Over four nights, I read The Old Man and The Sea to the two brothers, twenty-five pages before they went to bed. I did wonder at their eyes staring into corners of the room, seeming to follow spiders, or shadows, sometimes a hand reaching absently for another Ginger Snap. Were they listening at all, or were they just humouring me, using it as a chance to wind down after another full-on summer day at the seaside? But the next evening, they could recount in detail where I had left off, and the youngest one, the eleven-year-old, he would quote back the last line I had read. “But a man is not made for defeat, a man can be destroyed, but not defeated.” He didn’t get that one word for word, but almost, he had the essence of it. And so this line stuck with me, particularly the contradiction contained within it. It’s poetic alright, but is it true? As a stand-alone line it is enigmatic and confusing, but when you read it in the wider context of the old man’s futile fight against a shark while trying to bring home the biggest fish he has ever caught in his long, aged life, then it is utterly comprehensible. He is brought to his knees, to the precipice of death, to the limits of his profound endurance, yet still he makes it home. He does not win, not by the usual terms, but neither is he defeated.
That line was churning around in my head the first time I went in. I say the first time, it was far from the first time; there had been many ‘dips’ as everyone calls it at home, but for me a dip is a splash around, a few strokes, playing in the waves, body surfing, yelping, screaming and laughing against the cold, but not much swimming. This day, I was planning to swim, because I had listened the night before when old man said to me: “I may not be as strong as I think, but I have many tricks and I have resolution.”
I’d come on my own on the bike dressed in my beach uniform: flip flops, green hoodie, soft cotton shorts with an elasticated waist (like a kid might wear), and a towel draped over my shoulder. Underneath, I was wearing my swimsuit. Bay ready, no messing, no hesitation. Resolved. I was all alone, but in my head, the old man was with me. I had no idea how far I would get, and I knew the only way to stay warm was to keep moving. I would swim until I could swim no more, take myself close to destroyed, if need be, but not defeated.
After that first day, each swim flows into one. Some days it was calm and flat, and the sea rippled off my chin and cheeks like a bolt of cold satin. Other days the waves rolled in and lifted me; one might break over me if I’d timed it wrong, then I needed to change angle, tack out to sea a little otherwise the next would break over me too, and too many breakers sucked too much of my energy. I watched the landmarks on the shore move by so slowly: Castle Erin, The Big Wheel, The Beach Café, each one a small victory. Some days my arms burned with pain, other days the old man told me it was not pain at all but strength, and I laughed at the tricks he would play to encourage me, but the laughing just caused my breathing to trip, and the tripping made me swallow mouthfuls of salt water, and at this, his pale blue eyes shone, and he smiled. I chose not to be afraid of the jellyfish, they were home, we could share the sea. All the same, I watched for them as I swam, impossible to see small ones that I batted away with the backs of my hand on the pull of each stroke. Some days the sun shone on my face and I told myself that the warmth was leeching through into the rest of my body, pouring into my arms and legs, mind over body, then I’d hit an unexpected warm patch, then cold again. I passed a dozen children in a surf school, a dad and daughter sharing a paddle board, a gannet diving a few metres away. I never met a shark. I felt the aliveness of my skin, the movement of my breath, a profound awareness of my heart doing what it should. Each time I waded back onto the beach, spent, and it was an hour before I got the feeling back in my three smallest toes of each foot. Funny how losing sensation in parts of one’s body, how in feeling a little destroyed, one gains such a sense of being alive.
Thank you, old man.