The all girls grammar school that I attended had two mobile classrooms by the entrance gate which were used as sixth form common rooms. These days a school’s sixth form centre is often a slick, purpose built collection of classrooms and study areas. We had damp and cold huts, one for lower sixth and one for upper sixth. They contained sagging sofa’s and uncomfortable chairs, pulled up against the barely functioning storage heater. Their main, redeeming feature was the kettle; lack of sleep could be treated with numerous cups of strong coffee.
On the wall by the door was a notice board on which I one day spotted a letter inviting applications for a scholarship to the University of Western Australia. A bequest existed that would fund a student from Britain to study at this exotic establishment. With my desperation to escape the restrictions of my teenage life bubbling ever closer to the surface, I decided to apply.
I have no idea how many other students I was up against, but was surprised and pleased to be invited to London for an interview with the Board of Trustees. My mother insisted that my older sister accompany me on the trip; I was irritated by this forced intrusion but, in the event, pleased to have her along for support. We travelled overnight by boat and train to the big city and stayed for one night in the Brixton YMCA (it was cheap). I had never seen so many people of colour and associated this neighbourhood with the riots that I had seen on the television news. We kept a very low profile.
Not knowing anything about interview technique or expected behaviour, I chatted openly and confidently about my interests and aspirations. I gave the performance of my life and was offered the scholarship, conditional on achieving good enough grades in my exams. I spent the next few months dreaming of life on a campus by the beach surrounded by tanned and beautiful people. In the days before the internet my view of places was largely dictated by television imagery and my mental picture of life in Australia was based on soap operas.
My mother blamed the number of parties I attended; I suspect I had bitten off more than I could chew in subject choices; whatever the reasons, I did not achieve the grades that I needed in my exams and was rejected by the university. The bitterness of my failure was all the more acute because I felt that I had let the Trustees of the scholarship down.
I managed to get into my local university and settled into another few years of living under the restrictions imposed by my parents. Many of my friends went away to study while those who stayed made new friends and got on with their lives. I felt as though mine was on hold.
I discovered the campus sports centre and began to go to the pool each day. There I would swim length after length, slowly up and down using my inadequate breast stroke. I found it relaxing, therapeutic, a chance to switch off from the turmoils in my head. I believed that, in this environment, I was invisible.
When I discovered that my regular swims had been noticed by other students, who found out my name through discussions with mutual friends, the pleasure of my lengthy swims was removed. Unknown to me, these boys had been mocking my arduous progress through the water, racing each other alongside my steady lengths to see how many they could achieve with their slick freestyle in the time it took me to get from one end of the pool to the other.
The benefits of my regular swims had been taken from me and I stopped going to the pool. With my invisibility removed the tranquillity had been tarnished. I was often lonely at university but never more so than when I was noticed and regarded as odd.
Thirty years later I was offered the opportunity to join a local gym with a small pool attached. Once again I started swimming regularly, length after length covered with my slow and graceless breast stroke; I can still use this activity to switch off and relax. Sometimes other users comment on the distance I travel or the time I spend in the water, but these days I do not care. This is how I choose to spend my time. If others wish to measure their own achievements against my slow progress then let them.
I have a friend who introduced me to the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis; a theory that ancient man evolved as he did due to his relationship with water rather than the land (some reading on this is suggested in this post Sadness and science | E.J.Kay’s blog). I am no expert, but do find it interesting that so many people gain comfort from proximity to large bodies of water; picturesque locations by lakes, rivers or the sea are sought out for holidays or homes. Perhaps the benefits I gain from my therapeutic swims are built into my humanity.
I enjoy my regular often solitary swims a great deal, but see no reason to improve my technique. My visits to the pool are selfish undertakings, never designed to impress others. I enjoy watching the variety of visitors, guests and members who also use the facility, although I also relish the rare occasions when I have the pool to myself. I swim for pleasure, but still yearn for invisibility.