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The Vagabond

By Esther Dyson

IN MY ADAMS HOUSE bathroom I have two towels; not Gordon Linen, but "B rough of Camden." They come from Camden, a suburb north of London, and they were given to me by a lifeguard there. I first saw him standing beside the pool flexing his arms. He was wearing long white pants and a yellow sleeveless shirt. I wanted to laugh, but instead I asked him where I could put my towel. He inspected it; it was small and tatty. "Is this all you have?" he asked me in accented English.

I nodded. "You wait," be said. "I get you something better. "He returned bearing two large new towels marked "Borough of Camden 1972." "Do not tell." he said. "I get as many I want."

I didn't tell, but I left them behind in the dressing room, and the next time I came be gave me two more, Grateful for the towels, I asked me to have tea. I said I couldn't because I had to go to work right after swimming. Perhaps some Saturday, I said.

I slid gingerly into the water, which was colder that at most of the London pools. The Camden pool somehow seemed more serious that most, what with its colder water and the spectator stands and the modern dressing rooms. The others had cramped, Victorian halls, with columns and red bricks, and chipped, discolored tiles.

The attendants were mostly immigrants: at the pool at the Buckingham Palace Road Baths there was a Jamaican and a Pakistani, and at the Chelsea Baths there was a group of Spaniards and Irish women. At Chelsea the women sighed over the Irish troubles while the boys--lifeguards and men's room attendants--sparred with each other at the edges of the pool. Often when I came in to hand in my ticket and get my locker key I'd have to go in search of one of these women; they were forever making and drinking cups of tea. One of the boys would move his head an inch or two in the direction of the staffroom and sing out, "Bridget, finish your tea."

Bridget would come scurrying out with a cup in her hand, a big florid woman in a faded pink wrapper. She sassed right back: "Eh, Tonio, finish yer yellin". Fine times when a body can't 'ave a cuppa tay in peace an' quiet. She wouldn't'a minded to wait for a bit: would yer, love?"

AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE the staff were all men except for the ticket seller, because the cubicles were by the pool and there was no need for a ladies changing room attendant. The first time I came in about eleven o' clock one morning. the pool was overrun with schoolkids, and a harried young man in elastic slacks was shouting at them from the far end. An old man approached me for my ticket and I asked him. "Is it all right to swim now? Won't I be in the way of all the kids?"

He looked at me, then at the pool, and said, "This 'ere's a public bath, i'n it? And ye're the public, aren't yet?"

The turnover in bath attendants is fairly high, and within about a week the old man who had first greeted me was replaced by a younger one, equally friendly, a black from the Caribbean with almost no English. Whenever I came in he look my ticket with a big smile, asking "All right?" I would answer "All right," and go to change. Our other communication was about the two showers, which were often too hot or too cold. I usually used the far one because there's a rule forbidding soap or shampoo (if you want to be clean you can jolly well take a hot bath and pay for it) and I didn't want to flaunt my transgression. When the shower wasn't working right, I would go over to tell him, picking my way carefully among squealing children and slippery spots. It was impossible to go at more than a snail's pace, because the floors were always wet and a bit slimy, made of smooth red tile. The walls sweated from the humid air, and on crowded days you couldn't even see from one end of the pool to the other for all the steam.

"Too hot?" or "Too cold?" he would repeat after me. "yes," I said, and he fiddled with some knobs, peering around at intervals to ask, "All right?" After a few tries it was all right, and he sat down again to watch the swimmers with genial interest on his face.

IN CHELSEA, on the other hand, there was more staff, and they tended to talk to each other rather than to the swimmers. The children there generally seemed better-bred than the ones at Buckingham Palace, which is right in the center of the city; but after all it is hard to tell when no one's wearing anything but bathing suits.

Or ever nothing at all, One day two little girls in the Chelsea dressing room were walking about naked between the rows of lockers when in came one of Bridget's coworkers. "Why you filthy little gerrls!" she shouted, "Put yerrself away! Go!" They giggled at her and scampered into a cubicle.

I went to Camden the following week a little reluctantly because I didn't want to face Alan as he had told me his name was. But he gave me two more towels and what could I do but agree to have tea? Accordingly after the swim I went upstairs to the cafeteria that was part of the Camden complex--they had another pool for training and indoor tennis courts and a gymnasium--and waited for about fifteen minutes, reading, until he could get a break--probably with a lot of teasing from the other lifeguard on duty that day. I saw him coming down the hall flexing his arms and doing a kneebend or two, and we walked in. We took a table overlooking a tennis court through glass windows, and while we talked a game went on. I can't remember too much of what he said: He'd left Hong Kong when he was only four and by now--be was 26--the rest of his family had moved on to America. He lived not far away, alone, and wouldn't I like to see his flat sometime? The first player made an overhand serve. Alan was learning the guitar, teaching himself because be couldn't afford lessons, and be already played the piano. He didn't have his own piano, but the Camden complex had one that he could use after work. Someone on the tennis court missed his step reaching for a ball and went down. Alan liked swimming; he also did gymnastics, stayed fit. But lifeguarding wasn't much fun. He was saving up money to go to school next year. The two tennis players met at the net to shake hands. Alan gulped the last of his tea, and asked me when I'd be coming next, because he had to get back to work. I wasn't sure.

THE NEXT TIME I went to Camden was a Saturday, and Alan met me as I walked in. Would I come to lunch if he could get half an hour off? Half an hour is not much of a commitment, so I said yes. A few laps later he came to the edge of the pool carrying two towels and looking worried. "I'm very sorry."

"Look, don't worry about it. That's okay," I smiled.

"Anyway, maybe next time, I'll put the towels over there."

"Yes, maybe next time. Thank you very much."

I swam away, idly watching as he went to the other side of the pool, raising and lowering his arms as he went. He leaned over to talk to someone. She got out of the pool--a girl, about twenty--and vanished inside the dressing room. She reappeared dressed and waved to Alan. He looked around nervously, didn't quite see me among the crowd, and walked out with her. I laugher, and when I was finished swimming I took my towels home without any feeling of obligation.

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