I was on my own one Sunday evening. I had spent the day loitering about the flat, reading, and doing a little cooking. By six thirty, for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. But I felt restless, and realised that I hadn’t exercised for several days.
“I know, I’ll go for a swim,” I thought. “The gym will still be open.”
So I gathered my swimming shorts and towel, and I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was in the changing room.
The pool at the gym is a full-length twenty-five metres, divided into three lanes: fast, medium, and ‘family’. The first two are narrower and attract lane swimmers, who do regulated lengths at speed. I like to swim lengths, but slowly. Which means that, whenever possible, I use the family lane. This is meant to be for families to splash about it, but when it’s empty, I like to use it for my own turtle-like athleticism.
There were only two other swimmers in the pool: one in the fast lane, using front crawl to cut through the water; and the other in the medium lane, bobbing in breast-strokes with steady elegance and power. Even their vigorous fitness did little to disturb the surface of the water in the family lane. I walked slowly down the steps, self-conscious as always about the modestly distended arc of my torso. I strapped on my goggles. Even the feel of the water is relaxing; the way its surface gently undulates against your skin. I submerged the top of my body, reached forward, and exhaled as I put my head under the water.
I always swim breast-stroke, not least because I can’t swim front crawl properly (my breathing can never find a rhythm, I lose my forward movement, and I usually end slowly sinking by the distended middle after only a few metres). Something about breast-stroke appeals to me. It’s more seamless, less aggressive, like you are reconciled to the water rather than fighting against it. For the same reason, I have no interest in speed. I take it slowly. I like to think that my pace is suited to my nature, even my mood at any given moment, and the natural rhythms of the water. I don’t force the water out of my way; I want to feel it all about me, almost as though it is shaping me.
This is what I like about swimming, and why I find it so relaxing. It’s good exercise, it keeps you in shape, but, done in this way, it’s also restful, meditative, and contemplative. This late Sunday evening was perfect for the kind of swimming I prefer. I guessed that most people were busy having their dinners, or out doing something.
I carried on in this peaceful communion of movement for about ten minutes. For a good portion of that time, I just relaxed into the activity and the velvet flow of the water about me.
The first disruption came from my mind.
“This is easy,” I thought. “The real challenge would be to feel this kind of peace, to feel at ease with the natural rhythms of my body and the water, while I am surrounded by shouting children, competitive other swimmers and choppy waters.”
As if answering the challenge, three other swimmers walked out of the changing room. One joined the swimmer in the medium lane, but the other two plopped with a loud splash into the family lane. They were both men (and seemed to be friends). They set about cutting up the water in gouging forward thrusts of crawl. The effect was immediate. Suddenly waves spread everywhere, the noise echoed all around the room, and the calmness vanished in an instant. The two men were swimming faster than me. I tried not to let this affect my own rhythm, but the attempt itself made me lose my self-possession, and, despite my efforts, I started to feel more agitated and restless, like I had to keep pace.
I always find it hard to know in these sort of circumstances (and thinking about it can easily lead you to imagine things that aren’t there) – but I also started to feel something more competitive was at work, something primitive and gripped by the simple biochemistry of male aggression. I suppose I was thinking something like:
“They want to swim faster than me. They want to beat me. They see it as a race.”
Which meant that my presence in the pool, and the way I was swimming, took its cue from their presence and activity, rather than my own.
Things went on in this fashion for another fifteen minutes. I may have started to swim a little faster, but not much. I began to feel that my body was getting a better workout, but my soul was in a much greater state of turbulence. It also struck me how oblivious the two men were to their effect. They clearly couldn’t see beyond the way they had behaved, as though the tranquil state of the pool which had preceded their arrival was beyond imagining. They were two erect cocks wanting to fuck something – then fuck off and eat a sandwich. But then why should they behave in any other way? There were no rules to follow.
Whether their fifteen-minute burst of activity tired them out or not, I don’t know. They climbed out, spent a couple of minutes in the sauna, and left.
I stayed in the pool for another five minutes, so that I could meet my half-hour target. At some point, all other swimmers had left too. Which meant I was now the only person in the water. As I returned to my gentle gliding up and down, the same stillness, which the last fifteen minutes had obscured, filled the room. Physically, everything returned to the way it had been. But, in myself, things were not the same. I had internalised the effect of the other swimmers. Even though I was beginning to relax again, I felt unsettled, churned up. My inner being felt like traumatised skin trying to heal.
At the start of my last length, I kept to my custom. From the deep end, I dived down to the bottom of the pool and swam a few strokes under the water, until by body arced back to the surface. As I held my breath, another thought occurred to me. The way I had reacted to the two men in the pool was, implicitly at least, judgemental. I had not said anything to them or objected to them. I accepted their right to do as they pleased in the water, however much it might disturb other people. I even recognised that I was the eccentric. Most people when they swim, probably don’t give a moment’s thought about their relationship to the water. Nevertheless, at some level, I resented their presence, because it made it harder for me to feel the peace I had found when they had not been there.
But it occurred to me that this was, in a sense, hypocritical. Now I was the only person in the pool, was everything ‘right’? The pool was certainly more peaceful. But this ignored one important factor: me. I was still in the pool. I might have been swimming slowly, without causing a great deal of disturbance, but I was still in the water, and my own force of movement was disruptive. So if it was, in any respect, fair to resent the presence of the two men who had disturbed my peace, by implication I was also guilty of disturbing some degree of peace – an order of peace that could only be imagined while anyone was swimming.
I reached the shallow end. I stood up. I took off my goggles and walked up the submerged stairs. I stood, dripping on the poolside. I cast a glance at the disinterested attendant, who glanced (disinterestedly) back at me. The last vestiges of my influence in the water were quickly disappearing. In no time at all, it returned to perfect stillness.
And in that state, it seemed to me, I could see the beauty of the water in its purest form.