Monday, November 25, 2019

Lane swimming

At the pool today they are playing pop music as I swim my lengths. As the recognition of each song’s opening chords dawn on me — I’m Still Standing? No, Maneater by Hall & Oates — I feel stupidly happy. A small, sweet deviation from what I’d expected. Like a snow day, or how being picked up from after-school club by my mum instead of granny used to feel. My £2.65 entrance fee has immediately earned its value.

This is my first time at the pool for two weeks and I can feel it. The water is gently pushing back, my tally rising slowly. I push on, promising to get to 10 laps, and after that maybe more, in the same way that I might avoid looking too far ahead when cycling up a hill. But when the music starts, the resistance slips away with the rhythm. My funny breaststroke moves to the beat, and I wonder how my movement looks to the passive lifeguard sitting above me on his ladder chair. Maybe he’s thinking, Wow, look at her fast yet graceful breaststroke, and will approach me afterwards to invite me to a swimming club that has been short of a skilled breaststroker. It is the only stroke I can do.

It’s not clear why the music is playing — everybody around me is swimming quite seriously, the woman in the next lane doing elegant upside-down rolly-pollies at the turn of each lap. I watch her deft work as she takes off again, and with the music it feels like performance. Over the walkway dividing the deep and shallow pools, the swimming appears more casual, but I see no signs of dancing, no organised clusters of older people or schoolchildren.

I must have come at the same time on a previous Monday, because again, my time in the water was elevated by a soundtrack of Bananarama and Duran Duran. You should try swimming to Girls on Film some time. Maybe it’s something for people with dementia? Playing familiar music to prompt deep contentment. But the playlist feels too contemporary for that. Old people like Vera Lynn, but wouldn’t swimming to Vera Lynn bring everybody to tears? Nobody likes to cry in a swimming pool.

The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited plays and I want to shake my head in time and yet I notice that I am restraining myself from any visible displays of recognition, channelled the pleasure into my lengths instead. Maybe I should go to one of those aqua aerobics classes. Do they actually dance, or is it just stretching? I imagine dozens of feet and bums underwater, stepping and shaking in time. I would probably be the youngest by 40 years, like that intensive Italian course I once took, where everybody was retired and had beautiful rolling ‘R’s after decades of holidaying in Tuscany. But dancing in a swimming pool I imagine I could learn something about doing what you like, without worrying how you look.

I drop the thought soon after, relieved by the knowledge that I will not fool myself during an aqua aerobic hamstring exercise by saying, I thought there would be more Duran Duran?

As I rest and stretch at the side, two people, acquaintances, are chatting across the floating red lane dividers. She has swimmer's shoulders, google marks across her nose, a broad smile. He is pale with the short beard and brown hair that all white 34-year old men have, and I suppose look better for. I think he owns a lot of striped long-sleeve tops. She had already updated him on a malady she’d recently suffered, I’d noticed that when she listed all the medicines she’d had to take, it was pleasingly in harmony with the The Pointer Sisters’ staccato bridge. He listened attentively, even though a contained body of water seems like the impolite place to catalogue your recent illness. Now she was telling him about her new cat. It had been found wandering around the building she lives in, and unclaimed, her letting agent had tried, but failed, to rehome it, before letting her take it instead. They said I couldn’t have pets, she marvelled, And hello, now I have a cat! She described it’s long fur, it’s green eyes. It was somewhere between 6 months and a year old. That’s not a cat, I thought, that’s a kitten! A sweet, naughty kitten! She seemed delighted by this development, and surprised by how easily, as a tenant used to living with impenetrable conditions, it had come about.

Walking towards home through the park, I pass a border terrier, the weight of it’s old-looking body leaning into its owner’s legs as it gets a comprehensive rub down. Under the ears, a swift removal of sleep from the eyes, around the nose and down to the flank. Dog and owner are offering themselves to the other, and receiving the same amount of gratification in this exchange, here on the path under the orange leafed trees. That daily walk every dog and owner always seems so romantic. The silence and routineness of it, each engaged in their own thoughts, payday, dinner; stick, lamppost, they look like an old couple taking a turn before dinner.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Invite me for dinner, I'll see what I can do.

One of the symptoms of living back in my hometown since November is that I really miss my friends who are, of course, mostly in London. I missed familial, unthinking interactions when we were in France, too. But more time has passed - it's almost year since we left London - and the missing has turned now into a longing. I have three friends here in Bristol, and only one that I see with any regularity. She is my oldest friend; we met fighting over a mutual best friend in the playground when we were five. We go to the cinema, she joins me and my parents for dinner, or takes me and Henry to pubs we do not know about on his days off. In the past weeks Lily and I have become addicted to playing Gin Rummy together. It is the one card game we have dedicated ourself to so far. We will work our way up so that when we are in our eighties we will be formidable. But so far we have not tired of Gin Rummy, just like a child doesn't tire of asking the adults to join her in endless, repetitive games.

One busy Saturday evening last month Lily and I played cards all night at a packed wine bar. Watching the line of people at the door, I wondered if it was a bit anti-social, but thought of how people spend evenings in packed wine bars on their phones, even when in the company of others. I  didn't worry about it again. She's now left for Glasgow to work on a TV programme for eight weeks, and when she returns we'll have moved on again.

I've been thinking about what it is takes to be a good companion. And I don't mean the romantic sort, I just mean somebody who is wonderful to sit next to at dinner or at the pub. (For the record, I am longing to sit next to people at 'dinner'!) To be a good companion, you have to be generous and patient (I am working on these two things, but I also have an abundance of judgement that gets in the way.) You have to be sensitive to social dynamics and other people's comfort levels (I am good at this) and - this is the thing that's been on my mind - you should be skilled at storytelling.

Adam is my great-aunt's boyfriend, is skilled at storytelling. He makes it look so easy! They are both in their 70s, and I'm incredibly glad that since my granny died they've moved closer into my life. They've taken me out for dinner, and invited us on holiday. A, a life-long lover and collector of wine who can no longer drink, diligently keeps my glass filled with something good-tasting that I could not afford to order myself. He insists I order Port for afterwards, and like those once-in-a-blue moon teachers or even a marvellous stranger you might end up sitting beside on a flight, he makes up in some way for my odd, disinterested uncles, the dead granddads, and yes, even my dad who has been much less than perfect. I'm not sure I can even remember one of his stories specifically. But that's not what it's about - it's about a story for a moment. Not a brag, or a cruel piece of gossip; just something to entertain the table. He has spent decades honing the narrative of his party pieces. My great-aunt has heard them repeated during the last 10 years they've spent together. But no matter; his pauses are polished, his punchlines are tight. The observations delightfully eccentric, and I always leave dinner with them feeling as nourished with wit as with flavour.

Not long before we left London, we were invited to a party at Quo Vadis, the restaurant and member's club in Soho. This is just the sort of invite a Londoner in her twenties should receive! I thought to myself, already tiring in many ways of all that it felt I wasn't experiencing in the vibrant capital. As we journeyed Central on the hour-long bus, I anticipated meeting welcoming new acquaintances, or in the very least a mix of gregarious party-goers with some good gossip. It's Soho, I thought. I dressed up in wine-coloured satin trousers and a long leather coat, and departed from the first party of the evening; a relaxed celebration of Joe's birthday, where my imperfect but family-like group of university mates were making White Russians and spoiling Joe.

You probably already know what I'm going to say. The second party was not the hoot I had hoped for. There was a banker who glazed eyes rested over my shoulder; a man in a cool linen suit turned out to be a charmless intellectual property lawyer. I really didn't expect this room of people to simply perform for me - but I also didn't think that spending Saturday evening at a party in Soho would be such a bore. Everybody, it seemed, was taking cocaine. And they weren't even fun enough for it to work.

Jeremy Lee was there drawing guests in for hugs, kissing on both cheeks and booming "Now, let me introduce you to the marvellous Lucinda..." His natural hostly energy seemed to prop up the inward facing-ness of my own generation, who were sticking with their friends, taking selfies, or skipping the playing music before the last track had finished. I sipped my Campari cocktail too fast and wondered if what it takes to be good company at a party will stand the test of time. Maybe older generations are just better at it. Before mobile phones, they used to knock on their friends and just walk back home again if they weren't there! I decided that of course our generation isn't devoid of charming people. (And anyway, who voted Brexit? Not us!) You just have to be lucky enough to end up beside somebody who is curious and generous, somebody who doesn't really care what you do for a living.

There have been times when I've felt like a wretched, inarticulate and disappointing dinner guest - my brain hopelessly straining for something, anything interesting to say. I can now see that was a  depression trying to strangle joy out, forcing me to take everything to seriously or feel like staying indoors would be a better option. But you don't always have to be an ebullient guest. You don't even always have to be on form. Here in Bristol, without regular friend contact and suddenly finding myself questioning what a social interaction with friends should be if not satisfying, my stepdad shrugged that sometimes you leave the house and the whole night is off. Someone gets too drunk, somebody else isn't on form. It's life. If your expectations are always high, my mum asked looking me straight on, how are you ever going to meet them?

It's true, I take things to heart too much. I judge people and expect too much of them, I wish to be cooler and calmer than I often think I am. I'm working on all of it, as much as a human being can do whilst earning a living, loving the people around them as honestly as they can. I'm working on the stories too. Invite me for dinner, I'll see what I can do.