Sunday, September 9, 2012

13 days to go...

The tube – boy am I glad that I cycle to work these days. The person who coined the phrase ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ has clearly never spent years commuting on London Underground. My journey to Wolverhampton began pleasantly enough on the Overground service from Dalston Kingsland to Highbury and Islington, still very busy at half past 8 on a Friday morning but not oppressively so. I observed the father of a young boy educating his son with an impromptu, and esoteric, history lesson.

‘Fish and chips was invented by Jewish people’ The boy stared straight ahead, swaying gently with the rocking of the train, probably used to his old man’s bouts of trivia. The man looked up at his wife, who was reading intently. ‘Did you know that Mummy?’ He said, challengingly.

‘Mmm’, came the reply. He could have asked ‘Have you sold that enriched uranium to Iran yet?’ and received the same response.

'Tea became popular in the Victorian era’

The boy was studying the emergency stop lever closely. I looked over to try and catch a glimpse of the ‘Food and Drink Through the Ages’ fact book that the man must have been reading from, but there wasn’t one. Where was he dredging this stuff up from and why did he sound like he was reciting from cue cards? Perhaps his brain had been taken over by aliens determined to fill the world with so many random factoids that we don’t notice we are being invaded by extraterrestrials.

The Victoria line was packed. I was already regretting my decision to wear a vest under my shirt while the pointless fans whirring above seemed to only add noise to the heat generated by hundreds of bodies. I noticed with a shock that the man next to me was wearing a fur lined body warmer. How is he doing that? I thought, and then realised his hair was slick with sweat. Poor guy, sartorial error, must be a tourist. And then I realised the ‘sweat’ was brill cream and he looked quite comfortable.

The words ‘mum is dead’ – I can’t get used to them. They sound strange in my head and when I say them out loud. I laugh at an unusual sight or funny story in the newspaper and think, ‘I must tell mum’, before remembering a split second later that I can’t.

Loneliness – sadness separates me from others. A feeling that people don’t understand and cannot help makes me want to keep myself to myself. Although paradoxically, sharing the experience with others, and especially those who have been through something similar, is nearly always helpful. My life at the moment involves little socialising in groups and sometimes, with most of my spare time spent training or writing, I feel quite isolated. At work I am surrounded by people but this just heightens the sense of distance that grief has put between me and the ‘normal’ world. I am pretty good at putting a brave face on it and I still enjoy a joke with my colleagues but concentrating on 5 days’ work and keeping focussed on the job at hand is a test. Luckily I have a job that I enjoy, which stimulates me mentally, and an understanding boss.

On the train - a man across the aisle cracks opens a super-size can of energy drink and the sickly sweet aroma floods the carriage. The smell reminds me of days spent working in Thomas Rigby’s in Liverpool. Long shifts endured while suffering from self-induced booze complications. Going down to the cellar to change a barrel, I would sneak a can of Redbull before furiously munching a handful of chewing gum to disguise the scent of my sins.
Caffeine to get going and alcohol to relax. These are the twin pillars of our society. We feel sluggish so we need stimulating but by the end of the day we are wound tight and need soothing. Each drug creates a situation that necessitates the other. Having formed that thought and kicked it around a bit I made my way to the shop in coach C for a crap coffee served at the temperature of molten lead.

The mixed swimming pond at Hampstead Heath (image copyright Stephen McKay)
The Ponds - After the unsatisfactory experience of testing my wetsuit in the River Wye I have relocated two of my three weekly swimming sessions from London Fields Lido to Hampstead Ponds. This remarkable and internationally famous (according to the leaflet) facility is a North London treasure and at only £2 a swim it is also a bargain. The unscrupulous need not bother to pay at all; the entry fee is not compulsory. There are no lockers, the showers are cold and you have to bring your own post swim snacks but the experience of swimming in a stunning setting, in unchlorinated water, surrounded by nature makes such concerns pale into insignificance. I haven’t been to many municipal pools where moorhens make their nests on the marking buoys and swans glide up and down majestically. However, I would be glad to see a goose attack that guy in the fast lane who insists on doing breaststroke.

So, on Wednesdays and Thursdays after work, with a bag full of bananas and my superhero costume, I cycle away from the City to escape into a watery sanctuary.

There are three ponds for swimming at Hampstead Heath; mixed, ladies’ and men’s. I am precluded by gender from entering the ladies pond and the mixed pond is the smallest and very busy in fine weather so I take my place among the other bathing gentlemen. As well as being a great spot for a swim, the Hampstead Men’s Pond is undoubtedly a popular place for gay men to meet and hang out, quite literally in most cases. Being naïve and a victim of my own prejudices I am only slowly beginning to realise that not every man there has made the trip to the ponds to pick up a date, but it does take a while to get used to the wandering eyes and the men who take 5 minutes to dry each leg while completely naked with their foot propped on the bench.

‘Excuse me, I think you can stop drying your leg mate, I can see the bone.’

This experience of being eyed up is one that women must endure throughout their lives and I can only hope the regularity of it makes it less stressful. Squeezing into my second skin for a vigorous circuit I cannot help but feel like I am dressing up for a fetish party. This feeling is enhanced as I struggle to fasten the zip running up the back of the wetsuit and a strange man offers his assistance.

‘NO!’ I say, a little too loudly. ‘I mean, I’m fine,’ I bluster, furiously tugging at the cord attached to the zip, ‘thanks, but it’s good practice’. I manage to restrain myself from the urge to glance down at an imaginary watch, gasp in horror, ‘Is that the time?’ and crash through the fence and bushes and away from the scene of my imminent defilement. I am the victim of my own naivety.

On another occasion I am studiously ignoring the man changing next to me who is looking over while I pour myself into the T:2 Team. My pretence is shattered and I am forced to engage him when he addresses me. 

‘Here we go,’ I think to myself, ‘ you are only seconds away from an invitation to a Nazi-themed sex party, Olly. Brace yourself.’

Looking up to reply I notice that the man is Jewish:

‘Do you need a wetsuit for such temperatures?’ He began, accusingly. As if I was a massive softie who was due a dressing down for wearing protective clothing to swim on a sunny evening in early September.

‘I’m training for a triathlon’

‘So?!’ I read between the lines of this single word; that is no excuse for your ridiculous get-up he was telling me. ‘How far is it?’

‘1500m swim, 40km bike and 10km run’

‘Ha! That’s not so far. I have 9 grandchildren. I should do a triathlon’

'Yes,’ I replied, unsure what the virility of his offspring had to do with anything, ‘you should. They can be your pacemakers’

And then I swam 13 circuits of the pond, about 4000m. This has been the peak week of my training and now my the sessions taper towards race day with a 20% drop in duration next week and a 30% drop in the final week. There are few last minute preparations such as getting some tinted goggles to avoid being blinded by low sun, wetsuit lube for easy removal in transition, and taking my bike to be serviced. I am now also two weeks into my alcohol embargo and there have been some astonishing effects; my IQ has leapt by 30% and I can see through walls. Returning from a show on the Southbank on Saturday night, I stepped over the splattered vomit and streams of urine on Shoreditch Highstreet and it certainly didn’t make me desperate to hit the nearest bar. But, before I get too high on my high horse, I'm sure I will be throwing myself back into the melee after the triathlon with a nice quinoa and vodka cocktail. 

You can see the training run I did today, here

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