Here is a slightly longer version of The Eastern Shore, first published in The Big Issue #603, 10-23 January 2020.
IT WAS the summer he swam from the eastern shore of the small suburban beach. Not that he ever swam very far. One hundred metres maybe. Rarely beyond the points of the basalt groynes that held the deeper water at bay.
For over 20 years he had taken his brief morning dip from the populous western shore, where most of the sunrise swimmers took to the water. Mark, Mike, Andy. Pam, Karen, Merryn. Clive, John, Rob…The western end had toilets and change rooms and passers-by and dogs and the kiosk and the car park and camaraderie.
But this summer he swam from the east. The other side of his very small world. There were submerged rocks, yes, but if he swam at right angles to the shore – towards the horizon, rather than parallel to the sand – he could navigate his way.
It was the summer he kept to himself. His body and the water. His bike and his towel. His trusty snorkel for those clear, clear days. His thoughts and the sea’s.
Looking to the west he could make out his colleagues from their shapes and their gaits as they ventured in. Then, as they started to swim, from the colour of their swimming caps and the arcs of their arms as they creased the water. Steve and Shona. Greg and Danny. Ash and Bernie. They were all strong swimmers, disappearing well beyond the groynes, seemingly heading for the cargo ships.
The price of solitude was the shadows from the rising sun. He missed the warmth of the light on his back as he dried after his dip. But this was not winter. The mornings were not cold.
IT WAS the summer he swam twice a day. Morning and afternoon. Not enough work to keep him away. He knew he should have been looking for a job. It was a failing, an excuse, but the beach, the water, kept calling.
In the afternoons there were cars and kids and families. Teenagers. Holiday-makers. Baking bodies. Bikinis.
But still he found solitude. Snorkel on, looking for zebra fish amongst the rocks. Globefish, seastars, stingrays. Snorkel on, floating, buoyant, breathing, swimming, his arms making arcs. Even chancing himself in the further waters.
And then back to his bench on the footpath. Sitting. The sun high. Gazing. Wondering where the ships go when they disappear from view. And then looking over to the west where Paul and Tom and Jacqui and the others have long been replaced by strangers, visitors from the dry sea-less suburbs. They fill the carparks and spill from their hot vehicles with their sunshades and beach umbrellas and buckets and spades and picnics and sunscreen. They queue in front of the kiosk, outside the toilets and the change rooms. They fill the beach, a tide making its way to the eastern shore.
IT WAS the summer the silverbeet grew. The apples and cherry tomatoes too. But especially the silverbeet. He couldn’t spend all day at the beach (Well, he probably could if not for the guilt about not looking for more work and the shame about stealing glimpses of bikinis), so he spent time in the garden, keeping in the shade as it moved across the backyard.
He couldn’t grow much – no luck with rhubarb, once again – but there was seemingly no end to the silverbeet crop. White stems, pink stems, red, yellow. He would cut off bunches of leaves, wrap an elastic band around the stems, splash the bouquet with tank water and deliver to neighbours’ doorsteps. Jo at Number 2, Neil at Number 5, Kate at Number 11.
Twenty-five years ago he had written a story about cauliflower. A fictional story about an ageing man who couldn’t garden as well as he once did but he did okay with cauliflowers. Far too many for himself. Plenty for the neighbours.
The day the story was published a neighbour knocked on the door with a handful of zucchini. He had far too many for himself.
It was the summer he thought he may have run out of stories for good, the summer he thought the low tide of ideas was never going to turn. An occupational hazard. Maybe that’s why he kept going back to the well.
It was the summer he should have been looking for work. Re-training. Re-skilling. Finding a new direction. What came first, the complacency or the drop in confidence?
It was the summer he lost patience with his small world, but rather than blame himself he lashed out at others. Family. Friends. One afternoon a long way from the water. He apologised quickly and was forgiven immediately, but knew that some things cannot be undone, no matter how many times you go swimming, how many times you return to the well. The failing was in every breath, every turn of his head into the water, every arc of his arms.
He was born in summer, decades ago. He was made for summer, he liked to think.
Bury me in my bathers he thought one day, gazing from his bench. Bury me in the sea. But even his bathers belied certain truths. Their two-word brand name trumpeted swiftness and stamina. In the water he had neither. On land, maybe the latter.
In the water he had release, he had escapism, he had excuses but not reasons.
It was the summer he swam, morning and afternoon, deep into autumn. And still he started the day on that foreign shore. Come the cold months he knew he would be back amongst the sunrisers. Rob, Merryn, Stevie. Back amongst their camaraderie.
It was the summer he wanted to strap on his snorkel, his life-giving life-saving snorkel, and swim and swim and swim, until he couldn’t see the shoreline at all, until there was no sand in sight, no groyne, no people, until he reached those ships perched on the edge.
It was the summer.