I thought things might change when we covered the naturist club swimming pool. I’ve only been there when everything happens outdoors – or at least most things do, in England’s erratic, sometime-summer where each warm day is like being given a present.
But it’s over now.
In autumn a greyish cowl is thrown round the shining water: the pool is enclosed. The metal frame sits there all year, like meccano, and it takes hours to fit the plastic skin over its corners. Photos of the work appear in the club newsletter – people I’ve never seen dressed stand around, frowning and measuring, climbing stepladders. (When I see this, I feel like a proper naturist because their clothing looks strange to me).
A few days later, I drive to the club very early. On the way, the morning traffic was jammed in the opposite direction. It’s still fully dark after 7 a.m. and as I arrive, the movement sensor lighting flickers up all along the perimeter. There are lights in the clubhouse too: overnight guests having breakfast, perhaps, or somebody cleaning.
There’s CCTV on the gate, and more lights, and cameras in the garden, and on the back of the gateway a spy hole and notices with numbers to call in case of intruders. By daylight I pay them no attention. But now, in the darkness, my mother’s voice starts in my head: nowhere is safe, she tells me – so you’re better off nowhere.
When I was a little girl, she taught me to be frightened of everything. The shadow loomed first over her and then us: stranger-danger, the fear of footsteps, the abductor in the car drawing up alongside. There was terror in the stories she told: the click as the car door opens, the grabbing arm, the stare without words… and it was as if she couldn’t stop. As I listened I felt the dread of the molester over the street, the watcher in the night who’d climb to my bedroom window after the lights are out, as if it was happening to me.
I don’t think my mother’s monster was really a faceless stranger. She never told me his name; later, someone else did. By then I’d guessed already, and realised her deep need to speak was an effort at warning. I only knew him as an old man, and don’t remember his voice.
But always she lived with his menace; it flowed into her like poison. There couldn’t have been one day when she wasn’t afraid. And it crouches in me, this old, deep fear of the dark, the shadow, the predator. I unlock the club gate and walk in. There are often early swimmers and a row of cars. Today, I’m alone.
It’s quiet here. My mother’s peace was stolen away from her. Before I could understand how she suffered, she was gone. Raw and exposed, she was terrified: safe in her own skin was something she never knew.
I leave my clothes in the changing room and step into the garden. The sensor lights track my movements but if I could turn them off I’d be safer still, looking through night-eyes. I feel part of this place, a shadow who can’t be seen, not a blundering victim who doesn’t belong.
I’ve found out – and this is the absolute newest thing that I know – that outdoors dressed only in skin can help you with sadness. It’s as if our garments hold grief, trapped in the layers and the folds and the fabric – mourning clothes. I feel sad for my mother now, in a place that can deal with my sorrow.
The secret of not being cold is to cease all attempts to be warm: shivering, jiggling, wrapping yourself in a towel. Instead, I stand up straight. I feel the last breaths of night wind as pure sensation – a tingle of chill. Coldness falls over me. I walk fully on the wet grass.
My body drops my skin temperature down, reducing the contrast between me and the air. It raises the hairs on my arms, protecting my strong, vital core. As long as I live I’ll be warm, and naked is vividly alive.
Glowing beneath its dome, the pool’s like a lunar base. Inside it steams, as if this is a swim in a swamp, clouds rising all around. All it needs are bubbles and the slither of a croc. The water is jungly warm, and unclothed it’s as if there’s no surface to break: my body is liquid already.
The boundaries round the pool have changed its acoustic, confining sound: now there’s the business-like splash of my strokes, the slap of my wake on the tiles and an in-draw of breath on each turn. On the railway that’s close although hidden by trees; a train for the centre of town rushes past with a giant’s sigh and a blink of bright windows. The London commuters press closely enough to feel each others’ ribs, and I swim free.
And then sunrise starts up in an instant, as the sensor lights go out. They were making the outside world darker; suddenly, babyish dawn, pale blue and pink. It’s completely different now; I peer up from the pool in the nearly daylight.
I’ve work to do, a day to contend with, after the secret water. I climb the steps to morning.