Saturday, 23 April 2011

Swimming with Sharks

I first met Vic on the day we went swimming with the sharks.

He was right next to me in the changing shed as we stripped off and put on our bathers.

“First time?” he asked.

I nodded. “Seen it heaps on TV but I’ve never been game to try it myself until today. What about you?”

“Yep, also a first timer. Name’s Vic.”

I introduced myself as well. “Nice to meet you, Vic,” I said

As we left the shed, my eyes were blinded by the glare of the sunlight. Slowly, the scene resolved itself in front of my eyes. A scene I had witnessed so many times before on television, but even with that familiarity, it was far more then I could have possibly imagined.

I was standing on the edge of a low cliff which swept around to my left and then back again in a roughly semi-circular arc. Not far below, the water of the bay shimmered like a brilliant azure mirror, the sunlight dancing over its rippling surface. On the top of the cliffs to the left, a crowd was gathered. They waited, expectant and impatient, some individuals occasionally yelling out for something to happen. And all about me stood the other competitors, stretching and pacing and staring nervously into the clear water.

Suddenly the tension was broken by a loud splash. The crowd immediately roared and the other competitors looked up, as if they had all been instantaneously awoken by a gunshot. The serenity of the water was broken by a frenzy of swinging arms and kicking legs as the swimmer who had just dived in made for the cliffs on the other side of the bay.

The reason for his frantic movements very quickly became obvious. Five large shadows appeared from out of the depths of the water. Long and cylindrical, but as they approached the surface, the telltale fins became all too apparent.

The man was now over halfway across. The distance towards the far cliff was getting rapidly smaller. But this was nothing compared to the speed of the fearsome shadows as they raced towards him.

I nudged Vic gently in the side. “He’s not going to make it.”

“Sure he is,” Vic replied.

The man was now a good twenty metres away from the cliff but the sharks were closing fast. Forty metres. Thirty metres. Ten metres. Now they were circling feverishly. The howling of the crowd rose to a crescendo as they rushed in, ready for the kill.

Just in time, the swimmer reached the low ladder that hung from the far cliff and hauled himself out, kicking at the nose of one of the sharks as it lunged out of the water towards him. The baying of the crowd was immediately replaced by a massive shout of approval. In response, the victorious swimmer leapt up and down, punching the air in triumph.

Vic nudged me gently in the side. “Told you he’d make it.”

“He’s a hero,” I said.

The crowd had calmed down and returned to their impatient muttering. But for now, nobody else was prepared to enter the water. So Vic and I sat by the edge of the cliff and after a while we got to chatting. Turned out, Vic was a writer.

“So what did you write?” I wanted to know.

“You know,” he said, “I think it’s less about what you actually wrote and more about what you were going to write.”

“Go on. So what were you going to write?”

“The ultimate book,” he said.

Just then, our conversation was broken by another splash and another great bellow from the crowd. At last, the next swimmer had taken the plunge.

We both looked over the bay as she boldly made her way across, surging forward with powerful, determined strokes. But once again, the alarming shadows glided up from the deep in remorseless pursuit.

I nudged Vic. “She’s not going to make it.”

“Sure she is.”

She had just about reached the ladder on the far cliff, but they were already on to her, striking mercilessly at her flailing body.

But just as all seemed lost, two figures balancing on the ladder managed to reach in and drag her out of the crimson-tainted water. The damage done was clear to see; one leg taken off from just below the knee. In a flash, she was carried onto a stretcher and hustled away for suitable medical attention. But even then, she managed to raise her fist and wave it in a weak gesture of victory, driving the crowd into ecstasies of appreciation.

Vic nudged me. “Told you she’d make it.”

“She’s a hero,” I said.

It took a bit longer for the crowd to quieten down this time. Once their noise had reduced sufficiently for normal conversation to be allowed, I resumed my discussion with Vic.

“So tell me. What exactly is this ultimate book?”

“The last book. The final book,” he explained.

“I have no idea what that means.”

“Have you been to a bookshop lately?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Once or twice.”

“And what impression did you get?”

“I don’t know. Lots of books I guess.”

“Precisely,” he said. “Lots and lots and lots of books. But did you ever ask yourself the question, ‘are all those books necessary?’”

“No,” I replied. “Can’t say that I ever have.”

“Ah, you see,” he said. “Not many people have thought of this. But that is the question I found myself asking. Why do we have so many books? Surely they’re not all necessary. Surely not every one of those books needs to be read. I reckon all you’d have to do is read, maybe fifteen of them, and you’ve pretty much covered everything that’s written in all of the other books.”

There was a splash, and then another splash, and then another. To the great delight of the crowd, three swimmers had jumped in simultaneously. All three struck out strongly for the far shore, attempting to outrace the sharks that now numbered at least twelve. One of them made it to the other side, where he flamboyantly accepted the plaudits of the crowd. However the other two did not. Barely three quarters of the way across, they were overtaken and rapidly ripped apart.

As all the sharks rushed in for their pound of flesh, another seven contestants leapt into the water. Five of them made it to the other side, three of them with bodies intact.

I nudged Vic. “I reckon that’s the way to go. Wait until the sharks are feeding and then make a dash for it.”

“Good plan,” he agreed.

It was soon clear that this latest burst of activity was over. No more contestants were ready to take on the inhabitants of that water, now stained a deep red. This was a relief as I was keen to continue my discussion with Vic.

“Sorry, I got a bit distracted,” I said. “What was that about fifteen books?”

“I was saying, I reckon you only need to read fifteen books and you can pretty much say that you’ve read every book that’s ever been written.”

“Only fifteen books you reckon?”

“Maybe twenty at max. Of course, you’d need to choose the right ones. You could read twenty books and they’d all be pretty much the same. No, you’d need to get a spread of all the different types of books in the shop.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “A good spread of all of the books. So what does this have to do with this ultimate book you were going to write?”

“Well that was my breakthrough. I began to think that if these twenty essential books have all been written already, then maybe, just maybe, there was still one that hadn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at it this way. With every book that’s ever been written, you’ve got some writer who’s trying to say something. Make a point. Create some sort of profound observation about the world that we live in. Only problem is, there are now so many books around that they’re all just repeating each other.”

“Repeating each other,” I said.

“Exactly. You’d think by now that everything that needs to be said has already been said. But I reckon there’s still one thing that hasn’t been said. One point that’s yet to be made. One final book that’s waiting to be written. And that’s when I figured that I was the bloke to write it.”

“The ultimate book,” I murmured. “That’s brilliant.”

“Too bloody right it is,” he said. “After my book is finished, nobody ever has to write another book again. Think of all the advantages. When you go into a bookshop, you won’t have to worry about whether some new book by a writer you’ve never heard of is going to be any good or not. Make life easier for booksellers too, ‘cos they won’t have to worry about stocking up on so many different books any more. And even better for publishers ‘cos they’ll never ever need to publish another book again. They can even consolidate their lists. Cut them right down so all we have is the twenty books that we really need.”

“Twenty-one,” I reminded him.

“Of course, twenty-one. How could I have forgotten? But do you know who the biggest winners will be?”

I was about to answer when we were interrupted by a rising slow handclap from the crowd, followed, in response, by a series of splashes. There were now at least twenty swimmers in the water. The formerly placid, blue bay was transformed into a cauldron of hysterical movement. And while occasionally a competitor proudly raised themselves up the ladder on the other side, the vast majority never made it halfway.

But exciting as it all seemed, I had somewhat lost interest in this spectacle. I was much more interested in hearing the rest of Vic’s story.

“No,” I finally replied, trying hard to make myself heard over the now incessant roar of the crowd.

“Writers,” said Vic, also yelling to make himself audible.

“What do you mean?”

“Think of all those writers out there, desperately typing away. Trying to think of how to be original. How to say something that’s never been said before.”


“Well now they don’t have to worry anymore. It can be known with certainly that everything that needs to be said has already been said. They can get on with doing something more valuable in their lives.”

“That’s genius!” I exclaimed.

“You reckon?”

“I reckon. Mate, you’d be doing the world a public service.”

“For sure.”

“So why didn’t you do it?”

“Why didn’t I do what?”

“Write the ultimate book.”

At that moment, a commotion arose around us. Apparently a couple of contestants had gotten into a disagreement and one had pushed the other into the water. The crowd was furious, booing loudly at such unsporting behaviour.

I nudged Vic. “That’s just not on,” I said.

“No bloody way,” he agreed.

It seemed that the other competitors shared this view. The miscreant was quickly picked up and carried, kicking and screaming, to the edge of the cliff, where he was unceremoniously tossed directly into the thickest mass of sharks in the bay. The jeers of the crowd immediately turned to cheers at the sight of justice being done.

“So why didn’t you write the ultimate book?” I asked again.

“Well here is the problem,” he explained. “In order to figure out which book hadn’t been written, first of all I had to figure out all the books that already had. And you know what that meant?”

“I get it. You pretty much had to read every single book that had already been written.”

“Well not every book. Remember there’s really only twenty books I needed to read.”

“That doesn’t sound so hard.”

“It doesn’t sound hard. But the really difficult bit is figuring out exactly which twenty books to choose when there’s so many to begin with.”

“I see.”

“And the more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that there wasn’t much this book could actually be about anyway. It can’t be a detective story ‘cos lots of people have already written them. It can’t be science fiction either, or one of those fantasy ones with wizards and elves and that. It can’t be funny, ‘cos there are lots of funny books out there, but it can’t be serious either, ‘cos I reckon there are probably even more of them.”

“I can see the problem.”

“So that’s when it hit me. I couldn’t do it. There was no way I could write this ultimate book. It was just too hard. My career as a writer had ended before it had even begun. But do you know something?”


He turned to me, his eyes glittering. “As a writer I might have been a failure but at least I set my sights high. I tried to do something that nobody had ever done before. I never ended up doing it but geez I gave it my best shot. And I reckon there’s something heroic about that.”

“You were a heroic failure,” I agreed.

“You’ve said it in one. A heroic failure. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the only failure I’d ever want to be.”

“Here’s to heroic failures,” I cried, and we smashed our fists together as if we were making a toast.

“Hey, shall we do it now?” he asked.

I looked up at the sun, just starting to sink towards the horizon, and down to the rusty-brown waters of the bay, now seething with arms, legs and torsos, not to mention the hordes of sharks, still swarming in from the open ocean.

“If we don’t do it now, I reckon we never will,” I replied.

We shook hands.

“Good luck,” he said.

“And to you as well. Thanks heaps for the story.”

“No worries. How about on three. One, two, three!”

We both jumped. As I sank into its depths, the coldness of the water almost overwhelmed me. But then I made it back to the surface and took a deep breath, just as Vic’s head popped up beside me.

“Hey, do you reckon someone will ever do it?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“Actually write this ultimate book.”

“Dunno. But whoever does will have to be one top writer.”

“They’d be a hero?” I suggested.

Vic laughed. “Too right. They’d be a bloody hero.”

Dark shapes were beginning to loom through the murky water. It was time to end this.

“Race you to the other side,” I called.

“You’re on.”

I turned to face the ladder hanging from that opposite cliff so far away. And then I swam like I’ve never swam in all of my life.