Kristal Miu-Yee
Writes of passage
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Life Tides

There’s a poem I read years ago in a school magazine. A poem about a girl alone, with wind in her hair and sand whipping her legs. A girl who knew if she kept walking into the ocean there’d be no wind and the sand would stop stinging.           

Sea smells flirt with my nose, tickle it like the bouquet of a not fully seasoned wine. The waves are flat and grey, still half asleep. Behind me, the dunes are grown over with bitou bush separating me from those not yet awake. Though I like the green, I know the natives are being choked out and the bushes must go. To the south, the sand is still packed hard from a tide that peaked when no one was watching. Strands of seaweed show where the water has been, but there are no other marks. No dogs, no people, not even the pronged prints of a seagull. Still, the air has already lost the night and by nine o’clock, it will be hard to believe it’s the same day.

I place my camera carefully on the sand and do a few stretches.  My muscles relax and my mind sets itself to the rhythm of the waves. Music and lyrics from my youth weave themselves into the wash of water and sand. I think of Gillie and the day she burst into my life. Like a jinn, swift and just.  

Who do you think you are!  She’d shoved my tormentor away and retrieved my lunch box, yelling so loudly, I’d trembled even more.  But then she put her arms around me, and held me till my breath came back. Six years old and already way ahead of her peers.

I change my position, and my mind moves too. It can do that, the mind.  Slide the dimensions of time up and down, back and forth. Like a Magic Square puzzle with one empty space. It moves around the emptiness, and if you keep playing, something always fills it up. But you need a blank to play.

At seventeen Gillie was a girl-woman who stood firm with her hands on her hips. She spoke without apology, didn’t blush or shy away. She even laughed at her own jokes, firing airy pellets of mirth from some place between her belly and her throat. When she was serious, she ran her fingers through her fringe and caught a few strands to twirl while she talked, confident we were listening. So unlike me, too young to have an opinion, too scared to voice it if I did.

With Gillie as our captain, we crashed parties, stole flowers for our mothers and rocked people’s rooves. If we were with her, we never got in trouble. On weekends we spent long days at the dam, our wide inland sea. We’d take turns behind her parents’ boat, using one ski or two, concave or convex, the best did jump-starts. When Gillie drove, she’d eventually put the boat into a tight spin forcing the riders off. We fell recklessly, knowing we’d get up again.

Once when it was her turn to ski, Gillie wove in and out of the wake with one arm raised, poised like a showgirl, mocking. The wheat belt’s version of a Surfers Paradise ski princess. Our lives were bright with health and laughter. The days rolled on, easy and endless.

‘I’m still working in the mountains,’ my brother said. ‘I saw Gillie.  We had lunch.  She’s keen to see you, you should call her.’  I thought about it.  For years only our mothers had held us together. I heard her stories, she heard mine. She loved the city, then left it before I arrived. She moved from town to town and I moved from job to job. Somewhere along the way, both our stories changed. 

Months after I saw my brother, I called. 

When I saw inside her house, I couldn’t believe it was pink. But the cobwebs on the cornices and in the furniture joints came as no surprise. Gillie would harm nothing and let the spiders stay. We sat in her garden. I had a cigarette while she smoked a joint. She still told jokes but her laugh echoed in little clangs, like the sound of galvanised iron after a child has jumped on it. She took me to see her rock. A granite tor, proud and unmovable, surrounded by bushland. Her retreat from the world.

Later, I drank coffee while she made lunch. Her hands were the same. Square like her body, fingernails trimmed close. I noticed her hair was still brown and the gap between her front teeth still made her s’s whistle. But the lines around her mouth, though fine, were deep and the blue of her eyes had faded. She asked if I liked capsicum… watercress… a certain type of cheese.  Once she wouldn’t have bothered.

She was working, she said, taking underprivileged kids on excursions. She’d stopped caring for old people six months ago; it was too depressing.  

Old people are just so….you know, they’re dying. Kids are easier and it’s only for two days a week.   

Gillie asked about my marriage, about him. Twelve years and they’d never met.  She told me about her lovers and said she didn’t expect me to understand.

There’s no such thing as lasting love. I’ll give a relationship two years, no more.  

She wanted me to listen. So I did, adjusting my position against the bench top, leaning into and out of the conversation.  Words tumbled from her unrestrained. That hadn’t changed. But she had. Her stories revealed that everyday things made her wary. She no longer found her way around obstacles she’d once have pushed aside. 

Instead she pushed against barriers, fighting to stay afloat in a place where she found no equilibrium.

Gillie talked greedily, wanting to fill the time we’d missed with words that might have been spoken. I missed some of what she said when she shifted too quickly from one topic to another. There was a quiver in her voice when she spoke. The ends of sentences trailed upward into an emotional pitch, only to be pulled down when she checked herself and turned to safer ground. She darted from the past to the present, hoping neither would catch her. She was like a child ready to spring for its mother at the approach of something unfamiliar. Once I recognised her anxiety, it stretched between us, vulnerable as glass beads on a worn thread.  

I told her she should visit. An hour and a quarter, that was all. 

I hate the city. When I go there, I … you know I haven’t been there for two years.  

The mountains swaddled her. I knew she wouldn’t leave, even for a day. And I knew the city would consume me as soon as I left the freeway.  

The drone of a seaplane pulls me back to the beach. The ocean has brightened from grey to pale blue and the waves are arching their way into the day. There are still no surfers, just one fisherman a little to my north. He stands thigh-high in water, his waders the colour of sharkskin. A straw hat protects his face and a pipe extends from the right side of his mouth. He holds it comfortably between his teeth, no sign of tension around the lips or in the jaw. A bucket of pilchards and an Esky mark his spot. When he casts, the gang hook and swivels give weight to the trace while the main line plays in the air. He’s spinning for tailor and I’m looking for dolphins.

A little to my right the sun and water meet.  I know it’s only my fancy but, just there, it seems the waves have more life. 

I remember Gillie’s last phone call.

I think I’m going mad. But I’ve got friends and you don’t have friends if you’re mad.  We’ve always been friends, haven’t we?

I didn’t know then she was saying goodbye.

I hope it happened the way it did for the girl in the poem. That it was like walking and walking till she was part of the sea. A gradual overflow of her senses that embraced her till everything went blank. 

Before I leave the beach, I take five frames of the fisherman, his silhouette bold against a mirror-bright ocean.

Verandah 17 © Kristal Yee 2002  
also published in Idiom 23 as an award entry (highly commended) 

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For P and J - no two people laughed and cried together like you. 
I trust you still are. 

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© Kristal Yee and 2014.
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