municipal swimming pool (2005–2011), city park, turnhout
As luck would have it, she landed on her back and could keep her mouth above water. Two weeks before her sixteenth birthday, Nathalie was caught by her long ponytail in the ﬁlter of the paddling pool. The incident occurred on a busy Sunday afternoon, when the adult pool was too crowded for her to swim lengths. Nathalie’s uncle had brought her to Turnhout from the neighboring town of Retie. While waiting for a 25-meter lane, she was playing with her uncle and young cousin in the shallow children’s pool. She was seated with her back to the edge of the pool when she felt a sharp tug on her hair. The back of her head slammed into the tiled edge. Nathalie tried to scramble to her feet but was held down by a painful yanking sensation. She reached for her ponytail – by instinct, we cover the spots that hurt most with our hands – but where it should have been, she felt only the back of her head against the wall of the pool.
From the time her ponytail was caught in the suction outlet to the time of her rescue Nathalie was in no immediate danger of drowning, but throughout those tense minutes she was held in an extremely uncomfortable position.
Pool supervisor Bert was the ﬁrst to rush to her aid. The obvious solution was to cut off the ponytail, but Nathalie was struggling with all her might. This made the trapped ponytail pull even harder; at any moment, the skin and hair might be torn away from her scalp. Her thrashing also made it very difﬁcult for Bert to position the scissors for the liberating snip. The girl was screaming blue murder, perhaps in severe pain or perhaps in protest.
As a pool supervisor, Bert was used to thinking on his feet. Without pausing to interpret her screams, he ruthlessly cut off the ponytail. Nathalie’s uncle and a few concerned bystanders grabbed her and calmed her down, wrapping the back of her head in a towel. Bert – scissors in one hand, lopped-off ponytail in the other – then saw what must have happened. In the exact spot where Nathalie’s head had been held against the edge of the pool, the circulation system had a suction outlet, protected by a cover four millimeters thick. The cover turned out not to have been screwed on securely, so Nathalie’s ponytail had ended up behind it, pulled into the circulation system.
As soon as Bert learned of this fact, he took several immediate steps. He drained the paddling pool and reattached the cover, making sure it was screwed ﬁrmly into place. Problem solved.
Nathalie emerged from the incident free of serious injuries, but very shaken. “It doesn’t really hurt, but it was a shock,” she told a roving reporter from the local TV news.
At her birthday party two weeks later, I saw she had covered the bald spot with a large artiﬁcial ﬂower. It was hideous, but we mentioned it only behind her back.
Since the opening of the swimming pool in Turnhout city park, in October 2005, it has never stayed open for more than three months at a time. All sorts of peculiar defects keep leading to temporary closures: from subsidence and system malfunctions to biblical scenes of its water transformed into milk.
The exorbitant cost and ﬂawed design of the new swimming pool soon caused a scandal in the region. Ten million euros had been spent on it, and it never seemed to be open. The regular swimmers were left with a lot of unanswered questions – above all, whether their annual membership fee would be refunded.
At the time, the whole controversy surrounding the swimming pool largely escaped my attention. Less than four years later in 2009, after repeated electrical failures and water leaks, it became painfully clear that the swimming pool would have to close its doors for good. But by then I was studying ninety-ﬁve kilometers away in Ghent and had other things on my mind, such as world literature and severing my ties with the past. I went swimming once a week in the sublime Art Deco pool by the Leie River in the heart of the city.The boggy terrain of my hometown, and all the forces pulling me back there, were gradually releasing their hold on me. But the Turnhout swimming pool was being sucked in, quite literally.
Below the swimming pool was the boiler room. At an imperceptible yet steady pace, the room was sinking deeper and deeper into the marshy ground. The electrical system’s safety sensors, three-quarters of the way up the walls, were ultrasensitive but not in the most strategic position: they detected leaks from the pool above, but not the rising water from below.The sensors were too high up to be activated until the water had almost ﬁlled the room. Well before that, the boiler and the other machines could be waterlogged beyond repair, and the swimmers above could be electrocuted.
Of course, the pool regulars and other taxpayers had their theories about the closure, but the local authorities were savvy enough to keep the sinking boiler room out of the news. Instead, the public debate focused on a confusing multitude of ever-changing technical issues.
In October 2009, a banner was hung above the entrance to the pool:
TEMPORARILY PERMANENTLY CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE
This unaccommodating announcement seemed designed to permit the authorities to say, “We told you so,” no matter what the future might bring.
In the months that followed, all sorts of investigations took place into ways of improving the electrical system. There were visits from one expert after another. Cost estimates were made and remade, late-night meetings convened – all in the hope of ﬁnding a new reopening date. And sure enough, in January 2011 – after being closed for a year and a half – the swimming pool reopened.
The new era lasted only a few weeks. In April, the banner was retrieved from storage, with a slight adjustment:
TEMPORARILY PERMANENTLY CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE
How often did I swim there myself? Not often enough to justify the signiﬁcance this lieu de piscine now holds for me. In my defense, you often don’t know until after the fact what you should remember, and by then you’re stuck with the things you would rather have forgotten. And vice versa, in this case. Nonetheless, my ﬁrst sight of the new swimming pool is still etched in my mind.
It must have been the ﬁrst summer after the opening, July 2006. I am only fourteen years old and venturing out unchaperoned for the ﬁrst time. Through my red bikini bottoms, my swelling hips are starting to show. My top is an orange polyester triangle, the sharp end pointing down at my exposed navel. On the inside of my wrist is a tribal stick-on tattoo from a bag of chips. I want a new bikini like Eva’s, with high-leg bottoms and two separate pockets on top, one for each of my nonexistent breasts. Eva is playing with Max in the water nearby – her bikini top is a size B with underwire. Max is a chubby ten-year-old boy from her neighborhood with a cute, freckled face and a mischievous smile. When he’s bored, he tries to touch us in places that don’t really interest him but that he knows embarrass us. Eva’s breasts are currently his main target.
It’s really too cold to swim outdoors, but the indoor pool is closed for technical reasons. Eva and Max are in the water; I’m lying on my towel on the grass nearby. Gooseﬂesh, pasty, scrawny, lists the cruel inner voice of a fourteen-year-old girl gazing at herself. It also tells me my belly’s sticking out too much, so I stretch back on my elbows to ﬂatten the imaginary bulge. No one is looking at me in particular, I’m practically invisible, yet I can feel all the eyes of the outdoor swimmers burning into my ﬂesh. I thrust my ﬂat chest out, just in case anyone wants a look after all.
“Don’t do that, Max, stop it!” I hear Eva shouting. Propped up on my elbows near the edge of the grass beside the pool, I can see the lonesome weeping willow in the next ﬁeld. It’s an old hayﬁeld, which grows up to knee level in July. From my perspective, the long stalks seem to brush the bottom of the willow’s hanging branches, and wherever they touch, it’s as if the image is zipped shut and loses depth – a painting by a pupil still struggling with perspective.
I’m reading a modern retelling of the medieval love story of Abelard and Héloïse, set in New York – Arthur and Lois, they’re called in this version. In Latin class, we’ve just translated the myth of Hero and Leander. Tales of doomed romance go well with weeping willows: the combination ignites the pilot light in my fourteen-year-old heart.
I lie ﬂat on my back and then bring my chin to my chest to see the willow poking out just above the long stalks. From this angle, the stalks seem to be climbing the tree, slinging themselves around the branches like ropes. Dangling from the largest branch is a noose of grass.
Eternal afternoon.The colors are radiant. No one has to work. Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966). California sun on men’s bare buttocks. David Hockney’s paintings celebrate the backyard swimming pool as a temple of relaxation, good living and sexual license.
It is August 2017. I am visiting the temporary exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Drove to Paris on impulse. I’ve spent the past weeks working manically on a commissioned series of poems. Before that came a busy year and the year before that was busy too. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t busy. I’m the busy type. I’m probably worn out, but I won’t admit it. Instead, I’m always losing my temper over nothing. The only remedy is looking at art. I try to draw new energy from Hockney’s expanses of pink, blue and yellow. A Bigger Splash (1967): simple forms, a playful explosion, a cheerful palette. The sun is beyond the edge of the canvas, but it must be blazing to judge by the colors, which drip with heat. How distant it seems, a simple life with a swimming pool – too far away ever to reach.
In Portrait of an Artist – Pool with Two Figures (1972), a man, probably Hockney himself, is standing at the edge of a swimming pool. The backyard overlooks a scenic landscape, mountainous, green, deep breath. Yet the man at the side of the pool is not looking out at the view, but down at the nude ﬁgure glimpsed through the water’s surface, swimming towards him. Refracted light marbles the water. The swimmer lies frozen in the pool of blue. It seems improbable that he will surface and look up at his observer. Is it the man’s gaze that traps him underwater, or my own desire to see a cage in everything?
I wander through the exhibition, passing scenes and colors, collages and pencil drawings, pop art inﬂuences and rebellions against them, and portraits of the men in Hockney’s life – again and again, the roguish buttocks, the recurring swimming pools, the years rushing by. A man’s existence in his work. Sixty years of brushstrokes – one way to pass a life.
In the last gallery is Hockney’s video installation, The Four Seasons. Four panels face each other to form a square of screened-off space. I slip through the opening between two. On the inside, each wall consists of nine separate screens, together displaying a single moving image. I install myself on the bench in front of the winter wall.
Woldgate Woods, Winter, 2010: the camera advances down a snow-covered road through the woods at the speed of a careful driver. An earlier vehicle has left tire tracks in the carpet of snow. Along the road are bare trees covered with snow and frost. I watch and the motion pulls me into the image, into the landscape, into the white, and I am the observer, I am the driver, and at the same time I am the slow camera following the road into the woods. Yet I seem not to gain any ground, because the landscape, as I move farther into it, does not change, or at least so I thought, because now, before I know it, the snow-covered road is not only on the screen in front of me but also behind me; I am on the bench in the museum and in the middle of the snow, moving still deeper into the white landscape – no, letting the forward pull, the mesmerizing image, draw me still deeper into the white. In sync with the slow movement of the camera, I feel – just as I am being drawn through the landscape – salt running through me, as if tears were following the very same snow-covered track through my body. My god, I’m so tired. The white is so pure.