Pushing past the punch-clock huddle of the rounded shoulders of the long defeated, heading to a parking lot filled with cars too close to death or too close to the credit limit. Big lungfuls of air, free air, air on my time and not on theirs.
Inside the car, slam the door and say:
“Cunt. Cunts. Bunch of fucking, fucking cunts.”
I turn the key in the ignition, a cough then a whine then a spluttering half life. Pump the accelerator like Dr Frankenstein reviving a second hand monster and the engine turns over and Jeremy Vine is suddenly talking to a bigot on the radio who keeps saying ‘Jeremy’ in every second fucking sentence while discussing immigration like Jeremy Vine can’t quite understand him or understand the fact that people are coming OVER HERE like it hasn’t been happening for thousands of years.
I find first, lift a pedal press a pedal, join the stream of fellow has-beens and never-beens that vomit out into the traffic choked streets of Leeds on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon.
Another day of petty humiliations over.
Another day of failure over.
The ring road, a roller-coaster tour of Northern unattractions, car garages and cracked concrete wastelands that sprouts miniature jungles of unlikely buddleia, boarded up pubs and shirtless fucknuckles walking their slobbering, snaggletoothed security blankets on straining leads.
The White Fucking Rose Centre.
B and fucking Q.
Turn left on balding tyres, heading through Beeston Where no-one Can Hear You Scream, Jeremy Vine talking to someone who pulled his own teeth out in Scarborough because he couldn’t get an NHS dentist.
Past the second hand shop where they sit outside on knackered couches, drinking tins.
Past the teenage girls pushing designer prams.
Past the chippy where the school kids get their lunch every single day.
Over two mini roundabouts and left into the car park, already fumbling for the things I need.
Bag. Pound coin. Wallet. Towel.
Got to hurry.
Into a cubicle and I take off all my clothes.
I stand for a second, eyes closed, stripped of everything that might associate me with THAT place.
I couldn’t give a fuck about verrucas.
I am reborn.
Pulling on swimming trunks and wriggling earplugs in, loving the muffling effect. Goggles darkening the world.
I pad to a locker and cram my worldly goods inside, pop the quid in the slot, slam it shut.
My only possession: a key on a rubber strap.
I fasten it to my wrist and take a quick rinse beneath a scalding spitting trickle of an excuse for shower and head to the pool.
White light and blue light shimmering in the cavernous space. Fifty meter pool, a proper pool, none of this twenty five meter bollocks.
Trying to walk calmly but wanting to run and leap, curl into a bomb, maybe even pet heavily.
No, be good.
Scanning the lanes, checking who’s a plodder and who’s a racer, not wanting to join someone I’ll be overtaking every second lap while not wanting to swim with Duncan Fucking Goodhew either.
There’s a few empty lanes.
I stand at one end of a beautifully uninhabited strip of blue, stare into space, hold my nose and step into oblivion.
The cold takes me.
The water here is always colder, a proper swimmers pool. No-one fucking about swimming two abreast while chatting in flowery bathing caps, oh no. None of that shit here. Floating beneath the surface I can see the silvery distortions above me, humans gliding overhead, slicing the clouds.
Did you know your heart slows when you are submerged? It’s called the Mammalian Diving Reflex. Heart slows. Blood moves to different parts of the body. Blood vessels widen to the lungs. Imagine that. You get into water and your body changes, ready to swim.
Like a meat Transformer.
I rise slowly to the surface, take a breath, coil my legs, press my ghost white feet against the smooth white tiles while pointing my head to the blue, pointing arms forward, art deco… and…
The rush and gush of bubbles then gliding in the deep, gentle kicks to keep momentum and rising to the surface and swimming, swimming.
The anger of work still there, the rage.
I can only swim one stroke. Breast stroke. I never learned the crawl and I know the crawl is way cooler but I really don’t have time to flap about learning it, not at this stage in the game. Of course I can do the back stroke but the back stroke is for bastards, selfish fuckers steaming obliviously into all and sundry, expecting you to get out of their way.
And don’t get me on about the butterfly.
I submerge with each kick of the legs, arms pulling me to the surface, pulling air, blowing bubbles, not too fast, don’t want to pull a muscle.
My boss turning the screw, day in, day out, an unreasonable martinet, petty and obsessive.
Ever seen Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny? He plays a proper fucker called Commander Phillip Queeg, unstable and paranoid, brutal and cruel.
That’s my boss. My boss is Queeg.
I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Hands grip the tiled lip at fifty meters, roll, coil, tense, push.
Surging beneath the silent water, deeper, near the bottom, two meters.
A coin. A key. A small copper buckle. A sticking plaster with a patch of brown blood.
And up, filling my lungs with clean air, stretching my arms.
Fifty meters of murder fantasies.
A throttling. A bludgeoning. A tender embrace that shatters ribs. The gristle pop of a twisted neck. Poison.
Nothing but fantasies.
I could leave the job but I need the money, I have debt and a forced house move in front of me alongside my wife’s imminent redundancy.
Now is not the time to murder Queeg.
Now is not the time to say ‘Screw You’ and swagger out of a weekly pay cheque.
Now is the time to swallow my pride, take the shit, grit my teeth and swim.
I hit the wall, roll, coil, tense, push.
Deep. Pushing harder.
Muscles warmer in the cold, stretching further, going faster.
The heart that slowed from beats of rage on hitting the water now quickens, thrusting blood to brain and lung, quads, lats and glutes, reminding me it is NOW not THEN.
I grab tiles, push away from tiles, reaching into the blue.
I am long limbed and my limbs feel good in water. There are so many places I don’t feel good, places I feel out of my depth when on land but in water I feel at home.
I do not feel out of depth in the deep.
I try to see how far I can swim without surfacing. Long strokes, a meter down. I watch the tiles pass, imagine the grouted gaps are streets between tower blocks, I am a benign dragon gliding overhead.
I ignore the swelling urgency in my chest. I waft my wings, move smoothly, marine light shifting over the world below, my great shadow passing, other shadows cast from above going about their own dragon business.
I rise, break the surface, inhale.
Past half way. Maybe thirty meters.
I keep going, keep swimming.
I grip the wall at the far end and hold, gasping.
I turn, see yoga man poolside, doing his kinky little routine. He’s small, maybe five three, tanned and ripped. He’s wearing tiny tiny trunks while doing his funky thing for all to see, flexing and bending, giving us all a treat.
Thanks, yoga man.
Light suddenly floods through the frosted glass as clouds shift outside and the light shatters on the pool, rebounding, hitting the ceiling, hitting the wet bodies of people poolside, voices distorting and shimmering as they too bounce from the walls and the water and the glass to make a new sound that isn’t human, a pool sound, pool light.
Blue green sound and blue green light.
I push off, fifty meters.
And another fifty.
Limbs draining, strength leaving me, rage ebbing.
The emptier I feel the calmer I become. Would ultimate emptiness mean ultimate calm?
I am in the age bracket where men kill themselves and I have thought about that while I swim and I think about it now. I hear people say that suicide is unthinkable but that is because too few people think, or admit to thinking. Everything is thinkable and many men have thought about it, in the dark, but too few talk about it.
Is it despair, or just deciding you’ve had enough of all the shit?
Is it simply ‘Fuck it’?
Is that why they do it?
It’s called the cowards way out I don’t think it is. I think perhaps it’s a brave decision. not one easily taken.
It takes a lot of bottle.
I know the feeling, I’ve felt that way but I won’t do it, it would be too hard on the people I leave who don’t understand, but if I did, I think I would choose water.
Deep blue water.
And my limbs are so weak now, sixty five lengths of fifty meters, swimming hard, pushing myself, emptying my body of strength and rage and all other feelings until there is nothing left and I feel like paper in the water, drifting, coming apart, and cramp strums the tendons in my legs and the pool seems longer than fifty, it feels like an ocean of Yves Klein Blue and I touch the tiles, turn, coil, push away, try for another fifty, knowing it is too far but that doesn’t matter, deep in the pool, looking ahead, and there is a man coming in the other direction.
He is a man in his fifties as deep down as I am, swimming with no effort, wearing faded yellow beach shorts that billow around his thick legs. He is big, maybe six feet five, maybe twenty five stones, his great belly somehow right in the water, thick sandy hair covering his chest, heavy beard and thinning hair, dark blue goggles hiding his eyes.
With lazy strokes he moves through the water, a man who would lumber on land now graceful and gliding.
He passes me, and turns in the water to look at me, and then he lifts an arm from his side and he gives me a thumbs up.
I give him a thumbs up in return and head to the surface.
I reach the other side.
I grip the wall, trembling.
I take another breath and lower myself.
I can see the man, swimming into the distance, still underwater, feet propelling him, arms steering.
I come up for air and wait, but I don’t see him surface.
I am almost too weak to move.
Hand over hand I pull myself to the steps in the corner. With shaking legs I climb out.
I raise my goggles and scan the water, look at the swimmers.
I see a large shape under the water, swimming, swimming.
I walk to changing rooms, pause, look back.
The big man is at the surface, water dripping from his huge beard. He has his back to the wall, huge arms outstretched, gently gripping the tiles while his huge body drifts below. He is nodding to a beat in his head, smiling, eyes hidden behind the blue goggles.
He is watching yoga man pulling his funky moves.
He is digging yoga man.
I go for a shower.
I dry my body.
I dress in fresh clothing.
I do not forget my pound in my locker.
I stumble slightly on my way to the car, legs like a fawn, the late afternoon sunshine impossibly bright.
I get into the car which is warm, almost too warm, and there is no longer any anger but I am no longer empty, I am filled with something else.
I think it is peace.
I help myself to some Haribo I keep in the car for my kids.
I turn on the radio and Fleetwood Mac are playing ‘You Can Go Your Own Way’.
I slowly drive home, ready to be a father again, a husband again.
Yves Klein, People Begin To Fly, 1961