The Rip and Tear

By Gabrielle Blondell

“Are you off to the beach?” Gerry asked me. She was straightening her skirt in front of the mirror.

I was lying on the bed under the ceiling fan. “Yup,” I answered. “It frees me up, you know.”

“Yes,” she said.  Gerry was as comfortable with my lie as I was.  She wrapped a gauzy scarf, the colour of the Surfers Paradise sky around her neck and unintentionally tied it in a way that said she came from some place else.  “I won’t be back until late,” she said.  “The ore price is impossible.”

“That’s okay, my love.  I have plenty to keep me occupied.”

This bit was true, sort of.  I was writing a book on business culture, my entry into in the flabby populist market following my exit from peer-reviewed academia.  However, my retirement left me feeling like bad abstract art.  Everything was up for re-interpretation.

“Anyway, I must dash.  Perhaps we could meet in town after and you can finally show me your old stomping grounds?”

I winked at my wife. I did this when I couldn’t contribute in a way she might like.

 

***

My navigation around the spiky palm at the gate and my remembering the loose slate on the last step to the street was already a habit.  It was as if I’d lived here all my life instead of only the first part of it.  Gerry’s temporary secondment to the Brisbane office of Bakersfield Metals was a homecoming of sorts. Still, I kept to the circumference of a recently retired tourist from far-flung parts.  It was easier that way.  I was crab-walking now to hold on to the shade of some spindly plants until I reached the centre Surfers Paradise and the coffee shop I had begun to frequent.  From there it was a quick hop, step and jump to the beach.  My father’s words.

***

I walked mainly in the shallows holding onto my latte.  Yes, I do realise how this sounds.  I am not an out door’s man, like my father, but I was acclimating myself.  I took the ‘no one steps into the same river twice’ philosophy seriously.  This was not the same sand or the same waves of my youth.  I may come to like these ones better.  I turned and took a sip of coffee.  I found if I rotated with my head upturned, the buildings along the strip appeared to tilt toward me and the sky became a dome above them.

I was taking my second spin  when it hit me.  I waved my arms wildly and lost my latte.  I tumbled forwards and then backwards in the whitewash and I could not see the sun from top or bottom.  Already I was wishing it over, holding my breath for dry skin and cool sheets under the ceiling fan again with Gerry at my side telling me something about BHP and China and terms of trade.

My lungs craved air, which drove the moment home.  I might die.  I might bloody well die back where I began.  My legs began to kick out at the irony and my latte hands made fins and pushed me to the surface.  I turned in green water and the tall buildings were sweeping away from me.  I thrashed in their direction, but they passed before me like they were on to some place else.  My fingers were spread and clawing, more water spilling through them now I was tiring.  I felt the welling of it within me, a supernova of instinct burning up all thoughts of Gerry, my life, my book, my retirement, this place and I went under swamped by a choppy little wave. It took me with my mouth open and the salt water caught in the back of my throat.  I flailed, a fish on land, ineffectual.

“Stop it, son. Stop it now!”

I heard his voice.  I would have known it anywhere, even after all this time.

“Go with it, boyo.  You can’t beat an ocean.”  I think of it now and wince at how certain my father was.  How much I hated him for this, and me for my lack of it.

I broke to the surface, my throat raw.

I heard him again, the voice of my childhood.  “Float out of this, son, then swim back in.”

I did as I was told, not wanting to at all.  My father was like that.  I rolled onto my back and spread my arms and kept my mouth shut.  When I cocked my head to my right, I saw the tall buildings pushing on to the south.  I saw the beginnings of Narrow Neck, the carpark, where the surfers hung out, those too chicken to brave the bar to South Stradbroke Island.  Even so, they had always looked more effectual than I felt.  It seemed too far now.  I had floated too far north and too far out.  Panic squeezed me again and I flailed myself upright.  I should raise an arm for the lifesavers or those surfers less chicken than me I thought, and bob like a cork until someone came to save me.  I waved and was swamped with my mouth open by a nasty chop.  I vomited into the sea.

“Don’t be stupid boy.  There’s no one coming.”

I let my arm drop and flipped myself onto my back, jaw snapped shut.  If I were going to die, I could choose my last thoughts.  I tried to think of Gerry, so clean and active, going from one task to the other without questioning her ability, but this made me think of myself again and my father who, like Gerry, had few doubts.  Why was I born unsure and just this side of incapable?  It wasn’t fair.  I could say it now that I was nearly done.  Life just wasn’t fucking fair.

I cocked my head just to make sure no one was looking, but Dad was there, his big face looming over me, blocking the sun.  I saw this face, as it was the day he died, the day I asked him, if he was frightened of death.  “I don’t know, lad.”  I could see his mouth move to these words now.  “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it.” He wasn’t lying either.

“It’s not that, you know boyo.”  The mouth moved to these new words too.

“Not what?” I yelled into the sky.  I was always just short of understanding.

“It’s not that a man is born with more than others.  That’s not it.  It’s that a man tries.  Now swim, lad!  Swim!”

I wind-milled my arms and bobbed forward.  It took time for me to orientate myself.  I spun and the big dome of the Main Beach Surf Lifesaving pavilion swung into view.  The water around me was calmer.  I struck out for the breakers near the shore.  I knew if I could make it that far, they would bring me in.

“Hey mate!”

A surfboard bobbed into view, the snake of a leg-rope and a foot, pale and dead-looking in the water.  I peered up into a brown face.

“Do you want a tow in?” he asked me.  “You’re pretty far out.”

“Nah,” I said.  “I’m good. “

“Are you sure, mate?”

“Yep, I grew up around here.  I’m good.”

I wasn’t lying.

 

Gabrielle Blondell ©  2014

 I hope you enjoyed this short short.  If you did, you might like Genevieve’s Philosophy of Life and Death, now available on Amazon as a digital book.

 

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