By Sarah Clarke
I stood shivering in my wet costume in the swimming pool changing area. And waited. She didn’t come. She’d always come before. But this time she didn’t come. I must have been 4 or 5 years old.
Here you are, said the pool attendant, towering like a giant over the counter. Take your basket and off you go and get changed before you catch your death of cold.
I froze. I needed my mum to help me get dressed.
The basket was almost bigger than me. It was a metal affair shaped like a coat hanger at the top with a small cage at the other just big enough for shoes and a small bag. My coat hung limply from the hanger. I struggled to keep it off the wet floor by standing on tip-toe and stretching my arms up as far as I could reach. My swimming costume started to feel damp and clammy, goose bumps popped up on my skin, water ran in rivulets down my leg as if I’d had an accident. I hadn’t. It was cold, very cold.
I waited, slowly turning blue. Why don’t you go and get dressed? said the pool attendant. I’m sure you know how. You’re a big girl now. By the time you’re dry, she’ll be here, you’ll see.
I need my mum. Where’s my mum? Panic made my voice shake as I fought back the tears. Where’s my mum? I need to find my mum!
She should be here. She’d always been here after every lesson before, waiting to wrap me in a towel as I ran dripping wet into her arms and excitedly asked: Did you see me? Was I the best fish in the class? Yes, you swam like a fish today, she’d say.
It’s ok, said the lady. You can go and look for her if you like.
Needing no encouragement, I hurried pool side,splashing through the awful disinfectant footbath that I normally tried to jump over. No time for acrobatics now. And there she was, deep in conversation with the swimming instructor, oblivious to events unfolding in the changing room.
Mum looked up, surprised to see me there. Sarah what on earth are doing here? Have you dropped your knickers in the wet? I thought you’d be dressed by now. Off you go. Hurry up. You’ll catch a cold. And with that she returned to her conversation.
And that was the day I grew up. In that moment, I learned to stand on my own two feet. To be independent. To accept the unexpected and go with the flow. Her no fuss approach was exactly what I needed. The panic dissipated. I went back to the changing rooms, got dressed and proudly handed my empty basket to the attendant. Yes, the buttons of my cardigan were misaligned, the bottom of my coat got dirty and my knickers were dropped in a puddle but I did it!
[Postscript: As an adult, I recounted this story to my mum. She had no recollection of it. I told her it was the only time during my entire childhood that I remembered her not being there. She watched every awful school play, sat through excruciatingly bad concerts, was always ready with tea when I came home from school, ferried me to and from parties, after school activities and music lessons, supervised homework, looked after me when I was sick, never missed anything. She was just there. And at 88 she is still there at the end of the telephone whenever I need her]