The Large Penguin at the Swimming Pool - Summer,1980, Talavera de la Reina

Summer in Talavera de la Reina was hot and dusty. The stench of body odour was putrid, so much so that each time I went to the Simago supermarket just across the road I'd use all my will-power to hold my breath long enough to prevent the ripe aromas from corrupting my nasal passages. There was no air conditioning in the apartment, and the only way to get cooler air was to open the windows, but that gave carte blanche to mosquitoes and flies, and who knows what else.
    The local people used to bathe in the Tagus, the river that runs through Talavera, and ended up getting sick due to raw sewage that made its way from Toledo. Somehow, they didn't appreciate the significance of the contaminated water, so they'd keep splashing about in the river, even bringing small children with them. Their theory was that your body gets used to the water, builds up resistance to any germs lurking about. Hadn't they been swimming in the river for generations? And weren't they still alive to tell the tales? An American girl I knew back then told me how her husband who was a doctor at the local hospital was constantly treating people for gastrointestinal diseases. They both would warn me about paddling around in the river.
    Fortunately, there was a large swimming pool on the outskirts of Talavera where you could cool off, escape the summer heat. Nice as it was, what was even nicer and even luxurious was the private club located just outside Talavera. There the pool, the tennis courts, and the landscaping were of the highest quality. How did I know all this? Well, the Lady from Leon was a member.
    "I'm off to the club," she announced one afternoon. "You'd like it. The pool is huge, almost like an Olympic pool. There are umpteen tennis courts. You can even barbecue, if you'd like to. I don't barbecue. Who wants to eat burnt food?" She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
    "Have fun. Sounds like a great place."
    "Maybe one day you can come with me to the club. You could be my guest."
    "Sure, sounds good."
    I didn't think anything more about her invitation, assuming that she was just being polite and that she'd never actually take me as her guest. Lo and behold just a few days later the Lady from Leon
opened her door as usual just as I was exiting the elevator.
     "Where were you? What did you do? Did you buy anything?" She really did take an active interest in my life. Whenever she'd open her door as I stood waiting on the elevator she'd always ask where I was going, what I was going to do. I had no idea that my activities were so fascinating. Before I could answer, she added, "I'm going to the club in an hour or so. I want you to be my guest."
    I hesitated before responding.
    "You do have a swimsuit, don't you? If not, you can borrow one of mine." She sounded eager to have me accompany her. I could just imagine myself in one of her swimsuits. It would have fallen off me before even dipping my big toe into the water.
    "I do have a swimsuit, but I hardly ever wear it."
    "Good. Then you'll wear it this afternoon. We can take the bus. See you later." The Lady from Leon grinned as if she were offering me a large palmera pastry with jam on it.
    I should have been thrilled. Right? There was I moaning and groaning every day about the heat and there I was being invited to a fancy private club where I could splash about in the gorgeous swimming pool. I wasn't thrilled, however. Want to know why?
    Because I'm afraid of the water. I can't swim. I can't even walk in water, unless I'm grabbing on to the wall. I can hardly stand up in water, my legs tremble so much. Yes, to this day I can't swim and to this day I'm afraid of the water. I don't like people knowing this for they always end up splashing me on the face or giving me a lecture on how there's nothing to be afraid of.
    And there I was getting ready for the fancy private pool where probably everyone could swim. They probably had really nice swimsuits, too. All I had was a hideous, ancient garment that I bought ten years ago on sale in the middle of winter. I hated to confess to the Lady from Leon that not only was I a non-swimmer, but that I was really scared of the water. She was doing me such a nice favour by inviting me to her club, that I didn't want to spoil it. Far better to go along with the invitation. After all, as long as I stood close enough to the wall that I could have at least one hand on it then I'd be fine. Of course, this would be in the shallow end! Anywhere above 4 feet simply never ever entered my vocabulary even with my hand placed firmly on the wall.
    Stomach full of butterflies, palms sweating, I plonked myself next to the Lady from Leon on the dilapidated bus that took the meandering scenic route to get to the private club. She had a huge bag on her lap that was bursting at the seams. I noticed a large yellow towel peeking out, also goggles. She must be a serious swimmer, I surmised. I mean, she even had goggles.
    She stripped off her shapeless dress that woman of a certain age in Spain tended to wear and revealed her swimming suit hidden underneath. I was surprised to see how ugly it was. It looked a bit like a sack, and the best I can say about the colour is that it was on the dark side. I was expecting her to be wearing a really expensive swimming suit from one of the local boutiques. I didn't feel so bad then about my sorry swimming suit.
    "You look nice. You do." The Lady from Leon observed, staring at me. I thought she was just being polite. Then she continued, "Do you want to go on the diving board? People love it!"
    "No, no. I'm not a divey type." The thought of being on a diving board made me shudder with fear.
    "Well, let's go in the water."  She placed her big toe in the water. "Not too cold. Just nice. It's always nice here. I hope you'll like it."
    I squirmed, thinking of excuses not to go in at the deep end which is where the Lady from Leon's big toe was. I didn't believe that she'd tease me about being afraid, but I didn't want to take the chance, and I certainly didn't want to be subjected to the usual lecture I always got from bossy swimmers who wanted to impress on non-swimmers how there's nothing to be afraid of.
    Temperature of the water checked, she then opened her large bag, and  pulled out the goggles followed by a bathing cap. I was so impressed. I've never worn goggles, nor a cap. I've never needed either as my hair absolutely never got wet the times I had been in a pool. How could it? You don't really think I'd ever put my face in the water?! You'll never guess what else she pulled out?!
    She pulled out a safety ring, a flat plastic ring that she brought up to her mouth and which she began blowing really hard. The ring became bigger and bigger and I thought it might burst. Then, she shoved her hand once more into the bag and pulled out arm bands which she also proceeded to blow up. She was like a conjurer. I wondered  what else she had stashed in her big bag. She placed the safety ring over her head and down to her waist. Then she slipped the armbands over both her arms.  I was astounded. Next she struggled with the goggles, but finally got them over her eyes. She offered me the cap.
    "Oh. Thank you, but my hair never gets wet in pools." That was the understatement of the year.
    "You're probably a really good swimmer." She remarked. "I'm not. I'm afraid of the water. But, with all this gear, I can swim up and down and across the pool!"
     I was thinking that maybe I should get myself the same gear as we strolled down to the shallow end and we each very carefully made our way into the water.
    "Oh. I forgot. I have flippers with me too."  She clambered out and went back to her big bag then  pulled out a pair of flippers. My mouth opened wide in amazement.
    "I have another pair of flippers, if you'd like." She called out to me before waddling back down to the shallow end. She reminded me of a penguin.
    "No, that's okay. I'll be fine." I was trying not to laugh at her.
    My hands held on to the wall and my legs relaxed. The water was refreshing and I felt encouraged. I was so happy that I wasn't the only one afraid of the water.  I admired the Lady from Leon for not caring one bit what others might think, even although she did look really funny!