It is early March and twenty to seven on a miserably cold and wet Tuesday morning when Mickey and I climb the steps to the swimming pool. The large and Gothic looking building looms black against the night sky, its stained dark brown stone somber and forbidding, just like the other 19th century buildings in the area. We hurry through the high and heavy wooden doors, glad to be out of the metallic smell of coal that drifts down from the nearby gas works and from the stink of boiling milk that surrounds the brightly illuminated dairy factory.
Inside we bump into a small crowd of young boys and a single girl, jostling each other at the ticket window. I have to show my pass and a morose looking man nonchalantly stamps one of the empty spaces, thus cancelling another lesson – there had been 12 of them when I started. He unlocks a steel, man-high turnstile whose frame allows only one admission at a time. Seconds later, the creaking and rattling contraption disgorges Mickey and the two of us hurry up some stairs.
At the end of an echoing corridor is a row of dilapidated wooden doors, the changing cubicles, that surround the actual swimming pool. Children’s voices echo and re-echo shrilly in the vast space lined with ceramic tiles and while I hurriedly undress, I can hear the splattering rush of the two thick, foaming jets that replenish the pool and fill the air with the smell of chlorinated water.
Today’s the great day! Mickey and I have graduated from the ‘paddling-pool’ downstairs and now we will have our first real go at the ‘deep’ – the 10 feet deep and 25 yard long main pool.
After taking a quick shower, we all have buckled a girdle of cork-blocks around our chest and the instructor checks if we have done it properly. He obviously does not want to earn his pay by diving fully clothed after somebody whose lifebelt has slipped off. Satisfied at last, he lines us up on the rough stone edge of the pool and shouts “Jump in!”
I am the last in the line and he seems to think me a trifle slow. He gives me a shove and I tumble in, arms and legs flailing and hitting the ice-cold water with an almighty splash. I bob up like a cork with the eerie feeling of being suspended over what seems to be an unfathomable abyss. The instructor shouts at us to start swimming, mimicking the motions we have practiced in the paddling pool. And as we move our arms and legs to gain some forward motion, the cork lifebelts make us bob up and down. Some of us have trouble keeping their head up but the instructor has long pole with a circular steel ‘hook’ at the end and he applies it rigorously when somebody is spluttering too much.
Three weeks later the cork lifebelts are gone. And so are some would be swimmers. They were unable to master the art of staying afloat. And while we hang on to the edge of the pool, we smile smugly when we talk about them . They could not hack it, were simply not good enough; back to the paddling-pool with them while we are ‘swimming the deep’…
Another four weeks pass and we are taking the swimming test for our first diploma. All of us graduate this first, simple test and I come home, beaming with joy and clutching a piece of cardboard that, freely translated, says that I might not immediately drown when I fall into deep water…
The challenge is of course to go for the next series of lessons; to become a real proficient swimmer, to learn how to dive…
But would Grandma pay for them too?