By Douglas Kruger
HAVE you ever been to the best show on the Island? It’s not the parades. It’s not the mounted productions: Scrooge, Beowulf, Shakespeare. It’s not even the co-ordinated drones drawing living creatures in the night sky, mirrored by the waters of the bay below.
It’s the rock pool at Havre des Pas.
Specifically, the expressions of newcomers as they enter it.
Over the past weeks, the weather in Jersey has been blistering. All too familiar for an ex-South African. Even the meerkats at our zoo have been saying, ‘Bro, feels like home!’
And under such a pulsing sun, a visitor to our shores might be forgiven for expecting the local rock pool to be at least tepid.
It isn’t. Turns out, you could keep vegetables fresh in it. On a good day, it may all look somewhat Jamaican. But it feels Swedish.
My sister recently visited the Island, and because she harbours a masochistic streak, she made a daily habit out of swimming there. It meant that, unless I wanted my manhood questioned by my younger sibling, I had to, as well. The number of body parts I lost to hypothermia was minimal, and mostly constituted unimportant appendages anyway.
Nevertheless, I got to spend hours sitting on those steps, watching the human drama as people attempted to submerge themselves in our little Arctic tundra.
They go through five distinct phases.
Stage One is ‘Joyful anticipation’. At this point, their souls are unbroken, their bodies untraumatised, and their expressions reflect shades of naïve anticipation: ‘This will be great!’ No one has yet broken the news to them. Giddiness is the order of the day.
Then their toes make initial contact with the water.
At this point, our subjects enter Stage Two: ‘Dawning realisation’.
If this stage had a musical score, that’s when you would hear the ominous base note ubiquitous in horror movies, the one that has you yelling at the screen: ‘Turn back!’
Some will. But many have no sense of self-preservation. They are, symbolically, the guy who sticks his head into the dark cabin, saying, ‘What? There’s nothing in here!’
If our bathers can endure the physical pain, they will then wade out to their shins. Then their knees. Then there is a moment of meaningful hesitation, in which they consider what will happen when the icy liquid floods the garden of good and evil. This is accompanied by a sort of horrified inward look.
Stage Three: ‘Involuntary screaming’. Occasionally, spasming as well.
The giggling has long since evaporated. It is generally replaced first by somewhat saltier language, even among the grannies, but ultimately, by uncontrolled animal shrieks, of the kind David Attenborough narrates in wildlife scenes, after using the word, ‘Unfortunately…’
Stage Four. Here two paths diverge. It’s either the bold plunge and the Victoria Cross for bravery, or abject retreat, in the full knowledge that no medal of valour shall ever be displayed above the mantel piece.
I love the plungers. Their faces make life worthwhile.
But then a strange thing happens…
Stage Five. Betrayal. You will hear: ‘Actually, this is lovely!’
This is because our subjects have completely lost their minds. Total mental meltdown. Neurons spark like fireworks, then hiss and become steam, and gentle, mindless clown music is now the soundtrack to their lives. Their facial expressions become placid. Intelligence has left the building.
Morals die too. These now perfectly mad individuals will betray colleagues, close friends and even family members, with phrases like, ‘Come on in, it’s great!’ All bonds of loyalty have been dissolved.
It’s splendid entertainment, and it’s free.
My two favourite incidents:
The first was the small child swimming out toward his mother. He literally screamed, then swam a stroke, then screamed again, then swam another stroke. Marvellous to behold.
The other was the visiting family from up north (you could tell by the way they said, ‘Oonder water’, and not ‘under’). Six members strong, they spent fully ten minutes in Stages One and Two, agonising, swearing, shivering and goading one another: ‘You first’. They did all this with two inches of water over their ankles, a metre out from the bottom step.
Then a woman in her eighties barrelled right past them and into the water, swimming off into the distance like it was nothing. The whole family fell silent and watched. The gents in the group quietly reconsidered their manhood.
Apparently, it’s really good for you. Cold swims. And I suspect it would be, but for one thing that’s actually not funny about our pool, and that is that bottom step. It’s lethal.
Spend more than ten minutes watching, and you’ll see at least three kids lose their footing and crack the back of their heads on the bare concrete.
I have to wonder how many decades this has been happening, and when it might occur to someone to do something about it. Chip that smooth concrete a little? Add a grainy surface? It’s literally a single step causing the problem – the others are less smooth, and don’t get covered in slippery seaweed.
Nevertheless, the pool makes for a brilliant study in how human beings navigate self-inflicted pain. And you can watch it all year round. People even do these swims in the gloomy depths of winter. And if you’re quite mad, it’s as good a way as any to prove it to the world.
Douglas Kruger lives in St Helier, and writes books to keep himself out of mischief. When the seagulls aren’t shrieking, he records them too. They’re all available from Amazon and Audible.