The Infinity Pool

Footlight Parade

When I went away to boarding school I was pathetically unable to swim; as a result my first summer term became a living hell until I made good this deficiency. This was because all the Houses were in ardent competition to be top in getting their new boys through the aquatic proficiency test: retrieving a weighted wooden brick from the deep end, diving – “watch out! a faulty dive can split you in two!” – and all the rest of it. Well, obviously, I learned P.D.Q. – you do if you spend every afternoon in a cold and mossy outdoor pool, being yelled at by implacable prefects. I’d never been afraid of water; I simply had no idea of how swimming was done. (“How It’s Done” by Angela Talbot: some of my older readers may remember this excellent weekly magazine column?).

It really was too bad because for years at prep school we were always being carted off to the public baths in a Dormobile, an ex-army teacher in a maroon tracksuit at the wheel. Our lips were blue with terror because we were all petrified of the Ogre of the Pool, a burly old man ( I see now that he was probably about forty) who ran the place. The Ogre wore dirty waders and thick fish-lens spectacles: he always had a sodden ciggie stuck to his lower lip. He started shouting at us as soon as the reluctant crocodile of little boys pushed through the peeling swing doors from the pavement and were herded forward by teacher into a humid asphyxiating fog of chlorine, stale tobacco and mouldy bath towels. The smell of chlorine always prompts a Pavlovian flinching of my stomach, more than half a century later.

We had to take freezing showers under a tap before the Ogre drove us like darling Clementine’s ducklings into the water. After that everything went rather to pieces because nothing seemed to be organised. The non-swimmers tried to catch hold of the few crumbling polystyrene “floats”, and floundered about; or they clung to the rails from which desperate fingers were sometimes prised by force*.(Heart-rending shrieks). More proficient athletes brought their pyjamas to wear, in which to perform life-saving exercises: these manoeuvres diverted attention from the duffers who swayed to and fro at the shallow end, like jellyfish at the Codfish Ball. Or dying ducks in a thunderstorm as teacher’s favourite derogatory metaphor had it. We longed only to be ignored and all too often we got our wish: but we of course never learned to swim.

Footlight Parade
Soon we were back in the shower, dressed – never properly dried, though (“hurry! hurry!”) – and now, chittering like marmosets with relief, we were loaded back into the van. More funny smells in there, as you can imagine – a lot of damp and not very clean children herded together, all sucking boiled sweets and peppermints. For now an unexpected care in the community broke out and we were urged for our health’s sake to take plenty of sucrose to restore body temperature and energy. I daresay the sugar as well as the euphoria at having escaped the baths added to the invariable hysteria of those drives back to school. Even teacher smiled.

Funny thing is, once I finally got the knack, I loved swimming albeit using a clumsy dog paddle, or breast stroke with “a dreadful frog-like action”¤. For a while I couldn’t get enough of it: basic hydrotherapy, a return to the waters from which life on earth first emerged. And of course the human body is – what? – about 65% water in composition. No wonder so many of us have this craving to be in sight or hearing of living waters: sea, creek, waterfall or river. Swimming remains the only sort of formal exercise I really enjoy. Much later on I found a wonderful pool in Holborn, now long since gone: it was in the basement of the old YWCA building and anyone could use it on payment of .50p. It had a faint and pleasing resemblance to an Alma Tadema Roman pastiche. An attendant sat in a basket chair at the head of the bath to ensure decorum and fair play – “No ball games! No jumping! No splashing!”. Pretty empty it usually was, and quiet; used mainly by the more mature. The scent I always associate with the YWCA is (perhaps unexpectedly) Amouage’s gorgeous ‘Gold’ – Guy Robert’s Franco-Omani masterpiece – which had just then been released. I used to go swimming after work, coated and weighed down with ‘Gold’. I would do my first length and then, on the return trip down the pool, I’d run headlong into my own sillage of perfume, ample and billowing like a great sunset cloud, an electric storm of sweet shimmering incense, brooding above the tepid blue water. It fought with the chlorine fumes – and won, like St Michael degrading the Fallen Angels. ‘Am-waj = a wave’. How uncannily appropriate!”

*my mother remembered from her own schooldays a mistress who would stamp on the hands of any girl who tried to crawl out of the water before her time.

¤ Queen Victoria “Letters.

In the Day Room

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LW has had a run of room themes over the past month. Maybe it’s because I tend to live outdoors if at all possible during the summer season, and so ponder more objectively on the rarely used shuttered interiors – and smell them more intensely when I come inside. And then of course each roomy reverie leads into another, in a dream-like enfilade of memory and reflection. Feeling decidedly unwell last week, and running a slight temperature, I Iay down during the morning¤ and my burning head and mild weepiness involuntarily took me back to schooldays in the late 1960’s. Does being ill always fill you with a sort of sick nostalgia? Does this connect, I wonder, with the idea of ultimately “Going Home” at “End of Retirement”?

Fifty years ago, away at boarding school, the business of Being Ill¤¤ was hedged around with a certain ceremony. You felt something “coming on” – hoped, imagined, or feared that it was coming on – and took yourself up the lane, past the staff garages and the Art School to the San. This was a great stark redbrick Victorian building, most of which stood vast and unused except in times of epidemic. Several boys were supposed to have died in there over the years; there was a small mortuary in the yard. (Or did we just say it was a morgue? I cannot remember, but I seem to recall the fatal letters spelled out in decorative brick). Anyway, you pushed open the heavy oaken front door and passed through the veil into Sister’s frostily antiseptic clinic, full of such unlikely accessories as forceps, and kidney bowls awash with witchhazel.

There was a resident doctor and two or three nurses at any one time. Sister – in decent blue & white with starched apron and cuffs – would listen with sceptical briskness to your recital of symptoms, in my case almost invariably headache. Then, with any luck, a glass of water and a pill would be proffered: you were closely observed as you swallowed the drug to make sure you hadn’t pouched or otherwise concealed it. If then Sister’s professional instincts misgave her – for who knew whether she might not have the first case of scarlet fever or influenza on her hands? – she would pronounce dryly:

“You had better lie down in the Day Room – for now…”

Off you shuffled, down the twilit linoleum-lined corridors, through a couple of swing doors and into this room at once so welcome a refuge and so tearfully dreary. They kept it very hot to make it as much like a real hospital as possible, and obviously it would not have done to have had it too welcoming. I don’t think I ever saw the curtains at the long windows open: what I remember best is the feeling – rather like that of the child Jane Eyre – of walking into a chamber filled with a thick prickly vermilion mist. A dozen black iron bedsteads were made up with red blankets. You took off your shoes and lay fully dressed on or under these covers, all itchy-scratchy, in a fever of heat and relief, sometimes even infection. And oh, the smell! A fog of hot wool, bleach, Dettol, warm bodies, embrocation, institutional cleanliness (never a cosy odour), floor polish, distant cooking (for the resident patients lying upstairs) and radiators. Do you remember the redolence of those heavy old radiators? Very singular – especially if coated with gloss paint which used to soften enough to encourage the peeling off of strips by the bed-bound in a stupor of ennui.

I don’t believe meals were laid on – we were after all being observed for germs: we were not yet formally initiated into San life. But, every once in a while, a genial orderly named Carlos would push a soft dry mop over the bottle green lino and under the beds; then he would offer one a cup of tea, served with a Rich Tea or Digestive biscuit in the saucer. Another evocative aroma, for the tea came strong and rich in tannin: it always had (like all school tea) a definite but never identified chemical note to it, smelling of a peculiarly raw sort of disinfectant. People said this was bromide: to keep us calm, d’you see? But we were none of us calm in those years.

By late afternoon, after a couple of naps, one was often feeling much better and even disposed to chat (strictly forbidden – “you are SUPPOSED to be unwell…”) with the shadowy lump writhing or prone on the next bed. The whispery gloom encouraged intimate confidences: you’d remember these revealing conversations for years – “I was in the Day Room with him in 1968 and he confessed that…”. Around 5 pm the doctor was brought round in pomp with the power of life and death in his hands. This meant either admittance to the wards: “Go and fetch your things” – or instant discharge: “Go and have your supper”.

And nine times out of ten, that was that! Off you scurried, headache gone, all ready for a warmish nourishing meal of macaroni cheese with fried bread and cocoa; or meat balls in a strangely coloured sauce served with chips. Plenty of bread and marge to it. School days were absolutely exhausting – mentally, physically and emotionally – and there’s no doubt that eight hours lying down did much good. My parents used to say “You were always SO CROSS when you came home at the end of term….” but none of us at the time, experts in tiredness though we all became, correctly diagnosed this at the time as terminal fatigue.

¤ just like Elsie Carr on Mrs Worrett’s purple ‘lounge’ in ‘Katy’.

¤¤ “Go away! I’m being ill!”

Back to School!

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It looks so threatening, that uncompromising late summer notice in the windows of school outfitters and stationers, even to those who left school forty years ago. Can the headmaster really have the power to haul us back, even now? I don’t doubt it, not if he really desired it. How remote and terrifying he was; each one a little Hitler, the monster pike in his own small pond. And each taught his staff his repertoire of cruel tricks: twisted ears, deftly thrown blackboard rubbers (mounted on very hard wooden blocks), pulled hair and burning sarcasm. Do you remember all those poor souls who wet themselves or threw up over their desks because they daren’t leave the room without permission? An increasingly desperate raised hand cruelly ignored. Maybe it was you? Not waving but drowning. And yet overall I loved the drama and Grand Guignol of my schooldays, the extremes of emotions that blew up and over like thunderstorms. Each day was a terrific adventure, you can say that all right.

Because I started boarding at school from the age of eight, the stomach-churning smell of the new term is also the odour of a particular trunk into which my life was regularly packed for ten years. It was already old when I first knew it, bound in moss green canvas and stuck all over with expired railway labels. It closed with a massive clasp which always reminded me of the lock which decapitates the child in The Juniper Tree, that Grimm classic of dysfunctional families and cannibal cookery. The interior of the trunk was upholstered in cream linen, with a removable tray that held a second layer. All was equipped with buckled straps for tidy packing and full of the smell of naphthalene moth balls looking like peppermint creams strung on violet silk threads. It was also redolent of old faded tissue paper, shoe leather, dry cleaning and tinder-dry canvas. Above all there was that remarkable scent of new clothes, a mixture of bleached cotton, detergent and a slightly metallic tang especially noticeable in the “dark suit for Sunday wear” and the itchy-scratchy navy football shorts made of a curious fabric which I have never seen nor felt since 1968. Whether wet or dry they smelled intensely of coarse damp wool: were they maybe the final expression of serge?

The ritual of the trunk’s being brought out and set up in the spare bedroom like a Moloch to be filled was a grim reminder of the sands of time running out. It was like that gaudily tricked out skeleton in the painted coffin which we are told graced the top table at Egyptian banquets, dispersing the scent of mortality amongst the spicy kyphi oils and fragrance of blue lotus. The Black Monday of the Return raced towards us despite prayers for the school to burn down or the outbreak of plague. My grandfather referred us to his favourite novel, F W Anstey’s Vice Versa, and a passage which I am always pleased to recall today:

‘…we cannot escape school by simply growing up, and…even for those who contrive this, and make a long holiday of their lives, there comes a time when the days are grudgingly counted to a blacker Monday than ever made a school-boy’s heart quake within him.’

Would you not love to see that thought set up upon a toy easel in the windows of Ryman and WH Smith? O! the blanched faces!

Then there was the ceremony of the caking of the plimsolls, this performed with a thick white solution which dried to a high gloss that later cracked and peeled. It reminded me of the fuller’s earth which the Romans applied to their gleaming togas: “candida” = shining white. This stuff smelled good, slightly addictive indeed, and no doubt it was harmful by today’s exacting standards of health and safety. You dabbed it on by degrees with a tiny sponge on a little stick – it was grainy, viscous and gave off an odour of chalk, nail varnish and wet rubber. Like every other item the plimsolls had also to be “clearly marked with pupil’s name”. To my intense mortification and anxiety my grandmother neatly Indian inked my name and school number across the uppers of my first pair: in fact, this set a trend. My shoes were never stolen and no teacher could find a reason to object.

Everything else was supposed to be identified with a Cash’s name tape. These were ordered as required from the local haberdashery and rarely arrived in time: another occasion for terror and panic. They were available in every colour and script. We had ours in red and they were stitched by hand onto every item including the “two dozen large white handkerchiefs” by our grandmother (my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t sew) or by ourselves. Like Edward VIII and his brothers we were all taught to sew and knit, skills which have come in very handy ever since. But even the hasty replacement of a shirt button for work still takes me back to that bedroom, full of late August sunshine, littered with paper and fabrics impregnated with the smell of Doom.

Image from: mymumdom.com