Who Are You?

Entry by: jaguar

2nd December 2014

This public swimming pool is my place of worship early on a Sunday morning in April. I come before all the kids start screaming, before the posers snap their Lycra suits against their taut, brown skin. My open-air pool, heated, so it’s Swedish sauna steaming.

This is where the water confirms who I am. I am its creation, it is my mould. I am heavier but the water fits me perfectly. Unlike the modern world it works to accept my rigid form.

The only God here is a teenager, preserving rather than creating life. Half bored, half attentive just in case his moment is out there today, his picture in the local paper smearing him with the dreamt of hero cream.

We all smile at each other in the egalitarian water, the feel of it against our skin. The way it works to keep you buoyant however sad you were before you came. We loom at each other in the mist and part amicably before the painfully slow and the scarily fast. No one does backstroke just in case and, often, the lady with the floral cap gets the outside lane with extra space. Sure enough she's there today creeping down the pool like an inefficient paddle steamer.

I choose the next lane in with the hot water inlet pulsing my thighs with every rest break, good as a massage. I can even smell daffodils just faintly, see them dancing beyond the matador pigeons.

I know most of the swimmers at this time in the morning. The charming gent who has to be overtaken when he’s parodying butterflies but gets you right back when he switches to a practiced crawl. He’s nothing but sinew and smile now and he staggers slightly in the pressure from the shower. Mrs. Cautious who’s nagged out of her bottom touching comfort zone by her strident friend. Friend talks on through Mrs. Cautious’s splutters as her confidence invariably drowns in the grave deep end. I am not the sort of person who would tolerate friends like either of them.

I know my own weaknesses and sometimes I splutter too. When that stately pair swim abreast and I catch a reflex wave just as I breathe in over-taking them. Their gentle conversation doesn't falter as they progress down the pool. I am mock drowned by their speed block but they never notice. Often they edge back past me while I’m still coughing at the far end. I have to do it all over again, smelling the metal of my inhalation, uncertain of my own right to air.

Like you said, some women can be very smug and unaware. I try hard not to be. I stick to my lane unless there’s clearly not enough space. I won't be moved from one side of the pool to the other in just a few lengths by the forging newcomers.

Like this man and his small child who’ve appeared on the cusp between shallow and deep water. By the time I reach them the man has backed out to block my lane while exhorting the child to try a width. At about three foot tall, the whole adult pool is out of the child’s depth.

“Oliver Daniels, you did it last week. Remember how good you felt then. Just let go of the side and try for me.” The child clings on ignoring his insistent Father. I do an exaggerated detour round them almost colliding with the man to my left and glaring at the oblivious Dad. They should be in the training pool – there they wouldn’t cut across twelve people’s lengths and it’s shallow enough for the child to stand.

As I turn at the end I see the child is stubbornly clinging. I launch myself towards them as Floral Hat sails blithely round. His father is telling Oliver that they'll stay here all day if necessary. Then he says I'm here, I'll catch you if you sink. Something about him reminds me of you.

I am not a quitter usually. Yet I decide to call it a day two lengths early and climb out, glancing down at my costume to make sure all’s still in place. Down at what you once referred to as my ‘fatally flat stomach”. He makes me glad I shrugged at the offer of your jacket and strode on in my party dress all those years ago. It was so cold that night the thought of it gives me the shivers even now. I can still get into that dress. It was tight to start with and I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d grown.

I get changed quicker than any woman I know. Wet things are in one bag that was waiting by the shower; dry left in the locker in the order they’ll be needed. I always take my jumper off by pulling the back of the neck over my head like a man, socks by the toes so they’re the right way round now. I learnt all this from you. Yet today I’m slow. I can’t motivate myself to move faster. I decide to dry my short hair under the hand dryers like I’ve seen the teenage girls do. I stand letting it blow against my face, swaying to move the current, in a kind of pleasure trance.

I see the Dad and his little boy again as we leave the pool. A worthy looking woman is waving at them from the park opposite. I wonder how it feels to be her, to have that family, that clear purpose. When the child sees his mother he runs. She kneels down and opens her arms smiling at his excitement. His Dad grabs as the child leaves the pavement. He is swung round by the shoulder and shouted at, right in his bright face.

His Mum drops her arms and wheels away, talking at their older daughter. The boy swings back towards her in a mute appeal, sees the answer is her back and bursts into tears. His Father kneels at his level but he is still angry, his voice just shy of a shout.

“Don’t ever run out like that Oliver! You could have been killed. You didn’t check for traffic, you didn’t look at all. You have to hold my hand crossing the road – you know that!” If I were her I'd point out this was a traffic free area. I'd admit I encouraged him. I could never have mastered the struggle I saw in her face. I would not have accepted wife first, mother second, self lost.

You said I was too selfish to be a wife. Perhaps you were right. I was certainly too selfish to be your wife. I saw you together years later. You were a rainbow of red, pink and purple. She was all light absorbed, folded in on herself like institutional laundry, a clean shade of nothing. Yet I sometimes dream of different choices. I let you slip your jacket around my shining shoulders and I'm enfolded in warmth. I think you might have become someone else if I'd stayed with you. I know who are you would have a different answer for me too.

I look to cross the road. There are lanes marked although no cars ever come here. The order is observed.The rules aren't broken.
As I reach my car I hear a sudden burst of children’s laughter. I turn to see the girl giggling into her hand as the boy is hoisted on to his father’s shoulders. I think he’s laughing too but, for some reason, my view is blurred.