|Apr/May 2017 Fiction|
Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
I was sitting on the rocks at the northern end of the beach reading my father's copy of The Outsider. My feet were bare but I was wearing jeans and a long sleeved white shirt, which was the way I thought existentialists dressed. This wasn't long after I'd become a teenager. It was only the beginning of spring, but it was warm and the sun was shining brightly. Kids in swimmers were dashing in and out of the shallow water. My mother and sister were down past the jetty at the southern end, my sister shucking oysters with a bone-handled butter knife and feeding them to my mother from the lid of the shells. People didn't bother about sewage pollution in those days. My mother ate them as fast as my sister could open them. But I wanted to keep to myself and just finish my book. I'd reached the passage where the hero and his companions confront the Arabs on the beach.
When the ferry tied up, a couple disembarked. The engine noise had made me look. I could see it was Doug and his wife Maggie. Maggie was tall and by now more than eight months pregnant. Even from the far end of the beach, you could make out her enormous shape. I saw my sister running along the jetty, my mother trailing slowly behind. My mother wasn't too chuffed about entertaining guests while we were on our holidays. She would have preferred sitting on the sand being fed live seafood.
I could hear Doug's voice before I got onto the jetty. He spoke as if he were singing opera. He and Maggie had brought a large brown dog, which he said they'd bought a week before. It was some special breed mentioned by some American writer, possibly Hemingway. Dogs always struck me as stupid, and this one leapt about and whined and kept standing up on its hind legs showing off its penis and pawing people. I soon had marks on my existentialist shirt. Maggie smiled and said hello and asked if I'd grown. It must have been three or four months since I'd seen her. I was pleased.
We walked back along the jetty where my father was waiting. The wire screen door of the caretaker's house banged, and the caretaker, also called Doug, came marching across to us, irritated. Weren't we aware this was a national park and pets weren't permitted? By now the ferry had sailed away, so there was nothing much he could do. Doug, the new dog owner, seemed unconcerned.
"He's a pup, in spite of appearances to the contrary. He's not going to do any damage."
The caretaker grumbled. He'd been unblocking a toilet with a length of wire, and he ponged. It was agreed he would lock the dog in the shed where he stored his tractor and the equipment he used to tend the golf course.
After he'd gone, the visiting Doug spied around. He was wearing Ray-Bans and rope-soled, canvas-topped shoes. He was dressed for a bistro. He wasn't the outdoor type. This was the first time he'd been to our beach, and he commented that it looked like something from his childhood. The buildings, even the caretaker's house, were asbestos cement, very simple and old-fashioned, and there was a windmill revolving by the tennis court, which was the source of the foul water we used for flushing toilets. Doug said it was quaint, but he sounded condescending. Then after a pause he asked my father if he'd heard about the fight. My father hadn't heard about anything since we were cut off from the world, even though we were less than a couple of hours from the center of the city. There was no road. Access was by boat, and reception was poor so we had no TV and no radio, and my father had missed the early milk boat that brought newspapers.
"Rose lost," Doug announced, almost sang.
My father stood with his mouth open for a little—an image I'd see more and more often as years passed. Rose was the bantamweight world champion. That's to say, he had been. He'd won the title in Tokyo the previous year. Overnight he'd become a celebrity. He was the first black man from our country to win a world title. My father, who worked for the same publishing house as Doug, had been editing the manuscript of Rose's life story. It was something that had been written in a hurry after he'd won his title. This was a country that was still boxing mad—it had been the country where the first black man from anywhere had won the world heavyweight title, a long time ago, admittedly, but only 30 miles from where we now were. So the book was expected to be a big seller. Except now that Rose had lost, it was going to be a flop, and my father must have felt responsible. He seemed to take it pretty hard, but all Doug said was, "Well, going on for lunch. Wouldn't mind a drink."
We walked up the hill past the angophoras to the cabin. There were only a handful of cabins in the entire inlet, and as we passed the others, the residents murmured to us as they sat on their verandas surrounded by drying towels and swimming costumes. My father was too distracted to respond. What Doug wanted was a whiskey and soda. He drank his first one rapidly and then returned his glass for a refill. Maggie of course wasn't drinking. She stood on our veranda and surveyed the inlet. A boat race had started. Twenty or 30 little catamarans headed in one direction with their sails flapping. My mother was cross already because she knew Doug was going to drink all the soda and all the whiskey and that my father would have to sail across to Palm Beach to buy more. There was no shop on our side. Everything had to be transported on the ferry, unless you had your own runabout, which we didn't.
My mother fussed over Maggie, who was so hugely pregnant I couldn't keep my 13-year-old eyes off her. We sat around the battered dining table, thick with multiple coats of cream colored paint, and ate cold smoked chicken and drank and talked. My father looked glum. He was obviously trying to come to terms with his flop. As usual he allowed me to drink beer as if I were already an adult. I wanted to show Doug and his wife not only that I'd grown, but that I was older than I wasn't.
After lunch we wandered back down to the beach. The tide had gone out, and the piers of the jetty, with their exposed collars of oysters, looked long and varicose like the legs of old beach combers. The same little kids were running up and down the sand, their grandmother vainly warning them away from the shallows out of fear they'd step on a sleeping stingray.
"Well, you just see how you like getting stung," she grumbled. She sat against the trunk of the coral tree to which the skulls of enormous fish had been nailed as trophies.
"Time for a constitutional," Doug announced. He spoke as if it was the idea or maybe even the word that interested him instead of the activity.
We made our way inshore from the beach, past the windmill and the big rock where the goanna sunned itself. There was a shed, which the caretaker and his wife called "The Hall," bizarrely containing a baby grand piano. We had no proper sewer and no electricity after nine o'clock when the caretaker killed the diesel generator, but we had a baby grand. It was a Steinway. Salty sea spray had peeled the ivory off the keys. Once it had belonged in a nightclub run by a gangster known in the newspapers as Mr Sin. My mother used to drink in that nightclub before she married. Now Mr Sin's piano and a lot of his restaurant's monogrammed crockery—we'd eaten our lunch off some of it—and his cutlery—the bone-handled oyster knife included—had ended up on this quaint little seaside holiday resort. My mother mentioned this to Doug, and we stepped inside the musty hall. Maggie bent over and reached out past her enormous belly to play "Heart and Soul." We meandered around the tiny seven-hole golf course, which my mother said was actually a nine hole course, but I could never find the other two. They must have been eaten by the bush. I stared at Maggie, more and more fascinated.
Doug and my father walked ahead, and I could hear Doug tormenting him with details of Rose's world title loss. My father had a strange attitude towards boxing. He could enjoy reading about it. He had an old paperback of The Sweet Science Doug had given him, which he had worn out. But its cover photograph showed Sugar Ray Robinson punching Jake LaMotta so hard my father had to keep it turned face down on the coffee table. He'd never dream of attending a bout. It would have made him sick. The only time he advised me about what to do in a fight—fathers were expected to give fighting advice even if they neglected advice about sex or money—he said to look for something you could throw and then run. Fighting was senseless.
Then out of the blue Doug asked about the place name of the inlet. My father mumbled it must be an aboriginal word. Doug looked around.
"If blacks lived here, what did they eat?"
My mother piped up about the oysters.
"Oysters?" Doug said eyeing his wife. Maggie shrugged. I mentioned there were carvings on the rocks. Doug seemed interested. I said the best ones were on the plateau. He looked up behind the row of huts at the 60 feet of sheer sandstone, red with iron oxide.
"How does one get to see them?"
We explained there was a winding track starting from the old Radiata pine at the northern end of the beach.
"We should bring Albert," he said. Albert was the dog. My mother objected, but Doug wasn't put off. He had no leash, and Albert had lost his leather collar. Instead he took a still-knotted necktie from his pocket, and we walked back to the tractor shed and slipped the double Windsor over the animal's head. My mother assumed Maggie was going to stay behind and offered to keep her company, but Maggie said no, she'd come. I saw a look pass between my mother and father that no one else was supposed to notice.
The path was so narrow, we had to walk Indian file. I preceded Maggie. She reached for my hand to steady herself. For such a big woman, she had delicate hands, and she kept squeezing mine. I wasn't used to being squeezed by a pregnant woman, and I got a teenage erection. Doug let the frantic young dog tug him ahead. Every now and then he'd stop to loosen the Windsor knot when the choking became serious. At a section where my sister had been bitten by a bull ant, she became apprehensive and my father had to piggyback her. Her toe was still swollen. The bull ants were the length of matchsticks, and when they got their pincers into you it felt like red-hot tongs. My mother was scared Maggie was going to be bitten and go into labor and she'd have to deliver the baby. Up on the ridge the flannel flowers were everywhere, because of the bush fires the previous year. Maggie was sweating. Albert barked at everything, whether it moved or not. Possibly he was retarded.
We walked along the fire trail for half an hour until the ridge broadened into the plateau. It was ancient, weathered rock with scrub in the hollows and rainwater pools. The carvings weren't obvious straightaway, but when you stood and looked for a while, patterns appeared of dots and circles joined by crooked lines, one or two at first and then everywhere, all over the plateau. Doug had a go at deciphering what it was about. From the sheer drop at the edge of the escarpment, you could see most of Pittwater with its bays and inlets and the flotilla of watercraft, and you could see Scotland Island and the Barrenjoey peninsular and West Head. Doug was convinced the carving was a map. He strode about, stepping in pools that ruined his rope soles, connecting bits of carving to features of the landscape. It didn't really make sense. Why would the aborigines need a map when there was the landscape in front of you? And what was the point of a map you couldn't take with you? But Doug convinced himself.
While everyone talked, I sat on the sandstone and read The Outsider. Partly I wanted to finish the fight scene with the Arabs on the beach, and partly I was trying to attract Maggie's attention. She was kind enough to see this and ask me what I thought of the book. I told her how true to life it seemed. She smiled. True to life. What a wanker.
On the way back a currawong perched in a low branch and stared at us with its golden eye. Doug told us that if he'd been Papa Hemingway he would have got out his gun and taken a pot shot. He mimed Hemingway shooting.
Instead of heading back the way we'd come, we took the northern track down to the next beach, between expensive private weekenders, some with private jetties. Doug speculated on their value. The beach here was grander but less interesting, perhaps because I wasn't familiar with every grain of sand as I was with the beach we'd been visiting since I was a kid. The tide was coming in, but there were still a few hours before it was high. Doug made us return by the rocks. Maggie's hair was stuck to her face with perspiration. My mother told her she looked pale. She sat in the shade and seemed to recover. Halfway round the rocky shoreline, we stopped where there was a flat boulder the size of a house jutting out into deep water. In the distant past it must have toppled from the escarpment. This was where the trophy fish had been caught. On its surface were more carvings that looked convincingly like sharks. I stood on the edge, peering down the ten feet to the bright green surface of the water where you could see silver biddies swimming amongst the mussels and oysters and barnacles. The caretaker had once caught a jewfish 60 inches long at this spot. Or maybe it was a flathead. A jewfish that long would have weighed a ton. He never would have landed it.
Maggie asked if I was going in. She must have assumed I had swimmers under my jeans and that I was going to strip off. The idea hadn't occurred to me, but now I wanted to go in because I was eager to oblige her, but I felt terribly self-conscious, which was stupid of me. Here was Maggie with her hugely distended abdomen, and I was too self-conscious to take off my shirt in front of her. I stood for a while thinking about the coldness of the water. Then I thought of Meursault, the hero of The Outsider, and how he did things for seemingly no reason, because the universe was absurd. Meursault would have dived in, no problem. So I dived in fully clothed. The water really was cold. As soon as I surfaced I looked for Maggie to see what reaction I'd got. My mother was upset about me wetting my clothes.
"How are you going to get out?" she shouted.
She was right. I hadn't thought of that. It was impossible to clamber over the oyster-encrusted rocks without cutting myself. I remembered the passage in Homer where Odysseus is washed up and lacerated. I had to swim awkwardly in my jeans along the length of the peninsula back to my childhood beach. Albert was so excited seeing me in the water, he finally broke loose from Doug and followed me, skittering over the rocks and barking his stupid head off all the way round to the sand, where he jumped on me before heading south at a gallop. At least Maggie smiled at me, and I suppose that's what I was aiming for.
It was late in the afternoon when we got back to the hut. I was cold and wet and concerned my beautiful long hair looked unstyled after the salt water. Doug and Maggie had arrived that morning with nothing except a striped beach towel, and my mother had assumed they were leaving on the last ferry. Now they let her know that they'd be staying overnight. For one thing, Albert the dog was on the loose. He hadn't been spotted since running off down the beach.
My mother hurried about reorganizing the sleeping arrangements and preparing the dinner. None of us had been fishing, so we grilled frozen lamb chops on the barbecue. I tramped about in the undergrowth finding dead timber that wasn't infested with termites. Doug drank more whiskey and soda. My mother drank beer. My parents, as usual, allowed me to drink beer, too. I was vaguely excited by the idea that Maggie was going to be sleeping under the same roof as me. After the meal my parents and Doug and Maggie stayed up late talking. Doug and my father had known each other forever. When they were 20 or 21 they'd gone hitchhiking through France and the Iberian peninsular. The family album had photos of them wearing berets and drinking out of wineskins. Later Doug had stolen my father's girlfriend and married her. My mother had once let slip that my father was relieved about that. He'd been wondering how to break it off. That was Doug's first wife. Maggie was his third.
Now Doug and my father reminisced about Spain. At least Doug reminisced. My father was still fretting about the manuscript, which he'd be returning to when our holiday finished, and the disaster it had become. But I felt so detached, it didn't mean anything to me. All I could think about was Maggie. My mother insisted she and Doug sleep in the one proper bed. My parents slept on the sofa bed in the dining room/lounge room. My little sister had gone out after dinner to run around screaming on the golf course in the darkness with other kids of her age, and she was sleeping in the next hut with her friends' family. I insisted I'd sleep out on the veranda.
I didn't sleep. I was bitten by mosquitoes. They rarely made me itch, but there were so many the noise kept me awake. I lay underneath the bedroom window. I overheard Doug saying, "Did you see how he looked when I told him about the fight?"
Maggie might have been asleep. I think I heard a murmur, but not any words. Doug went on about how he considered my father wasn't cut out for the publishing world, that he didn't really have the stomach for it. He was too soft. He was the softest man he'd ever come across. After this book about Rose, it would be better if he went back to editing bird watching guides.
"What?" Maggie said beginning to wake up.
"I mean it. I'm not being insulting. He's very good at bird watching guides. Maybe travel books. But the bestsellers—clearly he can't handle."
"He's such a good friend of yours."
"Sure," Doug said in a tone he'd picked up from the time he'd spend in New York. "But I've moved on a lot since those days."
Doug may not have brought any food or spare clothing, but what he had brought was several Cuban cigars. He'd smoked one after dinner, making an elaborate show of cutting off the end with a little guillotine from his pocket. When I'd been a younger kid, I'd been fascinated by his story about how cigars were rolled in Cuba—he'd seen it himself. "On a mulatta's thigh," he said with tremendous relish. He maintained that the smoke drove away the mosquitoes. "It's a natural insecticide, nicotine," he insisted.
From where I lay, I looked up between the leaves of the angophoras at the stars, which appeared insanely bright so far from city lights. I could pick out the Southern Cross but none of the other constellations. I'd seen them represented as mythical figures in books, but those pictures never bore any relation to the actual sky (and no wonder, they were books about the northern hemisphere). I heard wallabies crashing through the bush and saw a bandicoot cross the small area of lawn in front of the hut, wiggling its pointy nose. I was still in the clothes I'd swum in. They were stiff with salt and were never going to dry out completely. The Outsider, which I hadn't finished, remained in the pocket of my jeans, its pages stuck together. It was a copy my father had bought in London when he was travelling with Doug. Now it was ruined. But that didn't bother me. What bothered me was I'd have to find a library copy or even buy one in order to finish it.
I was on the beach at dawn. The horizon was a faint, orange line on which you could see the blinking silhouette of the Barrenjoey lighthouse across the water and the tall Norfolk Island pines along Palm Beach. The estuary was dead still. Pelicans glided towards the shore. Their big, gray, webbed feet made a beautiful soft landing sound as they brushed the calm surface. Then tiny pelican waves broke on the golden sand. The sand had been perfectly smoothed overnight by the rising and falling tide. It was nice.
Albert the dog came bounding across the golf course. He leapt all over me, but now his paws were bleeding as well as dirty. The pads had been shredded on rocks and shells, and his coat was matted with burs, and he was probably infested with ticks. He looked a mess. His ears were bleeding. He kept shutting one eye. He'd been in the garbage tip, and he stank of rotting scraps. But he was as high as a kite. Soon he was off again at breakneck speed up and down the beach. He lifted his leg and pissed on the oysters. He threatened the pelicans. Finally he plunged into the water and began swimming surprisingly fast. I laughed. He looked back for a moment, and I shouted, "Go on, boy! Go!"
Off he headed towards Palm Beach. I thought, a dog that size, he'll probably make it, it's only a mile or so. I walked on the jetty and watched until he was 100 yards out, still going strong.
Maggie came down. The sun had just risen. There was the sound of a distant motorboat as it headed home from a fishing spot or hurried to another spot. Maggie told me she was going for a swim. I told her the water was pretty cold, but she said, "I'm hot. In this condition I'm always hot."
I followed her to the end of the jetty. She slipped off her Swedish massage sandals and pulled her maternity dress over her head. She had on a black bra and black panties. She stripped them off, too, and stood on the steps. I'd never seen anything like it. Her belly was immense and stretched as tight as a drum with her navel poking outwards. Her pubic hair was as black as her underwear and had grown thick, the way it does when you're pregnant, and her boobs were very large and droopy.
"Coming?" she asked.
But I couldn't because I thought there was no legitimate way of going in again with my clothes on and her naked, and I didn't think I was in any condition to take off my pants, in spite of the cold water.
Maggie dropped a little way in and breast stroked back to shore. I carried her warm underwear and her maternity dress. The water cascaded off when she emerged. She stood next to me and smiled.
"Feel," she said when she'd got her underwear back on.
The baby had apparently woken up and was stretching. I lay my hand on her abdomen and became horribly excited. I could feel the movement. Then I saw this bulge as the baby's heel poked against the inside of her womb. I was so surprised, I giggled at it like a stupid kid, and Maggie laughed back. I think I got a bit high, like Albert. The pair of us walked up the beach, and the pelicans anxiously hurried away on the water. Each time the baby stretched, Maggie stopped and pressed my hand to the spot. Near the end of the sand, she stood still and made this strange sound. Then she said her contractions might be starting. She had to stop a few times on the way back.
Doug strolled down in his crumpled clothes. Maggie told him about her contractions. Doug said something about needing a coffee. He'd drunk my parents out of coffee the night before. He didn't seem to notice that Maggie was in her underwear. After a while she slipped her maternity dress back on. Doug walked to the end of the jetty where half a dozen kids were hooking garfish. A school had come in, and the water was thick with them. They were so hungry and so numerous that the kids didn't need bait. One kid had a bucket with 20 or 30 flapping about like miniature marlins. Maggie couldn't look at them. Doug offered a dollar for the lot. He took them to the hut and presented them to my mother, who was then faced with the prospect of gutting, scaling, and frying them for his breakfast. Normally I would have offered. I enjoyed gutting fish in the morning when the guts could be tossed to the pelicans. But I was too engrossed with Maggie. My mother managed to fry them in butter on the crappy electric stove. Doug smacked his lips. They were delicious, and the bones were so small you could crunch and swallow them without choking.
My mother asked Maggie if she was all right. "You should get going," she told her after Maggie mentioned the contractions.
Doug smoked his last cigar and then suddenly had a thought. "Better walk Albert." I didn't mention the dog had already swum away. I let Doug go down to the shed. He was expecting the caretaker would have locked Albert away again. When he came back shaking his head, I finally let on I thought Albert had swam back towards Palm Beach. "Homing instinct," Doug commented.
Doug told my parents they'd have to catch the next ferry and go dog hunting. The animal had cost them so much money, it would be a shame if someone else picked it up. The next ferry was due in half an hour. We helped Maggie down to the jetty to wait. But before the ferry arrived, she'd gone into labor. Basically she had the baby on the beach. Jumping off the jetty had broken her water. During the birth I didn't see very much. My mother and the caretaker's wife did most of the helping. The caretaker's wife used to be a bush nurse. Doug and my father stood around uselessly and tried to talk about books. I heard them mention Dr Spock.
After the fuss with the baby, everyone forgot about looking for Albert, and as far as I know, he was never seen again. It's possible he was taken on board before he reached the other side. There were plenty of pleasure craft cruising around, and they belonged to the type of people who would have seen an expensive dog and bagsed it without a second thought, and Albert seemed dumb enough to go with anyone. Then again, there were sharks.
For the rest of the holiday, my father fretted about Rose, the ex-world champion. It wasn't even about the book. He had this bad feeling Rose was going to fall on hard times like so many other black people in this country had done. As it happened, Rose had a few shots at getting his title back but never made it. When the book was published, it was a flop as predicted. But one of Rose's other talents was he could sing country and western, and he released some albums and did okay.
At some point after the holiday was over and I was back at school, it occurred to me that what happened that day was the reverse of The Outsider—in the book instead of someone getting born on the beach, someone got killed on the beach, one of the Arabs. And although at first I'd thought my father's copy was ruined by the salt water, when it dried out, I was able to pick the pages apart one by one and read them. What a great book. I went around being an existentialist for weeks after I'd finished it. That's to say, being rude and obnoxious to everyone I knew.