Are you old enough to remember the 80’s. Well it was exactly the summer of 1980 and she was getting up at 5:30 every morning to train for swimming carnivals for high-school. It was sultry even at that time of the morning. She was fourteen, self conscious and awkward in her one piece bathers that revealed burgeoning breasts and bony hips. Her dark brown hair a theatre curtain, slipping across her face to hide herself, behind a longing to be noticed. She would hide behind that hair all day.
She was a crap swimmer but her parents insisted she get her nose out of a book and into some sport. She hated team sports, she was poorly co-ordinated and pathologically apologetic every time she dropped the ball, missed a pass, copped one in the head. She had only just learnt not to be afraid of water, having nearly downed once. The teachers were patronisingly encouraging but left her off all the team lists. The quiet-as-a -mouse girl who whispered responses and thrashed about in the water like a true aqua-phobe.
Then one day she was asked to attend the swimming carnival to make up the numbers. She had butterflies nearly rupture her stomach all day in the lead up to her event, the second last of the day. It was a stinking hot 40 degrees Celsius and her pale flesh was burning in the sun as she waited six hours. She cursed her freckles that stood out more in weather like this. A leggy blonde in a tiny bikini, four triangle postage stamps held together by string, sauntered past. Boys openly ogled. She even spied one of them reach for a towel to cover an errant erection.
But her time didn’t eventuate, they put someone else in, and in the tradition of the mouse that roared, she summoned up all of her courage and did the unthinkable, she complained. The teachers were outraged, who did she think she was anyway? So they fixed her, they put her in the breast stroke fifty. She would never make it. She’d only learned freestyle and that was from the other swimmers, coaching wasn’t wasted on the talentless.
She stood upon the block and suddenly the blue glass shimmering below felt like a reflection from the bottom of a lugubrious abyss. She didn’t know how to dive. No-one had ever shown her. She didn’t have to stand on the block she reasoned with herself, she could have dived in from the side, or started in the water, but that was for losers said the buff and tanned older boys who sneered as she made her way to the marshall.
At the starters pistol she leapt and smashed into the water with a perfectly executed, violent bellyflop that winded her for several seconds. She could hear the boys roaring, laughing. Then she swam and it seemed to take her an eternity and as she finally arrived at the end she was disqualified for not touching the wall with both hands. Not even the dignity of being last. Her ears burned red with shame as she made the long walk to the change rooms. Well, you asked to be included, jeered a teacher.
She went home and lay in bed and tortured herself, rerunning the train wreck over and over. She cried. She chastised herself. This was even worse than wetting herself in fourth grade because she was too afraid to ask to go to the toilet.
There was no staying home, her mother hustled her out the door the following morning. She arrived, head down tightly hidden behind an auburn curtain of despair, camouflaging rage and embarrassment. She strolled into home group. And she was running the song around and around in her head, “got brass, in pocket, got bottle, I’m gonna use it, gonna make you, make you, make you notice…..”
And for the first time she lifted her gaze, flicked the hair out of her eyes, drew back the curtain, faced the spotlight, dared the audience to challenge her and bade no-one speak of it, the ugly incident.
And just as she steeled herself for the jibes and insults, she noticed an empty chair and buff talented swimming-boy, indicated she should sit. “Least you had a go, right mate?” he smiled, as he gently punched her in the arm.