The effort of navigating and swimming in seas that wouldn’t be mastered – worse, that were indifferent to your toil – began to tire him. What was more dangerous, his mind began to slacken. He wondered how far it was until the end of the race? He thought about stopping, just giving up, bobbing amongst the waves until the support boat ran by to pick him up.
He saw the face again. The blue shadows under the Akubra hat, the downcast eyes, the upward tugging at the corners of his mouth which resembled a smile but which he knew was not. It was disappointment! He couldn’t face the reality of the face – the imagined one was bad enough. He couldn’t fail and he realised that the failure would not only be there every time he looked in those eyes, but would sit as acrid ashes in his own heart.
He needed something urgently. He remembered an article he had read about a British explorer who had taken up climbing late in life. He had decided to tackle Everest. The air there is unimaginably thin. The mountain stretches on and on…
“I don’t think about how high I need to climb. I concentrate on putting one foot after the next. Plod. Plod forever.”
Plod. Plod forever.
That’s it! Swim. Swim forever.
Frank felt his strength and confidence return. His stroke became cleaner, more determined. He was no longer buffeted by the waves but fell into their rhythm. His mind cleared, became sharp, poised.
On the next upward glide he spotted a flash of orange of the first turning buoy, out from South Head in Watson’s Bay. On the following he could make out the white foaming spume beyond as swimmers ahead of him changed tack and headed southwest into Port Jackson and cut towards the distant finishing line of the Opera House steps.
Frank put on a spurt of speed as he neared his first milestone. Another swimmer slid down the trough of his wave and broke the crest at the top like a porpoise. He became aware of other swimmers as the buoy silently drew them in and funnelled them round. For the first time since the start, bodies pressed in on each other. Someone was kicking violently ahead of him, creating a small fountain. He gasped and blinked in the wake. Someone else cut into his side with a downward swoop of their arm. Suddenly it was a battle as swimmers fought to turn as near to the buoy as possible so as to lose the least distance.
The force of churning water was confusing, overwhelming. Someone swam over him, forcing him under. Someone else kicked him in the ribs and his pale mouth, distorted under water, gaped open in protest. A torrent of bubbles spewed out and an elbow caught him sharply above the eye. He was floundering now as each passing swimmer did him some mischief, deliberately it seemed, maliciously. He had given up swimming. It was as much as he could do just to keep his head above water and to escape the worst of the punishment.
When at last the waters stopped seething, he found himself adrift more than a hundred yards from the buoy. He had been spun and tumbled so many times that he had now lost all sense of direction. He squinted the way he thought the swimmers had gone but could see no tell-tale wake, just the breaking white crests of the waves and the giddy swell of the ocean.
He looked for the beach where they had started, but the harbour line, seen from that diminutive angle, seemed only to present a wall of darkening oppressive green. He couldn’t go back because he didn’t know where back was, and he couldn’t go forward.
Once Frank had realised his situation, a second thought fell on him, obliterating the first and almost everything else besides. He was out of the race. He had lost. Failed. The idea was so black and crushing, so inescapable, that he sincerely believed he would live under its shadow for the rest of his life. The shaded face appeared in his mind’s eye. He fought hard against it but only succeeded in turning it away so that he still saw the nape of the neck and crown of the hat. It was as though his father had turned away from him in sadness.
A dreary sense of practicality followed. He should make his way over to the buoy. He would be more easily seen and picked up there. It would be safer for all. But swimming was not such an easy task. His body had taken a hammering and as soon as he started to move, pains shot through it. His right shoulder cuff had seized and wouldn’t rotate so he had to paddle sideways with one arm like an injured turtle. The going was almost more painful in its tedium than the jolting cries of his wounds, but eventually he drew level with the buoy. It was large and smooth like an upturned child’s dummy, but there were no hand holds, so he had to tread water next to it and struggle against the surging of the waves.
He settled down to wait, as much as he could. There were boats – skiffs and motor launches – in the distance, but nothing very close and nothing which resembled the support vehicle. He wondered how long he would have to wait. It was funny, although he had been swimming for years and thought he knew the sea well, he had only really experienced it as a moving creature, not a stationary object.
He looked down. His waggling legs looked thin and white. The water dropped away in light, swirling bands, darkening swiftly to something opaque and impenetrable. He wondered what was down there. None of the swimmers he knew, his dad especially, nor his friends who surfed, were afraid of sharks. You knew they were there but the chances of being taken by one or even seeing one were so minimal. You respected the fact but didn’t dwell on it and didn’t let it interfere with what you did. Even now, the thought occurred to him idly and dispassionately, like any other.
He stared. Something passed beneath him. He saw an outline, gunmetal grey, where the waters faded to a royal darkness. Or did he? He glanced up at the sky to see if it was perhaps the shadow of a cloud, shading his eyes with his hand. When he brought it down, he noticed blood. That was curious! He felt over his face and winced when he fingered the spot that had received the elbow. He brought his fingers down and saw them slick with fresh, red blood. It was running down his torso and falling into the water, each drop fracturing into tinier and tinier particles, being borne away to the four corners of the harbour.
That old schoolboy statistic presented itself to him: ‘Sharks can scent blood from five kilometres away.’ He tried to shake it off and the following thought that presented itself like an idiotic punch line – “I am like a floating kebab” – but they had caught hold. He saw his father’s behatted head drifting away from him as though in disavowal. When his eyes refocused on the harbour he thought he saw a fin break the surface of the water perhaps thirty metres away. It seemed to turn in a slow semi-circle, with him as the compass centre. He scrambled around in his mind to try to disentangle what he had heard about the surface movements of sharks and dolphins but got the two so confused that they morphed into a bizarre hybrid creature. Then the fin dropped, going under in a lazy tangent.
He could feel his heart beginning to pound, shelved in by the double cuirass of breastbone and natural water tank pressing in on him. There was an uplift of water. Cold streams from the depths swirled over his feet. Something brushed past, missing him by fingers of water. He looked down. Again that shape, closer this time, large, mottled and fractured by the sun and sea that created it – a solid density of gliding water. And then the eye turned and Frank knew. The white eye which saw and didn’t see, shading dark; below, impenetrable and black. Frank knew why he felt what he did on the beach. It was a warning. He should have listened because today he was going to die.
It was then that the fear crashed upon him like a dumper, severing his ties with reason, logic, even his own self. It was as though her were scooped out and then filled with fear. Chattering, paralysing fear. He began to shake, madly, uncontrollably and then every pore and orifice opened without command and began to expel its contents as though this might purge his body of fear itself. He was crying, spewing and defecating and when there was nothing left inside and the sea about him boiled with filth, he began to scream.
He screamed so loud and his vision was so blurred that he couldn’t hear the roaring of the engine or the shouting of the steersman through the bullhorn. He didn’t stop until he was hauled onto the deck and someone whispered in his ear, “It’s ok son. You’re safe now. Everything’s going to be alright.”