‘ To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience, and the fruits of many inquiries.
A life thus equipped might not be happier – might sometimes be less so, indeed, for to know more can be to feel more, and the ground-note of history is a long cry of pain- but it is vastly richer.
ACGrayling in A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel, Flamingo, Harper Collins, London, 1997.
Three times a week I mindlessly bashed up and down in a confined, often aggressive space, staring down at a black line enduring nose-blocking chemicals, clipped knuckles from passing swimmers and grazed skin from scraping up against lane dividers.
The Roughwater swim reunited me with the ocean. The bigness of it, its velvety feel, its borderless freedom. The minute I hit the water, the nostalgic, salty smell of my tender years came flooding back. Why on earth had I been swimming in a pool all these years?
After a brief anxiety attack at the start of the swim – it was my first attempt – my youthful skills quickly returned and I negotiated the waves with a competence that surprised me. Out beyond the break the crowd of swimmers quickly dispersed leaving me gloriously alone swimming for the first can.
Rays of light pierced the water and I could see clear down to the ocean floor. I swam over a flat and motionless stingray anchored to the bottom, fish rippling in and out of floating weed, a pyramid of pebbly rocks. The sound of water splashing around the cans, the dull roar of jet skis and the splash of other swimmers was muffled and remote. As I turned my head to breathe, I caught far off glimpses of waves smashing onto the edge of the beach and distant crowds milling around the Pavilion like fragments from a silent film.
There were problems. Without the black line I wasn’t sure I was progressing. I kept losing my bearings and having to ask the water safety crew where I was supposed to be heading. I misjudged the exit by a big margin and embarrassingly came in a couple of hundred metres south of the official finish. But the hook had been set. Apart from helping my grandchildren learn to swim, I’ve never been back to a pool.
The friend who kick-started my oceanic obsession suggested I’d do better in my next ocean swim if I joined the group that swam the Bay, south to north, every morning around nine o’clock. I took her advice and although over the intervening twenty-five years most of the original group has died, retired or moved on, I still find my way down to the beach and swim the bay at least three times a week.
The nine o’clock group was relaxed and casual. The swimmers varied in age from twenty to eighty, swimming prowess from rusty clunkers to sleek champions to speedy thrashing windmills.
We looked out for each other – sort of – but swimmers who joined us had to take responsibility for themselves. On big-wave days we waited out the back until everyone was through, or had regretfully retired back to the beach, but as a rule visiting swimmers were expected to deal with the distance and conditions without being babysat.
Some days dolphins frolicked. Once a whale arrived within touching distance. Every so often we were treated to the hair-raising frisson of a claimed shark sighting. Vast schools of salmon mysteriously appeared and disappeared. Sociable blue gropers hovered around the rocks at North Bondi. Long neck cranes speared the water like jet planes. Blue bottles, the summer scourge, carelessly draped their electric blue threadlike tails around legs, arms, faces and necks.
Every swim was different, each one deserving of its own close attention. The postmortems over coffee and cake went something like this:
‘How about that big one in the middle? Where did that come from?’
‘Am I imagining it or was it hard today? I felt like I was swimming against the current all the way.’
‘Got bloody dumped coming in, lost my goggles.’
‘Aloevera, that’s the best thing for a sting’
‘Rubbish, really hot water, as hot as you can stand for as long as you can stand.’
‘We told those spear-fishers to fuck off and they asked us if we ever ate fish. You know, they just don’t get it.’
‘Where were you headed Robin? Out to New Zealand.’
‘What about that cold patch in the middle? It’s cold enough without hitting ice.’
‘Jeez, getting out down south was enough to make you cry. I kept getting hit. Copped face-full after face-full. Got dragged back over and over again.’
‘And how was that? Champagne or what?’
‘Divine, just divine.’
‘We are sooo lucky.’
When Susie, a close friend, asked me to be with her for the birth of her first baby I jumped at the opportunity. At the time, I needed a bit of a shake-up. After decades of advising parents on the same old problems of sleep, breastfeeding, crying and poo, I was turning into a talking doll. Press the button and off she goes.I was sure that leaving my secure suburban practice and plunging into the great unknown of a homebirth in a remote and faraway place would not only test me and my guru advice, but bring me back to my day job revitalised and renewed.
A rich blonde pony-tail and a swinging chestnut bob float into my orbit as two gorgeous young things settle down in front of me and swap desperate tales of domestic woe.
‘So, you’re back living at home?’
‘Yeah, bad really bad but it’s only until May then I’m off overseas.’
‘It’s hopeless living at home…’
‘Yeah, well, it’s their house now. I mean it’s not my house anymore.’
‘I know what you mean. No freedom to have things the way you want them in your room or round the place.’
‘No. And if you cook a meal you have to clean it up right away. You can’t leave any mess around for a few days and fix it when you feel like it.’
‘Doesn’t that just give you the shits?’
Pony-tail and bob quiver in hilarious outrage.
‘Honest my parents are sooo annoying. Do you know my mother
came into my room this morning at nine o’clock and woke me up. Like, she came
right in and woke. me. up’.
‘That’s exactly what I mean, why do they do that?’
‘Well, they’d cooked bacon and eggs - you know their typically healthy breakfast - and she, like, wanted to know if I wanted any. So anyway, I stayed in bed until twelve o’clock. To, you know, make the point. They were horrified, I could tell. But that’s the problem of living at home, they still want to run your life.’
‘Yeah, mine are always asking me what time I’ll be back. I mean, like, what’s that all about?’
‘There’s a few advantages though, there’s always food in the fridge.’
Wild billowing laughter.
‘Always food in the fridge…and don’t forget the washing machine. Having a decent washing machine is great.’
‘Ab. so. lute. ly. And the car. I can use the car but only when they’re not using it, and that’s always when I want it. Still, sometimes it works out and that does come in handy.’
‘And, no rent. I mean if I had to pay rent I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I’d have nothing left by the time I paid rent, bought food. Nothing. I couldn’t go out…’.
They rock with laughter. Their exuberance is infectious. Even
as I’m thinking ‘poor parents’, I have great difficulty holding back sympathetic bursts of laughter at their plight.
In an open carriage on the Eastern Suburbs line, two young men sitting side-by-side talk with boisterous enthusiasm, leaning so closely into each other that the brims of their hats almost collide.
They are dressed in dark suits, white shirts, dangling waist tassels and sturdy
lace-up shoes. Their beards and side-curls are pitch black. The pallor of their faces suggest lives lived indoors.
Identical black leather satchels with brass locks lie across their laps. Oblivious to everyone else in the carriage, they wave their hands around and argue with gusto over what seems to be a point of religion.
One of the young men is tubby but solid with a round face,
full cheeks, plump lips and a booming American accent.
His friend has a narrow face, rimless glasses and very pink lips. His accent, a lively throaty one, is now harsh, now soft. He’s holding a book with looping characters written across the cover, a finger slipped between two pages for easy referral.
A woman wearing an olive-green high-waisted frock, thick stockings and white sandals is sitting next to the tubby man. She holds a bunch of purple hydrangeas and a big plastic carry-bag. The stiff curls of her dusty brown hair rest motionless and wig-like around her face. Her eyes are wistful, her expression one of resignation.
When the tubby man pauses for breath she touches his arm and
whispers. ‘Excuse me, are you a Rabbi?’
The young man places a hand on each thigh and swivels slightly in her direction.
He gestures to his friend. ‘We’re students, religious students.’
‘Ah’, the woman nods thoughtfully at her sandals and looks at him again.
The student gives her a quizzical look. ‘Excuse me for asking, but are you…Jewish?’
‘Yes, but I’m not religious.’ She shifts the hydrangeas from one hand to the other and studies the floor.
He turns his palms up and shrugs. ‘No matter, it doesn’t matter.’
‘I live next door to the Rabbi though. With his lovely family, his lovely children – ‘
He nods gravely. His friend studies his book.
The woman shuffles her sandals, clears her throat and whispers, ‘I would like to, you know, become religious.’
The young man's voice, unlike the faint voice of the woman, is loud and unrestrained. He is obviously unembarrassed about discussing his religion on a train in front of a curious audience.
He dives into his satchel and brings out several brochures and presses them onto the woman.
‘What we say is, start with something small. If you try to do too much too quickly it's too difficult and you’ll find you’ll give up.’
The woman smiles and nods, casting flickering glances around the carriage.
The young man warms to his theme. ‘Do you, for example, light candles on the Sabbath?’
She shakes her head staring into his face.
His voice booms away but his smile is gentle and his eyes are kind. ‘Now that is a good place to begin. On Friday evening before dinner you light two candles and say a blessing over the candles. Here -.’
He opens one of the pamphlets and they look at it together. ‘See, then the candles are left to burn out by themselves.’
‘Yes, yes, I see.’
‘Simple things,’ he says again. ‘One step at a time.’
‘Excuse me for asking but – where are you from?’
‘New York, I’m in Australia for a year. I’ve been here nine months so far.’
‘And your friend?’
‘Aha, he’s from Israel. He’s descended from a family of original settlers from Poland.’
‘My family also was from Poland.’ The woman smiles shyly at the other man who nods and puts his book into his satchel.
The students are now standing above her. Despite their different builds, they
look like twins in their hats and suits, clutching their satchels in one hand
and the overhead rail in the other as the train pulls into Town Hall station.
The woman places her flowers on the vacant seat next to her and puts the pamphlets into her plastic bag.
‘Thank you,’ she says.
‘You’re welcome. Remember, small increments,’ says the young man from America.
‘A little bit by a little bit,’ says the young man from Israel.
In no time at all they are sucked up into the crowd milling around the doors
waiting to step off the train.
The woman smiles and picks up her flowers.
For years a woman has been swimming across the bay at Bondi.
Every morning at nine o’clock she dives in at the south end and swims to the boat ramp on the other side.
One morning, a serious man on a surf ski paddles out to warn her that there’s been a shark sighting.
To the woman
this is a joke. She laughs at him and reminds him that the last person taken by a shark at Bondi was
before the nets were installed in 1932.
The man, offended by her flippant response, paddles off in a huff.
The woman continues swimming in her usual leisurely fashion. When she cruises in to the beach a turtle is lying lumped on the sand, its massive stony shell half-buried in seaweed. Waves wash in and out and pool around her. The turtle has a thick neck and a withered head. People gather around, laughing and pointing and aiming their cameras. The turtle looks pretty flat but every so often she sighs and tries to lift her head.
Uniformed rangers arrive and place orange cones around the turtle to protect her privacy. Some Japanese tourists don’t understand and stand too close. One of the rangers speaks loudly and waves her arms around to encourage them to stay behind the circle of cones. Another is on his mobile to the vet at Taronga Park Zoo.
A leathery old man in ancient Speedos tries to explain to the Japanese tourists that a turtle landing on Bondi Beach is an unusual event.Not for fifty years, he bellows in the faces of a young couple in matching sweaters.
They look puzzled but smile politely.It’s those bloody shark nets, someone says, they should be banned.
But don't be misled. Bondi surf can be wild, rips can be treacherous, undercurrents strong enough to knock you off your feet. Charmingly unpredictable, it can also be a mellow, barely-ruffled pond, an orderly succession of rising and falling breakers, a lumpy medley of foam and chop and everything else in between.
Behind the beach lies the suburb, historically much of it a suburb of treeless streets, small cottages and rundown blocks of flats, sun-baked bitumen and singed grass. The surrounding hills and mighty sandstone cliffs with sweeping views of the magnificent coastline were largely taken over by the wealthy. Their walled-in designer homes, extravagant showpieces of ambition and prosperity, have become grander and grander over the decades even as the beloved beach below has remained a classless wonder open to all.
Bondi is not, as many overseas visitors anticipate, a pristine stretch of beach on a lonely coastline populated by birds and kangaroos. It is a noisy, somewhat polluted inner city suburb with pockets of ugliness that takes newcomers by surprise. Tourists discovering a crowded urban beach-front instead of a remote paradise are inclined to describe their trip to the famous Bondi Beach as one big let-down.