John Clare Writings

A Most Remarkable Adventure in Dehydration

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The temperature was in the 40s on 14 January when I took off over the bridge on my GIANT road bike and at Milson’s Point turned off down to Careening Cove, then To Kirribilli House, where our Prime Minister currently does not reside. Down past this white building runs a short street to the harbour, where a rock ledge gave good entree to the water, which was somewhat murky but of perfect temperature. Banks of amber and green kelp crowded close and some small fish came out and disappeared again into weedy overhangs and alleys. It was nevertheless satisfying and even mysterious swimming into the gloom.

On my way back three different young riders on hybrid bikes tried to overtake me and one by one dropped away.

So infatuated was I with my own fitness and technique and the beauty of my machine that I forgot to swig from my water bottle and likewise overshot a couple of turn offs near China Town and realised that I would have to criss cross a bit to get back on track. Sydney can be confusing. Scott Tinkler once told me that some of his best friends were from Sydney but the roads were in terrible condition and it was hard to find your way. I found myself in a region of roads that had no cross streets for long stretches but fascinating maritime industry on either side. Fascinating except that I was beginning to feel frustrated. I wanted to get home and out of the heat but rode on and on with no clear destination.

Where was I? How odd. I could almost see my flat directly through the tuned diagonal cables of Anzac Bridge but could not work out how to get there. This was unusual for me. In fact my thinking had got decidedly fragmented and wibberly wobberly and I was not feeling very well. I needed to lie down; I really did. Soon I leaned my bike against a wall and lay down in what I later learned was a garden. Stones and general sharp rubble stuck into me painfully. I stood up and yelled once: “Help!” Did I say that? I was definitely not entirely myself. It sounded like a gun shot going out into hot dry emptiness in a cowboy movie from days of old. The landscape was in some degree a cubist one. Geometrical sections in some parts overlapped, triangles and rectangles of concrete overmastered by those slanting cables and the twin towers like tuning forks from which they slanted, in some distant way like the Brooklyn Bridge. In one area a row of modern launches ranged above a concrete path. I knew the water was slightly below and beyond those boats but could not see it. A young fellow came out of a building adjacent. He came over and two dark figures nearby went away.

“What’s happening mate?”

“I’ve never been lost around here before but I’m feeling very strange. I think I’m a bit dehydrated.”

“I do too. Did those two blokes just look at you and go away?”

“I think so. I wasn’t even sure there was anyone there.” He helped me up.

“I’ll wheel your bike across here and you can lean on me as much as you need to.”

He let me into what seemed their lunch room. I think they were a sort of boat garage, a holding facility, but nothing made a great deal of sense. He gave me a bottle of Gator Ade, which of course had electrolytes, and told me to lean back and relax as long as I liked. Some others came in, a woman as well. They said she was their boss these days. She waved this suggestion away. Some ate sandwiches. They were casual but concerned.

“How are you?”

“About 75% better,” I said. I’d been there a bit longer than I’d thought. In fact I’d drifted off a bit.

Then they asked me about myself and told me it was a very nice bike. They were surprised that I was 75 – as well as 75% better – and encouraged me to talk about places I’d been and things I’d seen. Some of them were too young to know that Melbourne had hosted to Olympic Games in 1956. I told them I’d seen the grudge water polo match between Hungary and Russia and that big men in suits – probably KGB – roamed about, probably watching for attempted defections since the Russian diplomat Petrov had recently done just that. An older bloke – nowhere near as old as myself – actually knew all about it They were very kind and seemed to be actually interested in me as well as these events. I never told them that I had been Victorian amateur boxing champion and that some had fancied me for the 1960 Olympic Games. Held where? I could not remember.  Then in any case I stopped boxing in favour of playing the trumpet. Nor did I tell them that I had been a swimming champion and so on. I did tell them I had poetry read on the BBC and that my late son was born in Hampstead Hospital. Certainly I had an urge to tell these things, but really I wanted to give them some sense of the country and the world as it felt during World War 2 and the Vietnam War and even more recent. This can be boring, but with them it somehow felt like a gift I was giving them.

An hour ago I watched Leytton Heweitt giving us the gift of having moved among the greats. I remembered the lovely Martina Hingus after she had won the Australian Open and Frank Sedgeman and Ken McGregor came out to present it to her. She shone with delight. It was very late in their careers, which were largely in my childhood, but those men shone with fitness. They were gracious and like diamonds. I myself did not feel like a hero. I felt, conversely, to be at the centre of kindness. We were all drawn to a contemplation of the world. When I had pretty much recovered a fellow called Sam put my bike on the back of his car and drove me home. As I left they called me to come back and see them when I could. Sam also told me it was a nice bike. He himself was training for a half marathon. I do not like all Australians. Nor all of any race, Some, however, are very fine and after I went into my flat I cried quietly with a strange exhilaration. But could I find that maritime business again?

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