Peirene and I are swimming in the Kenwood Ladies pond on Hampstead Heath.
It’s a beautiful summer’s evening and we are cooling off from an exciting meeting with a producer from a well-known TV news programme. He came across our Peirene Now! series and wanted to discuss how his programme and Peirene might collaborate on the next Peirene Now! book. In the meeting I mentioned that I’m currently applying for a Syrian visa to do a collaborative novel with Syrian writers who have stayed in their country during the war. The producer didn’t show any interest in my suggestion. This war has been going on for years. But his eyes lit up when I said that I had also thought of approaching a transgender women writer to commission her for a different novel. ‘Now, this is a hot topic,’ he exclaimed.
As I now turn onto my back feeling the cold pond water around my head and watching the still blue sky above me, I run the arguments in my head. A novel dealing with transgender issues? These clearly matter. We should all be working for a more inclusive society. Or Syria? A place where society has almost ceased to exist.
‘Look!’ Peirene suddenly shrieks next to me in the water. ‘A MAN!’ And before I have time to react she has duck, disappearing beneath the pond’s surface. Bewildered I’m looking around. No man has been allowed near this pond for over a hundred years. And at the rare occasion that a workman has something to do here, his presence is announced with a big red sign at the entrance. But there was no sign today.
Then I see the man! He’s standing on the jetty, wearing bathing trunks ready to jump in. I feel indignity rising inside. How does he dare! The men’s pond is down the lane. But all at once it dawns on me.
I pull the Nymph up from underneath the water.
‘Peirene, listen, this is a self-identifying transgender woman. They are now allowed in our pond.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Peirene spatters. ‘Even from here, from the middle of the pond, I can see what he’s got inside his trunks. It’s a man!’
‘Pst, lower your voice, you’re embarrassing.’
Some of the other women in the water nod in agreement with Peirene, others pretend they haven’t noticed anything. But everyone is aware of what is happening on the jetty. The lifeguard is now talking to the newcomer, pointing out that it is forbidden to swim topless. She will either have to get into a bathing suit or find a bikini top. I can see the confusion in her face, and for a moment I feel sorry. She has many things to deal with in her life and now she is up against the fierce bureaucracy of the Kenwood Ladies pond. Perhaps we should commission a novel on transgender issues after all?
Peirene has calmed down. As we cycle home she says: ‘There are so many issues that Peirene Now! could tackle. And they are all worthy. But the platform for transgender writing is opening up while there is curiously little fiction about the situation in Syria.’ I agree. ‘And furthermore,’ she continues, ‘in North London we’re worrying about access to swimming facilities but in Damascus…’. She doesn’t need to finish her sentence.
Syria is calling. After Shatila Stories where we worked with Syrian writers who fled the country, our next Peirene Now! book should be with Syrian writers who have stayed. And who else would give these people a platform here in the west if not us? Let’s keep fingers crossed that we will get our visas.
Image by Laura Nolte, creative commons.