacon lit by the cold. I don’t turn around until I am swaddled in several layers of clothes, and even then only to lean on the rocks to force thick socks over thicker feeling feet. I keep my eyes on the floor, on my feet, on my hands. They’re beginning to shake as I tie my laces, the warm blood held in my core seeping its way back to my limbs, mingling in my veins with the cold blood that was held in my capillaries. I can feel that cooler blood invading my abdomen, seeking out the last warm corners and flooding them. I check my watch. Ten minutes has passed since I got out and the shivers are right on time.
I loathe the after drop; the violent, uncontrollable shivering of my body trying to set right what I have done to it. I’m struggling to get the lid off my flask with hands that will not do my bidding. I hear the words “oh for fuck’s sake” come out of my mouth as my third attempt at unscrewing the lid fails. I have forgotten all about him until his shoes intrude on my still downcast field of vision.
“Can I help with that?” he asks. I pass him the flask, and at that moment I could fall at his feet and weep with gratitude. I forget that he is the reason I was in the water for too long; the reason that I’m in such a mess. I look at him closely as he pours my coffee. The malevolence I thought I detected is nowhere. Perhaps my brain was lying to me. Brains will do that in cold water. He smiles uncertainly and says “I bet you need that, you must be fucking freezing.”
The F-word. Again. I get sick to death of people telling me I must be freezing, but it doesn’t get my back up this time. “Yes, yes I am.” My teeth chatter, my wayward hand sloshes coffee all over both of us. He pretends not to notice it running it down his sleeve as he asks me why I do it.
I tell him how alive the tingling in my skin makes me feel, about the respite that comes from having to concentrate so hard on the way your body is managing the cold that life’s daily cares are flushed out of your system. I tell him about the ten-mile tall feeling that comes from knowing I can overcome this adversity. I tell him about the sky, the stars, the full moon and the wind on my shoulders. I tell him about the other lives that have touched mine in the water. I tell him about kingfishers and coffee. He tells me he thinks I am fucking mental.
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