Swims for the soul

For four hundred and sixty miles I sat on that train. And for two hours I looked to my right — my face turned towards the sea beyond the window. For the first time this year, the sun was shining brightly, the sky blue, the wind non existent. The sea sparkled hazy and blue. It looked so enticing. But I was trapped, unstoppable, trundling northwards.

Mother’s Day: surprisingly good weather for March in Scotland warranted a picnic. It could have gone either way but — as luck would have it — it stayed beautiful.

We arrived at Elie, a small fishing town with a sheltered beach and harbour, around 10.30am. Blue skies. Absolutely no wind. The tide was out. The water was glassy. Nobody around.

Gradually we spread ourselves out by the picnic tables near the beach. Sandwiches and tea in flasks, cheese scones and assorted pickles in jars. Laughter and chatter. A swing ball competition and many cartwheels. And there, beyond the rocks, was the sea again.

I was always going to swim. Yes, it was March. Yes, it was a picnic to celebrate Mother’s Day. No, I didn’t have all of the right stuff for my usual swimming. No swimming cap, a borrowed pair of lilac coloured goggles offered up by my sister, an emergency swimming costume left behind in the bottom drawer at my mom’s house. A tablecloth commandeered as a changing towel to preserve modesty.

I changed in a flurry of excitement and nervousness. It looked so beautiful. I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I tiptoed across the gravelly car park towards the beach, and the sea beyond. The tide was coming in. The sea beautiful: sparkling, flat and expansive. It was all mine.

Oh. My. God. It’s so cold! My feet hurt like crazy. I’m standing in the water up to my ankles wincing with the pain. How can something so beautiful and seductive hurt so much? I stand there, facing out to sea, my back to my family, who are calling out to me from the beach. “Swim!” I walk another few paces out to sea, edging into the deeper water. My feet still hurt massively. The water passes my knees, dances over my thighs. I’m waist deep and now I need to put my hands in the water. Maybe my feet don’t hurt as much now or maybe my hands hurt so much that I’ve forgotten about my feet? A few more paces and I am deep enough to plunge in. Breaststroke. No hat. I’m not putting my head in.

I’m the only one in the harbour. I’m the only one in the sea. I‘m the only one in the whole world.

I need to put my head in. Front crawl. Twenty strokes. The water is crystal clear. The sun shines and sparkles as the light travels through the water. I can see the ridges of the sand on the bottom of the sea bed. I’ve never seen it so clear.

The pain is too much to bear. I have to stand up again and regain my composure. But I can’t resist a little more. Breaststroke again. Another few strokes. And a few more front crawl. Ice cream headache. Everyone on the beach looks so distant. I feel like a tiny speck. I pause before wading through the shallows back to the beach.

I feel relief, and joy, and pain, and happiness. And life. I’ve swum for five minutes and it’s just enough.

Some swims are just for your soul.

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