This begins in January, and January is okay. It begins like December as though their join is seamless. Sometimes as though the bright days of summer will last forever.
But the end of January is the end of the known world. This is when I stand at the edge. It’s been easy till now, relatively. I’ve had a new school year to face each January, but not this year. School is over, so there is not the usual symmetry about the holidays. The feeling of days leading up to Christmas and New Year and then away. Across the slow heat-heavy weeks of January and back to school.
This January I’m waiting for my offer, waiting for the code that will tell me what happens next. Waiting.
It’s as though the future is held here. Held at bay, held at more than arm’s length. Held just beyond my reach all the long days of summer. And the waiting is everywhere, in the rhythm of waves and winds, in the familiar lights and sounds of the coastal summer, in the sun rising over the sea and settling through an orange sky into the Glasshouse Mountains. The impossible days and nights of a suspended world.
It’s hard not to think about the day I’m waiting for. The twentieth of January. Seventeen days from today. On the twentieth of January it all comes out in the paper and I’ll be there with the others from school around midnight at Newspaper House, the way the uni students do in December. I’ll head down from the coast and I’ll meet the others and we’ll buy a paper and then we’ll all know. I’ll go to bed knowing, and in the morning everyone will know; everyone who bothers to look for my name and work out the code— everyone who’s ever known me, expected things from me, expected me to make it. They’ll know right then whether I have, or not. And then it will come in the mail. A few days later maybe, and just the way that phone bills come, and reminders from the dentist, and my mother’s medical journals. Just as unannounced, just as unspecial, wound in a bundle with a rubber band or wrapped in plastic if it looks like rain. One envelope, a few sheets of paper, the definite offer in writing. And if the newspaper says I made it I still won’t believe it till I see the letter. If the newspaper says I didn’t, then I won’t want the letter.
I should stop thinking of it as though it’s weeks of sensory deprivation leading up to an execution. I should stop thinking of it and get a life.
The waves change with changes in the weather far out to sea, storms and cyclones and winds, and the first of January blew in a forest of red weed and a fleet of blue box jellyfish, and the second blew them away again. Whatever it’s like I go to the beach early because I’m in the habit of it. It’s the best time. On all but the worst days I swim, and my body is still warm and creased with sleep and the first cold wave always comes as a shock.
I’m facing the house when I look back at the shore, the fibro beach house lit up white by the sun, the white plastic chairs on the long veranda, the unbleached calico curtains through the locked sliding glass doors, my mother asleep inside. My mother who was very clear with her This is my holiday too you know and I don’t expect to be woken before nine. Said as a joke, but worth remembering anyway. And I expect to have my breakfast brought to me in bed when I call for it. She said that too. Yeah, so do I, I remember telling her; I wonder who’ll bring it to us. So she makes her own breakfast, and takes it back there on a tray every day, and I can hear her swearing as she manoeuvres around among the crumbs afterwards, trying to read a novel.
This is a house I have known all my life, and each summer spent in it is a variation on the same routine. My mother with her same holiday expectations of doing nothing for weeks, but gardening by the third day and cleaning out leaves from the gutters because it’s not as though anyone else will ever do it. It’s not as though anyone else would even notice. Meaning my father.
Each year I come up here and the sliding door opens and the house smells of seagrass matting just the way I know it will, that trapped musty smell that it accumulates in just a few warm days. And there’s the same Caloundra furniture, the seventies Brisbane lounge suite where anyone who sits down is taken prisoner by the sagging upholstery, the underfilled bean bags covered in bedroom curtains from so long ago I can’t remember them as curtains, the pine dining table with its bench seats and the teeth marks of infants, including perhaps my own. And on the wall the same macrame owl with mis-matched shells for eyes. There is nothing like this place.
I swim in the sea right in front of the house. I catch waves that take me in a straight line right back towards the bright white fibro. This is the part of every holiday least like life in a flat in the city. Waves at the door. Even if there are better wwwwwaves to the north at Dicky Beach or south at Kings, I usually swim here. These waves are mine.
This morning the waves aren’t great but they’re okay, coming in in unspectacular threes and fours with long spaces between. I float and I look out to sea in case there’s anything better out there, but there isn’t, so then I set off on whatever’s passing.
I’m built for this, made into a shape with this in mind, my light streamlined body—describing it in terms of its aerodynamics is the kindest way to deal with fifty-five kilos stretched across a 178-centimetre frame—my arms looped under me like the runners on a sled. And I stay on the wave , . all the way in. All the way till there is no wave and it fades to nothing and drops out from under me. Some days when the surf is right it takes me all the way till I hit sand with the tip of my shoulder or the bony points of my pelvis and I flip or roll and the wave slips back and I’m on title beach. On the beach with sand down my togs and in my hair and in my mouth, and no one else catches waves this way. But then, maybe no one else is built with a chest like a bird cage, a body shape not often found desirable, that feels quite undesirable when I’m beached and I’m all ribs and limbs and none of my angles are turned in any way gracefully. I have assumed that I am more likely to be desired for my wit and intellect, and possibly only in winter when I can hide the rest in jumpers. But it’s a body that catches waves in a way the more conventionally shaped can only envy. A body you’ll grow into, my mother sometimes says as a joke. A body I’ll never grow used to.
But there’s more to you than that, my mother says. What about that girl Juliet, the one who was in the play with you? What about her? We did the play, we kissed in the school play and it all lingers in my mind like a relationship. The problem was it was probably only ever in my mind. I can see her even now, that look, the last look she ever gave me, telling me about a school dance as though we were arranging to meet there. I went but I didn’t see her. I haven’t seen her since. All I have left is the fifteen episodes of our ‘relationship’, thirteen rehearsals and two performances, and the story I wrote two days later when she was all I could think about. The story I showed my mother in a moment of weakness, not realising of course how much she would like it. It’s beautiful, she said. It’s beautiful. And she kept saying it as though it was some miracle. It’s beautiful, and nobody dies. You wrote this story and nobody dies. There’s no blood at all. No weapons, no heavy machinery, no mutilation. It’s so unlike you.
She started making copies and I took this for the grim sign that it was. At least one copy changed hands at a parent-teacher night and my English teacher took me aside the next day and told me it should be in the school magazine. I told him that as I was one of the editors I thought this would be inappropriate and he told me, There’s a time and a place for modesty, and he seemed to have made up his mind that this was neither. I told him that the girl in the story was based on the daughter of my maths teacher, Mr Koh, and that the story was based on the school play and I was really rather annoyed with my mother for circulating it. He said that it was a beautiful story and that my mother was right to be proud and that he was sure people would accept it as a work of fiction if that’s what we told them it was. I said that in many respects, or at least in some, it was actually fiction, but I was concerned about how Mr Koh would feel. He looked at me earnestly with his rumpled middle-aged face and his fading grey eyes and he said again that it was a beautiful story, and he was sure Mr Koh would see it that way too. I knew I was losing. After this he brought me his poetry, and took notes when I gave my opinion. I knew I should never have written that story.
And it went in the school magazine and won the literary competition and it gave me a fleeting clandestine kind of fame, but fame only among the sort of people who had already seen the play and who would think a story in which almost nothing happens can still have credibility. For the socially important, the several acts of this tiny drama passed completely unnoticed.
Maybe Juliet saw it but whether she did or she didn’t I haven’t seen her since. Not at any dance, not at schoolies’ week, not at all.
I catch a wave. And it’s as though I’m passing through this summer in a bubble. Vaguely detached and drifting. I’m not even thinking about the wave. I’m observing but not participating, squandering these counting-down days, willing January to come to an end, willing it not to.
There are people out now, jogging, walking dogs without leashes despite the signs, a girl in the surf nearby. I notice her as I turn and she’s on a wave, lifting herself to a standing position on her board. And the sun is partly behind her, reflecting off the water so I don’t see her well. Tanned legs balanced perfectly and comfortably, sun-bleached hair in a wet pony tail, the bare elegant muscles of her shoulders and back. This is the last thing I need, to be floating around staring into the sun at some girl I can’t even see properly. I should go home and write a story about it and please my mother.
One more wave and I’ll go in. There’s always the temptation to wait for a really good wave to finish with but I know it won’t come today. So I take the next one and I head for the showers: This is all part of the routine, right down to the seventy cents I’ve wrapped in my towel to buy the Courier- Mail.
On these mornings my brain doesn’t work till it’s woken by the surf, so I need the routine. This, my mother says, is a habit of my father’s, and hence not highly regarded. My mother claims to despise routines, though she will inevitably enact one within the next few hours when she makes her breakfast. It’s not a routine, she’ll say if I question her. It’s just something I enjoy doing, so why shouldn’t I do it every day?
At the newsagent in Seaview Terrace I buy the paper, like every other morning, and I walk home with my towel around my shoulders and let myself in with the key I have left in one of the sandshoes lying near the door. The house is dark inside and still cool, my mother almost certainly still asleep.