1955 The Swimming Pool
William Wood 1955-62 Cornwallis
You could smell the school pool, a stagnant rectangle of muddy water, from the bottom of the orchard that surrounded it some ten minutes walk out of the town. Three tiers of scaffold diving boards stood over the deep end and some rotting wooden changing huts with bare earth floors, sticky from the succession of dripping boys, lined one side. It was an open air pool, filled at the beginning of the summer term and not treated until it was ladled out like thick broth at the end of term. For swimming replaced Physical Education in the summer. Come rain, come shine (and once there came snow), we weekly were forced to swim in it for a whole period.

The water was such a dirty brown that you could not see the frogs, newts and rats we shared it with. One day a grass snake ploughed a beautiful pattern across this putrid rectangle of liquid disease.

It was not just the cold that kept us on the move, nor the fear of snakes. There was the certain knowledge that if you stood still the leeches would get you. At the end of each period the P.E. master would burn out with a cigarette the leeches that had found a meal and early death.

One boy found smoking in the huts claimed that he was only doing so in order to extract the leeches. He was beaten all the same. We felt sorry for him, not because of the six stripes he received and showed us with pride, but because he had spent an uncomfortable half an hour in vain, one leg immersed in the cold water, to attract the leeches. All for the sake of a miserable fag.

Another reason we preferred swimming to standing was that the pool bottom was breaking up and strewn with rocks and squelchy matter. An acquaintance from the town told me one holiday how he and a gang of his mates , envious of us grammar school boys, had come one evening when we were in prep (we had two hours of prep every evening, with a cocoa break half way through) and peed ceremoniously into this pool for the privileged. They then threw in all kinds of unmentionable filth into the witches’ brew. A maggot-ridden cat’s corpse I remembered authenticated his story.

And yet most of us enjoyed swimming. Most of us hurried to the pool when it was our turn so as not to waste a precious minute. Last in was a cissy. In the evenings, before tea, we would even go up and swim of our own free will. These crowded orgies were supervised by a duty prefect. If a slack one was in charge only the big and brave ventured in to face the bullying. Duckings were prolonged, clothes were tossed over the hedge. I have seen a naked boy trying to extract his trunks from the middle of a stand of nettles. As he reached over a stick was thrust into his bottom and he fell flat. He was badly stung and ended up in hospital. Needless to say none of us sneaked about “his fall.” We had seen nothing. At least he escaped a ducking.

One summer a boy caught polio in the school pool. It was announced at assembly. After a hymn was sung and the result of the 1st XI cricket victory applauded, prayers were said for the paralysed boy. Our prayers were answered but the pool was closed. Some of us might have wished it the other way round.

Another summer a friend and I agreed to meet at the pool for a midnight swim. We were in separate boarding houses and each had to slip out of his dormitory unobserved. We had not taken into account that we had chosen a night with a full moon. Having unlocked the fire escape during the noise and ragging preceding lights-out I lay wide awake hoping everybody, especially the prefects would fall asleep quickly and soundly. It was the first time I had observed my fellow schoolboys sleeping. An eerie sight in the weak but clear light of the moon. They tossed and turned and coughed and mumbled as if on the rack. Springs creaked, a cover slid off a bed and groans leapt out at me as I crept the gauntlet of terror to the fire escape door. It seemed to make an ear-shattering, dream-shattering noise as I drew the bolt, squeezed out and closed the heavy door behind me. I watched a moment through the glass. No one rose from his bed to pursue me.

I do not remember the walk through the streets or what I wore. Surely not pyjamas. I do remember that neither of us had taken a towel or swimming trunks. The relief at finding my friend at that ghostly, night time pool, the delicious sensation of swimming naked in the velvet water that the moon seemed to have washed clean, and the feeling of freedom, were nothing compared with the mounting sense of defiance and triumph. We swam quietly nonetheless, afraid that any splash might draw attention to us. Before we got out we stood a few feet apart facing one another and shook hands. Such was our shared emotion that we held on for a fraction of a second before hurriedly releasing the lingering grasp. For neither of us were homos. I got out, pulled my clothes over my wet body and fifteen minutes later was pleased to find the fire escape still unlocked. I sunk into bed exultant.

My friend was less fortunate. He arrived back at his house to find all the dormitory lights blazing. That very night of all nights his housemaster had called a fire practice. With great presence of mind he tried to join the roll call but he was spotted. Under interrogation he confessed he had been to the pool. He said he had been there alone. I was grateful for this act of loyalty, but we both knew he was saving his own skin as well as mine. We should never have lived down the scandal had it been known we had bathed naked together under the moonlight. As it was he was only beaten and after all, he did get all the glory.
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