This Girl Can
I’ve taken up swimming again after a long absence. Don’t be fooled by this statement. I am not a good swimmer. At all. There are no gold medals hanging round my neck. When others were donning pyjamas and retrieving hoops from the deep end of the pool I was on the sidelines with a puncture repair kit and my armbands.
This state of affairs is because I was raised to be afraid of bodies of water, even ones as flimsy as puddles. This was not because they might transport me to Away or the Otherworlds with their deceiving and appealing reflective universe, no, it was because my dad declared that you can drown in an inch of water. I think I have mentioned his propensity for caution in a previous blog. Many were the horror stories of drownings and sweepings overboard. People who can swim, drown, I was told. Water was an enemy, a predator, whether it chose to lurk on rainy urban pavements or between glacial valleys. Every summer our local lake claimed at least two teenagers with its fatal mix of heated shoreline and the shock of the cold water. My dad rested his watery case.
People who splashed and crawled in this evil element always astonished me. And made me jealous. For all my dad’s warnings I have always loved water. I love the turned upside down world it reveals on its surface. As a child I paddled at the edges of Coniston and Ullswater. Many were the hours spent watching the glitter of light on water and then leaning to let my body shadow the surface so that I could let my eyes wander over the pebbles and weed, the small fish and crustaceans. Weed, water’s terrible accomplice. Weed will drag you down to the depths. My dad works part time as the fifth horseman of the appocalypse. At least he would if horses weren’t dangerous of course. Heaven forfend you might take a horse to water, well, that’s just asking for trouble.
Many too were the hours that I looked out across the black surface of the Lakes and longed to strike out, to glide and slither. Mermaids were high on my favourite mythical creatures list but I did not possess a fishtail and Fear kept me firmly tethered to the shore. That and a total lack of swimming skills.
My children are a different kettle of, erm, well, fish. My husband was, at a distant point in his life, a lifeguard at his local open air pool and so my two were hurled into the drink as soon as they’d been harpooned by the health visitor with the requisite jabs. Recently my daughter was shocked to find one of her friends couldn’t swim. How can they not swim? she asked, she considers swimming to be like walking or talking, something she has always done. Thanks to their dad and his gills and webbed feet my two have never looked out, wistfully, across black water, they have always dived into it. From a very early age they preferred to swim under the water, like seals. Many are the beaches of Britain, where in wind and high weather, my small children peeled off their kit and bounded into the icy waves. Water welcomed them.
Whilst I’m not very good at swimming I enjoy being in the water and of late it has helped considerably in the management of my creaky bones. I slide into the slow lane and, goggles donned, I begin my elegant breast stroke.
The first day back I started to panic, even water as controlled and contained as this is out to get me isn’t it? Isn’t that why I can’t breathe? No. You can’t breathe, Helen, because you’re having a panic attack. I clutched at the pool edge and thought of yoga breathing. Ah, oxygen, a lovely element. Fear subsided, the water nudged at me as another lady pootled by with an energetic doggy paddle. She moved through the water like a labrador after a shelduck. The water glittered and sploshed. I pushed out once more. Felt the buoyancy, felt the lightness, the kicking strength of my legs. As panic surged up again I reminded myself ‘this is not a race, this is not a competition. Relax.’ a yoga breath took me a few strokes forward.
Beneath me I could see the blue line lane marking. It coiled and twisted in the roiling water, looking like a serpent and I thought of Jorgmundr, the Midgard serpent. Here was the serpent come to greet me, to assist, curling and twirling this way, this way, this way. Some of you might think this is odd, Jorgmundr and his siblings have not had the best press, but I have a soft spot for all of Loki’s offspring. The serpent had revealed itself for a reason. I was in the water for a reason. I began to glide, to slither, to feel free.
Then, there was light. Sunlight poured golden from the pyramid array of windows in the swimming pool roof. In an instant the harsh shouts of the swimming instructor on the far side of the room were drowned out by the splashing sounds, by the glitter and glide of particle and beam. With one stroke I was no longer in the chlorine pond, I was elsewhere, the sky opened up, the water opened out. Wild. Wide. My muscles stretched and flexed. I was at the end of the pool before I’d realised. This was the way to go, the way of this blue lined serpent that never ends, taking me backwards and forwards until the whistle sounds and I have to rise into the air, heavy as a stone, but thankful.
Water alters the world. It lifts and lightens and carries us and can, I do understand, literally take us to the Otherworld if we are not careful and the element is unkind.
For my part, I am glad to return to it, even if it is this tamed version, caged beneath the skylight.