The Bra Boy of Bondi Icebergs
Recently, I was having a sauna at the, shall we call it, Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre with a writer friend of mine. It wasn’t long before social distancing became law.
Another guy in the sauna aged about sixty had one of those working class Eastern Suburb accents that you don’t hear too often outside of Maroubra or Mascot, or an inner city garbage run or among baggage handlers at Sydney Airport.
He was well built, like a swimmer, like a surfer. No beer belly, a proud chest and shoulders. My friend and I sat in opposite corners of the sauna listening to him have a conversation with another guy.
He had an annoying sauna habit and seemed to produce more sweat than the average person. As sweat developed on his body, every five minutes or so he would drag a handful of his perspiration with his right hand from the left side of his neck and sweep it across his chest and then with a sopping wet slap into the air, spray it off the side of his stomach. He then repeated the routine with his left hand across the right side of his body. In this way he sprayed a large amount of his own personal H2O around the sauna. It sounded like someone splashing around in the bath.
‘It’s in the air, mate,’ he said to some other guy. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s in the air.’
At this point my friend got up and said she was going for a swim.
‘This extra sweaty guy talks like a Bra boy,’ I thought. ‘An ageing Bra boy.’ The Bra boy name comes from Marou-‘bra, but you can come across the type all over the southern parts of the Eastern suburbs.
I didn’t think the virus was in the air. I thought that it landed on hard surfaces and sat there for a week waiting for a host. But I guess I was wrong. Anyway, hard surfaces were bad enough. And in the pool? Surely the chlorine would kill it.
‘I hear it doesn’t survive in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius.’ I said, in the way it’s permissible to join someone else’s conversation while sitting in the sauna, amongst each other’s sweat.
The other guy nodded and smiled an agreeable smile.
‘It’s in the air,’ the ageing Bra boy said. ‘If it gets you, it gets you.’
Not much hope then, is there? I said to myself, in the way it’s advisable not to disagree with a Bra boy, especially one who’s in such close proximity.
I wasn’t interested in taking pandemic advice from him. I left the sauna, strolled over to the Olympic pool and soaked myself in the chlorine.
A week or so later, with all the cafes shut down, my writer friend had nowhere to go. So she turned up at my place around ten in the morning.
I’d thought about her often while in self-isolation but she lived in a hot spot and I considered it dangerous to see her. She was reckless at the best of times. But, gee, she was gorgeous. Her handsome face, her olive skin, the cheeky feline way about her. Her perceptions were intriguing and always full of mischief.
‘I’d like to invite you in, but it’s against the law,‘ I said, as I walked from my lounge room towards my open front door.
She stood on the stoop. I kept a step back, safely behind the screen door.
‘I just want to sit in your backyard for a few hours,’ she said with her corny Kiwi smile. ‘Cafe Shenkin is closed and I’m desperate to find somewhere inspiring.’
‘My backyard’s hardly inspiring.’
‘Oh, yes it is. That’s where I had the idea for my story, you know, the Bra boy in the Bondi Icebergs sauna.’
‘Are you working on that?’
‘Yes, I have a few things to work out, though,’ she said, turning the screen door handle.
She knew I couldn’t resist her smile.
‘I’m trying to self-isolate,’ I said, avoiding a peck on the cheek as she came in.
‘I’ll keep out of your way.’
She came inside, toting her heavy, laptop-ladled handbag. She’d dragged it all the way from Bondi to her favourite cafe in Erskineville.
‘I haven’t found anything inspiring in a cafe since they banned smoking,’ I said.
‘True,’ she replied. ‘But at Shenkin they have a “don’t ask don’t tell” rule when it comes to smoking.’
Kiwis are so innocent in their honesty and so dishonest in their reasoning, I thought.
‘They let you smoke in Cafe Shenkin?’ I asked as I followed her through the kitchen into the backyard.
‘No, not really, but they turn a blind eye if you sit out the back. They’re good like that.’
‘I’m working on a story about that guy in the sauna too.’ I said.
‘Is that right? I wouldn’t mind seeing what you come up with.’
She pulled her laptop out of her bag and opened it up on the wooden table under a lean-to out the back. Settling in, she pulled her seat closer in, unable to adjust its height, and looked at the screen.
‘You want a coffee?’
‘No thanks, I just had one up the road.’
‘Yeah, they’re still doing take-aways.’
I left her alone and resumed my seat at my desk in the dining room. I was trying to write the piece on the Bra boy in the sauna, but it was going nowhere. She and I had been there together, in that sauna at Bondi Icebergs, when we met the guy. But I hadn’t thought there was a story in it until she had mentioned her intention.
I set my story at the Ian Thorpe pool in Ultimo, to be different. That’s allowed, isn’t it? I wondered.
I had been half-way through developing my idea and had just realised that I didn’t have a punch line when she’d turned up at my front door. I was staring into space looking down the hallway and out the door, wondering what my idea meant, when she’d appeared.
I tried to think through why I was writing about the guy in the sauna.
His accent reminded me of what life used to be like in Sydney, when poor people could live near the beach, like a social experiment. The result of the experiment was the Bra boy. And Bra boys got older and had opinions and could get you a good deal on a used mobile phone, if they knew you. If they knew you as someone permitted to surf the treacherous break at that secret reef across the bay from La-pa.
I wasn’t a surfer. I didn’t want to take on Cape Fear. His opinion annoyed me. I didn’t want to think that the virus was in the air.
I stuffed around for hours, writing words then deleting them, with no idea what my idea meant. It had to have a meaning, didn’t it?
It was after two in the afternoon and she hadn’t ventured inside at all. I figured she would have been smoking cigarettes and staring at the screen, just like me. I was interested to see how her story was progressing.
As I made my way outside, I could hear her fingers tapping away.
‘Just a tic’ she said as she heard me coming. She continued typing. I picked up the hose and sprayed some water on the unfortunate pot plants.
Her tapping reached a crescendo and with a determined last tap on the keyboard, she finished.
‘I need a leak.’ she said getting up from her chair, satisfied. ‘Do you mind if I make a cuppa?’
‘No, go for it. Do you mind if I have a look?’ I said leaning over the laptop
‘Yeah, I’d like to know what you think.’
As she went inside, I recalled that I’d left my laptop open on the desk. I was sure that she’d have a peak and didn’t really care. I sat down and read her story.
Velvet in Fluorescence
Velvet sat in the public sauna at Bondi Icebergs watching surfers in the sunshine. Children waiting for waves stood along the sea wall that separated the ocean from the pool. They held onto a chain that helped them defy nature, as the ocean waves washed past them.
The sunshine in the ocean cleans all it touches, she believed. Nothing bad can exist in its blue-green-white fluorescence.
It’s a well-known cure
for nearly everything, it’s true,
from a hangover to a bout of the flu,
from a skin rash to a case of the blues.
As she sat staring into the ocean, creating poetry in her daydream, Luis paced back and forth along the length of the sauna. He stopped, and with a cupped hand swept the sweat from his taut, glimmering torso, spraying it directly in Velvet’s face.
She turned her head as if to say, ‘Hit me with your best shot’, and raised her chin defiantly.
‘You have the hutzpah of a baboon,’ Luis snarled.
‘And your sweat tastes like piss,’ she returned.
The sauna at Bondi Icebergs sits above the saltwater pool and looks out into the ocean. From the sauna, surfers can be seen as if one is sitting at the end of the same wave. It’s a spectacular view that anyone can enjoy.
Velvet stood up, dragged her wet towel off the bench, and left the sauna. That was her routine: twenty minutes in the sauna, followed by a jump in the water and then another stint in the heat. Luis watched her place her towel in the sun on the stainless steel pool railing and descend the stairs to the pool.
She dived in just as a wave hit the seawall and a line of screaming children allowed it to splash them into the pool.
Velvet and Luis only ever met in the sauna, a few days a week. Neither of them could work out who else came and on which day, but they were both always there at the same time. They were like an old established couple in the sauna, as if they were sitting in front of the tele at home. No respect for each other at all.
When Velvet returned up the stairs, she looked through the sauna window to see Luis and another guy in animated conversation. She knew what it was that Luis was saying. She knew what they were talking about, even though she couldn’t hear them.
‘It’s in the air,’ Luis would be saying with all the authority of a Donald Trump. She’d heard him go on about it before.
Velvet turned and looked out across the beach, where thousands of bodies in skin tones speckled the sand like hundreds and thousands spread over a giant rye bread sandwich.
She touched her face, dragged her fingers across her lips, felt the places where his sweat had hit her face.
I need to spend more time in the sun, she thought as she took her towel from the railing.
In the changeroom, she washed her towel free of sweat while contemplating bodily fluids.
Then down on the beach, Velvet spread her wet towel on a big round rock so it would dry in the hot afternoon sun. She lay on the sand with all the other people, soaking up the sun’s rays, and fell asleep.
When she woke, she could feel a gentle burn on her skin. She felt she needed the fluorescence, the feeling of the sun through the fluorescence.
Velvet walked towards the water’s edge and spying a spot clear of people, ran into the ocean, skipping through the smaller waves until she was confronted with the curving face of a real wave. She stood her ground and dared it to knock her down. After she’d recovered from the hit, she once again ran into the waves, allowing them to slap her back down, wading into them and being thrown back down, until she was caught in a whirlpool of shore dump, the waves coming in and the water receding. She could feel the fluorescence. And having felt it she lay there on the water’s edge, soaked in the sun, bathed in the whitewash, satisfied that she had done what she could to be clean.
As I finished reading the story, I felt her approach – standing beside me, sipping her tea, watching me read.
‘What do you think?’ she asked. ‘You know, does the fluorescence make sense? Does that last part work?’
‘Luis is the Bra boy?’ I asked.
‘Did his sweat hit you in the face?’
‘Yes, didn’t it get you?’
‘What do you think of the story?’
‘Oh, it’s good. Much better than mine.’
She pursed her lips with a pinched smile and allowed herself to appreciate my compliment.
‘I liked your Bra boy,’ she said.
‘Do you think it’s in the air?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘If it’s in the air, there’s no hope.’
‘Pick the scab and go to the beach,’ she said with bravado, as if that’s what she really meant, but it wasn’t, I could tell.
‘The beaches are closed. It’s all over Bondi,’ I said.
She smiled that innocent Kiwi smile. ‘That’s why I’m here.’
Before I realised what she was doing, she had moved her face next to my own and I felt the warm, moist softness of her lips on mine. Her lips were like gossamer but her tongue was in control of mine, coaxing it to conform.
‘I’m trying to self isolate,’ I said quietly into her mouth.
She sat down next to me and placed her hand on mine.
‘I’m sorry. I got scared,‘ she said, looking deep into my eyes ‘I don’t like being alone. It just hit me.’
I moved my hand to her shoulder and felt her frailty. She touched my arm and felt mine.
If it’s in her, it’s in me, I thought.
‘We could self-isolate together,’ I said. ‘We had such different takes on the Bra boy, we could combine the best bits of our stories. We could work on that together.’
‘And then do something totally different,‘ she said with interest. ‘Write about something crazy fun. Pretend this whole business isn’t happening.’
‘Collaborate, like Alexander Dumas!’ I said looking into those sweet deceptive eyes. ‘We could write The Count of Monte Cristo.’
‘Yeah, let’s do that, but first let’s finish off The Bra Boy of Bondi Icebergs,’ she said with a smile, a practical smile that was reassuring and boded well for the period of isolation to come.
Copyright Text: Jim Piotrowski.
Picture credits: Bondi Beach Icebergs, Aquabumps; Ian Thorpe Pool, Marcus Spiske; shoreline, Mink Mingle.