Sunday 23 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 4

Chapter 4. The Decision

I still remember the day, it was my eighth birthday, when I decided to swim around Australia. Of course, I’m exaggerating when I say I decided. It’s not as if I gave it any thought beforehand, it just happened, I suppose because since the day was so fair, the water so clear and calm, such a fine good day for a swim.

We’d gone to Gina’s place that day because it was my birthday. Gina lived over in Balding Bay, a few miles around the point from our place. She was something of a legend on the island, since she’d been to university, and it was rumoured she could even speak French. In all the years I knew her, I never saw her wear anything except bikinis. Her skin was tanned all over as dark as chocolate, and she always wore dark glasses, even indoors, even in the shower for all I know. Before she moved to the island she’d travelled the world, and she’d had a big job lined up on the mainland, something important, I don’t know what, but a week before the start of her career, she’d hopped on the ferry for an afternoon trip to the island, and never went back.

She’d paid three hundred dollars to lease the place at Balding Bay for ten years. It was a cottage with green concrete floors and louvered windows from floor to ceiling, so that you could always see the ocean from wherever you happened to be standing. There were books everywhere, lined up and piled up and leaning on shelves made out of old boxes and those wooden crates that wash up on the beach from time to time. There were big cane chairs, a high table with stools, potted ferns hanging from the ceiling, and a huge cane mat on the floor that you could stretch out and sleep on, as I used to do when we stayed overnight. As a matter of principle I’ve always objected to sleeping. But if you really insist on it, and if you can't do it as the noble dolphin does, snoozing with half his brain while the other half goes on swimming, then I’d recommend a good cane mat on a concrete floor, stripped naked to the waist with all the windows open.

In the middle of the room was a steel pole running up to the ceiling, which was to bolt the place to the ground when the cyclones came. Whenever a cyclone blew in we’d go and stay at Gina’s, since it was widely believed that the Old Train would one day be picked up and blown out to sea, there to be relocated as a haven for crabs and manta rays amid the sand and the seagrass. (That turned out to be true, though not till many years later.)

We went to Gina’s place a lot, and she came to ours a lot, because she read all the same books as my mother, and there’s not much point reading a book unless you can argue about it afterwards. She got books in the mail, loads of them, and my mother was always borrowing them and bringing them back again, just as if it was a lending library. She also brought things for Gina, fruit from our yard, a basket of eggs, a bag of the herbs that we grew down by the creek, or a box of mangoes.

Don’t get me wrong, no one on the island needs to be given mangoes. Mango trees are everywhere, as ubiquitous as the rocks and the green ants. You might live on nothing but mangoes if you could bear it, even though what we eat is merely the leftovers from the bats and the incorrigible possums. But Gina made mango chutney, lots of it, best mango chutney on the island, and people gave her fruit and veg in exchange for chutney, she even sold a few jars at Bob’s grocery in exchange for bread and cheese. (Cheese was one of the many exotic wonders of Gina’s place, an unthinkable luxury for someone who lived in a railway carriage without a fridge.) All year round, her place reeked of mango. In summer, the acrid taste was in your mouth every time you breathed, and you could feel the sap stinging the corners of your eyes and prickling on your skin. How a house constructed almost entirely of concrete and glass could absorb a smell so thoroughly, I confess that remains a mystery to me. But that’s how it was, and I loved it.

My mother and Gina would lie back in the cane chairs drinking wine and arguing over books, work, gender, capitalism, the System, the Movement, the government, whether it was better to organise or to opt out, that sort of thing. The discussions always orbited around one thing, and always returned there in the end. Men. Both of them were agreed on this diagnosis of the fundamental social ill, though what their prescribed remedies were I’ll never know, since by that time I was usually out on the water.

But today being my birthday, we were all seated on Gina’s woven mat while she lit the candles on the cake that had just come out of the oven. I forgot to tell you that Gina was a Vegetarian: that is why she never used unnatural ingredients, and why every year my birthday cake tasted of flour and vegetables, and why the icing was a rich, oozy, leafy green, the colour of crushed spinach, which is what she used for food colouring. It was delicious, we all said so, and after we’d eaten a piece Gina went to her bedroom and came back – “Drum roll,” she said – with a birthday present. When I unwrapped it, it was the biggest pair of shoes I’d ever seen in my life. I was polite, I said thank you, but to tell the truth I was a little disappointed, since in eight long years the tips of my toes had never so much as touched a shoe, nor had they had ever had any reason to. I tried putting on the new shoes but didn’t know how, and Gina had take my foot in her hands and show me. That was when she explained their proper use, and my mother pronounced their name: Flippers.

Having always gone into the water naked, I was sceptical about these rubbery appendages. But I stomped my way down to the beach all the same, and after the first three kicks I understood: the webbed toes were not an alien device, not an artificial extension of the body, but a restoration of the foot to its proper original form. All our ancestors had been swimmers, back when all the land on earth was an inhospitable wasteland of volcanic ash and rock. When our first parents crept out from the primordial waters and began to walk about on land, this sad calamity befell them, that they lost their fins and webbed feet, and instead got fingers, toes, opposable thumbs, all designed, I suppose, for the undignified and unphilosophical purpose of scratching at prehistoric fleas while you’re hanging upside down from the branch of a tree. With webbed feet, you could have drowned all those itching parasites in the course of one good ponderous swim. Yes, nature has failed us here, or maliciously betrayed us, and I saw at once that flippers are the grace that repairs what nature left in ruins.

That is why, when I had swum to the end of the bay, I did not feel like turning around just yet. Nor when I had swum to the end of the next bay. Nor when I had gone around the point to Florence Bay, further than I’d ever been before, gliding like a shark through the shimmering waters. I was silent and swift as death, sweeping my great black fins, the terror of the sea. All things that teem in the deep were my prey. Reef after reef, bay after bay I swam, breathing slow, calm, hypnotic, synchronised to the languid rising and falling of the sea.

It was not until the sky had grown dark that I realised a decision had been made – by whom exactly I couldn’t say – that I would swim all the way around. One minute you’re paddling along, breathing and exhaling, peering down into the murky deep, and the next minute, quick as a stingray, the idea has seized you, stark and white and electric. Once that’s happened, there’s really not much you or anybody else can do about it. You are going to swim around Australia: that’s what you’ll do, plain and simple.

And that’s what I did. By this time, I’d already gone past Picnic Bay, past the jetty, around the southern point and out onto the wide teeming reef along the western rim of the island. I’d never swum at night before; my mother didn’t let me out after sunset, because of the sharks. But in the darkness, the reef was alive with a million phosphorescent lights and colours. I was swimming in the stars, and I was not frightened, and I did not lose my way.

It was many hours later, though it might as well have been years, that I saw the ghostly moonlit figure of the White Lady, the rock up on the promontory that looks like a woman dressed in white, the rock I saw each morning when I swam out on the bay. Then I saw the distant gleaming windows of the railway carriage, and when I’d come in close I found that my legs didn’t work, that I couldn’t stand or crawl, so I lay there in the shallows until the waves had washed me up like a dead sailor on the shore.

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