At our local swimming pool, you can clearly perceive the pattern of the school year, especially during the holidays. It gets markedly busier at half terms and the Easter break and even at Christmas (if parents really don’t know what to do with their children on a bad day weather-wise, having steadily worked through all the seasonal movies in the nearby multiplex)!
These are brief flurries of activity, but the long summer holidays are something else again. It really is like some kind of manic eight-week long invasion with day-trippers, holiday-makers, unaccompanied pre-teens, as well as local families, all descending on the leisure centre apparently at once.
Even from outside the building, you can see the long and haphazard queue, at the head of which the usually unflappable reception team look flurried and strained. Downstairs, the changing area is bedlam. You have to fight your way to a cubicle with the crush of people milling about and families shouting to each other (as one member inevitably gets lost). In general, there is an air of barely suppressed panic.
One opens a locker to find someone else’s possessions (complete with wallet) just abandoned as if its owner reckoned that no one could possibly spot it there. Going back up to reception again to get the correct change or token to engage the lock was obviously the more risky option!
Then there is the entryway to the pool. As usual in these kinds of places, it’s a wide corridor lined with lots of open showers. In summer, this becomes an obstacle course. There is a small child under each and every showerhead, so no one else can get near them. Then the passageway itself is packed with harassed parents armed with towels, blocking everyone’s route.
Having battled one’s way through to poolside, the scene is deafening and anarchic. The cheery lifeguards look unusually grim and are on high alert for dangerous larking about in the water (often by the adults!) or risk being sworn at by groups of kids for their pains.
Regular swimmers like myself keep to the roped-off lanes, but this is no guarantee of safety. Being splashed and half-drowned is fine. But we are constantly on edge, looking out for the inevitable youngster playfully wandering across the lanes, totally unaware they are about to be mown down by an ex-All Ireland swimmer going at full tilt.
It’s fair enough that the lanes are full with the extra influx. But they seem to be occupied by people who have never been to a public pool before, let alone be able to read the large signs displaying the clockwise or anticlockwise swimming direction.
Then there are the fantasists who, when they were last in the water (perhaps fifteen years ago) were reasonable swimmers. So naturally, they put themselves in the medium or even fast lane. It is quickly evident to everyone but them that the slow lane is where they truly belong. They unheedingly and laboriously trundle their way up and down, holding back at least five fed-up looking people lingering behind them.
In the first week of September, it all changes magically. Yes, there are busy periods, but these are formalised and regulated. Groups of children are shepherded in organised crocodiles by their teachers and come and go, all in order.
The reception staff wave hello to regulars, the changing area is all but deserted and the lifeguards are smiling and relaxed enough to exchange a brief chat.
When you enter the cavernous swimming area, all is calm and quiet, almost echoey. On reaching the edge, the water is clear, blue, still and utterly inviting. And one can even get a lane to oneself.
In the pool, back to school can be bliss.