One week in January, when the weather was relentlessly hot, my family and I spent Monday to Thursday at our local public pool. This was no hardship – our house is an oven on scorching summer days and we all love to be in and around water. Each morning we’d pack our rainbow of towels, still-wet bathers, sunscreen, hats, blow-up floaty things and thousand other necessities, throw them into the back of our sedan and chatter happily about the day ahead.
On every outing I found new and, I thought, engaging ways to complain about the lack of parking, while my children talked over and around me, refusing to allow their brighat moods to be dampened by adult trivialities. Once I’d found a place to park (never more than a two-minute walk from the pool), we’d tumble out of the car, and schlep our belongings to a spot near the shallow end, under the trees, where we set up base camp.
The pool we frequent is lined on one side by large old elms that offer generous amounts of dappled shade. The change rooms are large, clean and bright. The café makes good coffee and great sandwiches. My older son often spots schoolmates and disappears with them to the deep end; the younger one often spies his friends too. Sometimes the parents would join their towels up with ours till we made a damp colourful patchwork around the tree trunk. Other times I’d steal a moment to read, with the sounds of squealing children, laughing adults and the slap of thongs on wet concrete in the background. Most of the time it felt like an aquatic idyll: we would loll together and look up at leaves, making our way to the water’s edge at irregular intervals, and I would casually agree to things I’d normally veto – like icy poles at ten in the morning. The whole family seemed relaxed and happy.
But there’s an undercurrent at our public pool, as there is anywhere humans gather. It seems we can’t help but compete and compare, despite the fact there is nothing to gain. From Monday to Thursday this took a variety of benign forms. On Friday it did not.
Early in the week, when a friend and I were standing rib-deep in the water, watching our sugared-up toddlers throw themselves off the edge of the pool, she asked if I’d ventured up to the deep end. I admitted I had not, because the child who was once again launching himself at my head was best kept in the shallows and the other child preferred to be watched from afar, half-dressed mothers being embarrassing at best. It’s a different world up there, she said, and offered to free me for a moment so I could see for myself.
She was right. There’s a voluntary apartheid at the pool that I’d been unaware of – down one end you’ll find families, surface detritus of kickboards and balls, slightly warmer water, women in one-piece bathers, toddlers dressed in pool hijab; at the other end, people are tanned and buff, sunbaking, sporting ipods, with not a hat or maillot in sight. The girls at the deep end of the pool wore barely-there bikinis that they adjusted often to ensure no scrap of skin was left untouched by the sun. I watched as they alternated between looks of uncensored disdain when men stared longingly at them and cat-like huffiness when they did not. I’m not saying they should like or dislike being ogled, by the way. But given that many of them were wearing little more than they’d been born in, it did seem understandable that people would look. Women of all ages sized up one another – and themselves – as they crossed paths. Mothers tisked at other’s parenting or lack thereof. Kids challenged each other to jump further, swim faster, and throw harder. However, I don’t think there was nothing going on that day that lessened anybody’s fun.
On Friday, though, I saw staring become malevolent. At a girlfriend’s behest, we went to an indoor mega-pool I usually avoid because it can be crowded, noisy and hot. Despite my grumbled misgivings, our children had a great time. They didn’t care that to get to the water we walked across slimy crisp packets, squashed chips and blood-spotted bandaids. Nor did they find it strange that we were swimming in a pool with a gazillion others, being lifted by fake waves in a building five minutes away from a beach. When they’d exhausted themselves, the kids bayed for hot chips.
While we perched on plastic chairs with our towels draped across our shoulders, eating, a woman walked towards us. As she approached, heads turned in unison to stare at her, like a field of flowers following the sun. But they weren’t looking at her admiringly. Boys elbowed each other, gawped and pointed, loudly saying ‘look at it’ and various ridiculous obscenities. Gangs of girls in expensive bikinis whispered, giggled, and wrinkled their clear-skinned faces.
The woman was fat and very tall. She was dressed head to toe in black. Her long hair was bleached yellow-white with a wide dark centre part. The hem of her tracksuit pants was frayed and trailed behind her. She wore what looked like a man’s t-shirt. Her flipper-sized runners sprayed water as they hit the ground. She walked in front of her wiry, goateed husband and three young children and stared straight ahead, chin up, silent. She knew we were watching her. How could she not?
She sat down not far from me and helped her family prepare themselves for a swim, paying particular attention to the youngest of the group, a little girl who was still mastering walking. My son asked me if she was a giant. I told him it was hard to tell if someone was a giant without talking to them first.
The woman was sweating – it was pushing forty degrees outside and felt like more inside – but she didn’t peel off her runners to even dip a toe. She watched her children play under the water fountains in the junior pool. Her face was impassive, or at least unwavering, her gaze did not wander. Her energetic husband wove among their brood, loudly chastising the children if they ventured too far out of reach or misbehaved in any way. He glanced at his wife sporadically to make sure she saw he was exerting a firm hand, perhaps to make her feel they were being looked after while she was benched.
For most mothers, moments like this are golden. It’s a joy to be temporarily free of responsibility, able to relax and take in the surrounds. But it seemed this woman had broken so many of the unspoken rules of the pool there was no way she was going to be allowed any peace. She was stared at like a zoo animal, or a bear in a Russian circus. She was big, she was dressed, she was dressed incorrectly, her hair was wrong, and she was dry. Those things combined would undoubtedly earn her stares on any day at the pool but she copped a whole lot more than a passing glance or two. There were plenty of overweight people there that day, lots of bathers wearing black, grandparents fully clothed, and loads of tall and small. But none of them was so clearly displaying their lack of wealth. And I think that, more than anything, was what caused her to be the object of such open derision.
There were top notes of excitement and glee around us but it suddenly seemed to me that the place was rather dark and nasty. I looked around with a keener eye. Kids were hitting and pushing one another, glossy-haired girls were standing in possies staring at boys who rated their hotness or otherwise, parents lining up for the waterslide looked edgy about the possibility of not being allowed on in the right order, I overheard one lifeguard ask another why people are so fucking stupid. It was a jungle.
Assuming I’d read the signs correctly, this woman and her family had very little money, so this trip to the pool would’ve been a treat, one that we, collectively, had made markedly unpleasant for her. Perhaps some people would say that being on the receiving end of this much attention was her choice, since she decided to come to the pool dressed like this. But I’d suggest people who think that have cupboards full of options and may have forgotten not everyone does. And they may or may not believe that the business of buying clothes, bathers and shoes – even inexpensive ones – can be more soul-destroying than going without. I wanted to say something to her but there was nothing I could think of that wasn’t patronising or designed only to make me feel virtuous. Anyway, I’d been as guilty of staring as anyone else.
I could blame the heat. I could say that the sheer volume of people meant all variations of good and bad behaviour would make a showing. I could think it’d simply been a case of a lack of manners. I could assume my sleepless night made me look at the world through black eyes that day. But I’ve sat with this memory and think that something deep and unpleasant about what we’ve become showed itself that day. It’s been said before, I know, but I think as a nation we’ve become meaner over the past decade. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves there is no poverty in our land of jobs aplenty, so that if people are struggling they’re just not trying hard enough. We seem to have further narrowed the already small range of acceptable ways to live, think and look, so that those among us who are blatantly poor annoy us, and make us uncomfortable.
I feel fairly confident, though, that this is a legacy of the government we’ve just shaken off, which means it’s fixable. Already there seems a mood of softening in the air, a desire to be positive and forward-thinking, greener and more mindful and, perhaps, kinder. It may be because our government has made the mighty step of apologising to those we’ve mistreated in the Aboriginal community. Or it may be that we’ve collectively decided to ressurect some of those qualities of Australianness that we used to be known for, qualities that for some years have been buried.
Not all of us need to change of course. Not everybody at the pool stared. Not everybody judged. As we were gathering up our sodden belongings, I watched the woman’s husband shepherd their kids towards the seats. When they got there, he bent down, gave his wife a kiss and said ‘kids are loving it’. Nothing at all changed around them, but she smiled.