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Friday, April 8, 2011

Not Mills and Boon exactly

We’ve been clearing out things. This is something we need to do as a team. It’s not an easy task. There are some things that have sentimental value for one person that cannot possibly nor should have any for another. But I'm conflicted, I am. The historian in me says don’t throw anything away. (A hoarder, in other words, but please, not near as bad as those ones on TV. They horrify me.)

   So when Tracey brought me a box of old letters, photos, etc of mine that had been sitting in the cupboard forever, it was fascinating for me to see what it was that I had put away over time and kept for decades.

   I had not looked at these things for many years – longer than I can remember.  Who usually goes regularly through such keepsakes? Practically no-one, I’ll bet. They sit there as your personal time capsule to remind you of things you regarded at some period of your life as worthy of keeping. They are unearthed, usually when you’re searching for something else, and you start looking at them.

   On top of the documents in the box were two photos. That’s as far as I’ve got so far, after five days. One was in a folded pink card with a heart shape cut out of it and the photo behind it. I recognised the girl immediately, even remembered her name. I’d met her on the beach at Currumbin, my favourite spot on the Gold Coast. That was a day when the beach was crowded – a glorious warm summer Sunday when you’re at an age that the idea of melanomas just doesn’t exist, because you’re way too young to imagine dying.

   People had found their own little space, some with beach umbrellas, and put their trannies on the corner of their towel, with their bags. Many were in the water, and just as many were sunbathing. The tide was on the way in, late morning, not that far from full. Idyllic, really. The perfect summer day on the fine white sands of a beautiful Australian beach.

   The girl in the heart picture now in front of me was sitting on her towel right up near the rock wall at the back, and smiled at me as our eyes met, across a ... hmmm.... crowded .... beach. (Blame South Pacific for that! Or blame Tracey - she introduced me to musicals.)

   I couldn’t believe it was a smile intended for me. Surely there must have been some kick-sand-in-the-face hunk behind me somewhere, but no. She was actually looking at me. After an eternity of little courting rituals that fiddler crabs on any beach would have been exhausted by, and finally a tiny wave from her, I picked up my towel and came toward her. Had it not been for that hesitant wave of the claw (hand, I mean!), I doubt if I could have plucked up the courage; but I did, not having the slightest idea what I was going to say to her.

   Whatever it was, it was rendered null and void by a quite unexpected turn of events. A freak wave, obviously a tiny legacy of some tectonic event out there in the Pacific surged up the beach, covering the entire twenty metres of dry sand with a few centimetres of water, right up to the rock wall where we were standing. We jumped up on the rocks and turned to watch the fun. Radios, water bottles, babies, suntan lotion, buckets and spades, beachbags and towels were doused by this wave, and it was quite a sight to see people who’d been snoozing seconds before in the hot sun scrambling for their soaked possessions as the rogue wave retreated.

   It was all over in seconds, a very minor event that we called a freak wave, though I never experienced one personally like that before, nor am I likely to ever again. The thing that stuck in my mind was all those water-soaked, sand-filled towels and drowned transistor radios. It certainly was a conversation starter for the girl in the picture and me.

   I won’t go into a description of the boy-meets-girl scenario that followed, as it’s been repeated a million times and its lack of novelty means that it is not of the slightest interest to anyone. The only thing worth mentioning is that as I had spent so long not meeting her, her parents’ car pulled up and she had to go. So we exchanged home addresses (she lived in Sydney) and agreed to meet up the next day at Coolangatta Beach, about ten km south of Currumbin. She was staying in a holiday house with her family at Tweed Heads, just across the NSW border.

   My teenage love stories seem always to end in dreadful anti-climaxes, and this one’s little better, so as an act of mercy for us all, I’ll be brief. The next day, I drove to Coolangatta at the appointed time, but she never appeared. For a good part of the morning I walked up and down the beach, expecting her to appear in her floral one-piece swimsuit, but no. Apparently, the bird had thought better of it and flown. She had told me when we first met that she and the family were going home the day after our anticipated rendezvous, so that, I thought, was that. You win some, and obviously there are times you lose some too.

   After returning home to Gladstone, I wrote her a letter gently asking what had gone wrong; one that probably would have arrived at her house at the same time as I received one from her. Hers was a little reproachful, but she was also seeking an explanation. She had waited and waited, she said, but I had failed to appear. Not possible, I thought, I had so carefully scrutinised every teenage girl on that beach in my marching back and forth along it that it’s a wonder I wasn’t arrested for perving.

   But then it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. Coolangatta Beach, you IDIOT, has a northern end, and around the corner there’s the NSW end of it. An entire other beach, really. My newlove had been sitting, with increasing impatience, on one beach while I, in male swimwear now famously referred to as budgie smugglers, towel slung over my shoulder, was pacing the other one. O star-crossed lovers! O cruel fate.

   All was not lost. We wrote to each other a number of times, and I thought of going to Sydney to meet her. At that time I had never been further south of Brisbane in my entire life than a few northern NSW beaches, and the prospect of going to the Really Big Smoke was both alluring and slightly terrifying.

   But before any real plans could be set in motion, I made one dreadful mistake, fatal to our budding romance. I was a teacher – right? She wrote sweet little letters, almost entirely untroubled by the rules of grammar. Spelling – fine. Grammar... could do better. So what did this smart-arse teacher of a whole 19 years of age do? He corrected her grammar.

   No, not the whole thing. Just one lousy full stop, aching to be put right. Period. Yet in my effort to be helpful, I seem to have touched a raw nerve. I can’t imagine why. The next letter from her came back, every full stop the size of a grape. One of those big purple grapes, too – not a muscatel. Every exclamation mark was carefully coloured in, cherry red in hue, each nearly the size of a baseball bat. There were lots of them.

   I was only trying to be helpful! Truly. Surely gratitude would be the appropriate response. I guess not. But I do think she was trying to tell me something.

   I fear her interest in me palled with that one grammar correction in her otherwise charming billet-doux. In spite of a fulsome apology from me bordering on the pathetically abject, our romance faded from that moment on. The magic spell of our fifteen minutes in the warm Currumbin sun was shattered. The letters stopped fairly soon afterwards, and the idea of going to Sydney disappeared in that appalling puff of grammar nazism.

   I did learn two valuable lessons from the experience, for which I thank you, Val. Firstly, always count your beaches before they are crossed. Secondly, and way more importantly, never under any circumstances attempt to correct the grammar in a letter from your love, because on the way you’ll be dropped. No matter how good your intentions, somehow it just won’t be appreciated.

   How does the song go now? God help me; I was only nineteen.... Do you want to see that photo of her? No, you really don't. Though right now she probably has a tribe of grandchildren round her feet, it feels like betraying a confidence to me to put it up here. Besides, that outfit she's wearing with the white braid round the pockets.... no, it wouldn't be right.

   Now, as to the other photograph, that’s much more serious, but as I've blathered on, it seems I’ll need to take it separately. That’s probably a good thing. This clearing out process though .... it’s not going all that fast, I’m afraid.


  1. But it's very interesting and I'm sure we can all identify. I certainly can,having grown up just south of Coolangatta at Kingscliff, and Coolangatta (Greenmount Beach!)was 'the scene' in my teenage years. That description of the beach when you met - -weren't we lucky (apart from the skin issues!) to have that glorious paradise as everyday life.

    Yes please, more :) do continue..

  2. One of the most magical beaches on the northern NSW coasts half a century ago was Fingal. In the midst of the fine white sand beaches all along the Gold Coast, Fingal was pretty much a pebble beach, but what was magical about it was that it was strewn with myriads of seashells of all descriptions, from little cowries to large bailer (whelk?) shells. For kids it was a treasure trove. I'm not sure why Fingal was like this or whether it was a freak of the times, but I never saw another beach like it anywhere else. Julie, you will know it very well - it's just round the corner from where you grew up.


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