by Rebecca Clark
I learnt to swim in Brazil as a young child, in a pool I have only the haziest memories of. A flash of turquoise, pinky-yellow stone, a tanned instructor in tiny Speedos, eyes obscured behind reflective sunglasses, a poolside shrub with glossy green leaves and bright red berries. I may have imagined the shrub. I may have imagined it all, and these are not memories but constructions, based on things told to me by my parents, again and again over the years, until they became fixed. At any rate, I learnt to swim, and when we moved to Australia I continued to swim, and twice in those overseas years I am told I nearly drowned. Those brushes with a watery end gave my mother a fear of her daughters being near water that she holds to this day, but to me they are so distant they feel like fiction, and haven’t limited my love for all things aquatic one bit.
Back in the UK, swimming was weekly sessions at primary school, my class crocodiling in pairs down the road to the local leisure centre each Wednesday, swimming lengths and diving for rubber bricks, trying to master butterfly stroke. Later, though still the primary school years, it was Thursday night swimming squad, talcum powder and the snap of rubber swimming caps, being shouted at from the side as we swam length after length, faster, faster.
In secondary school, the regular swimming stopped. It was confined to holidays, the green pool of family friends in Provence, overlooked by an almond grove. Summer trips to the Suffolk coast, jumping the waves at Dunwich and Walberswick or, in North Norfolk, walking then wading for seemingly miles to reach anything like sufficiently deep water at Holkham. Austrian and French lakes, where I was squeamish about weeds that might grasp or fish that might skim a bare leg. Back then, I didn’t like wild, outdoor swimming, unless it was the sea.
Somewhere along the way, that changed. Maybe in Kinshasa, where at the weekend we would escape the city, take boats upstream, pass whole days on sandbanks in the middle of the wide, brown, fast-flowing Congo river. Sit in the slower moving shallows, beers in hand, as tiny fish nibbled our toes. The weekends at Bombo Lemene nature reserve, where we would cross a bridge made from twisted vines, walk five hundred metres upstream from the campsite, throw ourselves off a protruding tree trunk into the water then drift back downstream just like that ‘Bare Necessities’ scene from The Jungle Book. The pool under the waterfall at Zongo which we would jump into from slippery rocks, rainbows arcing in the spray. Silly to be squeamish about European weeds and fish once you have swum in a place with Tigerfish and poisonous snakes, rocks that could crack open a skull, miles from any decent hospital.
“I persuade my sister to swim in the sea with me. Still seeking that moment when everything but the feel of the cold water on your skin is wiped from your mind.”
Certainly, since Kinshasa I have been able to embrace dips in the Serpentine Lido with its scattering of intimidating swans and Canada geese, and the Hampstead Ponds (with their far less intimidating ducks and moorhens). I have swum in a freshwater, but man-made, swimming pool filtered by reedbeds in the shadow of the King’s Cross gasholders. I have swum in Copenhagen’s wood-lined, net-bottomed Harbour Baths, and the turquoise lake at Annecy. I have shouted ‘stop the car’ from the passenger seat of a hire car on the Isle of Skye, scrambled down a steep hillside to a crescent of pebble beach, undressed and marched out over grey stones and tangled brown kelp to submerge myself in an icy sea loch. Although during that July of 2017, of course, my concept of icy was relative.
March of 2018. We go to Bath for the weekend, float lazily in a heated open-air rooftop pool as the snow falls down around us. At the start of May, we take the sleeper to Penzance for a long weekend that feels like magic, the sun shines, the hedgerows are filled with golden gorse, we swim in tiny coves with yellow sand and clear blue waters, we wander the dark backstreets at night and talk of packing it all in and buying a house by the sea.
Three weeks later, my heart is unexpectedly, unceremoniously broken.
I swim then in search of solace. That whole long, stifling summer of 2018, when the heat to me feels oppressive and infinite, and the pain feels equally so, swimming provides some small relief. I spend whole afternoons at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond with whichever girlfriends I can gather, or sometimes alone. I doze in the sunshine, wake up, remember, peel myself from my towel to go throw myself in the cold green water to forget. I crave that moment of initial submersion, when the shock of the cold means I can’t think of anything else. I struggle through days at work then make my muscles burn pedalling my bike up Camden High Street and Kentish Town Road for evening swims. In August I go to Greece, kick about in an azure Aegean, contemplate Karen Blixen’s words: the cure for anything is saltwater – sweat, tears or the salt sea. Know this to be true, although a cure can be a long-term process. When we go to Cromer in September I persuade my sister to swim in the sea with me. Still seeking that moment when everything but the feel of the cold water on your skin is wiped from your mind.
In October, again at the ponds, thirteen degrees C, I realise I didn’t before understand the meaning of cold water. In early December, at Brockwell Lido, eight degrees C, I realise again that I had no idea. But the sky and the bare trees and the joyous shouts of a birthday swim going on a few lanes over soothe me, and I swim ten lengths, until I have lost feeling in my fingers and toes. Afterwards, I take an ill-conceived hot shower, almost black out as I am towelling myself dry. See a kaleidoscope of colours dance across my eyes. Have to sit in a toilet cubicle for ten minutes, head between legs before I can pull my clothes on and stagger out, white-faced and shaking, to the rest of the group. Another form of clearing the mind, but one I find I don’t much care for. In the last days of December I return to the Ladies’ Pond, prepared. Five-point-five degrees C, and again my concept of cold is recalibrated. But I am ready. I wear a bobble hat, and only swim one loop of the buoys. I towel dry and bundle back up again quickly in layer upon layer, saving the shower for home, drink from a thermos of hot tea, put on gloves and keep the hat, walk briskly uphill to meet a friend at Kenwood for hot chocolate, and warm myself up that way. And it is exhilarating.
I think if 2018 hadn’t been the year it was, if something hadn’t broken inside me, I wouldn’t have been able to submerge myself in five-degree water, or certainly wouldn’t have been able to do so with such ease. I am not just talking about a broken heart, though having something you want to forget helps. I am also talking about the bit of me that lived a happy, comfortable life and, though I frequently acknowledged that happiness and comfort, naively assumed that it would most likely continue pottering along as such. That bit of me has also broken. Ariel Levy’s idea that: it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all. Expectations of the life you will lead can shatter on a random Tuesday afternoon, just as the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Sunscreen’ warn us they might. I no longer blithely assume ease and comfort, either in my life or in swimming. And so, just as I swam through the summer seeking solace, I continued to swim through the winter. I don’t know if swimming saved me. There are still some days I feel a long way from being saved. But I think it prevented me from drowning.
Rebecca Clark | @beckyteacups | teacupscupcakes.blogspot.com
Rebecca Clark has a 9-5 desk job with a decent annual leave entitlement and a good pension, but often wishes that she were a freelance writer with a shed at the bottom of her (imagined) garden where she could write all day. She is a born, raised and currently-residing north Londoner, who remains fiercely loyal to that side of the river. She is a sporadic blogger and a prolific Instagrammer, documenting with photos and words her London life, things she cooks, places she visits, bodies of water she swims in, and books she has read.