Issue sevenIssue Seven Fiction

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by Karen Lethlean


During my teenage years, summertime meant heat and boredom. As if an offering to Sun Gods, I laid out on a blanket of damp sweat, Le Tan, and coconut oil products. Advised by a skin specialist in a plush Subiaco office, to rectify teenage acne by ‘getting as much sun as you can’.

I complied with the medico’s instructions out of fear. My parents paid a fortune for those consultations; we sat awed and nervous under his rows of framed degree certificates. This was a time I was most naïve of how man could manipulate.

Dead mussels lined shores, also rotting in sunlight’s glare. Seagulls pecked and cawed, white-winged sociopaths, scavenging food. So much like the crazed seagulls from Finding Nemo. Their grating squawks became reminders of my gurgling stomach.

Trying to shift away from this hunger by thinking instead of oceanic creatures. Whales. Why is whale talk assumed to be soothing and blissful when nobody knew what the hell they were saying? Surely whales fight like other intelligent species, maybe they are yelling at each other. You miserable hump back bastard, that’s the last plankton you’re ever gonna get from me. Oh, get a life, go blow some air. Do that again and I’ll smash you… Not helping.

So I watch him instead, the Lifeguard. One employed to watch the beach. Radio crackling at his hip, whistle between lips. A pity no one guards helpless, ill-informed, trusting individuals inside supposedly comfortable homes. Looking over at his white shirt, I think I could never be a lifeguard. Keeping focus in the moment is not my strength. What if I forget, get sidetracked thinking about a vast, unknowable oceanic macrocosm.

Same as my not always remembering things, a lifeguard could forget to look for signs of drowning.

Like what happened that one time when we kids let things get a tad out of control with Ben and his pals. Bit of summer holiday, beach day fun. Tall, skinny lifeguard on duty pushing into our circle, grabbing him by the hair, swearing at us. I know better now, but back then we kids had no idea. All our water playing, holding our breath, splashing, tugging hair and limbs, doesn’t look like drowning at all.

A Lifeguard should be familiar with signs of drowning; a hapless swimmer floating face down – too late then. Putting your hand up to signal a need for assistance – how difficult it is to do so when you can barely tread water and are being swamped with angry waves? Even I would have trouble. Pity there aren’t more chances to call for help. Faced with little kids mucking about with epic splashing games, water in faces, coughing and sputtering, not being able to find footing on uneven ground, tripping on exposed rocks, being underwater for too long… throwing up in the ocean. No wonder he came running. Right now I could do with such a savior.

Foul smells close to waterline. Not quite pristine out here. Do they still pump sewage out into the sea? Is there a sheep-ship loading in Fremantle? Or a tanker letting off fuel out in Gage Roads? Maybe I can smell decaying seaweed. A pity environmentalists won’t let councils rake sand, make it all pretty, and take away shore dumped crap like back when I was a kid. Suppose you can’t always hide nasty stuff.

If I swim, it’s possible to escape the heat, sun and smells. A dip is worth the risk of bikini-top loss, worth bothering to duck every three seconds to avoid being smashed by a wave. Know what a hit to the face feels like. Not always possible to go out far enough past where waves break, nor avoid a slap. Sometimes it’s my fault. Besides further out is not an option due to more significant potential of shark attacks.

Most man-eating sharks in history are from these waters. Un-netted waters. Not even a slight hint of protection out there. My beach has a well-documented history of attacks. Matching statistics about women killed by partners, family members, those who supposedly love them. Offshore monsters were honing in on currents relevant to lobster fishing and whale oil production. Apex carnivores didn’t get a memo informing that the latter ceased back in the mid-1970s. Just like some people didn’t sign white-ribbon agreements. Even if die-hards attempt to say that biting a human is merely a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps snivel that they didn’t mean to hurt her.

Not so long ago I asked a group of dedicated swimmers, ‘Which is the safest place to swim?’

‘Along shoreline, parallel, keep inside reefs,’ I am told.

Gazing out, I cannot see a designated secure location.

‘What’s your worry?’ a concerned stranger asks.


‘Oh, come on. It’s been ten years since our last fatality!’

Suppose that’s long enough. Especially when even I see posts on Facebook about how long it has been since a woman died. You know, it’s been a whole two months since he hit me.

Pity there is no-one to ask about safety when it comes to who shares your bed.

The water’s chill removes heat-haze-nausea, but my brain is sticky still. I thought I’d be free, but my mind wanders back over, I hear it again…you fucken cunt!

But isn’t oceanic immersion about floating? About drifting away. One day I will leave. Read once it takes up to eight attempts to end an abusive relationship.

Made the first step, fixed things so now he can’t control my money, I could board a jet, buy or rent a van and drive it to Sydney – 5-6 hours, or 2-3 days – options to cross a continent. Finally, I get to swim in another ocean. A wide country is my mussel and I am its seagull. Not sure if I like placing myself into this allusion. Seagulls are plagued with too many problems thanks to their human, planet earth co-habitants. Broken wings, swallowed plastic, missing and horribly disfigured legs. But I do feel a kindred for those little feathered ones who are getting their own back though, spreading flesh eating and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Probably don’t need to go to such cross-continental extremes. Rather be sitting watching, not burdened with the responsibilities of a lifesaver. Instead become a spectator on a beachside.

But instead of relaxing on vast shores of opportunities, I detect my lips pressing together, I swallow and blink, once again my stomach cringes in pain. This time not from his weight, his energy stabbing between my legs. Except I am noticing sensations just before my legs cramp, and my back aches. Too late to say, stop, don’t do that, it hurts, you should know never…

Constrained even more so now, I finally detect choices. Possible to go away, change jobs, leave him. People always say, why don’t you leave…? When really they should ask him, why do you do it? Why do you think things you do, swearing, yelling, hitting are okay?

What if I get out but nothing changes? What if the whole world is filled with people laughing at dumb jokes I never think funny?

Why do seagulls have wings?
To beat scavengers to rubbish dumps.

What kind of shark is always gambling?
Card shark.

What is a shark’s favourite sci-fi show?
Shark Trek.

Why do sharks make terrible lawyers?
They’re too nice!

Is my world really so full of picking over trinkets, looking for something of value?

What if new situations, posing as escapes envelop me into sameness? Don’t abuse things work in cycles? I don’t think I could handle disappointments. Imagining another person swearing, spitting, and raising their hand to slap. What if my son grew up like his father?

Instead, I stay here, caught in summertime’s ritual of freedom. Remembering how my mother tried to get Dad to share a pay packet, instead of drinking it away. Dwelling on how a school teacher threw a duster across our room, slapped blackboards, yelled and swore, even though he didn’t think we could hear curses. How high school boys dipped tampons in tomato sauce and threw them into our bags.

‘You will never make squad, unless you swim harder. These sets are on a minute,’ screamed our swim coach.

Even I noticed how he looked at girls, floundering to complete programs. Put us behind faster, stronger boys. Almost dribbled over our new club costumes.

‘Hurry up, you useless article. How long does it take you to do a 50m backstroke?’

‘I will get in the water and show you a correct tumble turn!’ He’s already pulling off his t-shirt, flashing chest hair and muscles at a cowering group of pre-teens.

‘Don’t let him touch you,’ whispers little Jenny. I remember her start dive lessons, his hand behind her. Other girls tell me to hide, go under water. When I resurface, he’s almost blue in the face. Hear him tell mum, ‘If she won’t listen to my instructions, no point in being part of our swimming club.’

Rip currents keep dragging me close to rocks, and I grow tired of fighting, learnt responses of self-protection. Cringe, cry silently, close, but don’t lock doors. I’ve heard Lifeguards go ape-shit about kids jumping off rocks. Despite risks of getting caught up with fishermen’s rods, lines and tackle. Radio crackling with requests for assistance, blowing their whistle, shaking their heads about swimming outside the flags. Don’t want to draw their admonishment.

So I go back to my towel, collect my things and head up toward the nearby cafes for ice cream. Impossible to handle pre-sea-breeze heat without some sort of mediator. I struggle to maintain balance of controlling the cone’s side-drip while still eating delicately enough not to smear my cheeks or lick in a way which doesn’t give creepy boys quivers. I am just going to suck on my ice cream, trying to stop behaving in ways meant to protect me. Such things aren’t helping. Time to do something different.