Serps Gala

Serpentine & South London Swimming Club annual gala

It was the eyes of the old timers that got to me. They’d just slid into the water for the start of the first race of the annual SLSC vs Serps gala, and their eyes had gone all wide and taut with that I-will-not-scream-out-loud expression that’s probably familiar to people like them. But not to me. I was a newbie. And the water was seven degrees.

“Christ, look at their faces,” I whimpered to Lucy, “It must be bloody cold.” “Oh, don’t worry,” Lucy chirped. “They’ve all done it thousands of times. And look! They’re absolutely fine!”

I was about to reply, darkly, that it rather depended on the criteria by which one certified them when I was distracted by an irritating flashback: when I was about seven my older brother told me, with delicious drama, that at his school they’d had to close down the unheated outdoor swimming pool because a boy had dived in, had a heart attack, and died. And his heart ought to have been pink and springy and pumpy with youth. Mine was – well, it was better not to go there.

The first race ended. Nobody had died. They all managed to exit the water without the help of a hoist and then – my goodness, the outfits they put on! The best was Nancy’s. She was dressed as a giant terry-towelling jellyfish. The worst thing was, I coveted it.

I was to swim in the third race. It was a breast stroke race and I’m rubbish at breast stroke, but I really didn’t care. I swam as fast as I could, not because I wanted to win the race, but because I wanted to get out. I came last by a long way, but weirdly enough, by the time I touched the other side, I was quite light with happiness. And as I climbed out into the gorgeous, sultry November air, I realized at last why people get involved in this unlikely pursuit. It makes you high. It’s drugs for people who can’t afford the real thing.

Afterwards there were cakes and pies – lots of them. And people made speeches. It was touching to learn that we’d suffered in the name of one Doug Smith, who’d been a member of both Serps and SLSC, and in whose memory the gala had been created. It was his wife who’d made the remarkable spread of food. And the results, well, I don’t remember the details but we definitely lost. To blame, apparently, is the fact that the Serps are getting younger – doubtless another strange side effect of cold-water swimming.

Polly Evans