Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Swimming pools and silence
The lights were dim, and the water was cold as it lapped against my skin. I shivered as I looked around me. The water in the pool was reasonably clean, but I could not see the sparkling bright blue of the tiles, in the dim evening light. Only four tube-lights were working in the entire building. Though that was enough to see by, it only highlighted the loneliness of the pool. I lay back slowly on the surface of the water, kicking gently to keep afloat. The water covered my ears. I was enveloped in a world of silence, and softly muffled water-noises. The asbestos roof over the pool looked comfortingly familiar… and from this position, that was all I could see. The world of sound flashed back into existence for a second, with a soft ‘pop’ in my right ear, as I turned over in the water and began to swim in earnest. Backstroke was good to relax with, but to get anywhere, I needed to use breast-stroke. Not that the other strokes were not as efficient… I was just better at breast-stroke. And almost instinctively, I started with the ‘frog-kick’ as soon as I was in the water. The chlorinated water stung my eyes, so I stood up quickly in the chest-deep water, and waded to the edge of the pool, where my bag was lying. I dug my goggles out and donned them. Then I surveyed the blue-tinged world around. I’d picked blue goggles because black hadn’t been available. Shadows are often used as devices in scary books and movies… but here, the shadows were comforting. They told you where the bench stood, or the curtain flapped… but the corners. Ah, the corners. They were dark. And you could see nothing in them. It was as though they’d sucked all the surrounding light into themselves. Vortices. Abysses. I shivered at the thought. Then I forced myself to stare into the offending corners. This was an old trick of mine. Dating back to when I was five and scared of the dark. I would deliberately go to the toilet at night without the light on. And every time my fears overtook me, I’d stand still and look around in the dark surrounding me forcing myself not to move until the fear passed. While I was frozen thus, I would ask myself what I could possibly be scared of. What could be hiding in the dark. And as I answered myself (monsters, werewolves, tyrannosaurus rex…) I would laugh at each fear convincing myself that it was impossible. I would not move until my heart rate had slowed to normal. When the fears rushed back a few shaky steps later, I would repeat the process. I soon began to love the dark, and feel pride in my ability to navigate the familiar territory of my house with ease, even in the darkest hour of the night. Of course, I sometimes stubbed my toe… but considering the speed I moved at, it might have happened even in broad daylight! Anyway, I tried the same trick this time. Staring into the dark corner and willing it to bring forth the monsters of my imagination. A few images leapt to mind, but it took no effort for me to laugh them away. The scary exorcism movies I’d seen had failed to inspire fear in me for the simple reason that the demons were too unreal. I felt them to be obviously fake. The demons my imagination produced suffered the same fate. Werewolves too, came to my mind with glowing red eyes. I dismissed these as well, as cheap special effects. Vampires, ghosts and ghouls faced the same preemptory dismissal. Giant anacondas, tigers, sharks… all unrealistic. All irrational. But for some strange reason the uneasiness mounted. If the darkness would yield these monsters of my imagination, I would not fear them, for I knew them to be fake, but it was the fact that nothing emerged that made the corners seem oppressive and brooding. Something waiting. Something watching me. Tearing my eyes away from the corners, I dismissed the feeling as paranoia. Then… I proceeded to turn around very slowly, for I suddenly realized that there could be anything behind me. If I had encountered a huge slavering werewolf, with glowing red eyes in mid dive, it’s jaws about to close over my head, it would not have spooked me as much as the calm stretch of clear water that greeted my eyes. Nothing. I was alone. In the blue-tinged swimming pool shed. I shook my head, adjusted my goggles and sank underwater. Once again, all sound shut off. Automatically, I began performing the breast-stroke. For a few seconds I swam mechanically, as my body got used to the cold water. Then, I saw the water world. For the first time I appreciated why ‘JAWS’ had been such a success. I had never seen the movie myself, but from my present underwater perspective, I could see why this world could so easily inspire fear. It was all to do with lighting. Till today, I’d been swimming in the morning, when the lighting is bright and cheerful. The evening light was dim and not all the tube-lights worked. I could not see from one end of the swimming pool to the other. My vision gently tapered off into a dark liquid fog in the distance. Of course, as I swam, the fog retreated, but if an enormous Great White had emerged from the darkness, I would not have been at all surprised. I realized then as I swam, that it is not the monster which scares us. The monster we can handle. The unknown is what is terrifying. If a Great White, had burst out, mouth open to devour me, I would have been slightly relieved. This constant loneliness, was getting to me. I’m fine with loneliness, but this feeling that something was going to jump at me was too much. If I’d known what the something was, I wouldn’t have minded. A shark, I could have handled. Even a tyrannosaurus rex… but the unknown. The unknown was….. scary. Not that I had any defence against any of my monsters. But I didn’t fear any of them. What I would fear, if one of them came upon me, was death. Not the monster itself, but the fate I knew nothing of… for who knows the true nature of death? And if not death, I would fear, not the pain and the hurt of the mutilation so much, as how I would handle it. If I knew how to handle it, I would not fear… but the unknown… ah, the unknown. Anyway, the water-world I encountered, leant itself to the appearance of a shark, or a sea monster, or a murderer who could make murder look like a drowning. And there were no dark corners ahead… just a dark horizon! Looking up, through the water was spooky too. A layer above you. And the blue tiles that floored the pool were constantly dappled with filtered light coming in from the surface. The perfect setting for an X-files murder! When I emerged from the pool, and went to shower, the dark recesses of the line of changing rooms mocked me. If a skeleton, dripping blood and gore had popped out and tried to rape me (hmmm… with what? It’s a skeleton, right? Anyway…), I would have been less scared than I was as I struggled to pull on my clothes in the stillness. When I turned off the lights to leave the pool, I forced myself to stare at the water in the dark for a few seconds. Nothing I could imagine scared me. The fact none of the monsters I visualized materialized… that was what scared me! I suppose, the only people who wouldn’t be afraid would be those who really believe in their theory of the afterlife… or those who see the unknown as an adventure. Everyone else is basically afraid of the unknown. That, I suppose, is why most of us fear death.