The Big Read: Fleeing from the naked truth
One of the truths I live by is: "You never regret a swim."
For a long time I thought I invented it, but an ex-girlfriend claims I copied it from her, and actually it turns out that plenty of folks have said it at various times, including the poet Elizabeth Bishop, and Heinrich Schliemann who discovered the lost ruins of Troy, and my friend Rosa's grandmother, and as far as I can tell each of us thinks we were the first.
It's one of those pieces of wisdom that seems absolutely self-evident until you forget it, and then it becomes a momentous rediscovery. This is because very often you don't feel like a swim. Sometimes it seems the sea doesn't want you or there is too much green and grey in the palette and not enough white and blue. Sometimes the prospect of taking off your shirt and shorts and trudging all the way down there then trudging all the way back then drying yourself off then putting your shirt and shorts back on again feels like an existential labour and a lifetime's unrewarding work.
This week I stood on a wet beach on the south coast of KZN. The sun was setting behind the sugar cane hills like a keyring slipping from a pocket and sliding between two green sofa cushions. I didn't have time for a swim. I still had to walk back and unpack the car and quarrel with people. I didn't have swimming trunks with me. The water looked rough and unfriendly. I didn't feel like swimming and anyway, who says you never regret a swim? What about Harold Holt, the prime minister of Australia who went for a dip one breezy day in 1967 and vanished, never to be seen again? You can't tell me as he went under for the third time it didn't occur to him to ruefully reflect that he might at that very moment have been at home eating a waffle instead.
But there's no point living by a truth unless you live by it, so I sullenly undressed. I considered swimming in my underwear but the beach was deserted so I stripped off and lunged for the shoreline like a shipwreck in reverse.
The ocean was warm and the gauzy, grey light on the grey, lucent water made me feel like I was swimming inside a pearl. I was weightless and jubilant and the salt washed clean my brain. Swimming in the sea at sunset is as close as an adult gets to childhood dreams of flying. Adulthood is the voice giving you reasons not to swim; for the sake of your soul it is your duty not to listen.
Finally I turned to the shore and discovered that where previously there were no people there were now three, a mom and two small kids, and like a weirdo in an empty cinema they had chosen to sit right on top of me. She had arranged them on a large piece of driftwood just beyond my bundle of clothes and was busily taking 10000 photographs of them to post on Facebook.
I hovered waist-deep in the darkening water. Maybe she'd take her poxy pics and move quickly on. She didn't. She hunkered down on the sand with her back to the sea and snapped away as though trying to capture the very process of growing older. It was getting so dark those two little swines were surely just dark blobs in the pictures but she didn't care. I waited as long as I could but there comes a time when a grown man can't skulk in the shallows any longer. He must take control of his destiny.
As long as she kept her back to me, and as long as I was swift and silent, I might be able to make it to my clothing unseen. I emerged from the waves and scuttled up the littoral, all wobble and stealth, like a tiptoeing walrus. Nearly there ... just another few metres ... almost ...
Her kids' wide eyes made her turn. I can't blame her for her reaction - it's no one's idea of a good surprise to find a dripping, naked man racing towards you in the half-light - but the memory of her scream will linger long in my DNA. She gathered up her children under one arm and sprinted away with such impressive turn of speed that for a mad moment I felt the urge to run after her just to see if I could keep up.
I'll have to spend the rest of my time down here trying to track her down to explain and apologise and to set her mind at ease. It's true you never regret a swim. What happens on dry land is something else altogether.