The Non-swimmer

I discovered a walking route home that takes me along a canal and shaves 20 minutes off my journey time. It’s a route that’s peaceful, practically deserted, and neatly cuts out almost the whole of Camden. A 45 minute walk where I can, for a short time, forget that I’m in London; the advantages of this just have to be weighed against the terror caused by being a non-swimmer mere inches away from an open body of deep, cold water.

I’ve never been a swimmer. At my primary school, swimming lessons were compulsory but you only took them for a year, or until you got your 10 metre badge, whichever happened first. I was held back every year, failing to get that badge again and again, so I spent my formative years undergoing a weekly physical humiliation which helped mould me into an embittered, cynical 11 year old.

When motionless in water, I tended to sink. That thing they do where they lie you floating on your back with their hands under your shoulders, then they take their hands away and oh my God I’m floating? No. I’m sinking, and then I’m rapidly surfacing, spluttering chlorinated water and freaking out. I hated putting my head under water and I couldn’t see anything because I had to leave my glasses in the changing room. A swimming pool is a noisy, nightmarish place to be as a frail, blind boy with bones of lead and muscles of burst balloon skins.

My swimming lessons did at least teach me something: I could try my hardest to succeed, to overcome adversity and learn to swim, or I could cheat, save all the hard work, and be permitted to stop. Maybe the innocent, curly-haired, rosy-cheeked moppet I was in the beginning would have baulked at the idea, but I’d been through too much being forced to go swimming with idiot eight year olds with their weird musical tastes, incomprehensible pop culture references and no sense of how much easier their generation had things. No; it was time to get busy living.

They weren’t going to let me go without that precious 10m badge, but 10 metres may as well have been the English Channel to me; I was going to have to fake it by putting my foot down. When someone is swimming normally this is pretty easy to spot, so I had to develop a weird way of swimming that was more like propelling myself horizontally while suspended vertically, a bit like a sleeping whale. I was clearly swimming, albeit unconventionally, and it meant I was eventually able to touch the bottom of the pool at key points for a bit of extra push. Clever, I thought, or maybe by this point the teachers just didn’t give a shit, preferring to let me do my thing so they could get back to the staff room for cigarettes and buggery or whatever it was they did in there.

I got my 10m badge with deceit, but then a new obstacle hit me: a change in school policy meant that swimming lessons now continued until a 25 metre badge was won. How could they be so obtuse? 25 metres; an impossible amount even with my leg trick as putting my leg down in the deep end would mean being about a metre under water, i.e., I’d be drowning. Nobody gave out badges for drowning.

This was going to take more than deceit, but I didn’t know what. Time passed in a haze, and I pointedly avoided going near the deep end to avoid being found out. I imagined a vision of the future, and it was me being dunked in a swimming pool, forever.

Until one day when, leaving the changing rooms and passing the teacher’s office, I saw a 25m badge on the desk.

Holy shit.

The teacher wasn’t there. Nobody was around. Was I really going to do this? Yes, of course I was. Jesus Christ, I’d been taking hopeless swimming lessons for nearly a quarter of my life! What wouldn’t I do to make them stop? At least the depths I had sunk to were moral rather than liquid.

One stolen 25m badge later and no repercussions. No sirens blaring. No strained assembly in which the Head promised a badge amnesty for anybody who felt like they had something that didn’t belong to them.

I now had hard evidence I’d passed my 25m test, but I couldn’t tell the teachers because presumably they would know I hadn’t even taken the 25m test, let alone passed it, though that might be crediting the average P.E. teacher with a bit more intelligence than was warranted. Anyway; it was time to get a letter from my mum.

“Mum, I have a 25m swimming badge,” I said to my mum, which was technically true; I did have that badge. “Can I have a letter to excuse me from swimming now?”. The answer was yes. The letter was handed to my teachers. I never went into a swimming pool again.

My four year nightmare was over. I was out, and all it had taken was learning how to lie, cheat and steal — fortunately these were all skills I could use in the real world; after all, when was I ever going to need to swim?

By Paul Haine, in