Birling Gap yesterday. I left my camera in the car so I will tell you. I carried a washbasket (containing wetsuits, towels and dry clothes: a selection), a picnic bag, an additional picnic bag, two net-on-sticks and a large bag of wood down to the beach. This is a climb. Fortunately there are stairs. We found a hole in the bottom of the cliff and we distributed blankets and I made a fire with the wood. The kids went down to the water with their nets. The sea is milky with churned chalk at Birling Gap. Strangely, this makes it appear warm. We cooked our lunch which included asparagus from our friends’ garden and strawberries from a shop.
We are driving away from Canberra. M asks if we are going to see the desert.
‘No, we’ll see a lot of bush.’ I say.
‘The countryside. Outside the town. Where there are a lot of trees.’
‘You mean forest.’
‘No, the bush is not a forest.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘No it’s not.’
‘No.’ And then I go into an insistent and ludicrously idealised description of the Australian bush. I talk about the towering, terrifying, cathedral of bush I remember from when I was a child. Like most things we know when we are small, it was a landscape unlike anything I have known since. I know that’s life – not landscape – but I fill it out for him anyway and he is impressed. This will not necessarily turn out to be a good strategy of mine.
When we were in Sydney we walked past some native Australians doing aboriginal dances and posing for photos. I told M these were real native Australians. He laughed and laughed. I couldn’t convince him. I am ham-fisted with the lexicon. I don’t know in what context to use the word aboriginal or if I can use it at all. I don’t know what any of it means or how I am meant to describe it to him.
I was not very comfortable standing there alongside rows of tourists pointing at the native Australian dancers so I dropped it. M and I walked away, he still shaking his head at me like what did I take him for. They were just people with stuff painted on them.
Now a few days later we are driving down the coast to the bushland and beach (Me: ‘Not seaside. Beach’; M: ‘Yeh. Seaside. I know.’) where I spent all my summers as a child. It is fantastic to be out of the city. We have the road to ourselves.
The sky is just everywhere. When the sun is high like this and the sky is as big as it is, you could be flying. I say to my sister who is driving: ‘…it can’t be that it is bigger. It must be that it is just more…’
‘You have more days like this,’ she says.
This one is a corker – a beaut. It is autumn and the temperature is 24 degrees (Celsius). The sky is polar blue – gemstone blue – a rude raw blue. Bigger than church. And like I say, it’s everywhere.
We both point at a spilt mess of milky cloud on the horizon. The only interruption in the sky. Some residue of vapour above the bush in the distance.
‘See?’ we both say as though that illustrates our point.
After a day of this we arrive at my Aunt’s house on the coast. My sister and I have not been here in over twenty years. I get out of the car and search for the key hanging on a stringy bark. I pick my way over the ground, the leaves are inches thick. Prickly things grab and dead things disintegrate under my feet. The key is perfectly camouflaged against the hairy old gum. The bush sighs and whispers all around and there is not a house in sight, just this rusty bit of fence hanging from grey old tree posts.
There’s a whip bird somewhere. Something else makes a knocking call. Giant ferns spill orange fruit out of their centres. The gumtrees are perfectly branchless until the canopy way, way above us. I wrestle a bit with the padlock. The car goes through and I am left behind in the quiet to shut the gate. I pull apart the barbed wire fence pretty easily to climb back through to the car. The house is still a five-minute drive through the bush from here.
M is pushing himself up in his seat and looking all around.
‘Wow,’ he says, ‘wow. Wow.’
Half an hour later we are on the beach. We walked down from the house through the bush. From the sand you can hardly see a single building. The sea roars at us. The bush and rocks, the seaweeds and caves are all colours. There is not a soul in sight.
‘Why…?’ M prepares to ask – not knowing where to start. ‘Why don’t we live here?’
True, the Pacific might be pacific out in the middle of the world there. It very well might be the featureless, endless, stagnant mill-pond that tortured the ambitious circumnavigator, Magellan and his thirsty, starving crew; but here, it is just noisy.
Crash. Shuck. Heave. It is bloody tireless.
These beaches are beaches that have you shout.
You are twelve (or nine… you’re small) and you have been swimming alone in a combative sea, you could call it “body surfing” but actually you are just fighting to breathe occasionally while the ocean practices casual violence on your freckly body. At last, you have timed out in the shallow foam, exhausted. You stumble up the beach to flop, shivering, beside the Esky.
You are me.
You didn’t see a shark or a ray today, so that’s something. They hang around sometimes, at least that’s what your big brother says and he goes out past the head on his board where they are – no touching the bottom there.
Lying on a hot towel, you can hear the sandy world trickle away under your head and the slow march of the Pacific as it throws down on the beach again and now again. The tall bush around is whispery and cool. The sun is insistent.
Your little brother is digging nearby and has got up to his waist; he chats continually to himself, and makes explosions occasionally with his spade. Your sister has gone “back up” for a driving lesson or to make a phone call or sunbake in the carport.
It’s all quiet. You dig your hands on either side down into the sand there. It’s almost too hot to touch but you can flick it about a bit. So that’s you.
Grains of sand can be as large as 2mm, so says the geologist, but I know sand can be so small it is actually dust – to a geologist, this is silt. Silt is a clogger, a blocker, a temporary but effective geographical constipator. This sand is barely coarse enough to make a gritty noise in the fingers, though it squeaks a little under pressure.
Later, much, much later – and if I told you, you wouldn’t believe how long you are to live before you touch snow – you will discover that snow makes the same squeak. It is the noise of holiday. And sand – whether it is in shoes, the bed, sandwiches or between toes – is geology made summer.
On the other side of the Esky is my Dad, asleep. He has nine toes because one of the outside ones got chopped off by a mower when he was little. He has hairy nostrils and ears and, now they are older, so do my brothers. He wears a tie in the garage and calls my Grandfather, his Father-in-law, Mr. He is very good at fixing and making things. In fact he is a regular Joseph in the shed. He was born on the land. He should have been a farmer.
In Australia in 1970 the aboriginal gets to vote – the truth is he was allowed to vote way before even any white woman – but no-one told him and he had no means of knowing. In 1970 it was at last made more than theoretically possible. 1970! That’s two years after the hourglass of my life was upturned. I felt hot with shame and anger when I learned that, reading John Pilger like a hungry person, many years after I left the country.
At the beach and the poolside Dad wears a pair of speedos that have been in the wash too often; they are bobbly and have a little skirt which is supposed to hide his cock. He sleeps on the beach with his arms folded under his head in the pose of that famous photo: The Swimmer.
Sand is, let me generalise, silica (SiO2) and has a “glass melting point” of over 2300 degrees C. I try to explain to my kids that that is more fire than we could possibly make. No window is going to magically appear on the beach floor after we have swept away our barbeque.
And that’s us, we are all lying around variously in heat serious enough to affect our eyesight, but we are all of us, and maybe we get it from my Dad, a long way and probably always will be, from glass melting point.
Of course I can see the sea. I can see the sea from my window. Sometimes it is lost in a sky but there is still a gap in the hills where I know it is. I wake to gulls. I can see the sea.
My six-year old gets weepy before bed. His brother is asleep beside him. He talks through chokes and gulps. His deepest wails are silent, that is how he cries when it is dark. Some nights those silent cries wake me up.
We have little dark, huddled conversations about the differences and the not going home. He is searching around – wondering what he should be worried about. He knows only that he is disturbed like a room after a burglary when nothing has been taken.
In the daytime it is like this:
“I want to go to America.”
“We might one day.”
“I want to see that big lady. That statue.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“The Big One. Really Big.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“Liberty is like freedom.”
“What is it for?”
“I don’t know what it’s for… she was the first thing that lots of people who left here, Europe, after the wars – she was the first thing they saw when they got to America. And lots of them were sad because maybe their parents or their family had been killed in the war. They were going to America hoping they could be happy and not be poor any more. Many of them were very poor in their countries. And the Statue of Liberty showed them that they were welcome in America and that they might be happy there.”
He is skipping, happy with that explanation – now he is ready for a day at his new school. We walk into his playground and he stumbles up the steps to his classroom because some classmate is hugging the new boy as he tries to climb the steps and they are both being pretty stupid as I walk away but he manages a giggling thumbs-up.
When I think of Ellis Island I see patient queues of people, forlorn and stoic as children. There’s something – what is it? – about the prevalence of suitcases and the tik-a-tik-tik of the arrivals board.