Swimming for England (extract)

One week before they flew to Turkey he met Eric for a final training swim. It was dusk and warm. As he waded into the cool water he was overwhelmed with despair. When he put his head down into the dark water and began a slow crawl towards the centre of the lake voices of failure clamoured in his ears. There was no sense to them; they were shrill and they were terrible and they damned him for everything he hadn’t done, everything he wasn’t. Soon he would be 38, and it would be too late. The failure of his business was inevitable, his lost political opportunities catastrophic and self-inflicted. He could not breathe. He broke the surface.

He swam breaststroke for a while, feeling the water move between his fingertips, feeling old and tired. Gradually the alchemy of open water, the evening sky and the music of the city soothed him. The comradeship of his friend restored his hope in himself. After a while he put his head down and they swam, further than they had swum before, and as they swam night fell on London. As they swam down Long Water to the Italian Gardens for the final time he sensed that the park was deserted. By now his friend was far behind. He was swimming odd bits of breast-stroke because he was tired but mainly he was swimming crawl and he was swimming fine. He felt that he could go on and on, that everything was possible. He was no longer afraid of the darkness. He buried his face in the water and headed for the pale stone band of Serpentine Bridge. Under its arches he swam, alone in the clattering chamber between the water and the curved stone, and out again into the open water. With each breath he sang because he was tired and to hear himself above the sound of water. The water felt cold and his arms were heavy, and he made himself sprint the last 100 metres to the ladder at the end of the jetty. He stood watching Eric following him in, his arms and head black and orange in the dying light.

They padded across to the tree where they had left their clothes. The night was quiet and warm around them.
“We did it man”, said Eric with his gentle smile.
He buried his face in his towel.
“Four whole lengths. That’s 5.6 kilometres. We’re good to go.”
He said nothing. He felt proud of his swim, and he felt utterly humiliated. They stood on the burned grass of the Lido and munched Snickers bars, and shared a bottle of Newcastle Brown which they tipped in turn to their lips with soft, shaking hands.

It was a Wednesday afternoon; the Bosphorus was just a few weeks away. He told Emily that he was worried he had not done enough training.
“Why do you swim?” she asked.
By way of explanation he told her about the night swims across the Serpentine. She clapped her hands at the idea.
“Tell me more!”
He described a recent swim in Cornwall.
“There was a stone beach and a stream running into the cove. It was deep and sheltered – perfect swimming”. He had been there for a wedding, he explained, and the day had been hot and sunny after lunch he had found a couple of collaborators and they had set off, quite drunk and fully dressed down a long field towards the shore. The noise of the wedding party receded, cow pats lay like mines in the pasture and as they neared the sea they had entered an old landscape: gorse paths, a twisting metalled road, over-arched with wind-shaped thorn trees, and finally an ancient track down through a gloomy piece of steep-sided woodland. Beside the track ran a plashing, end-of-summer stream of thin water. Wands of deadly night shade glowed in the shadows. The wood creaked, their voices …
“But none of this is to do with swimming.”
“Oh, it is! It’s all about swimming.”
Emily smiled.
“I see.”
The track broke out into a bright funnel of pasture bounded by gorse covered hills. They could hear waves walloping onto shingle. The field funnelled them towards the water.
“It was magical!”
If he had seen fairies dancing, or a magus, he would not have been astonished. Behind them black crows fell back into the wooded passage through which they had entered.
“And the water!” he enthused. It was just the right side of cold to light the furnaces – he could have stayed in for hours. Glass-clear, and a swell to ride and brace and dare to do its damnedest as they fanned out into the cove and nudged one another further out. But the deep water was dull compared to the theatre of the cove – the bird’s eye view of blond sand, and the bottle green stains of waving sea weed, and the bright rubble of the cliff edges, the dawdling fishes, the puffs of life and death around the dark caves. They floated on their backs, on their fronts, the blather of wedding talk far away up the hill; the dank, dark passage of creaking woodland keeping them down, keeping them pure.
“So you associate swimming with escape?”
“I guess.”
“What you describe sounds like a parallel world.”
“Yes! Which any of us can find …”
“And there’s something bacchanalian about it.”
He thought for a while.
“Maybe. I love the disorder. It’s beautiful.”
Emily wasn’t saying any more.
“I love water, you see, and the places where it edges up against the land – harbour walls, rock, woodland, beaches. It’s where man’s sovereignty disappears and nature takes over. And nothing beats a swim to start the day, or the feeling of wading dog-tired out of the water and knowing you have earned a bag of chips with plenty of salt and vinegar, and pints of beer, or a bottle of red wine.”
“Bacchanalia.”
“Well, it’s a route to guilt-free food and booze.”
“A route to pleasure.”
“I love how swimming makes me feel.”
“But now it makes you anxious.”
He said nothing and there was a long silence.
“It doesn’t make me feel anxious. I feel anxious in spite of swimming.”
“Was your father a swimmer?” Emily asked at last.
“No. He was a golfer.”

The afternoon before the race he lay in a hamam, spreadeagled on a shelf of heated white marble. He lay on his back feeling the hot eucalyptus air enter his lungs, watching the pattern of holes in the dome of the old building spike the gloom with their traces of light. Other men lay beside him; long-faced elders, black-haired fathers, and two giggling, calf-eyed boys playing footsie with a dormant form whose face he never saw. When the masseur began to work him over with huge brown hands, he wished it was his brain that could be kneaded into shape. His arms and legs were strong. That night he was too nervous to sleep; over and over his mind rolled a wheel of bright concerns. The room was warm so his room-mate opened the window and at sunrise the call to prayer found him watching the rose pink light creeping across the ceiling.

Two ferries took the swimmers across the Bosphorus towards Asia. The sun shone down. Under the shade of the upper decks they sat drinking bottled water and eating pieces of Turkish Delight. Behind the ferries followed a flotilla of Zodiacs and kayaks. Overhead buzzed a helicopter from one of the news channels. Swimmers in speedos stood in a long line waiting to use the toilets. Everyone seemed nervous.
“I’ve over-hydrated” cussed a crop-haired American standing behind him in the queue.
“You come far?” he asked.
“US military.”
“You done this before?”
“Yes sir. Second time.”
“Got any tips?”
The soldier nodded.
“We swim bridge to bridge. For the duration of the race course, the current is strongest on the Asian side of the Strait. Up to 7 clicks per hour – that’s quite a ride. So keep left to go fastest. But there’s a catch: the finish is on the European side. The Strait is over 1 click across. So make sure you cross early enough to make the finish point.”
“And if I don’t?”
The soldier laughed.
“You’ll get swept right on under the Bosphorus Bridge and out into the Mediterranean. Happened to me last year. They had to fish me out – it sucked.”
 
The ferries docked. He stood waiting to disembark, watching the helicopter hover and land near the race start. A journalist climbed out, followed by a cameraman. She began to interview the swimmers as they shuffled off the gangway. She was talking to a group of Ukrainians; they wore tracksuits in the yellow and blue of the Ukraine flag. There was a team from Bulgarians, some Russians, tall Germans and an enormous man with a shaved chest who wore trunks in red, white and green with ITA in black across his backside. At the top of the gangway he paused and looked around for other members of the group but he couldn’t see them. He walked off the ferry and onto Asia alone. Then the journalist was standing in front of him.

She asked him a question in Turkish, holding the microphone in front of her mouth and then she pushed it towards him, waiting for his reply.
He smiled stupidly and spread his arms.
“For which country will you be swimming?” she asked. Behind her the cameraman crouched filming.
“England” he replied.
“I’m swimming for England.”

500 swimmers dived off a pontoon into the water. For the first few minutes of the race he was preoccupied with making room for himself. The white soles of feet flayed in his face, hands cuffed his head. The group had planned to swim in pairs but in the confusion he could see no sign of his room-mate. Among so many people he was alone. In due course despair arrived and he toyed with the idea of giving up.

He reached the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge. A blood red Turkish flag hung down, billowing in the sea breeze. The sun was now high in the sky and he swam breast stroke for a while so that he might look up out of the belt of shadow at the undercarriage of the bridge. Past it he found his rhythm; the breathlessness passed, and he began to swim, breathing on every third stroke. “I can do this’, he told himself. “It is possible.”

He was delighted by the clear blue water. The sun filtered through it so that he saw his reliable hands, the popples of silver air that spun from them, the shining face of his father’s watch. Beyond the scope of his arms the blue had a night-time edge and far ahead and deep below him it resisted the light and instead gathered the darkness of space. The sun beat down, and as he turned his head to breathe he saw the brown hills of Asia, the brown hills of Europe. The suspension bridge was far behind.

He began to encounter small jelly fish; a few stragglers and then in white clouds. They spun past his hands and face but he felt no sting. The suddenness of their arrival gave him an idea of the strength of the current, and his speed. Hold and glide. Hold and glide.  The tall concrete spurs of the Bosphorus Bridge were now on his horizon. He felt he was swimming well but he seemed to be making no headway across the Strait. He was aiming directly for the shoreline now, swimming at right angles to the current in an attempt to make the finish but he seemed to be sliding alarmingly fast towards the bridge. He imagined himself a small, soft-sided creature caught in a drain, drawn inexorably towards the edge of the world.

In an attempt to go faster, he began to breathe every other stroke. Left, right, breathe; left, right, breathe. He kicked harder. Hold and glide. He realised that he was sprinting, and he wondered how long he could keep it up. More jellyfish, and then star bursts of rubbish, like shrapnel all around him and flattered into fleeting patterns by the turquoise water. Looking up he could see the finish point 50 metres away, but all the time he was being rushed downstream by the current. The finish was a floating pontoon built out over the water. Two ladders hung down into the water and swimmers were pulling themselves up them and others were milling on the shore, white towels around their shoulders. He could hear people shouting and clapping. He was close enough to the shore to mark the strength of the current as it pushed him downstream. Swimmers were bunching up against the pontoon, held there by the current. A couple of swimmers who had overshot were desperately trying to make headway against the current; they were 15 metres beyond the pontoon but it was hopeless. He saw a motorboat circling to rescue them, its engine screaming. A man lost his grip on the ladder and was swept away. Then he was upstream of it, right in the sweet spot so that as he reached the finish and his legs began to sweep away downstream his right arm grabbed one of the ladders and his body folded around the edge of the pontoon and he held.

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