Thoughts from the bottom of the pool

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

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.

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