The other day I took my four year-old son for a swimming lesson in the public baths close to where I’m staying in Suffolk. Florine, a fourteen year-old French girl who is over for a week from the village where I live in France, came with me. This was my son’s third lesson and he was clearly past the first flush with his teacher and reluctant to get into the water. While the coach cajoled him down the steps, Florine and I took our seats in the viewing gallery.
“Don’t you want to swim this time?” I asked her.
She shook her head.
“It’s rubbish, this pool (C’est nulle). In fact,” she added, gazing sadly at the rows of swimmers moving sedately and tidily up and down the pool. “It’s not even a pool.”
“What do you mean?”
She threw out her hand.
“Look at it. It’s not a pool. It’s a church! You’re not allowed to do anything here. Pools aren’t like that in France. In France, it’s chaos. (C’est le bordel). People jumping in and shrieking and chasing each other about…Just having fun.”
I had a flashback to the 1970s. Remember? Before Health and Safety. Before the US contagion of litigation.
“And look!” she went on. “There’s a sign saying ‘No diving’.”
“That’s just in the shallow end.”
She puffed out air.
“Why do they have to tell us not to dive in the shallow end? They think we’re stupid or something?”
I smiled and turned to the baby pool to see my son swimming towards his teacher.
I stood up and clapped furiously. His little face peered up at me from beneath the surface of the water as he paddled furiously to keep that tiny island around his nose and mouth from becoming submerged with the rest of him.
“Quick!” I said to Florine. “Where’s the camera?” She handed me my bag and I rushed down to the poolside, switching to film mode. I was picturing my son’s pride at seeing his father’s delight at seeing this moment; a whole chain reaction of joy would be triggered by this film.
As I crouched down a whistle blew.
“I’m sorry love,” the coach said, wading towards me. “No photography allowed. It’s the Children Act.”
The penny dropped: The Internet. Child pornography. The modern world.
Appalled, I stood up, blew my son a kiss and returned to my seat to find Florine laughing and shaking her head.
“I told you. It’s not a pool. It’s a church,” she said.
Afterwards, the coach took me aside and explained. I could film him, she said, but under certain conditions. We’d set them up. Next time.
“He can get his badge, though. Today,” she said encouragingly. “He can pick up his five metre badge from reception.”
I looked down at my son.
“Did you hear that? You won a badge!”
His face lit up.
“What’s a badge?”
“It’s fantastic,” I said. “We’ll go and get it now and you can show Dad when you get home.”
I had spoken too soon. At the reception I met with the inimitable, close-mouthed, compensatory smile of UK officialdom, the one that’s always, always accompanied by an “I’m sorry Madam but…”
THEY HAD RUN OUT OF 5 METRE BADGES. I looked down at my son who was looking up at me expectantly. Then I turned back to the woman behind the desk. But how could they run out of five metre badges? Did they not comprehend the emotional stakes they were dealing with here? Instead I asked,
“When do you think you’ll receive them?”
“Should be some time over the next few weeks.”
Florine was laughing. I wanted to cry.