Swimming lessons

In an original piece of prose, writer Clare Harris rediscovers the chlorine and parental bribery of childhood swimming lessons. Illustration by Bethany Thompson.

Baths, they’re great. I get to pretend I’m a fish and blow bubbles in a shallow pool whilst surrounded by familiar and slightly grubby plastic toys. I can sit there until my fingers turn to prunes and then Mum takes me out and puts me in my nice warm pyjamas.

Swimming pools, well they’re another story. Mum and Dad first decided I’d learn to swim when I was three. That’s way too young for anything adventurous, I thought, but they persisted in taking me anyway. The first few times the water was downright freezing – I screamed and sulked but it just seemed to make them more determined to keep me in it. Especially Mum. ‘It’s warm, darling, see?’ Not convinced. School swimming pools on desolate Sunday mornings are NOT the same as the things I’ve seen in holiday books, with palm trees, sunshine dappling the water, slides, juice, fun, et cetera. No bubbles here.

School swimming pools on desolate Sunday mornings are not the same as the things I've seen in holiday books, with palm trees, sunshine dappling the water, slides, juice, fun, et cetera

Still, there was a Rich Tea biscuit handed out after each lesson. And if I stuck it out and pretended to enjoy myself sometimes Mum and Dad would take me for a hot chocolate afterwards. As the weeks rolled on I slowly began to trace a direct correlation between swimming and sweets. One Sunday morning Mum told me that when she was a girl, she’d always have a packet of Iced Gems after her swimming lessons, or sometimes a Wham Bar (I’m not sure what this is, but its got to be bad for you). She was allowed to buy her treat from the vending machines with her hair still dripping wet, the scent of chlorine wafting through the vents as she poked ‘B’ then ‘6’ and waited for the little packet to tumble down from its perch into her waiting hand*. This chink of nostalgia is something that I have learned to exploit, and I now look forward to a weekly Chupa Chup once the watery ordeal is over.

To be fair, the toys at swimming aren’t bad. The teacher, Brian, likes to chuck a few rubber hippos around to distract me from the fact that there are several hundred cubic metres of cold water floating around my feet. Sometimes, I admit, it does work. Especially when he shoves a pink rubber crocodile in front of my face. Those ones are the business. ‘Watch it go,’ says Brian. ‘Catch it! Whee!’ And when I forget I can’t actually swim, and paddle over to catch it, it’s almost exciting – my Dad thinks so, anyway. Worth it just to see his proud beaming face. Then I remember I CAN”T SWIM! DADDY! And his grin dilutes to the usual patient, slightly worn-out smile. ‘Go on darling, kick those legs…’ he says. HOLD ME! WATER! CAN’T SWIM! SPLEUURGH! ‘Kick, kick! You can do it!’

All around me there are more capable four-year-olds, hell, even three-year-olds. They’re grinning and paddling as if they’ve been swimming all their days. Some of the kids jump off the side, just like that, without a second’s hesitation. I don’t know how they haven’t figured out, like I have, just how deep that water is – and why it makes so much more sense to cling like billy-o to good old Daddy’s neck. Why else would the teachers let us bring our parents into the pool? There are these crazy floats, too – long, stringy affairs called noodles, onto which Brian expects me to launch myself. Well, I don’t know about you but a cylinder of cheap foam isn’t enough for me to unclamp my feet from Dad’s thighs. Sure, it looks like I’m holding the thing. But Dad’s there the whole time, just underneath. I’ve got it covered.

As the weeks went on, I slowly began to trace a direct correlation between swimming and sweets

Last week, however, we had what Mum calls a breakthrough. It had been almost a year since I’ve been schlepping down to the pool each Sunday morning (give or take the odd week when Dad’s had too much beer the night before), and I figured it was about time to mix things up a little. Besides, I’d got a bit sick of my pool pals cruising past me, perfect breast-stroke every time. Just to humour Brian I singled out a particularly bright and rubbery toy dolphin, released my toes from Dad’s rock-solid thighs, and let my legs float up behind me. The noodle somehow held my weight and all of a sudden I found myself at the other end of the pool – Dad still standing back where I’d started, looking slightly dazed. Ha, I thought, that showed him**.

Brian chucked another toy – a beezer this time, a multicoloured shark with proper scary teeth. I went for it and made it back down the pool by myself. Buoyed by this success, Brian gets it into his head that I can take a bit of underwater action. He picks me up and dunks me, no warning, under the surface. FWAAAH! Pockets of pool-water rush up my nose and into my eyes, stinging my throat and feeling very different to the benign little bubbles I know from my bathtub. ‘A bit soon, maybe, for underwater,’ Brian muses. Damn right. Where’s Dad? There he is. I turn, grab his neck as if to an anchor and for the next 25 minutes I don’t let go.

Think of the Chupa Chup, I tell myself. Think of the Chupa Chup.

*I have since learned, and Mum did NOT tell me this, that she didn’t go to swimming lessons until she was at least eight.

**I have also discovered that my Dad cannot even swim! Impostors, both of them.