Tony Kelly comes swimming with me some Saturday mornings. We used to play Monday evening tennis together and one night, between games, started chatting about swimming. I told him if he ever felt like a dip in the sea with the Williamstown Mussels he’d be more than welcome. A few months later he rolled up on his bike one Saturday morning after I offered him a lift over to Willy beach.
As the expression goes, half the fun is getting there. Our route is the western ring road – a grey ribbon draped across the industrial landscape at the western edge of the city. Presiding over it all is the Bolte Bridge; a bridge which is part of a freeway; a bridge with no pedestrian access; a bridge in the style of fuck-you-Kennett-era architecture. But a bridge with a great view. I never tire of seeing the massive cranes which straddle the docks. Often, I find myself distracted from our conversation by the impossibly ludicrous, giraffe-like structures lurching above the clutter of containers stacked and crammed along the wharves.
We chat away in the car. Tony has an interesting job, dry humour, is well read and a member of his family is famous. But we don’t mention this, or rather we didn’t for over a year, until one morning his cover was blown by the others in the swimming group, after a TV documentary conspired with genetics to let the cat out of the bag. Someone started playing air guitar. Tony stalked back to the car, scowling.
I drive and Tony buys take away coffees if we need to get back straightaway and get on with the demands of modern living. Sometimes I like to hang around with the others and as a concession to this, Tony waits around too, but I can see that he is impatient to get going. I am constantly astounded at how busy and well-organised his life is. To the extent that he already knows, weeks in advance, what date he will next be able to make it for a swim, which he duly notes before hopping on his bike to cycle home. The secret to this, says Tony, is getting up at 5 am. Seriously? By comparison, I know I am a malingerer and each week resolve to make better use of the ample time I have on hand, but which never seems enough.
Heading east towards home, I have a small buzz of excitement approaching the West Gate Bridge. Tony is five years younger than me and grew up in Adelaide so has no memory of its collapse. Already forced to witness the realities of the Vietnam war when moratorium marches clogged Bourke Street, and confront the ugliness of illegal abortion when the Wainer years played out on black and white televisions each evening, Melbourne was brutally shocked when the grand project proved only as good as the smokescreen that concealed its deadly flaws. One Saturday morning, driving over pier 5, just past the point of collapse, we notice that below us, a huge chunk of industrial landscape has disappeared. The remains of corrugated iron sheds are piled up around the edges of the site but mostly, there is scraped earth and bare concrete slabs. A little piece of the journey to Willy has gone and I think we both regret that we can’t remember exactly what was there.
It gets cold in the water in winter. Tony made mention of this in an article he wrote for the Big Issue (Ed # 448) about swimming on his fifty-second birthday, the age his father reached when he died and when Tony was still only a little kid; a year younger than my niece when her father, my brother, died. I remember how her grief intensified when she could no longer remember his face and my helplessness, knowing that no amount of photographs or stories could ever restore his image in her mind.
Tony feels the cold more than most people I think. At first, I was a little worried that he’d chicken out of winter swims owing to the ache of chilled sinuses, numb hands and feet and immobilised facial muscles. However, he makes up for this on the way home, by cranking the heater right up so I nearly suffocate.
We’ve swum at Sandridge too. One Sunday morning, on a cold and bleak day, we were the only swimmers in the water on a beach completely deserted other than by a couple of life savers messing about with an inflatable boat. It had rained the night before. As we swam, the cloudy water suddenly darkened when the sun disappeared behind a cloud and a wad of seaweed appeared out of nowhere. It scared the shit out of both of us. Emerging from the water, we agreed that on days like this, gloomy, with no-one else in the water or on the beach, it doesn’t take much to feel suddenly and shockingly afraid.
Of course, we analysed this incident in great depth. Does the sea provide expression for a fear of nature which sits beneath the conscious surface? Is it about the things you can’t control? Why is it that most Australians are not concerned about drowning, sunstroke, or polluted water but rather, fear shark attacks which in truth are at best remote, if not impossible, at least close to shore in the bay. Does knowing what lies beneath the surface strip away some of that uneasiness? Does being unable to see beneath the surface make swimming an act of faith?
Not everyone is up for this kind of post-swim debrief. The other Willy Mussels are simply happy with morning tea.
But all of us are hooked on sea swimming. In spite of, or owing to, the icy wind on the beach in winter, sunburn, or mouthfuls of salty water when it’s rough, there is always a feeling of having no limits. Being able to do almost anything whether it’s swimming in ten degree water, or swimming three kilometres when you thought you could only do one, or getting out of bed after a late night, or swimming with people who you thought you’d have nothing in common with but in fact have everything that counts in common.
We’ve swum on Grand Final Day, on Cup Day, on Labour Day and on Christmas Eve. We’ve swum over reefs and crossed the sandy sea floor in water which was sapphire blue, milky green, thick and soupy, or littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms. We’ve swum with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish. We’ve swum on our birthdays.
Each swim and each drive to Willy, Mr Kelly, has been a pleasure.