The Summer I Nearly Drowned
Even if Peter was still alive and we still hung out like we did when we were kids and he still went down the beach and wasn’t put off by all the sand and the flies and the people and didn’t live closer to the city beaches and prefer them anyway and even if he didn’t have a wife and a whole bunch of kids who would have wanted to come with him and would have wanted to sit in the front seat as well, it wouldn’t be the same, not since they closed River Road.
When my older brother Peter would take me to the beach when we were kids, we would always take the back way, along the Onkaparinga River. Along River Road. My father had left by then and I vaguely remember my mother’s voice, take her can you? But my little sister would be left at home, Peter couldn’t look after two kids at the beach, and that can’t have been any picnic for Mum.
Peter was the nice brother. He was the nicest one in the whole family. Everyone always liked him, right until the end, even me.
River Road came left off Honeypot Road in a sweeping arc that put the Trust houses and the new shopping centre development in your rear view mirror across a seemingly endless golden paddock. It was a thin road with sides that melted and broke like black ice and no white line in the middle. In the distance you could see the dark blue light blue sash of the horizon, the low bushed mess of the estuary, the snaking river and on the right, the lumps of the Port Noarlunga sand hills. My brother would be driving a big car like Dad always had but old, bench seats with the stuffing and springs coming out, tears in the lining and a window you had to push up and down in a door that never opened.
Somewhere along River Road there was a hump. I don’t remember there being a sign, but I was a little kid and I wasn’t driving. Would I have looked for it if I knew? The way the road stretched out, the swing of it, you thought it would go on forever and then suddenly you would roll over that hump and then you were flying through the air, legs pedalling, hands clutching and hair catching in the old car’s stray springs.
Peter would be laughing. We never wore seatbelts on that drive and Peter never slowed down; I don’t know how he held on. He was strong from playing footy, I suppose. Everyone else would slow down for that hump, but you couldn’t avoid it completely.
We’d go to the sand hills. Fenced now. Small. Back then, you could hire a sled in that little shop in the car park, buy some wax and slide down them. I would go so fast, I’d go a little way into the river sometimes and then seagulls would fly off and a pelican swimming under the bridge might give me a look. Peter would run down after me and drag the sled back to the top of the hill. We would slide down over and over again, forever.
I was seven or eight; Peter must have been fifteen or sixteen. Now the sand hills are covered by low shrubs, like a beard trying to grow again on a scarred face, half the size they were in the 70’s, if that; regenerated. Along the river to Southport, the practice continues though and next to bald spoons of sand the width of a boogie board there are signs: NO SLIDING ON THE SAND HILLS by order of the City of Onkaparinga.
Onkaparinga means ‘women’s river’ in Kaurna. Nga means here. Standing on top of the sand hills, the view used to stretch out over more sand dunes and then, like a surprise, there was Port Noarlunga beach. It’s probably all houses now; I can see a few from the road when I drive past. I’m not going to try and climb up the sand hill now, I’m practically an old lady, I’m a grandmother, walking up hill on shifting sand, I might have a heart attack. It’s always been the same anyway, the horizon, the reef, the red cliffs.
There are two reefs really: the long one at the end of the jetty and smaller one close to shore where the children climb about with their Christmas goggles and mask sets. Over the years the jetty has been longer and shorter, a backward leaning ladder that you could climb down onto the large rocks of the reef which was washed away, replaced by stairs made for the scuba divers and their wet suited feet until that washed away too. Last summer there was no way to get down to the reef from the end of the jetty and you had to swim from the shore.
The tide comes and goes, the reefs put up their fight every day and lose to the white tops first, waves and then the entire ocean lies across them and life is again at the whim of the currents. Every day.
I was a solitary child and at the beach I had my head under the water a lot and every summer I would go even further into myself because my ears would get blocked and I couldn’t hear anyone and it was a big family anyway and I was number five. Even before I could swim, I would put my face into the water in the shallows, drag my hands along the ocean floor, kicking my feet, I thought I was swimming. The tide came up, and the waves in the late afternoon, and then it was time to go home. I would be tapping the side of my head trying to clear my ears, wrapped up and shivering in the backseat of the car.
Home was still arguments and dinner with a lot of people who would ask are you gonna eat that? It wasn’t until later that it was just me and my little sister and then not even me because I would be roaming the streets, anything to get away from Mum’s nagging. Then I was pregnant and my little sister went to live at Dad’s and Mum moved into a Granny Flat behind one of my older sister’s house and there wasn’t really a home anymore.
Peter said that the day he heard I’d given birth was the worst day of his life. I was only sixteen. He’d moved to Queensland, had work but nowhere to live, and was sleeping at the work site. He must have been around that age where you realise that life is going to go on, despite everything. He’d probably thought it would be better in Queensland, sunshine, freedom, fresh dunes, a new start. But it wasn’t and then he heard from back home little sister had gone and had a baby.
This story was told over and over again for the next thirty years. Every time he saw my daughter he’d say, the day you were born was the worst day of my life: nowhere to live, no money, nothing, no plans and then I find out my sixteen year old sister has had a kid. How many times did I listen to that? Less and less as the years went by but still, every time we saw him. Even, and this is the honest truth, the very last time.
My daughter was living next door with her partner and her little boy, my precious Grandson. Peter came around to pick up some sunglasses, some special brand especially for playing golf. He’d left them at my wedding a few weeks before. It was a very happy, prosperous time; the point everything else had seemed to be working up to all along: a baby, a wedding, a new novel, my daughter graduating as a teacher. Peter’s own daughter had got herself pregnant, the fella had nicked off and everyone was ok about it. Look how it had turned out last time, they said. Great!
It was hot that day and I don’t have an air conditioner. We had a fan and we lay about on hot furniture waiting for it to momentarily lift the hair from our necks. It was uncomfortable; what to talk about? At Peter’s funeral, his best friend described him as ‘unashamedly anti-intellectual.’ Any time I said anything it seemed to start an argument.
My Grandson, my little prince, must have been having a nap because I remember that my daughter had her feet up.
You know the day you were born was the worst day of my life, Peter started.
Surely you’re not still saying that? I said. After all, your daughter is pregnant now and that’s not the worst in the world, is it? You’re happy. Everyone’s happy. Why the worst? It should have been the best.
It was the best, he said, kind of. It was the end of the worst at least. Everything started getting better after that, after you were born, he said, tapping the bottom of my daughter’s feet.
There were lots of stories told like that at the funeral. It seems that Peter had gone around and finished things up nicely with everyone. I don’t think he knew he was going to die, at least not intellectually. He had re-booked a doctor’s appointment so he could play golf only the week before. He was ignorant of his condition.
His pregnant daughter found him, dead, on his bathroom floor. She screamed. My little sister screamed as well, when they told her. Her knees buckled. I don’t even know what happened when Mum found out, I couldn’t bear the thought. I can’t even now.
When I heard that Peter had died, my thoughts went straight down to the beach. Along River Road, I didn’t slow down for the hump, I took no joy in the jolt of it, I just tried to hang on. He was only fifty-two. In my mind, I did climb to the top of the sand hills, as high as they were when I was a kid, with my old legs sinking up to my weak knees, each step taking me lower and lower it seemed but I had to keep climbing. At the very top, the horizon bent around me, I couldn’t see an end to it. I ran down the steps to the ocean like the water from the shower, people were washing the sand off themselves like it was nothing. I rolled in the surf; let the pebbles scratch my shoulders and my knees and forearms, my hands clutching at the moving ocean floor like when I was a kid thinking I was swimming.
It was so much like drowning. I had been practicing all summer in the shallows. I climbed up on the reef when the tide was out and I walked over it to where the water was deep. I remember there were a lot of kids on the reef that day, I dodged them, slipping on the light green. I went to the very end of the reef, the deepest bit, the darkest water, and jumped in.
I was pedalling, like in the car, but it wasn’t air. I wasn’t flying. The water held me, like when we’d play at home and my older brother would hang on to my ankle and I’d be trying to pull away and he would just hold on. Until I cried. Or Peter threw something at his head. Or my sisters came in. The water pulled and the more I pulled the deeper I was. I could see a circle of light blue above me; it was the sky.
Somehow I got to that circle of blue and I put my head through it. There were kids standing on the reef above me, their faces invisible in the blinding sun light. I was suddenly struck dumb with shyness. Would it be rude to ask for help? What do you say? Help me? Help me, please? I went back under. I could see the circle of blue and, down where I was, I could see legs and flippers in the shadows. My feet touched the bottom. I kicked and shifted the sand like a stingray and then my head was back up in the middle of the circle again. The same faces were looking at me. My eyes were stinging. Water was in my mouth. The third time, I was going down for the third time, everyone knew about the third time. That was the one that got you. That was the one that meant you had drowned. I was going down. I looked up at the circle of blue and thought nothing but goodbye.
Then Peter was there, lifting me out of the water, holding me up in the precious air and sunlight and warmth. Life. I started coughing and crying and dribbling like a newborn and Peter held me like that, across his arms. I was like a fish gasping and bending in Peter’s arms as he strode to the shore.
On the beach someone called his name and he stopped. I was still coughing but I could hear he was talking about the footy, about last week’s game. It was Vincent Connelly’s squeaky voice, sunburnt and covered in freckles. Peter is standing there with his little sister in his arms. Me. I’m alive. Peter is alive. If I want to, I can hear all the kids on the beach, the waves carrying their voices and laughter and names being called out. I can see Peter in his footy shorts, his hair blonde from the summer; I can look past him at the jetty and the caves, it’s all still there. I can look down and see each freckle on Vincent Connelly’s face, his peeling nose. I’m held up above him, above everyone, above the water and drowning and death.
But I can’t stop crying. So much comes out of me it doesn’t seem equal to what’s gone into me. Hiccupping and sniffing and wailing. I don’t even know why I cried so much. I cried so much at my sister’s wedding that I almost ruined it. I was the flower girl. Why did she have to go away? I cried when anything happened. I cried in the week leading up to my wedding whenever I tried to read the poem I was going to read to my future husband, I didn’t know how I’d get through it. When my daughter rang to tell me she was having a baby, I cried so much, tears of pure happiness, not salty at all; I was drunk from one glass of wine and went straight to sleep. When Peter died, I cried about his grand baby, about him not seeing his grand baby and not holding her, about everything he missed.
I’m crying now. And it’s not pretty. It wasn’t pretty when I was a child either. I imagine it must have been exasperating. Peter wasn’t a saint. He put me down. I think I might have leant on him but he nudged me away, there is no use pleading with a brother or sister, they aren’t looking for peace like your mother. I probably found my towel, tried to stop crying, probably dried my eyes and wiped my nose. I don’t remember. I don’t remember after that. I don’t remember all the days of all the summers I didn’t nearly drown.
MJ Clark is a novelist living in a small town called Hallett in South Australia. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Three of her novels are available via her website as is her blog about writing.