They tell me I could swim before I could walk. Well, that’s how I remember it. No doubt it’s an exaggeration, but there are photos of me, a chubby 1950s baby, sitting up and photos of me swimming in my father’s arms, but no photos of me walking.
We grew up near the beach, and when most of my classmates were at Sunday school, we were swimming. While Mum dealt with my “difficult” younger brother, Dad would take the neighbourhood kids to the beach. Later, thanks to a win on a horse, they bought a weekender at Whale Beach, in those days right on the fringe of suburbia. Weekends and school holidays were spent in the water, on the sand, or roaming the rocks and sandhills.
So although my late January birthday makes me an Aquarian, I think it is my childhood rather than the power of the zodiac that made me a water baby. I was clumsy on land and hopeless at sport, but in the water I felt free as I dived through waves or turned somersaults under water. I surfed too, initially using a surf-o-plane, later learning to body surf. One winter I even raced at the swimming club every Sunday, but what I enjoyed most was simply playing in the water, imaging myself as a mermaid.
Years passed; I married a fair-skinned non-swimmer, gave birth to a fair-skinned son and a less fair-skinned daughter, nd ended up living in the suburbs, with trips to the beach a rarity. We had a backyard pool, which compensated somewhat, but each summer I became filled with with an emptiness – a longing for summer days spent swimming in salt water, drying out in the sun. Nonetheless, the prospect of driving for at least half an hour, finding a parking spot and then getting hot and bothered on the drive home meant that I usually procrastinated. Summer would turn to Autumn, the emptiness would dissipate, and my inner mermaid would leave me alone for six to eight months.
I expected that, despite my resolutions, this summer would follow the same pattern. Then I read that parts of the Parramatta River had been declared safe for swimming. The factories that had used it as a garbage dump have been replaced by designer apartment blocks, and whatever remediation was deemed necessary has been carried out.
Three days later I was testing it out. Ten minutes’ drive and a short walk through a park and I was at Chiswick Baths, a small netted enclosure, providing me with a chance to swim in salt water. It wasn’t crystal clear, but it was cold and salty and refreshing. I swam, I floated, my spirits soared. For the first time for years I will be able to swim regularly as often as I want.
This summer my inner mermaid will be satisfied.