“The pool is crowded for this late. Here are thin children, hairy animal men. Disproportionate boys, all necks and legs and knobby joints, shallow-chested, vaguely birdlike. Like you. Here are old people moving tentatively through shallows on stick legs, feeling at the water with their hands, out of every element at once. The pool is a system of movement. Here now there are: laps, splash fights, dives, corner tag, cannonballs, Sharks and Minnows, high fallings, Marco Polo…” David Foster Wallace, Forever Unheard.
Walking into the change rooms of the Sydenham Public Pool is like stepping back into my 1980s childhood, except instead of a magical cupboard that opens onto Narnia, the change room reveals mirages of late apartheid, that I thought I’d forgotten:
Signs on the walls read DAMES/FEMALES / CLOAKROOM/ NA SWEMBAD TOE; the Nationalist concrete tiles; a broken deckchair; the slatted wood to sit on.
NA SWEMBAD TOE. The language hasn’t changed but the sunlight now refracts off black bodies. The public pool is fairly busy on a hot Sunday afternoon, and there are a number of small black kids splashing in the shallow end. A young, beefy white guy walks next to the pool. He has a half-done dragon tattoo on his back, and a silver spiral pushed through one of his earlobes. A little black boy creeps up behind him and taps him on the back; the hulk-man pretend-smacks the boy on the cheek; the boy giggles and scampers off. Another kid springs off the diving board, feet first, while a guy with a man bun balances a small blond boy on his shoulders. At the far corner of the poolside there’s a middle-aged man with a black yarmulke atop his head, a lilo is stuffed under his wife’s arm. Another women wears a headscarf; her elbows and ankles hidden.
There aren’t many people in the deep end.
I speak to the hulk guy with the half-done dragon tattoo. “It’s a dragon for strength and power,” he tells me, as he flexes his muscles and puffs out a huge, hairless chest. His name is Max, and he’s 27, and there’s something very innocent and man-child about him; when he speaks the words come out a little slower, a little stunted. There’s a lull in conversation, and we both stare at the diving board. “I’m a bomber, not a diver,” he points out. “I want to be a lifeguard, but I need to be re-tested; I didn’t pass all the fitness tests.” I ask him if he has a job. “I just chill at home,” he responds. “I’m here from 10 in the morning until four every day. It takes a lot of practice to bomb properly; I’ve taught all these kids how to do it.” His grey boy eyes smile.
I go to the lifeguard’s office, where I meet the acting superintendent, Julius Lwana, and he offers me a chair. Julius tells me he’s been a lifeguard since 2003; he asks me if I’m from ‘the newspaper’. I have to reassure him that I’m not. Once convinced, he loosens up a bit, but his eyes keep darting from me to the pool and back to me. Just outside the office are three seasonal lifeguards, all in their very early twenties. They’re wearing yellow shirts and red board-shorts, and their caps are tilted. “I’m fighting for them to dress nicely,” says Julius. I’m not sure if he’s scowling or squinting at them, thanks to the sun’s glare. Every now and then one of them blows a whistle to reprimand kids for running. Julius tells me that they all live in Soweto.
I ask Julius why he became a lifeguard in the first place. He clicks a Bic pen and looks at the pool. “It wasn’t my thing, it was just a job that I didn’t need particular qualifications for. I’m from the Eastern Cape, Aliwal North. There were no jobs, so I came to Joburg in 1994. I couldn’t find work for about two and a half years, and I already had a child, so I tried the municipality. There was a lot of training and fitness tests – I had to swim 16 laps in under eight minutes. I remember there was a doll in the deep end, and we had to rescue it in under two minutes.
“I couldn’t swim when I applied to be a lifeguard; I could only do – what do you call it?” He mimes his head above water and little arm movements. “Doggy paddle?” I say. “Yes. I could only doggy paddle in dams. But when I became a lifeguard I was taught all the strokes at Ellis Park – butterfly still isn’t my favourite.”
Julius tells me that he lives on the premises, and he has three kids, two are still at school (one at Sandringham High School and the other at Linksfield Primary). “My wife doesn’t work; she has a matric – unlike me – and some qualifications, but she can’t find work, she’s unlucky. I just tell her to relax and not to stress herself; she knows the story. My eldest son lives in Soweto, and he coaches swimming at private schools.”
I ask him if he’s ever had to save a drowning person. “I’ve had to save many people from drowning; they get drunk and can’t swim. Often I’ll see a guy get brave and jump off the diving board, especially in December. No booze is allowed on the premises – we used to have security checking that, but they cut the budget.
“I enjoy my job,” he adds. “I love seeing people enjoy themselves, they like clean water, and everyone who comes here is really friendly – most of them are part of the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, so we message each other; we’re there for each other. Everyone is friends.”
I thank him for chatting. Alex has finished her 20 laps in the pool, her hair is wild and her goggles around her neck. She tells me that the diving board reminds her of David Foster Wallace’s poem, Forever Overhead. “I’m pretty sure it has Queer undertones,” she says. “Or maybe not. It’s a metaphor. Of something.”
We both laugh.
“Oh, and there’s a dark patch of algae that reminds me of a dream I had in high school,” she adds.
Later I google David Foster Wallace’s poem. It’s about a boy who, on his thirteenth birthday, decides to go to the local swimming pool. The poem describes his ascent up the diving board ladder, and it’s a metaphor relating to puberty. There’s a strange parallel to Max, the 27-year-old boy-man (“I had my 21st birthday at the pool; I even drank a Hunters Gold!).’
Reflections on Sydenham Pool Words: Alex Halligey
Three girls in a changing room cubicle. ‘I forgot my swimming costuuume.’ ‘Wear your brother’s t-shirt.’
‘I don’t want to look funny.’
Swimming. The first few laps in a new pool feeling chaotic and unsure before I can relax into the swim. For the first half of the laps I swim right to the end of the shallow end. Coming up and greeting the children – they’re bemused, shy, staring, not sure what to say. Sometimes I crash into a few adults who have ventured further in. A woman on an orange pool noodle bent double, lazily kicking towards the side of the pool.
I start at the diving board lanes, but realise I’m going to get dived on. Migrate across. The eerie feeling of the deep drop for the board gets worse towards the middle of the pool where there’s a thick patch of black algae. Reminds me of a recurring dream of the St Andrew’s school pool, swimming over its deep section. The depth somehow overwhelming, quietly menacing. Heart quickens, a visceral although irrational mild panic, breath shortening. I migrate further across and the pool shelves up – the very deep part is only two third across, grading to a normal deep-end depth. I’m struck by how used to the controlled gym pool environment I’ve become – uniform depth, always shallow enough to stand, warm, salt water, lanes.
Seeing the sky and the clouds with backstroke – it’s one of the best things about Joburg’s pools. Feeling the sun through the water.
Jumping off the high diving board. Thinking of the David Foster Wallace poem as I wait. The breeze blowing, though it’s hot – how he describes that same sensation in Arizona. How even when I first read the story it reminded me so much of Joburg. Thinking of the metal bar ladder rungs he describes. Here it’s steps, with a roughened, sandpaper-y finish. Warmer, full-foot supported. I remember that butterfly feeling of fear when waiting to jump at school. Here now too, but so much less, so much easier to contain with adult rationality. The walk to the end, jump before I can think too much about the fear. How deep I go, how amazing. So fast and then suddenly in slow motion in the water. Thrilling, beautiful. My ears block, I’m holding my nose. I feel the bubbles all around my body. I think of scuba diving. These ways of getting yourself deeper into the water. The slow float up to the top. Getting out of the pool with the secretness of that experience in you.’
Sydenham Public Pool, R9 per adult. Corner of 11th and Dunvegan avenues, Sydenham, Johannesburg.
All images Gail Scott Wilson
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