Streatham, which is where I swam at that time, had a superb pool – or at least you could see it had once been superb, with a spectators’ balcony and a stage at one end: imagine swimming to an orchestral performance of Die Moldau! Well, I could imagine.
The bath’s management had let the building decline. Paint peeled from its Art Deco features and dirt hugged corners. And even when Lambeth did allot some cash to refurbishing changing rooms, we disabled people were left out. I had to change in a meeting room. Plenty of space actually, and a window let in fresh air and snatches of conversation from passers-by.
This room was soon privatised into a fitness club, however and I was shuffled into the ‘first aid’ room to change. This grubby room doubled as a store for cleaning paraphernalia – equipment that was used sparingly if ever to provide a suitable environment for casualties.
The staff were helpful though: as sometimes is the case, alarmingly helpful. At that time I was using two sticks to get around. I felt self-conscious in my swimming trunks on the short haul from the First Aid room through the lobby, past a queue of punters just in from the street. From the entrance hall you could reach the pool through swing doors, which I was taking my time to open when strong lifeguard arms appeared round either side of me, and gave the doors a push, and whoosh I fell forward. Luckily the lifeguard picked me up, but I was cross.
“What did you think you were doing?”
“I was just trying to help!”, he said.
“Really? If you see someone drowning, do you help them drown?”
Some people, when they see a disabled person, just panic. It puts them under an obligation: they do the first thing that comes into their heads, without thought.
A couple of hours on Thursday evenings were scheduled for a session for disabled people, including, naturally, people with learning difficulties. I went along. Room was found for us to change together. My instincts were to recoil from the palaver: piles of unlovely clothes, smelly bodies, unlovely people, and trainers all over the place. But then I had my own difficulties finding a suitable corner to balance my sticks and getting myself undressed, and something came to me that I was by then learning in the disabled peoples’ civil rights movement. If I was going to love myself, I might just as well love these people.
I heard about the favourite girlfriends:
“Go on, you want to take her out; go on, you love her. Go on, ask her!”
The object of this cajolery looked down very shyly.
“Go on, go on, go on”, he was urged.
And I heard about the cafes, escapades and activities of the day-centre club members. There was a hoist to plunge us into the water – no shilly-shallying at the waters’ edge.
After our child Lewis was born, we favoured the Latchmere pool in Battersea, crowded on a Sunday morning with middle-class dads and mums giving their partners a break, or a chance to cook Sunday lunch. It was one of those “beach” pools which I could wade into, holding on to the edge until it was deep enough to swim, and there was a rail I could use to help myself stand up when I got out. A hooter sounded every half hour before a massive mixer churned the water up into waves. Tio sat with the baby in the shallows and let the water wash over them. Supported by the deeper water, I enjoyed using what purchase I had left in my toes and ankles to leap with the waves.
It occurs to me that swimming is a way that disabled people who can’t move very well can have a sexual relationship: there should be private pools where we can savour the support and ease of movement provided by buoyancy in the water. At least there, we are unencumbered by spasmodic limbs, walking aids or wheelchairs.