Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Public vs corporate swimming - why i miss my municipal pool

I suppose it was on a Tuesday lunchtime standing butt naked in the showers at Chelsea Sports Centre that I found God. Or rather he found me.

In the form of ‘Marky Sharky’, an intense, bald-headed swimming instructor who, also butt naked, was inviting me to his church this coming Sunday to ‘let the joy of God into my life’. It was an awkward moment as you can imagine, especially as I was letting the joy of suds drip off my ball-sack. God wasn’t really on my mind.

I gave him my politest smile – he was a big bloke – before informing him I already had my church of choice. But thanks anyway.

And so my introduction to the peculiar people of public swimming baths began.

Over the past 18 years, due to a persistent back problem, I’ve needed to swim every few days. During this time I’ve frequented public baths all over London and inevitably met ‘the regulars’.

It never fails to amaze me how these slightly downtrodden swimming pools are actually a hot bed of men wanting a chat. A heart to heart. In the buff. Maybe it's something Freudian? Being stripped back bare to our most naked that brings it on. Or something more basic? Like a pub. Without clothes.

At first I avoided Mark and the others – Pete with the gammy eye, Andy with the excess skin - I saw them as an additional irritant to my aching spine. Not to mention the Thai receptionist whose dodgy English and even dodgier til merely added more stress.

But now looking back, I kind of miss them and their idiosyncrasies.

You see I’ve crossed over. From public to corporate. A new job has propelled me to more salubrious lunchtime dips. Gone are Marky Sharky and the gang. The 120 screaming school kids (Tuesdays and Thursdays). And geriatric Wednesdays.

In comes the corporate experience with mahogany paneled showers, tiptronic Celsius temperature control at your fingertips. And beautiful bodies lapping up and down to 'Now that's what I call corporate ambient pool music 47'.

At first I was excited. Lush infinity pool; immaculately clean changing rooms, a silent drying machine and endless smiles from pretty girls at reception.

I even joined in the digital survey touch pad at reception, giving said pretty girls a '10'.

The complementary white towels (large and small) were the clinchers I’d 'arrived'.

What’s not to like? There was nothing not to like. It’s just so…corporate. Nothing memorable or remotely interesting. So clean and pristine it'd had the soul power-sprayed out of it.  

After a few weeks I realised I hadn’t spoken to a single soul. In fact to date (15 months) I have only had visual communication with people - those reception smiles & nods again. After the honeymoon period I longed for my grumpy Thai receptionist and the wrong change.

Chelsea Sports Centre and the real world drifted back into my thoughts. Granted the odd turd and plaster floated back too. But all things considered, screaming kids, poo and random naked men were all part of the charm of the place.

I miss Mark and his questions on whether I’d met God at the weekend. I loved it when he would latch onto some new unsuspecting non-believer and I could hear him going thru his spiel in the showers. More poignant was the day he started telling me of his mail order Ukrainian bride. It ended after 8 weeks, but didn’t stop him practicing his Russian on me.

I miss Pete too. And his Thom Yorke eye. At first I thought he was staring me out. Giving me the hard look in the middle lane. Was I going too slow? Had I disrespected his towel? But one day he cornered me and there was no escape. And he confessed he swam cos he too had a bad back. Phew. A chance to have a regular blokey moaning session about our spines.

Next there was Andy and his excess skin. His appearance – which couldn’t fail to catch the eye – huge rolls of excess skin folded over on themself hanging on top of his trunks – was as a result of extreme weight loss, from 26 stone to 13. The weight went. But the skin didn’t. Poor bugger. 

He’s looked into surgery but ended up living with it. And having to explain to whoever was interested. And once we’d got over that we were free to talk about other stuff. 

Such as the towel thief who’d nabbed mine just that day meaning I had to dry myself on the hairdryer. Embarrassing. But another great conversation piece for the gang. Which I was firmly part of.

Never thought I'd say it but I miss those guys. I feel a sense of loss no complimentary towels or power shower can replace.

Maybe I should take Marky Sharky’s advice and turn to God.

Is he in that private cubicle next door?

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