Thoughts from the bottom of the pool

Contemplation of life and death, set in a small health and fitness club

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Three Sisters

There are three sisters who swim here sometimes. Perhaps they are deaf, these Sirens. For whatever reason they shout at each other. It’s ear splitting. It’s only a few decibels above the threshold of pain, but it really hurts. I think they are sisters because they all look, and sound the same; same hairstyles, same black one piece swimsuits.

They don’t swim much at all. They stand and shout at each other at one end of the pool. Its as if they have grown up fighting for attention, and now even in middle age every conversation is still cacophony and a competition.

I get my head under the water and try and concentrate on my meditation. But even at the other end of the pool with water above my head I can still hear them. Occasionally they will do a length.

The younger one with the thighs dimpled like orange peel, does not actually swim. She walks with her legs, making swimming movements with her arms. All the time still engaged in the verbal arm wrestle of the trio.

Eventually they get out of the pool disappear into the sauna, and an azure peace descends upon the pool. I swim in the pale blue neon light. Counting as I go.

I ignore the red raw sore,
Time has scratched into my skin,
With it’s cruel claws.

I forget the child I was
Now- like dead skin-
That child has become dust.

Time to be something changed,
Think something new,
Say a word never said before.

I am only on length 84 but I am feeling knackered. I really want to stop, get out and flop into the sauna like a salmon in a smoke shed. But I try to keep going.


My prep school number. I remember the suit and the boater, the fountain pen and the weirdest thing of all . . . standing at the school and watching my Dad driving the tractor along the village.

I mean I could actually see my house -but I couldn’t go home.


In brass tacks on the soles of my shoes, a tuck box, a tweed suit, wanting to be wanted, but trying to be invisible.

It's a big number, 85. It has haunted me all my life, if I see it on a door, or I get to page 85, or I see any written number of 85 and I am back there. A confused and unhappy dhild wrestling with my self hood.

If you want to know more about the effect of boardng school I would like to point you in the direction of:

Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2004, 49, 683–705

"Boarding school: the trauma of the ‘privileged’ child"

By Joy Schaverien, Leicester, UK

I am on length 100 and I am committed to 40 more. I really want to give up and sit in the sauna. My gut aches slightly and I try another length under water. I normally love this existential pale blue and white mosaic anaesthesia, but today I really want to get out.

Life will finish when you give up. I will not give up. I force my way through the next 40. I feel dead on length 112, Don’t worry, when it’s for real I will be.

The three sisters emerge from the sauna and waddle up the stairs, shouting at each other as they go. I wish I was as care less as they seem to be. Just shout whatever comes into my head out loud.

But that's not what I want.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Peregrine and Roy

As approach the pool I am pleased to see that there is only one person in the pool. It is “Peregrine Worsthorne”. She swims slowly but steadily up and down the pool. Yes that is correct I did say “she”.

Take the head of Peregrine Worsthorne and put it on a fairly corpulent female body aged somewhere between 58 and 64 and you have the image. Put this creature in a pale, florid and rather large bikini. Now you have it more clearly still.

I slip into the pool and start to swim. Soon Peregrine is joined by “Roy Hattersly” who is also a woman. She is shaped a bit like an apple on legs, and has slightly shorter hair than the real Roy. She also wears lipstick, which I feel sure that Roy does not.

Roy and Peregrine swim together in amiable conversation. They are very nice women. They always nod and say hello, and they are always courteous and polite. They have a kind of genteel and self-contained aura about them.

Next we are Joined by “Groucho”. As his name suggests he has a large moustache, a big nose, and glasses, except in his case the first two items are not removable. Here the similarity with his namesake ends. He moves with such mind numbing slowness, it is hard to believe it is not a piece of modern dance, or performance art.

It is proper to take a shower before climbing into the pool, and Groucho is showering as I complete length 45. On Length 53 he is still showering. On length 64 he starts the slow trek to the steps into the water – a distance of about 20 meters. On length 71 he is still approaching the steps with the concentration of a tightrope walker. On length 74 he starts the slow descent into the water. And here’s the surprise: once in the water he is a fast mover. A big man with a long reach, he can cover the distance at surprising speed.

I get to length 100, and I have 40 more to go. (I have increased the target by 10). It’s at this point that I start to consider what it would be like to be 100 and still alive. I read something in the news about a man who is 100 and still working in a garage. How must it feel to know that statistically you will be gone within 12 months. I watch the mosaic of tiles scroll beneath me. What would you want? Would you fear death or be able to accept it? Of course, it could happen to any of us at anytime. Perhaps I would feel the same as I do now. Worried. I worry about death. Other people do not seem to share my concern. Carrying on as if they are immortal; oblivious of the axe that hangs over them. Happy.

I do not know why am I drawn in to this morbid contemplation so easily? The stench of death hangs about me. The memory of my Dad lying in his hospital bed, still making jokes as the grim reaper advanced upon him makes me shudder. I remember him singing some weird old song:

“Don’t bury my here,
Bury me over there”

I often wish that I had reached out to him and said how much I loved him. But this is only one of the reasons that death so binds me. I have always thought about it, and I don’t know why.

I finish my lengths and head for the sauna. Emerging from the sauna is a woman whose legs look as if they have been badly made from plasticine by a child with shaky hands. One leg is covered in a network of bulging blue veins. She moves with some slowness to the shower, and then to the Jacuzzi. Again despite her affliction she smiles and chats with her friends in the bubbling water.

How can she ignore this disintegration? How can they all swim with such grace into eternity without any sign of fear or alarm? How can they be so brave and dignified in the face of certain death.

I am in awe.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Walrus and The Otter

The blue water beckons. Usually a solitary activity, in the sense that I leave the house and my normal life behind, today is different. Today I have taken my son with me.

He has the casual elegance that teenagers do not know they possess, a beauty and health that is simply there, without the least bit of effort.

He flops into the pool and takes up his strange, slightly jerky breast stroke. I get in after him and take up my habitual and repetitive crawl. Occasionally he does a length underwater, gliding through the water with his hair flowing out behind him. On length 16 he gets out and heads for the Jacuzzi.

On length 21 I spot a large plaster lurking on the bottom of the pool. It makes me purse my lips underwater as I swim. I don’t want any of those molecules in my system. On the next length I see it again. Maybe I should remove it, but looking more closely I can see that the thing has a bloody residue on the central gauze patch, This means that the molecules from this person have been dispersed throughout the pool. I am swimming in blood! I understand the extreme dilution and the action of the chlorine, but. . . My God! This another’s body I am slowly imbibing. Should I recognise this as some kind of communion with the humanity around me? I splutter to the surface, take my goggles off, and take a break.

On length 27 I nod at The Walrus who has started his own habitual crawl up and down the pool. A rotund man in his late sixties with hair that covers his back; black and thick against the grey flesh, and the strangest thing – and I swear this is true, is his slightly webbed toes. His eyebrows jut out over the top of his goggles, and his sparsely streaked cranium ploughs at considerable speed through the water. For a man of his age he swims really quite fast, and completes lots of lengths. On land he is less graceful, and walks in a stiff way that may hint at the rebellion of a joint or joints, but in the water he moves quite well.

Length 82; and we are joined in the pool Jack Snow. Jack has pale grey skin and white hair, and sports the scars of triple by-pass surgery. Despite the fact that he should clearly be dead, he is not. He is very alive and very determined. He swims a slow but steady breast stroke, and completes a good forty or so lengths. His jaw set, his brow wrinkled.

The pool is a place where the stress of the day can be worked out, it can cleanse your mind, and calm you. The next day I arrive at the poolside carrying with me an anger and stress from the world of work. There is a woman I have never seen before slicing through the water with great elegance and speed. Her darkened goggles give her a slightly alien appearance. I get into the water, she is turning at the other end of the pool, and streaks back in a very athletic and powerful crawl.

God! She’s fast. I get my own goggles in place and I push off. Ahead of me the water is thrashed and churned as she powers on. I can hardly keep up with her. She gets to the end ahead of me and turns. Shooting off towards me again with a powerful kick, arms outstretched bubbles streaming from her like an underwater jet trail. I am cannot resist the chase or the race – whichever it is. I am after her, in a relentless but unacknowledged struggle. Over the course of the next 10 lengths I manage to draw along side her, and then edge ahead. At each turn I am gasping for breath as I plunge back into the pool.

No such inelegance for the – what shall I call her - “The Otter”. . .

No such inelegance for The Otter she turns with controlled elegance each time. It’s the fastest 130 I have ever done. When I get there, despite having overtaken her a couple of times I am exhausted, I get out of the pool and head for the sauna, behind me she still boils the water behind her; and she was already swimming when I got in. I still have a long way to go, in technique and stamina to get to that standard. I am very impressed.

I sit in the sauna and drip. This human-soup that I swim in; this wet and steamy world teems with amazing creatures.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I go swimming most days

I go swimming most days. I go to a pool that is part of a fitness club in a hotel. Should that be “an hotel?” I have been going there for years. It’s a kind of ritual that my day is incomplete without. I have a whole other life in the swimming pool and the sauna, and this is an account of that life. I am hoping to post about once a week. (That's an intention, not a promise)

As well as being a physical activity, it is an inner life, in which I follow a contemplation of my life ex aqua.

I’m doing a lot of swimming at the moment. I am on 130 lengths a day. Sounds much more impressive than it actually is as the pool is quite small.

I count the lengths as I swim. I swim crawl. The matrix of ceramic tiles passing below me. The thrum of the water in my ears. I get to the end, lift my head out of the water, revolve 180 degrees breathing as I turn. Head back in the water a hefty push off with the legs and I shoot off on my next length. 28. Head out, turn, push, stroke, stroke stroke, 29. On and on I go.

But superimposed on this watery rhythm there is a stream of consciousness linked to the lengths and the number that I’m on. It’s a here that I undertake a serious contemplation of death. I read recently the assertion that Thomas More had said that a day that goes by without the serious contemplation of death, is a day wasted. I can’t find the exact quote, but I agree. It’s not that I am morbid exactly, I just seem to naturally contemplate death a lot. I don’t know if others do?

I need to explain certain principles if you are to swim with me: I have a system of images that represent numbers up to 31. This allows me to remember a calendar month. The images are Bum, Shoe, Tree, Door, Hive, (drum) Sticks, (The magnificent) Seven etc. If I want to remember that I am going to tea with my Aunt on the 7th of the month, I construct an image of my aunt in a dressed as a cowgirl dancing for the Magnificent Seven in a wild west saloon.

That is what I use the system for when I am ex-aqua. Sub aqua the first thirty numbers hardly count. I just log them as I swim. Then comes a series of numbers that have a deep emotional significance for me.

At length 49, I contemplate that I am 50 in two months time.

At length 56 I think that I have just been born (1956), On length 63 I recall my prep school and how much I hated going there; and at length 71 I recall the Quaker school that I went to. Actually I think I went there before '71 but I can’t remember exactly when. I do know that I was there in 71. So I recall that school on length 71 and a particular girl that I had a crush on.

Length 75 is a big one for me, as this was the year of my first girlfriend, who left me bereft and forlorn. The first cut really is the deepest.

Length 78 is a big memento mori. This is the age my Dad died at. I always think of my Dad on length 78, and wonder if I will die older or younger than him

Length 80 I am just starting my degree (yes, a late developer) and it is on this length that I first meet my wife.

Length 85 is another deeply felt length as this was my school number at the prep school. I had 85 marked on the bottom of my shoes in brass tacks. God I hated that school.

Randomly along the numbers between 78 and 100 I contemplate the end of life.

So you see I am swimming and going through this kind of inner chant or incantation of my life, and therefore inevitably my death.

I get out of the pool, shower and get into the sauna. I love the sauna. Here I sit and sweat and start to process or order what have to do that day. The sauna looks out over the pool, so from it’s steamy gloom I can monitor the movement of people coming and going and swimming.

There is a quiet tinkling noise. This signifies that there is a new arrival. The noise being that of the locker key pinned to a towel. I wait to see who it will be.

It is “The rag doll”.

She comes slowly into view, shuffling towards the shower with waves of loose flesh swinging from her bones. She wears a rather racy red costume that cuts deeply into her soft pale flesh. She actually looks more like an inflatable doll that has been punctured than a rag doll, the air has largely escaped, and then the puncture has been repaired. Now she makes her way slowly into the water. It seems to take her an age to get in. I want to open the door of the sauna, from where I am watching with morbid fascination, and scream “Get a move on! Time is short!”

Now she is in the water, and underway. Her swimming action is torture to watch. She moves like a mechanical toy of some sort, the rubber band has been wound up and now the energy is slowly dissipating through an inefficient mechanical system. Her head and body tick from side to side; her arms pat at the water. She develops almost no thrust whatsoever.

Just before I open the changing room door I hear particular brisk whistle. It is the noise of “La Cretin” who bustles briskly about his business.

“Early today” He says, and not for the first time I wonder which prep school he went to.

“Things to do” I say

“Good for you, Good for you” he says pulling his shoelaces tight and striding briskly off into the gym.

So you’ve met the "Rag Doll" and "La Cretin". There are many others to meet. All of us fighting a hopeless battle with gravity and time.

Time for me to return to my life in the air.