Are you going? by Faymarie Morris
We drove on, over the crest of a hill and saw the magnificent Indian Ocean, going on forever. Below us, where pure white sand and aquamarine water met, we had our first glimpse of Twilight Cove.
About 48 hours earlier we had left Perth and taken the inland road, passing through the small wheatbelt townships of Narrogin then Wagin before heading for Lake Grace, Lake King and turning off for Esperance which is part of the Recherche Archipelago and gateway to the Great Australian Bight. If we’d kept going instead of turning off we’d have eventually arrived at Norseman, entrance to The Nullarbor Plain, an 800 mile stretch of treeless road running between Western Australia and South Australia.
This was the holiday of a lifetime for myself and my two children, Melissa 14, [better known as Lissa] and Davy 9. It was the beginning of a 3 month visit to my Dad, who lived with 5000 head of sheep on an isolated Western Australian outstation. Sadly my husband couldn’t join us until the 3rd month.
Although the kids were enjoying this complete change from their normal lives, they craved adventure and other children. So, when my sister-in-law, Pam, offered to take us to the coast for a holiday within a holiday, we jumped at it. Sadly, this particular coast just happened to be 2 full days drive away and I soon found out that Pam had ulterior motives. She was a devout Christian and, as I’m an atheist, we clashed.
We’d been driving for hours when I had no other course of action but to ask her to stop treating us as a captive audience for her sermons. When she refused, I ordered her to stop the car and said we preferred to die of heat stroke than slowly be tortured to death by her sanctimonious piety and self-righteous rubbish. We got out of the car on an endless stretch of empty outback road and started to walk.
She agreed, reluctantly, and we climbed back in. The heat was relentless and the distances off the scale but we managed to settle for an uneasy kind of peace. There were 6 of us altogether. Pam and her 2 sons, John 9 and Paul, a toddler. She’d named them John and Paul during her Catholic period and whenever they were naughty, which was often, she threatened them with ‘the rod’ which she kept in her handbag. This turned out to be a simple wooden spoon but just the thought of it terrified my two.
At least the 6 berth static caravan was clean and well equipped and the Esperance Caravan Park not too busy. We ate our lunch in strained silence until Davy and John announced they were going fishing, somewhere John knew well. Earlier, Lissa had bought herself a second-hand surfboard, but with a missing ankle strap, and was desperate to try it out, so the rest of us went to Twilight Cove. Pam parked the car at the top of the cliff and we climbed down the 30+ steps onto a deserted expanse of pristine sand.
We explored some amazing rock formations at the water’s edge and made several sandcastles which Paul loved, but Lissa couldn’t wait any longer to try out her board. Pam warned her not to go out too far because of the dangerous rips, which meant nothing to me as I couldn’t swim a stroke.
Lissa was a strong swimmer, passing all her swimming and life-saving certificates with top marks, but she did as she was told and stayed close to the water’s edge. Each time I checked to see how she was doing, she seemed to be either falling off the surfboard or climbing back on. Pam and I immersed ourselves in the task of creating a life sized sand-car for Paul when I suddenly realised I hadn’t been watching Lissa.
I looked up and couldn’t see her, but her surfboard was blowing towards the beach. Then I noticed her blonde head bobbing up and down in the water. She was too far away, why had she gone out so far when we told her to stay close? She waved, I waved back and pointed at her surfboard, so she’d know it was safe.
Then Pam screamed, “she’s too far out. She’ll get caught in the rip…or worse, and I daren’t go out that far.” I began to panic. What could I do? I ran along the beach hoping to see someone, anyone else but there was no-one around. Pam said for me to look after Paul while she stayed at the water’s edge. I picked him up and started to run for the steps, in the vain hope that another car might be parked at the top.
My heart was beating so hard I couldn’t breathe and my arms felt as if they were being torn from their sockets. My legs felt like lead weights and the muscles burned, but I kept going up the steps, not daring to stop or turn around. About halfway up I glanced back, with a depth of dread I never experienced before.
She looked so tiny, her blonde head being tossed around in the waves that continually crashed over her, and I felt useless. What kind of a mother allows her child to… No! Don’t even think of..No! Stoppit. Anything but that. I couldn’t breathe. My legs were buckling underneath me but still I managed to hang on to Paul, who had begun to wail. I remember not wanting to look but looking anyway and saw Pam in the shallows, reaching…The world stopped turning, then, in slow motion I watched as their fingers touched.
How I managed to get down those steps I’ll never know, but I remember holding Paul under one arm, like a rolled up carpet, while steadying myself down the rope handrail, with the other. Pam was grabbing Lissa and lugging her out of the water and by then I was trying to run through soft sand, in a desperate bid to get to my child while wrestling with what felt more like a bag of Rottweilers than a toddler.
By the time I reached them I could hardly stand. Lissa was lying on the sand and Pam was kneeling by her side, singing. But it wasn’t singing, she was chanting, ‘Praise be to the Lord,’ while gazing up, crossing herself repeatedly and shouting that it was the blessed hand of God that had reached down and plucked her from the seething maelstrom. I immediately saw red and grabbed Pam by the hair. I said I had made it perfectly clear that we weren’t religious, so how dare she take it upon herself to behave like this?
Exactly what happened next is a bit of a blur but we must have controlled ourselves enough to climb back up to the car. I bundled Lissa onto the back seat and held her tightly in my arms while we both shivered uncontrollably. There was no-one about when we finally reached the caravan park so I carried my trembling child to the nearest ablution block for a hot shower. She wasn’t able to support herself so I got in with her and there we stood, fully clothed, clinging onto each other while letting the steaming water work it’s magic. Our shivering slowly eased but I couldn’t seem to stop stroking her hair or kissing the top of her head.
She wasn’t able to tell me what had happened to her or how she managed to save herself, until several days later.
“Mum, that surfboard really was the best fun I’ve had, ever, not that I was on it much and Twilight Cove is the most beautiful place. I did try to stay close to the beach, like Auntie Pam said, but the sea was stronger than me and when I realised how far out I had gone, it was too late. My surfboard blew away and the waves were getting bigger. I couldn’t get back to the shore. I tried and tried but the sea was angry and kept crashing over my head and the rip was pulling me back out. Then, I remembered what Mr Davey said at life-saving classes about staying calm and not fighting. It was horrible, Mum. I thought I was going to die and I hadn’t even said goodbye to Dad or Davy. Mum, I was really scared, but then I decided it was about time I stopped being so pathetic and did something to help myself. I don’t know why, but I started to sing, repeating the same words over and over until I found myself treading water. I kept on, singing the same words until I slowly started drifting back, towards the shore.
I could see you on the steps, holding Paul and Auntie Pam reaching out. The sea stopped being angry and I was floating towards her. But afterwards, while I was lying on the beach, she kept praying, rolling her eyes back and doing something weird with her hands, which I hated. I didn’t dare say anything, but, I was glad when you did!”
I told her how brave she was, how proud I felt and how much I loved her. Then I asked if she would please tell me which song she’d been singing.
“I don’t know why it was this song, Mum, except that it’s on one of the LP’s you played all the time, when I was a kid. But it’s only a bit that I repeated over and over again. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…I’ll always love that song.”
Well, I wonder what Simon and Garfunkel would think if they knew that one of their songs helped save my daughter’s life. Mr Davey’s lessons were important too, but it was mainly Lissa herself, her strength of character, her indomitable spirit, and… Scarborough Fair.