Mick looks round for someone to time him, ignoring Rasmussen who has finished his warm-up session. Jim appears on the scene, his tennis semis must be over (and it is obvious at a glance the results have not been good). Jim and Garth Rasmussen are sort of friends, they are in the same Chemistry and Physics class and sometimes come home together to make what Mick calls stink-bombs under the house, while Mick does his piano practice upstairs, getting louder and louder and repeating the scales that he knows drive Jim mad. Scales are the one thing that he can get a rise out of his brother from. Major. Minor. Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, then, because he knows it will really work horrors on Jim, Mick does four octaves of the whole-tone scale. Then he begins the arpeggios. He can do this for hours.
Jim ambles over just at the right moment to be handed the stop-watch from the Prefects’ Locker. Jim was Butterfly champion last season but tennis has taken him over. Or it had. From the way he gives Mick a glare it is clear that this is not the best day for requests but Mick has no option. He pretends not to notice when Garth Rasmussen steps over beside Jim and moves with him to the pool end. Mick gives his brother a loud warning, and then dives.
There is something compelling about the body in freestyle. Water slides along you and the precise arm movements, the regular sideways slant of the body and the paced way the mouth takes breath all combine to make one realize the neatness of speed. Mick’s legs, bound together almost, into the kicking rhythm, six to an armstroke for the racing effort, seem to be machines of their own volition, this could go on forever: his first turn at the fifty metres is copybook and he does not need to listen to his brother shouting the number, he knows he is ahead. Ahead of whom? Ahead. Ahead.
At one hundred metres he gauges the arm thrust and hits the end rail. This time he looks up expectantly. Jim lurches over and thrusts out the stilled stop-watch. They smile at each other. It is the first time there is the sense of something shared. But almost at the same moment Rasmussen is also beside them.
Time me now, Turner. That wasn’t altogether too bad, young Michael. Now it’s my go. Your brother thinks this will be a walkover, Jim, but I’ve been doing a lot of training up in the dam. Corrie races me. You should see her in Speedos. You should see her without Speedos, but not on your life old sport.
And Rasmussen gives Jim a shove before he leaps up to the starting post, still laughing. Mick pulls himself out of the water but he knows he has to see just how close his enemy gets to his own new record. His mother, last week, called Mick a Water Otter.
It is painful to watch. Rasmussen swims like a porpoise, all over the place, rolling and heaving. But he does have that added length and it isn’t all flab in there. He can crack the pace.
Jim gives a shout: for the first fifty metres the two have just about broken even. Mick senses suddenly that his brother might even be hoping that Rasmussen tops him. Would he have been so hearty had he won his own game? Mick separates himself a little from his brother. One of the younger kids comes out with his towel and offers it: Mick gives him a grin of thanks and realizes his attention has been diverted.
Diverted long enough to let Rasmussen’s pace fall somehow out of his mind. He returns to his brother just in time to note the stopwatch as his brother clicks it immobile. Jim looks up to Mick and wags a finger. There is just one second between them.
Mick can’t believe it. He had been sure Rasmussen was already flagging after his fifty metre turn. And the turn itself was all water and splash, too untidy by far, enough to get him disqualified in any reasonable competition. That would never happen here, in this school. And not with Rasmussen. Mick knows he would score on points in any fair competition, but when was competition fair?
That sounds the sort of thing Rasmussen would say.
It will be a good battle, Jim says and crosses over to Rasmussen to give him the news. They crow together, as Mick cannot help noticing.
Keep your mind on the swimming and not on your cousin’s speedos, Jim advises his friend and they both chortle. It is so unfunny.
Mick had known, absolutely, that he had given of his best. He had done that race against himself, solo in the pool, even if silently in severe competition with the stationery Rasmussen. Every kick had been pure vitriol.
Rasmussen comes up to him then, benign because Jim is near at hand. That was with one hand tied behind my back. As it were. Tomorrow’s the real test. And he gives Mick a slap on the back so that it leaves a red mark on his fair skin. There is no way out of this.
Mick towels himself vigorously. He steps into the shower and lets the cold water wash the chlorine smell off. Jim is still laughing with Rasmussen as he strips off and has his own shower, on the other side of the stalls. At one point he looks over at Mick. He seems almost embarrassed. Mick cannot help it that his skin is so pale. So pale and so freckled where the sun bites it. He took up swimming because it was a way to get into the sun and the water with some purpose, he had thought it would help that look, like a peeled potato, which has been with him for life. Jim and his olive skin: he can stay out in the sun all day and it never matters. Mick has only ever seen someone else as pallid as himself: when Johnny Armstrong came to the school from down in Melbourne, last year. It is terrible to be embarrassed by oneself.
Two of the other boys come in. That was a good cracking pace, Turner, one of them says. Wish I could manage that just for the fifty metres.
Nah, his friend says, Turner’s the white seal, you’re the pet cocker spaniel. And they both set to with their towels. Mick pushes through their maelstrom and heads for the clothes pile. Jim and Garth Rasmussen are still talking in the showers, about girls and whatever else causes Jim to laugh so blatantly. It is not like Jim at all.
Mick feels even more vulnerable. Why should that be?
* * *
The last of Mick’s ‘wild Irish’ fits was the worst. Mick remembers it because he can still feel, somewhere deep inside, the outrage and overriding fury of that outrage, when he discovered Jim had meddled in his clothes’ drawer – Mick’s drawer, the second from the top – and had taken the special packet of Transfers Aunt Aggie had saved from her cereal packs and handed to Mick when he called over with the chokos from Dad’s garden. Mick had hidden them under his hankies, thinking they’d come in useful sometime.