Swimmer at Thirty-Five

Dermot Bolger

The moment I hit the water I am in my element:
I was born for this, for backstroke and butterfly.
Born to hold my breath for the entire first length,

During which I slide out from my everyday skin
To again become a Leinster Schoolgirl champion,
All Ireland gold medallist and Olympic contender.

On childhood mornings in my father’s old banger
There was no traffic like this, nobody else awake,
Just the pair of us wrapped up in a code of splits

In the pool that opened early just to let me train.
Chlorine and silence, the sense of being special,
The clarity of light when I stepped into the dawn

With the world only half-wake, as groggy-eyed
As the commuters here in this tailback of traffic.
While everyone looked stale, I never felt more alive

Then donning my school uniform to sit at a desk,
Reciting lap-times, my skin glowing with such health
That I could not envisage being daunted by any task.

I’d no time for boyfriends and barely time for friends.
Classmates wondered how I coped with having no life,
But that was my life, I could imagine no existence

Outside of that cocoon controlled by a stopwatch
Where problems were solved by simply going faster.
The lane was clear, nothing allowed to block my path,

No tantrums, no silences, no waiting lists for doctors,
No grammar of autism to slowly come to comprehend,
No son terrified of swimming, even with armbands,

Cocooned in a world that contains no stop-watches
Or sense of time, no admittance granted to strangers.
I drive my son to day-care centres and to specialists

On choked roads like this and while I curse the traffic
He stares out blankly as if half watching a dull film.
I love him and he loves me, even if he cannot show it.

In some dreams I see him dive into a pool and glide
In my slipstream, made graceful in a floating world.
But he screams if he sees me packing my swim gear.

Twice a week in the local pool people stare, transfixed
By my apparent speed. To me it feels like slow motion
As I blunder into beginners blocking up the lane.

Why do I bother wasting my precious hours of parole?
Perhaps because, occasionally amid a tumble-turn
I block out this sense of being impeded and helpless,

I become the perfect swimmer, effortlessly omnipotent,
Moving with ease, barely needing to draw breath:
No disappointment can touch me inside my element.


Swimmer at Thirty-Five


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