Andy Murdoch – The Waters of Jordan, and the Waters of Babylon

A chapter from a recently finished novel

I make a mistake when I get off the caique. Or—‘mistake’ is what I’ll call it, a day or two later, in my diary. But probably it isn’t a mistake. Probably it’s totally subconscious. I get off the caique and I follow all the bright young things down the beach, past the umbrellas and the sunlounges and the overweight Americans and the svelte Scandinavians—the Scandinavians seem to understand the importance of sun protection, the Americans not so much. I follow the bright young things to the western end of the beach—no umbrellas, no sunlounges, just a bar or two in the hills behind—and it’s only when I’ve laid out my towel, taken my shirt and shorts off, slathered as much of my body as I can reach with SPF15+, only then, as I’m lying on my towel, gazing at the water, wondering about a swim, only then do I realise, looking away from the water, then trying not to stare, looking back at the water, only then do I realise that the bright young things I’ve followed down the beach, many of them ridiculously handsome Germans, have laid out their towels and then stripped off their togs. They’re all naked. All of them. Pretty much all of them.

Bright young things. I haven’t read much Waugh at this point, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t use ‘bright young things’ in Brideshead. But still, that’s what I’ll call them, in my diary.

Bright young things.

*

I’m standing on the banks of the Avon River. No—not that Avon River. No Shakespeare has ever graced these parts. I’m standing on the banks of the Avon River, not far from Brinjibup, near the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, and in front of me are a dozen, maybe twenty people—family, friends, fellow churchgoers who’ve bothered to make the effort on a chilly October Sunday morning. The minister stands on the stones to the left of me, Ross to the right. Ross and Molly. It’s weird that it’s them. They hate each other’s guts. But that’s not important today, because today—today—

I’m dressed all in white. White shirt, white trousers—well. Beige. White sandshoes. White underpants, because I don’t want coloured ones showing through once my beige trousers are wet.

Because today—

Today I’m getting baptised.

*

The first time I saw the waters of the Mediterranean it wasn’t from a beach on Mykonos. It wasn’t even from a Greek island—or a beach. Or Greece. It was from Malta. It was on Malta, walking from my hotel on the coast to Valetta, past all the little fishing boats with the evil eye painted on their prows; and then, later, gazing out over the sea from the top of the city’s fort. They were amazing moments, those moments. But the actual fact—You Are Looking At The Mediterranean—didn’t really strike me until a day or two later, on the other side of the island. I was standing on the Dinghli Cliffs, and the sun was an hour or two off setting, and it hit me. You Are Looking

‘In The Odyssey Homer uses a word to describe the colour of the Mediterranean which does not translate well into English,’ I wrote in my diary the night after I’d stood on the Dinghli Cliffs. ‘The translation we read at uni uses ‘wine-dark’, but the translator notes this is not all that satisfactory. He’s right.’

It’s frustrating, reading that diary all these years later, that I don’t at least make a stab at getting the colour right myself.

*

The waters of the Avon River are not wine-dark. We’ve chosen a shallow stretch, for obvious reasons. Wide too, the banks either side lined with stones washed smooth by the centuries. Still, while the worst of the spring floods are gone the snow is still melting in the mountains above. The water flows fast. Fast and white.

‘It’ll be cold,’ Ross whispers. ‘We’ll need to be careful. The rocks’ll be slippery.’

The minister has been contemplating the river, but now she turns, throws her arms in the air. ‘Brothers and sisters!’ she calls, and she’s loud. And yeah, she’s a she. Molly. That’s one of the reasons Ross hates her guts. I do not permit a woman to teach, Paul wrote to Timothy. But this is the Uniting Church. Ross is a Baptist, technically, but … anyway. ‘Brothers and sisters in Christ!’ Molly calls. Though if I’m honest she’s not that keen on all this. A dribble of water from the font in the church in Flynn—that should be enough for me. But oh no, Andrew’s been listening to all this nonsense from Ross and Joy and now he wants to be baptised in a river. Full immersion. Silly boy.

Although I can tell she’s actually kind of excited. Just quietly. Kind of loving it. Molly’s never done this before.

‘Welcome,’ Molly says, ‘and thank you for coming out so early on this chilly Sunday morning as we prepare, by the act of baptism, to acknowledge and affirm Andrew’s commitment to his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As he says goodbye to his old life and welcomes the next we stand here as one, witness to his love of our Father. And what a glorious setting for such a rebirth!’ she says, and she throws her arms up again, sweeps them through the air, spins on her feet, three sixty degrees, taking in the wide, shallow, rocky valley. ‘I think, without too much imagination, we can see ourselves on the banks of the River Jordan, each of us about to be plunged into the water by John the Baptist himself.’

Yeah. Totally loving it.

*

I slathered as much of myself as I could. As much of myself as I could reach. I could’ve asked, I guess. I reckon one of those hot naked German guys would happily have rubbed some SPF15+ into that patch of my back, in between my shoulder blades, that I just could not reach. Well—not happily, perhaps. I’m sure one of them would have been prepared to, grudgingly, maybe, if I’d asked. I’m sure they’d have thought nothing of it.

Or—what if—what if maybe one of them did in fact think something of it, after all? And not something bad? What if one of them might have been more than happy to rub some sunscreen into my skin?

I’ll never know.

And it’s what I thought of it that was the problem, of course. Even without it actually happening. That was the problem.

The waters of Superparadise Beach aren’t wine-dark, either.

There were plenty of people in the water further up the beach, back towards where we’d got off the caique. There were plenty of svelte Scandinavians and overweight Americans frolicking in the water. But down our end of the beach—well, not really ‘our’ end, just the end of the beach on which I had somehow found myself—there was, fairly conspicuously, no one in the water. The guys around me were stretched out of their towels, some chatting with friends they hadn’t seen, perhaps, since last year. Occasionally one would wander casually along the edge of the water, blissfully, nonchalantly willing us to believe he didn’t see himself as he was: a Teutonic Adonis.

But no one was in the water.

And I wondered if there was some etiquette on gay beaches, if there were rules about who got in the water first, or when. I was worried I’d maybe break the rules. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the first in the water.

They weren’t really all German. There were a couple of guys near me speaking something that sounded like Spanish—it wasn’t German, anyway. I’d learnt German at high school, and it definitely wasn’t German. I’d learnt a bit of Italian at high school as well, and it didn’t sound Italian but it sounded more Italian than German so I thought maybe it was Spanish. There were a few Americans among the Germans and the possibly Spanish guys, although they weren’t fat. Although, to be fair, neither were all of the Americans up the other end of the beach. Most of them, though.

No English accents, up our end of the beach, No Australians.

Except me.

I don’t know why I was worried about getting in the water first. Breaking the rules. I’d flown halfway round the planet specifically planning to break the rules. I was on Mykonos because it was the gay island. I was on Superparadise because it was the gay beach on the gay island.

But I hadn’t really planned to follow all those bright young things down to the gay end of the gay beach. No, I really hadn’t.

And I didn’t want to be the first in the water.

*

It will work. It will. I know it will work.

I will be plunged into the water and my old self will die, my old self will be washed away by the melted snow of the Great Dividing Range and it will wash into the Gippsland Lakes and out into Bass Strait and I will come up out of the water and I will be free, cleansed, renewed, reborn.

Ross and Molly and I walk into the waters of the Avon. We turn to face those who have gathered on the river’s shores. Molly begins to speak. I don’t listen to her words. I only know that I have to say yes to her questions, and then I’ll be free.

That’s how it works. That’s what the Bible says. That’s God’s promise.

I stand in the waters of the Avon River and I know this. It is God’s promise. I have walked into these waters and I know it is true. I know what will happen. I do. It will work. It will, I know it will work.

Molly asks me one last question and I say yes, and then she and Ross place a hand behind my shoulders and a hand on my arms and they lower me into the water.

I am under the water.

It will work.

It will work.

I am fifteen years old.

*

On Superparadise Beach I’m twenty-five and kind of pissed off, to be honest. Kind of frustrated. I mean—well, yeah, in that way too, but right now I just want to get in the fucking water. Because it just looks so good—not wine-dark, not that at all, more sort of, I don’t know, ice-blue or something, which might not sound real alluring but on a Greek beach in late May with not a cloud in the sky and no shade it’s looking pretty fucking alluring to me. I can think of nothing finer right now than getting off my towel and walking into that water, but—

But.

A few more of those Teutonic Adonises have done their thing, wandered along the water’s edge. There’s a couple—I assume they’re a couple, maybe just friends, perfectly tanned, subtly muscled arms draped across each other’s generously muscled shoulders, generous, uncut cocks lazily slapping against one thigh, then the other, under immaculately trimmed pubes as they lazily, louchely make their way along the sand. One of them puts his toe in the water and withdraws it immediately, laughing. ‘Zu kalt! Zu kalt!’ he cries, and half the beach laughs with him. And then they go back to their towels, and lie down, and no one gets in the fucking water.

And so at some point, after a couple of hours, I say ‘Fuck it’ and I stand up. I get off my towel and I look around. I maybe don’t say the words ‘Fuck it’ out loud. Like I said, I haven’t heard an Australian accent all day. Not even mine. So maybe I don’t actually speak, but I stand up, at least. I haul myself off my towel as nonchalantly as possible, which isn’t very nonchalantly, and I look at the sea of male beauty in which I’ve found myself. Accidentally.

And then I look at the sea. Itself.

*

‘Daft name for a beach,’ my boyfriend says as we get off the caique. ‘Superparadise? Seriously?’

We get off the caique and we follow the bright young things down to the west end of the beach. ‘There’s a Paradise Beach as well,’ I say, though I’m pretty sure we’ve already had this conversation. ‘But it’s a bit rubbish.’ I don’t say ‘It’s not as gay’. ‘It’s terrible for swimming—there’s this horrible rocky reefy thing a few metres out in the water. It’s more for preening and, you know, people watching.’

‘Nothing wrong with a bit of people watching,’ my boyfriend says, looking through his sunglasses at the bright young things as we make our way down to the other end of the beach. Not that we are remotely bright young things ourselves.

And this is a new generation of bright young things. It’s more than a decade since I was on this beach. Now there are umbrellas and sunlounges down the gay end, and you have to pay for them—unless you order a drink from one of the bars in the hills behind.

My boyfriend and I order a Mythos each, and we drink a bit. Then we slather each other in SPF30+, and then we drink a bit more, and then we get in the water.

Well.

My boyfriend’s toes hit the water and ‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Jesus, it’s so cold. Too cold. Way too cold.’

I roll my eyes. ‘Fucksake,’ I say, and I walk in up to my knees, and then I dive in. I come up for air and turn around, and he’s still standing there. ‘Come on in, big boy,’ I yell at him. ‘The water’s fine.’

It isn’t, actually. It’s fucking freezing. But I am in Greece. I am on a beach on a Greek island. I am on Superparadise Beach with my boyfriend and if you’d told me fourteen years ago this was even maybe a possibility I’d have laughed in your face.

I don’t think I’ve ever told my boyfriend I was baptised by full immersion in the Avon River in the eighties.

‘Come on, big boy,’ I yell again. And then I take my togs off and I drape them over my head, and my boyfriend hoots. ‘Come on in,’ I yell. ‘The water’s fine.’

*

I come out of the water and I know it’s worked. I walk out of the river and I hug people, Mum, Dad, Philippa, Ross and Joy. Colin, cynical, sly, my best friend from school, slaps my back and rolls his eyes. ‘Such a crock,’ he says. I hug those who’ve come to see me baptised, leave them dripping the water of the river that saturates me. I’m taken to a home nearby, I shower, change into dry clothes—fresh clothes. It’s worked. I know that the Lord has kept his promise.

We go to church in Flynn and Molly preaches a boring sermon but she says something about me and the congregation claps, a little bit. We go home to Tennabra, Mum and Dad and I have lunch together—my favourite, spaghetti bolognese, and even though Dad hates it he has a few mouthfuls because today’s special, even though he’s not properly saved he knows that today’s special and he has a few mouthfuls of that wog stuff, that’s what he calls it. And then I go for a walk along the creek, I come home, I do some homework, Mum and Dad and I have some tea, we watch some telly—that documentary series about South America, how rude is that?—and then go to bed.

And it’s worked. I know it’s worked.

The next morning I get on the bus to school and I know.

I look at Declan—blond, beautiful Declan, who gets on a stop or two after me on the way into Flynn—I look at Declan, the one the kids call poofter. I look at Declan, and someone calls him poofter, and he looks at me, and I look away, and I look at Declan, and I know.

It hasn’t worked.

The Lord hasn’t kept His promise after all.

*

I half-expect a communal clutching of pearls. ‘What’s the strange Antipodean doing?’ I imagine them saying to themselves, although of course they can’t possibly know I’m Antipodean because I haven’t opened my fucking mouth all fucking day. Unless of course I did in fact say ‘Fuck it’ a few seconds ago, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I expect an intake of breath—’Doesn’t he know how this works?’—but there’s nothing. I look around, standing next to my towel, and—they couldn’t care less, as far as I can tell.

Although who knows. Maybe that’s one of the rules as well.

I stand at the water’s edge. It is cold, actually, but I don’t care. I take a step, and then another. The sand shelves swiftly. I look over my shoulder—just the once. No one cares. I smile, and turn back to the cold, blue water, and I dive in.

 

BIO

Andy Murdoch is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. The Waters of Jordan and the Waters of Babylon is a chapter from his recently completed novel, Whatever the F*ck I Want.

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