“I’ve been watching your legs. You move them well. Just like a frog.”
Perhaps not the slickest introductory greeting I’ve ever received. But as a 40-something woman who isn’t used to having her decidedly middle-aged legs complimented, I’ll take it. Even if it was from an older female standing beside me vigorously washing her armpits. I croaked my bewildered thanks and hopped out of the shower as quickly as my amphibian limbs would allow. Which was pretty fast as it turns out.
There’s never a dull moment at our local swimming pool.
That’s because of the motley collection of characters that frequent the waters each week. I’ve given them all names because I have nothing better to do while I clock up the lengths.
Let me introduce you.
Don Quixote was on form today, arms whirling like wonky windmills in a relentless frenzy of wasted energy. They splash out to the side as he does the backstroke, so it’s a wonder he manages to move forwards. Despite the froth of white water and determination, Don is, of course, the slowest in the pool.
Perpetually tanned with a shock of wild silver hair, Mr. Quixote has a steely stare worthy of any errant and wizened knight. Woe betide anyone who gazes in his direction or wipes their face after receiving a drenching courtesy of those windmill arms. This lane belongs to Don, and no one is going to get in his way. I kinda like his style. Might try it myself once I’m old enough to get away with such behaviour.
Then there’s Lisbeth. Young, athletic, and covered in tattoos. She swims like a fish (rather than a frog), carving effortlessly through the water without a drop out of place. I’m jealous of her grace and her confidence, and the fact she can pull off a full-on dragon with its statement tail trailing seductively up her leg. It looks good on her, as does the bob of purple hair that never seems to have a strand askew.
I sink lower in the pool, hiding my pasty ink-free skin and hoping to blend into my surroundings with my trusty blue swim cap.
I’d love to get a tattoo, mainly to see the look on Mum’s face when I show her. But I’m too much of a wimp. I was 26 before I first had my eyebrows dyed, and it wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I worked up the courage to get my ears pierced. I’m currently considering getting a second ear piercing, but it’ll probably be a good few years before I bite that particular bullet. So really, a tattoo is never going to be on the agenda.
Down in the deep end, someone does a cannonball.
There’s a collective cringe from the serious lane swimmers as a tidal wave washes across the pool, disrupting their pace. No one utters a word, but you can feel the menace in the air. I suppress a giggle as Don Quixote’s flailing becomes even more erratic, before settling once again into a steady rhythm of arms and spray.
As we resume our lengths, a sheepish head pops up from the depths and surveys the carnage left in his wake. Cannonballs aren’t exactly prohibited but there’s an unspoken rule among the die-hard regulars that larking about is a big no. Jack doesn’t care. It’s his mission to piss off as many swimmers as possible in a short space of time.
Most weeks he succeeds.
Meanwhile, a couple dressed like they’re on a fashion shoot at the beach cavort in the shallow end. They’re still in their early 20s and want everyone to know it. She’s wearing a designer bikini that leaves little to the imagination, while his Hawaiian trunks are neon in the extreme.
Eyes only for each other, they don’t seem to realise that there’s a time and a place for such canoodling. I call them Romeo and Juliet, which is probably a little too kind. In my day, if you wanted to whisper sweet nothings and smooch with your beloved, you went to the park. Or persuaded your parents to lend you their car for the evening so you could make out on the back seat. You didn’t hang out at the public swimming pool, at 9 AM. Lisbeth gives them a withering glance and they quickly move out of her way. She’s so cool.
The users at my local pool are all very different characters, yet they have one thing in common. A collective determination to never make eye contact with another swimmer. Not under any circumstances. It’s a bit like travelling on the London Underground. Earphones on, head down, and pretend there’s no one else around. It’s a British thing – our emotional restraint makes it hard to naturally start up conversations with strangers.
I’m a fully-fledged subscriber to a bit of anonymity, but there is a point when it becomes just plain weird. Like ignoring other people in the pool. As I chalk up the lengths, putting my frog legs to good use, I try in vain to make eye contact, just so I can splutter a cheery hello and feel like a decent human being. Yet my silent attempts go unnoticed so I resign myself to an hour of solo contemplation instead. Screw the lot of them.
Yet there’s one exception to this hard and fast etiquette rule. And that’s the gaggle of grannies.
Front and centre of any swimming session, no matter the time of day, they hunt in packs and can be heard a mile off. Their preferred method of attack is to swim in a long line, so slowly that they may as well be going backwards.
Oblivious to everyone else, they natter and cackle just like they would over tea and knitting. Other swimmers have to give way, and it’s rare that anyone outside the gaggle ever gets to complete a straight line. It’s on occasions like this when I smugly remember I’ve forgotten to clip my sharp toenails. A girl’s got to use any weapon she has available, even when her adversaries come with blue rinses and wrinkles that proudly display a life of time well served. I innocently ignore the indignant yelps as I swim by.
They’re not all like that though.
Marilyn remains aloof at the side of the pool, with perfectly coiffed hair and golden ear hoops that dangle down to skim the surface of the water. I hope they aren’t expensive. A slather of crimson lipstick finishes the look, and I wonder what magical brand has discovered the secret to both waterproof and anti-chlorine gloss. I imagine the sedate glide is to ensure her luscious locks don’t get wet.
Unfortunately, Don Quixote is in the next lane, so her chances don’t look good.
I take a break after half an hour. Not because I need to, but to hear the latest juicy gossip from Bertha and Margaret who are resting in the shallows. I say resting, but they’ve yet to actually do any swimming. This is probably a good thing as Jack is still lurking down at the deep end, ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
The ladies aren’t talking to me, but I’ve been subjected to their natter for weeks so feel invested in their stories. Today, they’re continuing their game of one-upwomanship in the grandchild stakes. My money’s on Bertha, whose football captain grandson is predicted top marks in his exams and is soon to become a big brother to twin girls. I feel sorry for Margaret – she’s lagging behind with a difficult granddaughter who is apparently going through a Goth phase.
Leaving them to it, I resume my swim, quietly thankful that I don’t really fit into this eclectic pool community. Yet, we’re all incongruous in our own ways. I’m sure some of my fellow swimmers raise their eyebrows when I squeak around the poolside in my cheap blue flip-flops, giving the lifeguards a thumbs up to say thanks. What 42-year-old still uses a thumbs up for goodness sake? And I know I get strange looks when I do the backstroke and don’t use my arms like everyone else. I can’t compete with Don Quixote, so why bother?
Yet despite my own personal quirks, one thing’s for sure. I may not be the fastest swimmer in the pool, or even the most elegant, but I’ve clearly nailed the breaststroke and gained the admiration of a new shower buddy. And it’s all thanks to my most excellent frog legs.