Saltwater Reaction

Most mornings I linger with a book in a cafe. I don’t think of myself as an early retiree; I’m more a flaneur, blest with time to explore authors I’d too long neglected. Prolonged reading in a cafe is enjoyable and I’ve eased through dozens of books, but it doesn’t help me stay trim. My other routine, in the afternoon, is swimming laps.

I arrived at the beach late in the day, hoping most of the holiday-makers had returned to their units, motels or caravan parks and I could churn back and forth across the ocean pool. Instead, the section of the pool designed for lap swimmers was still hectic with boisterous teenagers, mums and dads and their children. But they didn’t venture much into the deeper water near the sea wall: the top of the concrete was slippery with algae and below water it was crusted with skin-tearing oysters. I could do my slow laps across the pool, following the line of the wall, mostly undisturbed by the frolics of the school holiday visitors.

I stopped for a breather after each lap, hanging onto the wall for a minute before pushing away to swim to the opposite side. I didn’t pay any attention to the three boys nearby until, while resting, I saw one of the boys climb out of the water, sneak along the pool’s side wall and slap the bottom of a young woman in a pink one-piece swimsuit. She had been walking back along the wall to the shore. She swung around to confront the boy but he’d already dived under water and was swimming away from her. His two mates, laughing, swam to join him. She stood glaring at the boys for a moment, before rejoining her husband and two children on the sand. I could see her telling her husband what had happened. She pointed to the boys and he stood looking at them.

The boy who’d slapped her backside was well-tanned; adolescent, he was thin and quick. His wet brown hair was curled. I assumed the young boys were locals and the woman was a tourist.

I swam another lap, then rested. Another woman, middle-aged, in a bikini and a wide, floppy-brimmed straw sunhat, had walked to the end of the wall and was sauntering back. The boys kept low in the water. When she’d passed them, the curly-haired boy climbed out of pool, crept up to her and slapped her bottom. She spun around.

“You shouldn’t do that,” she snapped at him. “You don’t touch strangers. It’s very rude! Keep your hands to yourself.”

He retreated a few metres.

I thought, talking to him is almost useless; she is an adult without authority.

She resumed her walk. Perhaps she was satisfied that her verbal reproof was sufficient. It wasn’t. Emboldened, the boy took a few quick steps and poked her lower back, then ran along the wall and dived into the deeper water.

She stopped, calling, “Hey! I’ll be watching you!” as he swam away, then she hurried to join a family group on a spread of towels surrounded by a clutter of plastic beach toys. Other people turned to see the reason for the commotion. Her husband had stood when she called out to the boys; he could hear and see she was upset. He went to her and they spoke as they walked back to their belongings on the sand. He kept looking over his shoulder at the boys as if he’d berate them if they returned. But they prudently stayed out near the sea wall.

I swam my final two laps. That made eight in total, about 600 metres; good enough for a sixty-year-old bloke. 

When I regained my breath, I clambered out of the water and walked along the wall to get my backpack and towel. I saw the boys nearby enthusiastically splashing each other in the face. They appeared distracted, but the curly-haired boy saw me and called, “Hey mate, wait up!”

I didn’t wait.

“Wait up, mate!” I heard behind me. He was out of the water and walking towards me, grinning. His two mates had stopped splashing each other and were watching, smiling in their excitement.

As soon as he was close to me I grabbed his skinny arm near his shoulder, surprising him, and then pushed him off balance, giving him a shove that launched him sideways into the pool. His mates burst out laughing and gave each other a high-five. The water was at least a metre deep at that point, with the bottom all sand. He was in no danger. I hadn’t calculated any of this—I saw it was safe enough to do, would rid me of his pestering, and I did it instantly.

I didn’t look back until I was on the sand. The boys were swimming across the pool. I could hear their laughter.

I walked across the sand at the water’s edge and grew aware that the woman in the bikini and sunhat, her husband, and a young dad sitting with another family group were looking at me. I couldn’t read their faces; all wore sunglasses. Did they approve of my no-nonsense action in defence of my own dignity, thinking to themselves, “Good on ya, mate! That brat got what he deserved!” or did they deplore it as reckless over-reaction? “You pushed a boy into the water!” I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t betray the sudden uneasiness I felt. I even puffed out my chest and returned their looks. As I passed them, the woman who’d remonstrated with the boy nodded to me and her husband gave me a subtle thumbs-up. The younger man kept staring at me but when I got closer and glanced at him he suddenly found something interesting in the sandcastle his daughter was making. I collected my belongings and went across to the main beach to body-surf before heading home.

The waves weren’t great for body-surfing; they were small and didn’t have much energy. I had to wait until one wave caught up with another and their combined swelling rush was enough to sweep me along. I had time to think. I had surprised myself with my reaction at the pool. I was uneasy, not because I’d put the boy in any danger—I hadn’t—but shoving him into the water—out of character for me, I would’ve thought—resulted from instinct rather than deliberation. I hadn’t thought what I would do if he harassed me; but when the moment came, I acted promptly. And it was effective. It was as if another decision-making process had taken over because it knew that if I had to think what to do, I’d have been as ineffectual as the woman who’d reproved him.

I caught another wave. It carried me almost to the shore where the smaller kids with their miniature boogie-boards bravely caught tiddlers of waves and squealed their delight. I waded back out to the deeper water and realised the boy’s action was the sort of stupid stuff I did at his age. In primary school, I’d once put water on classroom chairs so that when the kids sat down they’d look like they’d peed themselves. But somebody dobbed, and I had to spend all lunchtime standing outside the staffroom watching the other kids outside running and playing. I gave up that prank. And once I’d tried to steal a model aeroplane kit—an Airfix 1/72 scale P40 Kittyhawk—from a toyshop, because I was ten cents short of the seventy-five cents it cost. The shopkeeper caught me with the model under my shirt, told me sternly never to steal again, and said he’d put it aside for me to buy “like an honest man” when I’d saved up my pocket-money. I didn’t go back; I was too ashamed to return. But I didn’t steal again. If I searched my memory of childhood sins, there’d be a lot more for my conscience to needle me. But I didn’t want to stir up more memories; it was too uncomfortable. It was enough to remember that I’d often misbehaved and shouldn’t think harshly of the boy who patted the occasional bottom.

Beyond the waves, I noticed snorkellers diving and rising and diving again where the seaweed-covered iron skeleton of an old barge lay sunk. It was easy to see when the water was clear and the tide was low. It was popular with spear-fishermen and underwater photographers. But you wouldn’t catch me out there. The water might only be four or five metres deep, but I’d seen drone footage of large sharks cruising around that spot. I intended to go snorkelling—I’d planned to last summer—but I wanted a safer place. Below the nearby headland there was a long, curving outcrop of rocks that provided a sheltered natural pool open to the ocean at one end. And it wasn’t deep; that would suit me.

After catching a few more waves, I picked up my backpack and towel and walked along the beach towards home. I towelled myself dry as I walked, stopping only to pull on a T-shirt and put on my thongs at the footpath of the main street.

I waited with a mum and her young daughter at the pedestrian crossing. The crossing was only twenty metres from a busy roundabout and it wasn’t easy to tell if approaching cars would turn left to the beach or accelerate along the main street past us at the lights. The mum was holding her mobile phone to her ear with one hand while her daughter held her other hand. They’d both obviously come from the beach: the mum had a bulging beach bag slung over her shoulder.  Both wore one-piece swimsuits, together with hats and sunglasses. The girl carried her goggles and snorkel. I felt reproved: if she could swim underwater in the sea, there was no reason I couldn’t. Maybe next time I was at the marina shops I’d buy a goggles-and-snorkel set.

There was a slight gap in the traffic. Perhaps the distracted mum thought the lights had turned red. She stepped with her little girl onto the road just as a P-plater in a black Commodore raced out of the roundabout to beat any change of lights. I grabbed the strap of the woman’s bag and yanked it, shouting “Stop! Stop!” at her. The driver of the Commodore saw us; he veered away in a tyre-screeching panic but for half a second he locked eyes with me and gave me the finger. He must’ve thought I was her husband and should’ve been more careful of my family.

“That moron could’ve knocked you both down!” I gasped. I was shaken by what could’ve happened. I think the woman was shocked that I’d pulled her bag, and maybe I’d hurt her shoulder. Possibly she was offended at my brusqueness. She wasn’t thankful that I’d saved her and her daughter from serious injury.

The lights changed and we had a Walk signal. We crossed the road. “I was watching,” she said when we were close to the other side. “It was hard to see the signal, looking into the sun.” She looked down at her daughter and her daughter looked up to her. We were facing west, but the sun was behind a block of units.

“The main thing is you’re both still alive,” I said, unimpressed with her. She was probably embarrassed. They headed right towards the Wharf Street shops. I headed left towards home.

“Don’t thank me for saving your life!” I muttered to myself. She hadn’t been watching the lights or the traffic. If I hadn’t acted so quickly, there’d have been a tragedy.

For the second time that afternoon, I wondered at myself. Instinct and intuition, instant and compelling, had driven me. I didn’t know where these qualities came from nor had I suspected how quickly they could activate. There was no conscious thought process; there had only been reaction. I was glad they’d emerged to command when thinking would have been too slow and compromised by doubt or quibbling sensitivities.

I walked along in the late afternoon sunshine. I pulled my blue cotton bucket hat from my backpack and put it on. There was something I’d do when I got home. Over the past month I’d been reading Jacques Ellul. There was an observation he’d made that now came to mind. He’d said—something like—for every advance in technology that had entered our lives and changed our behaviour there had been a corresponding loss in tradition, custom, memory, instinct or intuition. I was pleased they hadn’t been totally lost from my life. I wanted them to remain, hidden and perhaps neglected, but vibrant and decisive when needed. A humble realism told me there was no way I was sharp enough to think myself through sudden, fraught situations. Not a chance. And no amount of reading philosophy, history, fiction or psychology would change that basic incapacity. The best it might do is help me appreciate the many ways I was still a mystery to myself, despite living sixty years. When I got home I’d find that passage in Ellul’s book and mark it, even if it meant I’d have to re-read the entire book—a meditation on Ecclesiastes—from beginning to end.

Gary Furnell, who lives in coastal New South Wales, is a frequent contributor of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent story was “The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy” in the May issue.


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