You might have noticed (oh God, I do hope you noticed), that there was no blog entry last week, and that’s because it was half-term, so we spent the week visiting my in-laws in Norwich.
Then, last Friday (or ‘Blog Day’ as I now like to call it – and feel free to join me), I conquered two of my biggest fears: the ocean, and playing badminton with pensioners.
The ocean is quite a common phobia to have – it’s right up there with spiders, heights, and the Dark Lord of the Sith herself, Theresa May – and even has its own medical term: Thalassophobia (which, strangely, is also a fear of women from Yorkshire). However, whilst Thalassophobia covers everything from a fear of drowning (entirely rational) to travelling by sea (less rational, but still perfectly understandable – and probably related to the fear of drowning), my ocean-based phobia is completely irrational: I hate ‘paddling’ my feet in the sea.
Admittedly, it’s not so much a fear, more an inherent dislike, and its actually the sand sticking to my feet afterwards that I detest the most, but, whatever the reason, I try to avoid dipping my tootsies into the surf at all costs. The problem is, unlike drowning and travelling by sea (which are easily avoidable), when you take two young children to the seaside, as we did last week, getting your feet encrusted with wet sand – and, even worse, beach flotsam – is virtually inevitable.
As for my other phobia, the fear of playing badminton with pensioners is unquestionably more obscure, and doesn’t have its own medical terminology. This is partly because there should be very little to fear in the first place, but also because the only people who tend to play badminton with pensioners, are other pensioners, and the elderly are frightened of nothing (except, perhaps, going into a home, or losing their winter fuel payment).
Anyway, last Friday I met both fears (together with an additional fear I never knew I had) head on, and survived to tell the tale. Here is that tale:
I got up early and, despite the fact I was on holiday, went for a run in the large park opposite my in-law’s house. Running is still not a pastime I particularly relish, but since I have spent a sizeable sum on my new trainers, and since there aren’t many other ways I can see to halt (and perhaps shrink) my ever-increasing belly, I must persevere.
The good news, is that I not only managed to successfully complete a distance I haven’t run since my late teens (and by ‘successfully’, my benchmark these days is to finish running without vomiting or requiring medical attention), but I could have continued, if it weren’t for the fact I needed to get to badminton, and because I was distracted by a semi-naked man having a wash in the boating pond. Well, I say ‘semi-naked’, but it was more like 90% naked, as he was only wearing boxer shorts (although he may have had socks on too, as I could only see him from the shins up).
The first time I passed the pond, I spotted him stood there, soaking wet, as if he had just been for a wash or swim. I assumed it was the former, because this particular pond is only about two feet deep, and is primarily used for sailing model yachts and remote-controlled boats:
Boating Pond, Eaton Park, Norwich
Not most people’s idea of a pleasant morning dip, I’m sure you’ll agree – although I’d still choose this over the ocean. The really confusing part, however, was that he was staring at me, like I was the weird one, and he was thinking: Don’t know what you’re looking at. I’m just washing my bits in this ‘ere pond; you’re the one running around, in bright yellow shoes, in broad daylight.
The second time I passed him (I’d contemplated changing my route to avoid doing so, but didn’t want to get lost), he was surrounded by three police officers, and my opinion of him suddenly changed. I had initially assumed he was some lunatic going for an early morning dip, in what is essentially a large (public) puddle, but now I had to accept that he might be homeless, and in need of help. He had stared at me, like I was the odd one, but maybe this had been his way of silently pleading for assistance, and I had simply run on. What if he was vulnerable, and mute with confusion or fear?
But then I thought: what if I was right the first time? What if, when I initially passed him, I’d assumed he needed my help, but it turned out he was just a semi-naked nutter after all? It might not have ended very well for me, with no one else around. After all, even though he was only wearing boxers, he could still have been concealing a sizeable weapon down there, with an intention to thrust it into me.
Wait, that came out wrong.
Anyway, I ran back to the house, to avoid further involvement with either the nutter or the police, showered, quickly grabbed some breakfast, and jumped in the car to get to badminton.
Until last year, I can safely say that playing badminton against a group of pensioners would not have featured very highly on my list of fears. In fact, it wouldn’t have made the list at all, as it wasn’t an activity I had ever previously contemplated, let alone lost sleep over.
Then, whilst in Norwich last summer, I was invited to join my wife’s parents at their weekly badminton group and, whilst I’m relatively shit at the sport anyway, I was secretly confident that at least I wouldn’t embarrass myself. After all, even if some of the old-timers were former professionals, they couldn’t all be that good, and even with my comparatively poor fitness levels, I felt sure they would tire before me, as I had a good thirty years on most of them.
As it turned out, I was 50% right, since none of them were former professionals – although they were all playing at a relatively high standard – but they were bloody fit for people in their 60’s and 70’s. Well, they were fitter than me, and that’s all I really cared about, because if I couldn’t beat them in terms of skill (and I couldn’t), then my only weapon was youth. Sadly, whilst I often joke that I am a grumpy old man, trapped in the body of a middle-aged one, I always thought that referred to my outlook on life, rather than my physical fitness.
In any event, whether it was my general decrepitude, or the fact these people were in remarkably good shape for their age (honestly, it was like Cocoon), didn’t really matter to me. What mattered, was that after ninety minutes of being distinctly average, at a sport I’ve now been playing for a few years, against a group of people who have bus passes, replaced body parts, and – in some cases – birth certificates predating the demise of Hitler, I was breathing out of my arse.
It came as quite the shock. Maybe I had underestimated the older generation, or maybe I had misjudged just how physically unfit I was, but either way it taught me a lesson. And that lesson was: don’t play badminton with pensioners ever again.
Clearly, I didn’t learn the lesson for long, as last Friday I once again found myself at Wensum Sports Centre in Norwich, greeting people with names like Hilda and Doris (not their actual names, but you get the idea), and praying they wouldn’t once again destroy me, at one of the few sports I still enjoy.
In truth, I knew what to expect this time, and probably performed better as a result, but they were still all in remarkably good shape for their respective ages, and aside from a few extra wrinkles here and there, no one would have been able to tell us apart.
In fact, the only time I was reminded of the age difference, was when a particularly low shot came towards me just over the net, and I dived to my left to try and reach it. When our normal group of middle-aged men play on a Friday evening, it is quite common for us to dive around to try and execute spectacular shots (my success rate is in the region of 7%), but as I landed on the floor, I suddenly realised that all three courts had stopped playing, and everyone was looking at me.
Apparently, if a player ends up on the floor during their weekly badminton sessions, it usually means someone has suffered ‘a bit of a fall’, and the consequences can be as severe as a dislocated knee or broken hip. They simply couldn’t understand why I might fall to the ground voluntarily.
Despite this minor embarrassment, I survived the session, and wasn’t entirely outplayed by people approximately twice my age, as I had been previously. As a result, I hopefully won’t be so anxious, if I am invited back next time we visit.
Unfortunately, the relative success of my badminton trip made me somewhat over-confident, so that when we went to the seaside later that same day, I decided to conquer another irrational fear, by joining my wife and boys for a paddle in the sea.
Damn, my legs look good in this picture
However, while my trepidation of once again playing badminton against a group of pensioners had been largely unwarranted, my recollection of paddling in the ocean (something I haven’t done for several years) was pretty much spot on. The water was cold, murky, salty, and provided the perfect adhesive for half of the fucking beach to cling to, from my toes right up to my knees.
At least I was half right.