Tuesday, 15 January 2019

January So Far

A bruise, from a New Year’s Day fall at Winter Wonderland where I slip and crash down, hard, onto my right knee, my bad knee, almost cry out from the pain of it, but leap up, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting the fuss and kindness of strangers. Throughout that first week of the new year it blossoms from pink-purple to blue-green to brown-yellow, tender to the touch.

Early nights and early mornings. Stepping out onto the cold street before a 7 am spin class like stepping into a hot bath in reverse. The goosebumped shudder of the body, the smack of the cold. Leaving the sports centre, a weathered plastic bag, caught high in the branches overhead, long strands of shredded plastic moving in the wind like a stranded jellyfish.

Columbia Road. Banana bread and milky tea at Lily Vanilli. Talking about the year ahead with two of my dearest, quietly hopeful. A huge bunch of white narcissus, fatter than my arm, which scent the tube carriage all the way back, and then, split into smaller bunches, distributed in every room, the whole flat. 

A rooftop bar near Waterloo on a Friday night with four of my university friends, our faces softened under the coral glow of the overhead strip heaters. Talking and talking until we get kicked out at closing. How wise and kind and funny they have all turned out to be, although of course they were always the latter two, even when we were 19, doing tequila shots in fancy dress outfits, making faces at each other across a silent library. But I am struck by how wise they have all become, how they share that wisdom freely, making me feel better about all manner of things. Struck too by the easy intimacy that comes with time and the gradual accumulation of shared history. That evening, not wanting to be anywhere else, not feeling the lack of anyone either.

Rose Matafeo at Soho Theatre. Seen first in Edinburgh in August, where by the end there were tears of sadness and not just laughter, S squeezing my hand. And if you are a heart on your sleeve Pisces, and you are feeling loss, it only means that once upon a time you gave your 100% to something. Inaccurately remembered I'm sure, but that was the gist, the takeaway theme that stuck with this heart-on-sleeve Pisces. This time round though, only laughter, pure and from the deepest part of me. Again, that evening, wanting to be exactly there, nowhere else, with exactly those people. 

More swimming. Swimming indoors, length after length under bright lights and red, white, blue bunting. The chlorine cling of it, for hours after. Swimming outdoors, even as the thermometer drops. 4.5 degrees, 4 degrees. Shorten your swim the chalkboard warns, and I do, but once I am dressed again, I wish I’d stayed in longer. On Sunday, a female runner asks as I am leaving did you swim? How was it? Cold, I tell her, 4 degrees, and she gasps, but says she is keen to try. We talk for a bit. I share my experience so far, give tentative tips. Afterwards, I wish I had given her my number, told her to message me if she wanted some company for her first time. Kick whatever it was that held me back, me who is usually braver than most at reaching out to people in this vast, anonymous city. The worry that she would have thought me strange perhaps, that she would have listened to my small offer of friendship and politely, awkwardly, declined.

Saturating myself with cinema the way I always do at this time of year, when the awards season gives us such rich pickings. The Favourite, dark and wickedly funny, with a compelling soundtrack and sumptuous costumes. Colette, a perfectly lovely way to pass two hours on a grey Saturday afternoon, but which I didn't adore. Roma, which started slowly, built up beautifully and is lingering even now, two days on. The perspective provided by the suffering of others. 

Reading, reading. Other women's words that drape themselves around me. Words about hope, and how it is an active, striving thing. Words that weave a tale of a jackdaws and cobbled streets and a fearsome legend. Words that describe the restorative power of swimming far more eloquently than I was able to, the lure of lakes, of cold water, of wild places.

And writing. My own words, that come more readily than they have done for some time.  Words that slot themselves together in my head as I am descending the escalator to the Bakerloo line, or cycling across Hyde Park in the January darkness, words which beg to be typed up, written down. Writing can be the mental equivalent of hitting a punch bag - I read on the Instagram feed of Notes to Strangers. Bookmark it for later. Come back to it. And think, it feels like that, these days, yes.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

On Swimming

I learnt to swim in Brazil as a young child, in a pool I have only the haziest memories of. A flash of turquoise, pinky-yellow stone, a tanned instructor in tiny Speedos, eyes obscured behind reflective sunglasses, a poolside shrub with glossy green leaves and bright red berries. I may have imagined the shrub. I may have imagined it all, and these are not memories, but constructions, based on things told to me by my parents, again and again over the years, until they became fixed. At any rate, I learnt to swim, and when we moved to Australia I continued to swim, and twice in those overseas years I am told I nearly drowned.

Back in the UK, swimming was weekly sessions at primary school, my class crocodiling in pairs down the road to the local leisure centre each Wednesday, swimming lengths and diving for rubber bricks, trying to master butterfly. Later, though still the primary school years, it was Thursday night swimming squad, talcum powder and the snap of rubber swimming caps, being shouted at from the side as we swam length after length, faster, faster.

In secondary school, the regular swimming stopped. It was confined to holidays, the green pool of family friends in Provence, overlooked by an almond grove. Summer trips to the Suffolk coast, jumping the waves at Dunwich and Walberswick or, in North Norfolk, walking then wading for seemingly miles to reach anything like sufficiently deep water at Holkham. A hotel pool in Havana where over the course of a week I developed a crush on an American tourist purely on the basis of his smile and the hammer and sickle tattoo on his right shoulder. Austrian and French lakes, where I was squeamish about weeds that might grasp or fish that might skim a bare leg. Back then, I didn’t like wild, outdoor swimming, unless it was the sea.

Somewhere along the way, that changed. Maybe in Kinshasa, where at the weekend we would escape the city, take boats upstream, pass whole days on sandbanks in the middle of the wide, brown, fast-flowing Congo river. Sit in the slower moving shallows, beers in hand, as tiny fish nibbled our toes. The weekends at the Bombo Lemene nature reserve, where we would cross a bridge made from twisted vines, walk 500m upstream from the campsite, throw ourselves off a protruding tree trunk into the water then drift back downstream just like that Bare Necessities scene from The Jungle Book. The pool under the waterfall at Zongo which we would jump into from slippery rocks, rainbows arcing in the spray. Silly to be squeamish about European weeds and fish once you have swum in a place with Tigerfish and poisonous snakes, rocks that could crack open a skull miles from any decent hospital.

Certainly since Kinshasa I have been able to embrace dips in the Serpentine Lido with its scattering of intimidating swans and Canada geese, and the Hampstead Ponds (with their far less intimidating ducks and moorhens). I have swum in a freshwater, but man-made, swimming pool filtered by reedbeds in the shadow of the King’s Cross gasholders. I have swum in Copenhagen’s wood-lined, net-bottomed Harbour Baths, and the turquoise lake at Annecy. I have shouted ‘stop the car’ from the passenger seat of a hire car on the Isle of Skye, scrambled down a steep hillside to a crescent of pebble beach, undressed and marched out over grey stones and tangled brown kelp to submerge myself in an icy sea loch. Although during that July of 2017, of course, my concept of icy was relative.

March of last year. We go to Bath for the weekend, float lazily in a heated open air rooftop pool as the snow falls down around us. At the start of May, we take the sleeper to Penzance for a long weekend that feels like magic, the sun shines, the hedgerows are filled with golden gorse, we swim in tiny coves with yellow sand and clear blue waters, we wander the dark backstreets at night and talk of packing it all in and buying a house by the sea. 

Three weeks later, my heart is unexpectedly, unceremoniously broken.

I swim then in search of solace. That whole long, stifling summer, when the heat to me feels oppressive and infinite, and the pain feels equally so, swimming provides some small relief. I spend whole afternoons at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond with whichever girlfriends I can gather, or sometimes alone. I doze in the sunshine, wake up, remember, peel myself from my towel to go throw myself in the cold green water to forget. I crave that moment of initial submersion, when the shock of the cold means I can’t think of anything else. I struggle through days at work then make my muscles burn pedaling my bike up Camden High Street and Kentish Town Road for evening swims. In August I go to Greece, kick about in an azure Aegean, contemplate Karen Blixen’s words: the cure for anything is saltwater – sweat, tears or the salt sea. Know this to be true, although a cure can be a long term process. When we go to Cromer in September I persuade S to swim in the sea with me. Still seeking that moment when everything but the feel of the cold water on your skin is wiped from your mind.

In October, again at the ponds, 13 degrees C, I realise I didn’t before understand the meaning of cold water. In early December, at Brockwell Lido, 8 degrees C, I realise again that I had no idea. But the sky and the bare trees and the joyous shouts of a birthday swim going on a few lanes over soothe me, and I swim ten lengths, until I have lost feeling in my fingers and toes. Afterwards, I take an ill-conceived hot shower, almost black out as I am toweling myself dry. See a kaleidoscope of colours dance across my eyes. Have to sit in a toilet cubicle for ten minutes, head between legs before I can pull my clothes on and stagger out, white-faced and shaking, to the rest of the group. Another form of clearing the mind, but one I find I don’t much care for. In the last days of December I return to the Ladies’ Pond, prepared. 5.5 degrees C, and again my concept of cold is recalibrated. But I am ready. I wear a bobble hat, and only swim one loop of the buoys. I towel dry and bundle back up again quickly in layer upon layer, saving the shower for home, drink from a thermos of hot tea, put on gloves and keep the hat, walk briskly uphill to meet a friend at Kenwood for hot chocolate, and warm myself up that way. And it is exhilarating.

I think if 2018 hadn't been the year it was, if something hadn't broken inside me, I wouldn't have been able to submerge myself in 5 degree water, or certainly wouldn't have been able to do so with such ease. I am not just talking about a broken heart, though having something you want to forget helps. I am also talking about the bit of me that lived a happy, comfortable life and, though I frequently acknowledged that happiness and comfort, naively assumed that it would most likely continue pottering along as such. That bit of me has also broken. Ariel Levy's idea that: it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all. Expectations of the life you will lead can shatter on a random Tuesday afternoon, just as the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen warn us they might. I no longer blithely assume ease and comfort, either in my life or in swimming. And so, just as I swam through the summer seeking solace, I continue to swim through the winter. I don’t know if swimming is saving me. Some days I still feel a long way from being saved. But I think it has prevented me from drowning.