December 31, 2016
It was an impossibly hot day. The sky a blaze of blue. New Years Eve sizzled off ashphalt and skin long before any fireworks sparked. We’d spent the morning —Dr M and I and the three kids—wandering Mudgee, the country town we were holidaying in, lunching in a lovely cafe that afforded a natural green canopy where pinpricks of light filtered magically through. It was all going very well. Until it wasn’t. One by one we started to deflate like tired party balloons, some noisily popping, exhaustion running off our faces along with perspiration.
‘Into the car,’ Dr M announced. ‘At least we’ll have the aircon.’
Driving. Moving. Escaping. Our years long answer to pent up frustration. Despite initial squabbles for toys, and elbowing assertions for space in our not-quite-a-proper-family-car, soon the gentle movement of motor and road lulled. The two boys dozed, and our ever-alert eldest distracted herself with quiet imaginative play (the kid can create a whole world with just her hands as characters) with only the occasional ‘Are we there yet?’ punctuating our music in the front seats.
Where was there?
The water, my husband suggested. Though we were nowhere near the coast, we’d heard good reports about the swimming pool an hour or so away, a newly refurbished public facility in a little pocket of a town, an oasis in a landscape of fields and barbed wire.
Pool people we are not. Correction. I am not. I love to look at water. I love the idea of it. The beauty and symbolism. But to submerge into sudden coldness in nothing but a swimsuit, or worse, a bikini…. My natural self-consciousness and reticence returns like the ghosts of childhood and adolescence combined. But a day like today called for drastic intervention. I sat back and tried to watch the scenery through the windows.
The boys were still sleeping when we arrived and Miss E the Athletic (my daughter is me in so many ways me, but not in this) was bursting from her child restraint to get out and swim. Dr M suggested I take her , while he rested until the boys woke. As our sole driver Dr M takes the brunt of our travel while in motion. I am the ‘on the ground’ one, handling logistics and day-to-day stuff. Which, in this case, happened to involve a less than personally palatable combination of ingredients: chlorine and sunscreen.
Nervous but trying not to show it (are not parents so often professional pretenders?) I unloaded swim bags and towels while E fluttered and jumped and talked a mile-a-minute beside me. Hand-in-hand at last we approached the pool entrance. Something new I learnt on this trip is that country pools are not like city pools. Where city pools reverberate with noise, and bustle, everything a clamourous echo, country pools are more muted. More simple. We didn’t queue. There was no turnstile, or magic key-code reserved for the fabulously fit. We just paid in coins and walked through.
A pool with a view
What caught my eye immediately on entering was that we were surrounded by hills. Small hills dipped softly upward on either side of the main pool, affording lush tree coverage for loungers and readers. And larger hills graced the distance like a form of frame. This pool was more than just a spot to swim, it was a country idyll. Feeling more positive I ushered E to the women’s change rooms. She was being remarkably cooperative, behaving in her extra grown-up,sisterly way she reverts to on those rare special occassions when it is just us. I helped E don her rash vest and then pulled my still new with tags swimsuit from the bottom of the bag. In truth, though I had yet to christen it, I loved this suit on first sight. I found it at a bargain price in an inner west Vinnies —second hand but never worn. I looked in the mirror at the vintage inspired black halter neck one piece. It actually looked pretty good.
‘Come on mummy!’ E yanked on my arm, an impatient contradiction of nerves and determination.
We exited the change rooms into the beating light, bypassed the lap pool, and made our way to the kids’ pool. The water was a clear, enticing blue, and at E’s urging we hesitated no longer. We walked down the wide steps and into the water. This was not the shallow toddler pool I was used to, where one spent most of the time worrying about what other substances were residing with you. Neither did it carry the pressure of the big pond pool. This was just right. We spent a pleasant twenty minutes or so splashing about. I watched as E’s anxious inner wildness was tamed, in the same way water has the ability to take the weight from your body and allows you to float lighter. I too, surprisingly, found my own body unusually relaxed.
For most of the time we were alone, except for one other boy, and his young mum at the other end of the pool. I observed them quietly as they made gentle circles around each other. The boy was perhaps W’s age, around three, and the mum was beautiful. She had one of those iron flat stomachs that made wearing a bikini (which she was) look effortless. Her blond hair was tied up in a casual ponytail, and black sunglasses shielded her eyes. I admired how at ease mother and child were together in the water. She dangled her feet from the side of the pool and he held on and kicked. Their routine required few words, was almost choreographed. This was a mum and child who came to the pool often, I hypothezised. She hadn’t been reluctant to get her feet wet. Before I realised it other comparisons in which she starred and I failed came sailing in like an inflatable pool raft.
I paddled over to the steps to sit. The young mum sat only a metre or so from me now. I tried to discern whether or not she wanted to talk. I wasn’t sure. But now I was getting curious, my natural bent to storytelling making me wonder just who it was I was sitting next to. ‘ Are you local?’ I asked her
‘No,’ she answered politely but not elaborately.
‘Neither are we,’ I replied. And then, in the way I do when there is silence in conversation, I babbled on to fill the gap, telling her where we’d come from, why we were here, how often we (didn’t) usually swim, and a whole other collection of material she was no doubt longing to hear on a hot, tired New Year’s Eve afternoon. ‘I need to get E swimming lessons,’ I gestured at my tall offspring, now spashing together with my companion’s little boy, creating cosy communion through play as kids do so easily.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘The only reason my son’s had lessons is that my in-laws organised them. To be honest, its just made him aware of what he can’t do. He no longer believes he’s invincible.’
She was perfectly polite, and had a steady gentleness that warmed me to her. Bikini-clad warrior she did not seem. There was something else I sensed now. A melancholy perhaps, a holding back despite her apparent friendliness.
I told her Dr M and the boys were still in the car. Explained the chaos of travelling with three. ‘Do you have other kids?’ I asked.
She shook her head. ‘Just this one.’ She told me how her dad had moved out here about five years ago, and that they liked to visit him at this time of year. ‘I like to get away. Go off the grid, ‘ she elaborated.
Perhaps I asked too many questions. I can be quiet at first in social interactions, until I warm up. At the insistence of my prying she told me that she had spent the last decade living in Europe where her son had been born. ‘I was working . So was my husband,’ she said.
By this time we had all four of us wandered over to the small pool kiosk to buy icecreams. The kids jumped up and down together in their towels, anticipating the sugary reward for their afternoons adventures. I felt a little shaky from the heat, so along with E’s iceblock, I bought myself a Cornetto drumstick, biting into the vanilla icecream, chocolate and nuts, savouring the taste of my summer childhood.
It was with a mouthful of icecream that I received her next piece of information. ‘Then my husband got very sick.’
I’m not sure if it was the use of the word, ‘very’ or the atmosphere in the air as she said it, but I braced myself for what would follow.
‘He had cancer,’ she confessed quiet to the tiles. ‘He died two years ago. It’s his anniversary this month.’ She paused. ‘That’s why I like to get away.’
My mind whirred as I rewound the last few minutes of conversation, recalling all the stupid things I’d said, how often I’d mentioned Dr M, using that formal term ‘my husband’ again and again. Not to mention my unwarranted assumptions about this stranger based on her looks alone. My thoughts had been only of myself at first, and of how I appeared, and of what she thought of me. Had I really stopped to consider her?
And now, as it turns out, we had far more in common than I could have imagined.
‘I’m sorry,’ I stumbled out helplessly.
In a desperate effort to reach out, I told her about about my brother Greg. About how even still, after so many years, anniversaries were aches. I poured out a collection of words, wanting to convey understanding, support, most of all wanting to reach across and into that emptiness I knew she must be carrying so close on New Years Eve. I felt it now. All the things unsaid. Unknown. Grief radiated around us —stronger than the sun. Suddenly I felt like I knew more about her than the subtotal of the things she had told me.
‘Grief. It changes you,’ she said, looking out over the water to the hills.
I nodded. And left the words to chase the silence.
The thing about Grief-Eyes, is that they are x-ray eyes. Suffering takes much from you, but it gives something too: the ability to see beyond surfaces, to know that all is not what it seems. That people’s outsides, the view they present to the world, doesn’t always match their interior.
Only I’d forgotten.
We finished our ice creams. We bade each other Happy New Year. Our kids gave sweet shy farewells.
As soon as she’d gone I thought of all the things I could have, should have, said. Most of all, I wished I’d reached out and embraced her, choosing to bridge distance with love, and strangeness with communion.
Letting mercy, not self, lead me to the water.