“The clouds are taking on color by the rim of the sky. The water is spangles of soft blue, five-o’clock warm, and the pool’s smell, like the other smell, connects with a chemical haze inside you, an interior dimness that bends light to its own ends, softens the difference between what leaves off and what begins.”
David Foster Wallace, Forever Overhead
“Some white people come here, especially on a Sunday. But I don’t know where they are today,” says Thando. His faded, red board shorts have a large rip on the right leg, as if a sabre-tooth tiger got hold of them. He holds a plastic Power Rangers mask in one hand; its thin elastic bounces between his index and middle fingers. When he talks, his gold front tooth glints in the sun. Lots of small black children are at the Bez Valley Pool; Thando, the lifeguard, is one of the few adults. A group of teenage boys play soccer, a man with a Rasta hat sits on a bench under a tree and strums a guitar, while a guy in an incongruous Angkor Wat T-shirt stands with arms folded, looking at the kids splashing in the pool, wistfully (I wonder: where did he get the T-shirt from? Was it given to him? Has he been to Cambodia?).
The Bez Valley Swimming Pool (located just behind the Hofland Park Recreation Centre on 3rd Avenue), is one of the few pools in Joburg that has free entrance (or, so I’m told). I had been there once before, when I lived in First Avenue, and I remember the shallow end read VLAK KANT and in the deep end, the words DIEP KANT were distorted and half-submerged. These apartheid remnants are now gone, but thinking about them makes me internally giggle.
Thando [surname withheld], who’s 24, has been a lifeguard for two years, and he lives in Soweto and catches a taxi to the Bez Valley swimming pool every day. He seems a bit apprehensive at first to talk to me. I tell him that Alex is an artist; that part of this project is about making art. He adjusts his red cap and suddenly loosens up. “Eish, man! Making art. That’s what I want to do… I want to make movies. Maybe study at a private college in town. I’m saving money each month, but it’s only a little. I have to support other family members, and my salary is not much.”
I ask him what his favourite film is.
“Titanic!” he responds, without hesitation.
“I have a girlfriend for two months,” he continues. “But it’s complicated. Eish. I had another girlfriend before her for two years, but that didn’t work out. I think I need to focus on myself more, I don’t know. Just save some money and build myself up. I have to start somewhere; I want to build a legacy. You know, be a filmmaker, get a nice house, get married. Maybe one day you’ll see me in Sandton, and you’ll remember me from today. I don’t want to be stuck in one job for the rest of my life, I want to do big things.”
There’s a silence as we both look out onto the pool. Children shriek in the water and surround Alex, who seems to be giving an impromptu swimming lesson of sorts. I notice that there’s a lot of French being spoken, as well as Zulu. Thando tells me that children mostly come to this pool, especially during the school holidays. “Sometimes there can be 100, 200 kids here, and just me – I have to watch them. I teach them to swim, too, because not all of them know how,” he adds.
The guitar-strumming man on the bench is gone, and in his place is a young woman. I go up to her and chat. Her name is Cebosse, and she tells me, in broken English and a Francophone tongue, that she’s from the DRC, she’s 22, and she lives in nearby 7th Avenue. She’s really friendly; I ask her what she does for a living. “There are no jobs here [in Johannesburg],” she smiles, in a sweet, resigned way. “I did computers in the DRC. I have been two months in Bez Valley, five months in South Africa. I don’t like Johannesburg so much; I like Pretoria.”
She has a friend with her, and I assume she’s also from the DRC. She’s wearing long false lashes and talking in French on a cheap cellphone. She smiles at me.
Reflections on Hofland Park Pool [Words Alex Halligey]
The changing-room building looks new. There’s nice brickwork, wooden post cladding. The changing rooms are small – two toilets, two cubicles. Grey paint, neat, new, clean. The toilet flush in the one I go into does not work; it’s jammed and in a state of constant trickle into the bowl. Tap in the basin also dripping. I give it a hard turn to tighten it. I think of the solid, old beauty of the Sydenham and Zoo Lake changing rooms. Something about these ones feels flimsy; a rough job, but at the same time attractive, the newness appealing. A crumpled purple chip packet lies on one of the wooden benches.
Shallow-shallow shallow end. Deep end is my shoulder height. There are no lane lines. The gutter lip is below the pool’s edge. It’s new looking, and solid, dark-blue tiles form a border around the surface’s edge. The water is very clear, very blue. It’s colder than I expect (because I’m used to the heated gym pool?). There are just children here, with only a handful of adults – some are on a bench under a tree.
I start swimming. I always need to get used to a new pool; I worry about crashing into people, and how to judge how far I am from the end when doing backstroke. I start on the far west side; move to the far east because I think there are now less children in the shallow end. Then realise I’m in the path of three boys diving. On at least two laps I find one boy sailing over me and then immediately see another swimming along the bottom under me; the third treading water on the surface. I move to the middle of the pool. I notice a huge tree, a grey cloud. The tree makes me think of the Edenvale public pool. I get a nose full of chlorine at some point. Gag-making.
I do more breaststroke than usual. The sun comes out and mobile, loose triangle/oval shapes lined in light emerge on the pool bottom. Like a pattern of childhood swims. I come up and a boy says to me, ‘You’re a good swimmer.’ I say, ‘Let’s do a horizontal lap together.’ As we get ourselves to the edge, he’s calling to his brother in Zulu, saying either ‘Ntokozo, the swimming teacher’ or ‘Ntokozo, she’s teaching swimming’ – ‘teaching’, ‘swimming’ and ‘Ntokozo’ are what I can make out from my extremely basic Zulu. Seems mostly the children are speaking Zulu. My new friend, Sandile, has small, pale birth marks in a delicate pattern ringing both his eyes.
I’m on lap 16 and Gail suggests I swim with the children – some of them have been trying to copy my strokes alongside me. I stand up and say,
‘Shall we all swim together?’
And off we go. Backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle and the last, butterfly. All of us are so delighted and pleased. A chorus of swimmers; a school of swimmers. I feel like such a pleased, thirty-something whitey performer in the midst of all these happy, young-young black swimmers. Pure joy in performance provocation, yielding an unexpected spontaneous group act. We go just midway with each lap – the deep end seems scary for some (Sandile especially). High fives and name shares. What now? Swim under water! Patricia can’t open her eyes to see where she’s going. Ok, we’ll hold hands, her and I, I can see with my goggles and off we go. Most of the kids are shivering. Lips trembling, but not wanting to get out of the water. I remember that feeling from childhood. I say bye and get out. A boy approaches to ask if he can use ‘my glasses’. As I lie on my towel in the sun, I think of the luxuries of my swimming as an adult – goggles and how they open up the possibilities of the water for you.”
The Hofland Park Recreation Centre (aka The Bez Valley swimming pool), free entrance, 99 Third Avenue, Bezuidenhout Valley, Johannesburg.
All images Gail Scott Wilson
To read more about the #20laps project, go here