The woman waddles over the warm cement to the end of the pool. She’s put on a little weight over winter and she’s puffing a bit. She closes in on the deep end, fits her goggles and looks down into the familiar green, the Ionian Sea. Then up on the balls of her feet, head down arms together. The whistle releases her. Push forward and belly slap into the cold— The water holds her up. Some of their spines are bent with scoliosis, some grind in their hips or knees. One is lost and her sisters take her by the hand, bring her to her place in the relay. This is their time, a couple of hours on Thursday morning. They love each other, these women, these ariels and ursulas, dorys and madisons. They love each other but once in the water they compete. The water is a return. As a teenager she’d lean through the pool with perfect efficiency, head turn for a kiss of air, bow-wave rising from the bridge of her nose. All effortless speed, she was born to this. Dolphin Girl her Dad called her. Bronze in the State and would’ve gone to the Nationals but they couldn’t afford the fares. And then there was Frank and that was that. The water tells the truth. Today her arm won’t extend, her hip’s stuck and the kick only works in one leg, the other just drags. And she’s gasping for breath. She moves in awkward esses down her lane. Halfway and there’s the wash as her rival passes. The sky is empty. A flight of gulls dip low over the pool then rise, buffeted by the easterly. Supposedly they carry the souls of sailors now doomed to chase bin scraps. Men. A few watch from the concrete benches, old blokes sunning themselves, leather bellies over tiny speedos—they yawn and scratch like a lounge of seals. The water holds her up. She’ll be damned if she stops. Slowly, the body remembers, rhythm returns to her breathing, arm comes higher. The lane marker straightens and the water holds her up —and at the end the mermaids are cheering.
A short piece dedicated with affection to the Port Kembla Mermaids. And for music this morning, what else but Song to the Siren? A 1984 cover of the Tim Buckley song featuring the guitar of Robin Guthrie and voice of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) – and lots of hair gel.
This piece was written on the lands (and the Port Kembla Mermaids swim in the waters) of the Wadi-Wadi people, traditional owners and custodians of the Illawarra.