I’m not Scandinavian and I never went to boarding school. Consequently, I never learned the skill of being unselfconsciously naked in a room full of women. Even now, the certain knowledge that everyone is thinking about her own imperfections, not mine, does nothing to mitigate my sense of exposure. I tell you this to set the scene for a Friday afternoon encounter at my local swimming baths.
Picture me, if you must, at the start of my seventh decade, hunched behind my locker, squirming out of my undies into a red costume as ancient and crinkly as Jill Archer’s voice in The Archers. My bathing suit straps were at my elbows and my trousers around my knees when I became aware that I was not alone. A small, beaming face hovered atop an elderly, uninhibitedly naked body.
The face was alight with pleasure. I know because I never took my eyes off it. She was very pleased to see me.
“You are Morrreen,” she told me. “Do you know det?”
I did. Inquiries followed as to what I was doing there and why she hadn’t known that I could swim. Then her wide smile – impossibly – widened and she asked, “Do you know vat you do?” I grappled for the answer, simultaneously grappling to pull on my swimsuit without fully removing my clothes.
“Do you know vat you do for Jewish people? You speak out on many tings. You speak out on Israel. Do you know det?”
Well, yes. To a fault, my children tell me. I actually believe that Ken Livingstone should be kept in the Labour Party to remind it of what it has become. Let him quietly decompose there and be remembered only for his greatest achievement: bendy buses. The withdrawal of which cost £12m a year. Several of which frequently burst into flames in Malta, to which they were sold.
My new friend’s praise, coupled with her cheerful nudity, left me as scarlet as my crinkly costume. Eventually, I broke for the pool with the ultimate accolade ringing in my ears: “Morrreen – you have made my Shabbat!”
But when I returned from my pathetic seven lengths, I was astounded to find her still there. Naked, but in a very different mood.
“My beg! My beg! Someone has stolen my beg!”
The other lady in the changing room (dry) joined me (damp) in the search for the handbag. Try as we might to ascertain where she’d last seen it, we could elicit no sensible reply. “I vill have to get a man to change the locks!” she said. “I lost my husband four years ago. All my bank cards I must change. No, I did not put it in a locker. I never use de lockers! For a pound! Vy vould I do det?”
Finally, the dry lady found the bag (yes, in a locker) and my naked friend shyly disappeared into a cubicle to dress. I offered to take her for a cup of tea but she was tired of my interference and wanted to be alone. I left feeling that the brief, terrifying loss of the bag was somehow my fault for distracting her attention. And despite my efforts to preserve my modesty, I’d still managed to expose myself.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble