The squish of jelly fish on crumbling sand under my feet bothered me more than sharks, until I saw the film Jaws. Then for years I found myself scanning the horizon for signs of a triangular fin menacing the water’s surface.
Years earlier, in summer we took the blue Ventura bus along Warrigal Road and jumped off before it turned towards Mentone shopping centre to walk the last stretch before our first sight of blue water curving its way towards the peninsula.
It wasn’t a popular beach as beaches go, but good enough for us, even on weekends in summer when you could barely find a spot to sit among the towels, umbrellas, and bodies.
Father Walsh drove us during the holidays when my sister was home from college. He parked his grey valiant in the side street alongside St Bede’s College, as if the sight of that venerable institution reminded him of his calling.
I did not know this then, only that a trip to the beach in a car, in anyone’s car other than my father’s, was an exquisite pleasure to be savoured even as the seats were sticky hot and there was scarcely room on the back seat to breathe, jammed against two sisters and one brother or whichever of the kids made the trip with us.
The water sparkled and the breeze whipped up eddies that frothed white like a row of marching girls in formation.
At thirteen that awkward age between childhood and adolescence when your body is pushing itself out of shape from the thin angularity of your child self into some hideous shape I did not recognise, with fleshy bits here and there on my hips and bum and breasts pushing against my nipples. My bathing suit tight against my back was ready to burst at the seams.
‘You’ll need a new one,’ my sister said, ever the one to notice, as if she was keeping an eye on me while I kept a closer eye on her. The way she moved beyond that awkward age into something I did not recognise. She was still short, not much taller than me, but she was rounded and wore bras. She wore a girdle like our mother, waist to thigh, with an add on suspender belt that kept her stockings in place.
Dreadful things. I never wanted to wear one and as soon as panty hose hit the shelves I wanted no more of the dreaded strip of fabric you tied around your waist with bits dangling from front and back of your thighs to clasp onto stockings. When those bobbles broke off, as they invariably did in winter, when fawn coloured stockings were essential against the cold. Long brown socks were okay, but the older girls laughed at them by the time you were my age.
On this day, no one was thinking about stockings or pantyhose. On this bright blue day with white clouds chasing one another in little tufts across the sky, the sun high and brightest yellow, it hurt my eyes. We thought only of reaching the water, sharks, and all.
We swam. We splashed one another and the last one in shuddered at the indignity of an involuntary splashing. You did well to take control by leaping under the water without hesitation, while my sister and Father Walsh sprawled side by side on towels deep in conversation.
I wanted to be with them as much as I wanted to be in the water with the others. As if on cue the two oldies on the sand, my seventeen years old sister and the priest, no longer recognisable as a priest, in his navy-blue swimming trunks, nudged their way into the water. They could have been any other couple. He older, judging by the creases in his skin, but equally matched for vigour and a certain pleasure in each other’s company that I longed to share.
Home was a disappointment after Father Walsh took his leave. My sister retreated to her room alone and the rest of us propped in front of the television until the click of the front door and a shadow falling across the lounge room signalled my father. His shadow visible through the half open venetian blinds.
We switched off the TV as if by remote, in the days before remote controls, and scattered first to the kitchen, to the back yard, the two boys, and me and my sister, once our father was clear of the hall way, into our bedroom for safety.
My mother hummed in the kitchen as she boiled rice on the stove in readiness for nasi goreng, a recipe she brought from Holland. A recipe her family borrowed from the Indonesians whose land they had conquered.
In the late 1940s my father fought in Indonesia when the people there decided they wanted no more of colonial control. And the experience added to the pain of his participation in the war against German invasion.
He brought those wars home and sat sullen in the front room grunting orders at my mother as if she was his inferior by rank while the rest of us knew to stay clear.
We were not guerrillas but needed the stealth of undercover fighters to protect us from his fury. It bubbled under the surface of his tired white shirts, brown around the cuffs and collar from wear. He ripped off his tie and let it fall to the ground beside his black shoes, which he had already kicked off.
It was always the same. My father drank to a pattern. He kept the bottle in its brown paper bag even as he used a glass for its contents, as if he was tearing open a chocolate bar and breaking off bits to keep the rest for later.
He drank the lot in one sitting, slowly at first. You could gauge his mood as he spoke lightly to our mother at first sip as though she mattered. Only she knew as we knew, in no time, the gaiety of that first drink would shift to an irritation, as if something was scratching at his skin. Then into fury as if someone was kicking his shins. Finally to the vitriol that left my mother silent in her chair. Wary of any provocations, as he could not abide anyone’s existence, including his own.
Father Walsh was long gone by then. My sister bunkered down in her bedroom. I in my bed hidden behind an Edgar Allan Poe mystery as if I was looking for something that might scare me more than the tension in the house.
A man buried alive.
I cannot think today that I should ever want to read such stories but in those days they offered a respite from life. As if they became my entry into a crazy state, when we knew only horror.