Thursday, December 10, 2009
Chapter Eight - Sink or Swim?
Anita Jonesborough - Commonwealth and Olympic swimming gold medallist - was to be gracing the school with her presence. Rossway County Primary was now the proud possessor of its own new swimming pool, the cash having been raised by enthusiastic parents with an excess of time, money and altruism on their hands. This Lilliputian tub - fifteen metres long, ten metres wide, and deep enough to drown a child at its dangerous end - had been completed in record time and John Lowday proudly welcomed the guest (who wore a turquoise ensemble of dowdy, pre-speedo swimming costume, complete with matching rubber cap) to be the first person to enter his new puddle. She dived expertly if not elegantly into the blue aquarium, reaching the far end without chance or need to surface. The crowd clapped their gloved hands together on the cool June evening and Mr. Lowday declared his drip-tray open with due ceremony. It was a very small affair.
John Lowday had committed himself to building a swimming pool at the school, and here it was! A measure of the man’s ambition, or the extent of his imagination? Gerry thought it was crap! He didn’t much like the pool and he had learned to like Mr. Lowday even less. Children, mostly, have a very highly developed sense of self-preservation. They learn, very quickly, to interpret complex codes - codes consisting of actions first, and then words second. They are expert interpreters of behaviours, gestures and actions. That’s how they get fed. They learn very quickly to signal and to receive responses. Mostly.
Some children, whilst capable of interpreting many of these complex codes, ‘don’t-get’ all of them. They might not understand, or misinterpret the tone of someone’s voice, for example.
Gerry was a bit like that. He had a very obscure problem with codes. He believed everything people said. He took them, quite literally.
“Take this to the head’s secretary Hood, and look sharp!” said Mister Dodd, the well-liked teacher into whose class Gerry had now graduated. He’d always looked forward to being in Mr. Dodd’s class, ever since his brother had been a pupil, two years previously. Mr Dodd was a legendary story-teller and brought to life epics such as Tolkien’s the Hobbit and Tales of Narnia spellbinding his brother’s entire class and making them look forward even to going to school!
“But what exactly do you mean by ‘look sharp sir?” Gerry replied, quite earnestly.
“Be quick, hurry!” retorted Mr Dodd, most ingenuously, as it transpired.
“Right sir!” said Gerry, turning immediately on his heel and rushing toward the door, which he deftly opened, somehow without losing traction, motion or momentum. Increasing his tempo he was really motoring when he passed his first obstacle, a rather large and erect person in an indiscriminate Prince-of Wales, light-grey check suit who appeared to be focusing his gaze at the speeding student.
“You boy! Stop running, NOW!” bellowed Mister Lowday, shattering the peaceful hum that preceded his outburst.
“I have to hurry sir!” replied Gerry, continuing his progress inexorably away from the head, now red with vexation at the receding child in the corridor.
Gerry, therefore was already in the antechamber to Mr. Lowday’s office when the man himself arrived on the vinyl tiled, chequer-patterned floor of Mrs. Batchelor’s annex to his office.
“In my office now!” he ordered, turning Gerry by the shoulder and ushering him into a place he’d never been, nor would wish to return to.
There was no time for introductions nor, from what he could remember, explanations. Mr Lowday seized Gerry by both shoulders and, as he looked deep into his soul with the intensity of an Auto da Fe inquisitor, shook the boy so violently that he lapsed into semi-consciousness. When Gerry returned to full conscious awareness he was sitting, confusedly, in an unfamiliar blue armchair where Mrs. Batchelor was wiping his face with a damp cloth whilst Mr. Lowday stood in the background wiping his own perspiring face with a folded linen handkerchief, dabbing at his brow, as if recovering from some trauma, or seizure, of his own.
Gerry did not share any of Mister Lowday’s enthusiasms after this time. Not ever again.
“John Lowday is not the sort of man to give you a good shaking without good reason” reasoned Gerry’s father.
“What’s good about a shaking?” enquired Gerry, his sense of the literal, which had got him into this situation in the first place, having not deserted him entirely.
“Well you must have done something to make him angry?” queried his father, flailing around for an end to this dispute which was threatening now to develop into a much grander scale conflict than his current mood would absorb.
“I did what the teacher told me!” said Gerry, his own voice creeping up the register from calm toward anxious. He hated being disbelieved, which he often felt he was.
“Which was what?” replied his father, an upsetting baritone creeping into his voice.
“Run!” shrieked the boy, now visibly upset at the inquisition, an inquisition which he felt would never even be held if his precious little sister had reported the same insane assault upon her person.
“Well that’s it then. You shouldn’t have been running in school.” his last words rising in conclusion on the subject before he returned to scanning the births, deaths and marriages (or hatch, match and despatch, as he occasionally amused himself by inanely repeating) pages of the Lindonshire Echo, shaking both sides of the broadsheet newspaper above his crossed-at-the-ankle legs in a final signal that the last word had indeed been said. Gerry knew, in all certainty, that one further word to his father would signal a volcanic eruption of anger that would not further his case. He hated Mr. Lowday now and that his father would take sides against him seemed wrong and cut into the connection with his father like a blunt gouge.
‘What’s good about a shaking is that it leaves no marks.’ he thought darkly to himself.
Pathetically small though it was the pool caused Gerry to get into big trouble on more than one occasion. Soon after Anita Jonesborough retreated to her former glories the children were allowed access to the school’s millpond. Once a week, whatever the weather, and in spite of the unfinished roof - which Gerry would never see - the pupils in Gerry’s class made the compulsory trip to the changing rooms. There, under the watchful eye of their class teacher they would disrobe, and wearing a motley collection of swimming costumes (Gerry’s were a hideous jungle print which he’d failed to leave behind at Butlin’s, Filey, which his mother had spotted and chided him for) disappear from his loco-parentis by tip-toeing through the footbath (a 1:1 scale model of the actual pool) into the collective custody of Mrs. Restall. With what later proved to be an hermaphroditic quality to her sturdy physique and a grimly red nylon track-suit (either of which would have assured her a place on the Bulgarian national shot-putting team) Mrs. Restall was a woman of considerable severity. She possessed the manner of most coaches Gerry was ever to encounter; an outright dissatisfaction with every student and the iron-will to overcome human entropy and cowardice in all its yawning, shrieking forms.
Not for her was there ever to exist a soft option. The sooner her charges were submerged, the better, and so much better still if the water’s temperature caused hyperventilation first though she never gave hypothermia a chance. Swimmers were expected to pound up and down the tiny pool, causing a tsunami to envelop those tardy enough not to have developed fins and gills in the process of their retarded evolution. She was an aquatic tyrant and the only small concession she allowed those drowning was a polystyrene float modelled on a very minimal surfboard. Gerry was suitably suspicious of these devices, which she would scud across the water at asphyxiating children who had dared disobey her invocation to “tread water!” and were now treading on the weaker of their number in order to sustain their own imperilled existence. Gerry’s experiences of swimming had not been frequent - his own father having been ducked as a child and thereafter avoiding all public swimming opportunities out of a deep dread of drowning - and those he could remember had not encouraged his own efforts. A trip to the local grammar school’s pool, prior to Anita Jonesborough’s collision with the deep-end’s wall, had proven most traumatic. There he and several other unfortunates had been commanded to climb into a bizarre girl’s swimming costume, still cold and wet and reeking of chlorine and terror, which, due to the uniform size was then adjusted by tying knots in the straps resulting in the crotch then cramping one’s nether regions. The boiler-suit blue, dripping-wet costume, was then literally stuffed with small polystyrene floats, held in pockets about the size of two soap-bars. The number of floats was based not necessarily on the relative proficiency of the wearer but on some more esoteric system, until, realising that all the floats had now run out, floats were then removed from the children with what was now randomly calculated as them having too-many! All putative swimmers were thereby rendered at least anxious and in several cases hysterical on the continuum of fear to dread. Gerry turned away from Mrs Restall (for yes, it was the she-devil herself who presided over this pantomime of panic) at a critical moment ensuring he thought his own survival but in the event condemning himself to an imminent humiliation. His pockets so full of negative-ballast, he expected to bob like a cork back to the surface once he hit the bottom under threat from the Rottweiler howl that she would release at the unwilling who shuddered reluctantly on the side of the plastic pool, understandably horrified at the prospect of its icy contents.
Perhaps her own tuition as a child had taken place at the sharp end of a very pointed stick, but not even the most timid child resisted Restall for long. Gerry took the plunge, holding his nose between his fingers, as he’d seen the Man from Uncle effect when leaving some schooner or other with a snorkel and flippers. He was surprised when his pointed toes didn’t extend all the way to the bottom but immediately on turning turtle, due to the excessive buoyancy and its position below his centre of gravity, his downward facing trajectory ceased leaving him capsized and unable to right himself. His furiously pedalling legs were of apparently little interest to his teacher who no doubt continued to bark her incessant instructions, but Gerry was in a dark-blue world of virtual silence, apart from the dull glugging from his wide open mouth which served to admit the foul-tasting, disinfected fluid into his rapidly emptying lungs. As the word ‘help’ and the accompanying Beatles’ tune raced through his oxygen starved brain he was plucked, leg first, from his watery grave by the thoroughly wet Mrs. Restall, still in her track-suit and with her chrome Acme-Thunderer whistle still firmly clenched between her gritted teeth. An abrupt end to Gerry’s first proper swimming lesson left him unconvinced about the importance of acquiring this skill and Mrs. Restall’s ability to teach him how to succeed in doing so.
Some say that one should climb back on a horse as soon as possible after being thrown by it. Gerry had heard this and when, as was customary at the end of each week’s lesson, the class were invited to volunteer to swim a width there was the equally customary reluctance by the near-drowners to volunteer for public humiliation and worse. When Mrs. Restall suggested to the assembled throng that perhaps Mr. Hood had progressed sufficiently to try he was surprised. He wasn’t aware of having gained any new prowess but, literally as ever he felt a glow of pride that his teacher had recognised within him a previously untapped talent. Lowering himself into the pool which was only a few degrees cooler than his shivering, goose-pimpled body, Gerry was aware of the peering faces looming over the lip of the pool, looking somewhat incredulously at this imminent act of faith. As he pushed away from the side and twisted onto his front to begin the doggie-paddle he had seen a recently successful recruit to ranks of Mrs. Restall’s graduates effect, he began, inexorably, to sink like a very slow moving torpedo to the bottom of the actually quite deep pool. As he emerged from the depths, once more safely in Mrs. Restall’s track-suited grip he wondered if he’d made the far end, content to know that he had perfectly imitated the famous Olympic swimmer’s feat on open evening. Sadly the staring faces, who were stifling their own sniggering only because of the ferocity of the Rottweiler’s expression told another tale, unless he’d been under for long enough to give them chance to have run round the pool, but as his hope turned to dismay, whilst Mrs. Restall dangled him upside-down to empty the water from his lungs, Gerry realised that the moment for heroic success had receded into utter failure. He wondered if ever there would be anything good to come out of this wretched swimming-pool. In the event he wouldn’t have long to wait for his next opportunity.