eavesdropping

Sitting in the airport lounge, I consider calling my friend to see if she got home ok after dropping me off.  She’ll know I’m really calling to see if she crashed my car.  I decide against it, although I know she’ll find it funny.

Because I am flying to Launceston, the plane is full of Tasmanians.  A long queue forms instantly the boarding call is made.  Two women are taken aside.  They have too much hand luggage – only two pieces are allowed and they have three.  Rather than swear, they say “oh sugar!”  Later, they wriggle into the seats beside me at the back of the plane.  The one closest to me begins an elaborate explanation of how she had to stuff one back pack inside another to meet the luggage rules.  With ill humour, I ignore her.  Our bodies are packed tightly against each other in the too-small seats on the discount airline.  Even so, I always enjoy the feeling of having permission to remain separate on a plane and I want to make the most of it.  Guiltily, I pull my book out and pretend to read.

I am a shameless eavesdropper.

The two women settle into conversation once the plane is high above Melbourne’s industrial suburbs.  Insulated from everyday life by the bank of thick white clouds beneath us they recount their experiences of being single.  One is a widow, the other divorced.  The former feels her dead husband’s presence in the garden, or his encouragement when she struggles with the lawn mower or repairs around the house.  The other talks about her girlfriends’ experiences of on-line dating.  They both talk about loss of intimacy.

Sometimes I eavesdrop between laps at Fitzroy Pool.  Or is it people-watching?  Occasionally I hear the dull snap of goggles fastened over silicone caps and a little smack of water as swimmers lower themselves into the pool and kick off toward the deep end.  Others emerge and wrap themselves in a towel, shoulders hunched and balls of their feet flexing up and down on the warm, wet cement.  A man wearing pink Crocs squelches along the pool edge as another climbs out of the water in impossibly baggy brown bathers, dripping crotch sagging almost to knee level.  One woman picks at the knot of a polka dot 1950s style two-piece halter neck then re-ties it with an irritable sigh; girls half giggle as they tug self-consciously at miniscule bikini bottoms.  An older mother tells off a couple of teenage boys in board shorts doing clandestine bombs when they think the pool attendants aren’t watching.  The loud splash they make engulfs her voice.  An older, barrel-chested man in tiny black Speedos strategically evaluates which lane to use, and at each end of the pool sleek, athletic young women in tight one-piece trainers silently tumble turn.

One day, there are lots of kids having swimming lessons.  One group of five year olds lines up around the edge of the childrens’ pool.  Another group, slightly older, perhaps about seven or eight, clusters at the shallow end of the main pool.  The younger kids are ducking up and down learning to feel confident in the water, the first step in defeating fear.  The instructor is young, upbeat.  He claps his hands to snag the attention of the giggling group: “let’s go, let’s go…hey my favourite fish – the flounder!”  The kids shriek as they break the surface of the water and take a gulp of air.  The other group is serious and silent.  The instructor is older, slightly gruff, business-like, attentive and careful.  He gently cradles the heads of the young swimmers as they kick on their backs for about five metres, then judges whether they are ready to be let go.  Some are; others are shepherded safely back to the edge.

After the lesson, he leaps out of the water.  He is a man in his sixties, fit from a lifetime of swimming.  Tanned and muscled.  He is relaxed now and laughs and chats to a woman watching the younger group.  He seems pleased.  The younger instructor grins and the older man half jumps into the small pool.  The two men splash around with the little kids.  I have just witnessed a new cohort of swimmers at the very beginning of a lifetime of amphibious pleasure.

Last year, I fled the Yackandandah Folk Festival for a swim at the public pool on the outskirts of Albury, about half an hour away.  In the main pool, the under 14 girls water polo match was in progress.  A good turnout of spectators was cheering the Sharks (blue and black) or the Tigers (orange, with black stripes), to victory.  Water polo is a rough game and frustrating to watch.  Players thrash, rather than swim across the pool, since they need to keep their helmeted heads above water in pursuit of the ball.  The rest of the game seems to involve a lot of jostling and elbowing.  Men in white trousers with whistles jammed in their mouths refereed the game, while the gilded youths of Albury slouched against the grubby wall of the kiosk at the other end of the pool, drinking coke and eating dim sims.

I swam 30 laps freestyle in the smaller pool.  I could hear the sound of cheering each time I turned my head to breathe.  I flipped over and swam another ten laps backstroke.  The sunlight refracting through the water droplets on my goggles created shafts of light so bright that I had to close my eyes.  Once showered and changed I asked the pool attendant for permission to take some photos of the water polo players.  He treated my request with suspicion and directed me to the women keeping score.  They were pleased to have someone photograph the girls.  The match finished and Sharks and Tigers marched proudly to the changing rooms around either edge of the pool, to loud applause from the crowd.

On the plane journey home from Tassie, I listened to two strangers finding common ground.  Their conversation started with small talk then found its way to a shared love of Victoria’s high country.  Soon it was obvious to both that they were starting to know each other.  Becoming intimate.  I hoped they would manage to overcome some initial awkward moments but as their conservation progressed, I was disappointed.  He was into horse riding.  She was a bushwalker.  Each had a different experience of landscape which didn’t align the other’s.  I sensed a change in her tone as this philosophical gulf widened and she struggled to regain the connection.  He talked on, unaware.  Knowledge of geography is a poor match for knowledge of place.  Involuntarily, I felt sad when I heard the withdrawal in her voice.  He talked of sleeping in a swag, carried by vehicle since they are so weighty; she slept in a tent, carried on her back.  The talk turned to chainsaws, she knew how to use one, he didn’t.  He mentioned his children; younger, she foundered with a polite response.  Their conversation ebbed away with the plane’s descent to Melbourne airport.

Photo 18-09-2014 6 04 29 pm

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From pool to sea

At the local pub there is a photograph of swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool which sits above the fireplace in the public bar,  dated 1926.  In it there are five men, in the swimming costumes of the day, or naked, grinning for the camera.

Photo re-sized

Fitzroy pool was made famous by Helen Garner in her first novel “Monkey Grip”, later a film.  Set in Carlton, it is a seminal work about communal domesticity, addiction to drugs and destructive relationships and places which defined Carlton in the 1970s.  Fitzroy pool is one of those places.  The words “Aqua Profonda” and above, “Danger Deep Water”, on the wall at the west end of the pool, were painted in the 1950s as a warning to Italian children, continually being fished out of the deep end and close to drowning.  The sign is registered by Heritage Victoria as having historical significance as a rare example of the early acceptance of migrants into the dominant culture of the time.  Hooray for Mr James Murphy, the pool manager at the time, whose care and concern for young post-war migrant swimmers, lives on.

The deep end, Fitzroy Pool

Fitzroy pool is open, spacious and has the air of a real pool.  On the other hand, the old Brunswick Baths where I swam before they closed for renovations, could not be more different. Ten metres away, trains roared past; bombing was ignored; the double lap lane was a study in perpetual motion.  No-one cared about the deep end at Brunswick.  And it was very deep.  A relic of more reckless days when a diving board was in place.  Somehow it all worked.  Kids competed to touch the bottom, suspended motionless and puff-cheeked above the dirt-encrusted tiles.  Surfacing triumphantly.  But when the Brunswick Baths re-opened in 2013, the deep end was gone forever.

Plying up and down the Fitzroy pool, I became more and more curious about open water swimming.  Not just going to the beach but swimming distances in the sea.  I had read Roger Deakin‘s ‘Waterlog’, to this day my favourite book and was entranced by the idea of just swimming.

The Scottish Hebrides seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Jura

Jura

What was I thinking?

I had no experience of open water swimming whatsoever, much less 1.4 km across the 70 metre deep Corryvreckan whirlpool.  The weather was cold and rainy, we camped in flimsy tents which eventually blew over in gale force wind.  Then the porridge oats ran out.  Who would have thought it, in Scotland?  By now, I had come to fully appreciate a carb-loaded breakfast as I shivered into my cold, clammy wetsuit each morning.  Thankfully, most of the swims were eventually called off and substituted with boat trips and walks around the Isle of Scarba.  I will always remember, with deep gratitude, the central heating and thick tartan carpet at the B & B in Oban where I eventually thawed out and dislodged ticks infested with Lyme’s disease from under my skin.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim...

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim…

Looking over the Grey Dogs, Scarba

The Grey Dogs, Scarba

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In spite of it all, I was hooked on sea swimming and when I returned home, I found a bunch of people to swim with in Port Phillip Bay, at Williamstown.  Over the months I began to feel more confident and lost the anxiety which plagued my early swims, leaving my legs weak and my lungs breathless.  As the seasons progressed, we swam under warm, sunny skies; through piercingly cold winter water; in rough, choppy waves and in two metre swells on Grand Final Day.  We swam on Labour Day, on Christmas Eve, over reefs and across the sea floor in water that was sometimes satin-sapphire blue, sometimes milky green, sometimes thick and soupy, sometimes littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms.  We swam with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish.  But most of all, we swim for sheer pleasure.

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