Winner of the 2021 Newcastle Nature Stories competition.
As she swims, she senses the strata, towering like giant cliffs around her. It’s feeling rather than seeing, a mind’s-eye of layer upon layer of memory. Built up, piled on and crushed down, like the hundreds of horizontal lines in a cross-section of Blue Mountains sandstone. Memories, like waves, each folded flat into the next but occupying the same swathe of water in which she now swims – the Merewether Baths.
Waves, made into personal geology.
She keeps swimming, lifting, breathing.
She can’t remember that first swim with her father. Was she a toddler, splashing with fat-fingered deliciousness, held aloft by strong hands and an adoring smile? He looked just like Frank Sinatra back then, everyone said so, and certainly the photos don’t lie – but nobody thought to photograph any swimming.
Maybe it was later, on a camping holiday. Or a trip to Lambton Pool, shiny and sweaty and the baby pool a heady mix of chlorine, wee and salt-‘n’-vinegar. Certainly it was Dad not Mum, who never went further than a good book in the shade if possible. Dad, who would throw you high so you splashed deep down, who would make sure you were treading water then duck under and grab your feet with a goggle-eyed grin. Who would breaststroke the entire length of the pool carrying you patiently on his back, like a turtle, and reluctantly climb the waterslide just to keep you company.
Dad, who was 86 with metastatic melanoma and only months to live.
Stroking out to the far diving blocks that stand numbered like solemn white gravestones in a watery cemetery, she lifts herself up over the wavelets to breathe. Every third stroke, just as Dad – a competitive swimmer in high school – had once taught her, with feet paddling three to a stroke. The sets of nine carry her rhythmically down the lane, awash with tidal kelp and sea grass and maybe a jellyfish.
From the beach it’s a picture-perfect pool, backed by coastal cliffs and cut into a broad rock platform like a mermaid’s playground, emerald-green. But her first memories of swimming the Baths – the bottom strata – aren’t so Instagrammable. A cold winter’s morning, with the sea water only marginally warmer than the dreary rain. Scary depths, with who-knows-what lurking beneath if you failed to tread water for three minutes. Endless kickboard laps, bubble-blowing, painful belly-flop dives, jeers. And Mum, waiting patiently up in the car with a hot thermos that still couldn’t take the edge off the shivers.
Stroking along in the cool autumn water, she smiles. Now she lives on the other side of the world, in a place where the emerald saltwater rarely gets above a frigid 13 degrees and most people don’t venture out in it. Every time she comes home, she swims the Baths with Dad, basking in the relative warmth and joking about how tough they are.
Suddenly a surprise wave crashes over the blocks. Her eyes and ears and mouth fill with white water, churning. Gasping, she surfaces, and grins.
“I’d look out if I were you, I talked to a fellow down here once who’d been swept out and over the concrete by a wave like that,” says Dad, in her mind’s ear. Another strata layer, from another era.
But that’s part of the fun – that edgy toggle between danger and delight. The childhood game of waves, further up at the surf beaches, that occasionally ended in a sandy spinning dumping but was mostly filled with dives and whalelike breaches for what-seemed-like hours until a final collapse on the sand with sisters, friends and hot chips.
Dad was always a disparaging wave-jumper.
“It’s not real swimming,” he’d always say, mock-shaking his head, and attempting to ply out some crawlstroke between the flags.
Rightly, they’d ignored this lap-swimmer nonsense and kept jumping until, outnumbered, he gave up and plunged beneath the foam to seize their feet and tip them over.
A weak swimmer, she’d always felt strong with him, even out beyond her depth where the sand bar loomed like a treasure island. He’d always be there to save her.
And he was there, until so very recently. Just two weeks ago, they’d been down to the Baths after a few weeks of bad weather and dubious water quality. The surface shone crystalline, shimmering like the rim of a cloud or some massive scaly beast. A water-dragon, one hundred by fifty metres long.
Ignoring the safe ramp with the railing, he’d worried her a little as he wobbled down the ladder but then. Clean laps, one after another, still outpacing her even at 86. They’d fought the current flowing down from the pumphouse on the seaward side and stared out at the breakers, mesmerized. Wave, then wave, then wave, each unique, each built from the same invisible patterns of physics and gravity and sheer beauty.
She’d adjusted her goggles, pretending not to notice how he needed the rest between laps.
Then he blurted, “Do you want to see my cancers?”
She didn’t, but he raised his left arm anyway and she bobbed under the surface, meeting the bulgy lumps face to face. In the shimmery water they seemed to move, lurching.
She rose up to breathe, and then couldn’t find any words. Just stared into her father’s eyes, pale blue and eternally kind, and felt her own fill with hot, salty tears.
She dives a few layers down, to where they’d all gone swimming – Dad, her two teenagers and herself. They’d talked him into the Newcastle Ocean Baths, which he regarded with a kind of Merewether disdain as being unappealing and difficult to park at, besides.
Today, the pool’s aqua Art Deco curves were gilded with sunset pink and gold. The floodlights had just come on, and only two other swimmers were in there. They’d all moved at slow Grandad-speed down the ramp, and she’d had a flashback to seven summers ago, or was it eight, when her parents had traveled to see them and they’d all gone swimming at a local lake. Dad had impressed everyone on the floating pontoon by diving straight off the three-metre level, and then they’d all sidestroked with chips and lemonade bottles for a pontoon picnic.
Still. They were here now, and they were swimming together, languid laps that echoed the fading light behind the city. Then suddenly Dad had flipped around and splashed her, impish. Mouth filled with saltwater, she’d splashed back, and then they were all horsing around in the water like ten-year-olds at a pool party, kicking and smacking and giggling.
Waiting as ever in the car with a book, Mum just smiled as the silliness flew like water droplets, effervescent then gone.
She swims and, unasked for, another layer rises up from the deep. Dad, in hospital last week, drip-fed morphine and mumbling. His hands clasping hers with paper-thin skin and a loving, comforting finality. The bird-like beep of machines behind silent curtains.
He was out now, the infection tamed, the cancer still spreading. Slowly, he swam back into their world of walking, conversations, endless doctor appointments. They’d sipped coffee and talked about poetry, or prayer (so often the same). Even discovered, deep in a stack – what were the odds? – a poem he’d written years ago about Merewether Baths.
She’d mentioned swimming – offhanded, casually, like someone getting up the nerve to ask for a date.
“That’s a good idea!” said Mum. “Maybe a heated pool? When you’re feeling up to it?”
He’d shaken his head, sighed. Wiped a hand over a creased forehead. Shut his eyes, as if immersed in saltwater without goggles.
She strokes on, slower now. Her left shoulder’s aching, just the way the right one had before the surgery. Osteoarthritis. Manageable, for now. Helped, yet inexorably harmed, by the water’s seductive, buoyant tug.
Like geological strata layers, creating their mountain while simultaneously crushed by its weight.
Tired, she heaves herself out of the algae-edged pool and towels dry. At the next bench is an old man, maybe 70, with the wrinkly tanned skin of a lifelong swimmer. He slips into the water in his blue Speedos and sets off.
She gathers her belongings and heads up to the change-rooms.
Beyond the Baths, a single line of surf break stretches like a ribbon along three golden beaches. With a perfect symmetry it builds, rises, peaks and curls over into a froth of white nothingness.
Then it sinks back, and the next one begins.