I floated on my back, gazing up at the watery blue sky, thankful for the wetsuit. I’d decided this wasn’t cheating. Wetsuit, and frilly fifties bathing cap. Making star shapes with my body in the greenish water, while Don darted back and forth on the concrete paving, filming on his Super 8 camera. Perfect conditions. Low sun just topping the bare trees. An easterly wind ripping through Battersea Park, sending wavelets across the rectangular pool, creating surface interest, as Don phrased it. I floated between the dormant ornamental fountains, trying to regulate my breathing as I see-sawed between an unaccustomed calm and a teetering sense of astonishment.
Danger. Do not go in the water. Don had taken a lingering shot of the sign at the top of the steps that led down to the restored Festival Pleasure Gardens. From there, he panned round to take in the Grand Vista, austere and deserted on that Thursday lunchtime in January. “Gorgeous,” he said, and I knew then I’d chosen the right accomplice.
Don was wonderfully straightforward, I was discovering. When I’d asked if he’d film me, he’d simply said: “Sure, why not?” No incredulity, no awkward questions. Unlike – but I shut down that thought. In truth, I didn’t care whether there was any film in his camera. I wanted a witness, that was all, and someone to haul me out if I unexpectedly got into difficulties, as the local press would have it.
My desire – my need – to get in the forbidden water had taken hold as I emerged from a failed relationship. All those emotion-fuelled, pounding walks around the park, those hours sitting on a bench overlooking the bleak Festival Pleasure Gardens, feeling I was trapped in an inferior French film; they all led to this symbolic act, vindication of my decision to stay in London, in Battersea.
Now here I was, semi-immersed, my hands and feet and the back of my neck in contact with dangerous water. As soon as I’d wriggled into the wetsuit and snapped on the bathing cap, I lowered myself into the thigh-deep, brassy water. Exhilarating shock of cold. Launched off with a few breaststrokes, out between the criss-cross of underwater pipes, and flipped over onto my back. I paddled my hands to and fro, stretched my feet out, flexing my toes. Soft whirr of the camera. I liked the fact that Don didn’t feel the need to talk all the time. Unlike – erased thought.
Pins and needles tingled up from my extremities. My core was still warm from the tot of brandy Don had offered me. Above me, bleached-out sky, shadow and roar of a passing plane. Look at me! Look at me! How sharp everything was. My senses heightened as my hands and feet became numb blocks at the ends of my body. I felt my jaw tighten, cramp grip my left calf. Time to get out. Forced my limbs to scissor through the water, propel me back to the edge. I made an ungainly exit from the pool, stumbling into the towel Don held out.
I stood shaking and laughing, my teeth chattering uncontrollably, my feet dead on the cold, hard concrete.
Don pressed the flask of brandy into my hands. Then he knelt and kissed my feet, kissed the life back into them.