(Post by John Allan from Bridgetown, Western Australia – March 2022.)
I have a strange love/hate relationship with water. Don’t get me wrong, I drink copious amounts of the stuff both still and sparkling, I infuse teas and coffee in it and ingest it in it’s frozen form in many a rum and coke.
I love the sound of it. I have three garden water features and enjoy the constant chorus of bubbling, cascading and babbling. I have sounds of the oceans on my playlists and have recorded tunes with the crashing of waves as a background.
I shower daily in it. I am not like the Peanuts character Pig-Pen surrounded in a swirl of dust and grime.
I hanker for the autumn petrichor, that welcoming earthy, musty aroma of the first rains after a long hot, dry summer.
My problem is emerging myself in it or more specifically staying afloat.
I’m about an hour and a half from some of the most pristine beaches in the world and I barely manage a paddle. I know there are some scary creatures in the sea (a stinger up the nose was an experience I will not ever forget) it’s just that I’m not and never have been a good swimmer.
I thought I was well prepared. As a child I read ‘The Water Babies’ by Charles Kingsley. I was an avid viewer of ‘Flipper’ but I was just not one of the worlds natural swimmers – a Nirvana album cover baby with my genitalia gently wafting in the ebb and flow……………….although there was that unfortunate misunderstanding some decades later. That’s one aquatic centre I won’t be invited back to !
No, I was destined to clutch to my slab of styrofoam in the shallow end, mortified by my bright orange blow up arm floaties while the cool kids, ignoring piercing whistles, did dive bombs at the deep end.
I had my literal sink or swim moment one summer holiday on a family camping trip to the north of France when I was about 8 or 9. I was in shallow waters, one foot firmly on the sands beneath, my other leg and arms spread out shouting to my parents ‘Look ! I’m swimming’. The fact I was still remaining in the one spot should have been a giveaway until the tide picked me up and swept me out a good six foot into the deepening sea. With my foot no longer connected to the sea floor, survival mode kicked in and I made my first proper (and life saving) strokes towards the shore.
Buoyed by my life affirming moment and my new aquatic confidence, I could now hold my head up high (and my body afloat) at school trips to Bruce Street baths, Clydebank and the Cub Scouts outings to Church Street, off Byres Road.
Although only being able to accomplish a width of the baths in a flailing turtle style breast stroke, a whole new world opened up to me. I attempted the Australian crawl or freestyle as they say here in Oz. (Australian Crawl is a seventies rock band, fair dinkum !) I couldn’t quite co-ordinate the breathing side of things so would glide like a torpedo for about ten feet with arms and legs akimbo and then bob up spluttering before reverting to an embarrassing doggy paddle.
Tuesdays nights now were something to look forward to as the Cub troop descended on Church Street baths. A couple of hours of splashing around then squeezing into your tiny cubicle to dry off. (Harry Houdini had more real estate in a straitjacket !)
The entrance to your dressing area was like the half size swing doors to a western cowboy bar room. You were always conscious of one of your mates breezing into your space with a ‘Howdy partner’ or worse still, you stumbling backwards, bare arsed as you tried to pull up your y-fronts over wet legs.
Fully clothed with damp hair freezing to our brows, we’d make our way up Byres Road staring at the halos around every street light. A bag of chips and a pickled onion at the chippy next to the bus stop purchased, the Duntocher bus was upon us before we could make out the number 118. (How much chlorine must have gone into that water ?) Upstairs to devour the chips and generally steam up the top deck. The trick was to savour the onion by sucking it through the paper bag until your Courthill stop, allowing you to chomp down proper on the short walk home.
A quick acknowledgement to your parents, your damp swimming kit stowed under your bed to stagnate for a few days then into your kip stinking of greasy food and cleaning fluids. Eyes streaming whether from toxic chemicals or tears of joy.
Float on !