Old Man, Swimming

John Burnside

When I was twenty years old, on days that were
darker and brighter than now,
I got up at six and swam fifty lengths every morning,

steady and even, though not as precise, or as sure
as the one other swimmer I passed, flowing back and forth,
in the lit pool on Parker’s Piece:

an old man, I thought at the time,
with a gold to his skin
that is only acquired over decades, his slicked hair

silver, his bachelor’s eyes
halfway from grey to blue, when we met
in the changing rooms, silent and male,

but never so much that it bothered him not to conceal
a fleeting, and half-amused gleam
of fellow feeling.

He was my model for years,
with his gorgeous stroke
and lack of determination,

something that looked like happiness
pushing him on
for mile after mile of easy, unnumbered laps;

I wanted to be like that,
but I never got past
the effort, the mental arithmetic, thoughts

of later, or somewhere else;
though, at the time,
I put it down to age, experience,

an old man’s gift for knowing how much he could do;
and it’s taken till now, to see that he wasn’t so old,
just graceful, and lit with the years

he had carried so far:
the same age as I am today, more or less,
as I pass the municipal baths in another town

and glance across the blue-grey of the park
to where the better self I meant to be
glides quietly, length by length, to his own abstention.