smoke haze, 7th february 2009
There are two rips now.
One curls around and roars along the edge in a fast moving runnel, then joins the other and head back out to sea. Its as if a section of the water has turned sideways, and all the swimmers, herded northward into a section bounded by flags more north than is usual, all look as if they are marching in the water, side on, heading north. Just to stay still.
Today was forecast to be another scorching day, so
I am feeling fortunate: the heat is kept at bay by the nor’east wind, which is brisk at first, driving the heat westward and away from here. By evening this same wind will be shrieking through my house, moaning at the windows, trying to make me melancholy: sometimes it succeeds. It makes me wish for a particular kind of company which I cannot have, not now. Not today.
The air is strangely clear, despite the fires burning there is no smoke haze or smell, like yesterday. I wish everybody near and far could come here to escape the heat, sit with their feet in the water and not be hot. By 8 am there are people everywhere, despite the fact that this beach is not particularly easy to find, nor well served by public transport.
Down in Victoria, walls of flame devour everything in their path, yet here am I safe, wading into water which, together with the pattern on the waters from the wind, and the strangely icy temperature, makes me think of winter. I puzzle on this cold current, which I have encountered before in midsummer, a sweeping frond of frigid arctic water circling, the banks beneath my feet are runnelled and full of sudden pools. I am glad to reach the deep, despite the cold. I circle and swim, and look at the fish.
A cloud of garfish passes almost at the very surface, their underbellies pale violet against the green. As I have spoken to them quite recently I don’t attempt any further communication: garfish are uncommonly unfriendly, and despite what they say, rather fixated upon their own business. They pass like a swarm of small silver pencils. Mostly young ones, I note, and decide that they will be even more irritating than the last lot I spoke to. I swim on, feeling occasional tendrils of warm water drift around my feet.
I think about the sea, and the rip. Last year the sea tried to steal a pair of children with this same sneaky tactic. Almost deserted, the beach was lit with the low clear light and clear shadows of early Spring, and I swam, diving to the bottom and catching hold of the sand, feeling my body pivot like a compass needle with the strength of the current. Later as I stood on the stone steps, looking back at the calm, swelling surface of the treacherous current with which I had just battled, two little girls came running down the grassy hill, shrieking and laughing with unbound excitement,
followed by their older sister, walking decorously with her parents.
The laughing pair passed: twins!
Pale skin and light brown bobbed hair, I catch the sound of them speaking. Irish children! I smile at their white necks, I watch them run onto the sand and along the shore, breaking into an impromptu can-can kicking sprays of water into the sunlight, cackling and squealing. They wade knee deep, and I from my place on the stairs, realise that they are about to step into the arms of the sea and be borne away to the deepest part of the ocean, for they have chosen the calm stretch, where the hidden current lies waiting.
No, I tell the sea. Don’t steal those little childen,
But the sea is silent and deteremined and I am forced into a run, the Irish father watching me approach, puzzled. Don’t swim there, I tell him, panting.
It’s the undercurrent…
And he smiles, says thank you, and calls his bright twins to play in the rockpool instead.
How could you? I ask the sea.
Little children, from far away?
I think of this as I head back in the cold current, as fires burn and birds drop from another sky, as people lose their houses, as people lose their lives, and here is me, swimming the cold current in a two-pronged rip.
But let’s just imagine, for a moment, that right on the edge of the safe place, on the invisible line leading out from the flags, where the sand drops away into a deep hole and the sea waits to catch the unwary, somebody stumbles.
Imagine that, as you head back through the rip, as is your habit, you happen to raise your head and for some reason follow the gaze of a startled boy and see the pale limbs of a very old man slipping into that green hole, and you dive as fishquick as you can, travelling the runnels and the pools. In the green light he is tumbling into a hole and the sea is already wrapped around his limbs.
You see the underwater thrashings of pale legs and arms, a frightened face. You slip your arms around him and haul him out of the hole, his white and drooping flesh so soft beneath your fingers, your grasp sinks into his very flesh. You drape his limp arm about your shoulders and marvel at the soft and speckled body bedecked with pale barnacle-like moles and protruberances, and he just cant get to his feet so you have to haul him and you know that when you need to you will suck every ounce of strength right out of the ocean if you have to, that you will not let him go. You’ve done it before. You know your lungs, your arms, will never ever let you down.
And then you are holding him up on a whorl of sand, and he is saying, in wet breathy whispers, quietly,
I just can’t stand up,
and his legs are collapsing but you don’t let go. You are happy, because you were thinking, on this hot day with all these people here, that perhaps his heart was about to stop, but now you feel that he will be alright.. And you begin to bring him in, but then, imagine, that all the lifeguards finally get out there and you hand over this pale and soft man, so grateful, so limp.
I just couldn’t get to my feet he says
They carry him out, and once again you leave the water. As you always do, and walk up the wet sand and up the hill to home.
But just today, you wish that you could dive down to the deep and swim in an arc, slice up and out through the water, fly through time and space, and from the sheer force of your will, seize someone from the flames, just one at least, and fly away with them in your wet arms, wrapped in your wet hair. Imagine that.
You would dive through fire. You know your arms and breath would never let you down.
My domain is water and I swim in the rip,
Which sometimes can be a useful thing,
today I wish it were more.
I wish I could swell to the size of the ocean, and seize things, people, trees and wrap them all in the huge curtains of my cold wet hair, hold them in my dripping arms and fly away, that might be enough.
Yes, today I wish it were more.
I wish I could do more.
108 people died in the firestorm of February 8th, 2009.