Walking along the shoreline barefoot, hair wrestled into a seaweed toupee, my towel wrapped around my waist, my skin sticky as the salt dries in the warm sun - I feel like a water god.
I am at the same beach which awed me as a child. Kings Beach in 1955 was in the grip of a cyclone. I recall a windswept stretch of sand with spumes of spray lashing across the bay and waist deep froth the colour of whipped cream bubbling around my body. I remember spending a week running between the lino floored army igloo hut on the foreshore over the natural sandhills to the wild shoreline. It was unforgettable.
Today I am at this same place. The sand-hills are tamed and a car park and coffee shop have replaced the igloo huts. The ancient saltwater swimming baths have been refurbished but the headland is the same and the cargo ships still glide by almost within touching distance.
The water is clear. Blown glass could not be clearer. Glossy brochures of scenes from tropical islands do not do today justice. The variations in sand bars and gutters are marked by varying hues of green then iridescent turquoise, then deepening blues merging to black beyond the lines of swimmers. To the naked eye it’s unremarkable; through my polaroids it’s a riot of pastels and light infused energy.
I am feeling good because I too am infused with light.
As I walk I think about the contrasts between my life on terra-firma and my life in water. On terra firma I am encumbered by clothes, confronted by social expectations, exposed by my awkwardness in land based sports and reminded of my shortcomings by mirrors and my attempts at small talk with strangers and attractive women. On land I am a minnow.
In water I am in charge. I am a seal. My quest, my challenge is singular. I am one with the medium. I am a water spirit.
Unlike cricket and conversation, where practiced skills and complex rules abound and conspire to trap the unwary me - here everything is instinct. Instinct tells me whether to dive under or punch through, to charge or retreat; my body knows how to glide and then explode through the backs of waves effortlessly emerging dolphin-like behind lethal walls of water; I am comfortable being tossed and wrangled in a swirling mix master world beneath a giant dumper; I understand that a lungful of air between enormous southerly swells is the difference between life and death; I see the next two story wall before me and in one fluid motion I experience a sublime moment as tonnes of water thunder towards the shore with me as a passenger sliding gracefully at speed down a smooth wall of green. “Look mum no hands”. All instinct. At least that’s how it feels.
To my left as I walk towards the surf pavilion the crowd dot the sand like sandflies. Young children, mothers, fathers, teenagers, couples, lifesavers, squirming nippers all intent on worshipping the day, oblivious of each other and the absurdity of so many people crowded onto such a small beach in an island continent with tens of thousands of deserted beaches.
In my narcissistic state I am the centre of (my) attention. The king on his beach. So enamoured am I of myself that I sense glances of admiration from left and right and my sense of being in my element is affirmed. It does occur to me that perhaps it is my slightly deformed middle aged body parading in a pair of sky blue budgie smugglers that is the real point of interest but I am able to deflect this thought simply by feeling the sun searing across my shoulders, casting me back to my childhood and another world.
I reach the clubhouse, turn and retrace my steps. The water winks at me in recognition. It’s 8am, and as I wander along the foreshore back to my unit for coffee and breakfast towel in hand, I become aware of a group of young men cruising by in a red commodore, circa 1985. One of them leans out the window and calls to me “Hey Speedo!”. His mates turn and seem to understand his taunt.
Suddenly I feel naked. I am bemused. A beloved national swimming icon has become a term of abuse and I am the subject in a game of ‘Spotto”.