Cast Ashore – Chapter 1
The Message of the Sea
Each morning on an ebb tide, I get up at first light and hurry out to the beach, eager to read what the receding water has written in the night. On the flood, all I’ll find is a mess of trampled sand which the advancing surf is slowly wiping clean. So, it has to be the ebb.
I’m disappointed if an early tourist has sullied ‘my’ pristine beach with clumsy feet before I get there. Being first to receive the sea’s daily memos has become an obsession.
This morning, I am first: a good start to my Saturday. I trudge through the dry sand – deep, soft and sugary – to the wide band of damp, firm stuff down by the water’s edge that’s easier to walk on.
It’s shaping up to be a weird kind of day. The sky hangs low over a foaming sea. Out in Bass Strait far to the southwest a storm is churning the sullen water into a rage. The wild weather hasn’t reached us yet, but it’s coming: the big waves are its outriders.
Meanwhile the air is tepid, humid, still. Against my skin it’s curiously temperature-less, as if I were walking not across an exposed beach, but in a vast enclosed room suffused with light – maybe a gallery installation? From hidden speakers a white noise soundtrack swells and fades. Surreal.
The damp sand is hard underfoot and pleasantly abrasive in places. In others, it sucks at my toes like soft putty. So many textures and patterns! Branched tree-like forms; hatched diamonds; washboard corrugations.
The surf has been busy overnight, strewing flotsam across the pale sand. There are tangles of weed: shining, leathery spirals of kelp; strings of Neptune’s necklace; here and there a dusky-pink spray of sea comb. Rubbery swirls of dead man’s fingers reach out.
Shells are dotted across the beach: thick white whelks, their ridges battered and blunted; smooth turbos, decorated with spiral patterns of dashed lines, black on greenish grey; delicate, triangular pipis. The shell of a crab has been picked clean by silver gulls, which have left their webbed prints in the sand.
A pebble of sea glass is a luminous green when I hold it up against the sky. I tuck it in the pocket of my board shorts to give to Sam, whenever she next comes to stay. Perhaps she can use it in a piece of jewellery or a wind chime. She’s inherited her dad’s passion for creating art from beachcombed objects.
If only she came more often. I miss her, my daughter, who will probably be a parent herself before I know it.
You could actually go up to Melbourne. You know, visit her?
Now the gleam of wet rocks. The residue of salt water heightens every contour, deepens every shadow. I have to place my bare feet carefully here: the erosion of the rock has left sharp ridges. So puckered and broken is the reef, tourists often mistake it for an ancient lava field.
Up above the high-water mark, there’s a tree limb, carried in on a recent storm surge. It’s smooth, almost white: its bark stripped away by soaking in salt water, pounding on rough sand and rock, baking in hot sun. The sea scours, cleanses, bleaches, strips. It finds the essence of things and people.
Even its rot is clean: the stench of a putrescent stingray is pure, sinus-filling ammonia.
Not all of the flotsam is natural, of course. I gather the usual haul of chip packets and other small rubbish. A gaudy bottle which once held a flavoured milk drink. Five more of those damned masks, which I hold gingerly by the elastic strap. Yuck. Honestly, what’s wrong with people?
All this is destined for the litter bin: my good deed for the morning, undoing small acts of carelessness by the tourists – and by locals who should bloody well know better. Then I’ll sit over a latte out front of the General Store and Café and bask in my righteousness.
Kaja won’t let me traipse my wet, sandy feet inside, mind, so I’ll have to call my order from the door. It’s all part of our established routine, our cosy, small-town existence. No surprises.
Just about to ascend the wooden steps to the picnic area, with my thoughts already across the road with Kaja and coffee, I turn to scan the beach one last time … What is that, almost buried in the heap of kelp? I toss the litter in the bin and return to the beach for a closer look.
A rounded, blue dome with a moulded loop at its apex. I pull it free of the seaweed. It’s a blue-and-white fender of the sort that yachts use: a chubby inflated plastic cylinder, less than a metre long, a short rope tied to one end. It’s an unusual find on this beach, where the Surf Life Saving Club’s RIB is the only boat. Amazing, what washes up.
Trailing the fender in the shallows to wash the sand off, I notice that it’s heavier than expected. Water inside? I shake it. There does seem to be something moving around, but solid – not the slosh of liquid. Curious.
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Next week in Cast Ashore:
Chapter 2: Stormy Weather
Les doesn’t quite get the welcome he was hoping for over at Kaja’s, but at least Helmut and Bella are pleased to see him …