Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Brisbane is F...ing hot.
Windows vainly seek the slightest of breezes
Bodies glistening with perspiration sit slumped in cane chairs.
Nana slips off for a quiet afternoon nap.
Presents hide under a plastic tree
wrapped in last years paper.
The old rust encrusted esky
makes its annual xmas acquaintance
with crushed ice, a leg of ham
and a dozen assorted sparkling ales.
The air is bush-still
Cicadas growl outside the window
sending Xmas greetings to each other.
The brush turkeys have taken a sabattical.
Their PHDs in garden deconstruction on hold.
The tiger prawns and side of atlantic salmon
sit patiently on the top shelf of the exhausted fridge.
The preparations are complete.
Now we just wait.
Sunday, 21 December 2008
I feel calm. This feels right. The family had debated the option of setting dad’s ashes free here at Currumbin but there was a stronger draw from across the border in his home land of the Northern Rivers. Nevertheless here we are. It’s a beautiful day. The air is still, the ocean is a mill pond. A perfect winters day.
Not unusually for me I'm mesmerised by the water. I enjoy the light, the constant movement, the air on my body, the feeling of space and an impossibly distant horizon. I'm hypnotised. I yearn to immerse myself in this body of water, this planet before me.
I have an idea. Remembering that Kev was rarely one to say no to a swim, I decide we must indulge one last time together. I tuck him under my arm and head for the wet sand at the edge of the Pacific. I’m thinking he’d probably think this was a bit ridiculous. Certainly the rest of the family do. The ice cream lickers have returned and I’m followed to the water’s edge by pleading voices
“You’re an idiot dad”
“What if you lose him”.
I ignore their sensible comments. I’m planning to be careful.
I get to the edge where the waves lap my ankles and advance and withdraw in ordered lines. There’s a small gutter a few metres off shore and I walk in up to my mid calves. I whisper a few words of encouragement to the box.
“Hold your breath”
“Keep your head down”
“Look out for other surfers”
“Don’t dive in shallow water”
I bend and gently lower the cream plastic container into the water.
Dad seems to have lost some of his buoyancy. As I settle him into the salty brine I withdraw my support momentarily and suddenly he lists to the left. I’m about to panic when he settles, straightens up and is stuck on a sand bar. This is a first for Kev. He would be feeling pretty stupid. Luckily there’s no one to see and I’m not going to tell anyone. I whisper my assurances and we sit for a short time soaking up the sun and the memories.
I turn to see six pairs of eyes glaring at me as if I’ve just committed patricide.
“It’s time to go” they chorus.
We two brothers would practice, always measuring our skills against each other. Catch the same wave; punch the air and whoop in triumph even when only a matter of inches and some dodgy practices separated us; race back through the lines of white surging towards us, smashing our chests into each and being slapped in the face by nature for our impudence, to do it all again.
Meanwhile dad would have disappeared “out back” for what seemed like hours. Mum certainly felt the hours. Ever faithful, she would sit, read, doze under the brolly patiently waiting for the return of her man. His role was to be the water hero; hers was to apply sunscreen, pass out hats, keep us hydrated, break up fights and at regular intervals wander to the shallows where she would spend time bobbing. She was never a surfer. She was a suburban Sydney girl from the inner western suburbs.
My father, who’d never had a swimming lesson in his life but had grown up on the banks of the Richmond River knew the secret. We watched him. He watched us. We strived to beat him and eventually did. We’d learnt from an expert.
It was on one of these beach holidays that I had my first inkling that my father was not immortal. Inexplicably he declined an invitation to join us boys in tackling a pretty decent surf. The ear plugs he’d used as his only artificial aid in his years of surfing lay unused in the side pocket of the beach bag. He never ventured beyond the broken surf again. He was probably only sixty. Still a young man in my eyes despite the years.
The final photo in this collection would see an old man wobbling across the same stretch of sand, supported on either side by a son and his daughter-in-law, making his last pilgrimage to his beloved Currumbin. Everyone in the photo knows the truth. If you look closely at the photo you can see the pain in their eyes - knowing what they all know and not wanting to speak about it.
Friday, 19 December 2008
Here, another choice. Straight ahead to the border or exit to the beaches. We cut left and cross the old Pacific Highway and climb the hill separating us from Currumbin Beach. We’re giving Kev a tour of some of his old haunts and this was one of his spiritual homes. This is where the clan from down south gathered each year, where he taught us boys to body surf. Over a period of 50 years this was the first choice destination for a day at the beach.
A time line of photos would show the family sitting in the same spot on the wide beach each year lazily gazing at the ocean.
There would be a shot of two boys waving from the lookout atop Elephant Rock trying to catch the attention of the adults stretched out under the yellow and brown striped beach umbrella. There’d be one of a dad kneeling beside his beach equipment digging a deep hole for the wooden shaft of the umbrella, his strong straight back hovering above the sand. Another would show us exploring the rocky outcrops at either end of the 400 metre stretch of sand – Elephant Rock at the southern end and Currumbin Rock at the other. The scene would be of wild thrashing seas in heavy weather or in others a tranquil snorkeller’s playgound, water the colour of green glass slipping and sliding in and out of craggy rock pools.
You’d see the two boys approaching the jagged edge of the rocky outcrop, gingerly finding a path across the sharp wind-etched platform and then you’d see them racing back, ignoring the cuts to their feet, when a monster wave collided with the immovable mountain. Spumes of water would be flying 30 feet into the air and drenching the squealing kids. Mothers would be looking on in fear while fathers watched their daring sons or daughters with pride.
Currumbin Rock at the northern end guarded the entrance to a sheltered creek. In those days it was an island only accessible at low tide.
This was “The Passage”, territory of the board riders and their admiring and often bored girlfriends.
Somewhere in that collection of photos there’d be a series showing the two boys, under the tutelage of their curly headed father, progressing from beginner body surfers to masters of the 12 footers which thundered past Elephant Rock every summer, urged to their perfect form by a constant south easterly.
“Stand here. Face the shore. And when the broken wave catches you, dive forward with your arms stretched out in front.”
Shouted instructions followed us to the shallows.
“HOLD YOUR BREATH!”
‘KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN!’
Thursday, 18 December 2008
No songs today. Nick Cave is singing mournfully about lost love from the cassette player. We’re in dad’s 15 year old Peugeot, the last in a line of cars that fed his working class obsession with motoring. A 1949 Standard Four Tourer with its soft top was his first and his prized possession. This was followed by a Morris Minor (registration 673 800), two Volkswagens (one canary yellow - NLD 718), a series of Holden Kingswoods, a risqué sky blue “first release” two door Monaro coupe ( no number plate necessary to legitimise this one), and then his two beloved Peugeots – a 404 and a 405.
He’s with us today but, unusually for him, he’s not in the driver’s seat, He’s in the back seat between two of his grandchildren. He’s locked away in a plastic box 10 inches by 4 inches by 6 inches.
His journey to this back seat has been a long and eventful one; the story of a simple man with a great capacity for love and a lust for life. An everyman’s journey from the cane fields of northern New South Wales to the suburbs of Brisbane via a war and as many beaches as he could muster. A journey from the slaughter house floor of the abattoir via the life of a travelling salesman to the daily round of a postie on his pushbike until retirement.
How the life of a man of 5 foot 11 inches can be reduced to 240 cubic inches baffles me, but there he sits accompanying us on his last journey. A journey home.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
After what seemed like half a day’s drive we’d race down the last hill on Creek Road and curl to the west to meet Logan Road where the second stage of the journey began. This really was the edge of the city. Now we’d start the real trip. Travelling beyond Mt Gravatt past the neglected fences and isolated petrol stations of Eight Mile Plains. we’d catch a glimpse of the mysterious OPAL Home for aboriginal kids from the country set discreetly back among the trees before entering a no man’s land of no interest.. The name Eight Mile Plains seemed to just about sum it all up. Gods forgotten country. Halfway to nowhere.
From that point a series of milestones marked our path to the Gold Coast or sometimes we’d be venturing beyond to the Tweed or annually to Sydney. First came the Logan River, hovering over cows and fertile river flats; then the Coomera River and finally after an interminable hour of boredom and games of Eye Spy and Spotto came the big decision. Fork left to Southport via the Coombabah swamps or right to Nerang on the dirt road. Nerang was the short cut to Surfers Paradise. Only those in the know took this option. No sign posts to guide us, only a few subtle landmarks to guide the knowledgeable.
The Coombabah swamps were full of bird life; white ibis in their droves nesting around water-loving paperbarks amid acres of water. The stink was overwhelming even with the windows up tight. At this point the largely silent passengers erupted with cries of phew! and pooh! and accusations flew back and forth in the back seat apportioning blame for the smell, each brother indignantly denying any responsibility and both whinging to their parents that their brother was picking on them.
This riot quickly died with the intercession of dad reminding us that at the next crest we’d probably be able to see the water. Both my brother and I, now best mates again, crawled up the back of the seats in front of us craning our necks for the best view. Despite the threats from mum we bounced around like tennis balls and clawed and climbed up and occasionally over the high backed bench seat to tumble ridiculously into the front. The car was now full of laughter, squeals, threats and cries of “Look Look”. On each rise our anticipation expanded, our eyes popped and strained only to have our expectations dashed time and time again until at last the glint of the Broadwater filled us with excitement and anticipation. We could already taste the salt and began feverishly searching for our togs and towels so as to be first out of the car and onto the beach. To our frustration, and even more so for our parents, this hint of a swim was in reality still 15 minutes away as we slowly drove parallel to the still water holding our breath for the burning hot sands of Main Beach and the magic of the surf. My father could never countenance stopping and swimming in the still waters of Southport. It was unthinkable. Literally.
Today, however, we fork right, but the road is sealed. It’s a four lane high speed bypass. This time there are five spirits in the car and we’re on a mission.
Monday, 8 December 2008
Walking along the shoreline barefoot, hair wrestled into a seaweed toupee, my towel wrapped around my waist, my skin sticky as the salt dries in the warm sun - I feel like a water god.
I am at the same beach which awed me as a child. Kings Beach in 1955 was in the grip of a cyclone. I recall a windswept stretch of sand with spumes of spray lashing across the bay and waist deep froth the colour of whipped cream bubbling around my body. I remember spending a week running between the lino floored army igloo hut on the foreshore over the natural sandhills to the wild shoreline. It was unforgettable.
Today I am at this same place. The sand-hills are tamed and a car park and coffee shop have replaced the igloo huts. The ancient saltwater swimming baths have been refurbished but the headland is the same and the cargo ships still glide by almost within touching distance.
The water is clear. Blown glass could not be clearer. Glossy brochures of scenes from tropical islands do not do today justice. The variations in sand bars and gutters are marked by varying hues of green then iridescent turquoise, then deepening blues merging to black beyond the lines of swimmers. To the naked eye it’s unremarkable; through my polaroids it’s a riot of pastels and light infused energy.
I am feeling good because I too am infused with light.
As I walk I think about the contrasts between my life on terra-firma and my life in water. On terra firma I am encumbered by clothes, confronted by social expectations, exposed by my awkwardness in land based sports and reminded of my shortcomings by mirrors and my attempts at small talk with strangers and attractive women. On land I am a minnow.
In water I am in charge. I am a seal. My quest, my challenge is singular. I am one with the medium. I am a water spirit.
Unlike cricket and conversation, where practiced skills and complex rules abound and conspire to trap the unwary me - here everything is instinct. Instinct tells me whether to dive under or punch through, to charge or retreat; my body knows how to glide and then explode through the backs of waves effortlessly emerging dolphin-like behind lethal walls of water; I am comfortable being tossed and wrangled in a swirling mix master world beneath a giant dumper; I understand that a lungful of air between enormous southerly swells is the difference between life and death; I see the next two story wall before me and in one fluid motion I experience a sublime moment as tonnes of water thunder towards the shore with me as a passenger sliding gracefully at speed down a smooth wall of green. “Look mum no hands”. All instinct. At least that’s how it feels.
To my left as I walk towards the surf pavilion the crowd dot the sand like sandflies. Young children, mothers, fathers, teenagers, couples, lifesavers, squirming nippers all intent on worshipping the day, oblivious of each other and the absurdity of so many people crowded onto such a small beach in an island continent with tens of thousands of deserted beaches.
In my narcissistic state I am the centre of (my) attention. The king on his beach. So enamoured am I of myself that I sense glances of admiration from left and right and my sense of being in my element is affirmed. It does occur to me that perhaps it is my slightly deformed middle aged body parading in a pair of sky blue budgie smugglers that is the real point of interest but I am able to deflect this thought simply by feeling the sun searing across my shoulders, casting me back to my childhood and another world.
I reach the clubhouse, turn and retrace my steps. The water winks at me in recognition. It’s 8am, and as I wander along the foreshore back to my unit for coffee and breakfast towel in hand, I become aware of a group of young men cruising by in a red commodore, circa 1985. One of them leans out the window and calls to me “Hey Speedo!”. His mates turn and seem to understand his taunt.
Suddenly I feel naked. I am bemused. A beloved national swimming icon has become a term of abuse and I am the subject in a game of ‘Spotto”.