Sunday 23 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 3b

Chapter 3b – sorry, I had to add some material to the last chapter, so here’s the new second half of chapter 3:

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, teeth gleaming, “we don’t even exist.”

We had one of those old gramophones with the wind-up handle on the front, and every night after the sun had gone down behind the hills, my mother would light the kero lamp, sometimes a mosquito coil too to keep the mozzies out, and I would get to work winding the gramophone. Then, once we’d planted our bums comfortably on the floor, she’d ask me, “What’ll it be tonight,” and I would think for a while, turning them over in my mind, Freewheelin’ or Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde, we had them all, and when I'd chosen one she’d slip the vinyl from its cover and slide it into place on the turntable. Then the needle would go down, that first pregnant moment of crackling silence, and for the next hour we’d sit in the soft glow of the lamp, looking out through the open front door across the bay while the songs poured over us, sad and lonely as the trees or howling black as summer storms. When the first side ended you could hear the wash of waves on the beach, a sound that had been there all along, seeping like ink into every line of every song, permeating it all with the the sea's secret, imperceptible whisper. Then my mother would light her smoke, turn the record over, and we’d lean back together, drowsy in the coils of smoke and music that hung in the room, and when the last song had ended I would clamber up to bed, or sometimes, already sleeping with my head on her lap, or pretending to sleep, she would lift me and carry me to bed and tuck in the sheet, right up high under my chin.

Once, a person she'd known from Sydney wrote her a letter.

“What’s Sydney,” I asked.

“It’s nothing,” she said.

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.

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