Reflections in Salt Water

I watched the Willy Wagtail bounce across the path with the singular purpose of a tiny bird in search of breakfast. Children giggle as they stumbled over the grass, their mother laughing as she tries to gather them in her arms. A golden retriever shares a breakfast burger with his owner, both delighted by the delicious ooze dribbling down their chins. The day is cool and overcast, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of the summer, and the world seems a little lighter because of it.

I stood leaning against the railing along the dunes, inhaling the clean air in deep, fulfilling gulps. It had rained last night. The kind of rain that wakes you from your sleep, crashing against the windows. The kind of rain that creates deep, muddy puddles for dogs to charge through with joyous abandon. The kind of rain that makes the ocean ferocious and wild, pounding against the sand with no remorse. The sound of waves fill my ears, the salt so heavy on the wind I can taste it on my lips. Beach closed signs pepper the sand from headland to headland, but that doesn’t stop two intrepid searchers battle against the surging swell to reach clear water, the froth engulfing them as they paddle on determinedly.

I love the sea, the expanse of it, the power of it. The way it cleanses. The way it washes away the sweat of a hot day. It can make us feel small and alone, or part of something bigger than we dare to  fathom.

I wander along the footpath towards the boardwalk, my ever-present furry companion trotting to heel beside me, sitting patiently as I stop every so often to try to catch an image of sea-spray bursting into the sky, where it hangs briefly like a sparkling curtain beneath the inky clouds. The seagulls sit glued to the sand daring not to fly in case they’re swept off on a gust wind, and the rock pools churn with water, causing me to wonder if the tiny creatures who live there are hanging on for dear life, or if they’ve been flushed away, only to struggle through the tide over and over to reclaim their homes. There’s a man wearing nothing more than a towel and tattoos, gently strumming a ukulele while sitting in the back of his van. I try to hear the song he plays, but it drifts away on the breeze before I can catch it.

I don’t know why I love the ocean so much. It’s not the pleasure of going to the beach on a sweltering summer’s day, a melanoma scare and the sunscreen, sun shirts and sun-proof tents taking the joy out of a day at the beach. Maybe it’s because my father was a Captain in the Merchant Navy. He spent most of his life on the sea. From voyages on enormous ships around the world, to the wild waters of the Bass Strait and navigating the Sydney to Hobart race on more than one occasion. When I was young, he built a yacht in our backyard. Not a small yacht. Not the kind that goes on a trailer behind the car for a Sunday afternoon sail. It was a bloody great big thing, looming high above my child sized height, ladders propped at either end, which I walked under daily hoping the superstitions were just that. I remember the day she was lifted by a giant crane over the back fence and taken to her new birth at The Spit. All our neighbours coming out to marvelling at this wondrous thing making her way down the street, floating in mid-air.

As the wooden path winds around the cliff face, I look at the familiar rocks below, rugged and broken; small yellow daisies struggling to survive in tiny patches of dirt. It feels like I have scrambled over each and every one of those rocks in my youth, before I cared about the dangers of such activities. I remember poking my fingers into unfortunate anemones, their feathery tendrils grabbing on to me, thinking I was a meal. I’ve always lived only minutes from the beach, and sometimes only seconds. From Freshwater, to Curl Curl, to Collaroy, to Manly, to Dee Why, as my life moved, the ocean was always my constant.

I’ve swum in the Ionian Sea, the Balearic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, but nothing compares to my bold, and beautiful Pacific. Standing on the shores of Venice Beach in California, I’ve looked out to the horizon, thinking, “Just over there is my home.” It’s my Pacific, and whether or not I’m a long way from family and friends, her waves will always connect us.

I walk down the path and around the point to a seat dedicated to a man whose name I didn’t know, but who I do know was loved. I gaze over Freshwater, remembering my childhood adventures on its warm sands. The paddle pops and sausage rolls from the tuck-shop under the surf club, the colour and excitement of the swimming carnivals and the lazy days we hung onto the chain rails around the pool, letting the waves crash over us. I remember when I was caught in a rip, not realising until I was far past the other swimmers that I was in trouble. I fought my way back to shore, practicing my lessons learned a school, of swimming across the tide not against it, pulling myself exhausted but proud into the shallows. I remember the bluebottle stinger that went down the front of my cossie, and the embarrassment I felt when the lifesavers came to my aid.

As the dark sky begins to drizzle rain down upon us, and another storm rumbles threateningly above, my dog and I start our trek home, stopping to say hello to a scruffy Jack Russel along the way. He reminds me of my first dog, Harry and I reminisce over our final moments together. The beach was our special place, and on his last day on this earth I took him there for one final visit. He was old, and sick, and blind, but as he sat curled in my lap, he slowly lifted his snout in the air and sniffed the familiar scents of that happy place. The breeze gently ruffled his fur, the smell of the salt making his clown nose twitch. I gazed down at him, my precious boy and looked around at that perfect place and knew that tiny, bitter sweet point in time, like so many others spent by these waters, would live in my heart forever.

I sometimes wonder who I would have become if, so long ago, my family had not chosen Australia as our new home, if we hadn’t settled on the breathtaking Northern Beaches. Would I still be me? Would I still feel the draw of the majesty of the brine? Would I still love to look out across its enormity? Would it still silence my mind at the end of a chaotic day? Would it still call to me, no matter where in the world I am?

So many perfect and imperfect memories, all bound by the power of the ocean.

Who would I have become if I hadn’t grow-up with saltwater kissing my skin?

© Amy Hutton 2019


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