“He was thinking. Thinking if it was possible to be with somebody underwater, he could hold his breath three minutes […], they could float up together, take a breath and go down, it was easy to sink if you knew how. He had once drunk a bottle of milk and peeled and eaten a banana underwater to show off, had to have weights though, to hold him down. Gee, how it would be, you couldn’t ever get a girl though, a girl couldn’t go through with it, she’d swallow water […]. There wasn’t anybody like him that was that way underwater. Swimmers, hell, swimmers were slobs, nobody knew about the water but him. He wished he was a fish. No he didn’t. He laughed.”
Ernest Hemingway, Summer People
I had no idea the Melville swimming pool existed. I’d been to the Melville Spar a number of times, and I’d never noticed the blue sign that says SWIMMING POOL, with an arrow pointing downwards and a jiggly line indicating the steps one has to descend to reach said pool. Once downstairs, there’s a standard-issue underground parking lot, and still the pool – hidden behind parking bays and a car wash – is easy to miss. But Melville resident 2Summers suggested to the #20laps group that we check it out (for the premise behind the #20laps project, go here). This time we’re joined by Fiver, a German sketch artist, and a friend of Alex’s, Fran.
I give my entrance money (R12) to the lifeguard. It’s a bit more expensive than usual, as it’s not a public pool per se (it’s privately owned by the Melville Spar, but it’s open to the public). The lifeguard’s name is Wade [surname withheld]; he’s 28 and has been a lifeguard at the pool since April last year. He tells me that he trained to be a lifeguard in Eldorado Park, where he lives. He has a mischievous look about him, even though his eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. I can see myself reflected back in the tinted plastic.
“I love swimming; I like helping people,” he says. “I became a mechanic after finishing school, but I wasn’t happy in my job, I was very stressed out. This job is chilled; there’s no pressure and I finally have peace of mind. My ultimate goal is to be a beach lifeguard, but I’d have to move to Durban – for some reason I don’t want to go to Cape Town. You’re not going to get me into trouble by me telling you this?”
We both laugh but there’s concern in his smile. I assure him that no, I won’t get him into trouble. So far, in the #20laps project, we’ve covered three swimming pools, and all three lifeguards have initially expressed a little reservation before talking to me (the main concern, it seems, has been whether or not I’m ‘with the paper’).
Sitting next to Wade is Bheki [surname withheld]. His face is young; his unshielded eyes sparkle like the pool’s salt-water in the blazing sun. He’s 22 and lives in Melville.
Wade gently elbows Bheki in the ribs. “He’s the one who makes the pool so nice,” says Wade. Bheki laughs; his dark-skinned cheeks have the faintest hint of red. I ask him how he ended up working at the Melville swimming pool.
“I used to stay in Diepsloot, but I moved to Melville when I got the job here. I was spending way too much money on transport. Life has changed for the better for me. I used to struggle a lot; I can survive now and earn a living. I have less pressure.”
He goes back to blushing and smiling. Wade grins.
I ask Wade if locals often visit the Melville swimming pool. “Many of the people who come to the Melville pool don’t live in Melville itself; they come from places like Westbury and Brixton, where the pools aren’t maintained so well and are green.” He also tells me that it’s not usually so busy, there’s a Sunday School group from Noordgesig today, so that’s why it’s pretty crowded. “It’s mostly quiet here – some people who have lived here for years don’t even know about this place.”
So it’s no surprise that, like Wade says, it’s normally pretty quiet – barring Sunday School groups from Noordgesig. Interestingly, according to a thesis by Wendell Moore entitled ‘A History of Noordgesig to 1994: Changing Coloured Identity‘, Noordgesig was a township established in 1939, “as a temporary home for the poorest class of Coloureds removed from inner city slums […] authorities considered the type of Coloured people it housed comparable to blacks in terms of class, skin colour and identity.” As I look at Alex motoring through her obligatory 20 laps (and, once again, dodging wayward pool noodles), I feel glad that Noordgesig residents have found a secret, salt-water playground of their own, in the middle of previously all-white suburbia.
A fair-skinned, blue-eyed child tears through the grassed area in Spider Man slippers, clutching a Fritos packet, while another boy shoots a watergun at three squealing girls. Two young Coloured guys look on – one has a rosary tattoo on his bicep. By now, most of the Noordgesig group has filtered out, and got onto a bus to take them back home. Post 20 laps, Alex lies down on the hot concrete to dry off, and the last of the kids bob on a shared pool noodle – but not for long as they’re hurried out the water with a shrill, ‘Jinne ons mos ry, kom nou!’.
Reflections on the Melville swimming pool [Words Alex Halligey]
The Melville swimming pool looks smaller than a 25m, but it’s hard to say. We try to work out whether the Spar owners halved the original pool or built an entirely new one. The changing room has the standard grey, stone-effect tiles I associate with all Spars. The showers have sliding-glass doors. I’m changing round a corner and then hear echoey calls – two little girls trying to give each other frights in the shadowy entrance to the changing room.
The pool has dedicated swimming lanes. A guy in his early twenties is doing laps. I swim just next to the lane, but still have a clean sweep of the pool to lap myself. There are only children in the pool, but not as many as the other pools we’ve been to so far. The sun’s out. Big white, Highveld clouds. There’s a view of a sportsfield to the left where there’s a steep slope from the pool to field, the slope fenced off with green palisade fencing. The water’s clear, and there are dark blue tile lane markers on the pool bottom. Salt water. I push off and feel the slimy slip of algae on the side.
Halfway through my swim the pool suddenly empties of people entirely, and the sun goes behind the clouds. What’s going on? I keep swimming, finding out afterwards all the people at the pool were part of a church group. They were packing up to leave for home. The pool, the low shady trees, the grass, all feel like some hybrid between a private suburban pool and a timeshare resort. Something about the building materials – for the pool and the paving. The creamy, curved splash pool. It’s an idiom of the commercial rather than the municipal; the idiom of recent history from the last two decades, rather than the last five decades. I talk to Fran about it afterwards. She remembers when it was an Olympic-size one, taking up the whole block. She remembers swimming there as a child, swimming over the scuba divers training at the bottom of the deep deep-end, their bubbles floating up, Fran and her friends psyching one another up – with the fear of a suddenly surfacing diver as they swam over them.
I decide to speak to one of the members of the Noordgesig group, before they rush off. She’s a jovial woman in her fifties by the name of Marcelle. I ask her why the group decided to come to the Melville swimming pool, as it’s a bit of a drive.
“The pool in Noordgesig is always totally packed, so we came here,” she explains. “The schools in Noordgesig doen’t have pools, so after school the only pool is very busy. During apartheid I remember the Coloured pools in the area, like the main one in Coronationville, but it was difficult to get there. These days, lots of the kids in the area can’t swim.
“I can’t swim either, but I’m going to learn how with my grandson; he thinks I’m crazy. ‘Why do you want to learn now!?’ he keeps telling me. I can’t swim but I love the water.
“My partner lives near Melville,” she adds, “and sometimes there are just the two of us here – it’s like our own private pool.”
The Melville Swimming Pool, R12 per adult. The swimming pool is at the back of the Melville Spar Centre, entrance via underground parking. Open from Wed-Sun from 10am-6pm.
All photos Gail Scott Wilson; pool-scene sketch by Fiver Löcker © fiver 2017 www.fiver.de
To read more about the #20laps project, go here