The swimming pool

2013-02-04 00:00

True Stories of KZN

Open Category

Semi-Finalist

THE bush telegraph fizzed with static, as the words filtered through Alston Primary school: “We are allowed”. Groups gathered in trepidation at first break to debate the issue pertinent to us. A consensus was reached: we would gather at Butler’s Shop in Boom Street on Saturday.

They came from all corners of Walter Square, Boom, Greyling, and Retief streets, in all shapes and sizes.

In a jovial mood, we marched with hounds nipping at our heels, navigating our way through street hawkers with stands laden with fruit and tempting freshly boiled mielies. Herbalists displayed animal skulls, bones, fur, sacks of bark and an assortment of herbs strewn across the pavement. We passed the infamous Matsheni Beer Hall, taking a sharp left into Berg Street.

The smell of bleach was fresh and splashing could be heard as we neared our destination. The brave stepped forward and presented the entry fee of five cents. The cashier, in a deep and sonorous voice, called out nervously for the lifeguard on duty who appeared before us, Herculean and shining like ebony, to tell us sadly that we were not allowed in. He pointed at a sign, white with embossed black writing, which read: “The use of this swimming pool is for the exclusive use of the Indian community. Signed Town Clerk H. White.”

In low spirits, we took to the park adjacent to the pool. The dogs, sensing our gloom, offered us consolation with huge slobby licks.

We climbed up and hung on the concrete fence, gazing in, and looked in awe at the crystal-clear water and lush manicured lawn. We saw a number of our friends from Catechism class and excitedly called out their names. They rushed to the concrete fence and in their innocence shouted: “Come in and swim.We will tell Granny you’re our cousins.” But with the recoil of the diving board echoing, the caretaker mock charged us and chased us off the concrete fence.

A number of suggestions were put forward: a long hike up Lovers’ Lane, or a steep quick ascent up Pipeline Path to Woodlands Swimming Pool. The alternatives were to relax and recline at our private unreserved waters or pay homage to the Village Boys at Barbel Pond. The expedition to Woodlands was fraught with many dangers — first and foremost, the gang war between Woodlands and town. What was the fighting for? Girls, soccer or frustrated male testosterone? Secondly, there were possible encounters with the extortionists who demanded pool tax.

A leap over Girls’ High School gate, a quick sprint through Walter Square and we made our way to Cottons. The grass and khaki weed stood taller than the hounds, as we bush whacked our way to the muddy pool. There lay Cottons Pool, neatly nestled between Alston Primary School and the railway line. The glossy dark-brown water twirled and swirled like chocolate. A royal welcome by an orchestra of insects, hissing snakes, and quacking ducks was bestowed on us. The pong in the air was of rotten flesh in advanced stages of decay, infused with human faeces.

A sentry was posted to raise the alarm in the event of an intruder, thief or parent.

Clothing was neatly and securely hidden in the tall grass, this done to avoid the humiliation of running home naked. With the rocks as our amphitheatre, we each performed a full Monty with vociferous bragging. The laughter and teasing erupted as we took to the chocolate water. Iguanas and platanas took flight, and crabs rushed to higher ground. The hounds, yelping and barking could not resist the temptation, and leaped in after us. Man, dog, barbel and scaley swimming as one.

A variety of swimming strokes were patented. The most famous, the dog stroke, involved keeping your head high above the water, and paddling in a circular motion with your hands while kicking simultaneously with both feet.

With the sun heading towards the west and bodies exhausted, we reclined on the rocks enjoying a full body tan. The sentry took to the water as a new volunteer took up his post.

While columbus clouds formed above in the blue sky, many of us talked and dreamt of the day when we would be able to swim and dive in Berg Street Pool. The primary school was to our west, and Corobrik and the mountain to the east. We fixed our eyes on Lovers’ Lane and Pipeline, paths which could lead us to the swimming pool over the top.

The myths and dangers of Pipeline and the copulation and conception tales of Lovers’ Lane were discussed.

Our stomachs were in growling mode, a reminder that it was time for lunch. Vaseline was meticulously applied to dry skins.

The Vaseline ritual was performed to prevent punishment as dry skin was an indicator of swimming in unsupervised, bilharzia-filled rivers.

Funds were requested, benefactors gave in abundance, and beneficiaries gratefully accepted. These funds were raised in ingenious ways: by selling bottles, bones, paper and scrap metal.

The journey home entailed a mandatory stop at Baxter’s on the corner of Greyling and Retief streets to purchase greasy potato chips, a loaf of white bread and a bottle of Maritzburg’s famous brew, Crerars Mineral. The only debate was the choice: would it be Cola Champagne, Mandarin Crush or the much-relished, throat-burning ginger-flavoured Bulls Eye Pop. The inner part of the bread was removed to be served as a hors d’oeuvre and the cavity stuffed and filled with chips, which were garnished with tomato sauce. The loaf was finally compressed, and, everyone lending a hand, it was equally divided among us.

The months continued unabated as we alternated between our private waters at Hubbly Bubbly, Cottons and the Bird Sanctuary. There was the occasional invite from the Village Boys. Then, on a fine African summer day, we received the magic words: “We are allowed”. The atmosphere was euphoric and like a swarm of bees we headed to the pool.

The rusty, white-and-black sign was still bolted to the wall, mocking us, but the cashier accepted our cash and we made our way to the change rooms. The shower area was a hive of activity.

Clothes were handed in and exchanged for a rubber band, with a metal number attached. An overseer stood watching as we delighted in the showers. Showers were foreign to us, as we only knew of enamel baths and zinc buckets.

Then with a mad dash and a belly flop, we were swimming dog-style. An amazed audience watched and giggled as we raced across to the deep end in our patented stroke. Panting and excited, we climbed out to sample the diving board. Pushing and tugging, we dared each other to be the first to dive. A challenger rose above the jeers, and advanced on the board, with a few hops and a hard push, he was airborne, and with a loud thunderous sound hit the water with his belly first. The majority backed up and returned to the water, making ardent claims that they would try the diving board later.

With eyes itchy and red, we rested on the manicured lawn and in awe watched some of the swimmers. There was admiration as they swam, hands in sublime 360 degree motion stretching out as if to grab the water and feet propelling them as fast as their hearts could handle.

Girls in a variety of costumes, using the perimeter of the pool as a cat walk, flexed their hips, strutting and displaying their wares.

The crowd grew in numbers as the shadows became smaller and the heat intensified. The splashing was interrupted by a raucous outburst between the lifeguard and some nippers who were adorned in a variety of mesh underpants, some pearly white, some yellow white and some with rusty stains on them. They were evicted for not having the proper swimming attire.

The demonic sign rusted away slowly as we visited the pool frequently and learnt the fine art of freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly. The cashier was politely greeted as Granny Adams, and our pool guardians were Uncle’s Barlan, Preggie and Bobby.

New friends were found and fresh bonds were developed, some romantic, some perpetual. New opportunities arose as lifeguarding courses were offered and those who were successful volunteered their services as lifeguards during school holidays at Orient Park. Careers in lifeguarding were embarked on.

Occasional fishing trips to Cotton’s, Hubbly Bubbly and Bird Sanctuary were made, but we had a new home.

• This story is dedicated to the memory of Sean Frost, who died at Hubbly Bubbly, and to the Town and Village brotherhood whose houses did not have tin doors, and whose homes we welcomed each other into.

About the writer:

BURL Samuel says he is an outgoing gregarious person, an IT specialist who loves nature, photography, cycling and hiking.

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