I’m a swimmer. In high school, I was the second fastest perpetrator of breaststroke. Roger Drake was faster. Always just two breaths out of my reach. He was six feet two inches tall and blonde. I wasn’t.
My Uncle Ned taught me how to swim. It was something that uncles did in those days. I don’t know why. I wanted to swim freestyle. He called it overarm when he said that I should specialise in a stroke that few used. That way, he reasoned, I would have a faint chance. So he taught me and my little sister breaststroke. She’s also quicker than me. To this day.
I was forced to return to the pool to help rid myself of this sloth that has settled over my ch’i since the curtain was abruptly drawn over my 25-year career as a public servant. It wasn’t much of a career, but it was mine. I had happily spent my days obfuscating, prevaricating and constructing hurdles for anyone who crossed my path with half an idea. It turns out that none of these skills provided much of a base for life in The Real World.
In fact, I had become indolent and surly, and had emptied my self-esteem into a bucket, just over there in the corner. That my body was also insubordinate was harshly lit when Jan, on catching a glimpse of my reflected splendour in the bathroom [full length] mirror, deployed that age-old aphorism: ‘I see we have built a verandah over our toyshop’.
Fear of exposure
And that did it. I am no stranger to vanity. Like most, I have a totally improbable view of myself, and I enjoy that others don’t try to disturb it. Possibly because they are protecting themselves from some sort of quid pro quo, but that’s enough to buy my silence.
But how to change? Any form of swift, sudden movement is against my religion. Any form of activity that requires specialist clothing or equipment is equally an anathema. Gyms frighten me and I can’t abide the thought that someone might rely on me to perform in a certain way at an appropriate standard – I am not a team player. Jan, in a slightly mocking tone, reminded me of my alleged swimming prowess and handed me a 100-swim pass to our local sink.
‘Go mid-morning,’ she urged. ‘There’ll be nobody there.’
A bigger splash
So here I am, in speedos [don’t look], back in the pool. As a starter, I decide to swim ten lengths of the 25 metre puddle, run a small self-assessment session, offer myself some constructive criticism of my weaknesses, then plan improvements by modest increments.
I manage two lengths. Well, almost. The lungful of chlorinated water I inhaled just shy of the wall forced me to walk the last ten metres, my considerable torso racked with a bark a bull mastiff would be proud of. ‘Pretty sad effort, mate,’ said Harry, leaning against the wall, his silvered goggles buried in wrinkled eye sockets, the headband that insolently contained his nut-brown bald pate was clearly torn from the waistband of a pair of boxers – the faded words ‘Calvin Klein’ still legible, though upside down. ‘Get stuffed,’ I jauntily riposted, spraying him with gobbets of chlorined expectorant.
Harry drew himself up to his full height [about five two], his once-muscled body now papered in unironed translucent tissue, his blobulent belly bulging above a pair of Forty Fathom Sharkskin Neo shorts, and offered a gnarled arthritic hand, bespeckled with liver spots. ‘I’m Harry Brenner,’ he said, ‘I’m 86, and I’m better at this than you are.’
Crisis, what crisis?
I was being sledged by an octogenarian. But not just any mouthy old fart. It turned out Harry had been sodden from birth and was probably about 93 per cent chlorine. He reached his own peak swim in 1954 when he silvered in the 220 yards breastroke at the Empire Games in Vancouver. Or so he claimed. I thought Cyrus Weld held this honour, but I wasn’t about to quibble.
Harry said he was prepared to give me a couple of tips that would see me slipping through the water like a veritable dolphin. Though I did find it difficult to equate this distinctly frog-like stroke with the sweet moves of that particular mammal, I was enchanted enough with this husk of a man to join in the fun.
‘Narrow your kick, shorten your armstroke, get your shoulders out of the water and you’ll go like a cut cat,’ he advised.
Who doesn’t want to swim like a cut cat?
‘Follow me,’ he said.
Too much information
Following someone swimming breaststroke is not for the faint-hearted. Especially a wizened pensioner with full scrotal sag – a challenge that the best of 21st century swimsuit design had fallen short of. Worse, Harry’s skills, while technically surprisingly good, didn’t really provide the pace that his imagination allowed.
I was obliged to call a halt four strokes from the end of the first length, my double-glazed clamp gogs presenting a picture of such disturbing biological fact, I was in danger of full cranial melt. Harry, scarcely able to draw breath, was grateful for the rest.
‘There’s a bloke,’ he rattled, ‘more your age than mine, that comes in. A pretty fair stroker who might give you a bit more of a run for your money.’
I wasn’t really interested in my money getting more of a run, but my affection for Harry allowed me to say this: ‘Bring it!’
Black line fever
Two days later, I was back. The paracetamol had dulled the muscular aches and YouTube had thrown up sufficient technical advice to fill me with misplaced confidence. Harry was there. Same lane, same wonky headband, same disturbing bathers. In the lane next to him, a younger man, heavy shoulders protruding above the blue lagoon’s surface, white blond hair cut short over a tanned cranium, a full sleeve of ink on the arm he was using to conduct whatever it was he was talking to Harry about. This must be the ‘pretty fair stroker’.
‘G’day, Harry,’ I offered.
‘Yeah, gidday, mate. This is Rowboat, the bloke I was telling you about.’
No. Not Rowboat. Roger Drake. My nemesis. Roger smiled me the smile of no-recognition. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said. ‘Harry said you were a bit of a stroker who might need a more of a challenge than this old floater.’ And with that, my old strut returned and I heard this come out of my face: ‘I’m up for it if you are. How about a swift lap to get some measure?’
Rowboat said ‘jump in and we’ll have a go’. Harry would send us on our way. That we didn’t start on the blocks should have alerted me, but it didn’t.
Putting an oar in
I could see Rowboat slightly ahead of me, narrow kick, short armstroke, shoulders out of the water. We hit the wall together [both hands] and turned. With my next breath, he had fallen behind me. The adrenalin kicked in, and I was off. I slapped the end wall with such force that I soaked Harry into a choke fest. I had beaten Roger by two body lengths. I HAD BEATEN ROGER DRAKE BY TWO BODY LENGTHS.
‘I can see we both need a bit of work,’ said Rowboat lifting himself out onto the pool deck and reaching for his crutches while my scrambled mind tried to fill the empty space between his left knee and the ground. I had beaten a one-oared Rowboat by two body lengths.