The shipwreck coast
Today Captain Charles’s house is for sale and we can go inside. I don’t understand why they are selling it because Mrs Charles says that places can be whatever you want them to be. But once I heard the Captain say that places never change, that people are condemned to repeat over and over if they stay in the same place, so maybe that is why. But he’s gone off on his boat now.
Mum says that new people will buy it and we can be their friends but will be all different. I bet they don’t let me help like Mrs Charles used to let me help. Most grown-ups say you are helping and then all you are allowed to do is lick the bowl. Her cakes were better than anyone’s. When I grow up I’m going to be as gooda cook as Mrs Charles. She said so. She told me I could be whatever I want to be and that being a cook is easy and if that is what I wanted to be I would be. She used to get a faraway look in her eye when she said it, like she was in the kitchen with me but also she was far away. Last time I was there she was crying when she said it, and she said it was never too late to start again. She said, ‘Polly, you can realize your dreams at any age,’ but I know that’s not true because once before she told me I had to wait until I grew up.
On the wall in her kitchen we marked all of our heights, me and Timmy alongside James and Matthew. They grew up and moved away before I used to go there much. James got married and moved to Sydney and Mathew is in the navy. Just before he went away Mrs Charles stood Mathew up to the wall and marked how tall he was, then she put me there too and then Mathew said that I’d be grown up when I was as tall as him, and Mrs Charles laughed.
Thing is, I’m nearly there. I’ve grown heaps. Mum keeps complaining about how I grow out of my dresses, so today I’m going to go in and see if I’m grown up.
Natalia parked carefully in the driveway a short distance back from the house. She had spent the morning washing and polishing the car just as Nina taught her. Eventually she would be as successful as Nina and she would have a Mercedes too but for now this was all she could afford, and she had to admit even a shiny white Hyundai parked like this did lend a sense of elegance to the property.
She carried the home open signs to the corner and placed them carefully. This was another thing Nina had taught her. Time spent walking to put signs out created the opportunity to meet. One of the locals could be her next listing.
Inside she put coffee on to percolate and placed flowers in the front room. She had a good feeling about today, for despite the house being small and not the sort of thing most buyers wanted it was at a good price, and, even better, the owner had agreed to rent back the huge shed that still had a desk and books and boxes of all sorts of boating stuff cluttering it. It would be perfect for a young couple like Nicky and Oliver. Most agents didn’t spend time with buyers like that, first timers, those that didn’t have anything else to sell.
‘Each deal you do should lead to two more deals. Get into the second home market,’ said Nina, ‘they have more money and they have property to sell too, then the people who buy that, and so on.’
Her first full commission. She would pay off the car. Maybe a small celebraition, but not too much. She’d take something around to buyers when they moved in. And for Mrs Charles. Because after all, Nina was right. Every seller is a buyer.
One day she’d be sitting pretty like Nina. But for now, work.
‘Oh, it’s perfect,’ squealed Nicky.
‘It’s small,’ said Oliver. He paced the hallway and extended his arms in the main bedroom. Nicky followed him.
‘But we can extend. And there is a big shed.’
‘Full of junk.’
‘For a year. And we get rent. Then,’ she rubbed her tummy,’ when we need more room, y’know.’
‘But…’ Oliver put his arms around her and kissed her. She knew she had won but let him continue, ‘a stranger coming and going up and down our driveway.’
‘She said he’s going sailing for a year. He’s a captain and he just wants to store stuff there, he won’t ever come here.’
‘You can’t really trust what agents say.’
‘It will work out fine.’ She led him back to the kitchen where the agent was sitting at the table. A young girl had come in and stood against the wall. She looked directly at Nicky.
‘Am I up to it yet?’
Nicky looked at the marks on the wall behind, Matthew, James, Polly and Tim the shortest.
‘Are you Polly?’ The girl looked at her with big hopeful eyes. Nicky’s heart stopped. This would be her children too. She’d measure them as they grew, put their marks on the wall. Three children. Oliver only wanted two but she would talk him round.
‘Yes. Am I the tallest?’
‘Not yet honey. You have two more centimeters to go.’
‘Orr.’ Then, ‘When I get as tall as Matthew, I’ll be all growed up. He joined the navy, but I’m gunna be a cook.’
‘Did you used to live here?’ Nicky asked. She didn’t remember anything about small children. It was an older couple.
‘No silly. I live over there, but Mrs Charles lets me come over and help cook. She was the best cook. She said when I grow up I can be the best cook. But I still have two centimeters to go.’
‘Well,’ said Nicky as she exchanged glances with Oliver and the agent, ‘until you grow up can you can come over sometimes and teach me how to cook?’
By late morning Wellington had been driving virtually non stop since midnight. Airport and back, then the early work crowd, then the mid morning elderly, hospital, doctors appointment, shops. He decided on one last fare.
The woman was older, but not elderly. She gave him an address and sat in the back without speaking.
Wellington had a pretty good sense of people. He knew better than to try to force conversation when none was wanted. Twice he had won taxi driver of the year and he liked to think it was because of his good sense of people.
When he first arrived, after the boat trip and after three years in detention and after giving up any hope of using his business degree, when he first began to drive taxi’s, everyone looked the same. He could easily tell the difference between an Afghan and a Kurd, a Persian or an Indian, but these people, the businessmen and the travelers, they all looked the same.
For a while he didn’t care, he held onto dreams of something greater and using his engineering degree, but one day, for some reason, the voice of his father came to him. ‘Son, whatever you do, where ever you are, just remember that a man is measured by how he treats others, not by what town or country he was born in and certainly not by his work.’ At the time Wellington was watching a woman in the rear-view mirror as she struggled with her bags. He got out to help her.
‘Never get out of the cab,’ his instructor had told him. Other drivers confirmed this. ‘Always stay inside, keep the door locked and the cash secure,’ they said.
Taxi driver of the year! Just for doing what was courteous. Open the door, help them with things into the boot or carry shopping up the driveway to the front door. Once he had driven all the way across town to return a wallet left on the seat. It was just what was reasonable to do for people.
The woman asked him not to stop as they approached the address.
‘Just drive by.’
He slowed but didn’t answer for a while. The house was for sale and a home open sign was on the front lawn. A girl stood on the footpath with her bicycle. The woman said something that sounded like ‘Polly’ but he saw her turn away and she seemed to be crying.
He drove on. He had the overwhelming sense that he needed to say something to her, but couldn’t think how to begin. He knew that a new life, a new beginning, that hope and happiness would arise from whatever her despair was, but to say this, to tell her, he would have to wait. He knew that the right moment would come.
Margaret told me it was foolish to go but I just had to. Thirty two years gone like that. Perhaps the last chance to see inside and look over things, but as we slowed past I saw Polly I and knew I couldn’t cope. I nearly cried. The taxi driver brought me home again and he was great, talked to me and as it was the end of his shift I invited him in. He told me all about how he came to Australia and stories of his home and being a refugee and I got to thinking how selfish I was being feeling sorry for myself, about losing my house and my kitchen.
Funny thing, I was even angry at them sorting through Peter’s stuff in the shed, even though I say to Margaret that he can rot in hell you can’t just lose a lifetime of caring like that. Anyway, the agent rang and I’ve accepted the offer, and they are going to lock the shed and leave it until he gets back from the sailing trip, so at least I don’t have that to worry about.
Margaret has agreed I can stay here for as long as I like but I think secretly she is hoping it’s permanent. She’s been alone since Angelo died. At least Angelo had the grace to die, not just up and leave her. Do I wish Peter dead? No. Well, not usually.
Margaret says I can have the garage for my business. There is plenty of room. We’ll set up the mixers on the long bench and with some of the money from the house I can get a commercial oven. After all these years I’m a bit scared. Oh, we used to argue about it, how I gave up my dream so he could pursue his, but now that it’s real I start to wonder if I am still up to it.
That’s what I was thinking. But the taxi driver, Wellington was his name, he says I can do anything, that anyone can have a new beginning, and what’s more, he knows lots of women who need work. Good cooks, and we could sell by party plan. We had a good laugh, he and I, that I would soon be running a sweat shop kitchen in Margaret’s garage.
Pat, I got your radio message. I have sailed in close to get phone range and get this quick email to you.
Yes I agree to the price.
I will arrive Jurien tomorrow but be back at sea by settlement so if you can transfer my share to me that would be good. Regards renting the shed back, of course this comes from my half.
I know I haven’t always been the best. I see that now. I wish I could go back and that together we could both have done the things we wanted.
But this was something I had to do. All those years researching and writing books about those early sailors and yet I had never sailed the coastline. But now, well, at sea, only the birds and horizon, sky and water, and my achievements, well, they seem so petty. Five books, some research, papers at conferences.
I think now I might know the state of mind of those explorers, who, after weeks at sea with nothing but their dreams in front of them, how, as they approached the coast it became a moment of truth. Perhaps their dreams might not be what they thought they were.
And now I know, as I approach, that those that didn’t make it did not shatter their dreams upon this coast and lie derelict upon the barren shore. Dreams die at sea with the same slow relentless certainty of the death of all dreams. The passing of days and the day to day drudgery of living kills all dreams. How many days was it before they felt the first regret of leaving loved ones? When did they first wish for home and question that it was essential to change location in order to change their lives? Is destiny irrevocably tied into the landscape?
I should make landfall tomorrow. I’m very tired right now and am rambling a bit. Being alone for so long is kind of good, but it is difficult.
I think the book that comes from this will be my best yet. It will have a whole lot more heart in it.
I know we argued about this but for now I can’t work out why. Anyway, perhaps when I get back to Fremantle next year, perhaps you will have forgiven me. Maybe we will be able to meet.
Gerry saw the sweep of headlights and the flash of a car as it roared in the entrance without slowing. He knew Linc would sit with the music throbbing and engine idling so while the ute cooled down Gerry ran the boat engines to warm them. He drank down his warm sweet coffee and laughed as Linc came running out the jetty.
‘Your music’ll wake the whole town.’
‘Yeah Grampa, whatever.’
‘What we got?’
Gerry paused. Anyone else called him Grampa he’d have a go at him. But he liked Linc. Of course, he’d never tell him, but Linc had a boyish enthusiasm that reminded him of himself.
‘Our mission is to save lives,’ he said, ‘including yours.’ He pointed up at Linc’s ute. ‘No sense killing yourself or hitting someone on the road just ‘cause we got a call out.’
Before he was forced into early retirement Gerry would not have changed his life on the tugs for anything. When they first told him he was redundant, he was angry, and then even more furious when they offered the pittance and said he was unfit. ‘Industrial deafness.’ But now, things were OK. He liked the new age, the new way, the future that belonged as much to him as to all these young kids, the future that allowed them not to go deaf from a lifetime in the engine room, not to lose fingers or even an arm to the hero antics of tough men.
‘No-one out at this time Grampa.’ Linc leapt around the boat untying the pen lines. Gerry noticed him casting a careful eye around the boat to see that all was shipshape before they put to sea. He was a good lad.
‘Well, there was. Someone saw a flare out back of Escape Island. You could’ve run them over the way you drive.’
‘Just be some old codger can’t sleep. Someone past his use-by date.’
‘Might be me.’
‘Stop talking. Get on the radio.’
While Linc logged on with rescue base Gerry eased the vessel out into the channel and opened the throttle. It was a dark night with no moon and a low cloud cover. Not even starlight to see by. But he knew the area well and so he pushed the boat as fast as he dare. Suddenly he was smiled to himself. Was he displaying the same overconfidence as Linc in his ute by driving the boat as fast as this?
‘What you laughing at Grampa?’
Gerry glanced across at Linc.
‘Dark out there. Keep you eyes open.’
‘I got a bad feeling about this one. Not the sort of night for false alarms.’
Yet again, Gerry though how much he liked this lad and how, despite all his loud music and throbbing car engine, he was a smart thinker and just the sort of crew you wanted. Just the sort of person you wanted by your side when it really mattered.
‘Yep,’ he said, ‘this feels like the real thing. No-one should try to come in south channel on a night like this.’ And what he didn’t say was, if it was him out there smashed onto the reef, he and Linc would be exactly the sort of people he would want to come rescue him. And, despite himself, he was sort of glad someone was out there in trouble. It gave him a reason, a purpose, a link to all the guys like Linc who, he knew, would otherwise see him as just some washed-up old codger past his use-by date. Worse than that though, was, if he wasn’t doing this he’d be lining up outside the post office on pension day.
He looked again at Linc who was leaning forward on the top of the windshield, his sharp eyes scanning the sea ahead. Gerry felt a wave of warmth wash over him. Funny, he thought, how happiness came not when you arrived at the destination of your dreams but at some other parallel place, a nearby place. You just had to be willing to let the dream go when luck was running your way.