Tuesday 25 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 5

Chapter 5. The Map

I guess I lay there most of the night before he found me. He picked me up off the sand and carried me home. The lamp was still burning inside but my mother wasn’t there, so he hauled me back up the road to his place. They lived at the old abandoned pineapple farm, the old bloke and his wife. I’d seen them around but had never been to their place before, because they were what was known as Abos. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I knew it must be something dangerous or infectious, since most people didn’t get too close to them.

I'd asked my mother one time, “What’s an Abo?”

She said, “It means dark skin.”

“Oh,” I said, “you mean like Gina,” whose skin was tanned darker than anyone’s on the island.

“No,” she said, “not Gina. She’s White.”

“Oh,” I said. I could see that this whole Abo business was a complicated affair, best left to the grown-ups, so I didn’t ask any more questions after that. But I understood enough to know that you’re not supposed to visit them at home, and so I’d never been. I’d often peered at their place from across the road though, because it was a peculiar residence, even by the eccentric standards of Bite Bay. The pineapple farm had been closed for many years, but you could still make out the original sign through the trees, boasting of the best pineapples in Australia: "Come take a bite!" The whole place had an air of ruined grandeur, like an ancient graveyard or an abandoned carnival. It was overrun by trees, and every once in a while they would chop one down and drag it inside. This usually left half a tree stump sticking out through the front door; sometimes it would even stretch out onto the road, which I suppose must have been quite a hazard for motorists. That's how it was on this night too: as he carried me through the front door, he had to step carefully over the tree trunk that ran right out the doorway and onto the front path.

When he brought me inside, I was able to solve the mystery of the tree all at once: it was firewood, only instead of chopping the wood before burning it, they would put the whole end of the tree trunk directly into the fireplace. I got to see how this ingenious system worked, for as soon as he had set me down on a spring mattress near the fireplace, he heaved a little on the tree stump to bring the fresh wood forwards, then poked around in the coals for a few moments, and soon enough he had a good blaze going.

It was cosy by the fire, and before long my teeth had stopped chattering. But my feet were killing me, and the old bloke sat down beside me and got to work removing my flippers. They were pretty much grafted to my feet, and once he got them off I could see all the bleeding cuts and blisters and the hideous swelling around my ankles. It hurt something shocking, I won’t deny it, but I never cried, I don’t know if this is because I was so brave or because I was so tired.

He brought me a big bottle of water and I guzzled the whole thing down in one go, though I hadn't even realised I was thirsty. He refilled it, and I drank again. Then he got a tin billy and hung it over the fire. All this time he said nothing, but as he was clanking about in the kitchen for some teacups, his wife walked in, rubbing her eyes and yawning and saying, “What’s all the racket?” He didn’t reply, but stuck his thumb out in my direction, and when she saw me the woman said, “Oi, young fella, where you bin at?”

I hesitated a moment, then said, “Swimming.”

“Well, all safe and sound now,” she said. “I spose you'd be Dylan.” I nodded, and she said, “You can call me Auntie Joyce.” Then she looked over at the man with the teacups and added, “That’s Kev.”

“Found im down the beach,” said Kev, and he poured a cup of steaming hot tea, and handed it to me. “Warm you up,” he said.

“I tell you what,” said Auntie Joyce, “everyone bin out lookin for you. Them all over the island lookin.”

“I went swimming,” I said.

“Your mum reckons you bin drowned, she got the p’liceman outta bed and everything. You git lost?”

I sipped the tea, and started to feel a little better. “No,” I said. “I swam round Australia.”

Kev roared with laughter and nearly spilt his tea, his big hand thumping on his thigh. “You swim round ’Stralia? Geez, I reckon that’s a pretty good swim for a little fella.” His face was golden by the firelight, and I had never such a smile, such dazzling white teeth, so broad and free.

“You mean the island, luv?” said Auntie Joyce. “You swim round the island?”

I nodded, and I suppose I looked a little triumphant, notwithstanding my blue cracked lips, my bloodied feet, my soggy wrinkled skin. “Yep. Right round the whole country.”

We heard a car go by, and Kev went out to look. It was the police car, with my mother. I said goodbye to Auntie Joyce, and Kev lifted me from the mattress and carried me outside. When he brought me in his arms to my mother, she gasped and stared at him in horror, as though he’d snatched me up and murdered me in the night, instead of peeling off my flippers and giving me a cuppa. Kev didn’t say anything either, just stood there in the dark, until she'd rushed over and grabbed me from him, wrapping me up in her arms.

Anyway, the copper came over to speak to Kev, and my mother brought me inside and laid me out on the bed, and then she bawled her eyes out so bad it scared me. She was mad as hell of course, I hardly need to tell you that. Half the island had been out looking for me, even a couple of boats had gone out, risking the shallow midnight reefs to scour the water with their spotlights. The copper had come up from Nelly Bay and made her fill out forms, and she’d been driving around with him all night. They all thought I'd drowned, or been taken by a shark, or captured by child molesters, or stung to death by jellyfish. There'd be hell to pay in the morning: but right now my mother clung to me and cried her eyes out, more than I'd ever seen a person cry, until my face and hair were wet all over again from her salty sea of tears.

The cop came back in the morning and asked some questions, “Just to clear everything up,” he said, hitching up his blue shorts with his thumbs. He kept asking about the Abos, I don't know why. I was scared I might get in trouble for drinking their tea, so I left out that part out of the story. When I told him they'd looked after me, and he grunted disapprovingly and scribbled notes in his little book. When I told him how I’d swum around Australia, he went to the car and came back with a map. He unfolded it in front of me. He pointed to the big island, tracing its outline with a stubby, nail-bitten finger, and said, “Y'know what that is mate?”

Now I must confess, until this point in my life I had never once laid eyes on a map of Australia; but I thought it was a pretty safe bet, so I said, “Australia?”

“Right,” the copper said. “And you see this dot, that’s Townsville, over on the mainland.” Then he pointed to something else, nearly invisible – it might only have been a smudge of dirt or a dead mozzie on the page – and he said, “Y’see this? That’s Magnetic Island. Did you swim all the way round the island? Is that what you done?”

I nodded again, but a strange feeling had come over me, cold and lonely. I was staring at the map, at the monstrous size of the country and the offensive little brown smudge beside its coastline. I had always thought that Australia was another name for our island, its official title perhaps, but a synonym all the same. I felt sick in my stomach, and I reeled from the blow of an enormous betrayal. I had not circumnavigated Australia, not even close. My great exploit on the sea was crushed to dust; my swim had been puny and infantile, a humiliation instead of a triumph.

I was sick for a long time after that, and I could hardly walk for several days, partly because the muscles in my legs had turned to jelly, partly because of the huge blisters and the swelling in my feet, partly because of the dehydration that had wracked my body. I couldn't sit or lie comfortably either, on account of the murderous sunburn that had roasted my back and bum. A doctor came over on the ferry to see me, a friend of Gina’s, and he said, “Dear oh dear young man, dear oh deary me,” and made me swallow pills and made my mother rub a frightful cream all over my back. It hurt like billyo, I don’t need to tell you that, but more than anything it was the God-awful smell that got to me, driving me half insane as I writhed about day and night in my bed. (Even to this day, I sometimes awake from nightmares in which all I can recall is the pungent, suffocating stench of sunburn cream.) My mother couldn’t sleep at night either, and as she lay beside me in the dark I told her over and over about the map, about the appalling vastness of the continent and the tiny smudge of the island, about the meaning of the word Australia, about this violent geographical enormity that had forced itself upon me, disfiguring everything and bending all the shapes and forms of my imagination into hideous distortions.

On the third day I found that my wounds felt better when I lay down in the sand. It soothed the constant burning, and the fresh air of the beach was a blessed relief from the stagnant indoor stench of that medicinal horror. So my mother let me lie all day in the sand under the shade of the big coconut palm. I was so comfortable there that she even let me sleep outside at night, though she dragged a mattress out and slept right next to me, afraid, no doubt, that I would creep away by moonlight and slip back into the sea.

One day as I was loitering in the curative shade of my coconut tree, old Kev came by with the flippers. “Left em behind,” he said, looking out at the water as he dropped them on the sand beside me. “How you feelin, young fella,” he asked.

“Okay,” I said.

“Talked to your mum,” he said. “Heard bout that p’liceman’s map.” I shrugged. He was silent a long time, and then he said, “Y’know, I don’t think nobody’s ever swam round Maggie Island before. Not right round Maggie. Not till now.”

Then he gave me something. He was standing with his back to me, looking at the beach, and he casually reached into his back pocket and took something out. Then, turning slightly, he dropped it in my lap and said, “I’ll see you round, young fella, you take care now,” and off he went.

To this day, I have no idea how he found such a fine specimen, or how much trouble it must have cost him to acquire it. But when I unfolded the paper and spread it out on the sand before me, I saw the gigantic shape of Magnetic Island, huge with glossy colour, surrounded on every side by the bright blue majesty of the sea.


That was how I discovered that, if you can’t be out swimming with your flippers, looking at maps is the next best thing. Day after day I studied it. I pored over every detail, memorising all the names and the shape of every bay. I kept it open on my lap at dinner time, casting furtive glances at Mount Cook and Alma Bay between mouthfuls. There were so many bays and beaches, so many hills and roads, so many rocks and reefs, and I learned them all, and I drew the whole thing on the sand with my finger, over and over, until I could have drawn it in my sleep, or drawn it without eyes.

On the seventh day, I asked my mother to bring me a pen. Then, with the map spread out before me, I carefully crossed out the words "Horseshoe Bay," and wrote, in my best and neatest handwriting, "Bite Bay." At the top of the map, where it said MAGNETIC ISLAND, I added one more word, in great defiant capital black letters: AUSTRALEA.


Pamela said...

Auntie Joyce & Kev - Australea salutes you.

Paul Tyson said...

Ben - 'the Island' is one of those really magical places in my memory - I am enjoying this story immensely!

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