Swimming Away From The Virus

Jo Somerset

I’ve avoided writing about life during lockdown because it felt like giving in to the virus, inflating its status from ‘poxy’ to ‘powerful’. I even took a seven-week tour of Scotland to avoid Manchester life in semi-isolation. My partner and I couldn’t bike across Europe (original plan), but we could cross another border, to Scotland, and travel oversea to the Hebrides. You could call it a Covid Compensation.

But six months later, Covid is still here so I’m forced to think about it and take evasive its action against its clutches returning. Once was enough.

While most of the UK bathed in a heatwave this summer, very un-Scottish weather prevailed in the far north: no downpours, and temperatures hovering around twenty degrees.  My partner and I swam twenty times in those balmy days during July and August.  Yes, it was cold, numbing delicate body parts, and the wind often cut through our flimsy towels as we dried ourselves afterwards.  But we became used to, indeed relished, the buzz of the initial plunge, goosebumps erupting as we swam round and round for five, ten or twenty minutes. If the sun shone, we stayed in longer. Being immersed in the translucent water was far preferable to gazing at it from a clifftop, and its turquoise beauty took our breath away more than the cold.

We felt the kick that Amy Liptrot described in The Outrun: shock followed by thrill followed by exhilaration and ending up feeling ‘reborn and very alive…..with a crazy smile and a bright red salty skin.’

Braving the chilly waters demanded the same deep breath and resolve that the world was facing. The rapid shift in temperature matched the cold reality of Covid-19. As the water flowed around us, faint echoes of the virus evoked the fluidity of our situation, not quite able to grasp the truth.  We’d had a shock and now….? We swam in circles, never daring to stray out of our depth. Waves supported our bodies and then swept us away. Salt-water stung eyes and burned nostrils.  One day we just played in the rough breakers, trying to ride  pounding surf without being dashed onto shingle underneath the surface.

There was much gritting of teeth when stepping into the water, and we had to summon up a strong dose of grin-and-bear-it while acclimatising to the hostile temperature.  Sometimes we didn’t get used to it and emerged shivering and losing body heat, which was countered by a hot cup of tea (sensible) and a tot of whisky (foolish but comforting) as we trembled in puffer jackets.

Risks abounded. Scare stories of lives lost at sea stacked up. John O’Groats: 13 (in 1959), Scapa Flow: 833 (1939), Stornoway: 201 (1919), Butt of Lewis: countless fishing boats lost, each crewed by six men. The deaths rose every day of our expedition.  Heroic lifeboat crews, like NHS workers, risked lives to save others, with a success rate well below one hundred percent.  No clapping, simply a sombre, morbid interest every day, just like the ten o’clock news announcing the Covid death toll as it crept up through single figures to many thousands. 

Often, we were the only swimmers on isolated beaches.   We faced hazards but we weren’t foolhardy. I wore PPE – neoprene socks and a hat. Enough to ward off the extremes, but not always enough to insulate.  We acted within self-imposed limits dictated by external guidelines: no swimming after a meal, stay in one’s depth, don’t venture into rough seas, get out if you’re too cold, beware the underwater drag when the tide is receding. 

We are not avid wild swimmers, nor even regulars at our local pool, but some sort of magic transformed our journey round the north coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.  It wasn’t a holiday, nor even a voyage of discovery. This was an escape, a type of purification. The dips during our ten-island trip became repeated baptisms, cleansing the impurities of the coronavirus world.  We dived underwater and emerged decontaminated from the North Sea, Moray Firth, Atlantic Ocean, the Minch between Lewis and the mainland, the Sea of the Hebrides, Sound of Harris and Firth of Clyde.  The sins of the Greater Manchester re-lockdown in August were purged. 

Even the still waters of a sea loch and midge-ridden waterfalls of the river Brittle in Skye endowed a gratifying glow as we paddled and splashed, soaked and wallowed. On dry land we revelled in the zing of smarting skin, deadened white fingertips and icy nose, the rush of blood when towelling faces and hair.

But always there was the return home, the solid footing of the shore, the comfort of dry clothes. Back to normal. Which normal? Hiding under towels, we turned our backs on our corner of life, people walking dogs or picnicking, and shrank our ‘normal’ to something we could understand. Attending to immediate needs of warmth and sustenance meant we could ignore the wider world. Day after day.  Refuting the illness that felled us five months ago.

We indulged in wishful thinking.  Surely we were immune from re-infection, just as our resistance to cold had increased in this short space of time? Bare feet and heads under water were bearable, we’d toughened up and our bodies and minds could now fight adversity.  Or had we really spent those weeks swimming away from trouble?  Maybe we were just benefitting from a good summer where unpleasant things are more tolerable. Or, in our outdoor life, just putting into practice the government’s exhortations. That’s the thing: nobody knows.

Find Jo at https://josomersetwriter.wordpress.com or on Twitter @josomerset 

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