Standing ovation


My son is given to questions about extremes. What would you do if you lived forever? Would you rather drown or burn to death? What is the tallest, the furthest, the most of this or the least of that, and so on. The other day he asked me something of this sort, but slightly more salient than his usual nonsense. What was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me?

“What do you mean, happened to me?”

“Don’t get technical,” he groaned.

“I mean,” I said, “some things happen because I caused them, others not—”

“What’s the most?” he insisted.

If you know me even slightly you will know that I had a long list of things to scroll past before I could find something embarrassing that I hadn’t caused. There’s the time I mistook a basin for a urinal (see the story The toilet spray of embarrassment), various episodes that involved alcohol or laxatives, social blunders of every conceivable category, and uncountable instances of stupid things I’d done in plain view. But then I remembered something I usually forget about, perhaps because it ended well and perhaps because it was entirely my mother’s fault.

When I was fifteen, I swam for the school team. I had become rather good at breaststroke and had chalked up times during the season that qualified me for the provincial finals. I felt like an imposter because I sucked at the other strokes and couldn’t even do a tumble-turn properly. But breaststroke didn’t allow it, and my good times resulted mostly from a start I’d perfected that always put me ahead. In those days you could stay submerged for as far out as you wanted, and you weren’t penalised for any movement on the block before the starter’s gun as long as you didn’t actually take off. I’d hang around long before my race and listen to the starter’s voice to get used to his cadence. By the time I got onto the block, I could anticipate him to perfection and so make up for what I lacked in true swimming talent. I’d dive and hit the water just right, and stay under in a low arc that always gave me an edge.

The Northern Transvaal finals were held that year at the Hillcrest swimming pool, in Pretoria. I had competed there during inter-school competitions and the place was familiar. I wasn’t very worried. The day before the event, my mother insisted that I get a new Speedo.

“That looks like a pirate’s eye patch,” she said of my perfectly good old Speedo.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said.

“You look naked. You’re getting a new one.”

The new Speedo sagged like a goat’s scrotum.

“This is too big,” I complained.

“Nonsense,” my mother snapped and leaned in to fiddle with the drawstring. “You just tighten it here. See.”

The next day I wore this new Speedo and did my thing to spy on the starter. By the time the boys under sixteen breaststroke was up, I was ready. I was in lane three, with the main pavilion to my right. I remember these details vividly because of what happened next. I fell slowly forward and was off just as the pistol sounded. I dove from the block, hit the water just right, and slipped completely out of the new Speedo. It hooked on my left foot. Until that day, I hadn’t known it was possible to blush underwater. I had hated my mother on many occasions before then—as any boy does—but never as much as during the next few seconds as I pulled the new Speedo back on and remembered her claim that I’d looked naked in the old one.

Embarrassment produces adrenalin, as I found out. I swam on, wanting to die and get it over with. Turning at the far end, I had to hold on to the Speedo as I kicked away, but then I made up for some time—fueled no doubt by having been naked—and ended in fourth place.

The lady official in my lane held up four fingers and winked at me. As we got out of the water, I prayed that no one else had seen me, what with the splashing and the bubbles and all, but it wasn’t so. Everyone in the pavilion was standing and applauding.

Some years ago I asked my mother about that day.

“How come you weren’t there?”

My mother lit a cigarette. “I cannot remember now, but I’m very sorry I wasn’t.”

“You missed the only standing ovation I’ve ever had.”

“That,” she said and peered at the tip of her cigarette, “is not what I’m sorry I missed.”

She re-lit the cigarette. “I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to stand with those people and say to someone, that’s my son, the breaststroke stripper.”




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  1. I hope that D got a kick out of that one…a pirate’s eye patch!! LOL
    I can’t stop laughing…goat’s scrotum –for GOD’s Sake man!!!!