“When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers, suffers most in the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind.
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.”
There are moments in life when one is privileged to observe simple every-day human interaction without the risk of personal involvement, events which - even though they might appear mundane to the uninitiated - are none the less supercharged with a sense of drama and poignancy so touching and intense that it leaves one almost breathless. The events I observed on a dull Sunday morning could have easily been discarded as trivial, or worse still could have been missed altogether. It may be that my own overactive imagination coloured these events to raise them above the mundane, although I was neither in an imaginative nor in a very observant mood.
I must confess that - if anything - I was slightly bored. I was - in a way - pressured into escorting the family to an outing, where I was - by my own choice - excluded from active participation and was relegated into the position of a detached onlooker.
It was Sunday, the tenth of September in the year 1995. A typically dull, grey, autumnal day, the kind of Sunday that only seems to happen in England. After an uncharacteristically long, hot and dry English summer that left the landscape parched, on that weekend the heavens finally opened to drench the thirsty land.
We spent the weekend with my son and his family in Pennington and on the morning around half past nine we set off in their car - in pouring rain - to take the family on an outing to the Bournemouth leisure pool complex. It seemed an ideal plan to keep the children amused on such a miserable morning.
I personally have long avoided these kind of outings, to me the idea of dipping myself into a pool full of chlorine and screaming kids is totally abhorrent. I was not very enthusiastic about sitting on the sideline watching either, but a kind of perverted sense of duty prevented me from making excuses and so I tagged along aimlessly and without enthusiasm.
This was my first visit to the complex. As far as new, modern leisure pools go, this can certainly be called attractive even by a disinterested grumpy old man like me. The spectators enclosure is by the poolside, cordoned off from the leisure seekers by ropes only and so it offers the visitor a sense of intimate belonging, without the slightest risk of being involved in active participation. The enclosure is furnished with white plastic garden chairs around white plastic garden tables, with colourful parasols adding a touch of mock Mediterranean luxury. On that morning this was against a backdrop of the gloomiest South England seaside scenery imaginable and observable through the large panoramic windows that form the outside limit to the enclosure.
On my arrival there was only one elderly couple sitting at a table nearest to the entrance. I positioned myself three tables further on as a gesture of respect for their privacy. The rest of the enclosure was temporarily closed two tables further on. As my family was still inside the changing rooms, for a while I was just observing aimlessly the surroundings and the comings and goings of the bathers.
Slightly to my left, at the shallow end and no more than about ten yards from me, there was a blue plastic slide in the water, providing endless amusement to younger children, who - with the seemingly inexhaustible energy, characteristic only of the very young - kept climbing up the steps in order to slide splashing into the shallow water with shrieks of delight. Parents, standing knee deep in the water, surrounded the slide watching the children’s amusement. Amongst the parents a man in his early thirty’s was supervising two pretty little girls, one about four, the other about six years old, occasionally catching them as they splashed down into the water. He was seemingly alone in charge of his children, in contrast to most of the other family groups, where both parents and grandparents participated in the children’s romping.
As my eyes wandered around the pool aimlessly a young female entered the spectator’s enclosure. She passed me with a self assured stride and sat down by the second table from mine. She was wearing blue denim jeans and jacket over a white sweat-shirt and had a small rucksack type hold-all casually slung over her shoulder, which she placed on the table before sitting down. She was about five foot seven tall, attractive looking in her twenties, with jet black straight hair cascading down below her shoulder blades. Her face was fine and pretty, with a rather noticeable Gaul nose jutting proudly forward. My impression was that she was probably French by origin.
At that stage my family arrived from the changing rooms into the pool area and my attention focused on them, my eyes following their aquatic activities. The atmosphere inside the pool was slightly soporific however and as my family split up into smaller groups anyway for their various entertainment, it was getting progressively more difficult to focus on them alone. My eyes started to wander again in an effort to stay awake. Well that is my excuse and I stick by it, rather than to confess that the young woman fascinated me in some way. Just because several and certain parts of my body do not function as they used to, it does not mean that my eyes don’t operate or that I am brain dead. The image of an attractive young female can still cause a slight ripple in my grey matter, even though the impulse does not necessarily reach any further.
There was something about the whole demeanour of this girl that attracted my attention. She seemed aloof and detached from everyone inside the pool, yet I was certain that she was there for a purpose, rather then just as a casual visitor. There was a touch of sadness about her as she sat alone surveying the scene. Not intending to embarrass her or get embarrassed myself by being discovered as an ogler, I confined my observation of her to an occasional side glance, whilst following the merriment of various members of my family.
Suddenly she stood up and slinging her little bag over her shoulder she walked out.
- She was just a visitor after all - I thought and I would probably never have remembered the incident had it not been that within about five minutes of her walking out she reappeared, this time inside the pool, dressed in a one piece swim-suit that exposed a perfect figure. Now she was not only attractive looking, but positively eye-catching. She had a towel in her hand which she placed carefully by the wall furthest from the water, before she entered the pool at the shallow end, wading past the slide where the younger kids were romping happily.
Here, as she passed the man with the two little girls, she paused momentarily without looking at him or the little girls. At that moment - and I do not know why and how - I connected the man and the girl. Seemingly nothing passed between them at that stage, not even a fleeting glance from either of them, yet it seemed obvious to me that these two knew each other. Her pause by the man was so brief it was hardly perceivable, as she waded further in before she started swimming to the furthest edge of the pool at the deep end, where she stopped and hung on to the edge with one hand. The man having just caught the younger daughter sliding into the water, after a quick hug, he placed the little girl on the first rung of the steps and backed away casually. Slowly, keeping an eye on the daughters and waving to them, he edged backwards toward the deep end until he was deep enough to swim. A few back strokes later he was next to the young woman, at a respectable enough distance from her not to make physical contact, but near enough to confirm beyond any doubt that there was a connection. The two spent a few seconds in silence then they exchanged a few words, without the man looking at her even once, before he swam back to the little girls, trying to pretend that he just left them for a brief swim. The girl had a short swim herself before ending up at the same spot again, where the man shortly joined her once more in the same fashion. This time they stayed together a little longer, the girl hanging on to the edge of the pool with one hand, resting her cheek on her arm looking at the man lovingly and with the obvious expression of torment of a young woman caught up in an illicit affair, whilst the man never even glanced at her once during whispered conversation, that had all the hallmark of secret passion. They parted again soon, the man returning to his children and the girl following his every move with sad eyes. This charade with slight variations was repeated two or three times more, before the man finally returned to his children, standing casually by the slide as if nothing had happened. The girl waded past the man on her way out of the pool, pausing again for a brief second before she left the water. She walked aimlessly around the poolside for a few minutes, then sat down by the edge of the pool behind the man, one foot dangling in the water, the other leg drawn up and held by both arms close to her chest, whilst she rested her chin on her knee. There was anguish, lethargy and longing in her poise that touched my heart. I had this sudden almost uncontrollable urge to get up, go to her and tell her to try to forget this affair, look for a man she could be happy with instead. But I did not move. This was none of my business after all I tried to convince myself, whilst somehow I was absorbing all her pain and torment unwittingly. I do not know why, but by some strange force I became entangled in her emotional turmoil.
She sat there for a while with that melancholy aura radiating from her firm young body, before she finally stood up, picked up her towel and left for the changing room. About the same time my family waved to me indicating that they were ready to leave the pool. I stood up and moved outside to wait for them. I had this uneasy feeling of somehow failing to communicate with the girl, an unsatisfactory ending to an unsolicited encounter that - although it was not my affair, never the less - effected me with its tragic hopelessness. I was now determined that should I see her outside, I would talk to her to tell her that these involvements can only cause agony and torment to all concerned, that it was her duty and obligation to see that neither she nor the man and his family were hurt any further.
I stood outside the changing room, waiting for my family. The girl appeared and walked past me. I stood frozen to the spot. She went back briefly to the spectators enclosure, before returning to pass me again within an arm’s length . I made a vague move to halt her and froze again. She moved towards the lobby.
- I must talk to her! - I panicked and moved to follow her. I saw her step outside into the rain and I ran to the door. I followed after her. The grey sky was flooding the streets with large teardrops. She disappeared into the glum, grey, wet dullness of the Sunday street. I stood there feeling angry, frustrated and upset and I could not even understand why.
The events I had just witnessed were not earth shattering. On a global scale, compared to the miseries and devastation of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the carnage and desolation caused by a natural disaster in South East Asia, or the hopelessness of some hunger torn African countries, this little melodrama was less than a pin-prick. On a Universal scale it never happened. Why then did it have such an effect on me? I am old enough to know better.
Yet, I witnessed a soul in torment and in spite of my good intentions I did nothing to offer help, solace, comfort or advice even. It was none of my business... but somehow I know it was... and I failed...
I believe that the distress of even one soul is the pain of all humans. Whether you feel it touches you, or it passes you seemingly unnoticed, no one is entirely free from the agony of another.
In the dull gloom of an early autumn Sunday, the dolour of a stranger touched my heart. The ache - albeit diminished - stayed with me for some time until a subsequent anguish of my own soul overshadowed the events. A stranger’s encouraging smile offered me some momentary solace... then I remembered the girl’s pain again... and my failure to offer at least some form of succour to her overwhelmed me once more.
It never stopped raining that day. Perhaps - after all - the heavens have the capacity to cry for even one soul in torment.
© P. J. Oszmann (December 1995. Revised 2004)
© Illustration created in Photoshop (2005)