Chapter 2. Restrained
The first time I tried to drown myself, I was six months old. My mother had taken me to a barbecue at a friend’s place, and while everyone stood around talking I crawled off on my own and found the swimming pool. I wriggled free of my damp cotton nappy, I approached the edge of the pool, I dangled my fingers idly in the water, lost in silent reverie.
Then I plunged in. For good measure I kicked out with both legs, propelling myself away from the wall, out into the middle where it was deep and cool. Down the other end of the yard, two things happened at the same time: they heard the splash and they saw that I was missing. Then they ran. There is nothing more comically satisfying than the sight of several self-respecting adults, many of them with mouths half full of barbecued sausage, breaking into a mad stampede: I wish I’d been there to see it, but at that moment I was occupied in more sublime matters, contemplating a patch of oily green scum on the bottom of the pool, the way thousands of tiny drifting particles hang suspended in a shaft of sunlight, the way the water pushes against your fingers when you wiggle them back and forth, the way big bubbles slip from your nostrils like a fat person squeezing through a small door, the way the sounds outside become loud and thick, whether the chirping of the birds in the treetops or the distant bark of a dog or the panic-stricken shouts of your mother.
When they reached the pool they all thought I was a goner, since I wasn’t thrashing or flailing or whipping the calm surface into foam. I lay facedown, as still as death, eyes open, arms outspread in that delicious drowsy sparkling blue. Then someone rudely leapt in, breaking my shafts of sunlight and scattering the leaves on the bottom. I was plucked from the water, and it wasn’t till I’d been laid out by the side of the pool like a corpse awaiting burial that they saw how my chubby little waterlogged jaws were beaming smiles, and how my hands kept waving gently as though swimming. When my mother reached for me I kicked out at her, not out of malice or ill will, as she thought at the time, but simply in the hope that her body, a good firm platform if ever there was one, might launch me back into the pool.
The second time I nearly drowned was on my first trip to the mainland. I was two years old by this time, and had long since outgrown all my clothes – my mother had been modifying my outfits by making small incisions along the seams with her scissors, but there’s a fine line between making incisions in a piece of clothing and performing a dissection, and when my last shirt peeled off my back like a trail of ribbons, she decided that the time had come to take me shopping. So that morning we went out to the shed, scraped away the dirt from the secret trapdoor, opened the lid, took some money from one of the big wads of dollar bills – in our house, this was called Going to the Bank – and then we replaced the latch on the trapdoor, swept the dirt back into place, and made our way down to the jetty.
It was a calm day. Even when the ferry was a long way out you could still see right to the bottom, the shadows of big rocks and the silver flash of fish and long stretches of brightly coloured coral. As the boat glided across these gentle waters, I waited till my mother was absorbed in the book she was reading – something to do with French existentialism, gender stereotypes and social hierarchy – and I slid quietly from her lap. Shifting my feet in time to the rhythm of the deck, I shuffled slowly, it was more a waltz than a walk, towards the handrail. For what seemed like forever I stood there looking down. There were splashes of white and gold and vermilion from the reef below. The boat made little trails of rippling waves that splintered the sunlight into a million shining pieces. The water sounded like laughter as it softly slapped the hull beneath my toes.
The weather being fine and hot, and my last shirt having disintegrated the day before, I was wearing nothing but some tight pants with long incisions running up the seams. After a few moments I had struggled free of them, perceiving, by an acute and infallible instinct, that a person ought to meet the ocean skin-to-skin, without the cumbersome mediation of cotton or polyester. (How I abominate the swimsuit, and most especially the wetsuit, will be told in a later chapter.)
Then everything happened quickly. I climbed the railing, balanced myself carefully on the edge, and filled my lungs with that clean salty sky. Then someone cried out, my mother shrieked, there was a scramble of feet on the deck behind me, and, without so much as a backwards glance, I stretched my arms wide as a crucifixion and flung myself down into the deep, squealing with glee the way some children squeal when they are running about stupidly on land or bouncing idiotically on a trampoline.
Afterwards, there were different theories as to how and why my life had been spared. Some attributed it to the courageous quick thinking of the fellow passenger who risked his own life (so the newspaper said) to dive in after me. Others put it down to the unnatural calm of the sea that day, which otherwise might have buried me all at once in its rising swell. Others (the captain was of this view) said I owed my life to the uncommon slow speed of the ferry. A swifter vessel would have left me floundering in its wake; but if a person fell overboard from the bow of the Magnetic Island Ferry, a passenger stretching his legs down near the stern might have time to unlace his shoes, fold his socks, remove his watch, strip down to his underwear, even put the kettle on for a cup of tea, before diving in to apprehend the hapless victim as the boat inched past him in the water.
I was, at any rate, alive. In fact, when my rescuer brought me alongside and they heaved me up and plonked me on the deck, I straightaway made for the railing again – everyone knows the appetite of children for games of repetition, especially when the game involves getting nice and wet and making your mother scream. But before I could take another step she had seized me, fierce with humiliation and fright – after all it was, poor woman, not the first time she’d had to grab my slippery naked body to stop me going overboard – and she made me sit there on her lap all the way to dock, even when I tried to outsmart her by crying loudly and kicking my legs and writhing about like a great sea snake.
And so we came at last to town, and I was subjected to the horrible calamity of stiff new clothes, and, as a precaution against my suicidal tendencies, my mother bought a stiff leather belt – a Men’s belt – to fasten me to the seat on the journey home. I need hardly tell you of my state of mind, immobile in those new clothes whose scraping itchy tags could have driven the strongest mind mad, restrained a whole hour in those inflexible masculine bonds, the thick hot hated leather that kept me from the sea.