Róisín Ingle


. . . . . on changing-room hell

‘WHAT DO YOU mean you forgot your swimming togs?” After three successful years of parental evasion of public swimming pools and more particularly their changing facilities, of which I have a lifelong phobia, I have been well and truly rumbled by the father of my children.

“I forgot them. Left them behind. It was an accident.” We are in a hotel down the country, which he picked because it had a swimming pool. He has come to see our lack of swimming with the children as a benign kind of neglect and is on a mission to get our family doing the doggy paddle en masse.

“An accident? Or yet another deliberate and calculated move designed to get you out of entering a swimming pool?”

“That’s offensive. It was a complete accident. I’m dying to go swimming with them and nobody could have been more disappointed – I’d go as far as to say devastated – than me to open my bag and find my swimming togs gone.”

A convincing performance I reckon, but still he won’t let it lie. “Do you even own a pair of swimming togs?” he says.

I am silent for a bit, then I say: “What do you mean by ‘own’?” I know I am on borrowed time so, a few weeks later when he plans a trip to our local public swimming pool, I borrow some swimming togs to see how I feel in them.

It’s raining as we drive there, so wearing a swimsuit under my woolly jumper seems wrong. The only time I actually feel vaguely okay in a pair of togs is when there is hot sun in the sky and adjustable loungers on the ground – in this environment jumping into a pool makes sense because you need to cool off, if nothing else. When I am in sunglasses and reading books and drinking cold beer, I can generally get on board the whole swimming togs thing. In any other context, I am allergic.

This is the worst kind of context. The windscreen wipers are working double time as we approach the pool and I am thinking of feigning sickness, which wouldn’t really be a lie because I feel ill at the thought of what’s about to transpire. “Are you really going swimming with us, Mum?” one of my two girls says in an excited voice, not quite believing. “Yes,” I say in a flat voice, not quite believing.

To be more specific, it’s not the actual swimming that has me rattled. Once you are in the pool, it is generally enjoyable. It’s the getting out of the pool and getting changed that I am dreading. The last time I was in the changing room of a public swimming baths, Charlie Haughey was taoiseach and the highlight of my existence was securing a slow set. Let’s just say, it’s been a while.

I never got the hang of communal changing room etiquette. Fear of changing in front of others is the reason why I mostly “forgot” my PE gear for my entire secondary-school career. When I was in Irish college, I was jealous of this gorgeous, popular girl called Dearbhla, not because she was gorgeous and popular, but because she had this incredible towel, a giant one you could wear so it allowed you to get dressed while hidden from view. Everyone else I knew seemed well versed in the choreography of our national Towel Dance but I was constantly out of step, the towel dropping at crucial moments.

When I went through a brief late-1990s gym phase, I’d wait ages for the toilet cubicle to become free before I would get undressed. After that I just avoided communal changing rooms and I’ve been successfully avoiding them ever since.

Now the stuff of my nightmares is about to come true. This changing-room hell will be made more hellish by the fact that I not only have to sort myself out but two, er, spirited toddlers who have as much grasp of changing-room etiquette as I do.

It turns out, the changing rooms of swimming pools are still as depressing as I remember. Damp places where everybody avoids each other’s eyes. I get us out of our clothes and into the swimming pool where, for half an hour we have so much fun I almost forget about what is coming next. I am mesmerised by the grace of the older women in the pool, some strong, others frail, doing lengths in a daily or weekly ritual that you just know is an essential part of their routine. They climb down the stairs into the water with veiny legs and wizened skin – but if they are self-conscious their neutral faces hide it well.

I can hide nothing and my face is a contortion of embarrassment as I frog-march the girls into the changing room afterwards. I consider locking us all in a small, private changing room but reconsider because I know the confinement will end in tears, and not just theirs. My new communal changing-room tactic is best described as getting dried and dressed really quickly, without any recourse to the Towel Dance. So, with the children snuggled in towels, I just do it. Wriggle out of my swimming togs. Dry myself perfunctorily. Wriggle back into my clothes.

Finished, I open my eyes. Nobody else in the room could care less that I came over all Scandinavian. And the strangest, most exhilarating, part is, neither do I. This might be what it means to grow up.

In other news . . . It seems like only yesterday that Queen of Bingo, Shirley Temple Bar first started calling the balls at The George in Dublin. Infact she is celebrating 15 years of her bingo extravaganza with an Anniversary Special tomorrow night. The show starts at 9pm and entry is free before 10pm. Amazeballs, as Shirley would say.

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