Learning to Swim


Can I tell you the story of how I learned to swim? It was like falling in love. It happened in increments, slowly, and then all at once.

It started with a cold fear. Quite literally. I would spend most swimming pool visits sat shivering on the steps, half submerged, with my bottom half firmly placed on something trustworthy and solid. I cannot remember what it was like to not be able to read or to tie my shoelaces, but I can remember, with absolute clarity, being unable to swim. The mounting panic as I would experimentally wade out of my depth, tiny toes scraping their tips along the coarse pool floor. The sick thrill in my stomach when a bigger child would kick off from the pool edge, smooth and strong, creating a wave that would knock me off my feet. The rushing noise when I would flail and go under and have to remember to breathe, though could only manage to do so sharply, and through my nose.

I was lured to the pool every Sunday by my mum with a promise of something fizzy from the vending machine. Watching my mum in the water was a beautiful thing, a reward in itself for 45 minutes of shivering, no Apple Tango necessary. I was an inquisitive people-watcher, chronically nosey, but she was the only thing I thought worth studying at the grimy pool. My people-watching grew from a fascination with families and how they conducted themselves in public. I was forever collecting data and gathering clues on family life. But at the pool I only had eyes for her.

The water slicked her unruly blonde hair to her head, and minus that shocking halo, her blue eyes were the most noticeable thing about her. Her eyes smiled when she was in the water. Her limbs loosened and she looked less tired. She always began our swimming sessions with several powerful lengths of the pool, front crawl, perfectly executed. She could have been a professional swimmer, she’d said, if things had been different. I knew that she could have been a lot of things, anything really, if things had been different.

On one of my half-in-half-out days sat at the water’s edge my mum swam towards me and up the steps of the shallow end, stomach low to the pool floor like a cuttlefish. Seal-like she rotated and lay along the steps, her head resting on my pale thigh. I ran my finger through her wet hair, wiggling it as I drew from her forehead to the nape of her neck, creating little waves.

“Jump on” she said, and grabbed my arms, drew them around her neck and kicked off towards the deep end. It happened too quickly for me to be truly scared. On the back of my sea-creature mum I glided through the overheated, soupy water and felt absolutely, unequivocally majestic.

“Take a breath,” she said. And then we were under water, my mum holding my arms to her neck propelling us with only her legs. The yellow ceiling lights above the pool cast white veins across the pool floor and we followed the black lane markers until we came up for air.

And that was it. That was swimming. I was hooked. I am not a strong swimmer; I don’t have the style or flare that my mum has. I am slightly nervous of too-deep water and the possibilities below. I am happy to let my more confident companions swim to the horizon.

I do not move through the water with an easy grace. I gasp for every second breath, and my arms and legs don’t work as a team. But I will, more often than not, get into any body of water I encounter. Lake, river, sea or stream, I’ll paddle, wade or swim. When I feel safe, I lie back and let cool water fill my ears. The waves on pebbles, boat hulls, river banks or pool edges blot out thoughts. In water you can lose your beginning and your end.