Authors: Robert Power
Copyright Â©Robert Power 2013
First Published 2013
Transit Lounge Publishing
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be made to the publisher.
Cover and book design: Peter Lo Printed in China by Everbest
This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Cataloguing-in-publication entry is available from the National Library of Australia:
ISBN: 9781921924453 (e-book edition)
To Tanya with love
A swim and a bombshell
As the taxi jolts and turns into Primrose Hill, everything looks strange, as if I'm seeing it all for the first time. An old couple walking along the street. Dogs. Children on bikes. Even the shop signs and advertisements jump out at me in sharp relief.
âWhereabouts on the Heath?' asks the driver, turning his head to speak to me through the little window in the glass partition.
âBy the Men's Pond,' I say, leaning forward from the back seat so he can hear me. âI need a swim.'
He does a double-take and then goes back to concentrating on the road.
âI might meet my daughter up there,' I say, just to put his mind at rest.
He relaxes. I close my eyes. All this visual stimulation of street life whizzing by the window is too much to take in after the days of being cottonwooled away.
âBe careful of those shirt-lifters up at the Ponds, mate,' jokes the driver. âDon't drop your soap in the showers.'
âI'll be careful,' I say, keeping my eyes closed, doing my best not to encourage him, even though I know it's true that the Ponds is a notorious cruising venue. The motion of the cab, coupled with the smell of diesel, makes me feel a touch nauseous, but it's good to shut the world out. They told me to take it easy, be good to myself; do anything that feels right. Just stay away from the drink and the drugs.
âWhat's your job, then?' he asks, undeterred by my pretence at sleep.
âI'm a scientist. I work to prevent diseases,' I answer, still with my eyes shut, hoping for the best.
âWhat kind of diseases?'
âInfectious diseases. The kind that get passed on from one person to another.'
âLike this AIDS thing?'
âYes, and others like hepatitis. Especially the kind we can vaccinate against.'
âSo what do you think about all this business with the Africans, then?'
âYou're an Aussie, aren't you? Where've you been â Mars? It's been all over the TV for days. He says there's no such thing as AIDS. The president. You know, the one with the dark glasses and rows of medals. He says it's a Yankee conspiracy or something like that. To kill off all the blacks. That's what he says. And I don't go much on these Africans, but he might be onto something.'
âI've been on a retreat. No TV. No news.'
There's a screech of brakes and a thud on the side of the cab. An enraged cyclist appears at the window. He pulls down his goggles and bangs his fist on the door.
âLook where you're going, you lunatic,' he screams at the taxi driver.
âDrop dead, you queer,' shouts the driver, winding up the window and accelerating.
I sink further into my seat, more exhausted by the minute, any lingering sense of tranquillity evaporating with every sharp turn of the taxi.
âRetreat,' says the driver, laughing to himself, âlike an Italian tank in the war. Four gears, they had. Three reverse and one forward, just in case the enemy attacked from behind.'
He laughs heartily, then lurches left, sending me sliding along the seat.
âYou get it?' he yells, looking over his shoulder, a huge vein pulsating in his neck. âJust in case they come at them from the rear. Retreat!' he shouts. âRetreat!'
All is quiet on the Heath. It's early spring, so the water in the Ponds is still cold enough to keep away all but the diehards. Most every morning since I arrived in London from Melbourne, rain or sun, snow or wind, I've taken my early morning swim in the Men's Pond up by Highgate Hill. It makes living in London bearable. The trees and the herons, the coots and the fresh deep water. It's only a tiny pond on a small piece of heathland in north London, but it's the nearest you'll ever get to bush in this crowded city. When they asked me this morning what was the first thing I would do on returning to London, there was no contest.
âA swim on the Heath,' I said. âIn my underpants if needs be.'
There are only three other men in the changing area. The early morning swimmers have long gone to work or returned home to read the papers and reflect on the benefits of retirement. I strip to my underpants and hang up my T-shirt as a makeshift towel. The changing area is open to the sky and the sun is peeking apologetically over the wall. A woodpigeon flies overhead, making its way to its nest in the tall chestnut trees at the base of Parliament Hill. I pass through the door and out onto the jetty. It is like entering an oasis. The trees are in full leaf, glittering in the fresh breeze. The water ripples gently and there, to my left, I see a family of swans. The regal adults, the pen and the cob, are the galleons of the fleet. They flank their five grey cygnets that are bobbling around, magnificently unaware of the metamorphoses ahead of them. It's the first time in many years swans have come to breed on the Ponds. We've all avidly chartered their progress and are happy to share our bathing spot with them.
I walk purposefully to the blue diving board and stretch to my tiptoes, arms high, looking down at the expanse of cold water before me for just a moment before I dive. When I hit the water it is like a baptism. I push forward beneath the surface, holding the moment, letting small bubbles of air trickle upwards to caress my cheeks before they hurtle away. As I emerge I shake my hair like a dog and suck in a big breath of air. I breaststroke out to the perimeter, where the lifeguards have linked buoys with thick, corded rope to make a circuit. I watch my hands in front of me as they make each stroke, pushing the water aside, pulling my body past the familiar scenery stretched out along the banks of the pond. The hawthorn bushes, the weeping willows, the nesting blacknecked grebe. I flip onto my back and let my mind wander over the highs and lows of the last two extraordinary weeks. I think about my time at the Friary, the lessons I have learned and my new resolve. Then I focus my mind on this morning's upcoming meeting at the lab and our latest endeavours to find the solution to the puzzle of the one-use syringe.
I am mentally pulling apart the formula for the thermosetting plastic when pain explodes between my eyes. As I splutter and choke and hold my forehead, I see the swan, barely a foot away. Then I realize what has happened. I have swum between the male and his offspring. The swan comes at me again, puffing itself up like a beautiful white cloud, hissing and striking with the speed of a cobra. Seminars at the lab and my stay at the Friary recede as raw instinct takes over. I quickly duck-dive and swim under water in the direction of the jetty. I finally emerge at the steps, shaken and breathless. The sharp pain across my forehead and the blood trickling down my nose into the clear waters of the pond is a comic reminder of my counsellor's advice about living in the moment. I grimace and haul myself up the steps and stagger back into the changing rooms. A few swimmers and one of the lifeguards have witnessed the attack.
âThat looks nasty,' says Eddie, the rag-and-bone-man from Kentish Town.
One of the lifeguards comes by with the first-aid kit and sticks a plaster between my eyes. There is nearly as much excitement as when old Albie jumped into the pond five years ago with a ten-kilo weight tied to his ankle. He had been told he had terminal cancer. A week or so after the inquest the local newspapers reported that his tests had been mixed up and he was in the clear.