It was one of those insights that arrived quite uninvited as I lay back in the bath. A rare insight that I had glimpsed but never met up close. And now it stared me down, and I did not back away. I stared right back and was afraid. Outside the world wizzed on, the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, while inside all was still, unmoving as the water around me, just me sat there in the tub.
I had come face to face with my mortality.
And knew right then and there that all this could not last forever.
I have learnt that there is nothing like a bath to ram this kind of information home.
But I wasn’t always a bath man.
Not at all. For some reason baths never aligned themselves very well with my character. I’d heard stories of Cleopatra and her asses milk and Churchill’s fondness for bathing with Pol Roger. But I was a child of the 90s. A shampoo and conditioner in one kid, I just wanted to wash my hair and go. The free market economy was baying at me and my thinking was I could get more done when I wasn’t swilling around in a puddle of my own filth, not unimpressive logic for an eight year old.
To me baths weren’t for getting clean, they felt more specific than that. They were for moments. For thawing the freeze of being dunked head first up to my waist in snow by my brother in the days of youth when I remember winters being more wintery. For under-water world records up in the countryside in the yellow bathroom with the brown carpet that was always sodden from the splashing. For shutting my eyes to the strip-lighting to float away in a strange sea as far from boarding school as I could possibly be.
When I first laid eyes on female genitalia I was in a bath. What you see below could be the very first instance of my sexual discovery, the kindling of a fire in my loins lying dormant exposed to its very first spark. That’s my first cousin, so perhaps not. Then again some years later my father told me our family history was littered with similar such stories and worse, so who can tell.
All in all I was a power-shower teen, a shower-gel man. Lynx Africa.
I didn’t want moments, I wanted to live. When I read that Justin Timberlake took six showers a day, after each one of which he put on a box-fresh pair of Calvin Klein briefs, a ritual he had become addicted to, it resonated. Bathing held no sway for the modern man, I thought, as I stepped out of the shower to shake off the glistening beads of water like a dog shaking off the early morning rain.
When I did my flat up I put a bath in it, for no other reason than I felt like I ought to. For four long years it lay empty, it’s only purpose was to support a rack for drying out washing or hanging stinking sports gear from. Alone on all fours in the high-ceilinged bathroom catching the drip of some recently rinsed Y-fronts, it was a sad and forsaken thing.
And then something shifted. Like a new planet in the solar system revealing itself suddenly to a posse of drooling scientists, an idea emerged fully formed out of the darkness.
What if I was a bath guy.
And it began, just like that. The funny thing was I didn’t even have to try. After years of unfeeling, some hand from inside me had reached out and unlocked a door, the other side of which lay a future punctuated by endless hours in the tub. Before I knew what was happening I was a two-a-day man, three at weekends and on public holidays. I was having more baths in a week than I had suffered in the previous decade, and I was loving it.
I learnt the complex science of baths, the many philosophies hidden therein. How filling a bath to sit in it was to merely scratch the surface. My bathroom became a minefield of hurdles to vault over and fires to put out, and beyond that a myriad of tricks and sleights of hand to master. But I was a King in my own Kingdom. I channeled my inner Tony. The world was mine.
Nothing in those early days came easy.
My boiler was incapable of heating water anywhere near fast enough, meaning even with the hot tap on full the temperature of the water would change every twenty seconds from boiling to icy cold and back, obliging me to do on-site tinkering for the entirety of the bath’s running time.
And when the chaos of life called me away for a minute the temperature would go to hell. Which I learnt took twice as long to rectify as draining the bath and running a new one from scratch. I learnt how to mix the bubble bath in right at the start, but not too soon, in a double-handed clockwise/anti-clockwise circular motion to ensure optimum bubble-infusion.
I learnt of the abyss between gaging temperature by hand and with the body, and how the only reliable tester was a tentative ankle. And of the sweet spot between running it hot enough to ensure a longer bath-time, but not so hot as to make it sauna-like and a total sweatbox. Above all, to never run the cold tap in some foolhardy attempt to level up the temperature. I once waited forty minutes for a bath to cool to perfection.
Once in the bath the problems just intensified.
I learnt no bath ever existed in a constant state for it was always changing. Water loss through the overflow hole or by way of a misplaced plug was crushing to the spirit, and however well infused the bubbles were in a constant state of evanescence, revealing clearings and glimpses of a body that was not what it had once been. All the while the temperature of the water fell by the second.
I was always on the hunt for the perfect moment.
I’d have a book with me, sometimes an ice cold craft beer. As Radio 3’s Night Tracks wafted through the open door at the perfect volume, I sought the perfect passage, the perfect sip of obscure pale ale, at just the moment the bath was reaching perfect peak temperature. And in that moment all would crystallise into one essential timeless moment and the meaning in life that was eluding me would be revealed.
But it never happened like that. With nothing to press down on, underlining any passage was impossible, I’d drop my pen over the side, the beer would be gone too soon or would be forgotten about and go flat, if the bath was too hot I’d have to stop and mop my brow, the book would get wet, the music would become distracting, and all the while there was the problem that as the scent of the foam bath evaporated what replaced it was my filth and sweat and from time to time my gas. And in these moments lying there in my excess, my past life of power-showers and Lynx Africa and renewal would feel more attractive than ever.
So I learnt to stop searching.
This was my last and most important lesson. To stop trying to control everything, to give up on the curation of some perfect moment of revelation, to stop reaching out with fingers extended, clawing for the elusive thing so I could say here it is, this is it. Instead just to sit there in my own company, soaking in the tub, looking up at the ceiling.
The great lesson of the bath had revealed itself. All it demanded was my presence. I might lie there amidst the bubbles and think about the winding road of my life, the steps I had trodden to get me here, my labours and aspirations, my failures and my fears, what this meant for my future, had I lived correctly, would I strive to live in a better manner. And I could lie there just the same and think about nothing and let the feeling of weightlessness shift from one part of my body to another.
Has the lather of past shower gels made me happier. Has stopping to soak made me more melancholy. When I’m in a bath I feel like something important and ancient is going on. Or maybe I’m just slowing down. Here lies a man who could press pause on life’s remote, they’ll say. What has my life been, what will it be. Just a series of moments. Cause and effect. Until a celestial hand reaches down to pull the plug on things.
So there I was, sitting back one morning minding my own, quietly gazing up at the painting on my ceiling, and in walked my mortality to sit with me a while. Again the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, and from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, as I sat there in the stillness. And it appeared to me that to be still and unmoving, as the world around me carried on unceasingly, was a strange cocktail of both my finiteness and its complete opposite.
Because everything was continuing quite despite me, and always had and always would, but somehow in my complete presence I was stealing back a piece for me. If eternity is not infinite duration but timelessness, wrote Wittgenstein, then eternal life is for those who live in the present.
Same thing as sitting in the bath really.
As I lay there soaking, soaking all this in, a film of sweat coating my face and arms, mulling over my newfound immortality, I lifted my feet and slid them forward off the edge, inclining my neck backwards and breathing out through my nose, submerging all that was left of me.
As I felt the back of my head touch the bottom of the tub I opened my eyes and looked up through the water at the bubbles fighting their way to the surface, and past them, to the wavering outside world, carrying on as I had left it. And I thought to myself, there isn’t a shower on earth that could teach me any of this.