Men only

The year I came of age, I spent most Saturday nights partying with friends from university. The boys drank beer, and the girls cheap plonk, ouzo and coke, port and lemonade, Stones green ginger wine. Anything sweet to which you could add bubbles, or orange juice and vodka, when we looked for alternatives to sugar. 

The group cohered around a cohort of young men who had attended Saint Bernard’s Catholic Boys College in Essendon. Most still practised their religion as far as I could see, but they held to their ideals lightly, enough to drink to excess and join us in getting into trouble. Such as the nights we spent at the Atheneum. 

Maybe it was not such a stretch for the young men to go to this club, given it was an all-men’s club, but on those nights when I set through the doors of this prestigious establishment with a small group of my female friends, I sensed the walls looked on in disapproval. The only women to enter these sacred chambers were establishment wives, and only then on special occasions for a dinner to which they were invited. 

We were not invited. This in the days before CCTV cameras when two of the Saint Bernard’s boys worked as ushers at the club. On Saturday nights around ten pm, when the last of the patrons had left the building, they’d summon our group by phone to join them in those carpeted rooms. Axminster in crimson and green. One member of the group kept watch downstairs until midnight in case a patron arrived late, or a security guard stopped by. 

We roamed the building freely in small groups or alone. I preferred the basement. In summer, we women wore bathers under our dresses and dived into the basement pool. A room filled with the stench of chlorine and the white brightness of tiny tiles that lined the floors and walls, in keeping with bath houses from the eighteen hundreds. A navy-blue dado spanned the walls at eye height to break the monotony of white on white and the pool itself was edged in a deep green that merged into turquoise when the water played tricks with your eyes. 

When I swam in the artificially warm waters, lap upon lap, up and down, the sound of each splash echoed against the walls and ceilings, as if I was in a bat cave deep underground. I kept my towel close by to wrap around my body as soon as I slid out of the pool. Dressed in a pink bikini, the memory of which embarrasses me today. But then to wear anything more was not on. Not when you were young enough to get away with an exposed body. But I feared the ghosts of old men might appear from the change room door or down through the manhole in the ceiling to show their outrage. A near naked woman in their men’s only pool. 

We operated by stealth. Good enough kids but prone to slip through cracks when they were left open in search of fun. I did not initiate such activities, only followed, but once inside I made the most of whatever opportunity came to me. To swim in the pool at the Atheneum; to go in search of ice cream from the industrial refrigerators located further up the building in floors allocated to fine dining; to watch the men play pool on room sized pool tables scattered across an entire floor in the centre of the building.  

Management had told the two ushers it was okay for them to help themselves to leftovers. But management had no idea that they brought along a group of friends who dined at midnight on left over quiche and creme brulees and my favourite, those tiny tubs of vanilla ice cream, the type served in hospitals to people confined to bed. 

The problem with this story is there is no point to it. No event that stands out as a jumping off place into what happened next. It stands only as background music to my late adolescence when still at university. When still unencumbered by the responsibility that came with growing older. Of work and of parenthood. 

Because it happened late at night in my memory, it stays as a dream time. Shimmering in the way dreams have of standing out from the page. As if the events and people are not embedded but hovering above. 

Like when you impose a backdrop on your zoom meetings and people see you flickering on the edge of whatever image you have chosen to hide your actual whereabouts. A tropical scene for instance that looks ridiculous when the person also bears a beanie in winter’s cold against the rolling waves of some place that could be Malibu. A tropical paradise. 

An easy placement. As unsteady as the paper dolls’ dresses I cut out as a child and held over the underwear dressed body of my cardboard doll, affixed by a series of white paper projections. You folded these projections back at the edge of the cardboard doll to hold it is place.

It was not easy playing with such dolls. You needed to lay them out flat to keep their clothes on. Otherwise, the dresses slipped off all too readily to reveal the static underwear underneath. They were two dimensional like a dream scape and of little value to me.

Like the memory of my time at the Atheneum, only I cannot let it go. The time I slipped into the patriarchal world of men, and they had no idea I was there.