Sunday 3 November 2013

"Living is the next best thing to dying,
should be
Swimming is the next best thing to flying,
could be"

 The Dead Salesmen

Saturday 2 November 2013


Who knows what sets it off? There was a slight resentment that this years high-school student Nativity Play was perfunctorily executed with the same script and cast as the year before. Lazy. Although I noticed that Joseph had by now acquired a chin-full of fresh bum-fluff and a couple of the Magi had put on weight so that their purple vests strained around the armpits.   

Following this the priest gave the exact same sermon from last year too, and I imagined him with a filing cabinet of manila folders for every day of the year and their corresponding Gospel. Standing at the back of the hot crowded church I could’ve forgiven even this, except a while earlier Mum had motioned for me to read the photocopied sheet we'd all been handed upon entrance that I just accepted subconsciously as dry parish news, but now upon reading turned out to be in fact an anti-gay marriage petition.

Appalled and unbelieving, I ripped it in half and put it in the box that came round for collection and felt uncomfortable and wanted to just get out of there. On Christmas Eve no less! We had gay friends in the congregation that night and I wondered how they felt about the situation?

The heart quickens as the bile rises and it was on one long intake of breath I felt the ghost of a sharp pain and I knew I was getting sick again.


At the window of the same unit-block my Grandparents used to rent year after year, staring out at the same craggy sheet of rock exposed by a low-tide ocean, I am miserable. I won't taking these dreadful pills this time, even if I end up back in hospital. I’ll just take painkillers and hope to ride it out.

Just as it was when visiting with Nana and Papa all those years ago I choose to drag a mattress to the front windows and sleep there with the ocean roaring me into deep repose: there is no sleep that’s better!  Most dawns I wake and squint for a few seconds at the red glow fanning out along the line between water and sky and fall easily back to sleep until later when the footsteps and the stuttering of tea cups on the sink rouse me properly.

This morning crowds of strolling vacationers are stopping just in front of our unit at a point along the fence, gaping into the scrub that sweeps down the hill to the water, shrieking and pointing with their digital cameras abeep. I get dressed and walk over to solve the mystery: a massive python coiled and sunbathing on a patch of flattened foliage where it must come daily. A kid throws a lolly at it and his Mum hauls him off by the arm.

Jane comes across the road with a towel over her shoulder.  She and her husband Matt, longtime British friends of mine now living in Australia, have spent Christmas with us the past four years.  Jane will swim at any opportunity, as if she making up for the lost years of brisk UK temperatures.  She’s had her sights on the tidal pool at the bottom of the hill since spotting it as we drove into town. I might as well follow her down there.


The pool has been renovated from what I remembered. It was once a standard blue rectangle. As kids we’d walked past many times but never went in. Why would you choose a creepy rust-stained hole like that when glorious people-filled Kings Beach is but a few paces away? But now its been transformed to some kind of tropical cocktail bar, with palm trees, sand and shade cloths, and shaped like a capital D  

At a murky 20 meters long I can barely manage six laps of erratic freestyle.  Seven years at the mercy of this mysterious illness has left my muscles wanting and my lungs compromised. Jane gracefully breaststrokes back and forth, grinning at me panting for breath down the end, clinging to the tiles.  Other family members arrive. Dad, having grown up on a farm and deprived of swimming lessons, comes down with one of my t-shirts stretched over him and wades in the shallow end.  I get out defeated after eight laps and lie on a deck chair with a towel over my head.


I’m reading a Phantom Comic on my floor bed and wonder how he and Diane manage their long distance relationship without Skype, or a phone; even I miss her when I read a bunch of stories and there's no mention. The others have gone off for afternoon naps in the rooms with the fans on. Jane comes out of the back bedroom and kicks me. “Come on Hanlon. Let’s go for a swim.”

Today I manage twelve laps, with slightly more composure and self-respect. The next day it’s twenty.


It seems that the anti-gay marriage thing has gained traction in the Gympie press.  The comments page on the website is overflowing and I read some of them out to the family.
“It was a rotten thing to do,” I say, “but at least it’s gotten people talking about the issue.”
“And in Gympie too!” Matt said, “Who’d have thought? You don't think of it as the cutting edge of left-wing debate.”
Dad had talked to his mate who’d been there with his gay son and partner, “He just ripped the thing up and walked out.”
“Still, I don’t think I could ever go to a mass if that priest is involved.” (A few weeks later, said priest would offer mass for my Nan’s funeral and I was furious. Especially as he wanted to dictate how the service would run. “It’s not for him to say!” I told my Mum, “I’m gonna go up to him and tell him I’ve got many gay friends!” “Please not today,” she asked me.)

We close the laptop and head down to the pool as a group. The snake has gone to his secret afternoon haven but will return again with the morning sun. 

At the end of the week, swimming every day and enduring the knife in my chest each night as I lie down, I wake to a peculiar thing.  For the first time since I first felt it all those years ago, the pain, without the pills, has started to go away.

Name: Kings Beach Ocean Pool, Caloundra (or Sir Francis Nicklin Memorial)
Entry: Free
Specs: 25mt, Salt Water 
History: Having previously only a crude rectangle dynamited into the rocks, Caloundra saw its first official pool open in 1977 after the rigorous campaigning of a local councilor who suffered from Polio, which he found swimming to ease. It was also thought to be a place the Surf Life Saving nippers could train. Fallen into disrepair over the years the pool was given a 4 million dollar upgrade in 2000

Friday 31 May 2013


Straight after Christmas I linger in Sydney a while and set up temporary lodgings in Matt and Jane’s spare room at their flat near the Stanmore Station. The closest pool is the Fanny Durack on the edge of Petersham Park -The very oval where, at 18 years of age, Don Bradman struck 110 runs, his first triple figure in an official game- and the walk there becomes our afternoon suburban pilgrimage.

Along Trafalgar St which parallels the snaking train tracks, up over the wooden bridge at Petersham station and past the bowling club that somehow yearly survives the creeping re-developmental fate of having brick flats plonked onto its green. Turn right onto Station St where we pass an unusual tree I look at every time; a smooth milky ghost gum whose branches have gracefully yielded to the dipping arc of power lines in a perpendicular gesture of, “be my guest,” like they were there first and have first dibs on the air-space.  A left and the atmosphere darkens slightly as you turn into the park and paths lined with Camphor Laurel trees that provide voluminous umbrage to the picnicers.

The flat-roofed dark brown-bricked entrance, of the same architectural vision as the public toilet block beside, is at odds with the turn of the century wooden bandstand across the way. Often, whichever teenager is in charge of taking our money at the kiosk is off hosing down something or other so I let myself through the turnstile and pay on the way out.   

We pick out a patch of ground and mark it with our unfurled towels. Many mums of the Inner West favor the soft lawns too, and the undercover child wading pool is sometimes fuller than the main one.  A mural of a giant middle-aged baby coveting a beach ball adorns the wall of the pump-shed with a reminder to use sunscreen: Use 30+, Live 30+.  The message being if we protect ourselves from the sun we should hopefully live past age 30.

My holiday in Caloundra has set me on a path; a combination of swimming and painkillers has got me through a bout of the mystery illness I’ve been plagued with for years. My training starts here at the Fanny Durack and Jane is my unofficial motivator.

As our afternoons pile up my strength and endurance grows. 20 laps, 25, 30. The main problem I’m having now is keeping count.  And the boredom.

At the awkward length of 33 meters I find myself doing mental arithmetic up and down the lanes. 3 laps equals almost 100 meters, therefore 30 is close to a kilometer.  Usually after about 3 laps my mind starts to wander and it’s hard to control: 4, 5, 6, 7…do tomatoes count as part of my daily fruit or vegetable intake?...7... hang on, didn’t I do 7 already!?

I start making up rhymes to help:
One, One, I’ve just begun
Two, two, there’s more to do
Etc, until it gets complicated
Twenty one, twenty one, this is not plenty fun

When that no longer works I start a new game, Artistic Works Containing Numbers.

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
Two Mules for sister Sara
The three Amigos
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Slaughterhouse- 5
The Sixth Sense
The Magnificent Seven
Dinner at 8
Nine ½ Weeks
Ten Canoes
Oceans 11
and then it gets hard…
Oceans 12
Oceans 13
and then it’s near impossible…

Jane and I get competitive at our daily lap count.  She moves through the water with a lot more ease than I do, and usually when she gets out she's ahead by about 6 laps.  My power is determination; I lumber on.

At night I can’t sleep for black line fever and in the morning the sheets smell faintly of chlorine.  

By the time the summer temperatures are waning my mind has somehow melded with the lane lengths and I’ve started to feel what number I’m on, even if my mind wanders off.

Specs: As of the time of writing the Fanny Durack is closed pending renovation, controversially being downgraded to a 25mt length.   
History: the pool was one of three 33mt pools commissioned in the early 1960s in the Marrikville area after unresolved squabbles as to where a single 50mt might go, and opened as the Petersham Park Public Swimming Pool. It was re-named in 1999 after Fanny Durack, Australian swimming legend, who lived her twilight years in nearby Douglas St. Durack overcame local puritanical banning of women from competing with men due to immodesty, to travel to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and win Gold.