At swim two children and one flan
Every week, I take my five-year-old to UCD’s Olympic-size swimming pool and egg him on so that he won’t end up like his mother
"I’ll bake you a flan if you teach me to swim.” That was how my mother brokered the deal with the swimming instructor. It was the late 1970s, the era of flans, American tea parties, and soap on a rope, when Irish mothers thought nothing of herding their kids down to the shores of Lough Lene in Co Westmeath for a week of swimming lessons in early June.
They chose to ignore the east wind taking slices out of our little bodies and the sheets of rain soaking us before we even got into the water.
“It’s grand once you’re down,” became a kind of mantra, but I have no fond memories of these particular salad days.
Ditto the trip to the big madhouse of a swimming pool full of echoes and screams where my mother ran short of swimming caps – guess who had to wear the flowery shower hat into the pool?
The instructor at the lake was a dental student from Dublin who thought, for good reason, that we were all completely bonkers. He did teach me to swim, but I never fully overcame my fear of water.
No, I’m not afraid of water. I love water. I’m afraid of drowning, which is not helped by my morbid fascination with the Titanic. I’ve seen every movie and documentary about the ship, to the point where I am that person standing on the deck singing Nearer My God to Thee.
And when I watch documentaries about the ship’s lost treasures, I don’t see diamond tiaras – I see shoes at the bottom of the ocean, and they belong to me.
So let’s move on about 100 years to the UCD Olympic-size pool where, every week, I take my five-year-old and egg him on so that he won’t end up like his mother.
“Ah, go on,” I tell him, “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“But I’ll sink.”
“Keep your mouth closed. You’ll be grand.”
So it was a busy night at the same 50m stretch of blue when I decided to take the plunge myself.
I was not at all distracted by the rugby players wedged into the jacuzzi with a good view of the pool.
I took my time and then, at the 25m mark, I stopped and realised that I’d an awfully long way to go.
“Don’t think about sinking. Keep your mouth closed. You’ll be grand.”
But it was too late for all that. I was somehow frozen in the middle of the pool, holding on to one of those lane dividers and wondering what to do.
“Em, excuse me,” I began very politely.
“Om, yeah?” answered a pretty lifeguard.
“I have a cramp.” (Lie number one).
“Om, can you not, like, swim over to the side?”
“Om . . . why not?”
“It’s a very bad cramp.” (Lie number two).
At this point I noticed the heads lifting up through the steam of the jacuzzi, polar bears and walruses, the boys seeing me.
“I’m scared,” I told her quietly.
So there it was, out in the open for the world to see.
“Hold on lady,” another lifeguard said, and this one was all business. I guess it was lucky that I wasn’t actually drowning. He threw what looked like a pound of Kerrygold on a rope at me.
“Grab it, lady,” he shouted.
I’m going to stop there, but let’s just say the rugby players couldn’t believe their luck that night.
“Did you have a good swim?” my husband asked.
“Om, not exactly.”
I picked up the phone and booked some adult swimming lessons.
Back in the 1970s, the dental student turned swimming instructor had told my mother that I was a good swimmer but lacked confidence in the water. I was seven years old, and I remember that he slept in an orange tent near the lake. I remember this because myself and my brother carried the big flan covered in fresh cream and mandarins down to him.
When he poked his head out and saw the flan he started laughing.
Meanwhile my mother, waiting for us in our black Beetle, was also laughing. She had finally learned to swim in middle age – there was a flan and a wet pair of togs on the line to prove it.
Little Beauty by Alison Jameson is out in paperback on Thursday. Jennifer O’Connell is on leave