It's the 1950s, in the days before municipal swimming pools in every suburb. I'm 8 years old, catching the train by myself to swimming lessons at North Sydney Olympic Pool. I walk into the chlorine smell, change into my elasticised swimmers, and head out to the tiled surrounds of the pool. I don't dive in – I never mastered diving. My method is to back down the ladder and lower myself into the chill of the water. The lessons begin – breathing, kicking, arm movements, coordinating all three into an ungainly overarm, duck diving, floating, treading water. Learning whatever I now know about movement through the aquatic world.
At high school we went swimming in the suspicious slimy depths of the Roseville pool. You could never see the bottom, and you always wondered what lurked there. In memory, we never swam on a sunny day. The weather was always as murky as the water. There, the teachers finally accepted a clumsy forward topple into the water as the best I could do.
Ocean swimming was rare in my childhood. We lived a long way from the sea and didn't own a car. Occasionally I'd go with the neighbours to the enclosed sea pool at Balmoral, or to Narrabeen for the Sunday School teachers' picnic. I'd submerge myself briefly in the waves, rise and fall with the swell, and then head off to the beach to collect a painful sunburn that made me wince every time I moved for days afterwards. Even on our Jervis Bay holidays I didn't spend much time in the water. I think I was always a bit fearful of the sea, and much easier in the still water of lakes and rivers.
Expecting our first child, we criss crossed the great divide heading towards Lightning Ridge. I remember a naked romp amongst a rocky outcrop at Crescent Head; a lounge in a bath-shaped rock in a mountain stream; an icy submerge in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall. We had all these places to ourselves, inconceivable forty years later.
The move to the south coast gave us a gentle river not far from home, with safe places for children to splash about, and pools where my feet could rest on the bottom whenever I wanted. In that river, we bathed, and cooled down on summer days, and lolled about looking at the stars on hot summer nights. None of this probably qualifies as swimming, but it is playing around in the water.
There was also the sea close by. My dislike of the ocean was confirmed one day when I watched my ten year old daughter swept around the rocks in a rip on her surfboard. My attempt to rescue her was a disaster – I was hurled onto the rocks and cut about, while she confidently rescued herself. I've lived by the sea now for 15 years and rarely immerse myself, except when I'm nagged into it. Fortunately it's not wasted because my son spends every spare minute taking advantage of it.
There was a spell where I swam at the Narooma breakwater regularly on shopping day, and occasionally, in my lunatic phase, at night after yoga. One day I froze as I had a riveting conversation, standing up to my neck in icy water, with a female pilot. My only attempt at body surfing was also near the Narooma breakwater, on a rare day when the waves broke inside. My teenage daughter launched me on the waves and I felt for once the exhilaration of shooting shoreward on the crest. I've never managed to read waves well enough to replicate this for myself.
Swimming overseas? Paradoxically, in a desert pool at the oasis in Siwa in Egypt. The area was small, the banks not far away, and I lolled about quite contentedly. There's even a photo to prove it. Maybe I even did a few desultory overarm strokes, and a lazy breaststroke or two. In the thermal baths in Budapest, where men stood chest deep playing chess. In the lake at Gryżyna in western Poland, surrounded by forest and an avenue of monument trees, and kept in line by strutting lifesavers.
I've had a few dips in the women's pool at Coogee in Sydney, a relaxed place where you clamber down a rocky staircase and slide into a roughly shaped pool amongst the rocks. On a rough day the swell rolling in can be quite daunting, but on calm days the water is salty-buoyant, and the world far above. I stroke out unenergetic laps, and even wonder why I don't seek out water for such pleasures more often.
Swimming is obviously a pitifully small part of my life story. Why write a memoir about it? Because being in the water has given me pleasures I've felt nowhere else, and reminiscing has taken me to memories I cherish, even if they are few and far between.