The other day I ran into an old friend. Despite it being nearly 20 years since we last saw each other I instantly remembered his face when we met. It was a brief meeting as I was rushing to work and he was rushing to meet a friend. We didn’t exchange numbers. We were such distant memories for one another it didn’t even cross my mind. But it’s funny how running into him suddenly made a long forgotten memory come rushing back as clear as day.
It was my seventh birthday. Young and excitable I made my way to school knowing full well it was the first swimming lesson of the year. And each year you were trialled on the first lesson and put into sets. Top, middle and – obviously – there was a bottom set. Being comfortably sat in the middle set was just not good enough. Being in the top set would be the start of everything. The need to be the best at everything is a common notion in us all but for my seven year old self this was a big deal. Who knew what being in the top swimming group would lead to? Perhaps becoming a champion swimmer? Become an Olympic gold medallist? I could go down in history as the first seven-year-old to beat the world’s greatest athletes and be remembered forever more.
The anticipation in the mini bus was heightened by the excitement of it being my birthday too. I had my glittery ‘I’m 7’ badge gleaming proudly on the breast of my jumper and my hands fidgeted with the predicted pride I’d have to go home this evening as a top set swimmer. My feet scraped my already very scuffed navy Startrite buckled shoes along the floor, smearing newly applied shoe polish along the rough grey surface undoing all the hard work my long suffering mother had put into attempting to disguise my scruffy shoes.
So we arrived at the leisure centre and made our way to the changing rooms. I rushed to a bench and start to pull the scruffed shoes off my feet and pulled at my thick woolly navy blue tights. I went to take my shirt off so fast I actually didn’t stop to unbutton it, yanking hard to get my head through the top and pulled my frizzy long blonde hair out, snapping the ends that got caught in the buttons. As was customary my shiny navy school swimming costume was already on underneath my uniform. I was ready to go.
We all lined up and pattered our way out into the pool area, teachers observing closely to make sure we showered properly and washed our feet under the taps. We stood along the side by an area cordoned off with the bright long chain of buoys sectioning the test area. The handful of children who ‘had verucas’ were perched on the side to sit the lesson out smugly. But I didn’t want to sit out. The desire to jump into the cold, chlorine stenched water was overwhelming. I had played this moment out over and over again over the past few days. The plan was to jump in and go for it.
So one by one we queued up at the edge. It was the deep end of the pool by the diving boards, which were cordoned off while we did our trial. As I waited I looked up at the high dive. It towered above us and almost looked like it was swaying – perhaps because it was that high up or because the nerves had started to sink in. Mr Andrews stood at the side with his stop watch as each child sat on the edge, ready to duck dive in and swim to the other side of the pool, touch the edge and swim back again as fast as they could.
Alice Dundonald was in front of me. As she wriggled her way in and made her way across I prepared myself for my victorious swim. I tucked a rogue hair into the white rubbery swimming cap which I then pulled hard onto my head, which was already tight around my forehead from all the hair I had to stuff in. Perched on my forehead were the hard plastic goggles that I then firmly pressed onto my face, making my eyeballs feel like they were going to pop out of their sockets. A sharp intake of breath and Mr Andrews blew on his metal whistle.
I flopped into the water, wincing at how cold it was and started to paddle my arms and legs any which way I could to get moving. I thrashed my way to the other side in super speedy time. I fiercely bashed my hand down on the opposite edge and might have possibly even let out a loud grunt as my wet hand slapped the hard ceramic tiles, determined and strong. I pushed my feet off the side and powered my way across. My legs were aching, a stitch becoming more prominent deep in my side as my arms painfully slapped the water. The return journey seemed much further. Mr Andrews wasn’t getting any closer and I was running on empty. I couldn’t go any further. It was too far. To my horror, I realised I wasn’t going to make it.
Then I panicked.
My breathing became heavier and I was bobbing with my mouth just beneath the surface, desperately trying to keep my head above the water as I inhaled copious amounts of it. My arms and legs were tired from waving about furiously as I tried to scream but that just let more water in. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Suddenly I realised I wasn’t in the water any more. I was inside a giant net and was hovering over the water as Mr Andrews fished me out. As the net was gently lowered onto the side the giggles of my fellow swimmers became more and more audible.
I was demoted to the bottom swimming set.
That was it. My dream of being a champion swimmer was dashed. And to top it all off I was no longer in the middle set, I’d been sent to rock bottom. As we boarded the mini bus back to school I was fighting back the need to cry. The teasing and sniggering from the others. The fact I couldn’t even swim two widths of the pool was unbearable.
After scrambling onto the bus, I sat in a window seat and look outside glumly, trying to not show anyone my tears. That was when my buddy Charlie Mooreland sat next to me. He put his hand on my hand and asked me if I was ok. I looked up at him. he was much taller than me and had big blue eyes. After shrugging my shoulders, which seemed to be the only way I could express my feelings without bursting into tears, I looked back out the window. But Charlie Moorland didn’t remove his hand from mine. I could feel my little heart bursting with gratitude at his concern. I spent the rest of the school day gazing at him from my desk three rows behind him, watching the back of his dusky blonde head bobbing about as he worked.
Home time arrived and I went home, clutching the remainder of my birthday cake in a plastic bag in my hand. Opening birthday presents is always exciting but on this particular occasion no present could overtake the deep sensation I felt. Charlie Mooreland being so caring towards me was the best present I could have received. He had been a true friend.
He moved schools at the end of the school year and we lost touch.
And until I saw him the other day I’d forgotten all about it.