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swimming laps and watching waves

Newcastle Ocean Baths

Frank is the hardest man of them all, and the earliest starter, and if ever I get down there and don’t see his bike leaning up against the old tram rail I’ll send my best suit to the cleaners because he always wanted a good looking guard of honour.

Frank is eighty-eight now and after sixty years as a boiler-maker down at the ADF he’s a retired labor man and a thirty lap swimmer at the Ocean Baths day in and day out whether the dawn be icy or humid, the sea tranquil or heavy.

He plows through the lengths in his crabbed-up overarm crawl and every ten laps or so he might pause at the eastern side to take a breather and a peek at the Cowrie Ledge folding over there just a dozen or so yards away.

All manned up with a fine Newcastle mix of boardriders and body-boarders most mornings, and eighty-eight or not Frank sometimes manages to cough up an emphysematous hoot as one of his many great grandsons wins a deep charge under the first pitch. They all sit together some mornings on the top of the sea wall, sharing lunches; those days when school is relegated and lunch becomes breakfast. He’s been widowed for twenty years and is never in a hurry to go home.

The old man and his lads.

On this morning thirty tankers ride out the deep sea swell as they wait accommodation at the BHP coal loading facilities.

Thirty tankers stuck in a twenty-day queue, each crewed by about twenty Filipinos and Malays, some of them wholly addicted and fully prescribed to pornography and boredom, all of them living together in the festered and tubercular damp of old rusted cabins. Amongst them zealots blaze away their Islamic fire of faith, cajoling and bending wills, straightening paths.

Twenty-year sign-ups

Shore leave in home ports only.

Youngsters  some, boys not so free

hanging off an aft rail on Sunday and feeding a hundred yards of line

into a thousand miles of sea.

Mother Mary

Star of the Sea

Pray for the seafarer

Pray for me.

Frank has his own lock-up in the men’s changing rooms. A small cubicle where he can stow his shaving gear, towel and change of clothing. A lockup.

He sometimes envies the dapper Barry, the bespectacled surgeon who cycles away refreshed from the baths to the Newcastle hospital wards every morning. Big earner Barry. Neurosurgeon with letters from the Old Dart.

Barry is a twenty-lap a day man, half of them breaststroke and  his offsider, Mick, wears flippers.

Barry also owns the Custom House Hotel.

Mick carries a Beretta model 85FS 9mm Short in his Qantas bag and nobody ever talks about it. Sometimes he shows up with deep bruising all over his torso, and cut knuckles. Nobody asks.

The men stand around in the changing shed; unspeakably nude and wholly ugly with their folds of old drooping flesh and misshapen sex. Except Mick who is skin over stone.

2 Bells, and the youngest of the Malay boys leaves the taffrail for the heat of the galley and the greasy hands of the Turkish cook.

And I’m the last in the water back here in Newcastle, and after four laps am done.

In more ways than one.

Nobby pic by Anne Wrightson

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Brilliant opening sentence. I loved reading about Aub too in the last post – his eyes everywhere and his brain taking everything in like a computer.

    October 4, 2011

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