This morning, on my way to the pool for a swim I recalled a story my father told me. During World War II, he served with the RAF and for some time was stationed in Egypt. At one point, he said, he was billeted with a Franco-Egyptian family in what was then a leafy suburb of Cairo; Heliopolis. Finding out that he was a keen swimmer, the family suggested he use the nearby facilities of the Heliopolis Sporting Club (of which they were members) and accompany their daughter on her morning swim – she would show him the way. Their daughter was three years old. Each morning she dressed in matching bathing suit, dress and hair bow and led my father to the swimming pool – once there, she would walk in under the turnstile (staff joked to my father that she had been made an honourable life member of the club for her ability to do this), go poolside, pull her dress off over her head, fold it neatly and jump into the pool. Once my father had negotiated entrance and changing facilities, he was able to join her for a swim. When it came time to leave, the little girl climbed out of the pool, dried herself off, pulled on her dress and waited patiently while my father renegotiated the changing facilities. She would then walk him back to her home in companionable silence. In fact, barely a word was ever exchanged between them – there was, of course, a language barrier. However, there was also a common understanding, so nothing needed to be spoken.
I often wonder what became of that child, yet twenty years later, I was to become her. Only this time, the roles were reversed. This time, he showed me the way. He was forty-five years old when he taught me to swim and I know it gave him great pleasure, even more so as I’m sure he did it for her, too. There was, of course, no language barrier, but little needed to be said. We had a common understanding, you see. Later, at school, I was to win my swimming badges and certificates – each one for a greater distance or a new skill. I was, unsurprisingly, workaday proud to have that recognition of my achievements. But, that swimming was about limits, checking boxes and measurement. It was a world away from the freedom, confidence and peace we – me and my Heliopolis sister – experienced when swimming with my father.