A Wild Patience: Logbook of Laps

Scroll One

Most recent extract from the scrolls appears first.

Day 6 (Sun 29 May 2016): Scroll 01/Line 02/48-91ft

Hours: 12:00 to 14:00

Conditions: Dry after the storm, light breeze drying the leaves.

All the fragile heat built up in the last week is blown away. One hardy father (a weekday lunchtime regular) and his happy, enthusiast son are the only ones in: “Let’s do a length of breaststroke — race this time.” says the boy, and the father is game, sets off, fast. Doesn’t see, as I do, that the boy has been distracted by a float: Is trying to throw himself onto it in a seal-like motion, only to have it go away from him, back to the starting end. I smile, liking them: their defiance of the weather; their being together, out of doors, without equipment, on the weekend — the type of simple companionship I had with my mother in early childhood and which I am recovering with her again now. For us, as with this father and son, it is happening in and around water: She was twenty years held back by her weight but when I began to swim here three years ago to offset the soul-destroying back pain, she — the shyest of women — began, bravely, to take lessons herself. She has lost three stones and they feel like those to us both: great, heavy rocks have been rolled away and light has been let back in; love of life has begun to flow. She can get back, with care, with support, to my childhood beach with me, is thinking that this summer — for all she’s 74 —  she just might get her old ply surfboard back out… We might do a week’s road trip and swim together at Penzance, Chagford, Buckfastleigh, Bude… Lidos as restorative, redemptive spaces then. Before I pack up and rejoin my family across town , I sit for a few minutes, hands in lap: that happy ability to sit just looking that I got not from mindfulness or Buddhist tradition but from Granny Shadrick, the other indispensable woman in my childhood, whose whole entertainment — apart from snooker on her black-and-white set, and the town’s annual pantomime, its Fire Service Jumble Sale — came from nature. Knowing her only in widowhood, when the farm was gone, this was the view from the kitchen sink that sustained her: Starlings, whose greedy ways with bacon rind and bread she battled daily through their season; someone else’s sheep beyond the back wall moving in patterns familiar to her since earliest childhood; clouds she could read as surely as I my schoolbooks. I carry her with me now and love best the times, as now, when I feel to see as she did. I sit looking and understand how this pool has become for me what the field behind the bungalow was for her. A world within the world.

Day 4 (Mon 23 May 2016): Scroll 01/ Line 01/115-150ft

Hours: 12:30 to 14:30

Conditions: Sun with dark clouds over the park, behind the tall trees. Water temp 21°C

Here, now. Air confetti-thick with thistledown; dark clouds behind the ticket booth and that queer tall tree with the triple trunk that — with the slanted 50s red lettering of CLOTHING and TICKETS — gives this pool its aesthetic; this view of which I never tire. Free in the fairytale manner as I am — weekdays between school hours of nine to three; able just six more months to live off my first two decades’ savings — I can be here in this fixed spot and, at the same time, elsewhere: This is 1950s America, the one of Cheever, Updike; it is France in the 60s; Germany of the 20s. What it is for others I hope to discover over the coming months (this project’s advertised questions are “When did you feel most wild and free: in body, your mind?” and “To what did you ever give your whole, wild patience?” but I am still and always possessed with my childhood’s longing to know how all this is for others. Life: The whole enterprise. This project, like my work as a hospice life-story scribe, a way to slip the confines of my own skin, this one time and place which is all I’m allotted). [PARA BREAK] This opportunity to sit alone in a public space, feeling the light and wind shift over my skin: A freedom not permitted how many of the world’s women? I had a remarkably free childhood — as distinct from happy or care-free — free physically, I mean: I was barefoot, in fields or hay-barns or coal-sheds; ate powdered milk for the calves in great dry handfuls from the sacks so my mouth would foam with it; kissed boys with the same milky smell in stables; wore the worn cords and washed-soft shirts of boy cousins. At nine I was in love with myself in my body in a way I missed ever after and have had returned to me only now, past 40, through this pool, & my strange undertaking with its fairytale proportions. Then, I was in love with my perfection (I wasn’t one of the girls boys loved — had no ponytail or freckles — but this was a solitary love, free as I was this one year and never again of comparison).  I loved the soft fluff on my legs that went gold in the sun so I looked, to myself, spell-bound. The tan lines made by my flip-flops — that white V —and the way my dull brown hair transformed into orange and reds. Even my bruises and plasters pleased me: I counted them like coins; my treasure. Status symbols. I was brownest, the most bruised. I could push bangles up to my shoulder instead of wearing them at the wrist like Mother. And when we went each evening through summer to the freezing sea at Widemouth, just along the jagged black coast from Bude, I would throw myself against the waves, holding up my heavy home-made surfboard like a shield. I imagined myself admired by all the men and boys in the water because I could get out to chest height fastest and surf all the way in to where the board would get stuck to the wet sand from the surface tension of the water. All the best sensations got stored in my nerve-endings that ninth year, as if my body were a battery and my entire skin a living solar panel. I went to the sea every year until my studies took me inland and then to this milder, stonier coast, but the joy was less: I had begun to shave my legs and dislike the result, while understanding I could not go back; this and all the other daily ways in which we allow others’ views of us to constrain and change how we live in our skin (for which, in this time and place at least, the responsibility for this diminishment remains partly ours). Only now, thirty-three years later, is that self-sufficiency returning. I’m kneeling here with the calloused feet of all but the most careful middle-aged women, have green and ropey varicose veins on the calf of my left leg (legacy of pregnancy), the skin on the back of my hand stays raised and wrinkled long after I pinch it. And yet. [The first lap/line ends]

Day 1 (Mon 16 May 2016): Scroll 01/Line 01/0-36 ft

Hours: 13.00 to 16.00

Conditions: Sunny, slight cloud cover. Water temp 16 degrees. Pool quiet. Blackbird singing & drummer rehearsing throughout.

As I buy time at the pool’s edge before entering — spitting into goggles, adjusting hair pins, retying my halter neck — so I’ve been here, now (two words which, along with ‘Wild Patience’ and ‘freedom’, are the underlying principles of this…thing.). It has all taken much longer than imagined also: The shy carrying in of the step-ladder library, my kitbag of books, the kneeling cushion, my dead grandfather’s coffee table which is doing for a suitably low down and humble writing desk. And I am slow too to speak to the Lifeguards — to disrupt their flow (they have season cards to cut and laminate) and admit to something as absurd as this. There is a conceptual elegance to this idea that I trust, but to make it material, to take up space, to move the Macmillan swim sign, to put my tools together in front of them and those arriving — this asks of me a slow and deliberate and public owning of my idea, my process. Already I see I have set out today like an expedition ship with wrong equipment: My rulers are too short and too long. I am covering the table’s length faster than I thought and so am stopping constantly to draw my guidelines…Soul will come, stories will get given, but today, this whole first week, is about finding the rhythm, preparing lines in advance each evening for the morning’s writing, like a fisherman mending his nets [PARA BREAK] Me, here, three years ago, six months in to my middle life’s rupture, when the way through the wood was unclear. What I wrote then: Wednesday 6 June 2013 [Morning Book]. “Sitting on a park bench by the canal just before midday, waiting for the outdoor pool to open. The carp are rising in the water; that time again. Another season come round. I am idle. I talk aloud of what I might become and my friends and good husband support me, with attention, with money. Then I…fail to persevere, fail to start even. I am idle, yes. Feel my past as a millstone, anchoring me to this poor record. I want to start and not stop. From today onwards. How would that feel? To begin losing weight, eating only healthy food, rising at five as my forebears did, writing fiction, swimming daily in cold water and not stop. To sustain an effort; imagine it: It would be…light, laughing, joyous, hopeful — an investment and dividend together. I want to become still and quiet. I want never again to waste breath or the time of others on what I imagine or desire. Instead to be harder on myself; kinder and more patient to others. Throw off fear and sleep. Live headlong.”  Wednesday 6 June [Afternoon Book] “My first twelve laps of the year in the outdoor pool. Using it as a baptism, a washing off of sloth and of old and not useful stories about myself. This, instead, is who I am (thinking here of Yul Brynner in the King & I: ‘So it shall be written, so it shall be done.’): I am…a still just dark-haired Cornish woman who comes daily to do her laps, so tending the link to her young and best self that went after school each day to the wild sea at Widemouth, striding in with her homemade surfboard, heavy as the cupboard door it was cut from. My few possessions are all in service of this summer self: The huge brown jumper with the deep pockets that I knitted persistently, despite poor skill, over two summers and around babies and small cats, and designed precisely for this, to be worn apres-swim; my headscarves got from the gentlemen’s outfitters on the High Street; the thick rubber bathing cap, the holes of which I mended at a friend’s table over winter with a bicycle repair kit; this musty army surplus rucksack with its capacity for all these fetish items and more — flippers, float, thermos flask. Pocketknife, suncream, apple. These have been my enduring joys since earliest childhood I realise now, in taking them back up again, late though I am. Sitting like this after time in cold water, letting the sun burn my shins dry and cracked — yes my deepest joys are: solitary; tactile; aesthetic — and ascetic too I suppose: Cheap, spare luxuries — a paradox.