Swimming Lessons

I have spent so much time writing this. I hope it’s worth it.

December 25, 2016.

Now the sun was up, and in the golden brightness of the sky, the blue was lost. I found it in the water, which was resting undisturbed, like a sedated predator. I was wearing only my swimwear – a pair of silken grey pants – and as I lowered myself into the water, through the steps, I was aware, all at once, of the million stings of the sun on my back, the cool reprieve of the water, a sense of being devoured quickly, and the overwhelmingness of my fear. (What’s that saying: let the sleeping dogs lie? And here I was prodding a resting wolf.) So terrified was I that I imagine now that I might have felt my legs creak in reluctance as they led me downwards. And yet, I was the first of all of us to step into the water.

Being in the water was like heaving and being unable to release it. It was like that for a long time, until, finally, I got used to it. I’m just shy of six feet, and the water consumed me up to my shoulders. I found the rails on the side of the pool and grabbed them firmly. The last time I was here, months ago, I had begun to understand the basics of swimming. I had defeated the initial hydrophobia, could already move about without having to hug the rails, let myself float. Now, it was as though I had never been in a pool before. My brothers had found their way into the water, too, from the other side, and were smiling at me across the sea of colour, none faring any better.

The pool was a large rectangle, like most pools are, sectioned into two areas along the breadth: the shallow area, for amateurs, and the deeper area, for better swimmers. Standing over it, you could see the divide. The deeper area was a darker shade of blue than the shallow area. And the point where the two colours faded into each other, that invisible line, I marked instantly as out of bounds. No devil, I thought, will make me reach there!

With time, the water became less daunting, for me and for my brothers. (There were four of us – in order of age: Borne, me, Sultan, and Samson.) Although we didn’t stray too far from the rails, we no longer held on to them as though our lives depended on them. Perhaps the presence of the lifeguard helped to keep our minds at rest, but I suspect it wasn’t just that. By now, we moved about freely, went under for brief seconds, made huge splashes with our fists, and the only way the water responded was in tiny waves scattered about its body. We had prodded awake the wolf, and although it growled from time to time, we could rest assured that it posed no imminent threat.

Borne, most especially. He’d been a swimmer before, over a decade ago. He says he must have been twelve then, and that for the next twelve years since had not been in water. Earlier, in the car, he’d wondered aloud if he’d still be able to swim. ‘It’s been so long,’ he said. I was sitting in the front seat, he just behind. ‘You can’t forget how to swim,’ I said. ‘It’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget. You might be scared at first, but with time you’ll remember.’ Mom, who was driving, offered her support. ‘No matter how long. Your father, for instance: he’d not swum in over twenty years, yet when he went to the pool recently, he was a fish! Just diving about.’ (This conversation occurred in Yoruba.)

We were right. Borne reclaimed the water more quickly than the rest of us. Before we could release the rails, he could already let himself float. By the time we were floating, he could swim half a lap. And all through our time in the pool, he was trying to learn something new: the breaststroke; how to swim just below surface level, as opposed to being suspended mid-water; etc.

The lifeguard was a fat man wearing a red T-shirt and brown khaki shorts, who spoke Pidgin English. He stood beside the pool, looking down on us. Later, towards the end of our time there, sitting by the pool with my legs in the water, I’d have a conversation with him:

‘‘If I wan’ make you teach me how to swim, how much you go collect?’ I asked.

‘Make I teach you?’ He said, obviously quickly considering how much to charge. The last time I was here, Mom had asked him the same question and he’d said seven thousand. Now, clearly, he wasn’t going to say seven thousand.


‘Ten thousand,’ he said after a brief pause.

‘Ten thousand?’

‘Yes.’ I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. This is a common thing in Lagos, especially in the markets. Inflation is the soul of business. Every Lagosian knows this: when there’s no price tag or generally agreed price, and the pricing is left entirely to the discretion of the seller, never – never! – settle with the first price you’re given. Half it immediately. And when a while passes and there’s no agreement, increase that half by five per cent of the initial price. If you still can’t reach a bargain, and you don’t want to walk away just yet, add another five per cent. Most times, in the end, you must walk away and try another seller.

‘Oga, make I pay seven thousand na.’

He was quiet for a while, as if in consideration, wanting to lead me to believe that if he agreed, he’d be doing me a favour. Lagosians are familiar with this, too.

‘Ehn, no problem,’ he shrugged finally. I nodded.

‘Come, come. Listen, this is the trick: you have to calm down. You have to let yourself go. Don’t be scared. Just release yourself to the water. You won’t drown.’ Borne had managed to get me to listen to him. He was doing well, and was eager to share his secret.

‘I know. It’s just that fear. I’m scared I’ll drown. Once I’m able to get rid of the fear, I’ll be able to do it.’

‘Well, it’s easy. Just go under water and release yourself. You won’t drown. Kick your legs and use your hands. You might not achieve any movement at first, but as time goes on, it’ll get better.’

‘Okay. Just stay here, so when I start struggling, you’ll help me. I need to know that you’re going to help me, Borne.’

‘I will.’

And so I did as he said. I threw myself forward, off my feet. The water slapped me in the face. I spread out my entire body under the water, my vision blurry and blue; in my ears, at once, the noise of the water gushing in and a certain profound hush. I let my muscles relax, spread out my arms. After about five seconds, I start kicking my legs. I’d seen Borne do the breaststroke and thought it was pretty easy, so I tried to do it, too. I kicked hard and strained the muscles of arms but, rather than moving forward, I had the feeling of being pushed back by the waves. After twenty minutes, I gave up.

‘You did it!’ Borne said. ‘You see, there’s nothing to be scared about.’

I wiped my face, smiled. I’d enjoyed it.

Three other boys had joined us. They were brothers, like us, and very fat. All dark-skinned and posh. They were wonderful swimmers, too. The youngest of them – perhaps eight – wore red shorts. We were standing together side-by-side at the edge of the pool now, about to dive in. He smiled at me, his way of challenging, and I smiled back, accepting his challenge. We retreated a few steps. He counted – one, two…GO! – and took off. His body fat danced about as he jogged. He was adorable. I started after him, but stopped immediately. We were going to make too much of a splash together; better let him go first. He made a great splash all on his own. After the water settled a bit, I launched myself. My heart beat gangan in my ears. Goosebumps ran the length of my arms. At the edge of the pool, I closed my eyes and lifted myself without giving it much thought. I heard the splash around me, as if someone not me had made the jump, and felt water rush into my ears. Once I could, I opened my eyes.

Looking under water is scary. The blue is right in your face, and all around you, like being in the belly of a blue-eating monster. (A thought would come to my mind later: blue is not an actual colour; very few things in nature blue. In fact, many languages don’t have a word for blue, because the natives couldn’t see it. And there’s no such thing as blue eyes; the sky isn’t blue either – it’s the light playing with our sight, a sort of optical illusion.) And because all you can hear is silence, the feeling is intensified. Blue can be very sickening. My head broke the surface, and I gasped. It would have been nice for someone to clap for me.

Later, we played pool ball with the other group of brothers until the lifeguard suspended it because it was getting too rough. The eldest of them is called Tomore (or Tomori, I’m not quite sure.) He’s fifteen. He’s also the fattest of them. I shifted towards him.

‘Hey, Tomore. Look, I need you to teach me how to kick my legs. I don’t know, I’m not getting it right.’


He grabbed the closest rail. ‘Look.’ He shot his legs backwards and the floated up. Then he began to kick them. ‘It’s easy.’

I did the same. I’d done it before, but with much less grace than him. There was a certain attractive lightness to the way his legs kicked. My own legs fell heavily on the water, making a loud splash with each stroke. But I soon began to get the hang of it. ‘Like this?’ I asked. ‘Yes, somehow.’ He replied.

At the end of the day, while showering in the bathroom, my brothers and I talked spiritedly. We said Borne had been the best swimmer amongst us, then me. We said Samson was the poorest, too scared of the water. We laughed. I said I liked Sultan’s pants, that they fitted him just well; Borne said my own pants were the finest. I said yes, my pants were the finest, but I liked Sultan’s own best. We changed into our clothes. Mine felt tight and scratchy. Someone brought out a lotion which everyone shared. I said I didn’t want it; I liked my face white and ghostly. After, we left the toilet. Mom was waiting for us outside. She said my face was white and ghostly.


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