The urge to pee hit me as soon as I turned from the lane way that led off Prospect Hill Road and caught my first glimpse of the public swimming pool in Camberwell.
The artificial blue of it, a pretend sapphire.
My sudden urge was never so bad that I couldn’t hold on as we walked through the gate and paid our entry fee; then dawdled past bodies draped on towels or flat out on the concrete soaking up the heat; then finally beside the toddler‘s swimming area, and past the shower block with its sign urging patrons to wash before entering the pool.
Not many people showered. The water in the tiled shower block, a box at the top of the hill with open doors that created an archway and two sets of taps on each side wall allowing four people to shower at once. These taps offered only the coldest of water non chlorinated. Worse still because the shower block was in the shade of a row of cypress trees.
Once beyond the shower block you had a choice: dawdle down the concrete ramp to the base of the dressing room, sandals flapping, or take the steep blue stone steps down to the top section of the rooms.
Cones from the cypress trees studded the gaps between the steps and lined the gutter that flanked the rooms.
Everywhere, pool, change rooms, seats and signs were painted blue, but inside the rooms were a murky yellow that had turned to a dun brown with green doors that reminded me of a dungeon, especially around the toilet block which was separated from the lockers by an opening. The toilets were built below the swimming pool, which must have leaked. There were traces of green slime that slid down the walls of the toilet areas in a slow-moving trickle and finished in a puddle in the corner.
In these rooms as I peed safe behind the closed toilet door, I plotted how best to manage the stripping from my day clothes into bathers. If I’d had enough presence of mind before I left home, my bathers were underneath my dress and it was simply a matter of peeling it off then hanging the dress from a hook. If we’d left in a hurry and I needed to put my bathers on from scratch, then I agonised how best to remove my underwear and dress without being seen.
All the time I tried to behave as I saw the women and girls around me behave. They peeled their dresses or shirts off over their heads and unsnapped bras and slid out of underpants to reveal pink breasts and round bottoms with careless disregard for the watching eyes of other bodies in the room.
Not me. I wanted to go into one of the five cubicles that stood at the far end of the change rooms opposite the toilets. These rooms were designed for those who needed to shower post swim. Something I never bothered with, though as my body grew into the shape of a young woman with breasts and pubic hair, I took to wanting a shower simply to avoid the gaze of my two sisters who laughed at my excess modesty. As if they never felt like me.
For the best part of my school year, I hid behind my uniform as a boarder where we were rostered for baths three times a week, at any time of the day. Boarders loved their baths and hung out for the delicious pleasure of soaking under water for the allocated half hour when we could clean the grime and grease from our bodies. It puzzled me that I should bathe in the middle of the day, take off dirty clothes, wash myself and then replace the dirty clothes onto my now clean body.
At home we showered at night or in the morning, but in boarding school every morning before we dressed for the day we filled our separate urns with water from the taps outside the dormitory, poured water into our basins and used a face cloth to splash water onto our crutch and underarms. Sufficient cleansing until our thrice weekly baths.
On Saturday mornings we washed our hair, all of us in a long line, stooped low over the basins outside the year seven classrooms. My sister and I could not afford shampoo and so we used Lux soap on our heads, in stealth again in the hope that others might not notice the absence of the proper product for shampooing.
When it came my turn to bathe, I sang in the bath loud and strong. I sang knowing that the bathroom was across the way from the study when my bath time was rostered for four in the afternoon, when I knew the boarders would be at their books and they might hear me.
I liked to imagine my voice penetrating their ears, even as I feared a knock at the door telling me to pipe down. I rested my body hidden under the soap suds and thought of how Sister Anastasia had told us our bodies were sacred. Some of us might even want to dedicate them, as she had done, to God. When the nuns bathed, Sister Anastasia told us, they wore a loose cotton shift so as not be tempted by the sight of their own naked bodies.
Little wonder the idea of becoming a nun appealed to me. The idea of hiding behind my habit, all black in winter or all white in summer. A much surer disguise than my short-skirted school uniform.
I sang religious songs in the bath, the popular ones of the day, folk music was infiltrating the staid Latin tradition of the church, the world was creeping in. Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn, Lord of the Dance and Kumbaya. I was a modern spiritualist and imagined myself as the singing nun, Souer Sourire, a French nun who played to audiences around Europe guitar in hand. In readiness for my vocation, I practised an impression of holiness and to do so I went to Mass every morning early.
Early morning Mass was compulsory in the boarding school only on Sundays and once during the week. To impress, I made it every day. And sat there alone in the chapel, the only boarder in the student front section of the chapel while behind me the voices of the row upon row of dark nuns, singing like blackbirds at the entrance hymn. As the only boarder present it was my job to ring the bells at the Eucharist time and to announce various turning points in the Mass.
No one taught me this. I learned then as I learned to swim by watching other people. I feared titling the handle of the bells, four of them held together by a brass knob, at the wrong time, and have all eyes upon me for my mistake.
After one such Mass my favourite nun approached me. Not over my bell ringing.
‘Your suspender belt is pulling at your dress,’ she said. ‘I think you’ve outgrown it. You need to tell your mother.’ I could not get away from her fast enough. Not only had she noticed me my body. She had noticed that my body was overextending itself. I was getting fat and even my school uniform could not hide it. Better the agonies of school life than to endure my fear when I returned home and went to shower in the family bathroom.
There under the warmth of the rushing water splashing over my body, I was on hyper alert for the moment when my father might barge through the door.
There are to be no locks on our doors,’ my father said to my mother, when she asked one day if we might consider a lock on the toilet. For privacy. So many people in the one house.
The toilet was one thing. I had mastered the art of getting on with my business fast. The shower another. To shower needed the removal of all your clothes. Total exposure, the vulnerability of my nakedness. A vulnerability I have not overcome to this day.
Not for me the nudist camp. Not for me, the naked art installation where thousands of people gather together naked for the pleasure of the camera’s eye. Not for me the risk of invasion that comes when you take off your clothing and expose yourself to invasion.
Far better to hide.