Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Gods on the beach

I learned to swim when I was in my 20s. I've always loved swimming in the sea, and in rivers, but had never learned to swim properly, in a pool.

I learned to swim because I was having back problems, here in Japan. I was told that swimming would help. After I was given this advice I promptly went and paid out a huge amount in 'joining fees' and 'membership fees' and 'monthly fees' for a health club near where I worked. I figured that if I was paying so much I'd learn to swim out of sheer irritation at them taking so much money from me. I didn't take lessons. I'd never had any luck with lessons. I decided to just do it. I'd pretend I could swim, and then I would.

This actually worked.

I would occasionally write to my brother to ask for advice. He is a good swimmer - he used to be a surf lifesaver. His advice was sometimes helpful, sometimes not. It was usually terse, as he is not an enthusiastic writer. For example, when I asked him about kicking, he replied:

Keep your legs pretty much straight & relax your ankles. DO NOT TRY THIS STANDING UP.

My brother learned to swim when he was about ten. I still remember the day he decided he was going to take swimming lessons. We were at the beach. (We spent a lot of time at the beach.) We'd been playing around in the water for hours, and were sitting on the sand, steadily working our way through the mountains of food my mother had prepared for us. Little brother was watching the surf lifesavers, who were all great hairy teenaged hunks and were surrounded by beach bunnies. After a while he announced, thoughtfully,

"I'm going to be a surf lifesaver one day."

We all choked, and one of us needed a huge thump on the back to dislodge a piece of sandwich that had gone down the wrong way. When we got ourselves under control again I said,

"But you can't even swim!"

This was true. He was famous for it. He couldn't even float. It was like throwing a sack of bones into the water and expecting it to float. That boy had no fat on him at all. You could count his ribs from 100 meters.

But he was serious. "I'll learn to swim first," he said.

We hooted. But he was the sort of kid who really didn't notice stuff like that. He just grinned good-naturedly and was pleased with himself for having entertained us all so effectively. Then he went ahead and started swimming lessons.

One day about a year later, at dinner, he grinned happily and told us,

"I swam 100 meters today!"

We all stared. "You can swim?" we asked. He'd actually been going to lessons! We'd all forgotten about it, and assumed he had, too. He normally had a short attention span for his grand dreams. This one had stuck, and we were amazed.

Our next reaction was, "It took you a year to learn to swim 100 meters?"

We were still derisive, in the way siblings are. We teased him mercilessly. He ignored it except when he was joining in. He thought he was funny, too.

He started running as well, and I think he might have done some weight training too, or perhaps it was just that he was getting older and filling out a bit. Anyway, the next thing we knew he was 17 years old and had become a surf lifesaver.

I had left home in the meantime, and one day, having forgotten all this, I was back in town and paid him a visit.

While we were chatting in the kitchen a van drove up, and what seemed like several dozen beautiful blonde beach bunnies wearing bikinis tumbled out and came prancing up onto the verandah calling for him. "Are you ready to go?" they were shouting.

He opened the door for them. "Just a minute," he said. "I'll just get changed and get my stuff." Then to me, "Sorry, I forgot I was going to the beach today. Do you want to come?"

"No, not today," I told him. I didn't tell him that I was suddenly feeling way too old.

The girls came into the kitchen where we'd been sitting, and I introduced myself. There was tanned golden skin all over the place. I suggested that they sit down and make themselves comfortable, and would they like a drink? My experience with my youngest brother told me that his 'minute' could be anything up to an hour.

But they weren't very interested in me. I saw them classify me as 'boring adult' very quickly, and cringed. They went through to the living room, clearly very much at home, and I eavesdropped on their conversations. I realised that there were five of them. It only seemed like more. None of them looked much older than seventeen.

"Do you think he likes me?" one of them asked.

"Nah. I reckon he likes Bridget," said another. "I thought he liked you for a while, but now I think he likes Bridget."

"We talked for ages last weekend, though. Don't you think he likes me a little bit?"

"But he talks to everybody. That's why he's so cool. You can talk to him about anything."

"Yeah. And he really listens. I don't think he especially likes Bridget, though. He's friendly with everybody, not just her."

And so on. I wondered who they were talking about, and then the penny dropped. They were talking about my brother! My weedy little brother! Of course he wasn't all that weedy any more, but still... my little brother? The weird little kid with the sticking out ears? The one who has been living in a little dream world most of his life? I wanted to tell them, "He's not listening! He's on another planet when he gets that serious, thoughtful look on his face. If you asked him to repeat what you said he wouldn't know! He does that all the time, and always has!"

But I didn't. I had another cup of tea and wished he had something stronger in the house.

After about 20 minutes - a record for him - he yelled from the bedroom,

"I'm almost ready! Can you guys chuck my board in the van?"

The beach bunnies pranced out to the shed, all glistening tans and bouncing bits. My brother came through to the kitchen.

"Who's Bridget?" I asked him. "Is she your girlfriend?"

"Bridget?" he said, and laughed, looking surprised. "Nah, she's just one of the guys."

"So which one is your girlfriend?" I asked, gesturing to the window and wondering if I could tell them apart.

"Girlfriend?" he said, looking at me as if I was mad. "They're my mates! I haven't got a girlfriend."

"Well, I think they like you," I said. "I heard them talking about you in the other room."

"I like them, too," he said indignantly. "They're my mates!" Then he laughed. He seemed to think I had suddenly become a bit slow.

He was 18. I guess some of his hormones were a bit slow kicking in.

He had only one girlfriend before he met his wife, a few years later. His wife told me she had to make the first move. It didn't seem to occur to him, and she didn't want to wait forever. But I think that's why those girls liked him so much. They were thinking of the whole girlfriend/boyfriend thing, but he was genuinely oblivious and just talked to them as if they were his 'mates'. He treated them like real people, and they thought he was just great. Confusing, but great. They didn't seem to mind that 'a minute' to him could be an hour, or that he could go through to another room to get something, get distracted by something else, and forget they were there for a couple of hours. None of that mattered. He didn't play games with them. It was all real. Weird, but real.

That was the only explanation I could come up with, anyway. Of course it could have been the whole surf lifesaver mystique, too. It doesn't really matter what a surf lifesaver is like. They're all gods on the beach.


Audie said...

Your brother sounds like an interesting character. :)

I can't remember ever not knowing how to swim. My parents were very.... not sure of the right word... adventurous. They took me into the water while I was still an infant and as they say, I could swim before I could walk.

I did eventually take lessons; I use the word loosely because it consisted of me going to the pool once a week. I would swim the outer rim of the pool while the other kids wore floaties and screamed alot. After six weeks I was "certified" to be in the pool by myself. The sad thing is I never get to swim anymore. Haven't been in the water in atleast five years.

Badaunt said...

To Audie:

My brother is downright weird. When we were younger the rest of us used to wonder who would ever put up with him. My older brother shared a house with him for a while after they were both working, and swore never again. He was a good natured kid, but really, he could be SO exasperating.

That's why the beach bunnies were such a shock.

We used to spend a lot of time in the water (rivers and beaches) but somehow none of us became good swimmers. 'Real' swimmers, I mean - we could handle ourselves in the water well enough, and weren't afraid of water, but just didn't swim all that well. He was the first one to really learn how. And that was through sheer dogged persistence rather than natural talent.