“A little waterbaby.”
That’s what Dad called me. Born in March, Pisces is my sign – not that I follow such beliefs. Although Dad’s birthday was the day before mine and water was his element too. As a young man he swam in tributaries of the Thames, learned to navigate the river by boat, taught himself to kayak. Taught me too. His best memories were made in or on water. It was where he talked of returning when he was in hospital.
“I just want to get out on the river.”
The Medway was his haven later in life. The place he went on a Sunday morning. His church. The place he went to escape Mum when it all got “too much”. By the time he was in hospital, it had all got far too much to mention.
I have inherited the obsession to run towards water whenever life overwhelms me. It runs in my veins, I am sure of it. Dark green river water. Salty-grey Atlantic sea. Turquoise lakes of it course through me. I am water and water is me. I am my element.
I first experienced the delight of running in and out of the waves when I was eighteen months old. I don’t remember. Family history relates that it was on a nippy day on the coast in Brittany. There are photos of my grandfather on the beach with me, his trousers rolled up above his lily-white ankles, this and his open collared shirt the only concessions to a day at the seaside.
“Your lips were blue, but you wouldn’t come out of the waves.”
The sea frightened Mum. The wildness and unpredictability that attracted me and Dad were the very things she couldn’t bear. When my sister got out of her depth and “nearly swept away” that confirmed her fears. She went back to that story many times over the years, as she did with many things that had upset her. The memory remained raw, like an open wound.
I am a strong swimmer. Not fast, but I have stamina. I know my limits and have a healthy respect for tides and currents. And it is cold water that I crave. No azure tropical beaches for me. Give me an English sea on a grey winter day or a river in chilly early spring.
I have been swimming in cold water ever since that holiday in Brittany. Our school had an outdoor pool. It was situated on a hill above the cluster of post-war pre-fabs that served as classrooms. It was as outmoded as the rest of the place: no heating meant it was beyond chilly year round, wind-whipped and often full of flies. I didn’t care. Swimming was the only sport I was any good at. I forgot myself when I was in the water. No one yelled at me for my lack of hand-eye coordination. No one failed to pick me for their team. No one expected anything of me but that I could swim up and down, up and down, up and down. I was weightless. Thought-less. Care-less.
Show me a strip of water, a river, a bay, a lake, a pool – even a puddle if it’s big enough – and I can’t help myself. I have to plunge in. On hot summer evenings I have been known to take a break from a riverside run and jump into the water, stopping only to remove my shoes. Sometimes I make a pilgrimage to a weir not far from where I live. I arrive early, escaping the road-race of scurrying rush-hour traffic. I hide my clothes in the roots of a tree and step out into the shallows above the weir, then push off and away from reality and into a green dream of cool wonder. Kingfishers buzz me as they skim the water looking for minnows. Swans frown and swim away. Moorhens clamour and skitter into the reeds. A heron stands, sentinel-still, convinced he is invisible. Ducks eye my bobbing head, throw back their beaks and laugh.
On walks I pick up likely dipping places. My husband rolls his eyes when I fix on a muddy cut into the bank, fashioned by years of dogs diving for sticks. He knows what I am thinking. Could I get in there? Could I get out again? Is the current too strong?
In Cornwall, in the summer months, my family joins me. We lower ourselves down from harsh granite rocks into glass-green water. On hot days the water is like crystal. Like jewels. Like silk. We have never found words adequate enough to describe its beauty. On steel-grey stormy days the water is black. Inky. Moody. I still slip in. The seize of cold on the back of my neck is a thrill. A high. I come out laughing and shaking the water off me, waving my arms and leaping about like an excitable puppy.
I had to cross the sea to get to Dad when he was dying. I sat on a ferry, watching the waves go up and down, willing him to keep breathing with each rise and fall. I went to the sea to nurse my grief after he died. I sat staring out to the horizon. I took early dips in the bay before my family were awake. I have been taking myself off to plunge into cold water regularly ever since. Last year I joined a swimming club at a local lake. I swam there every day that I could in the summer. I am still swimming there now, once a week, with the only other member mad enough to join me in November. It is healing me, this regular baptism. Washing away pain. Reminding me that life is now. This instant. And that it is for living.
When Dad died, my sister and I encouraged him to “go off down the river”. It felt natural to be saying this. As though we were sending him home. As a classicist, he would have appreciated the analogy. I like to think he would have had a smile on his face as he stepped into Charon’s boat and let the ferryman take him away. Over to the other side where the riverbank shines forever bright. And the waters run on and on for all eternity.