accompanying text to ROOT/CANAL
, exhibition at City Art Rooms, Feb 2009
My job as a caregiver meant that I would spend a lot of time sitting beside the public swimming pool, without actually getting into the water. Countless times I had been through the motions of arriving at the complex and taking a poolside seat to read; so often that I tended to pay less attention to my immediate surroundings than I would to the contents of whatever book I was reading at the time. There was nothing around me, I thought, that would not already be familiar to me.
Understandably, on this particular occasion I cannot recall anything that might have happened up until the point when I looked up from my book. I noticed a group of young girls practicing synchronized swimming in the diving well at the far end of the building. At the time I found the sight quite extraordinary - not only because I had consistently visited the pools at this hour three times a week for so long and never seen them before, but also because I did not expect that synchronised swimming would be a popular sport at all with young girls today, let alone in suburban New Zealand. There was no music accompanying the group, but there was a middle-aged woman (who I assumed to be their coach) observing them from the edge of the pool.
They would practice their routine in small parts, and take short breaks in between. As they dispersed from the group at these breaks, each little unsynchronised thing they did would appear subtly theatrical and beautiful, as if a part of the whole performance. Some of the girls would adjust their goggles or nose plugs, while others would move to the edge of the pool to rest and talk to one another. Then, when their coach signalled them to, they would re-gather as a group in synchronisation.
Seeing this performance was an unanticipated occurrence in a weekly routine that had become so concrete for me that I was usually able to anticipate almost everything about my visits. The minor disruption caused me to look around at the goings-on with a heightened sensitivity. It felt as if I knew something exciting or terrible that was about to happen, whilst everyone else was oblivious to the fact. Yet I had no such knowledge. One by one, as they emerged from the sauna to shower or refill their water bottles, I started to notice the regular cast of individuals who would be present at the public pools every week without fail. I noticed the constellation of lifeguards wearing yellow shirts and red shorts, at concerted positions around the building: one on the watchtower, one near the kiddie-pool, and another placed between the spas and saunas. I became aware that I had barely ever interacted with these people, despite such regular visits over the past 4 years or more. I realised that perhaps I had not even wanted to speak with them – as if to do so would destroy the private world I had constructed through devoting myself to books as a way of passing the time.
Of course there were a large number of people there that I did not recognise. Somehow they seemed extremely distant, as if in some far off place that I could not even approach if I had wanted to. I became absorbed in watching each of them and completely lost track of time. There was something strange and compelling about this group. It was in observing an elderly man on his own that I figured out what it was: together they seemed to form a near perfect cross-section of civil society. There were the young parents and their children, teenagers in groups, the older women with similar haircuts and family men swimming lengths. Obviously not every age and ethnicity was accounted for, but it was as if, relative to its size, the group of individuals could easily represent a near perfect sample of the general public.
I became aware that my thoughts were drifting and returned to the book on my lap. The narrator of the story was describing the features of early summer as they appeared to him. That particular novel was full of descriptions of the weather and seasonal nuances. He spoke of a ‘misty rain’ visible through the windows of the room he occupied. I glanced up towards the large windows lining the upper half of the wall running alongside the pool. What had been a nondescript, overcast, early summers day when I entered the pools from outside, had become a perfect match to the narrator’s description. The clouds had descended so far that there was no longer any space between the earth and the sky. The rain was falling from them with such an incredible lightless that it seemed as if the water vapour was congealing into droplets right outside of the window before falling a gentle few metres to the ground. As I read on, I began to notice all of the other similarities between what was taking place in the book’s narrative, and in my own present existence. On page 44, I read:
‘But at the end of the day, Mr O, when one is speaking of the essence of things, it often happens that one can speak only in generalities.’
A few weeks after that day at the pools I continued in my reading of the book. I distinctly remember becoming aware that the narrative in the novel and that of my own world had drifted entirely out of synch.
In reality summer was still just beginning, but in the book, time had begun to progress more swiftly
and whole seasons would pass in a matter of pages.
andrew de freitas, 2009