Phillippa Finkemeyer- “Heat Waves”

On the hottest day of the year, a child dropped from the 10-meter diving board and landed funny on the water, knocked himself unconscious. The security came and closed the gate, and hundreds of other bathers and I became trapped in our grass area, separated from the pool. I jostled for a spot where I could peek over the hedge at the commotion, a foreign figure among the families. A large, older woman stood next to me, eating cold wurst out of a jar. Her burning folds of flesh reminded me of a painting (Rubens), her trashy outfit a film (John Waters).

Without even looking down, she squeezed senf out of a tube neatly onto her sausage, not taking her eyes from the diving board, from the silhouettes up there, pacing nervously to the edge of the diving board and back. Looking down at the boy’s body. As two men lifted him out of the water, his body moved in a way that was maybe not lifeless, but certainly very wrong. He had been floating face down in the deep end, so they pulled him out that way, in an attempt to be gentle and not move the body too much. First a swimmer guided the body softly towards the edge of the pool, where the two men were waiting. Each man gripped the boy by a skinny ankle and a skinny crooked-back elbow, and when they lifted him in the air, the boy’s belly button bent slightly towards the ground in an unsettling u shape, until they laid him softly down, his cheek on the hot concrete.

The image of the a child gone limp and deadweight, face into the ground, was something I had only seen on television screens before, during the European refugee crisis a few years earlier. To me I was seeing that boy on the beach again, the toddler, fully clothed, face obscured by the sand, but obviously dead.

It was an image shown to us over and over and it meant only one thing. Shame. Shame on all of you for letting this happen. It was part of the reason we were so lenient, we took so many of them in. Thirty thousand in my small country alone, where we are not used to accommodating such sudden waves.

This image was a tool used by the liberal media to great success, and watching the boy now I could see why, it made me sick with panic. The wrongness of his body made our collective stomachs drop, pinched our hearts painfully, formed fist-sized lumps in our throat. Us behind the hedge, looking on. His tiny arms slumping over his scrawny brown chest. Water slicked forwards over his shiny black hair, pasting it over his eyes, his hair a wet curtain obscuring him from identification. Was this the boy who had pushed in front of me in the line? The men who had fished him out of the water brushed the hair back from his face gently, so he could breathe, and see, should he open his eyes. They were civilians, not lifeguards, I noticed.

‘He didn’t fall’ the Wurst Woman said to me. ‘He was pushed.’ She spoke with a certainty she had plucked out of thin air, and I marvelled at her stupidity for a moment. Imagine that, to be simple enough to accuse a bunch of figures at the top of a diving board of attempting to harm, even murder, a child. With such nonchalance, based on the way the other people looked, and all the while not pausing your one woman jar to mouth snack assembly line.

I had long ago resigned myself to not speaking in these situations. This was something for the locals to figure out, and I was something less than that. It was my first time at the pool, the idea to visit had come out of a need to take action. A need to apply balm to a burn nobody would acknowledge. For days I had been watching people walking around in full length trousers, sweating into their closed-in shoes and socks. Lots of homeless people still wore jackets. A rising sense of panic took over me, as the days passed and the temperatures continued to rise. Do you people not feel what I feel? How can you all just keep going, through all this? But it was not my place to speak.

Berlin was a city ill-equipped for the heat. And this was the cheapest swimming pool in a poor, immigrant, neighbourhood in the middle of one the worst heat waves this city has seen. It was so crowded here. So crowded all over this city. At some point the people and the heat needed to stop coming.

I grimaced politely at the woman, to show I had understood, but to distance myself from the off remark I was sure she was going to make any minute.

She produced a newspaper and flicked the front page with her thumb and forefinger, as if this was undeniable proof of the point she was about to make.

‘Gang violence. They bring it with them everywhere’.

There it was. Gauche.

We chose our words more carefully in Oslo.

This pool was known for gangs, it was true, and the commotion on the other side of the fence did indicate foul play. Something was deeply wrong. The large rectangular pool area was full of young men, boys, teenagers and some in their twenties, all shirtless, perfectly muscular, pacing, shoulder to shoulder, frowning against the sun. The filled-to-the-brim rectangular space was moving in dark agitated circles like a Van Gogh night sky.

Through this crowd broke a stream of guards, marked by their white button up polo shirts which stretched the word ‘Security’ impossibly wide over their huge backs. Their arms were swollen like my feet in this temperature: veins throbbed in their wrists as they rubbed their shaved heads in concern. They had the same haircuts as the boys, the same sharp fades, the same neatly groomed facial hair, the same diamanté in that one ear.

I was relieved to see a harmony between some of the guards and the boys, who gave out hand gestures, shoulder squeezes and slaps on the backs, quick little smiles of greeting. They looked like football coaches welcoming players off the field. Players of a game that was quickly getting away from them.

Despite looking like opposing forces, the shirts and the no-shirts, the two groups had a sameness. The guards were just grown up versions of the boys. This gave me some hope the tension would simmer down, that everyone would go back to their seats and the boy would be properly seen to. Where were the lifeguards? Why did a pool need a security team like this?

Well I knew the reason why, really. The Wurst Woman was clutching it to her soft pillowy bosom, folded in two. The newspaper article that was in the Bild that morning: Das sind Berlins gefährlichste Schlimm-Bäder. These are Berlin’s Most Dangerous Swimming Pools. Except the schwimm in Schwimmbad, the German word for swimming pool, had been replaced by schlimm, meaning bad. I didn’t understand what puns and the result of misguided social policies had to do with each other.

If she had bothered to read the statistics provided in the article properly, which I’m sure she hadn’t, she would have come to the same conclusion that I had, that the main thing one has to fear at this pool is pickpocketing. Petty thieves. Protecting yourself against these sorts of people was easy, you simply needed a waterproof bag to keep your belongings. I had mine zipped around my waist and I would take it into the water with me, when I eventually was allowed to go in. It squeaked against my sweaty waist securely. Only the weak and unprepared could be taken advantage of by them.

A woman named Olga had been interviewed for the article. I imagined her as the Wurst Woman dressed in a alternate colour combination, with brunette starchy hair instead of peroxide blonde. Perhaps leopard print sunglasses instead of hot pink. She said the crime was evidence of the power shift that had occured in this neighbourhood, that this was a sign of what happens when Islam reaches a critical mass, enough to topple the ‘ever diminishing’ German. Unsurprisingly, Olga had a detailed list of complaints. Specifically, the lawns and fields around the water were now dirty, when they used to be clean. People pissed in the pool, and mothers dropped used diapers in the water. They swore, they threw things, whatever they could do to intimidate, harass, and maintain control. Olga was scared to go to the bathroom alone.

I didn’t see it. I looked around me, and saw spotless green lawns, beautiful tall trees, clear water. Yes, white people were in the minority here, compared to Arabs, but that didn’t scare me. Yes, people didn’t know how to queue here, they jostled and pushed in. You just had to know how to stick your elbows out. Yes, I was perceived as an outsider within these concrete walls, but I knew society at large was just across the other side of those hot bricks, and my real world status could be beckoned over should I require it.

What scared me was the lack of control, the lack of infrastructure. An unconscious child and no lifeguards. All that clear water, and nobody allowed in. Aggravated and sweaty crowds pushing up against paper thin boundaries. One security guard’s fist held fast on the latch of the gate, holding us all back.

I read the Bild over my coffee at the Turkish Bakery on my corner some mornings. The coffee was cheap here, and I am nothing if not economically fiscal. I preferred the broadsheet naturally, but didn’t yet have the language skills to follow. Bild on the other hand was aimed at someone with the German comprehension skills and intelligence of a child. I fell into the former category, which at times in Berlin, when people insisted on speaking in German, placed me unwillingly into the latter category also.

The statistics were as follows for the previous year at this pool: Diebstahl 21, Sachbeschädigung 3, Sexualdelikte 1, Drogen 2, Körperverletzung 5.

I had understood all these categories – theft, property damage, sexual offences, drugs – except the last. Körperverletzung. I looked it up in my online dictionary and it was translated as mayhem. I knew that must be wrong, but it felt so right to me. Five counts of mayhem. Heat waves always brought mayhem with them.

And all these people, the Wurst Women and the trapped men, they were always brewing it too.

A voice rose above the concerned murmurs of us behind the hedge, speaking in such rapid fire German I couldn’t follow the subtleties, only that he was telling someone off. I turned around to see a German teenager, in only swimming shorts and severe dark-rimmed spectacles. In his passion for whatever he was yelling about he was waving his novel around in his hand as he punctuated his sentences, his thumb still holding the page he had been reading. Before all this commotion. Already I was inclined to side with him. He was pale, endearingly chubby, and he jiggled as he yelled. I didn’t know exactly what he was saying but I knew that somebody needed to say something. I internally cheered him on.

As he was yelling, those behind the hedge who understood, turned to the object of his admonishments. The Wurst Woman, who was holding her hands over the hedge and up towards the sky as if to God. But between her pink fingers and long acrylic nails she pinched her phone, videoing in landscape mode, and I saw shrunk down and replicated on her screen the men gated off in the pool area, swirling. And as they paced, through a gap in the bodies, occasionally the unconscious boy could be glimpsed on her screen, and the concerned faces of the men who had found themselves trying to help him.

But seriously, where were the lifeguards?

‘That’s a child’ the teenager was yelling at the Wurst Woman. ‘That’s a child!’ And then what I imagined to be ‘Have some respect and put your phone away.’ He stared angrily at her, who reluctantly lowered her phone, and then the rest of the group stared at her as if she could be blamed for all of this, although to me it was clear she was too stupid to even be a player in the game.

‘This isn’t your entertainment’ the teenager was saying. But to my surprise he was addressing the whole group now. He moved to stand at the front of the group, right at the hedge, with his back to the water, and turned his gaze on us now. He crossed his arms and stared at us angrily, angry at us for staring, which we continued to do, now at him and at the boy. He stared on and so did we, right back, in silence.

I wasn’t so sure I sided with this boy after all. This boy who penned me in with the Wurst Woman.

Something about the weather had me territorial. I looked at the water longingly, I was fenced off from it and I hadn’t been allowed to go in yet. First, it was too crowded, they had let too many people in. There were simply too many people here and not enough space in the pool to go around. And then it was closed off by the guards, and somehow I ended up on the wrong side of the fence. I don’t think it’s fair that I ended up over here, sweating into my linen shirt and waterproof fanny pack, with no way to cool myself down, while all those fit boys got to be by the water. They were so young, and so athletic, olive-skinned, they looked at home in the heat. I was middle-aged, fair and crisping, I could feel my scalp burning under the sun. I needed water desperately. I was dizzy with exhaustion.

Was there anything I could do, to get them to let me through? Could I get to the other side without the other’s behind the hedge noticing, and starting a panicked chain reaction, a mass of us trying to storm the pool at once? Out of everyone here, it was certainly not me who was going to be the one to unleash chaos on the scene. I stood and despaired, fanning myself silently.

Suddenly I felt a weak flutter under my heel and then felt as if I’d stood on a shard of glass. A hot sting fired up around my heel and I cried out in pain, unable to stop myself from making a noise now, and everyone behind the hedge turned to look at me. A deep angry, confused sound came out of me, and I felt it vibrate in my chest as it left my body.

I looked down to see I had stood on a wasp. In anger I stomped on it again, harder this time, to completely crush and destroy this tiny bug that had dared to sting me. That was a mistake, I realised quickly. It stung me several more times, and giving in to the pain, I keeled backwards onto the ground, clutching my ankle and crying out, continuing to swear in Norwegian. All the figures behind the hedge turned to look down at me now, and laying there on the ground looking back up at them, suddenly I felt like a child again. A child who had hurt myself and needed help. The teenager left his post where he was staring angrily at us from, to peer around everyone’s legs to see who was making this noise, who was cursing like a sailor in a mixture of Norwegian and pain.

Now I had spoken they knew I wasn’t one of them, I saw it all over their faces. I had given up the power of staying silent.

‘What’s happened?’ a woman asked.

She could see me struggling for the vocabulary.

‘You have a wasp sting?’ she said, providing it.

‘Yes! I have a wasp sting!’ I screamed, mimicking her. I have a fucking wasp sting.  Wasn’t that much obvious?

Everyone stood staring at me for a while, not moving.

‘I need ice! I need cool water! Somebody fetch me something!’ I yelled, switching to English.

Was anybody going to fucking help me? How long could all these people gape at me slack jawed and watch me writhe around in pain. I thought of my shared experience with the boy, for the child lying helplessly on the ground surrounded by adults that don’t know how to help him, or just don’t want to enough.

A mother started searching through her bag, and came to me with an epipen in her outstretched hand.

‘Allergic?’ she asked in German.

I responded in kind. ‘No. Not allergic!’ and then in English ‘I don’t need an epipen! Something for the pain! The pain!’ I screamed at her. And then in Norwegian, ‘You stupid moronic bitch.’ She continued to rifle through her bag, looking desperately for something else that would help.

‘Coming through’ yelled another woman’s voice. The crowd parted, and I could see the Wurst Woman coming towards me through the gate. She was dragging a blue-shirted lifeguard by the wrist. She was really going at a trot, the dear little porky pie. God bless my unlikely saviour.

‘She doesn’t need a lifeguard’ the teengager with the glasses said.

‘They don’t need three over there,’the Wurst Woman yelled back.

The crowd threw up their hands, made noises of frustration, and turned back the other way to watch the boy. The man knelt down next to me and opened up his box. It was metal and heavy, like a tackle box, with collapsible shelves that folded out to resemble the bleachers by the pool.

He placed my ankle on his knee, and I laid back in the grass, panting, and strange noises continue to come out of me.

He selected an ointment from one of the metal shelves, and began to rub it into the sting with his fingers. The pain began to dissipate slightly and I looked at his face gratefully. He was handsome, in his 20s, with a dark, typically Arab, complexion. What I noticed the most were his two tear tattoos, one on either cheek. This made him seem dangerous to me, which was all the more thrilling as he tenderly worked on my foot. There were two German four letter words across his knuckles, I watched the letters dance as he tended to my heel, but didn’t quite grasp the meaning of his touch.

Nobody was looking, I wanted the lifeguard to lay down on the grass with me and hug me and soothe me, to produce an ice block and run it down my neck. But I also wanted him to make me feel safe, wrap his tattooed arms around me in a way the other men here would understand, I was safe. I was with him. I was protected. By the man with the teardrop tattoos on his cheeks.

But I was simply too hot to pull him down onto the grass with me. I needed to get in that pool. I was done with being gracious. It was time to pull rank.

I struggled to my feet and hopped to the gate. I yelled across the hedge.


Nobody noticed me.

‘Yo!’ I don’t know what possessed me to use that word. ‘Excuse me sirs. I said HEY!’

Finally the security team turned, regarded me, but made no move to move towards me. Their black-sneakered feet stayed planted on the concrete, facing the water.

I wrapped my fists around the painted green bars of the gate, and rattled the metal vigorously back and forwards against the latch. This made a horrible clanging sound. The young boys by the pool were looking at me now, brows furrowed. I was a sight, but not a threat.

‘I demand that you open this gate immediately. You need to let me in. I need to get in that water or I might die’.

Now everybody’s eyes were on me, a blonde woman yelling in English. Nobody on the security team understood me, or at least they weren’t willing to engage me. I switched tactics.

‘Wasp sting! Maybe allergy! Maybe death!’ I yelled in my child’s German. I gestured wildly to my foot. ‘I need water!’

Some of the security were softening now, motioning to let me through.

‘She is not allergic’ said the teenager in the severe glasses. ‘She just said no to an epipen. And you don’t treat an allergic reaction with water,’ I guessed he was saying. Even this fucking little twerp was getting in my way now.

I closed my eyes and imagined myself like a man reaching an oasis in the desert, stripping off and dropping to my knees at the water’s edge in an exhausted heap. I imagined plunging into the cool water, finally done with this upheaval of order, floating to the top, soothed and at peace, as I always strived to be, in my rightful place. And then I opened my eyes to see the boys watch me be denied – watched me contentedly. I had no power here. They were pacing slowly, prowling even, around the concrete area by the pool, watching me like I was an injured animal, a neutered threat. Everything was moving in slow motion now, something inside of me had melted, given way, and I was no longer dizzy but completely dissolving. Soon no-one would look at me at all. In front of me brown bare shoulders and chests criss crossed each other, shaved heads moved up and down in uneven gaits that came together looking something like a herd in unrest.

They looked at me with such disregard, as if I was of such little importance. As if this was not my world anymore.

All of a sudden there was an elated noise from the crowd. On the edge of the pool, the child had regained consciousness, he was speaking. But then confusion followed, nobody understood what he was saying. They couldn’t communicate with him.

‘What is your name?’ First they tried Arabic, because of the way he looked.Then Turkish, German, English. No response.

‘Where are your parents?’ No response.

‘Were you pushed?!’ this was the Wurst Woman again, who had trotted back to be by the boy. ‘Point to the boys who pushed you!’

The boy kept murmuring under his breath, coughing, rubbing his eyes. I listened carefully, like a dog, to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. He said it again, clear as day.

‘Jeg forstår ikke.’


‘Hva skjedde? Hvor er søsteren min?’

I froze, not knowing what to do.

There was more confusion as they kept trying to speak to him in a language he didn’t speak. I stood with my hands on the bars of the gate still, my face sandwiched between the bars, my eyes flitting between the boy, the water, the guards.

‘Where are your parents? What’s your name?’ they were asking.

‘Jeg forstår ikke. Jeg vil ha mamma.’ He wanted his mother, of course.

I saw what to do.

‘Vi finner din mor!’ I yelled. We’ll find her, little one.

He spoke back to me, and the crowd looked at me once more. I was gaining currency quickly.

‘She isn’t here. I came with my sister and her boyfriend. She was supposed to be watching me jump. She told me to climb up and she she would be watching.’ Sorry kid, clearly sis was having a great time with her boyfriend somewhere.

‘Okay, we’ll find your sister then.’ I motioned to the guards. ‘Let me through,’ and all the men who were now in charge, apparently, nodded, and finally the green gate swung open for me, and I crossed the threshold.

I had to escape this mayhem. Get as far away from it as possible.

I broke into an excited canter towards the action, but the pain shot further up my leg until I couldn’t bare it. I picked up the lifeguard’s metal box, and fingered the closed latch nervously. I wrapped my arms around it and hugged it to my chest. Now I broke into a full stride towards the boy, then took off from my good heel, leaping, and launching myself directly over him and into the water.

I hugged the heavy box into my bosom, letting it pull me down as far as I could go. I sank all the way to the bottom and opened my eyes, looking left and right down the 50 metre line. There was a strange quietness down there, all alone and silent. I felt my insignificance in the way I was used to feeling it, when I was alone in the woods, hunting.

Reluctantly I started to let my breath out slowly, bubbles skimmed my cheeks and floated all the way up to the surface. I was going to stay underwater until I couldn’t breathe anymore. Until I sent myself unconscious and they had to fish me out.