It is a cold winter’s morning in Sydney.
Three elderly women are talking and laughing in the change room. I recognise their language as Mandarin Chinese. They are the only occupants at this hour. Have I walked into some kind of private club? Their familiarity and ease with each other reminds me of siblings: each jostling for centre stage, their noisy banter taking up all the space.
One woman is vigorously soaping herself up in the open shower, still engaged in the conversation. Another is drying herself. The third is fully clothed and at the hand basin, applying cream to her face. There are three small plastic containers lined up neatly beside her, each in its own clear bag. I smell mothballs as I sidle up to her to adjust my swimming cap in the mirror.
Their liveliness warms the tiled room with the concrete floor that is showing years of neglect – chipped doors and peeling paint, faded posters and broken toilet seats.
As the sun is just coming up I escape their noisy interchange for the quiet of the indoor pool in the next building. I mark my territory in Lane 4 by placing my flippers and kickboard on the concrete at its head. Show Pony (see the previous post At the Pool) in Lane 3 recognises me. I was hoping to slip into the water unnoticed, meditating on the swim ahead.
Show Pony wants a chat. After a brief interchange, I gently end the conversation and push off. I can almost hear my joints clicking and creaking under the water as I pull each arm back, up and over my head.
The water is slightly cooler compared to the humidity of the air inside the building. The windows have fogged up. I get into the rhythm of the stroke and lose count of the laps, intuitively changing the routine when my body tells me to, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke.
Between strokes, I see the regular group of retirees performing their aquaerobics routine, a slow dance up and down the shallows. None of them is moving in time. Not many here today, perhaps the cold morning has kept them in bed. There are also new faces: a man with a perfect handlebar moustache, his spectacles dangling around his neck. He is marching on the spot. And another, leaning against the tiles with a faraway look in his eyes, gazing at nothing in particular.
One of the regular life guards on duty looks bored. He has a sizeable novel for company. I am tempted to pull myself up out of the water to ask him what he is reading, and if is it in his native language, Russian. Would he be too preoccupied with a gripping passage of the book to look up and notice someone struggling in the water?
Soon I am riding on a crest of endorphins, completely immersed in the moment. I have forgotten everything, just a vessel, just swimming.
Passing the other way as Show Pony finishes his laps, I kick energetically, hanging on to my board, on the downhill run myself. A boiling wake trails behind me. I nod my farewell.
Young families start to trickle in for vacation swimming lessons with their awkward cargo of oversized beach towels and floating devices. The children’s excited laughter and cries ricochet off the concrete, glass and steel.
Floating, spread-eagled like a star fish, I think of my mother who came from a country where swimming wasn’t such a popular pastime. I visualise her doing an elegant version of breaststroke in our backyard pool, wearing her black halter neck swimsuit, trying not to get her hair wet.
The foggy windows have cleared as I pull myself up out of the water. The children’s play area outside is shining in the morning sun. The brightly coloured fountains and sprinklers look bereft and forgotten next to a backdrop of bare, spindly trees. I can almost hear the stillness out there as the noise inside crescendos. A little girl decked out in pink definitely doesn’t want to do her swimming lesson this morning. Her mother, with an anxious look and a baby on her hip, is coaxing her into the water to the smiling instructor. Maybe she wanted to sleep in.
On the drive home the sun creates stripes through the trees over the road, like bar codes. I turn the radio on, half listening to the news. A woman has been accidentally shot dead by police in the US, a man in India has been tied to a stake and burnt alive. I turn it off again.
Trying to erase the bad news that has made its way into my car, I focus on the big blue sky for the rest of the short trip home. And think of a hot shower and breakfast.