The pool is my preferred gymnasium. It is largely glamourless and genderless, populated by seniors squeezing blood from the stone of life.
When you go every day, you develop familiar associations with those who go in the same hours.
In drama, there is a department, costuming each actor to signpost character.
Similarly, when you walk down the street, each person wears an indicator of what the one-person costume department is trying to convey.
At the pool, everyone is borderline naked. They have no names and there is no tell-tale indication of how they dress.
You can’t interpret dress to glean between the lines. Each is a mystery.
All that is left is the reductive evidence of swimming behaviour. You are how you swim?
Some sprint a lap and then, panting, check the seconds on their digital wristband.
Are they hoping to plateau in their inevitable decline?
Some continue with the perambulatory aqua-aerobics that they learnt in rehabilitation from whatever it was. I commend them.
I am simply a barge of flesh and bones with a fixed destination, staying out of the way of sports-craft and lost in my meditative repetitions.
Sometimes I can imagine myself sleeping and swimming. Sometimes I count in Fibonacci sequence to stay alert.
This pool is largely free of display. There is nothing to see here.
There are people I have known and greeted for years about whom I know almost nothing.
An accent can seem like a clue but like food, philosophy and language it spreads over borders imagined by clerks with maps and pencils.
Here we are no one.
Interestingly, at the pool, despite a lifetime of demanding attention and recognition, I am never quizzed about what I have done or who I know.
I, too, am no one.
Anonymity is granted both at the pool and the hospital. Perhaps at both there is a vulnerability that silently requests privacy. At neither have I been asked, ‘Why are you here?’
There is, however, a tiny pharmacy close to my dentist and I have had occasion to seek prescription remedies there. As you await the medicine, the next customer seeking remedies will present, as close as on a crowded train.
Improbably, I ask each one, “What have you got?”
Each one laughs at my impertinence.
Changing room behaviour
Then there is the changing room. Each day I am bothered by the sign informing that “the use of phones and cameras are not permitted”.
If that doesn’t bother you, then I feel smug and satisfied in my grammatical pedantry.
It has been suggested to me that I overthink, which inevitably leads me to ponder the absence of the word underthink as a criticism. I offer this explanation of changing room behaviour.
There are grown men who were advised as four-year-olds that it is proper to conceal genitalia behind a wrapped towel when changing.
I recall my mother dispensing with this propriety, at the beach, when I was four.
“Who’s going to look at a little boy?” she scoffed.
“Little girls!” I promptly and vehemently decried.
Every male, at around the onset of puberty, confronts the self-image of his extant gender.
The evidence is, at first, scant and then, hopefully, with time, ample.
For those who underthink, yes, it starts off small and troublingly unwarrior-like.
It may be 30 or 40 years before each man realises that women are far less concerned with mass, girth or length.
Those who are discreet with their private parts, protuberances, manhood, genitalia (if you have a preferred word among these, then ask yourself why) are still wrestling with the vulnerabilities of puberty.
We have forgotten why they were called baths.
In an age when the living room was the local pub and the kitchen was a tacked-on wooden afterthought, the bathroom barely existed.
Once a month you could join a hundred or more people and share the bath water provided by local government.
Washing the body is something peculiar to the last hundred or so years.
For millennia, bacteria grazed on our surfaces like lichen on a stone in the tundra or mangroves in the fetid swamps.
I knew a doctor who dispensed with this “hygiene” in order to raise an ecosystem on his skin. His intestines deployed this method, why not his skin?
He was pungent.
At the pool, I was told a marvellous story by one of the senior attendants. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Like the Greek myths, the Bible and the Upanishads, a good story will do its job.
There was a group of northern European gentlemen who booked the sauna, once a month, for about an hour.
Each time they left, the attendant was struck by the intense odour they left in their wake. He assumed that, in the millennially honoured practice, they had dispensed with modern notions of hygiene and let nature run its course.
After some time, curious, he entered their sauna while it was in progress.
They were cooking lobsters on the hot coals.
Red Symons is a musician of the ’70s, TV vaudevillian of the ’80s and ’90s, radio voice of the new millennium and a sprinkled condiment in the theatre and print