In Central Victoria, water is scarce. No one waters a garden; the streets have a tired, dusty feel, and even when purple-grey clouds mass overhead, there's only a sense of foreboding, not hope: thunderstorms also bring lightning, fire.
This hot day, I drive to the Castlemaine public pool from my hideaway just outside town. Most reasonable-sized towns in Victoria have pools like this, relics from the 1950s and early 1960s, when the fever of the 1956 Olympics and a commitment to the country as the soul of Australia still lingered.
Like most of those pools now, the Castlemaine pool is rundown. The change rooms are open-plan and beaten-up; the showers are cold overhead faucets that must save thousands of litres a year by discouraging lingerers. The pool is surrounded by concrete and fenced in with a high chain link fence. It's only open from 11 am to 6pm, and then only in summer; a sign on the entrance booth informs visitors that "no volunteers=no kiosk. It is not the lifeguards' job to sell you lollies."
Not encouraging. But it's over 35 degrees in the shade where I parked. A swim is only $2.50; I pays my money and I takes my chances.
My natural habitat, aquatically speaking, is the Fitzroy Pool; not all that flash in the change room department itself, admittedly, but well-used, open 10-14 hours a day all year and possessed of little extras like a gym and a hot water system.
Today I'm wearing my most serious bathers; a blue Speedo-style onepiece, with a seasoned pair of goggles and tight silicone swim cap. The agenda, as it always is, is two kilometres; twenty laps of a 50-metre "Olympic" pool like this.
School holidays end tomorrow, and the local kids are making the best of it. Little knots of teenagers float inthe pool; parents sit on the edges, feet dangling in the water. Nothing to do with me. Every 50 metres I blow air out and roll, planting my feet firmly against the wall to push off, keeping up a steady pace.
But the children get in the way. They meander across the single lap lane on their way from the north side of the pool to the south side; they hang off the flimsy lane ropes like drunken acrobats; they dive in just as I'm approaching, forcing sudden application of the brakes. I start to watch them. At the deep end, where the bottom drops sharply away, a round-limbed pubescent girl in bright blue is kicking her way back to the surface, trailing a long dark plait of hair which looks heavy in the water. A pair of long-legged girls in scallop-cut shorts have attached themselves to the lane rope nearby, kicking idly and leaning on the rope as if it was a backyard fence between them. Boys turning into men dive for the bottom, not showing the effort as they surface. At the shallow end, two mothers and two children hold hands, forming a wispy circle of four that reminds me of Matisse's dancers against their background of blue.
I try to maintain my straight lines, swimming up and down in the space reserved for me alone, feeling lightheaded from breathing too deeply, concentrating on my newly corrected stroke as I do at the Fitzroy Pool, where serious laps are the main game and the frolickers are pushed to the edges. The unheated pool is chilly and therefore, despite the million floating particles suspended in the water, feels fresh on my skin. A diving child undercuts the lane, joining a school of submariners, and I am reminded of the darting fish in the Yeerung River on Victoria's east coast, where I swam at the New Year.
Here I am the queer fish. I am reminded of Douglas Adams, who suggested that dolphins were the smarter of humans and dolphins, because we invented the digital watch and airports, while all they did was muck about in the water having a good time. Am I having a good time? I swim on.
Two kilometres done, to the metre, I get out and walk across hot concrete to the "ladies only" change room, the soles of my feet burning, nondescript pop songs flooding out of the tinny public address speakers, songs that sound like the past, filling the summer air.