Out Now!

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

I can escape Sharks

The Leeds and Liverpool canal where I learnt to swim

Undressing for the Pacific

Claiming the Pacific for the Republic of Liverpool

My wife’s Uncle Dennis still goes into the sea, sometimes with sticks, at other times held. He’s in his late eighties and refuses to accept either his age or the stroke he suffered shortly after his wife died.

I admire him immensely and recognise a similar fear: I never want to be so old that I can no longer walk into the sea. Summer or winter, if I’m at the sea, I’ll go in the water. One day I might not be able to.

Proust had his Madeleine cakes I have water, and four particular memories that evoke its magic and potential.

There’s a very small bay on the Gower peninsula, close to Oxwich and hidden beneath steep sandstone cliffs. I left the friends we were with and swam far out, then lay on my back for what seemed like hours. I was in a trance-like state, floating in a green sea beneath red Jurassic cliffs. The sky was blue and empty and except for surf, the silence was complete. There was no reference to any particular century or millennia. I was in an empty world, a non-determinate time.
I toyed with fancies that something long and supple with teeth, something cretaceous might lunge at me from behind; romantic picture book thoughts, devoid of fear or possibility.

In 1982 I was somewhere in Florida. It was sometime after midnight and we were on the beach. The air was hot and sticky, the sea a milky blue, invitingly cool. I floated beneath the stars, aware of distant shouts from the beach, a glimpse of barbeque flames. Then the music started, mind music, fear music. DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, getting faster and faster. And I was kicking, clawing at water, convinced that a great white was immediately behind me. I was out of that sea as though it were boiling, staggering across the surf-line in a self-induced panic. I flopped on to the sand and looked back. The sea was calm and milky blue, but I wasn’t fooled. Something was in there.

At least I was able to swim. When I was eleven, I couldn’t. We went to the Baths on Queens Drive and shouted and splashed a lot, but never swam.

And then suddenly I could.

It was a hot day and I was walking along the side of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. It passed close to Aintree Race-course and fascinated me with the thought that if I walked long enough it would take me across the Yorkshire moors to a place called Leeds. I never got very far - not this day at least.

Four or more kids were hiding in bushes, waiting for someone, waiting for me. They never spoke. They just rushed out and pushed me in, then ran away. I sank and spluttered, did all the usual stuff a drowning person does. Possibly shouted ‘Help’ though there was no one else around. I must have been kicking my arms and legs with some purpose because the next moment I was hanging on to the bank, catching breath for that final scramble onto dry land.

I could swim.

Next weekend I was at Queens Drive Baths, determined to put my new skill to the test. Pushed into necessity by four psychos I had taught myself to swim. Unfortunately it shows. With a style reminiscent of a walrus in labor, I am not a pretty sight, but at least I can escape sharks.

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