Ache: a swimming diary
Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond, London
My fingers sift through red and gold leaves under the surface. A leaf brushes my foot as I kick out and, as usual, I push away the thought that it could be something other than a sturdy leaf. There are ducks and moorhens and two women swimming in their woolly hats. I swim my usual small star-shaped lap, my boundaries marked by the life rings. I remember the first time I saw a moorhen here, and how I stopped in my tracks; how they look so like the Pukeko of Aotearoa, with their blue breast feathers and ruby beaks.
Last night I dreamt that we were on a boat in a small, enclosed body of water and saw a humpback whale breach between the muddy white-tipped waves. Over my post-swim cup of ginger tea, I scroll through the news on my phone and read a headline: Humpback Whale Spotted Swimming in River Thames.
The blue heron and black cormorant stand opposite each other on the life rings. I swim out between them and we all make eye contact. The cormorant shakes its leathery wings and holds them outstretched, facing me, like the shags perched along Wellington’s south coast with their wings held up to the wind as if imagining how to fly.
A heron in flight is a small winged dinosaur, all elbows and spiked wings. It unfolds its body and swings up and out of the reeds, unbalanced like a marionette.
Someone said the whale in the river was a wondrous thing, a sign we hadn’t ruined everything yet. I knew that wasn’t true. By afternoon it had died. At first I couldn’t look at the photograph above the article headlined Humpback Whale Found Dead in Thames Hit by Ship. Later, I couldn’t stop looking at it. A body the size of a truck, bent backwards, being lifted out of the river and into the sky. The air where it should not be. All its dark blueness exposed, still wet.
My first sunlit swim since September. The water is the clearest I’ve ever seen. My arms and hands stretch out in front of me, pale gold, inked with the shadows of leaves floating on the surface.
Sometimes I’m not the only Asian woman at the pond. Nor am I the first Asian woman to write about this place; Ava Wong Davies and Jessica J. Lee are two writers whose descriptions of the pond I read long before I first swam here. In her memoir Turning, Lee writes:
I began to swim there alone, surrounded by women who seemed stronger than me. I wanted to be like them: sturdy, no-nonsense, unsentimental. The pond was opaque and slipped around my body thickly […] It was cold and open: a bright circle of relief in the middle of the trees.
I have a habit of putting flowers in my favourite books and forgetting about them. I’ve brought Turning to the pond with me, and I open it to find a kōwhai flower dried and pressed between pages 230 and 231. I must have picked it last spring, eighteen months ago in another country. I can see a thin web of veins in the lower part of the petal. It has not yet lost its yellowness.
In the shower, leaves and silt slide off my skin onto the blue tiled floor.
I saw on Twitter that today a whale fall was discovered more than 10,000 feet deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It was live-streamed by the Deep Sea Live Cam on board the Nautilus, a boat operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust. A whale fall is a poem on the seafloor, created when a whale’s body floats down to the abyssal zone, where most creatures do not have eyes because there is no light. As the whale decomposes it transforms into a feeding ground for an ecosystem of deepwater organisms, some of which are bioluminescent.
What does the bottom of the pond look like? The cormorants must know. They slip under and leave circles of stillness on the surface which slowly dissolve, erasing any trace of the point where their bodies entered the water, as if they were never there.
My eyes are level with diving cormorants and with raindrops hitting the surface like exploding stars.
The first day of my period is the first day the water temperature dips below twelve. The boundary line has been pulled in, making the swimming area half its usual length. Now there are few who linger afterwards, instead setting off down the wooded track wrapped in scarves.
Cyclamens have popped up in the undergrowth, though it feels far too early for them.
Cyclamens were the first flower I saw in London after a winter of hardly any colour at all. They range from frost-tender to frost-hardy; from cream to dark pink. They spring up from coils of leaves and unfold their petals from a tight chrysalis, like pink moths. Raindrops cling to the undersides of their wings.
I think of this time of year as deep autumn — 深秋 — and now, I think of myself as an autumn swimmer. Cyclamen hederifolium are autumn-blooming. I was born during a southern hemisphere autumn. But these days, where does autumn begin and end? I catch myself clinging to these old markers of seasonal change at the same time as I’m trying to track the shifting pattern of extremes. April heatwaves, October frosts.
I submerge myself in cold water and my skin comes up burning.