Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Swimmer

It's a sunny September morning and Ned Merrill, a seemingly successful and popular middle-aged advertising executive, is running through the woods of an affluent suburb of Conneticut. He's barefoot and wearing only a pair of swimming trunks.

The start of a new day. His mind wanders to his beautiful, loving wife and his four daughters. He thinks of the breakfast they shared by their poolside that morning.

He walks out of the woods and into the back garden of some old friends, sitting beside their own pool. He chats with them, shares a drink, and the idea of a unique journey forms. He tells his friends that he intends to 'swim' home, across the county, by dropping in on friends' swimming pools which form a consecutive chain leading the 8 miles back to his own house. He imagines these pools as parts of the River Lucinda, named after his adoring wife.

He dives into this first pool and emerges at the other end. Pulling himself from the water with an abundance of youthful vitalty, his journey starts.

The weather's unseasonably warm. Cotton wool skies, low teens, not your typical December day. I shut the gate behind me and set off slowly to the old pub, leaving Christmas behind for another year.

It's the day after Boxing Day. Christmas Day had been a pleasure. After spending the 25th last year on a camp-site in Western Australia and enjoying being together but out of the traditional festive loop of spending too much on rubbish, eating too much junk and doing things 'the way they should be done ', Tam and myself had made a promise to keep this Christmas low-key. We'd done a pretty good job. We'd spent the 26th being spoilt at the in-laws, and now I'd got two work-free weeks to look forward to with the rigours of the next Christmas frenzy another year away.

Past the old pub, I take the lane that leads to Skendleby and breathe in the immaculate views towards the coast before the road drops steeply to the bottom of the Fordington Valley. I exchange grudging pleasantries with a large crowd of country folk busily descending from 4x4s onto a grassy verge, and, as I continue on my way leaving behind just the soft padding of footfall, they traipse, tweed-attired, into neighbouring fields to get their seasonal kicks by killing animals for fun.

As has been the case on every run for the last 5 months, it isn't long before my concentration turns to my left foot. Ever since my jog around The Lindsey Loop at the end of August, it's been an ever-present source of pain and frustration. Whilst it's not really curtailed my running as such, it certainly has curtailed my enjoyment of those miles. It appears, however, that Mr Claus may have brought me a most welcome gift. Whilst there's still some stiffness there, the arch pain and heel pain have dissolved away. Regular visits to an osteopath, a change of footwear, golf ball massage and an all-consuming obsession with foot drills, foot stretches and foot strengthening exercises in my non-running waking hours eventually seem to be paying off. There's a spring in my ultra-runner's shuffle as I reach Skendleby.

Lying in the bottom of a beautiful Wolds valley, every road out of Skendleby involves a fair climb. Usually, I'll take one of the country lanes which lead to the Bluestone Heath Road, but today I fancy something different. If I take the field path past Lodge Farm, I can get a good look at the grand house on the hillside. Sitting adjacent to the route of The Lindsey Loop, I've been past this building numerous times, but always from the opposite direction, and always in the dark.

In a couple of minutes, I'm around the back of the village and climbing over the stile that leads onto the Lodge Farm estate. The grounds have a certain majesty, but the location of the house, sitting commandingly on the rise to the East, is simply breath-taking. I  briefly imagine the family that must live there, the stories of generations that the house could tell, and then jog on slowly, curious and eager to see a little more.

Ned Merrill receives warm welcomes as he meets old friends - members of the well-to-do set with plush homes in the outer suburbs. As his journey continues, however, it becomes obvious that each swimming pool brings him face-to-face with particular aspects of his life, some of which he's done his best to forget.

As the day wears on and Ned sees those who have been close to him more recently, the welcomes begin to sour. His boasts about his wife, his daughters and his home are greeted with jeers or suspicion. In one back yard, he meets a young girl who used to babysit his daughters. They leave together and she reveals an unspoken teenager crush she used to have on him. When he clumsily tries to seduce her, though, she flees, leaving him foolish in his inadequacy. As he carries on, dropping in at the pools of other acquaintances, it begins to unfold that his life has, somehow, gone quite wrong.

I'm half-way across the estate grounds when I begin to realise that things aren't what they seem. The grand facade of the old house, when viewed closer, is tatty and untidy. There's an air of neglect about the place.

Closer still, I see that some of the huge windows are broken. Others are boarded up. Window frames are rotten. Paint has peeled and left behind just shadows of what once was. For some reason, I'm filled with a sadness.

In the late afternoon, Ned Merrill winds up at a crowded public swimming pool where he's shamed by local shopkeepers to which he still owes money. They exchange angry confrontations about his wife's snobbish attitudes and his daughters' recent troubles with the law. Unable to take any more, the swimmer flees to his only sanctuary.

The sun's setting as a shivering Ned staggers up a rocky hill, shoves open a rusty gate and walks through an unkempt, overgrown garden to his own home. A thunderstorm starts as Ned knocks on the locked door of a abandoned, empty house. Breaking down on the front step, he starts to cry.

Another stile leads me over a fence to the right of the grand old house. I make my way along a narrow path between weeds and nettles, and look back over.

The house - what's left of the grand vision I'd built up having run nearby for years - is derelict. The roof of the back buildings is falling down. A sheet is secured by bricks and wooden planks in a hopeless attempt to prevent heavy weather getting in. Piles of rubble litter the disused yard.

It begins to unfold that things, somehow, have gone quite wrong.

I stand and look for ages. Take a few pictures. I feel so let down. I can't help but think of The Swimmer.

It was the 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster that introduced me to 'The Swimmer.' I read the John Cheever short-story, on which the film was based, many years later and was equally spellbound. Both are beautiful, astounding - powerful allegories, perhaps more relevant now even than they were in the 60s.

Moving from morning to dusk, from sunshine to rain, from youth to age and from fantasy to truth, 'The Swimmer' reveals experiences that are set over one day, but represent a lifetime.

In 95 minutes of celluloid or a few pages of text, 'The Swimmer' is a simple, yet deceivingly complex retelling of the most ancient literary form - the Epic. A hero sets off on a journey and has many strange adventures along the way, during which he learns the fragile nature of life. At last, he arrives at his goal, older, wiser, and with many stories to tell.

At the start of the journey, the swimmer is our hero. We believe in his greatness. Gradually, however, with each pool visit, a layer of fantasy is stripped away - truth is slowly revealed, and the hero's fate is, ultimately, tragic.

Things aren't what they seem.
For whoever, are they ever?

I run the remaining miles home, lost in thought.

The impressive facade of the grand old house giving way to the reality of a derelict shell. Does this fate - the same as the one which befell Ned Merrill in 'The Swimmer' - await 'the hero' of my own forthcoming journey? I've mythologised it with 'Six Statements', built it up with words, thought of little else for many months. But what awaits me? If each route is a swimming pool, what will each reveal to the people who love me, those who think they know me? What will each route reveal to myself? Can that Rainbow kid hack it, or is he too a derelict shell with just a knack for stringing a few hollow sentences together?

For better or for worse, all will be revealed in the journey. All-conquering, or crying on the front step?

The door's locked when I get home. A thunderstorm starts as I knock and knock. The house is empty.

I jog round and look through the window. A Christmas tree dominates the front room, lovingly dressed, fairy lights dancing. Lightning's paints are scattered across the coffee table, and various A4 sketches litter the surrounding floor space. Whirlwind's cuddly toys are snuggled together on the settee, wrapped in a red, furry blanket, tucked into bed by their 7 year old mummy. I hear her voice as I look, '... sleep tight my little darlings.'

An empty house, full of my proudest achievements.

I sit on the step in the rain, and wait. Tam and the superheroes will be back anytime soon.

I think of the journey of the last 10 years - the one that's built our family, and I think of the journey that awaits me next year. Suddenly, it doesn't feel as important anymore.

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