Getting changed to swim in the rain… on days like this, we’re here for the challenge. There really is nothing else that we do in the rest of our first-world, 21stcentury week that is remotely like this – maybe that’s why none of us have a good strategy for it. An Elizabeth Arden umbrella perches incongruously on the bench, images of 1950s high-fashion skipping across the taut red nylon that shelters ripped bags and crushed trainers.
The air temperature is 3°C and we’re cold before we undress. There is a quiet determination to our entry into the rain-spotted river. It isn’t an ice swim but just 0.4°C keeps us from achieving that goal. Very soon, the cold is biting savagely at our hands – our claws; this is the term for the strange misshapen hands that power me painfully across the strong current. I can hardly pull myself up the ladder and onto land. My bare frozen shoulders feel none of the raindrops that stipple a winter pattern over the river’s muddy whirls.
Numb fingers fail to identify clothes and, defeated, we clumsily tug our bags wide open to hunt for warm layers that the rain finds first. I’m sheltering under my coat to locate a route into my jumper when, next to me, I hear muttered curses about the baffling topography of a t-shirt. Then, struggling to pull a sock onto a foot that I can only see is on the end of my leg, I stumble and fall. Cold, wet mud creeps into our shoes, up trousers and onto jumpers and coats. We’re all of us too ham-fisted to get on our clothes before the after-drop descends. It runs its ice fingers cruelly down our miserable damp bodies.
It is strangely quiet. There’s just the sound of the rain on coats. From under my makeshift shelter, I peer through the relentless rain at my friends and realise that they too must be grappling with dulled minds to find a small flame of intelligence to light the way out of this hell.
Wretched, we pile into the van and at last, between whimpers and shivers, the laughter erupts out of us.