[ …] You learnt more on the way to and from school than in the actual classroom.
Going to school started with getting up in the morning. That did not pose a problem during the summer, when the De Ridder boys used to come up to our window and yell at us to get out of bed. There was no time to wake up. My brother and I dressed hastily, rushed downstairs, grabbed the sandwiches our mother had prepared for us the previous evening and hopped on our bicycles. We rode to the “Open Bad”, the swimming pool, with our swimming trunks rolled up in a towel tucked under our arm. The pool was located at the tip of the William Pont Island, past the wood yard.
The streets were empty in the early morning. The four of us cycled next to each other along the Prins Hendrikkade to the small ferry across the Voorzaan. It took us to the island for free, and then you had to cycle along a narrow cobbled street past the long, green sheds that housed the timber.
We had our yearly subscriptions so we could walk straight through. We would rush towards the changing booths and raced to be the first into the water. Last year I was so anxious to win, that I had forgotten to take my glasses off. The superintendent had to come to my aid in rescuing them from the muddy bottom of the pool.
The previous year we had had swimming lessons. I have seldom been more miserable in my life. Whilst the De Ridder brothers were performing spectacular dives and jumps, Goof and I were suspended from a leather belt in the shallow part of the pool, or struggling to obey the instructor’s orders with a hook around our neck that left crimson marks on our skin.
‘Retract! Spread your legs! Close them!’
One day the fat ladies were also there. They had been coming to swim through the winter. Even when the pool was frozen over, they had made a hole in the ice for themselves to enter the water. A photograph of the scene had appeared in the local paper “De Typhoon” and they had been called polar bears ever since.
One of them was taking a shower. Her legs and head were visible, protruding from below and above the door of the cubicle, over which she had hung her bathing suit. Encouraged by Goof, I grabbed the suit from the door and wanted to run away with it. But exactly at that moment another polar bear stepped out of a dressing booth and I smashed head first into her ample body, leaving me with a blurred vision and gasping for air. She wrenched the bathing suit from my hands and dealt me some wet blows with it, took me by the arm and hurled me into the deep end of the pool. I heard my brother yell that I couldn’t swim and then I sank into the darkening green depths, paralyzed with fear and numbed by the blows.
I was afraid to open my eyes. I wanted to scream, but water filled my mouth and I couldn’t push it back with my tongue, so I had to swallow it. My head seemed to explode. I wanted to get back up. But which way was it? The water got colder. When I finally opened my eyes, the blurry image of the enormous woman who had thrown me into the pool appeared next to me. She grabbed me by the head and pulled me up. Gasping, I emerged from the deep. Drowned in mortal fear I clambered onto dry land, where I was immediately embraced by my weeping brother.
We cycled back home. Two boys that had looked death in the face. I realized God had only spared me because I was collecting money to build the new church, and I made a promise to Him I would never again grumble if I had to go and make house calls on a Saturday.
Our mother asked us why we were so quiet, but we kept our secret for fear of not being allowed to go swimming again, and we ate our sandwiches in remorseful silence. [… ]