Wednesday 19 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 3

Chapter 3. Bite Bay

By the time I was five, I could swim the length of the bay; at six, I was swimming out as far as the fishing trawlers that anchored on the reef just before it drops away into the darkness of the open sea. From there you could take in the whole bay at one glance.

It is the biggest beach on the island, a golden arc of sand that curves around for three or four miles, and on account of this shape it is known as Horseshoe Bay. I suppose Captain Cook gave it that name when he was sailing past the island; the name evokes summer afternoons in a genteel English garden, pitching horseshoes and drinking tea while the ladies bat their eyelids beneath the shade of lily-white umbrellas. But with all due respect to the good Captain, I think this is altogether too romantic and too tame a designation, a name pronounced from the comfort of a ship’s quarterdeck in fair weather. Take my word for it, if he had seen the bay from its natural vantage point, treading water three miles out, suspended naked above the reef where the giants move in the shadows, the white shark and the black trevally – if he had seen it as I saw it, every morning of my life since I was six years old – then in hushed reverential tones he would have uttered its true and proper name: he would have called it Bite Bay. For once you have acquired the right perspective, you see that the bay resembles nothing so much as a gigantic bite, as though long ago Job’s leviathan, riding the boiling sea in the dead of night, had turned his great black eye and opened the doors of his face and bitten off a piece of our island for a midnight snack. So wide a bay from so small a bite! One day he might return at meal time, and then there will be nothing left of us but the crumbs from his table, tree stumps and grey boulders scattered idly about the ocean floor. When I speak of our bay, therefore, I will not talk as the British do of horseshoes, but I will call it by its proper title, its ancient and primeval, that is to say its Australian, name.

At both ends of Bite Bay, the sands vanish into those enormous granite rocks which you see everywhere on the island, or rather, which constitute the island, since this whole body of land is nothing but a disordered heap of granite casually thrown up by the capricious sea; rock is the island’s essential nature, trees and grass and people the mere adornments, tacked on per accidens as the philosophers say. Behind towering hoop pines and the lazy slouch of coconut palms, a half-finished gravel road runs along the beach. The sign says Pacific Drive, because that road marks the last fragile boundary between human artifice and the elemental anarchy of the planet’s vastest ocean. That is where I lived, that is where I grew up, that is where I passed the time when I wasn’t in the water.

A couple of dozen people lived on this part of the island, and from out on the water you could see all their precarious habitations, the leaning weatherboard cottages, the rusted caravans sinking into sand, the blue fibro beach shack with no front door, the decrepit majesty of the old abandoned pineapple farm, shrouded in trees. Our place was the converted railway carriage, mottled red and black like the skin of an overripe mango, the windows misted over with salty grime, tilting there in the sand the way everything seemed to tilt on those lethargic shores, nestled in the shade of pawpaw trees that leaned against it, drooping sad and lovely with fruit.

We rented the place from old Mrs Lloyd over in Florence Bay; my mother paid eight dollars a week in rent, plus a couple of pawpaws or some eggs from the chooks. Before my mother came to the island, our carriage was rented by a Canadian who used to sail up and down the coast in his twenty-foot sloop, sometimes disappearing for weeks or months at a time. Then one day he sailed east, and when two years had passed and there was still no sign of him, Mrs Lloyd decided it was time for a new tenant. So she gave the place a good clean with her dustpan and broom, removed the things the Canadian had left behind (two shirts, a piece of fishing line, half a bottle of rancid wine, a D. H. Lawrence paperback, and a Monopoly board game), and raised the rent to eight dollars. The next day my mother turned up in her green sarong and her a bag full of books, and, after four cups of tea and three games of Monopoly, she was handed the keys and told how to jiggle the door to get it open.

The place had running water but no phone or electricity; it wasn’t on the grid, which was the thing my mother liked best about it. Strictly speaking, it didn’t even have an address. Although all the locals knew it as the Old Train, it had no lot number, no letterbox, and there was no need for one, since no mail ever came. “As far as anybody knows,” my mother said once with a gleaming smile, “we don’t even exist.”

Once, a person she'd known from Sydney – “What’s Sydney,” I asked, “It’s nothing,” she said – wrote her a letter. The envelope had a ten cent stamp and three words were scrawled across the front, like this:

        Magnetic Island

The island’s postmaster was Bob, who ran the grocery store down in Nelly Bay. He’d lived on the island forever, even during the war when he’d learned Morse code and kept lookout in the stone fort because they thought the Japs would come this way when they invaded. He lived in the shack behind the grocery, and he was starting to go blind, which is why people tended to pay less than they should for their groceries, and to get the wrong mail delivered to their letterboxes. All the mail would come in a bag on the ferry once a week, and on Friday afternoons Bob would do the mail run in his yellow Mini Moke, a jeep-like machine with low open sides, ten-inch wheels, deckchair seats, canvas top, and plastic grab-handles for safety. People generally kept off the roads on Fridays, since you never knew which side of the road Bob would be driving on, or how fast he’d be going around those cliff-edge corners, or how much he'd had to drink that morning. Anyway, on this particular Friday my mother was reading in the hammock when she heard Bob pull up out front – you always knew it was him, since his Moke sounded like a lawnmower. Then he hollered, “Oi, Jess,” and as he drove away she saw the letter there by the roadside, sticking up from the sand like a ship’s sail, wreathed in the black fumes of Bob’s Moke.

She looked at the letter for a long time. She brought it inside and put it on the table, and we both looked at it. It was still there the following day, and she kept watching it out of the corner of her eye as though it was going to get up and walk away. Then suddenly, as we were eating our lunch, she tore it open, read it, stuffed it in the bin, drank a big glass of water, and never spoke of it again.

That was the day I realised we weren’t just living at Bite Bay. We were hiding.


besideourselves said...

It's right about now that I'm wishing I didn't have to wait for the next chapter.

Anonymous said...

ok so your first paragraph reduced me to tears.

Pamela said...

I know Magnetic Island well. So do you Ben.

besideourselves said...

Paragraph two is a marvel. From the other side of the ditch I'm starting to get the impression that maybe Australia is just one big yarn. The land of songlines and Dreamings.

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