I was drowning on a Monday afternoon at Trigg Beach. Other than the friend who came with me, and who was off somewhere else doing his own thing, no-one knew I was there. The beach was deserted. There were no lifesavers. And I was taking on water.
I was in a rip, and it was carrying me out to sea. Already the beach looked a long way away. Even if I screamed, no-one would hear me. The roar of the sea would always be louder, more insistent, would always win. I could not touch bottom, and I was out of strength and, worse, breath.
The sea was going to kill me, but first, like a cat with a mouse, it was going to slap me around a bit. The water was cold and sharp, and it was indeed slapping me around, especially during those panicking moments when I was trying to get my mouth above the turbulent waterline–wham! Mouth full of water, lung full of water, sink a little lower, fight a bit harder to come back up to try again.
I could feel it wanting to kill me, that it had the intention, the malice aforethought, the desire. That it believed I was fair game, coming out here on a day when I should have known better, when there was no-one to save me. I have rarely felt so in the presence of something so full of wanting to harm me, something immense and unstoppable.
I strained downwards with everything I had, trying to lengthen myself, to stretch, to strain, to touch bottom. It was simply out of reach. It might have been a gap of only a single centimetre, the sand beneath my pale feet stirred by my flailing, or there might have been an unfathomable abyss. No way to tell. Not without going under to see. And if I went under, I might not come back.
The essential problem here was that I couldn’t swim.
But the really essential problem, the root of the whole situation, the thing that looked like it was going to get me killed, was that I had been a weird kid, as I have previously indicated.
When I was in primary school, at some point, I no longer remember exactly which year it was, the school sent the kids in my grade to the blue and white majesty of Beatty Park Aquatic Centre (built for the 1962 Empire Games, and very impressive for the time), where we were to be taught how to swim. Because if there is one true thing about life in Australia, it is that you need to know how to swim. Because if you don’t, well, you don’t want to think too much about that.
I was excited. This was going to be excellent fun. I had always, always loved water, being around water, playing in and with water. As much as I was crazy about space and rockets, I was crazy about water. My earliest memories involve a lot of mucking about with garden hoses, and sitting in canvas paddling pools with my young dad (still with thick dark Brylcreem hair) pouring buckets of water over me.
But there was also the Floreat Forum incident. I was truly tiny. I’m not sure how much of what I remember of this incident is genuine first-hand memory, or whether it’s you-wouldn’t-believe-he-did-that! family legend. One day, when I was very little, my grandfather on my dad’s side (the one forever lives in my heart for being the one introduced me to the wonder of Milo on icecream) took me for some sort of outing or shopping expedition to the Floreat Forum Shopping Centre, which was a bit flash and posh.
There were these water fountains. Which featured beautiful white and blue ceramic tiles, with running water flowing in a very appealing manner. Please be aware that I’m piecing this together out of image fragments, as of stray dusty things found in a long-neglected box. I barely remember this, but have heard the story so many times.
It seems I was so entranced by the way the sunlight fell through a skylight onto the flowing water in the fountain, over the white and blue tiles, that I just had to get closer to it. I had to be part of it.
So I stripped off my clothes, and climbed up and got into the main fountain basin, and had a perfectly lovely, fabulous time laughing and splashing about. It was the best thing ever!
My grandfather, who had fought in World War I, was mortified. Passersby pointed and laughed, and probably made a few funny comments.
I remember boundless joy. I was happy beyond measure. And my grandfather’s discomfiture was part of that. It was funny, how upset he got. (Sorry, Pop!)
The situation was retrieved. I was dried and reclothed, and a family legend was born, one of many, but one of the better ones.
This is all by way of establishing my bona fides as what my mum has always called “a water bug”. To her I was “a space nut” and “a water bug”.
So, primary school swimming lessons at Beatty Park. I had never smelled chlorine before. What on Earth was that? The change rooms were huge, too huge, as if for vast numbers of people. The glare out on the pool deck, the bright sun reflecting off the surface, made for squinting and shading your eyes with your hand.
But the water, in those enormous long so long huge endless pools, was entrancing. The play of light. The white tiles with the black stripes and markings. I’d never seen anything like it. I could not wait to get started. All of us, I remember, were excited and restless, a bunch of little boys, fidgeting, as if on the night before Christmas, and they’ve noticed some particularly large and promising presents under the tree with their names on. It was a wonderful moment of anticipation.
The teacher, when she arrived, was a young woman with pointy 1960s breasts in her one-piece swimsuit. I was very young but I was very much a boy. I noticed things like that. This teacher, I no longer remember her name, had a lovely, kind, patient manner about her. You wanted to do well for her approval. The lessons went well. The water seemed to glow, it was so white in the sun.
Weeks passed. The swimming lessons were a highlight of the week.
But then one day we turned up, bursting with excitement and enthusiasm, ready to go. As usual there was a lot of talk about flirting with the teacher, and speculation about who she liked of all of us (obviously not me, but I was used to that by now).
A different teacher turned up, a middle-aged woman with a tight, curly hairstyle, and a solid build. I also forget her name, but it was almost certainly Mrs Someone. She had a very authoritative manner. She was firm. She tolerated no nonsense, and would tell you if your efforts were not measuring up to her standards. None of the boys speculated about which one of us she liked best. As far as we could tell, she disliked all of us. She looked, when dealing with us, like she was sucking a lemon.
I lasted about two weeks before making the decision that many years later was going to get me killed one Monday afternoon at Trigg Beach. I stopped going to swimming lessons. I decided I didn’t like the new teacher. She was a permanent replacement for the nice pointy-breasted teacher. We never learned what happened to her. I still miss her. She was nice. I felt encouraged. I always wanted to do well because her approval felt so warm and genuine.
I no longer remember exactly how I managed to get out of swimming lessons. I think I was the only one who did. It seems conceivable that during that time I was sent to the school library, but I really have no idea. I also don’t remember why my parents went along with my decision, or if they even knew about it. My recollection of events stops here, with my decision that I didn’t like Mrs Someone, and that was that.
So I never properly learned to swim. Because I was a weird, foolish, moody, strange kid.
That afternoon at Trigg Beach, when the sea tried to kill me, only one thing saved me–luck. I remembered something I had read long before about rips. Australian beaches are lousy with rips, and there is a great deal of literature available about how to survive them. I had read some of this. If I had not, I doubt I would be sitting here telling you this story.
A rip forms a deep channel along the axis of the current leading out to sea. This means you can even be quite close to shore, and still find you can’t touch bottom. But either side of the channel the bottom is the usual height for thag distance from shore. If instead of trying to swim against the rip’s current, which will get you killed, you swim just a bit to the side, you’ll find much shallower water. You might be able to touch bottom.
It was my last possible move. I had taken on a lot of water. It tasted like doom, salty doom. I was choking and coughing. I was spending more time underwater looking up at the surface than I was above the surface. My arms and legs burned with fatigue. My eyes burned from water exposure. I didn’t want to die, and certainly not like this.
I tried swimming, dog paddle, to the side. I put my feet down.
I touched bottom. It was shallow. I could stand easily. The water here, just a metre or so from where I had been, from where the sea was going to eat me, was about chest-deep. I could breathe. I coughed up so much water. The cold waves and chop slapped against me, but no longer had power over me.
I was a lucky bastard. I have since, at my local aquatic centre, learned to swim. The teacher was an older Scottish woman with a mother’s warmth and humour, whom I like very much. I was so grateful to her for teaching me to swim that I gave her signed copies of two of my books, TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT and my most recent, BLACK LIGHT. One night she told me about a niece who had spotted BLACK LIGHT on her shelf, saw that the author had signed it, and was all impressed, and wanted to know how she knew the author. This story warmed me at a time when I was badly depressed. My freestyle technique is excellent, though I can only do about one and a half laps of the centre’s 25 metre pool. I can do most of the other strokes to some extent, but breast stroke remains a baffling mystery. I am not too concerned. I now know enough to save myself, should I again find myself in trouble at a lonely beach.