I know I’m not the only person imagining my first post-lockdown swim. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, taking my thoughts into the water feels like a useful meditative practice, if I let myself drift into it, allow it to unfold. Other times, I lie awake as my brain fusses annoyingly over irrelevant details – where are my goggles?* What costume will I wear?** Then I want to yell ‘can’t you just let me imagine something in peace?’ That’s my whole lockdown experience in a nutshell: some hours I’m accepting and calm, and others I’m like a mother who just wants to have a poo without her toddler banging on the toilet door.
Maybe your imagined first swim looks something like mine. First, the tiny pre-swim rituals, the establishing shots with heightened sound effects for full ASMR experience. Pulling on a swim cap, rinsing goggles, adjusting straps, walking to the side of the pool. I know I won’t be jumping in. If I’m at Tooting Lido (‘if’? I’ll be at Tooting Lido), I’ll swing down the steps, then do a bouncy hop for the first few meters, making noises that in my head sound operatic, but actually are more ‘wounded cow’. I’ll walk deeper up the pool with my arms outstretched like I’m on a cross (in honour of Chris Stanton, late of the Tooting parish, because even in imagined happy times there will be sadness. We all know that). Then I’ll take a deliberate breath, lean forward and pick my feet off the bottom. I’ll do my first few breaststrokes with my head up. After three or four strokes, I’ll start to dip properly under, and every time I surface, blink like a camera shutter. Be my own go-pro. When I’m under water I’ll watch the keen arrows of my hands out in front and feel the plumping-a-cushion kick of my legs before the soles of my feet touch. (That’s such a weirdly specific feeling, impossible to describe even though that’s my job.) My mind conjures a drone shot of my body suspended in the water, like it’s in jelly, or like a brooch I have, of a tiny swimmer encased in blue.
Yes, I’m definitely going to breaststroke. I’ve watched those videos of Olympians lying across their kitchen units practicing their front crawl arms and felt not a jot of anxiety at my distinctly inferior arms/core strength/worktops. I won’t need to be in tiptop shape, I am not representing my country or indeed anything, in this first swim. And I will not be thrashing up and down the pool. This is going to be a slow and savoured experience, not exercise. Just being in water, that’s what most of my longing comes down to.
I miss being in water. I’m desiccated, landlocked, dry. I miss the sounds, and the movements you can’t find elsewhere. The twist at the end of a length as you go into a glide, the roll to breathe, glimpsing water droplets on an arm as it comes over, the face-up floating. Being fully immersed, horizontal, and held. I mean, I miss being held in lots of ways, but this is so particular. This is held but not touched.
I will swim slowly and consciously, up and down the lengths of my beloved lido until I have had enough. Imagine having enough! But one of such great age as I will, I’m sure, finally tire and even in my imagination I welcome that, because once we’re back in, there will be plenty of days ahead. And the post-swim feeling … that’s longed for, too.
Before I get out, I’m going to spend some time duck-diving under, enjoying the slinkiness of it. The little jump and fold and curling open again under the surface; it’s the closest to gymnastics that a clumsy person can get. I miss that sense of play. I’ll dolphin along the bottom of the pool, come up for air (I can hold my imaginary breath a long time) and duck-dive back down again.
Then maybe, finally, I will jump in after all, because my imagination is greedy. Up at the deep end, I’ll run then leap with an unfettered whoop, hitting the water and sinking til my feet hit the bottom, where everything will momentarily go into slow motion, then hold, before I push up again, a sleek rocket flying towards the bright surface. Bright because it’ll definitely be a sunny day, yet mysteriously there will be few people in the water. (Let me dream.) I don’t want to be alone, I’m not selfish, and being the sole focus of lifeguards is disconcerting. But it’s only afterwards that we’ll acknowledge each other, my swimming friends. We’ll gather round the benches, and as I’m imagining something perfect, the café will serve really good coffee, and maybe cold beers. We’ll laugh a lot.
Actually, every day I make the decision not to swim. I do my state-sanctioned walk up to a busy bit of the Thames, and stare at the water. Tide high, tide low, sometimes the water is brown and sludgy, sometimes fast moving and a bit scary. No, not today, I think. It feels helpful, like I’m controlling something. And it’s good to confirm to myself that even in extreme times, I’m still not a complete idiot.
* Cupboard under the stairs
** My leopard print one. Once, a man asked me ‘is that leopard print?’ and I said ‘no, COUGAR’ with a fruity laugh and he backed off, terrified. In my imagined swim, nobody is annoying.