Thursday, 29 April 2010

The transformative power of chlorinated water

It has been, she reflects while entering the leisure centre with a towel rolled beneath her arm, about ten years since she last swam. Can that be right? Ten years? Well, yes it must be, because she hasn’t been swimming since the children arrived. I mean, she has been in a swimming pool with the kids, of course, of course. But then she never actually gets a chance to swim. And she used to be such a graceful swimmer in her youth. Even into her twenties, she would regularly visit the pool, and knock out 40 lengths, alternating between backstroke, breaststroke and crawl. People often commented on the elegance of her stroke - creating not a ripple as she powered through the water.
So it is with no small excitement that she receives her locker token from the reception desk and makes her way to the changing rooms. All this is different, she notes. The changing rooms used to be over there, she decides. Settling on the middle of three cubicles, she undresses methodically, placing the removed clothing in a neat pile. She unrolls her towel to reveal a threadbare one-piece costume that she has had for years. I’ll need to buy a new costume, she resolves. Finally, having wrestled with the locker, and fastened the key to her wrist, she walks through the showers area to the pool. No footbath, she notices. Whatever happened to footbaths? They always seemed rather insanitary anyway.
Wasting no time, she makes her way to the closest corner of the pool, and jumps feet-first into the water. The water temperature immediately surrounds her, and for a moment it is amniotic - she is suspended, at one with the pool. Then she surfaces, inhales, and kicks against the turquoise tiles to propel herself forwards into a breaststroke. About halfway along her first length, she thinks: this is hurting my thighs. This never used to hurt. Towards the end of her second length she realises that she is wheezing – gulping for breath. She reaches the end of the pool and awards herself a rest. She checks the time on the oversized wall clock: 8.15. Okay. Let’s aim for 20 lengths, she thinks.
Fingers cramped together, arms outstretched, then pushed out to the side, and then cupped into her torso as her legs thrust her forward and arms shoot out ahead. Suddenly, she has found her rhythm, and once again she is seventeen years old. As she glides through the water she feels the sunshine and the admiring eyes of the spectators on her back. As she approaches the end of the pool, she folds under herself, pulling off a perfect turn and shooting like a torpedo through the water, leaving a wake behind her. Now, she is nine years old and competing for the county in a regional championship. On a raised platform to her side her dad is jumping to his feet, shouting her name and cheering.
Lost in her reminiscence, she lifts her head from the water, mistimes her breath, and inhales a glug of the chemical-tasting water, right down to her lungs. She grabs the side of the pool, coughing, spluttering and wheezing. Once she has calmed down and regained her breath, she glances around the pool to see if anyone noticed. The other swimmers are gallant enough to look away, but she knows that they have seen her faux-pas, because she once again inhabits the shape of a 40-year-old mother in a tatty red bathing suit.
That’s about 20 lengths, she concludes, and exits the pool.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

After the eruption

With a little more trepidation than usual, the MD took his place behind the lectern, and scanned his eyes over the workforce before him. A natural hush descended over the room, and taking this as his cue, the MD began his address.
‘Thank you all for coming. I’ll try not to keep you too long – I’m hoping this meeting will be finished by six.’
He glanced at his thumb, which pressed the main button of a remote control, opening the first of his Powerpoint slides on a screen behind him. Two hundred heads shifted their gaze ten degrees upwards (glad of something else to focus on).
‘As you are aware, funding has been reduced for the next financial year 2010-11, and… coupled with this factor, an agreed salary point increase of 2.2% has meant increased costs for the company… Erm… I’ll come back to those figures later’.
The workers noticed something different about his delivery: the pauses, the awkwardness. They sensed that something was wrong.
Beneath the earth’s surface, magma bubbled impatiently, and (having found a weak spot 500 miles west of the MD’s presentation) suddenly, violently thundered its way through the earth’s crust erupting through sheets of ice and water, shooting 150 metres into the air. As the magma met the ice, a sulphurous ash cloud plumed from the crater and rose up, up into the atmosphere.
‘…There is no way that the company can sustain this expansion with current staffing levels. A full staff review process will begin this week. I will be speaking to each of you personally to discuss how your role will change. You will receive an email tonight with details of your appointment, which will happen over the next two days…’
They knew what was coming - redundancies. The word transmitted telepathically around the room, bouncing from head to head: Redundancies, redundancies. The workers stared at the screen, stoney-faced. At the end of his presentation, the MD invited questions from his audience, but there were none. The workers were stunned, beaten into submission. Silently, orderly, they made their way out of the auditorium, and into their cars for the lonely journey home.
That night, as the workers lay awake in their beds performing mental calculations, the ash cloud drifted slowly towards them, grounding flights and confounding meteorologists as it crept.

Each appointment followed the same format. The worker would be shown into a room which already contained the head of HR, the MD, and a shadowy unknown individual. The MD would let the worker know that their position no longer existed. There would be other new positions created which the worker would be encouraged to apply for. The meeting was very matter-of-fact. There were no personal touches, no ‘thanks for all your hard work’. At the end of each meeting, the worker was informed that they would receive a letter confirming all that they had discussed by the end of the week, and they were shown the door.
As the workers left that day a fine mist of ash floated down upon them, covering their cars with white speckles. A dry, dead confetti that they could taste as they inhaled.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Singapore check-in

The door closed behind me, and I looked around my silent hotel room, taking it all in. Plastic windows, air-conditioning unit, walls of cream and white, veneered furniture. Idly, I picked up an information leaflet from the bedside table and read the introductory paragraph.
‘A warm welcome to Singapore’s premier business hotel located centrally in The Downtown Core. From the moment that you arrive, a pleasant and relaxing stay is ensured. Our helpful and friendly staff will provide you with a most enjoyable check-in experience. Every room is complete with cable TV and en-suite.’

I skipped back to the part about the check-in experience. I can’t say that the check-in was enjoyable. It wasn’t unpleasant. It wasn’t even an ‘experience’ really. I just showed my passport, and they gave me a room key.

The TV in the room hung on an aluminium cradle from the wall at head-height. There was no reception. I flipped around using the remote for a while, but the result was 99 channels of white noise.

I realised that I would have to make a call to reception to report the fault. In situations like this, I often rehearse the conversation in my head beforehand, playing both parts, to ensure that no leftfield question from my interlocutor will leave me without an answer. For example:
The Mountjoy Hotel. How my I help you?
My name is Richard Parkes. I am in Room 106. My TV isn’t working. It will switch on, but there’s no reception.
Very well sir. I shall send someone up to take a look. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
Well… also, the brochure promised an enjoyable check-in experience, but it was actually a very normal check-in experience. There was nothing enjoyable about it.
Enjoyment, like happiness, is subjective. When were you ever truly happy?

Foxed by this line of questioning from my own subconscious, I had to think for a moment. Suddenly, as real as if it were playing on Youtube in front of me, an image formed in my mind of myself, aged 7, leaning back upon a horizontal stick, suspended from a rope attached to the high branch of a gnarled oak tree. The rope was taut, creating a promising hypotenuse with which I could swing over the sparking canal at the bottom of the bank. I edged even further back until I was forced to my tip-toes, and the rope willed me to submit to its intended trajectory. Unable to hold out any longer, I lifted my plimsolls and rushed at enormous speed towards the water beneath. Fairly skimming the surface, and screaming as I flew, I reached up towards the vernal sun, froze for a moment in suspended animation, and then back, back to the water, back to the bank, back to my tip-toes on the muddy shore. Heart-beating, throat raw from screaming, and out of breath: That. That was happiness.

I sat down near the head of the bed, my hand poised ready to snatch the telephone and dial. But then I reflected: that is not a normal answer. If the hotel receptionist asks me when I was happiest, I can’t go in to the details of a once-forgotten rope-swing. That would not be the answer of an educated professional. The correct answer would be the birth of my son, or my wedding day.

Satisfied that I had fully explored the avenues of possible conversation, and feeling more confident, I picked up the handset and hit the zero key.
‘Hello… I’m… Room 106… The telly doesn’t work.’
The receptionist hung up, leaving only a sustained binary tone in my ear. I continued to hold the phone to my ear, and into the dead receiver, I mouthed the words over and over again: ‘On my wedding day… On my wedding day…On my wedding day…’