In at the deep end without my costume

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The Independent Online
"Using up last Christmas's gift token, are you?" asked the masseuse on Friday 23 December. Suddenly I realised why so many of the other women at the Sanctuary health club looked tired and spent half their time asleep. Like me, having in 1993 been given agift-voucher for a stress-relieving day, they had been too busy in the ensuing 12 months to find the time to use it: this Friday was the last day before the voucher expired. It was reassuring to know I was amid exhausted workaholics rather than p ampered socialites.

I'm too curious easily to be able to switch off wherever I am, so even during this very agreeable drop-out day I found some puzzles to chew on. I would welcome help in finding satisfactory answers to the following questions: a) why, in an all-woman environment, do some women go naked and some not?

b) why is there no Sanctuary for men?

c) can I swim?

Nudity first. I have many female friends who swear like sailors and are completely unshockable, yet who, when changing in public, behave like a particularly modest Reverend Mother. I also know nicely spoken, slightly prim types who will prance around theshared bedroom naked without a second thought.

Is this to do with aesthetics? Self-confidence? Or, as I've always assumed, whether or not you've been to boarding school?

At the Sanctuary I acted like the day-school product I am, donned a swimsuit and averted my eyes from the naked. Then modesty became deeply wearing. Unless you were prepared to put on a nasty wet swimsuit, it was necessary to emerge from whirlpool, find private spot, remove swimsuit, dry yourself and put on towelling robe, make journey to leave swimsuit in sauna to dry, have sleep or massage, retrieve swimsuit, get wet and then repeat the whole sequence all over again.

After three separate swimsuit/ water/sauna cycles, I uttered a coarse epithet and joined the ranks of the naked. Does this validate or invalidate my boarding-school thesis?

Now, men. Why is it impossible to think of a chap telling other chaps that just for the hell of it he spent a day having aromatherapy, a seaweed bathe, sitting in a whirlpool or lying on a couch lulled into a doze by the sound of running water? Why are all male health clubs actually gyms? Why do men always have to have something wrong with them before they can go to a health farm or have a massage? Is it because of macho hang-ups about being pampered? The sexual connotations of massage parlours? Or is i t simply that men and women are different?

Now about the equally knotty problem of how I should reply when someone asks if I can swim.

The history is that in my early teens, in the freezing waters of the Irish sea, I just about learnt to float. At 18, in America, I encountered heated swimming pools and nearly learnt to swim. My endeavours were abruptly brought to a halt when, in the presence of a lifeguard who looked like the Neighbours equivalent of a Greek god but was clearly somewhat easily distracted, I nearly drowned. I was lucky enough to be fished out of the depths by my companion as I went down for the third time, but I had los t my nerve. From then on, every time I went into serious amounts of water, I panicked.

About 25 years on, having had several wearing happenings - bereavements, marital collapse, being the chairman of a spectacularly quarrelsome committee - I hid for a fortnight on a health farm. Overwhelmed by an urge for self-improvement, I decided to take swimming lessons. On my last day, I swam the length of the pool. I rang up a friend and announced excitedly that I could swim. "Whatever you do," said my kind instructor as I said goodbye, "build on this. Go swimming regularly."

Of course, I meant to and, of course, what with one thing and another I never got around to it. There were always good reasons why even when a pool stared me in the face I couldn't use it: I didn't have a swimsuit/was too busy/too shy/too tired/too cold.

In the Sanctuary, however, I could find not a single excuse for not finding out if I could still swim.

I found an uninhabited pool and experimented nervously in the shallow end. For 10 minutes I fought a losing battle to remember how to co-ordinate my arms and legs. Despairingly, I turned on my back and managed first to float and then to propel myself a few times across the width of the pool until brought up sharply by hitting my head painfully against the side.

At this stage I was joined by two swimmers (one naked, one clad), who dived in at the deep end and cleaved through the water masterfully. I realised that their obvious desire to swim up and down the pool was somewhat hampered by having a loose cannon zigzagging around the shallows. I thought of trying my technique lengthways instead of widthways, but, aware that my voucher-donor would be vexed if I succeeded in drowning myself at his expense, I decided otherwise and climbed out. So what I want to know is, does this count as swimming? Or should it more properly be called power-floating?

Anyone looking for a further challenge might try the bonus question. Why, of the 30 or so women attending the Sanctuary, was I the only one who read in the whirlpool?