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Swimming In The Pink

by Stephen Cummings

from The Age (Melbourne) - 29 December 2001

There is nothing more democratic than the public swimming pool."
Annette Kellerman, Australian swimmer whose life was immortalised by Esther Williams in the film Million Dollar Mermaid.

Finding a car space is just one of the daily hazards of inner-city life.

This is what happens when well-to-do people move into poor areas. My partner abandoned the two-year-old and myself at the front entrance and headed off in search of a carpark. She had a revelation that not only will she find a park just around the corner, but it'll be in the shade. I say nothing. I hope she's right; it's almost midday and already in the high 30s.

It's been a couple of years since I've visited the Fitzroy baths. As it happens, the Fitzroy pool has a history. There was a moment when it was listed for demolition back in the days of Jeff Kennett, but the locals rallied and a reprieve and restoration followed. Then, of course, there's Helen Garner's bleak urban romance, Monkey Grip, which from memory featured the baths on every other page. Once inside, things seem the same as ever, apart from the new reception area and changing rooms. Oh yeah, they also have a heap of activities for customers. These include a spa, sauna and steam. Moreover, there's triathlon, yoga and swim squads. Down the deep end of the pool the old Aqua Profonda (deep-water) sign is still conspicuous.

My son and I head for the shaded children's pool. We change into out togs and I smother the kid in block-out and try and trick him into wearing a hat. It doesn't work. Rooming with his teenage brother seems to be having certain negative side effects. I stare into the electric blue water. For a brief moment I'm almost overcome with the sickly-sweetness of nostalgia, but then I realise it's just the disgustingly hot water temperature in the connected kiddies' pool. Put it this way: I hope it's a result of the sun's rays and not unwillingness on the part of the kids to visit the toilets. Whatever. I slump in the crowded pool and watch my two-year-old son leap about maniacally. Directly across from us is an enclosed shaded lawn. Adults sit on plastic chairs and read and smoke and pour drinks for their kids. I'm instantly jealous. My partner finally arrives. She's had to park somewhere in Coburg, or was it Preston? So much for her predictions. She looks around at the little girls in the kiddies' pool decked out in pink swimmers. "Christ," she exclaims. "It's like a bloody disease. You're not a girl unless you're wearing something with a dash of pink on it."

Anyway, now I'm free to have a proper swim. I move to the slow lane, take off my shirt, ease my hips over the side and slide beneath the cool water. The only good thing about being 40-something is one no longer gets embarrassed about taking ones clothes off in public. Why? Because no one's interested; they're looking past you or through you to a more interesting, taut, muscled body in the distance. Obviously, this is a twin-edged-sword-type situation. However, the nice thing about this rule of life is that it applies to everybody.

From my slow swimming lane, across the way, I watch the teenagers cavort in the free area of the pool. Gleeful adolescents playing games with balls, colored mats and each other. It's wonderful. The pool is also populated with serious lappers who practise coordinating their breathing with the movement of their arms and turning to the side for breath to be taken. I slowly do a dozen mixed laps, incorporating all strokes, including walking backwards and watching my fellow enthusiasts. On the tiered benches against the far wall people lie on their towels and read books or a newspaper, or gossip. For me, what is interesting about the Fitzroy pool is the suburban ambience positioned in a confined industrial setting. I am, you see, a foreigner from south of the river.

For the record, let me explain what I believe to be four great Australian strengths: public swimming pools; public libraries; public hospitals and state schools. Governments of all persuasions seem to be screwing with each of them. But then I'm one of those people who imagine things are always worse than they were but not as bad as you imagine they will be.

I return to the children's pool to give my partner a break, discovering her deep in conversation with another mother about Steiner streams or something. She's wearing dark sunglasses and every few seconds her glasses slip down her nose and she unconsciously pushes them back up. Aaaaaaaanyway - our two-year-old appears to have adopted another family and has ensconced himself with his new relations at the far end of the pool. They've even bought him an icecream, and it's smeared across his face. I lie down on my stomach in the shallow water. A three-year-old boy with a surly cat's face jumps on my back, clinging tightly to me. I ask him nicely to hop off. "No," he says, "I want you." I decide to break the impasse and roll over on to my back, while at the same time lifting him off me. I explain that I have my own child here and point him out. The newcomer doesn't look convinced. It's then that the woman my partner is talking with scoops up the kid in her arms and moves away, waving at my partner.

We collect our own child and make our way across the hot concrete to the exit. My partner hands me the car keys and gives a long detailed route to get to the car. She says she'll wait here to be picked up.

Off I move, above the sky is bright blue. The air is thick and a hot north wind is picking up strength. Next week, I'm bound for the beach and a clean section of water, 'neath the shadow of Arthurs Seat, between the piers at Dromana and Rosebud. Yes, we're off to McCrae.

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