Water. What isn't there to worry about? They say you can drown in three inches of water; especially if it's the three inches that connect your nose and mouth to your lungs. At school, they cancelled swimming lessons the year I got there. As I got older it got easier to avoid getting round to learning. The fear of public mockery went hand in hand with the fear of the water.
But, the other week, I went to see my friends Helen and Tim, to coo over their nine-month-old joy bundle, Joe. As Joe lay on his back, babbling nonsense and dribbling goober, Helen told me of his recent successes at the swimming baths. "I put him in and straightaway his little arms and legs started swinging around," she said. "I just had to support his tummy and off he went." "He wasn't frightened at all," added Tim.
As I walked home that evening, head hung low in shame, I decided enough was enough. If a tiny creature who still poohed in its pants could master the art, then so could I! However I'm the kind of person who, if I had a cleaner, would just give a quick dust round before they arrived. So, obviously, I wasn't going to wander down to the local leisure centre and join in with the other three-year-old learners in the "kiddies" pool. But then I get nervy watching the newts in my garden pond, so neither was I about to plunge straight into the vast expanse of potential doom in the main pool.
Luckily, my beloved girlfriend knew of just the place - a private health and beauty centre with a perfect physiotherapy pool. As I shyly changed into my shorts, my nakedness added to my feelings of vulnerability. After tucking my clothes, shoes and watch into the little locker, I felt like I should leave a note to my family there, too, just in case.
The pool (15ft by 8ft, and 3ft deep) was occupied by two old ladies, swishing through their gentle orthopaedic exercises, and one big fat man, squatting silently like a frog. At first my girlfriend sat with me as we dangled our legs into the warm water, getting acclimatised. Steadily, we progressed: I sat on the ledge, with the water lapping up to my belly. Then I eased in and felt the water envelop me. Slowly, I forgot about the other people and concentrated on the feeling of the water.
If you relax, you float, I'd heard. No problem. But then when I tried, I sank like a stone every time. Sometimes, if my girlfriend was distracting me with conversation, I'd notice I was starting to rise, but each time that moment of recognition caused me to sink again. Eventually, I took my fist of fear and ripped it open: in front of the frog and the two old ladies I let my girlfriend guide me away from the side and then, listening to her loving whispers of trust and faith, I let her take my weight and hold me up, floating on the water. As I lay there, fighting the panic and hating the water splashing around my ears and eyes, I had a stark and sudden memory. At school: the usual, boring Monday morning. I was traipsing into the cloakroom and I saw Andrew Tremble. He blankly said, "Michael's dead." I thought he was joking. "He drowned. We were down at the river, jumping off the rocks. No one noticed he was missing."
The memory made me freeze and splash and take mouthfuls of tepid pool water, but my girlfriend was there, and she hadn't let me slip, she was still holding me up. I think it's going to take a fair while to conquer not just the technique, but the fear, of swimming. But I'm going back next week and maybe, with my girlfriend's patience, a sturdy pair of goggles and some earplugs I might just do it yet.
For details of local adult swimming courses, contact the Amateur Swimming Association on 01509 234408, or The Aqua Development Programme, incorporating the Alexander Technique, at The Laboratory Health Club & Spa, The Avenue, Muswell Hill, London N10.Reuse content