Frank had been swimming ever since he could remember. His parents had owned a house down by the waterfront in Mosman, inside Sydney’s great Harbour. Below the springy green of the backyard cooch lawn lay a strip of yellow sand, and beyond this, the cool blue waters of the harbour itself.
Every morning before work, at the brisk time of five am, Frank’s father – Frank Senior – would march down the wooden steps that gave out onto the sand. Clad only in his old faded trunks, with a blue and white striped towel slung around his neck, he would pause to roll his shoulders and slap his chest vigorously, before plunging directly into the waiting waters. He would then swim for two kilometres, either up and down the hundred-metre stretch of beach, or out into deep water, occasionally crossing to the point on the other side.
This was his way and he didn’t vary it for man or season. Even when the winter’s days were drawing in and there was barely light to see your hand by, he would be there at the same hour, snorting and slapping his chest. When the sea mists rolled in and the temperature fell to an icy 14 degrees, he would still be out, his flesh pinched and goose pimpled, and drained of blood.
His friends, humbled by his dedication, would rib him for his excesses. But there was no denying that he was a hardcase. In a country renowned for its hardcases. If only they knew that his wife watched him from the kitchen window out of concern, and that when the light was bad she crept down to the shoreline to squint into the gloom. He thought he saw her once, darting away like a ghost. But she wouldn’t admit it. Somehow he loved her more for this, more even than he loved her for the fact of knowing that she watched him.
The only time his routine was ever upset was when Frank Junior came along. This made him even more determined that the boy should learn to swim and love the ocean.
Frank was three months old when his father decided that the time was ripe. He was taken down to the cove below the house and placed at the shoreline, propped up by the folded blue and white striped towel. Frank Senior, keeping a watchful eye on the boy, began stepping back into the water. Frank’s hazy blue eyes wandered about the scene, distracted now by the gigantic dome of the sky, now by the shimmering of the waves, now by the crying of the gulls.
When, by degrees, they had made their way back to their father, Frank Senior was standing waist deep. All of a sudden he plunged beneath the water. When he came up, streaming and blowing, his son was still staring at him. He continued to stare, with a slight frown, when his father waded in slowly and very gently began to trickle water over his head like a baptism. The boy made no reaction, either of joy or distress. Emboldened, his father picked him up and carried him back out until he was again waist deep. Frank’s eyes were set on the pulsing ocean. As he was lowered horizontally in his father’s strong brown hands, he could see that the water had depth, solidity. There were swirls, striations and other things, moving things, black grains spinning.
He broke the crust and the ocean moved to receive him. He began kicking his legs and suddenly he was laughing, screaming in delight. Frank Senior grinned ear to ear in father’s joy. It was his son. He knew him.
And that was it. From then on it was all anyone could do to keep him out of the water. It was a love affair, a sort of natural communion. When it is sometimes said of a child, that he or she could ski or play the piano before they could walk, in Frank Junior’s case it was actually true. He could swim before he could do anything else, and when he learned other things, he continued to place swimming above all else.
Naturally at school he excelled in this and quickly outstripped his peers. He mastered every stroke; by age seven he was swimming fifty metres freestyle in just over thirty seconds. At school carnivals he trounced all opposition and scooped every medal. Although the pride of his school, so dominant was he that teachers and pupils alike assumed resigned expressions as soon as he stepped out onto the blocks.
But for Frank all that was kids’ stuff. It was in the ocean that he revelled. It was the ocean that he loved.
From an early age he began accompanying his father in his daily five o’clock swims. At first Frank Senior watched the boy like a hawk but soon realised that this could only be natural fatherly concern. He was in no danger. With a mixture of precious pride and a tremor of mortality he conceded that his son was a far better swimmer than he was or ever could be.
By age ten Frank was swimming at least twice a day – with his father before work, and in the afternoon after school; sometimes even a third time with the school squad. But as he nonchalantly began to tick off his achievements in the pool, he became increasingly restless with these little successes and began to pester his father to let him enter into some of the open water swims, in particular the ‘Harbour Ten ‘K’’. At first Frank Senior resisted in his own laconic way: “We’ll see, we’ll see.” The truth was that the boy was easily good enough but it seemed wrong. He would look irresponsible entering a child into a race that was essentially for adults. The following year though, he relented.
“You can go when you’re twelve.”
This was Australia after all, where gameness and courage are prized above all.
After waiting impatiently for so long, the day ticked round quickly enough. It was grey and sullen, though, as if indisposed, and a tetchy wind was already beginning to grow.
There was another reason for anxiousness in the household. Frank Senior had been summoned to Perth on urgent business and so would not be able to shadow his fledgling son. He had made the promise though and would have to trust to what he had taught the boy and what he had learned for himself.
It wasn’t until he was standing on the beach at Manly Cove that Frank realised he was nervous. Gathered about him were his fellow competitors. Apart from a few spare-boned and over-developed adolescents and some imperious looking Amazons, they were all men – red raw and salty from a lifetime of cutting through the waters. They were packed in tight ranks and he could smell their sweat congealing with melting sun cream.
Instinctively he looked around for his father. His mother was on the promenade, he knew, but his vision was blocked by the bristling bodies. They towered above him like giants, their cheeks and noses slashed with white zinc war paint. No one took any notice of him but kept their eyes grimly fixed on the harbour. He could feel the agitation of their bodies. For the first time he wondered what he was doing there.
He felt a little ice cold hollow in the pit of his stomach. Prodding it tentatively he recognised with astonishment that it was fear and with a dizzying fall in himself realised that he had never felt this before. He had a bad feeling about the event, about the day itself and had a sudden hard and real desire to break free and run to his mother. He was only a kid after all. No one would care. People are always dropping out of races. There was always next year, and with any luck his father would be at his side. And then he saw his father’s face, in shadow from the brim of his hat, eyes cast down, impassive. He didn’t say anything. What was it his eyes were concealing? Disappointment?
The droning of the announcer stopped abruptly. There was a little surge and then, far away but distinct, the crack of a starting pistol. Suddenly he felt himself borne forwards. His legs felt weak and he would have stumbled but for the press of bodies. Then water burst across his feet and he smiled.
He pushed into the shallows and sensed his strength and resolve returning, flowing upwards. He didn’t dare turn. Maybe it was going to be alright after all. When it had got just above his knees he hurled himself forwards and, allowing himself a brief moment to be cradled by the waters, he shot away like a dart.
The crisp sounds of the air were replaced by a dull aquatic slosh and murmur which didn’t vary. The waters churned white with the mass of bodies. Frank concentrated on driving forwards and keeping a space amongst the jostling swimmers. But the wind was up, blowing towards a gale from the South, and as soon as they had left the relative protection of the cove, they were hit head-on with waves as big and unyielding as the open seas.
Soon Frank was being bucked and tossed like a tiny barque. The real trouble though, came in keeping his course. Sliding into a trough he could see nothing ahead of him but the translucent bulk of the wave. It was only at the crest that he briefly caught the lie of the land but even here his vision was frequently obscured by spray, or he choked on spume. Although the swimmers still barrelled forwards in one direction like a shoal of fish, they had fanned out and, more often than not, when he stole a glance at the top of a wave, those nearest to him were sunk in troughs and the harbour seemed to stretch out and around him, devoid of life.