I am a man in my late-30s. I am bearded and fat. I am nearly naked, save for a pair of shorts, and I am standing in a public space where there are clothed women and lots of children. I am extremely nervous and vulnerable. All of my instincts are screaming at me to run away because I’m terrified I’m about to get beaten up.
But I can’t, for I am waiting for my wife and daughter to emerge from the Ladies Changing Room – a place that, since I was a little boy, has been as mystical as Shangri-La, or Narnia, just with more rainbows, waterfalls, soft grass, flowers, and boobs. They are not emerging from this wonderland, and I am getting very frightened. Fat bearded men should not be virtually naked apart from a pair of shorts that I’m not entirely sure are actually for swimming in. Where are my family? Why are they taking so long*? I do what I normally do in such situations, and attempt to lean against the wall in a nonchalant fashion. Let’s picture that for a moment: Fat and very white and blotchy beardo, with a misdiagnosed rash on his belly, in nothing but shorts, leans on his elbow and attempts to look casual and cool against a wall whilst clothed women and wet children barge past me.
*I was told afterwards that my daughter insisted on dancing her way into her swimming costume. This ultimately proved to be impossible, but she gave it a go anyway.
For many reasons, I don’t go swimming very often. Here are those reasons:
- I don’t like going out.
- Exercise. Ugh!
- Fat beard with spots
- Terrified that someone will mistake me for a locally notorious escaped paedo at the best of times, even more so at public swimming pools
- Getting changed is a faff. After swimming, even more of a faff with damp skin and crumpled clothes.
- Coming home cold and not-properly-dry, with clothes all itchy
- I just want to sit at home and be passive
- OTHER PEOPLE
Here are the reasons why I like swimming:
- It’s floaty splashy fun
- Getting fit. Yawn.
- Wife in swimming costume!!
It was Sarah’s idea, borne out of anger. And to be fair, I sort of agreed with it. She has got it in her head that an alternative evening out as a family is to go swimming, and then eat in the pool cafe (which has apparently got a new menu and is a bit upmarket these days. OK, so as long as it doesn’t have the miserable teenage acne-display manning a selection of cans and microwaved burgers and chips, I’d go along with it). We get fit, we get fed, plus no washing up. Plus Alice gets much-needed swimming praccy with parent, while other parent charges up and down the lanes. Wins all round!
Sarah came home from work annoyed. According to her, “people shouldn’t schedule meetings in a faraway city at 11am-3pm, and then when you’ve paid for rail tickets, send you an 11.30am -4pm agenda. Thus dooming you to more time in Reading than you bargained for”. I agreed. Sarah’s solution to her rage? Swimming.
Except, when the time came, I wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling the walk along the rush-hour main road, I wasn’t feeling the walking past the skate park where I’m always convinced I’ll get yelled at by teenage sk8er boiz (they never have, and they once, very kindly, helped Alice scoot around some of the ramps and gave her much vocal encouragement and respectful space. Still, teenagers, brrrr). I certainly wasn’t feeling the hanging around in the reception of the sports centre, I definitely wasn’t feeling getting changed in front of other, thinner, more handsome men, who are no doubt more successful in business than I am, and I really was not feeling the waiting for my wife and daughter to emerge from the Nether Portal of the Ladies Dimension.
“You look cross”, said Sarah, as we stepped into the pool. I forced down my irritation and told her to shut up and go swimming (I’m very good at keeping my anger hidden. Nobody usually notices). Alice, meanwhile, insisted on jumping into the pool three times before she would actually do any swimming. When she did, she started splashing aimlessly, gasping for breath, gulping air and water, making a horrible spasm-related retching sort of noise, her head barely breaking the surface, her face screwed up in panic, as she struggled to stay afloat.
After rescuing her four times, I realised that this is her normal swimming technique, and that I should let her get on with it, even though it was fucking scary to watch.
Now this may highlight the fact that I don’t go swimming very often, but our local pool has a deep bit in the middle, and two moderately shallow areas at either end. Alice, being Alice, didn’t like the shallow end we found ourselves in, and prefers the shallow end at the other end of the pool. This means crossing the deep bit in the middle. It’s only five feet deep, but I realised – as Alice really spluttered and splashed and gasped for air – that to a seven-year-old, a five foot deep pool might as well be the Mariana Trench. Daddy to the rescue again.
Of course, the pool was heaving and packed with other people trying to get their children to swim, plus a couple of breast-stroking women (not as cool as it sounds, trust me) who bobbed past and glared at me for being an obstruction.
When reaching the preferred shallows, Alice and I attempted to refine Alice’s swimming, so that it was less splash-gasp-gulp-retch-splutter-panic, and more about forward motion. After a while Sarah joined us, having pounded for a while, and as a family, we all learned that going swimming together causes parents to say the most inappropriate things ever to their children. Here are some phrases we said to Alice that we would not ever normally say:
Please don’t grab at my tits
Kicking me in the balls won’t help
Get your bum UP
Your swimming costume has gone up your crack
I really DON’T want everyone to see me naked right now. Stop grabbing at my shorts
Don’t suck, BLOW instead
Forty or so minutes of family time, splashing, getting Alice to kick harder, getting elbowed and kicked in soft places by accident, and having middle-aged breast-stroking ladies glare at us, went by pretty quickly. Alice’s swimming improved slightly, Sarah felt happier, and I stopped feeling quite so self-conscious when I realised there were three other fat, beardo, blotchy Dads in the pool at the same time, all of whom were getting their kids to swim, and all of whom nodded a fraternal greeting to me. This is how I roll now. Then there was the matter of getting Alice out of the pool (again, three attempts. Why?)
Ugh! Getting dry. Ugh! Getting into clothes again. Ugh!
And so the wait for my family again. Why does my daughter want to dance at moments of undress and when we need to get a move on? While waiting, I mused on the knowledge that there was a good curry house AND a decent gastro-pub on the walk home. Sarah and I are sometimes telepathic, so maybe I could be in luck…
“Have you looked at the cafe menu yet?”
My wife, on emerging from the Magickal Land of Ladies, is still hellbent on this fucking cafe nonsense. To my horror, the cafe has only gone upmarket in that their menu is now a sort of brownish-burgundy colour with a more ornate font, and the generic spotty teenager is in charge. The word ‘Burger’ is not made classy by writing it in a Regency-style font.
My wife doesn’t notice the sullen pimple-head serving her, or make the connection that he’s very much on his own this evening. I suspect my wife probably thinks that the ‘salad garnish’ that comes with the veggie burger she’s ordering will be a cornucopia of fresh garden vegetables.
I can see into the kitchen area. I can see him grab some lettuce without washing his hands first. I can hear him programme the microwave. I can see him wipe his nose with his finger. I want a curry. I muse aloud that we have the local curry house on the short walk home.
“Oh. You should have mentioned it”, says Sarah.
Goddamn you, woman. I love you so much though.
I order a cheeseburger. I get just a burger. No cheese. I knew he wasn’t concentrating when he took my order. And that seals my doom. My expectations of the bastard cafe were low enough, but I wanted a square of fluorescent yellow plastic pretending to be cheese to go with my burger!!! I was looking forward to it. I was relying on Pimple-Head to cheese me up, and he’s fucked me over. My burger is dry and, suspiciously crumbly and biscuit-like in places.
Sarah has it much worse, her veggie burger is still frozen in the middle. She marches up to the Pimple King and points out that her food is uncooked. He prods it with his nose-wiping finger.
“But I put it in the micro for ten minutes!” he protests. Fucking teenagers. Always someone else’s fault.
Alice won’t touch her (cold) beans or her fish-fingers, and instead eats her micro-chips and demands a Slush Puppy. I wasn’t ever allowed a Slush Puppy as a child. I didn’t have one until I was 21 years old (and discovered they were vile). Now Alice is turning her tongue blue, and I’m musing on lost youth and how I was denied my rightful pleasures.
Can I have a sip of your Slush Puppy?
“WHAT’S THE MAGIC WORD?” says Alice with much relish.
It’s bright red, mixed with bright blue. I take a sip at the straw, and…
URGH CHRIST! OH GOD! MY TASTE BUDS! EVERYTHING IS OVERLOADED! DON’T TOUCH THE BROWN ACID!!! THIS IS WHAT A BLUE-SCREEN OF DEATH MUST TASTE LIKE! AARGH! MY TEETH ARE ITCHING…
And then Alice, with no sense of irony, says: “What do you think? Delish, huh?”
(we threw the remains of our meal in the bin. PimpleBoy watched us sadly)
And when we got home, Sarah announced she felt much better for having a swim, and Alice now wanted to go swimming every Wednesday evening, and I’m just going to have to get used to showing flesh to a pool full of glaring women, bobbing past me, disapproving of my family outing to the pool.
I realised I had rather enjoyed myself. It’s probably something to do with endorphins. And I said yes to doing it again. After all, wife in swimming costume: Hell to the yeah!!