Belfast 1951 to 60 in order, Swimming

I become an arm-waver. You know the sort of thing, ‘put this,’ pointing to the right, ‘over there,’ waving at the left, ‘put that ‘ and so on. On the day in question I wanted work done on an outlet, which had become useless through the installation of the wretched cattle-walk, over which, as far as I knew, only a few, if any, animals ever walked or ever would walk.

It so happened that on that day the route to the valve was obstructed by a deep wide trench in the grounds of the sewage works, where a pipe had corroded and was being replaced. The alternative approach was across a temporary bridge, in fact a plank, spanning some ten feet across a channel carrying raw sewage. I am built like a toffee apple on a stick, with my centre of gravity just below my chin – in effect I’m permanently in a state of unstable equilibrium – never at my best crossing planks over voids or sewage. My instinct in this case was to adopt a sort of slithering, one-foot-at-a-time method, drawing the toe of the dragging foot up to the heel of the front one – undignified but trusted and true. At six foot two and thirteen and a half stone, I was about as confident as a cripple on a clothes-line. My guide, the Fitter-In-Charge, a man of no mean girth, at least six feet tall and weighing about four stone more than myself, cantered over the swaying, bouncing plank with total aplomb and a delicacy of step large people often exhibit on the dance floor. I had to follow in my version of like manner, dignity demanded it, I was being watched,. The plank seemed to bounce more for me than for him, and to say I was in a blue funk at the thought of imminent immersion, hits the mark.

We arrived on the other side unscathed and I did my arm waving bit, a little more theatrically than usual in my relief at being spared. True we had to return but by now my confidence had returned. Again the Fitter-In-Charge preceded me. If I was not mistaken his crossing of the plank was even more of a virtuoso performance. He made the plank sway and spring with a rhythm of his footsteps, as if to some calypso in his head. There was no way I could emulate that, but my poor best was a sort of running step with narrow paces – they, the men, were still watching. Unfortunately the F-I-C with his mad caper must have weakened the plank and with a resounding crack it snapped and I was in the unmentionables, one hand grasping a wall-edge, one leg caught on the coping, the rest of me well immersed.

The face which accompanied the helping hand was far too smiling for my peace of mind and the way figures emerged from buildings and from hiding generally, indicated that none were to be denied the sight of the dignity of authority uncloaked.

I stripped, showered, borrowed a set of overalls to a barrage of phrases like, ‘it has happened to us all at some time’, which I knew to be a lie as I had never witnessed it happening to anyone else. I drove home, soaked myself for ages in disinfectant and returned to the office only to discover my shame had preceded me. The phrase going the rounds was, ‘Is it true John can’t swim, he only goes through the motions?’

Categorized as post WW2

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