Beach Walker – Chapter 1
Between the Rip and the Barwon River curves a south-facing arc of fine sand, backed by scrubby dunes. It’s ten kilometres long.
A distinct geographical feature, it should surely have a name. Yet I’ve consulted maps and questioned locals, and it doesn’t seem to. The westernmost section is Raff’s or RAAF’s Beach. The rest is simply named for the seaside towns tucked behind the barrier dune: Ocean Grove, Collendina, Point Lonsdale. Yet it’s all one beach, framing one wide, shallow bay – which is also nameless. Strange.
I just call it the Beach.
To this refugee from sorrow and Riverina dust, the Beach has been a revelation. Since I arrived in spring, I’ve walked here every day, regardless of weather and state of tide. Soft feet have hardened, weak ankles have grown stronger and my calves, thin after too many years of a sedentary life, are rounding out. Much more of this, and I’ll almost be fit.
The Beach is a place of sensory delight. At misty dawn the wet sand ripples like a lake of mercury. Under a noonday sun it shivers with light, sears my retinas like molten silver. At sunset it gleams like burnished copper. The white noise of the surf soothes my worries. On a blustery day, the wind roars in my ears, drowning thought entirely. Firm sand tickles and abrades. Wet sand squidges almost erotically between my toes. A sudden wash of chill water sends a quiver of pleasure up my thighs.
At the Beach I’ve rediscovered the simple joy of watching people. Locals and holidaymakers alike – they come here to relax. Away from the intrusive stare of too many fellow humans, they’re at ease.
Don’t bother to preen and strut here. There’s no need to suck in your gut or stick out your chest. Save it for the crowded Bayside beaches of Brighton and St Kilda. Here you’ll impress nobody with gym-sculpted abs or a micro-bikini.
Folk are not here to wow or woo, and so they reveal themselves. As soon as they heave into view, distant stick figures in the superabundant light, I begin to appraise and speculate. What are they here for? What are they about? What ails them?
Fitness junkies pound along, blank eyes on the middle distance. They stay on the firm sand and steer an energy-efficient course. Lovers of ease amble comfortably, broad haunches swinging, gaze roaming. Brisk walking groups chatter and gesticulate; their tail-enders trudge. Kids and big kids splash barefoot in the shallows, finding themselves submerged up to their startled knees when a sneaky wave catches them. Dog walkers ignore the ‘No Dogs’ signs and are variously brazen, oblivious or furtive about it.
Surfers bisect the walkers’ path at right angles, entering and leaving the water. Clad in sleek neoprene, board under arm, they act like a breed apart, gazing seaward, unconcerned with the mundane terrestrial element and those who crawl upon it, eager to return to their watery home.
On this particular morning in late January when the holidaymakers were migrating back to their city jobs and school runs, there was one figure on the Beach who stood out.
He caught my attention because his course was eccentric. Haphazard yet purposeful, he walked from one clump of seaweed to the next. Head bowed, he stooped to examine and poke.
He was going nowhere fast, so I soon caught up with him. Skinny brown calves below loose khaki shorts; a narrow torso clad in a faded blue singlet. On his head a leather hat so scuffed and shapeless, it might have been chewed by a horse.
‘Morning! Lost something?’ It seemed a reasonable question. People lose things on the Beach: sunglasses, wallets, car keys, engagement rings.
Although we were a few paces apart, he hadn’t seen me. He jumped, stood bolt upright, as if coming to attention. He was a small man, about my height: one-six-five centimetres. A creased, deeply tanned face. Steel-blue eyes glared beneath shaggy brows.
‘No.’ His tone was defensive, borderline hostile.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to give you a start.’ I was already regretting the encounter. This stretch of beach was otherwise empty and the guy was odder than I’d realised.
Then I noticed the prison tattoos on the stringy arms. A spider’s web at the elbow; a Eureka Cross and a crude Ned Kelly, who seemed to have a dustbin for a head. Lines faded, fuzzy blue. Small, crappy images pricked with improvised tools and low-quality pigments – shoe polish, like as not.
I pretended not to see, but my glance had wavered and he’d noticed me noticing.
I’m not fazed by these things. I worked in probation for seventeen years and the clients were just human beings. Unremarkable for the most part and often a little lost. There are many, many reasons why people find themselves in jail, and the crime – even the worst crime – doesn’t sum up the person.
Still, here I was, a middle-aged woman alone on a deserted beach with this strange – strange peculiar – man. I began to feel a little nervous.
He gave a funny little snort and turned away. The very hunch of his shoulders seemed to express dismissal.
In fact he seemed to forget me entirely. Peering at a clump of brown gloop on the sand, he muttered something which sounded like ‘hemorrhoids’. Charming. I watched him take a pinch of the glutinous mass, hold it to the light, then pop it with evident satisfaction into a small ziplock bag.
I continued on my way. The sun was already warm on the nape of my neck and an hour of walking lay ahead of me.
In the weeks that followed, I saw Mr Strange Peculiar often, usually on the ebb and close to low tide. Always he seemed engrossed in the clumps of brownish, rubbery weed which the sea had left behind.
Our paths didn’t cross and I was disinclined to change that.
Next week in Beach Walker:
Chapter 2: Inertia Overcome
Grace relates why she left the Riverina for the Victorian coast.