I’ve never been to my dad’s local swimming pool in Nottinghamshire, but the cast of characters who populate the male changing rooms there for the early swim on a weekday are so familiar to me now they almost seem like old friends. There’s Pat, a retired mining geologist my dad once enlisted to identify an old bit of stone he’d brought to the swimming pool changing room after finding it in the river behind his house; Malcolm, whose clothes my dad will often hide while Malcolm is showering; and Andrew, who has advanced cancer and, though now experiencing extreme difficulty walking, still manages to swim a hundred lengths a day and kindly picked a bogey off my dad’s cheek for him the other week. “The things I do for my friends!” Andrew said, as he removed my dad’s cheek bogey. Newer additions to the gang include Underpants Sebastian, who, while standing naked in the changing room, likes to wave his y-fronts about in an attempt to emphasise a strident political point he is making. When I see my dad, he brings each of these men with him in spirit, as they now represent the most eventful part of his social life, which, even aside from this, might already be considered surprisingly eventful for a 67 year-old who professes to dislike pubs and multi-person gatherings.
When my parents last drove down to Devon to visit me, a couple of weeks ago, I was coming off the back of a sociability overdose, and all the invisible swimming men my dad had brought with him got a bit much for me. In the month since I’d finished writing my latest book, six different sets of friends had stayed at my house, and, as much as I’d enjoyed it, my brain was feeling like it had been left for too long under a heated lamp, like the kind of scrambled eggs you get at the buffet at a bad hotel. After four weeks of almost constant walking and talking, merely following the structure of a simple anecdote now made me feel like a cat chasing a laser pointer wielded by someone particularly vindictive. What I wanted to do more than anything was sit in a copse on top of a hill and take a week-long vow of silence. Having my parents in the house felt more like having another thirteen people staying with me than two, my mum representing one of these and my dad representing the other twelve. I told him how tired I was, due to all the people I’d seen recently.
“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING SOCIABLE,” my dad said. “IT WILL STOP YOU GETTING ALZHEIMER’S. THEY’VE PROVED IT.”
I wished I could have given more attention to my dad’s stories, as I hadn’t seen him for an unusually long time and there was a lot to catch up on, very little of it not tinged with peril or excitement. “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THE HAIRDRESSER’S CAR?” he asked.
I searched inside the now extremely dry scrambled eggs inside my skull. I definitely remembered at least a couple of hairdresser-themed episodes he’d regaled me with recently – something about a double entendre, the multicultural tour of hairdressers he’d been on around Hyson Green in Nottingham, where, after hearing how loudly he spoke, a young Jamaican girl, assuming he was deaf, had taken to repeating all the tour guide’s comments for his benefit – but nothing about a car. “I’m not sure,” I said.
“MY HAIRDRESSER HAS GOT THIS REALLY FLASH SPORTS CAR AND I SAW IT IN THE SUPERMARKET CAR PARK. IT’S WHITE AND IT WAS A BIT DIRTY SO I WENT OVER AND WROTE ‘HAIRCUT’ IN THE DIRT WITH MY FINGER, BECAUSE I NEEDED A HAIRCUT. SHE DIDN’T FIND OUT IT WAS ME UNTIL ABOUT TWO WEEKS LATER. SHE’D THOUGHT HER GRANDKIDS HAD DONE IT AND GIVEN THEM A RIGHT BOLLOCKING FOR IT.”
It rained for most of my mum and dad’s stay in Devon which meant, unusually, my dad spent barely any time outside with his top off. Sometimes my dad and his friends at the swimming pool complain about stuff their wives won’t let them do. One of his friends at the swimming pool lately complained that his wife won’t let him kiss her goodbye on the front doorstep if there are people in the street and he is wearing his pyjamas. My dad responded by complaining that my mum would not let him walk around with his top off when her friends come over for cake. Last time my mum’s best friend Jane came over for cake my dad tried to find a loophole in the rules by walking around the garden with his top off but with strips of gaffer tape over each of his nipples.
The weather improved on the third day of my parents’ stay here. My dad went out into the garden early and bathed in what little gauzy sunlight there was, moving the deckchair every few minutes to chase the rays with precision. As I cleaned my teeth, I noticed my dad’s beloved electric tooth flosser on the sink. In late morning, he and my mum went off to the beach to do some rockpooling. Feeling bad that I hadn’t gone with them, I walked down to the village hall to vote, this time voting considerably harder than I had done at some points in the past. I then used my remaining solitary time to enjoy some silence, meditate and read, which is to say I replied to the messages I hadn’t replied to while friends had been visiting, replied to some of the replies to those, got back to some other friends I was due to see in a week or so about where and exactly when I was supposed to see them, got sucked into a couple of online conversations about rare 1970s country rock, quarter-digested four pages of a book, then heard the click of my garden gate and my dad shouting “EY? YER WHAT?” at my mum. “Did you have a good time?” I asked, when he arrived in the living room.
“YEAH. GER OUTSIDE AND HAVE A LOOK WHAT’S ON THE LAWN.”
My dad is a collector, but not of the conventional kind: you won’t find sets of old maps or first pressings of Byrds albums in his house, as you would in mine, but you might well find, say, a dried hedgehog, a comically shaped cucumber or an esoteric piece of metal he has dug up while creating a new flowerbed. It’s only about five paces from the middle of my living room to my lawn but in the time it took me to take those I hypothesised several possibilities relating to today’s discovery. Would it be another dried snake, like the one he found a few years ago while walking in Norfolk, then stored in the pocket in the driver seat visor of his car? A bottle containing an ancient love note from overseas? Or maybe he had brought me a surprise impulse present? Another electric toothflosser, to add to the two he had bought me in the past, which I have never used? What I saw instead was a long fish, dappled, and of aerodynamic appearance. I’ve seen a few dead animals on my lawn since living in Devon, but this was undoubtedly the most exotic so far.
“IT’S A SMALL-SPOTTED CATSHARK,” said my dad.
“It absolutely stunk up the car on the way here, but your dad insisted on bringing it back,” said my mum. “We found it on the tideline.”
“LOOK AT THAT HOOK IN ITS FACE,” my dad said. “EVIL THING. SOME FOOKIN’ BASTARD SPORTS FISHERMAN’S CAUGHT THAT THEN CHUCKED IT BACK IN WITHOUT TAKING THE HOOK OUT. SPORTS FISHERMAN ARE BASTARDS.”
I looked more closely at the catshark. The bit of curved steel in its cheek was nightmarish, more so for the miniature neatness of its design. It wasn’t even nightmarish in a spooky way; it was precise and malevolent, gruesomely efficient. I estimated the fish had been dead a couple of days: three days too early to see the apparently foregone result of the General Election, and a future which would undoubtedly spell even more doom for it and its fellow wildlife on and around the British Isles. A couple of flies crawled out of its mouth, part of which had already rotted away. I marvelled that so recently it had been a factory of life, able to wriggle and twist and bite and digest.
“What are you thinking of doing tomorrow?” I asked my dad.
“BEING DEPRESSED BECAUSE THE TORIES HAVE WON.”
Above us a jackdaw, who’d been sitting on the gothic chimney pot of my house, took a sudden dive towards my hedge, banking, rolling 360 in the air then accelerating through a tunnel of buddleia: an outrageous move that would have received all sort of international awards, had it been performed by a more conventionally attractive bird. I like my local jackdaws a lot and have an arrangement with them and my local seagulls. The arrangement is this: if I put anything edible or half edible out on the lawn, within less than an hour they will remove it. I have come to look at them as fondly as I would two competing sets of handsome bin men – industrious, environmentally scrupulous ones, who eschewed landfills and didn’t mess with your mind by observing bank holidays. But over the next couple of days they surprised me: not one of them so much as picked at the catshark, let alone carted it away. I had taken them for birds who were beyond sell-by dates, but I had been wrong.
Two days later – a day after my parents left – the temperature rose dramatically. The garden got hazy and slow, like steam was being squirted into it from a vast unseen Manhattan subway vent, turned on its side. The jackdaws mysteriously vanished. Wood pigeons took over, getting randy and acting like drugged fools, ending up upside down in thick evergreens in which they had no practical reason to be. A plague of flying ants invaded my boiler room. I dealt with them by letting them get on with being flying ants and listening to Neil Young’s 1968 debut album. Holding my nose, I transported the catfish to the wild ground behind my house, where I’d once buried a hare found by my cat Shipley. St John’s Wort and teasels were beginning to run rampant here, where forget-me-nots had been a month earlier. I couldn’t see the tiny predators moving through the heat towards the catshark as I walked away but I could sense them. An hour later on the clifftop above my favourite cove I stopped to escort a drinker moth caterpillar from the South West Coast path, fearing for its safety. It did not appear to appreciate my efforts, thrashing this way and that at my touch.
Down on the cove, I swam out alone, to the far side, where the water mysteriously plummets in temperature. I starfished, sustained by the salt, drifting for a while and listening to the noise of industry on the ocean floor. There was always some going on. Today it sounded like a significant electrical project taking place beneath me: a high-pitched sound, evoking the image of crabs wielding dental drills. My mind cleared and I closed my eyes and let myself drift. Where would I end up, if I stayed like this? What would the sea decide to do with me? A large body of natural water gangs up on you, without you realising. Waves often look pretty mellow, but when they all get together they’re a forceful cult: they can use their collective belief in themselves to do what they want with you. You have to watch out for rivers too, in a not dissimilar way. A river’s current isn’t always a body builder showing off its pecs; sometimes it’s strong in a calm way, but its power is still there. I feel it sometimes on mellow evenings when I swim upstream on the Dart: the sunlight above me is gentle and sensual and the water seems to be bathing lazily in its touch but there are spots where, doing energetic breaststroke, I find myself barely advancing. It’s like I’m on a flooded treadmill. All it would take is for someone to turn the treadmill up a notch and who knows where I’d end up?
Over the next ten days, I visited the cove – and a couple of others – several times. I found doing so addictive. Winter had been an interminable, hard-working one for me. I’ve waited a long time for summer and want to wring every bit of magic I can from it. I got addicted to the same thing in the hot weather last summer, took a few small risks, swam out too far alone. “STOP FOOKIN’ BEING A TWAT WHEN YOU SWIM,” my dad told me. I do listen, despite what he thinks. I’m playing it safe this year. Fortunately the root of the addiction is less about macho box ticking and more about an intangible alchemy that happens when you combine exercise and drenching your body in something totally natural: water, yes, but the stuff around water, too. Sand, soil, even insects. The tingling, post-orgasmic feeling afterwards. I neglect pretty much everything else in favour of it, run away from all the things I’m supposed to do, as an adult. If my bank manager or the person in charge of my pension, if I had a pension, knew about my swimming habits, they’d be dragging me out of the water by the ear. But I’m not really interested in my older self. I was very interested in him for a while and it didn’t work out all that well for my present self so, quite frankly… fuck him. I’m interested in sand and salt and wind and rain and sun and being in all of it as much as possible.
I lean towards sustaining this feeling, even when I am out of the sea. My favourite cove is quite a long walk from the nearest parking area. The walk out of the cove is very steep. My friend Hayley calls it the Uterus Valley. You walk up from the sand, through a narrow vagina, and into the uterus. In the first part of the uterus is a fallen log resembling a large, desiccated lizard. The lizard looks like it’s tried to crawl up through the uterus but got very tired and died in the process. A couple of times as I walked up through the uterus I noticed I had no shoes and socks on. This is something my past self of a couple of months ago would have severely disapproved of. Back in April, on the first warm day of the year, I exploded out my front door barefoot and almost immediately stood on some sharp broken wood, sustaining several splinters. I managed to get three out with tweezers, a couple worked their way out on their own, but one lodged firmly in a very painful place, on the nerve between two of my toes, and for a fortnight I could barely walk. After three weeks with barely any improvement I visited my doctor, who located the bit of wood, and said he could attempt to cut it out, but it might be messy and make walking even harder for a while. I opted to wait. In the end the piece of wood moved to a less painful place, although it’s still in there even now. Someone described me as being “part tree” at the beginning of this year and I suppose this just makes the part that bit bigger, which is totally fine by me. I still feel the wood in my foot but only in the form of a small twinge after long walks.
I sometimes kid myself that I have accrued some hard-won wisdom in my four decades on the planet and learned from my mistakes but at other times it’s clear that’s not true. I have burned my mouth on pizza innumerable times due to being too eager to bite into it but I still burn my mouth on pizza due to being too eager to bite into it. I have sustained innumerable cuts, splinters and blisters from walking barefoot outside but I still walk barefoot outside. As I walked out of the top of the cove for the third time last week and along a fallopian tube footpath back to my car, I thought about the recent BBC documentary I’d watched about the Summer Of Love, where Eric Burdon from the Animals gets irrationally angry at the preponderance of hippy girls with dirty feet during the late 60s. I wondered what Eric Burdon would think of my feet if he saw me now and I decided he’d be pretty furious. A lot of people can get pretty furious if you talk about the pleasure of walking barefoot, how it puts you more in touch with the earth and where you come from. They think it is whimsical hippy drivel, but that’s probably because they’ve never tried it and because they live in a reinforced box of steel rage self-built on a strong foundation of sneering joylessness. This is a problem with a lot of modern attitudes to the pursuit of being in and respecting nature: they’re easily written off as mystic nonsense. Of course, mystic nonsense does exist, too – there is no denying that. The fine line between mystic nonsense and bona fide, near hallucinatory earth-based wonder is one of life’s most fascinating tightropes to walk: it’s a place where you can learn a lot about yourself, and possible make a really good double concept LP with an excellent gatefold sleeve design at the same time. The 1960s probably wouldn’t have existed without it.
What is definitely whimsical drivel is the paragraph of overlellipsised prose on the coconut-flavour bath and shower gel my mum left in my bathroom after their visit. “I’m going to a far away place she said,” begins the coconut-flavour bath and shower gel my mum left in my bathroom after my visit, “… just for a while… her toes wriggled in the warm sand and a silly seagull laughed and danced in the sweet wind.” I showed this passage to the most vociferous of my local garden seagulls, who, like most seagulls, isn’t remotely silly, and he said it had all the hallmarks of having been written by a halfwit. I am not into this whole modern thing of needy bath products cosying up to you and telling you about their day, so I normally just use soap to wash, but I didn’t want to let the coconut bath and shower gel go to waste so after I’d been to my favourite cove for the fourth time, I used it to wash myself. Afterwards I inspected my clean, Burdon-approved feet and legs. Following four days of swimming and barefoot walking my skin was a latticework of cuts and stings, most of which I’d not noticed when they occurred . On my ankle I saw the entry wound of a long thin creature I’d picked out of it earlier: some kind of sand tick, totally new to me. Above it: two horsefly bites, three flea bites, a few more bites from various small insects. Below all of this, a graffiti of cuts on my feet, which sea salt had already gone some way towards healing. With my body all clean and fresh, it would have been ridiculous to walk straight down to the river and throw myself in and get all dirty again, so I walked straight down to the river and threw myself in and got all dirty again. I tried to learn from the technique of teenagers I watched jump into a deep patch from a high tree, the way they made their bodies javelin-like to hit the water with the least impact. I resolved to try the same, from the rocks next to my favourite pool on the moor, tomorrow. I swam alongside an Egyptian goose, up to a weir, keeping exact pace with it. I walked home barefoot. I shivered a bit and saw my friend Emily. She said when her Scottish gran would see her or her brothers shivering after swimming she’d give them what she called a “shivery biscuit”.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a biscuit, for when you are shivery,” Emily said.
I had entered a new kind of swimming addict’s waking dream state. A swirling multicolour tunnel of swim, never quite ceasing. The way my skin felt from the water was too electrifying and, as the sun got hotter, I wanted more. Each night I would go to bed tired, thinking, “Okay, that’s enough. Give your body a rest tomorrow. You must get back to work.” Each morning I would wake up, see the weather, and ask myself, “Okay, what shall I do now?” then answer “I know: let’s go swimming!” My seventh day of swimming was the hottest yet. I returned to the cove and, as I swam, I thought about how the vastness of the sea is so ominous, but also how the same vastness can serve to dilute danger in our minds. I’m relaxed about having most crawling or slimy or tentacled or pincered creatures near or even on my body but, at the same time, when I swim in the sea there’s a delusion at work. My mum and dad found the catshark only a mile from here which means there was a good chance that there was at least one catshark beneath me right now, as I swam, but when I swim I am never thinking “I bet there are loads of catsharks here, right next to me.” It’s the same kind of delusion that lets us block out suffering, of people, of animals. There is just so much of it. If we thought about all of it, we couldn’t live. The world dilutes it, enabling us to cope. That caterpillar I moved from the coast path was another example. “But why bother?” you might say. “What about all the other caterpillars on the coast path this week that you can’t save, that people will probably tread on? What about all the insects you’ve trodden on without realising?” And you’d be right. But I don’t think that’s a reason not to bother. You should still be as nice as possible to insects. You should still go to the polling station and vote. Your tiny part of the ocean, or the drop you make in it as you opt out of it, counts. But maybe that’s just me. I am still convinced that by buying the seven inch of Is There Something I Should Know by Duran Duran I played a crucial part in getting it to number one in the Singles Chart.
I swam four lengths of the cove and it was only as I got out onto the shingle and my knees buckled beneath me that how tired I was truly registered. This little dream period could not last. I’d already pushed my luck. Also, the weather was expected to break soon. Tomorrow I needed to become a responsible adult again. When I got home my friend Charlie got in touch to say she had tomorrow off work and fancied going swimming near here. I told her in no certain terms I had to have a day of writing and catching up on jobs and couldn’t join her. An hour later I got back in touch and sent her a message saying “Sod it – let’s swim!”
After my hectic social period, I’d had the period of solitude I needed. The one time I had not been alone during my swims was at Talland Bay in Cornwall when a muscular, heavily tattooed holidaying man from Frome had followed me out over the rocks in my attempt to reach a small remote cove that had been rendered even more remote due to the closure of part of the coast path. We hurdled and climbed stone together for half a mile, until we reached a sheer twenty foot wall of slate, and I let him go on alone, swimming in an inlet – gazpacho water to the cloudy lemonade of my favourite cove – and watching as he waved and cheered to me from a distant pinnacle, having reached his destination. Besides that, though, I’d been a loner for a week. “Yes, I’ve done a lot of swimming, but I haven’t done any social swimming, and I deserve that,” I told myself, realising you can argue a case for how deserving you are of any treat, if you approach it from the right angle. I picked Charlie up from the train station in the later part of the morning and we drove to the moor, walking several miles through orange and green-speckled woodland and swimming in two natural pools. We leapt off high rocks, javelin-style, and, in order to get photographs of us doing this from the best angle, I waded across the river with the water at chest height, balancing on slimy rocks and holding my camera precariously aloft. We walked back to the car with tingling skin, chatting relentlessly. I noticed how open our conversation was, inadvertently so. It was as if the water temporarily had varnished us in extreme truth.
Afterwards, at home, I glanced down at my right leg and noticed a tick feasting on my blood, just above my knee. I was going to try to remove it myself with tweezers but it was in quite an awkward spot and Charlie suggested it might be more sensible to let a doctor do the job. I decided she was right, remembering the night at the end of last summer, after a moorland adventure, when I’d woken up in pain and found an much larger, angrier purple tick in the back of my knee, attempted to get it out but left the head in, ultimately requiring the nurse at my local GP’s to hack into the back of my leg and make a fair mess of it in a procedure that lasted a full twenty minutes.
The doctor’s surgery was closed this evening but Charlie and I headed to the minor injury unit at the nearby Community Hospital, in whose bathroom I located six more ticks, on various other parts of my lower body. The receptionist told me there’d been a lot of it going on today. Charlie, by contrast, had zero ticks. The doctor, perhaps due to recently having removed so many ticks attached to other idiots who walked around Dartmoor with swimming trunks, was immediately short-tempered with me. I’d estimate he was about four years my junior but he talked to me like a naughty child who had spent too long outside playing – which, in a way, I was. As he teased arachnids out of my thighs, ankles and right buttock with a small plastic implement, I tried to lighten the atmosphere by asking questions about ticks. “Are they easier to get out when they’re a bit bigger than this?” I asked, but he cut me off after three words. “Are they easier WHAT? Are they easier WHAT?” he said. I thought fondly back to the time when I was young, my body wasn’t riddled with parasites and I perceived doctors as kind, reassuring figures who didn’t hate me. He seemed to calm down once he’d killed the final tick and he told me about his visits to the vet with his cat and his wife, when his cat sustained a tick, which the doctor said was the only time they ever argued. I assumed he meant the only time he and his wife argued, not the only time he and his cat argued. “But we get it done, and then – hey presto! – happy marriage again,” he continued. I watched the doctor’s tick removal technique quite carefully, and he gave me a tick remover as a going home present, which meant that when at around 8pm I found one extra tick attached to my left testicle, I could remove it myself with a fair amount of precision. By this point Charlie – mercifully for her – had left.
Earlier that day, I’d done a tweet on Twitter about insects, telling people to be kind to them. When I’d tweeted it I’d imagined insects looking at it and thinking, “Look at this guy. I like him. He is cool. He’s on our side.” But that probably wasn’t true. Insects probably viewed a tweet like that in the same way as I viewed the bottle of needy coconut bath gel. They didn’t need anyone cosying up to them and trying to be their mate; they just wanted to get on with the practical business of the day. Thinking ahead to the next few days when I would be checking thoroughly for signs of Lyme’s Disease, I reminded myself not to patronise insects in the future. But it felt nice to be tick-free and have a body that, while not perfect, was feeling tanned and strong from all the sun and exercise. You’re officially not supposed to be aware of your body as a man but I have noticed that all the times I’ve been most aware of my body have been when it has felt nicest to live inside, so I plan to stay that way for the time being.
I stood barefoot on the lawn, on this final evening of astonishing weather, in the failing light. The grass needed a cut and was getting a little damp under my toes. I considered checking on the catshark but instead I decided to trust that smaller creatures were doing their job on it and didn’t need any extra supervision. Instead, I thought for the first time in years of another sea creature: a large plaice someone had mysteriously left on on the side of the A6002 in Nottingham, in the summer of 1989, not far from Bilborough College, which was no place for a big fish. There was a drought that summer and, in the heat, the plaice gave off such a stink that it would make my dad and I squint as we drove past it at 50 miles per hour with the windows open. “THAT FOOKIN’ PLAICE IS STILL THERE,” my dad would tell my mum, when we got home. We must have driven past it six times a week for three months and, each time, it got an infinitesimal bit smaller, but it was an an amazingly resilient plaice. “This is superhuman,” you’d think, before remembering that it was a fish, and not a human, so couldn’t be superhuman. “Just how long can this plaice keep going?” Then it would keep going some more. It was the deceased fish equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen concert. Greyer each day, it held on fiercely to the tarmac. Then, finally, the rain came, and it was gone, its final fragments diluted and dispersed into the huge world.