There’s a boy turning rocks over in the bay. I noticed because of the way he balanced himself on two larger rocks and then leaned to pick up smaller ones, one after another. He inspects them with his nose almost on the smooth skin of each stone. The bay he is working in is silent and hot. The child labours on. I can hear the soft click of each rock as he replaces it. Every now and again, the plop of a stone sliding into a rockpool. There’s the horizon, a bar of blue above him, the black spoky jetty to one side, and a row of shacks, oblongs of colour, holding the other side. And him right in the middle.
Caravan parks have a sizzling texture. They are warm and busy maps, put together with crayons, crayfish, late bookings, barbeques, and ice melting on the ground outside the kiosk. They are mostly pretty much the same, especially in summer.
‘Hellooo, it’s just teatime, love.’ This was called out next door to me. Next door means just three meters down, past the tap, the hose, the flapping towels, and bathers and two upturned eskies draining last night’s philosophy.
Everywhere there are kind bowls of clean water for dogs. Family pets that sleep exhausted under the edge of every second annexe. Hoses, camping chairs, fishing rods, bathers hanging in trees.
There’s a pink surfboard leaning against the shack across the track, and three children sitting at a table in bathers playing cards and eating chips. It is so quiet that we can hear the seagulls on the beach, and the people on the jetty.
‘Beautiful.’ This is yelled out across a warm evening, along with the snap of beer caps.
‘You’re going the wrong way.’ Called out hilariously to someone backing a boat slowly down the wrong track. ‘Yeah, yeah, sorry mate.’
‘I’m going the jetty,’ Children calling back to parents.
‘Hello, how are ya?’ Called out by everybody meeting anybody.
‘Mal. Where are the frozen chips?’ This conversation shattered the stillness of the hot afternoon when most campers were slewed about in camping chairs, eyes shut, mouths open (‘Not asleep, Di, just resting’).
‘Mal – did you get the frozen chips?’
‘The what?’ The man was half in the car, searching frantically through the shopping.
‘The chips, the frozen chips.’
‘I dunno.’ She turned and went back inside. She banged the shack door.
‘Who left the fridge open?’ We heard this from three rows down. A gaggle of children running past in thongs and clutching streaming ice blocks looked back and kept going without answering.
‘And I said…and I said, well it’s your marriage. It’s your marriage. What’d you expect? It’s your marriage. I mean, he was like fordy. What’d he expect? I know. Yeah. I know.’ This from neighbours on a warm and still evening, sun streaking across barbeques, and the wine flowing.
At our backs, the beach, empty and clean.
It gets dark. It’s still warm. In front of us, children zig zig and dart about on bikes and scooters in and out of light and shadow like soft moths in flight.
Today, people are discussing Christmas. Christmas is receding gently, but there are things to discuss. I can hear them where I sit, and I think about them.
‘I made pavlova but nobody ate it. Won’t make it again.’
‘They made a wreath out of crystal or something.’
‘Why would they do that?’
Two young men pass by, fast. They are talking about skiing. They wear black jumpers and black beanies because it has turned unexpectedly cold today. One of them spins to the right and then to the left, acting out a significant manoeuvre for his friend, who is not watching. He is checking his phone. ‘Jazz didn’t like her present…’
‘Who’s got a spare hand?’ This is a young family carrying too many things. They line up to cross the road, and the father, hoping to pass around some of his parcels, is ignored. ‘Just like the other day, hey! Just like Christmas.’
Another family climb out of a parked car. There are sleeping bags and tents strapped to the roof, and they climb out slowly and stretch and look at each other not very happily. ‘Can we go somewhere where we can eat?’ They all walk slowly to the bakery except for a teenage boy wearing white headphones who remains in the front seat of the car.
A group of motorcyclists across the road are leaving in a group. They are so loud that the customers in my shop pause and look up to watch. Each motorcyclist leaves the same way: pulls out slowly, dramatically, straightens up, adjusts the helmet, moves forwards, and then abruptly lurches into a deafening roar. Fifty metres or so down the road, they roar again, but this time more loudly. Outside the shop, people are standing watching on the kerb. The teenager with the headphones has joined them. Then he sees his family returning and swings back into the front seat of the car. He slams the door. He winds the window down and yells gently to a younger sibling, ‘Give it here. Give us one. Give us a pastie. Oi, Luke, give us one. Ta mate.’
A lady and her friend are near the counter, shoulders together. ‘I really don’t think he can cope anymore. You should have seen. We waited a whole hour and not even a sausage roll. I’m not going there for Christmas next year, and we’re going to have proper custard.
‘I know, I know. Yes. I thought that too.’
Painting by David Hettinger
I wrote this in January 2017, on Australia Day. It was summer. Now it is winter, which always makes me think about summer.
“A child said to me that he likes my glass lantern because he likes small things like shapes. He said that when he looked into the glass he could see cars going past, and that the cars looked better in the lantern than they did going along the road as real cars. His mother told him there were Beast Quest books on the shelf, and he said, ‘Maybe’.
She said there were also some Star Wars, and he said, ‘Maybe’.
A lady was pleased to see a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She said it is on her to read list which has a thousand books on it already. She said the list is wearying. She did not see the lantern.
It is Australia Day. The family with the small boy who likes shapes are across the road; they have been to the bakery. The father is trying to interest the child in some food but he is standing with his nose pressed against the fir tree, he must be looking at more shapes. The father looks weary. The child drops the paper bag on the ground and looks down at the spilt food. He makes binoculars with his fists and looks down at the broken food. His knees are bent with concentration. The parents are having an argument.
Just outside the door of my shop a man has opened his esky on the pavement, and there is no ice. His wife asks him why he can’t even pack an esky properly. He raises both hands in the air and stands there motionless, but she has gotten back into the car. Then she locks all the doors.
I wonder if anyone else will come in for a book today. Then I remembered the small boy who likes shapes; he had chosen a book called Pharaoh’s Boat which had pyramids on the front. So I did sell a book today!”
Quiet inside, but outside the shop a commotion because there is a family crossing the road and scattering in all directions; they can’t find the bakery. There seems to be about 20 people in their group, all ages, many children, prams, a dog. The group gathers and swells and somebody unseen is calling directions and one child has seen the cat in my window and wants to come in.
He is told no, no time, no time. He says, on the way back? He is told, no way!
Another child stops directly at the door and says she needs a book about stones. So that next time they go to that beach, they can keep building. Two more children press close, leaning on, breathing on the window. The adults, the pram and the dog have moved on a little way, we can still hear them. Someone is calling, just get coffee, Brad, just get coffee. The children are silent, staring sideways, looking at the voices. The oldest child taps the widow in front of the wooden cat. She says, are you coming back next year? The boy says, yep. A smaller child says, if mum says. His brother says carelessly, I’m going anyway.
The oldest child says, quick, they’re coming. Then suddenly the children are gone. Quiet again.
Artwork by Jimmy Lawlor
The jumping pillow is where all the kids in the camping park go to jump. They park their bikes there and hang up helmets, shoes and adult advice. And the parents stand watching and looking and remembering. The kids are like thistles or bits of foam or something, weightless, agile, arms and legs all over the place and always six feet in the air without even trying. When they land they bounce again, at least as high as the moon. When one kid bumps another kid they always say “sorry.”
Gravity lets them stay on their toes. Adults who try it out, however, thud heavily downwards and then head off disappointed for another beer and a new hip.
One kid ran from one end to the other in big moon strides. He was about 8 and master of gravity. He ran into Noah and Max, my grandsons, and said, sorry, with an encouraging face. This is because my grandsons are only two and even a tiny blow to that jumping pillow will refer them sideways, backwards or skywards. Their heads and necks bend like reeds and their hearts go with their bones. It is as though being only two means that the moving surface of anything will still send you in the richest and most rewarding direction.
On the last day of the holiday to Port Vincent, the family is packing up and packing in and running for the deadline of vacate the property by eleven am etc. but the boys, who are not quite two, and a bit more than two, have found a garden bed that apparently wasn’t there before.
In it is an attractive collection of wet bark chips and curly wood shavings that were not there before. There is also, underneath, a bed of earth that was not there before. There is also a level lovely plank to stand on, lean on, climb on, balance over, fly from, that was not there before. From this lofty height they watch the packing up, watch the potty as it is carried past to be repacked and they watch it with narrowed eyes. They will defeat it. They will not use it.
There are parent warnings but these are always there. These are signals of caution, dull, predictable and vital to measure the importance of one’s existence. The existence of Max and Noah is paramount and so they are surrounded with concerns and reminders, cautions and nags, the watch and the overwatch, fuelled by love and by its necessity which is love.
Noah and Max climb and clamour and ignore the warnings, scale the heights and run onto the road outrageously, ignorant, unheeding of parent agony, not giving a shit for the correct rules. They do not even use the potty with precision.
One day they will be 17 and they will say for fuck’s sake and so will pierce safety with the correct rage and anger because one time long ago they were adored and told repeatedly to get off the fence.
All our kids jumped off that pontoon.
And it’s still there, moored in the middle of the bay, animated during the day, motionless across the evening when all the kids have logged off and gone back to the caravan park.
The pontoon was heavy, the water was green and cold and deep, and the games had no form, the platform had no rules; it was just get out of the deep, get on to the float and then get off spectacularly. It was about hurling muscle and energy and seawater into smoky, bubbling patterns. To get up, there was a metal ladder, to get off there was just the edge- then the plunge into the marine and someone else’s foot giving you a blood nose and everyone saying it wasn’t even them.
All the parents sat on the shore and wondered if they should get in, wondered if they would make it out to the pontoon, wondered if there was still ice in the esky, wondered if it was too early for a beer, wondered where the sunscreen was. They were just realizing that the days were starting to go fast, never realizing that these kids would have their kids and bring those kids to the same bay, that same pontoon, that life buoy still nodding generously for the next version of campers, parents and kids and eskies.
Photography by Paul Cullen ( thanks Paul, for this great photo of all our kids! )
Max is caught in the greater goodness, dithering between Pa; fishing, and mummy; holding the world. He is printing his ideas across the warm biscuit sand amongst the fragments of fried bracken that are too sharp and sand dunes full of chewy green grasses and it is an edible day. On the edge of the sea is biscuit dough, and next to that the cold clear waves chew gently on the side, adding a chilling fringe around the banquet. To us watching, drooping in the warmth, who have lately received not one but three grandchildren, he dandles and drives from one to the other, splits his heart fiveways to fit parent and grandparent, all future mishaps and his own cold, delicious feet.
Max and Noah are on the edge of the sea and playing in that slice of joy that lies directly where the sea meets the sand. Here they can trot about with competent feet, carry sand in grainy wet loads and roar bravely at the sea. They can enter the water and become caught in the muscular pull of cold weight around their hearts and quickly stop still. Max sniffs the surface and is shocked with salt. They both make squinting eyes. The bay is a lagoon nursing heat and light and small children, beyond them, a dog swims patiently in and out, enclosing his owners in soft ripples, there is no noise, Noah says: doggen.
And they keep playing on, smudged and warm and covered in beach and the dog swims silently by.