“Poisonous Soap” they’d call this
scent, were a perfumery to extract it, filter the aerated pollens of hydrangea and jasmine, mix it with essential oils and solvents, and package it in a fading yellow orange and green box to match the landscape from which it emanates. This is the scent in the air, but it’s not the summer scent we expected. My eyes itch. Charlie sneezes.
We are walking through the park, on the way to his first swimming lesson this season. Butterfly shadows flit before us. We chase them through space, and we meet them in space, shadow to shadow, fluttering off into the figs among the wild parrots. Charlie jumps and front flips and tries to keep his hat on through his tumbles, thrilled at a summer day ahead and the prospect of the pool.
The pool, outdoor: it’s splashing and chlorine, and “please close the gate” requests the warning sign. Clouds fading near lunch time, and flesh is cooking now under this blazing sun, black fading to gray, hair bleaching natural.
In two facts I find comfort: I measured the boy the other day and he is 1.175 metres tall. The pool is 900 millimetres deep. He has verticality on his side. Good. Because there’s no way I’m jumping in that goddamned water.
Charlie floats the starfish, chin up, on his back, the instructor’s right breast pillowing his head. She squats and holds his head with her right hand and frees her bosom of his weight, and her hair sways and undulates beneath the water crests, and she smiles as the little boy holds his own against the surface tension.
Well done, she says. Now grab the rail and hang on and kick.
I’m reminded of 1982, or thereabouts. Five years on from my death and resurrection, from the long moments I spent sunk to the bottom of a pond, at a park, beautiful summer day in 1977, azalea scent on the breeze across the earth, lungs flooded. Rescued and revived.
In 1982, swimming lessons, and I wished the car ride up the hill to the swimming school would take all day. Couldn’t we break down? Flat tire? Can I say I’m scared mommy? And what if I do, and all this precious money on swim lessons, wasted, and you have to learn sometime she says, and I didn’t take lunch all week so you could do this she says, so you’re doing it, and I do.
Atop the hill, the swim school on a wooded campus of trees and fields of flowers and bumble bees. It’s morning, and evaporating dew overpowers evaporating chemicals from the pool. It’s peaceful up here, and I imagine throwing my frisbee across the field and chasing it down far far away from all this serenity.
Locker room. Big kids. Me skinny, pale, in yellow trunks looking as fashionable as a poached egg. And I know they’re laughing, and I know there’s no way to show them they’re wrong. Because they’re not.
The pool: mosaic depth marks. 3 ft. I’m taller. 5 ft. Over my head. 20 ft. by the diving board and that’s the death you can’t escape, as fever dreams and night sweats, and this is nothing to think now. The pool, inside a glass house, impossibly humid, chlorine cloudy windows, mossy I think that is, and the mossiness gives me something to think about, some other thing,
something familiar whose roots I’d dig under, create a flap of vegetation under which I’d dig a treasure hole and shore up the sides with popsicle sticks
and draw a map from the back door to the apple tree
and in that treasure hole, a hot wheel car in an empty metal lozenge tin,
and after lunch I’ll follow the map around the secret path we carved through the forsythia, flowering yellow this time of year,
and I’d peek out from inside the bushes and when the coast was clear I’d run to under the apple tree, keeping the trunk between me and the house, hidden,
and I’d find the mossy flap and flip it up and inside — —
The instructor says: Now dangle your sickly chicken legs over the side here.
Look how he dangles, they all laughed. And the whole school takes turns laughing and pointing as though I’d shown up in a stick figure clown suit, as though I were a prop in a slapstick act, an unwanted kitten backing off the edge of the water.
Now hop in and hang on to the rail.
Now take this stick. And she holds out a wooden stick and I’m meant to grab it with one hand while still holding on to the rail, and she’s meant to drag me around the pool, and I’m meant to gain confidence, but I sink like an inner tube filled with sand.
Back to the edge, dangling feet in the water, shivering, chattering, staring at the pool blue lines across the length, ignoring the snickers and clucks. Catatonic.
She sees. Knows. Rescues.
Hop in and hang on to the rail.
And this time she floats to me, all grace, wisping. She looks at me, and between us the truth of all existence expressed in an upturned grin. She takes my left hand and I follow, trust trumping confidence
and she turns me so my back is to her
and she tells me I’m not full of sand
and tells me to kick my feet up, she’s got my shoulders
and the back of my head falls into her right hand
and her left hand against my back lifts me as the sand pours out and my toes break the surface
and she lays my head on her breast and I believe this moment
and my chin is up and I can see her face and I float.
I could float here all day in this perfect fluid shroud, and I don’t want to get back into the car and go back down that hill and back to the little brick house with the pine tree to climb and the cherry tree to dig under and the apple tree treasure map, a thousand miles from the nearest swimming — —
Reader: don’t think this has anything to do with a young boy’s hormones and discovering boobies. This was physical trust I’d never felt before, because when a one-armed man pulled me out of that pond at that park, through the azalea scent, lungs flooded, that day in 1977,
I was dead.
And I wish I could have felt his beautiful touch.
— — it ended as quickly as it began.
To her I was a skinny kid in yellow, the worst student in her swim class, possibly the worst student in the history of the swim school, certainly the most terrified. Needing to trust. I was, to her, another kid learning. This was, to me, life.
Later, everyone could float but me. Everyone lined up at the diving board.
Jump in and I’ll get you if you need, she said.
Try it. I’ll be right here.
But I can’t.
OK. Sit with Joey.
Her colleague. A fella in his twenties I reckon. A different philosophy, different approach to the terrified chicken boy.
C’mon. I’ll hang on to you and we’ll float out.
Mosaic number 20 ft. Mossy flap of earth, popsicle stick treasure hole, hot wheel lozenge tin —
It’s OK. Really. I’ll hold you. Float with me.
My hand in his, I let go of the edge. We’re out. 20 ft. The others jumping in. Bobbing up.
Can I go again they all ask and she says sure and they do.
He holds on to me and I see her look at me and I look over at her rescuing child after child who jumps into the 20 ft. mosaic tiles, and between us the truth of all existence. Physical trust made confidence.
Joey then looks into my eyes. He smiles. He gulps a balloon of air and drops like an inner tube filled with sand,
dragging me with him to the bottom,
as though to show me he was my hero,
all the rescue I’d need
from the depths of this fucking watery death pit.
And I’ll hate that son of a bitch with every fibre of my being for all eternity.
That was my last swimming lesson.
Charlie floats the starfish, chin up, on his back, the instructor’s right breast pillowing his head. And this is a new world. His world, not mine. Mine isn’t mine to give him, and he wouldn’t want it.
We walk back through the park and it still smells of poisonous soap. Maybe fertiliser, maybe foreign pollen. My eyes itch. Charlie sneezes and a snot of pool water sprays on a palm tree. We look at each other and laugh.
Which way should we go? And he says we should take the stairs, so we duck down the trail that leads up the stairs to our house, shadows of butterflies flitting before us. We step on their shadows, chase them through space. Laughing more.
The clouds are rolling in. They predict a cyclone tomorrow. Heavy rains and wind. But no matter, the instructor told me before we had left the pool. Bring an umbrella.
The lessons must go on.