Show pony and bald pate bookend my lane (4) in numbers 3 and 5. The former slaps the water with each stroke, his black waterproof watch marking time.
Bald pate is the size of a small iceberg. He glides regally like an ocean liner, keeping his head above the water, performing his own dainty version of breaststroke. This morning he wears a large grin and nods in greeting when I jump in (later I see him lumbering up the skinny ladder, panting, his grace and dexterity left behind in the pool. His wide back is covered in dark downy hair).
We swim to our own rhythm, working towards our own goals – a faster time, a longer swim, a backstroke tumble turn that needs improving. We are an uncoordinated group, each of us totally absorbed in our repetitions. Nobody is chatting today. Usually show pony saunters in like he is the owner of the place, his suit in a bag hanging precariously by one finger. He backslaps the lifeguard as if they are close relatives or friends. It’s all a bit much bonhomie for me in the pre-dawn.
But today he is quiet. I haven’t seen him here in a while. He looks withdrawn and has lost weight.
In fact, the only sound here today is the slap slap of water that is ricocheting off the concrete, steel and glass to produce a stereo effect. It is a calming sound, blocking out any thoughts.
I recognise a familiar thatch of thick white hair in lane 6. A retired regular who does his own version of dog paddle. I wonder if he retains any injuries from repeating the same stroke. Perhaps he plays a sport, to counteract the activity (I picture him teeing off on a golf course, his shock of hair neatly tethered under a cap). He is as coordinated as a synchronised swimmer. Later, after his swim and back on terra firma, he resembles a lost child without his spectacles.
The elderly woman in lane 1 shuffles along slowly in the shallows. She clutches her swimming aid in front with both hands. It is shaped like a Capital C and positioned flat on the water’s surface. I imagine it as a pink magnet being pulled towards her, or perhaps her towards it. Her ensemble is a brightly patterned shower cap and matching costume. Her pace and her choice of attire set her apart from the rest of us.
With every tumble turn and push off I feel my back and shoulders loosen, make their peace with the water. The first 6 laps are always the hardest. I creak up and down, try to get my breathing in sync with my body, just thinking of this lap, this stroke, not the next drill or turn. Soon I am flying, weightless, all thoughts evaporating up into the steel framework holding up the roof above me.
While doing backstroke, I espy the tennis ball still stuck in a corner of the rafters overhead. It has been there for at least 2 years now and has turned completely white from the chlorine vapours.
After 40 minutes I am happily spent. I emerge in one swift pull up out of the water, slippery as a seal, feeling lighter and calmer. I negotiate puddles, damp clothes and wet towels as I prepare to confront the chill morning that awaits on the other side of the sealed door.
A bird chorus is in progress as I emerge into a lavender dawn. I pad over the dew-soaked grass to my car, the grass sticking to my shoes. My world is narrowed to thoughts of steaming tea and a hot shower, the looming workday still at a safe distance. I choose to keep the radio off on the drive home, still absorbed in the feel-good light-headedness that exercise brings.
I am thankful that I didn’t listen to that other self this morning. She wanted to stay in bed and bury herself further down beneath the warm covers. I feel fully alive and a bit more prepared for what the day ahead may bring.