As the old joke says, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
My trip to Chelsea was a rather melancholy pilgrimage. My old house is gone, almost every house I knew in the street is gone, the playground and bluestone wall at the end of the street are gone, the way down to the beach through the dunes is gone. Everything is shabbier except the boatsheds, which have been tarted up with bright colours and new paint, and at first even the beach itself didn’t seem the same; was it really that narrow? Perhaps it was time to get that gnawing nostalgia of my system. Though I lived in our family house (deduct three years spent in the country in the middle 1960s) until I was 19, and then again for about a year in my early 20s, it’s my first 7 years that are most strongly imprinted. My child’s eye view is gone because the child is gone. Almost.
I guess I expected the house to go. It was always a bit of a dump; a family holiday home that grew, bit by bit, from the 1920s to the 1970s. A rabbit warren of a place, with odd doors and passages and steps. was the kingdom of childhood, a land of adventure – many lands, in fact, for there were different zones – the dusty, spidery narrow behind the bungalows, the overgrown sandpit under the tree, the path at the side lined with orange-flowered cliveas thriving in the dry shade, the lavatory wall covered by a passionfruit vine, the pincushion hakea and the wattle in the back courtyard, the sweep of tough grass where I’d run under the sprinkler, the cubby house, the eyrie built by my father for the express purpose of viewing sunsets, the path up to the beach gate made of rejected marble slabs (my great-grandfather was a marble and gold-leaf importer), the twisted, witchy ti-trees along the back fence, and the gate itself, opening onto sand-dunes and sea and sky.
It was only when I saw the drifts of tiny white shells, like flaked almonds, that my Chelsea self began to awake, but it was walking barefoot that really filled me with silly joy. As if a memory was held in the soles of my feet. It was the firm, crunchy sensation of those particular crushed shells, that specific gritty sand, the hard surface underfoot at the tide-line softening into sinking sand a few steps up from the shore. And then seagulls and sky and clouds and blue and waves and the breeze on my face and I was seven again, running like the wind along the sandbar chasing gulls and making them take off and fly in front of me, and feeling like I myself was flying…
February. The hot brazen disc of the sun, the arc of the bay, the faint shapes of the You Yangs in heat haze across the water. Judith and I would stand ankle-deep in the sea watching the cloud banks change colour as the sun sank lower and the last gulls, crying, winged home. Under our feet the sand was gritty with shell fragments and marked with corrugations left by the waves. Wading out, we would go up to our knees, thighs, and then step up onto a smooth sand-bank. The neighbours, Dutch immigrants, all tall and blonde, would pass by in their little boat, calling our names.
A heat wave. When it was dark, mothers carried fretful babies down to the sea’s edge to catch the breeze while the men and children took torches and spears out for flathead. Later, whole families arrived with pillows and bedding to sleep on the beach.
‘Like we did in the Underground,’ said Judith.
‘No, Ju, not the same thing,’ said Rob.
‘Sleeping in public,’ she explained. ‘The Henry Moore drawings.’
‘But we’re not in danger, are we?’
How could they even think in this heat? I paddled away from them and their talk. When something moved under my foot, I screamed, lost balance and subsided into the water.
‘Bliss? Are you all right?’ Rob and Judith splashed after me, but I just laughed and lay back with my wet dress billowing out and they each took one of my hands and towed me along, Rob singing Roll Out the Barrel, and Judith harmonizing. I was giddy with the dark, the moon, the heat, the cool, the love.
Near Rob and Judith’s house, there was a rest-home for nuns. They walked in pairs in the early evening, ominous and black-clad, their habits and veils flapping in the breeze. When I read in the local paper that one of them had drowned, I was surprised. As I wrote to Felix, I could not imagine a nun in a bathing suit.
Some mornings a kind of jungle telegraph would draw us down onto the beach with buckets ready to buy fish. The fishermen pulled their boats up onto the sand and from the full squirming nets they first threw back what they didn’t want. Into the shallows went the bony, the undersized, the puffer fish all stuck with poisoned spines and stingrays that flew immediately away from the shore, dark and demonic on their undersea wings.