"Everybody throw your toy into the water and encourage your child to swim towards it", is the last thing an innocent young mother hears before I lob a plastic cow into her face.
It was an accident obviously – although I'm sure I saw her letting her son wee in the pool so she's not totally blameless – but swimming used to involve 10 lengths and a slow simmer in the steam room. Now it's a weekly test of mental strength and social weirdness involving farm animals.
The ordeal begins in the changing room which to a small child is one of the most fascinating places on earth mainly because it is full of naked people they can loudly comment on. "Daddy he's very hairy isn't he?" is the kind of question that has no acceptable answer. Start trying to defend a stranger's back-carpet and the conversation quickly spirals into an embarrassing debate: "But daddy look, it goes right over his shoulders."There are no winners there. Instead I try and refocus my daughter's attention on mastering the complexities of her swimming costume by explaining how hard it is to do breast stroke with two legs in one leg hole.
That's if she hasn't exploited any drop in my level of concentration to streak around the room, screaming with delight, before hiding in a locker.
In the old days I'd go to the loo before starting my swim. Now I decline all liquids in the hours leading up to my daughter's lesson. Public swimming pool toilets aren't the most endearing of places at the best of times, especially if you've forgotten your flip-flops, but they're particularly disconcerting if you have a bare-footed child splashing through the puddles around you.
And there is always a point when their attention turns to the colourful yellow balls in the urinal, if you're not on guard they will try and have a good rummage through them before popping a couple in their mouths.
The walk from the changing room to the pool is the next challenge. It's literally paved with danger – slippery tiles over which most children find it physically impossible to walk sensibly. If I haven't had to growl 'stop running' at least five times I mark it down as a small victory for parentkind.
Once we reach the water I relax, all I have to do here is stop her drowning. She walks across the shallow end with her face submerged before claiming she's totally nailed this swimming malarkey, courageously batters other children out of the way before diving headfirst down the slide and splashes me in the face as hard as she can from a distance of 2cm. She is happy; parenting feels like a doddle all of a sudden. And then the lesson starts.Initially she listens intently, dipping her ears beneath the surface in preparation for the days when she's learning the front crawl – I'm not sure this is really going to make or break her chances of Olympic success - and dunking her head while blowing bubbles before emerging, hopefully searching out the teacher to check she has seen and is suitably impressed.
But there's only so much structured learning a girl who clearly believes she was once a whale, or at least some kind of strange Disney mermaid princess, can take before the pull of the open water becomes too strong.
"I want to swim on my own now," she utters, ignoring the evidence we have collected during every visit to the swimming pool we have ever made that suggests the moment I let her go she will sink.
"We need to listen to the teacher really carefully and do what she tells us," I explain trying to act like one of those responsible parents I've seen about the place. My daughter looks at me with an expression that says, "YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND, I HAVE TO SWIM" and attempts to squirm out of my arms, creating a scene that from a distance might look as though a man has picked a fight with a baby seal.
No matter how vehement her protests, she can't swim on her own. Until of course, one day, she can. Sort of. With a spaghetti float wedged under her armpits she sets sail across the pool, demanding I stand back. Her progress is slow, mainly because each one of her limbs seems to be acting completely independently of all the others. But she's so exhilarated she's laughing uncontrollably and shouting, "I'm doing it on my own. I'm doing it on my own!"
It's Free Willy meets Good Will Hunting, a feel good moment that should really be immortalised by Hollywood. This makes it all worthwhile.
Back in the changing room we stand next to each other in the shower like old men, shampooing the chlorine out of our hair and reminiscing about that time, five minutes ago, when she swam across the pool. But that's the final moment of calm because now she's hungry and refusing to dry herself until she's eaten a cracker. And there had better be butter on it.
All I have to do while she's nibbling away, scattering crumbs across the wet floor, is get her shoes on before she rushes back to inspect the urinals in her socks; dress myself (there's no time for drying) and smuggle her past the vending machines on the way out (whoever decided to put vending machines in leisure centres needs to own up). We can then head home in damp-haired high spirits knowing we're one step closer to the day I can sit in the café while she learns doggy paddle.
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