While I could, I went cycling with Tio alongside the harbour and over the river to Walberswick. At one time the village had attracted a colony of artists, including Stanley Spencer and Rennie Macintosh. The light and the rattle of the waves on shingle still appeal to watercolourists. I kept up my sketching when I went there.
It was early July. One day we had seen some swimmers wading in from the beach between the breakwaters. So I decided to go for it: “Coming in, Tio?” I ventured. “You must be joking,” she shivered at the stubborn English habit of bathing in the North Sea after its spring cooling in Arctic currents.
Although she is a strong swimmer, she had no intention of even dipping a toe into a ‘freezing cold’ ocean, “specially one with no lifeguards”. So, with Tio standing on shore ready with a towel, hoping, I imagine, she wouldn’t have to come to the rescue, I picked my way over the shingles and plunged in. The water felt freezing, but then I had known it would be cold.
As I struck out for the end of the breakwater, I felt invigorated. The water was a brownish-grey colour, but I reminded myself of my mother-in-law’s Queenslander remedy for everything: sea water. From one breakwater to the next and back. That would be enough. I was beginning to tire when I reached the end of the first lap, “But then”; I thought as I began the return leg, “I’m nearly there”. And so I resumed my redoubtable breaststroke. The finishing point now seemed a long way away.
I glanced at Tio’s anxious posture and welcoming towel, and veered off course towards her. Each stroke was becoming more difficult to make. I thought of waving at her, but a combination of reluctance to sound the alarm and calculation that any attempt to stop and wave would have me floundering and foundering decided me to carry on dragging myself through the water, and finally crawl onto the beach and into an enveloping towel.
It was a short stumble back to the house: Tio ran a hot bath, and as the towel dropped from my shoulders said “You’ve turned blue. I told you the water would freeze your bollocks off!” It took me an hour in that bath to thaw out and discern that all my body parts were present and correct.