Wednesday, 30 May 2012

With the onset of unexpected hot weather comes the over riding disappointment that I am not anywhere, not even close, not anywhere near the sea.

In London I didn't feel so landlocked safe in the knowledge that breaking out of the city confines was easy and quick. Finding the coast was but an hour away. I'll be lucky if it's three from here. And although I hated summer in London, in that city, with all its hot antagonism gathering sweaty patches at the back of my knees, you could, almost smell the sea from certain places.

And here I am now trying to organise travel to a wedding in Poole, and back to my main priority- a swim in the sea. And to watch some friends get married. I try to work out if I can leave Birmingham at 6am, get to Poole for 10 am, swim in the sea, not drown and make it to the wedding turned out and coiffured for 2pm. It is unlikely. Something to do with peninsula's,  bank holiday sunshine and bottle neck to the beach.

I walk to water, as I do, from my flat where I've been cooped up working. Narrowing my eyes at the bright rays and thinking of a litany of excuses for not going in the sunshine. The main ones being, I don't like the heat, not if I'm not in the water, I don't like the sun, if I can't see the sea.

And I hold in frustration the cold winter weather whose clinging currents stopped me from swimming properly in the sea just a few weeks ago; High winds, high(ish) waters and a sinking sense of disappointment in myself that I am not as fearless as I once was.

This with age, with my age alongside, a crashing sense of helplessness as your body starts to visibly demonstrate the signs of ageing (not so bad, I know I'm still young, but the elasticity of my skin has greatly diminished and I can see the effects of a late night written across my face-my body not reacting as quickly as it used to, to three days of vegetable consumption and an increase in exercise. The knowledge that this is just the beginning, warning signs, while I'm still young enough to realise). And along with all of that comes a fear, a loss of the blind belief in immortality, that happened to me in youth. A very real sense that things (tides, waves, currents) are more powerful that me. That danger, death, drowning is imminent.

It's a wave away, a paddle too deep, a lone swimmer too far.

I never used to believe this, my own prophecy, but now I've started to believe my own dramatic whispers that I'd make as a teenager.

'I've always known I'd die drowning'

Two or so weeks ago I howled at the sea on Brighton Beach, in the cold and wet, not knowing which wet was sea water and what was rain. I justified my weakness for not really swimming into old words humour and creating a character from the sea. Foiled by the sea.

 But I was scared.

I didn't test my depths. I didn't test her depths. Didn't hold that faith that I feel in my stomach that...she wouldn't take me than.

I swam for a moment until I became scared by the crashing waves that seem so monstrous and tall when you are in their swell. The kind of waves I long for, the kind of waves I dream about.  But on a cold wet day in on Brighton Beach, not ones that I trust.

And I don't know when I will swim in salty water again. If I'd just been a little braver, a little more wild, a little bit more in love with the sea, like I say, like I write, like I tell people I am; then I would have swam.

Or it was common sense that comes from the wrong side of 30 (right side of 30?). Or my companion in this escapade telling me only I knew if the conditions were ok. And I didn't. I didn't know. I'm not experienced enough, I haven't spent enough time. I live in the midlands.

So I sit and write about raging seas while looking at the placed mud coloured canal. (I used to believe that when taking the train past Bournville that the canal was made of chocolate, as part of Cadbury's world, I believed that until quite an inappropriately late age).

And still, if that's the water that there is, all that is available, all I want to do is cover myself in it. Can feel summer sweat closely around me. An impulse, an unthought through want to jump in before...the reality of four foot bottom of mud and bones and duck poo.

But for a second, feel water covering my head, my mouth, cooling my bones.

I've been taking a lot more baths than I used to. Deeper than I used to. Here in Birmingham.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

An excerpt from something. At some point.

For the first time in my life I'm as far away from the sea as I have ever been. 174 miles east to the see, 110 miles west to the coast, 300 miles north to the wild sea's of Scotland, 192 miles south to edge of the channel. But I am the closest I have ever been to water. Stagnant, still, free from flowing water but 100 or so metres from me.  A canal, dark, green, black with promises of canine bodies, shopping trollies, faces below the surface. It lies still. I could give it all up live a life rolled in salt and sand, surely if I really loved her, I would. Surely if I really wanted to I would. Surely there would be no guilt, no excuse about swimming. The sun brings out a longing for salt on the wind, and calls from gulls, wind whipping sand, the dirty cold.

My eyes dull, my skin aches at the end to end tiles of the pool. Gulls cries around hear and carried on winds of false promise that you are not as far inland as you'd thought. If I zoom out of myself, a google map of imagination, I can see, physically see, how far away I am. I lick my lips, in a hope for salt.

I listen to a book of the week on Radio 4, A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton. An Australian who really knows his seas. Blue seas, white beaches, stuff of fantasy and snap shot memories to me. I am entranced by his words, by his writing of the sea, by  his passion in trying to retain, some part of how the sea should be. Our waters, here in the British Isles dull in comparison. No threat of a fin, no dart of rainbow fish and strange creature.

And the tap in my bath is dripping constantly. A reminder that I need to contact the landlord, a reminder of the wasting of water, a pool of water building up in the bottom of my bath.

My finger itch to write, and my arms itch to swim, and my head longs to calm, and my body wants to move. I could cry with disappointment that this won't be in open water. I imagine myself on holiday, somewhere hot, somewhere foreign, somewhere unspoilt, I see myself swimming every day in the morning as the sun rises, shaking off the night before. The only one there. I worry about my lungs filling with salty water, about not caring if I'm up or down. Of my body floating. And swelling. Gulls pecking out my glassed out eyes. Seaweed in my hair.

Mosley Baths

'There are good ships and bad ships and the difference between them has nothing to do with being seaworthy. If I was fanciful I might say some had souls. There are ships built to withstand the worst the almighty can throw at them yet they go down with hardly a murmur, and there are other frailer craft, who having battled the winds and lost masts , yards and canvas, still born safe home to harbour. With experience a man can tell the one from the other the moment he steps aboard, neither from look nor feel, from some fathoms deep within himself.'

'The Birthday Boys' Beryl Bainbridge p 46, Petty Officer Evans.

My first trip to Mosley Baths, a mythical place, the subject of campaign and demonstration- one of the oldest baths in the country. Closed for months since I moved to this land locked city half on it's promise.

It's a walk, a bus ride away, excitement more than the travel to Solihull.

Turrets of excitement, separate entrances, for men, for women, for classes etched in stone above arched wooden doors. Beautiful edwardian splendour in the middle of a city known for industrialism.

I've passed that wooden door solid its impenetrability, sign keeping out the enquiries, almost everyday on the way to the city centre. Ear to the ground for internet rumours waiting for it to open.

Then with no fanfare, no announcement, one day the sign was gone and the door was open. A chance to swim in historical depths.

Into old beauty, cracked tiles and history, confused signs and cordoned off areas. I pay for my swim through a window slot to a friendly women. None of the shiny glass, gum chewing teenagers, bored look in their eye that I've come to expect from Solihull.

I make a few wrong turns, locked doors, promise behind them, the splash of anticipation, the echo of the pool and then...

Profound disappointment. She's a small one.

A tin tub, a bath, almost the size of a children's pool where I cut my swimming teeth learning my crawl. It's no 25 metre, it's not even my old favourite Maze Hill in Greenwich it's statue at 22 metres. She's a 17 stroke, 18 stroke length, finish before I've even started type pool. 
There's just communal showers, cubicles on the side, one ladies toilet in the corner. I don't want to return to Solihull swimming, to mis-placed lane rage and swim confusion. 
I start panicking into plan B before I dip my toe in; Coventry or worse begin to wonder just how long that pool is at LA Fitness on the high street. 
I'll give it a go, I'm here now paid my entry. Chipped tiles, arched windows, a floor that 1000 vurruca's have touched. For over 100 years. 
The life guard sullen teenagers here. How long is the pool I ask politely-unlike me I'm not prone to talking to clothed strangers while in my cossie. Usually. With a smile, he answers 21 metres, that's just minus one from Maze Hill, the only place I've swam 3 miles in one go. 
'Approximately' He says with another wide smile. 
'I won't hold you too it'. 
Two people in the fast lane. (And it's named a redeeming feature which already blows Solihull out of the water, despite it's lacking of length). 
I get in and it is, pleasant. The people in the fast lane let me past, now problems, smiles in fact. Friendly, polite. Not too busy, something. Something lovely about swimming there, trying to take in the ageing scenery. 
I do two miles (or there abouts my on the spot, on swim maths isn't a strong point-around 73 lengths, I think in waterlogged addition) and it's easy, glide through water, almost (almost not, really almost) like the pleasure that I feel in the sea, smiling underwater. Wash away my thoughts. And while it's true that I reach the end before I know it, something about it, about this pool, seems right. Its all wrong, it's too short, but there's a pleasure in it I haven't felt for a while. I end nearly with a lane to myself lapping a man with easy effort. Worried that I don't want to seem rude. Not ignoring the unknown etiquette of how the lanes are run. 

There are just showers on the side, open to all, and as I walk across, everyone says 'Morning' like we're not really not wearing anything. A man talks to me while we shower tells me a story. 

'Everyday for 18 months I've walked past that shut door. I used to swim here everyday, every morning five days a week. Would walk here in my shorts, and flip flops, come rain or shine, but that door it was never open. And then! That door was open, and I'm back here again, so happy, so happy. You know you get to know the faces here, it's all friendly, same faces in the morning. So I shower here get ready and straight to work. And people, at work they ask me...what are you on? Swimming, I say..' He smiles at me through the water pouring down in our communal shower.