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Swimming in ink


Ink well and quillIt's like swimming in ink.

A streetlight casts a shadow ahead of me as I step into the shallows but I am soon in the water's darkness, out of the light's reach.

Twenty metres from the shore and I'm waist deep in the ink. The red, green and orange lights of the shipping channels blink in unison in the bay, guiding the fishing boats and the cargo ships that are only discernible by their long-distance lamps.

To the south, orange dots mark the arc of the bayside suburbs while much closer are the streetlights curving around this little metropolitan beach, splashing pools of yellow and white on the footpath and the road between the life-saving club and the fishing ramp.

There is a swimmer out in the deeper water, beyond the yellow buoys. I can neither see him nor hear him but know he is there because his bike and his clothes are in their usual spot by the footpath.

He is out there, a fellow water man, in the real dark, in the blue-black ink. I am just here in the shallows, for I am not a swimmer. I go for a dip, not for a fair dinkum swim. Call it a type of baptism, or a wake-up dip, but don't call it a swim.

There are silhouettes of joggers now, of walkers and their dogs. On the road a flurry of cyclists, headlights and tail-lights flashing. You can't see their lycra, but you can hear their voices, urging each other on.

A Japanese woman stops by one of the streetlights and reads a few pages of a book, a book in which the ink set on the pages some time ago.

On my way here I passed a slowly moving car, its driver tossing newspapers onto driveways, the ink on the pages having only dried a few hours beforehand.

The first inks were possibly invented by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese, perhaps by mixing water with berries. Indian ink may have been used in about 400 BC, made with burnt bones, tar, pitch, and other substances.

As the woman walks to her next reading post I stop procrastinating and lunge into the water.

In daylight hours I usually swim with a snorkel, for I've yet to figure out the knack of breathing when swimming. But donning a snorkel would be ridiculous, comical, here in the half-hour before dawn.

It is surprising, though, what one can see, in the sunshine in summer, when swimming near either of the two rocky groynes that protect, like parentheses, this little beach: zebra fish, puffer fish, jelly fish, star fish, stingrays, sea urchins. But no cuttlefish, although you'll find their chalky backbones washed up on the shore.

The Roman writer Cicero apparently wrote that ink made from a cuttlefish pouch was used in his time, about 50 BC. The cuttlefish, and its cephalod cousins the octopus and the squid, eject a black inklike fluid when in danger. And the squid possesses a transparent internal shell known as a pen or quill.

I open my eyes under the water and just make out the blurs that are my hands. No separate fingers, just clumps of flesh at the ends of my arms.

A foetus in a womb.

I swim about 50 metres, then I stop and stand, panting, in the stillness, soaking up the moment so that I can draw upon it later in the day, seated in an office block in the city where the only water comes from a tap, and the only blinking lights are those of unanswered telephones and overworked inkjet printers.

The reader has now made her way further along the footpath and stands, eyes down.

The deep swimmer has silently emerged and is by his bike, drying and dressing.

With my breath back I lunge into the ink again.

In the office in the city an inkjet will spray black words on white paper, words that, while English, can seem quite foreign. In 1941 George Orwell wrote: 'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms — like cuttlefish squirting out ink.'

The German writer Goethe may have been thinking similarly in 1819 when he wrote 'Modern poets mix a lot of water with their ink.'

I move through the water as best I can, arms, legs, lungs, eyes, mouth all trying to move in unison.

I always thought I would be one to use fountain pens, that I would write in a steady rhythm. But the Platignum nib seemed to scratch the paper rather than glide across it. The ink eked rather than flowed. I was clumsy with the pen and the ink, just as I am clumsy with my body and the sea.

The first modern fountain pen was created by a water man in 1884, a Lewis Edson Waterman, of New York. While quill and steel pens had to be dipped in ink, the Waterman fountain pen was the first to hold its own ink within a self-contained reservoir.

My fountain pen, most likely given to me by my parents, ended up at the back of a drawer in my study, with paper-clips and receipts, with floppy discs and staples, with letters, hand-written in ball-point pens, from long-time friends.

Having managed to swim a little more without taking in any water, I walk to my towel. I half-expect to be dyed black or blue, and for my nails to have a gothic hue. I expect my red swimming cap to be stained purple.

But no, the day's first light has crept up behind me without fuss or fanfare, without warmth or shadows, and I am still my pale self.

By now a car would have slowed by my house. A newspaper would have landed on my driveway.

In 1952 the Sheaffer pen company produced the Sheaffer Snorkel fountain pen, described as 'the world's most complex fountain pen filling system ... unlike its namesake the pen was designed to take fluid in rather than stay free of it.' If I ever try writing with a fountain pen again, maybe I'll try to find the Sheaffer Snorkel. Or a Waterman.

The streetlights have blinked off. The constellations of boats and ships and bayside suburbs have faded. The joggers and the walkers and the next wave of swimmers are all three-dimensional. The herd of cyclists complete another lap.

The swimmer from the deep rides home. The reader from Japan closes her book.

I pull on my shoes, tie my laces. Pick up my towel.

The ink has is again evaporating into the sky, or seeping into the wet sand, back down into the inkwell of the sea.

Vin MaskellVin Maskell has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Best Australian Essays (2008) and now Eureka Street. He published a collection of his short narratives, Jacaranda Avenue, in 2003. 

Topic tags: vin maskell, ink, waterman, Sheaffer Snorkel, fountain pen



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Existing comments

Great - Tuesday poetry day; Wednesday prose-poetry day. Delightful Kim . Thanks ES

Joe Castley | 17 November 2010  

As a fellow dipper, thanks for expressing the wonders of a calm sea.

louise | 17 November 2010  

what a beautiful piece..
keep dipping those pale fingers into the water and onto your keyboard.
keep stroking the air..

kate | 19 November 2010  

Nice work Dad, keep it up!

Reuben | 20 November 2010  

Marvellous, evocative writing, Vin. I felt the bony chill of the pre-dawn swim, and warmed to the hardy souls who, like you, defy the comforts of early morning bed and blankets and snuggle into the sea instead. It read, in parts, like an enigmatic, unfolding dream. After reading your words on my computer screen, I am carrying a question – is this the first time in history we don’t use ink to manifest our written thoughts?

Stephen Andrew | 28 November 2010  

Today's sea here spreads to the walkways, the driveways and historical fact like the ink you describe. Each fresh idea come in one after another as if lapping at the edge. Highly evocative, Vin. Lovely to read and sit with, and one I’m sure I’ll take with me on my next bay visit. Thanks.

Margaret | 05 December 2010  

'When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms — like cuttlefish squirting out ink.'...how true, and it is one of the reasons your writing is so wonderful....sincerity.

Kim | 09 March 2011  

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