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Rediscovery and Recovery Ch. 03

I lost touch with Em very early on after leaving for university; we bumped into each other once or twice in the holidays perhaps, but always when we were in the middle of shopping or something else, and with no time. These were the days before Facebook or even mobile technology, so it's not just that we had no particular reason to keep in touch - we didn't really have the means to do so either. Beyond the age of writing letters, but not yet the age of the text message - we were quite a sad generation in some ways.

*******************

I had accepted the post of Deputy Head of the History and Politics Department of a large, mixed ability secondary school, just on the northern edge of Exeter, just about 25 miles from the town in which I was born and brought up. I had left my job in London at the end of the Summer Term, and the job was to start for real six weeks later, on the 2nd September, but what with having to prepare before the start of term, it had been agreed that I would be contracted from the second week of August; in truth, neither employer wanted to pay for my summer vacation! I told my parents of my plans to find a small house or flat in Exeter, a city which I'd always enjoyed - not so small as to be missing out on city life (having a thriving university helps in that regard) but also not so big as to be without character. But time was against me, and what with the hassle of moving after a very long time in London, I failed miserably to find something suitable on the two weekends I'd allocated to the task.

My mother is, and always has been, a pragmatist, and more or less insisted I returned to the house I grew up in whilst I 'sorted things out'. After all, 25 miles wasn't so far as to be impossible to travel each morning, and I was certain to be outside the catchment area of the school itself. So I sorted my personal effects into two categories; those I would need to have at hand in my parents' house, and those which I could allow to be put into storage. Finding two old photo albums of my life with Eve proved a little painful. Looking through them, I wondered how we'd let it all go so wrong. The photos reminded me of love, of happiness, of friendship too and perhaps most of all, they reminded me of hopes and dreams which Eve and I once shared. I cried. I considered whether I should destroy them altogether, but simply could not; and yet, I did not need them in my new life either, and so they went into a box, one with other things which may or may not ever see the light of day again. But I know where they are should I ever need them.

And I moved back home, and indeed back to the room which had always been 'John's Room' (because Mickey Mouse still said so, on the door!). It was strange, very strange, even though we had agreed that it would be a temporary arrangement, until the end of the year at the very latest, and even though I had insisted that I pay a fair rent for heating, lighting, hot water and to share the food bill. Actually, I took great delight in being chauffeur for my mother's visit to Tesco's Supermarket the first two weekends I was there. Not only could I ensure that some of my favourite food went into the trolley (mothers will tell you that what their sons ate at the age of 14 might not be best served now they'd reached 34) but my wallet was first to pay the bill at the end of the shop. Duty done, but actually, a real pleasure to be sharing such things with a loved one again; don't abandon your chances to do that, ever.

I went to Barcelona for four nights, a short break just to get a little bit of sun and warmth, and because the summer allowed for flights from Exeter's small airport. Really though, I was itching to get on with the next stage of my life, professionally in the main, but in every other way too, as circumstances presented themselves. For that, I needed to be back in Devon.

When term started, I realised what a mammoth job I had in front of me, re-adjusting to a new school, new colleagues and new curriculum. Actually, the curriculum itself wasn't that different (History is History, so to speak), but the teaching patterns, some of the classroom protocols and codes of conduct, that sort of thing, were very different, and it took all my professional flexibility, and no small amount of bluff, to get away with it. I had found myself in a good - possibly great - History department. On a personal level, the staff were friendly, welcoming and showed both respect for and interest in my outsider's point of view. But they were also intelligent, they knew their stuff, and they knew how to teach - pedagogy as it's called. They knew how to teach this type of school child, and they knew how to get examination results without sacrificing the real purpose of school education (which, in case you don't know, is not to pass exams, but to equip our children and young people for the life ahead of them).

For the first month, I was in school by 7.45 every morning and with travel, my day was at least a 12-hour shift. Though school finishes at 3.15pm every day, I chose to stay on to complete the paperwork and forward planning rather than take it home. Having just a few hours a day with my parents in the week would mean that we'd not run out of things to say to each other. Dad loved the fact that the school taught Politics alongside History; 'wish they'd done that in my day' he'd say, lamenting the political ignorance of the younger generations. I'd inherited my liberal (not quite socialist) views from him, and we enjoyed re-establishing that common interest.

My mother, for her part, was more interested in re-establishing my social life!! I think I've already mentioned her suggestions about former school friends. My colleagues at work though were my first thought in terms of finding new friends, and I was grateful to accept an invitation to what had become something of a habit for some of the younger, and single, teachers on a Friday - a few pints in the local pub (if the Sixth form hadn't got there first) followed by an early evening meal together. I tagged along for three weeks (curry/italian/curry) and enjoyed the company, drink and food; though living a car journey away, I could not partake to the extent that one or two others did! But as the alcohol flowed, so too the staff-room gossip, and being officially 'middle-management', and the only Head or Deputy Head of Department there, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. This feeling was not helped in the least when one of the younger female members said (at my slightly early departure the third week) 'Bye John, we can talk about you next!' She was less than half-joking too. By the fourth weekend, I desperately needed an early night and made my excuses. My parents shared a Chinese Takeaway with me, and I was asleep in bed before 10pm.

I woke early the next morning, and went out for a walk to the newspaper shop, only to find that I was there before it had even opened at 8.am. I extended my walk by 30 minutes so as to get a paper, which meant that by the time I got in again, mother had breakfast on the kitchen table, and was planning her day. My arrival encouraged her again to think of planning mine.

'Why don't you go for a swim?' she asked. 'The pool has been refurbished these last few years, and is very popular. There's a multi-gym thingy there as well, you know, rowing machines and weights and things; go and get yourself membership and get some exercise. You really loved the swimming and should never have stopped even if you didn't want to compete as much'

'Mum,' I replied, 'there was no real point in being in the club if you didn't compete, and unless you were prepared to swim every week, every day even, then you didn't get a look in. I enjoyed my time, but I stopped when I needed to. I will, though, wander down to the sports centre later and check things out - it's a good idea and thank you for mentioning it'.

And with that, we turned to eggs on toast and fine English Breakfast tea (about the only bow my mother made to quality in her entire kitchen).

On Saturday afternoon, I went for another walk, this time, a five-mile round trip. The swimming pool had been easy walking distance from school as a kid, but there was no direct bus route home; the two-miles-plus was an ok walk in the summer, but not an option after dark. Still, I retraced childhood footsteps, remembering the short-cuts and reliving some memories. I left my kit bag at home; actually, I didn't have a swimming costume, and summer shorts were not really designed for the gym either. As I approached the pool however, a wave of nostalgia swept over me - a really strange sensation. It's not like I'd stayed away from my home town completely - I'd been here to visit frequently. But this was territory I'd forgotten, this was somewhere I'd been very comfortable, and really very happy as a child. I'd learnt to swim in this pool, and then swam for miles and miles there. I'd won races, medals, certificates and badges; time was, my photograph was on one of the walls of the cafeteria, a 14-year-old embarrassed by his own body, but chuffed to bits with his 'swimmer of the year' cup!

As I walked in, I expected to see Monica - the ever-present receptionist - behind the glass fronted office inside the doorway. But both office and Monica had long gone, and replaced by an open plan arrangement and a blond 20-something chap in tracksuit-come-uniform.

"Can I help?" he asked, pleasant enough.

"I hope so" I replied. "I used to be part of the club here, 20 years ago, and just moved back to the area. Just looking for information about membership, opening hours, that sort of thing".

"Sure," he says, handing me a leaflet. "Membership is essentially free to anyone living in the post-code area, you just pay by the session, discounts if you're unemployed, low-earner, registered disabled and that. If you're wanting to use the gym, there's a compulsory induction session, but it only takes us about ten minutes to show you the equipment, and just let us know when you're coming first time and we'll book that in. Gym is open 10am to 10pm most days, with periodic closure shown on the notice board. Pool is open all day, but is booked in for schools, lessons, swimming club and parties for a good amount of time."

I looked in through the open-glass into the familiar-but-not-quite pool, and sure enough, on top of a giant crocodile were about 20 kids, with parents dutifully accompanying them in the pool and one brave father throwing the children in turn on-top the croc. My new friend continued his patter:

"Lane swimming starts at 7am for the early birds, public swimming is 4.30-6.30 daily and Saturday mornings; Friday night from 8.30pm to 9.30pm is adults only, lane swimming mostly but I'd say the few who come are pretty static for the most part. The coffee shop is open when it's open and there are machines when it's not. When the pool is booked to a party, like now, they get the coffee shop area too to bring their party tea. Bar is open from 7pm in the evenings, but if you ask me, it's a bit of a private drinking club and - no offence - but you probably know the clientele more than I would."

I made a mental note to avoid the bar at all costs. I thanked Stu (for that was his name, or else he was wearing someone else's badge) and then asked whether he minded whether I had a quick look around the centre, to see the refit and refurbishment. "Sure", he said, "but please, no going into the pool area itself, and without so much as a tracksuit on, please don't be tempted to sit on a rowing machine or try the cross-trainer".

With that, I went exploring.

The main sports hall, with its basketball, football, badminton and other lines marked in the floor looked much as it ever did, though obviously the lines had been re-laid and the equipment on view was not as old as my memories. Above the hall, the two squash courts were still used, one of them occupied. There was a viewing gallery into the courts, which had always put me off having a go at the sport for fear of being watched, a strange thing really, given that I didn't mind people watching me swim.

The multi-purpose gym was where a weights room had been when I was younger: two rowing machines, two treadmills, a cross-trainer and still some weights, though contained now within a contraption of some-sort, rather than the free bars and dumb-bells of an earlier generation.

I crossed the corridor to look into the male changing rooms but was surprised to see the sign say 'unisex family changing'. I was aware that this was now quite normal in some newly built sports centres and swimming pools - a large area with individual cubicles and some larger family rooms for privacy, but shared lockers and even shared showers. The trend seemed to be that by giving everyone more privacy in the cubicles, there was no need for gender-specific facilities. Besides which, changes to the way in which public bodies deal with issues of sexuality, not to mention protection for children and other vulnerable people, meant that 'open plan' was a distinctly safer way forward. (I found out later that another pragmatic reason had been a catalyst for redesigning the whole changing area, namely the need to completely renovate the plumbing. Ripping out the pipes strangely necessitated taking down some internal walls- luckily not load-bearing - and it seemed a waste of money to rebuild them.) So, two changing rooms became one huge area. I quite liked it.

I left the sports centre resolved to return for the adult swimming session the following weekend. To say I was looking forward to it was an understatement!I lost touch with Em very early on after leaving for university; we bumped into each other once or twice in the holidays perhaps, but always when we were in the middle of shopping or something else, and with no time. These were the days before Facebook or even mobile technology, so it's not just that we had no particular reason to keep in touch - we didn't really have the means to do so either. Beyond the age of writing letters, but not yet the age of the text message - we were quite a sad generation in some ways.

*******************

I had accepted the post of Deputy Head of the History and Politics Department of a large, mixed ability secondary school, just on the northern edge of Exeter, just about 25 miles from the town in which I was born and brought up. I had left my job in London at the end of the Summer Term, and the job was to start for real six weeks later, on the 2nd September, but what with having to prepare before the start of term, it had been agreed that I would be contracted from the second week of August; in truth, neither employer wanted to pay for my summer vacation! I told my parents of my plans to find a small house or flat in Exeter, a city which I'd always enjoyed - not so small as to be missing out on city life (having a thriving university helps in that regard) but also not so big as to be without character. But time was against me, and what with the hassle of moving after a very long time in London, I failed miserably to find something suitable on the two weekends I'd allocated to the task.

My mother is, and always has been, a pragmatist, and more or less insisted I returned to the house I grew up in whilst I 'sorted things out'. After all, 25 miles wasn't so far as to be impossible to travel each morning, and I was certain to be outside the catchment area of the school itself. So I sorted my personal effects into two categories; those I would need to have at hand in my parents' house, and those which I could allow to be put into storage. Finding two old photo albums of my life with Eve proved a little painful. Looking through them, I wondered how we'd let it all go so wrong. The photos reminded me of love, of happiness, of friendship too and perhaps most of all, they reminded me of hopes and dreams which Eve and I once shared. I cried. I considered whether I should destroy them altogether, but simply could not; and yet, I did not need them in my new life either, and so they went into a box, one with other things which may or may not ever see the light of day again. But I know where they are should I ever need them.

And I moved back home, and indeed back to the room which had always been 'John's Room' (because Mickey Mouse still said so, on the door!). It was strange, very strange, even though we had agreed that it would be a temporary arrangement, until the end of the year at the very latest, and even though I had insisted that I pay a fair rent for heating, lighting, hot water and to share the food bill. Actually, I took great delight in being chauffeur for my mother's visit to Tesco's Supermarket the first two weekends I was there. Not only could I ensure that some of my favourite food went into the trolley (mothers will tell you that what their sons ate at the age of 14 might not be best served now they'd reached 34) but my wallet was first to pay the bill at the end of the shop. Duty done, but actually, a real pleasure to be sharing such things with a loved one again; don't abandon your chances to do that, ever.

I went to Barcelona for four nights, a short break just to get a little bit of sun and warmth, and because the summer allowed for flights from Exeter's small airport. Really though, I was itching to get on with the next stage of my life, professionally in the main, but in every other way too, as circumstances presented themselves. For that, I needed to be back in Devon.

When term started, I realised what a mammoth job I had in front of me, re-adjusting to a new school, new colleagues and new curriculum. Actually, the curriculum itself wasn't that different (History is History, so to speak), but the teaching patterns, some of the classroom protocols and codes of conduct, that sort of thing, were very different, and it took all my professional flexibility, and no small amount of bluff, to get away with it. I had found myself in a good - possibly great - History department. On a personal level, the staff were friendly, welcoming and showed both respect for and interest in my outsider's point of view. But they were also intelligent, they knew their stuff, and they knew how to teach - pedagogy as it's called. They knew how to teach this type of school child, and they knew how to get examination results without sacrificing the real purpose of school education (which, in case you don't know, is not to pass exams, but to equip our children and young people for the life ahead of them).

For the first month, I was in school by 7.45 every morning and with travel, my day was at least a 12-hour shift. Though school finishes at 3.15pm every day, I chose to stay on to complete the paperwork and forward planning rather than take it home. Having just a few hours a day with my parents in the week would mean that we'd not run out of things to say to each other. Dad loved the fact that the school taught Politics alongside History; 'wish they'd done that in my day' he'd say, lamenting the political ignorance of the younger generations. I'd inherited my liberal (not quite socialist) views from him, and we enjoyed re-establishing that common interest.

My mother, for her part, was more interested in re-establishing my social life!! I think I've already mentioned her suggestions about former school friends. My colleagues at work though were my first thought in terms of finding new friends, and I was grateful to accept an invitation to what had become something of a habit for some of the younger, and single, teachers on a Friday - a few pints in the local pub (if the Sixth form hadn't got there first) followed by an early evening meal together. I tagged along for three weeks (curry/italian/curry) and enjoyed the company, drink and food; though living a car journey away, I could not partake to the extent that one or two others did! But as the alcohol flowed, so too the staff-room gossip, and being officially 'middle-management', and the only Head or Deputy Head of Department there, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. This feeling was not helped in the least when one of the younger female members said (at my slightly early departure the third week) 'Bye John, we can talk about you next!' She was less than half-joking too. By the fourth weekend, I desperately needed an early night and made my excuses. My parents shared a Chinese Takeaway with me, and I was asleep in bed before 10pm.

I woke early the next morning, and went out for a walk to the newspaper shop, only to find that I was there before it had even opened at 8.am. I extended my walk by 30 minutes so as to get a paper, which meant that by the time I got in again, mother had breakfast on the kitchen table, and was planning her day. My arrival encouraged her again to think of planning mine.

'Why don't you go for a swim?' she asked. 'The pool has been refurbished these last few years, and is very popular. There's a multi-gym thingy there as well, you know, rowing machines and weights and things; go and get yourself membership and get some exercise. You really loved the swimming and should never have stopped even if you didn't want to compete as much'

'Mum,' I replied, 'there was no real point in being in the club if you didn't compete, and unless you were prepared to swim every week, every day even, then you didn't get a look in. I enjoyed my time, but I stopped when I needed to. I will, though, wander down to the sports centre later and check things out - it's a good idea and thank you for mentioning it'.

And with that, we turned to eggs on toast and fine English Breakfast tea (about the only bow my mother made to quality in her entire kitchen).

On Saturday afternoon, I went for another walk, this time, a five-mile round trip. The swimming pool had been easy walking distance from school as a kid, but there was no direct bus route home; the two-miles-plus was an ok walk in the summer, but not an option after dark. Still, I retraced childhood footsteps, remembering the short-cuts and reliving some memories. I left my kit bag at home; actually, I didn't have a swimming costume, and summer shorts were not really designed for the gym either. As I approached the pool however, a wave of nostalgia swept over me - a really strange sensation. It's not like I'd stayed away from my home town completely - I'd been here to visit frequently. But this was territory I'd forgotten, this was somewhere I'd been very comfortable, and really very happy as a child. I'd learnt to swim in this pool, and then swam for miles and miles there. I'd won races, medals, certificates and badges; time was, my photograph was on one of the walls of the cafeteria, a 14-year-old embarrassed by his own body, but chuffed to bits with his 'swimmer of the year' cup!

As I walked in, I expected to see Monica - the ever-present receptionist - behind the glass fronted office inside the doorway. But both office and Monica had long gone, and replaced by an open plan arrangement and a blond 20-something chap in tracksuit-come-uniform.

"Can I help?" he asked, pleasant enough.

"I hope so" I replied. "I used to be part of the club here, 20 years ago, and just moved back to the area. Just looking for information about membership, opening hours, that sort of thing".

"Sure," he says, handing me a leaflet. "Membership is essentially free to anyone living in the post-code area, you just pay by the session, discounts if you're unemployed, low-earner, registered disabled and that. If you're wanting to use the gym, there's a compulsory induction session, but it only takes us about ten minutes to show you the equipment, and just let us know when you're coming first time and we'll book that in. Gym is open 10am to 10pm most days, with periodic closure shown on the notice board. Pool is open all day, but is booked in for schools, lessons, swimming club and parties for a good amount of time."

I looked in through the open-glass into the familiar-but-not-quite pool, and sure enough, on top of a giant crocodile were about 20 kids, with parents dutifully accompanying them in the pool and one brave father throwing the children in turn on-top the croc. My new friend continued his patter:

"Lane swimming starts at 7am for the early birds, public swimming is 4.30-6.30 daily and Saturday mornings; Friday night from 8.30pm to 9.30pm is adults only, lane swimming mostly but I'd say the few who come are pretty static for the most part. The coffee shop is open when it's open and there are machines when it's not. When the pool is booked to a party, like now, they get the coffee shop area too to bring their party tea. Bar is open from 7pm in the evenings, but if you ask me, it's a bit of a private drinking club and - no offence - but you probably know the clientele more than I would."

I made a mental note to avoid the bar at all costs. I thanked Stu (for that was his name, or else he was wearing someone else's badge) and then asked whether he minded whether I had a quick look around the centre, to see the refit and refurbishment. "Sure", he said, "but please, no going into the pool area itself, and without so much as a tracksuit on, please don't be tempted to sit on a rowing machine or try the cross-trainer".

With that, I went exploring.

The main sports hall, with its basketball, football, badminton and other lines marked in the floor looked much as it ever did, though obviously the lines had been re-laid and the equipment on view was not as old as my memories. Above the hall, the two squash courts were still used, one of them occupied. There was a viewing gallery into the courts, which had always put me off having a go at the sport for fear of being watched, a strange thing really, given that I didn't mind people watching me swim.

The multi-purpose gym was where a weights room had been when I was younger: two rowing machines, two treadmills, a cross-trainer and still some weights, though contained now within a contraption of some-sort, rather than the free bars and dumb-bells of an earlier generation.

I crossed the corridor to look into the male changing rooms but was surprised to see the sign say 'unisex family changing'. I was aware that this was now quite normal in some newly built sports centres and swimming pools - a large area with individual cubicles and some larger family rooms for privacy, but shared lockers and even shared showers. The trend seemed to be that by giving everyone more privacy in the cubicles, there was no need for gender-specific facilities. Besides which, changes to the way in which public bodies deal with issues of sexuality, not to mention protection for children and other vulnerable people, meant that 'open plan' was a distinctly safer way forward. (I found out later that another pragmatic reason had been a catalyst for redesigning the whole changing area, namely the need to completely renovate the plumbing. Ripping out the pipes strangely necessitated taking down some internal walls- luckily not load-bearing - and it seemed a waste of money to rebuild them.) So, two changing rooms became one huge area. I quite liked it.

I left the sports centre resolved to return for the adult swimming session the following weekend. To say I was looking forward to it was an understatement!

recovery   and   rediscovery  

Nov 26, 2017 in romance

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