Ice pelts metal in an elemental rage. The noise is deafening inside the indoor Linden swimming pool, but it’s a good thing we came here – it’s not exactly poolside weather. Pockets of Speedoed swimmers with towelled shoulders stand clumped together, dripping onto the concrete, their breath misting up the glass windows. The sky cracks with electricity. I see the rest of the #20laps team and head over to them. “We’ve been told to get out of the water because of the lightning,” says Alex. All I hear is “out” and “water” and “lightening”. Gail gestures to me so I stand next to her; she leans in close and shouts something about the superintendent not wanting to talk to anyone or have his photo taken.
I go talk to him, obvz.
It’s difficult interviewing someone during a massive hailstorm, but I half-manage. A fair amount of our conversation is drowned out by the hailstone din, but I learn that the superintendent’s name is Dion, and he’s been a lifeguard for 23 years. He lives in Eldorado Park and is divorced with three kids. He warms up to me fairly quickly, like they usually do (except for Thato, the lifeguard from Zoo Lake, that is).
“I became a lifeguard straight after school,” he yells. “Things have changed drastically since then, though.”
I ask him what he means by that. He doesn’t hear me so I have to repeat myself, louder this time. He looks over his shoulder, and pulls his cap a little further down his forehead. The hail thunders in my eardrums.
“Politics plays a big part,” he whisper-shouts. He looks around, as if he’s trying to spot a National Intelligence agent amongst the huddled swimmers. “But the good thing is that the Linden swimming pool used to be white only, but now everyone can interact from different cultures… it’s very mixed,” he shouts.
I ask him if he’s had to deal with any drownings.
“I’ve had to save plenty of lives; it can be a wake-up call when a near-drowning happens. They really shake you. People’s lives are really valuable – you have to be alert. But I definitely enjoy being a lifeguard.”
He likes the Linden pool because it’s indoors, and it’s protected from the sun and the weather. He mentions ‘squad training’ and I don’t know what that is. I don’t ask because it’s too noisy.
“I can relate to the people who use the pool and I speak to them often. It’s very family orientated; people are generally well-behaved here,” he adds.
By now Dion and I are BFFs, and he’s more than happy to let Gail take a photo of him. The hailstorm has died down, and the swimmers are back in the pool, easing into their laps – Alex included. I notice that a number of the lanes are reserved for training and coaching; Linden has an air of weightiness about it – it’s quite different to the other pools we’ve visited.
Dion. Image Gail Scott Wilson
Maybe it’s because the weather isn’t great, but there are no braais happening on the grass, or selfie-taking in the pool. This is a pool for the Serious Swimmer. The kind of swimmer who wears goggles and a latex cap, and who performs an upside-down roll-around flip underwater when they finish a lap.
Across from Dion is a man in a wheelchair. His right arm hangs limp in a sling. He’s with two women and he seems to be enjoying himself, just watching the people in the pool. I go over to him; his name is Abdul and he lives in Kensington. He’s from Lenasia originally, and because he grew up in the Indian-only area he didn’t have access to a public pool, so he only swam when it flooded. He taught himself to swim, with breaststroke being his favourite. He speaks with a slight slur.
“All my children like swimming,” he tells me, with a big smile. “My youngest is 10 and he’s at Jeppe Prep.” Abdul’s eyes dart across the pool, then he points with his good hand, “That’s him, that’s my son!”
His son waves. Abdul beams.
“I had a stroke in February last year, though, it’s been tough.” His smile wanes a little. “I’m only in my early fifties but I’m paralysed on my right side.”
It’s a pity Abdul isn’t in the pool (there’s a wheelchair lift), but maybe it’s just too much admin. While I’m thanking him for the chat, I spot an interesting character: he’s wearing a yellow City of Joburg cap and sitting on a chair at the edge of the pool. He has earphones in his ears, and he’s dressed like a coach. I notice that he has crudely done tattoos on his hands.
Douglas is 54 and has worked at the Linden swimming pool for 13 years as a cashier and cloakroom attendant. He says ‘cashier and cloakroom attendant’ with dignified earnestness. He used to work for Standard Bank in Durban but he lost his job; he struggled to get employed again, so he came to Joburg in 1990. His green eyes are intense. I don’t know what they’ve seen, but I feel them invisibly pull me in. The last time I experienced this was in India, when I met a swami who made me fall asleep during fireworks being let off. His brown eyes had the same allurement – he told me that he could draw me in like a magnet, if I wanted him to.
“I’ve been in Joburg for 27 years. I don’t like it anymore, though. I liked it in the 1990s, but my whole family is in KZN. My brother is an advocate who works with Jews and he makes good money.” Douglas is missing a couple of front teeth, and tries not to smile too much. He has gold studs in his ears; his irises have a centripetal force.
He tells me that he stays on the pool premises at Robin Hills, and he likes the job security of being Linden’s cashier and cloakroom attendant. He’s been divorced three times, and has seven kids (“But I’ve only raised four; I have a lot to answer for.”)
“When I first came to Joburg I went a bit crazy, it was too much of a fast life here. My car was stolen and my place was burnt down. I was mugged recently. The government does nothing. I’ve had a hard life; my father was Coloured and my mother was white. She hated me because I have my father’s eyes. Some people think I’m white.” He also tells me he was raised Catholic, and he was taught by “terrible German nuns”. We talk about Catholic guilt and how kak it is.
The tattoo on his right hand has a pair of wings and dice, and on his left are the words WHY ME LORD. I ask him about his ink.
“It’s a long story; I told you, I’ve had a hard life.”
We play my favourite game: the Age Guessing Game. He thinks I’m 26 (I’m 35); I guess he’s 48 – four years younger than he is, which makes him laugh.
Reflections on Linden swimming pool [words Alex Halligey]
Dry walled cubicle, plain wooden doors and benches. Cream tiles. ’80s functionalism, neatly kept. None of the old, preserved beauty of Zoo Lake. But a feeling of being rigorously maintained, the sense of traffic through the change rooms and pools, the necessity of the functionality and the neatness.
Grey, chilly day. Changing quickly for the cold. Thinking of early morning swimming training. All the squads that use Linden, winter and summer. Later Ang asks me, ‘What are these squads?’ I’m hard-pressed to say what ‘the squads’ are. Because they’re not quite the school swimming teams, although everyone in them would be on their school teams. Are there regional squads feeding the provincial ones? It must be training, general training, for all school team swimmers. Or are the squads simply the individual school teams coming to train in the heated indoor pool of Linden?
Plastic lane demarcations are up with signs for the coaching lanes and the others for laps. Just under half the pool is open for free swimming. Children from little to teenagers are mermaiding around in that section. A couple of people are being coached and then one, maybe two, other people doing laps.
I swim. From the deep end. Diving blocks. That nervous feeling of school swimming standing on the sandpaper topped diving blocks. Warm water. Tiles. A steep grade up to the shallow end. The deep end fairly deep. Definitely no standing there for anyone. Sand adrift on the bottom of the deep end. Gathering in the grouted areas between the tiles. A swim without encounter in the cordoned off lane. Seeing the bottom of the pool. Seeing the domed, corrugated roof, the perspex skylight, the blue and white bunting marking the approaching end for your backstroke lengths.
Then the coach is blowing her whistle, gesturing for us all to get out. The storm has burst. Lightning, thunder, pelting rain. The palm trees whipping outside the glass sliding doors. The sound so deafening my visiting friend and I put our fingers to our ears. It passes and back in the water the pleasure of its warmth, the easy swim of the pool, the luxury of swimming in spite of the weather.
As I walk the length of the pool after my last lap I see a boy with huge blue goggles. Goggles for diving the sea. A little pool of always warm, always sheltered sea in landlocked Joburg.
It’s raining as I change. I put my swimming bag over my head as I run between the changing cubicle and the loos, stopping in the rain in front of the mirror to assess the extent of my chlorine-dried skin flaking and thinking what a long, clean mirror it is now covered in rain. All those teenage swimmers checking their reflections, adjusting their images after their training.
I’m still surprised by the apartheid-era signage that’s been kept up at Joburg’s public pools. Along with the usual blue Nationalist government-issue NA SWEMBAD TOE, VROUENS, and GEEN HONDE TOEGELAAT NIE, Linden boasts a gem: a sign from 1986 about bomb threats. It makes me think of my pre-1994 primary school days, where we all had to push our desks to the sides of the classroom and climb under them, then wait for the intercom to beep a certain number of times as a safety code. When we asked the teacher why we were doing this, she said, “In case terrorists attack the school.”
In the car park, the rain’s gone and the sun’s out. A Muslim family arrives, as well as three Japanese teenage boys in a Suzuki. They’re wearing board shorts and carrying towels. I listen to their teenage-boy conversation while I pretend to fumble with my keys, and my heart is happy hearing the language being spoken, as it’s an incredibly rare occurrence in Joburg. They must go to the nearby Japanese School in Emmarentia, but I’m too shy to approach them.
I wonder if Abdul will end up using the wheelchair lift, if Douglas and his magnetic green eyes will go back to Durban, if I’ll hear Japanese being spoken again, or if those signs will ever be changed.
The Linden swimming pool, corner 11th Street and Fourth Avenue,
Linden. The pool is 25m long, heated and open year-round. R11 per adult, R6 for kids. Free for pensioners. Season tickets: R329 for adults, R159 for kids. Half of the pool is reserved for coaching and lane swimming, and the other half is for general public use. The pool is open weekdays from 6am.
*Top image by 2Summers