I’m off to a swimming lesson. Bonkers, really. I’ve been swimming for 50 years. I’m a great swimmer. And the pool I’m learning in is tiny – barely 15m. How am I going to break it to my instructor, Jhonn Carvajal, that I’m so bloody good that this is all a bit pointless? To be honest, I find the Guardian’s suggestion that I can improve my technique a tad insulting.
Strangely, I cannot remember taking lessons before. And it is funny how all those elderly ladies doing breaststroke whiz past me in the next lane. There’s something else, too – maybe I shouldn’t be knackered after each length and have to stop for a while. Perhaps there is something Jhonn could do for me. I’ve booked six hour-long lessons. So I’m thinking that if we perfect the crawl (my regular stroke) in, say, the first hour, then I learn to race on my back and master the breaststroke (for all my brilliance, I must admit that I never actually move forward when attempting breaststroke), in the final three lessons we can focus on the butterfly.
Jhonn is lovely – Colombian, a trained lawyer and a dead ringer for Luis Suárez in a wetsuit. So much so that I keep calling him Luis by mistake. We get in the pool and he asks me what I can do. Well, I’m expert at the crawl, I say. Do you breathe properly, he asks. Of course I breathe properly, I say. I’m a seasoned swimmer. The pint-sized pool is fabulously warm. I’m going to enjoy this.
He asks me to swim a couple of lengths. No probs. Within seconds, I’m back, waiting for him to tell me how surprised he is that I’ve come for lessons.
“You don’t breathe properly,” Jhonn says.
“What do you mean I don’t breathe properly?” Cheeky git.
“You don’t blow bubbles under water, then come up and breathe in.” He tells me it’s a basic of swimming. Try it, he says.
I do, and there is something really comforting about it – like farting in the bath (I don’t mention that to Jhonn).
“So now that I can blow bubbles, am I doing the crawl properly?” I ask.
No, he says. You don’t kick properly (I bend my legs, and splash all over the place), your toes don’t go down into the water as they should, you can’t float (it’s true – every time I go on my back I just sink), you don’t get power from your hips, your body is not relaxed, your fingers don’t push down into the water, you don’t make the right scooping shape in the water, your arms cross too far over your body in the air and in the water, your elbow isn’t raised when you complete the stroke, you lift your hand too high when it’s coming over, you don’t breathe when you come up and your head’s all over the place.
In other words, I can’t swim. I’m devastated. Jhonn seems pleased.
Then I remember something that explains why I have never had lessons before – in anything, except school stuff: I can’t actually follow instructions, particularly those relating to the body. When I was young, I had encephalitis – a brain infection that kills lots of people, and leaves loads of others with screwed-up coordination. So, for example, if I was doing the Hokey Cokey and it was time to put my left leg out and shake it all about, I would put my right leg in and turn around. It has made me so self-conscious that I’ve simply stopped trying to learn stuff. (Weirdly, my coordination for things I do instinctively, such as catching Maltesers in my mouth from a great height, is good.)
Now I’ve got the panics. Jhonn is telling me to do the simplest exercise in the world – kick while blowing bubbles underwater and then stand up when I need to take a breath. But I’ve lost my ability to think straight. I just flail. I apologise to him – again and again – promise him I’m not doing this on purpose and tell him he’ll probably never get someone as useless to teach again in his life.
Jhonn says I’m exaggerating my uselessness. He explains that there are a few simple movements to the crawl: you spear the water, make the catch (grab hold of the water and push it past you, as if you’re paddling or reverse high-fiving an invisible friend) and bring your arm out again with your elbow above your head while rolling your body to the side, so your head turns naturally to breathe at the side without you lifting it). Four or five movements. Possibly three.
OK, I’m not sure what he’s said. I’m dizzy with information, a convulsion of cloddish ineptitude. Everything is a wet blur. I’ve lost control of my hands and my legs, and I keep getting water up my nose. Not only can I not swim well; I can’t swim at all.
I WANT TO GO HOME. I WANT MY MUMMY. THINGS WEREN’T MEANT TO BE LIKE THIS.
I apologise to Jhonn.
But he says things were meant to be like this. He’s breaking me down – or at least breaking down a half-century of underwater floundering. He introduces floats so I can learn how to keep my arms straight, he puts something resembling a plastic bone between my thighs to straighten my legs, he takes away the floats and asks me to imagine they are still there and that I am holding on to them (I fail miserably and sink), he gets me kicking to the side so I look like Mrs Brown impersonating a drowning Tiller girl.
Throughout, he encourages me and tells me how much I’ve learned. He says my legs aren’t quite as bent as they were, my splash not as splashy, my arms not crossing my body so much. He talks football to me, tells me what it’s like to be mistaken for Luis Suárez, chats about his daughter, Hazel. Strangely, she goes to the school my children went to, and lives at the top of our tiny road with her mother.
One lesson turns into two and three and four. I think I might be kicking a little straighter. But I still look like I’m making the sign of the cross while doing the crawl. And every time I get my breathing right, I get my elbows wrong, and every time I get my elbows right, I forget to kick, and every time I get my kicking right, my arms cross too far over my body again.
Usually I go swimming two or three times a week. But now I’ve become phobic about it. I don’t attempt to swim without Jhonn for three weeks, convincing myself it’s best to leave it till I’m a born-again swimmer. One day I brave it, and sneak into the pool near work. But I’m convinced that everybody’s looking at me, mouthing: “We know your secret – after 50 years swimming you can’t swim!”) It’s all beginning to feel very Rosemary’s Baby.
I normally do 40 lengths. After 15, I get out. I’m exhausted, miserable and paranoid, and there’s enough water up my nose to fill the Trevi fountain.
On the positive side, Jhonn and I have become friends. He pops round to our house on Halloween with Hazel. It’s lovely to see him. We chat about football, chocolate, law, TV – anything but swimming.
Lesson five turns into lesson six. Even Jhonn loses patience occasionally. “WHAT IS THAT?” he bellows when he asks me to breathe on my left and I breathe on my right and then forget to breathe at all. When I raise my arm too high, he bangs it down with a float. When I move an arm too far across my body, he hauls it back. It’s more underwater wrestling than swimming.
I don’t tell him that by now I had expected to be doing the butterfly. Or at least the breaststroke.
When I’m walking I find myself practising my crawl – shovelling my hands behind me, pushing back the water, high-fiving imaginary Jhonn. I get looks from strangers. Jhonn tells me that he has been teaching one man the crawl for years, and I’m far from his worst pupil. He gives me a lift home, pops in to see Hazel. It feels like we’re becoming a happy non-nuclear and possibly non-swimming family.
I extend my lessons. I feel I owe it to Jhonn to improve. He is a brilliant teacher; I am the problem. Lesson seven turns into lesson eight. I discover that my left arm is far more coordinated than my right, and I can swim straight one way but not the other. I’m going up and down the tiny pool, which in my head has morphed into the London Aquatics Centre. Jhonn’s banging down my elbows, unhooking my arms, feeding me floats, starving me of floats, keeping my legs artifically propped, crunching my head to the side, reminding me to look down while blowing bubbles, spreading out my fingers, pointing them downwards
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Maybe Samuel Beckett was talking about learning to swim. (Probably not. He came from a family of good swimmers – his uncle Jim swam for Ireland.)
Every time I fail, I think of Sam and demand another length. Not because I want to do it, but because I don’t want to leave on a bad note. I want to fail Jhonn better. I don’t want this swimming nonsense to ruin a beautiful relationship.
“Just one more,” I plead. OK, he says. But it all goes arse-up again.
“Just one more!” He nods. Then he unhooks my arms in despair.
“Just one more.”
And my legs kick straightish without too much splash, my hand scoops back into the imaginary high five, my elbow rises towards my head, my arms don’t reach for the sky, my fingers hit the water before the rest of my hand. And I’m in ecstasy.
“Very good,” Jhonn says.
“Really?” I say.
“Yes, really. Very good.”
“Just one more,” I say.
And I make a right bollocks of it.
Simon Hattenstone was coached through Swimming Nature, which offers one-to-one and one-to-two tuition in 31 pools in England and Scotland.