*Note: The following events are true, as remembered by me, aged 11.*
Albany, on the southern end of Western Australia, is cold, windy and wild for most of the year. Yes, there is an exception of a few months where it is comfortable and rather warm, but there is very little time in the year where swimming, for a normal red-blooded mammal, is advisable.
It was one of those times of the year where swimmers (the people who swim, possibly called ‘bathers’ in other parts of the country) had not yet begun to venture forth, even though the days were bright and clear. The wind was icy, straight off the Antarctic, my dad said. We were not deterred, my brother and I. We’d traveled over an hour to get to the beach, and we were wearing our bathers! (Swimmers, cosi or swim suit for those who don’t speak West Australian English, which I have since learned, is a different language from the English spoken in just about any other Australian state, or indeed other English speaking countries in the world.)
We were wearing our bathers, more out of spite than any desire to actually swim. We’d said we would wear them, Dad said it’d be too cold, we said we didn’t care, Dad said well it’s your funeral. An odd saying, that. It’s your funeral, I always wondered about it.
I don’t recall which beach it was, at that age all beaches were just ‘The Beach’ but Dad was right. Although the sun was out, the wind was colder than ice, as it bit through us like frosty tigers, and not the cute kind on the cereal that Mum refused to buy, but the angry kind. Mum and Dad, both sensible adults, stayed warm keeping their jackets on and only rolling up the legs of their pants as we walked along the beach, four abreast, marching along the bubbling water line as the waves breathed in and out. The sand was packed firmer where it was wet, an easier walk than the powdery white stuff further up the shore.
It was as if we were the only people in the world that day. Not another soul was brave enough or stupid enough to come down to the beach, it was too early in the season for swimming and too late in the day for surfing. It was magical, like we were the Swiss Family Robinson. Alone, marooned, enjoying our solitude. We walked, shoulder to shoulder Dad, Mum, me then my brother who, being braver or more foolhardy was knee deep in the roiling waves.
“Don’t go so deep in,” I told him. I was the big sister, the one who knew best, always maddeningly right.
He just laughed. He was the daredevil. There was this one time, when I was seven or eight, that he found metho and matches. I’d never seen Mum so cross. She panicked her voice pitched, so much higher than usual and she yelled, not loudly, but kind of hysterically, and shook him by his shoulders.
“That is so dangerous, look at me. Never, ever,” she punctuated each word with a small, firm shake, hands gripping him tightly, “touch matches! You could have been killed, you could have killed us all, the house could burn down!”
We had never seen mum so white and I watched as all colour fled my brother’s face too, and he actually fainted into her arms from the shock. It was at that point I realised that my baby brother was reckless, unaware of the consequences of his actions. I grew up that day, became the voice of reason, unreasonably righteous.
As he splashed about, he began to move away from me in the surf, and I told him to not go too far, or he would get too wet. He didn’t like me bossing him around and I shrugged and went back to kicking the incoming waves to splash the icy water about. Mum and Dad moved away from my aim. This is why we were smarter, we were in bathers because then we would be able to get wet and after, we would be able to change into our regular clothes. If Mum and Dad got wet, they’d be cold the entire journey home.
“Come back, don’t go so far!” I yelled at my brother as he stubbornly bobbed away and I could hear him laughing still.
Mum turned, “Get out of the water,” she told him. “It’s too cold.”
“I can’t,” he replied.
He can’t or he won’t? I thought cynically, but I didn’t say it, just looked at him with that grown up look of exasperation as he bobbed further away.
It was then that Mum cried his name, yelling for him in that same urgent voice, the one that rose higher than her actual speaking voice. She demanded he come back and he cried again that he couldn’t, as the rip pulled him further away from us, slowly but surely, like treacle oozing from a spoon. It wasn’t a sudden or frantic rush, like I’d always imagined, not like water churning down a plug hole or rushing down a water slide. On the surface everything was calm, the water seemingly normal, the waves breaking on the shore with regularity. That was what was so terrifying, how ordinary it all looked. My dad, my calm and rational dad, alerted by my mother’s cry, threw his sandals and jacket off, before plowing headlong into the water.
Mum and I raced up the sand dunes to get higher so she could see where my brother was over the crashing waves. Later she would say that she just had to keep my brother in sight. I followed and my brain was churning harder than the waves that broke below us. I couldn’t understand at that point what had happened, just watched as my dad pounded desperately through the waves and watched my brother’s little head bobbing further and further out to sea.
It all happened so fast, but the thoughts in my head seemed to make time slow down. My dad, although strong and wiry, was the least competent swimmer in our family, mum was little better. The best swimmer was me, I’d spent most of my summer holidays at Vac Swim, had achieved my Junior Swim and Survive certification, had practiced swim rescues, and I was running away! The adrenaline charging through my body, causing my heart to thunder in my ears and drowning out my mothers frantic cries, made my thinking muddled. We were watching my brother and father being swept out to sea, never to be seen again, and all I could think, was that Mum couldn’t lose both of her children today. I had to stay close to her and watch the tragedy from the safety of the dunes. My eyes were fixed on my brother’s head a tiny ball rising and falling as the waves churned.
I was witnessing his death. He’d come so close throughout his life, but this was it. His nine cat lives had run out. This was worse than the time I had told him to stick his neck out of the back window on the tail gate of our Kingswood with the electric winder windows, then pushed the up button on the dash. He’d gone blue then, and I remember Mum threatening to bash one of the side windows in with a rock, to get to the switch. She yelled at me through the locked car doors, in hysterical fear. I was only about five then, but that image of my mother in active panic mode with raised rock ready to smash a window to save her child, stayed with me.
Mum wasn’t in active panic mode now. She was like that lady in the horror movies, watching, screaming, but totally ineffectual. I just cried. My world was crumbling in front of me. The wind whipped my hair into my eyes and threw Mum’s shouting away, so her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear her.
It was then that I saw him. To this day I swear he was an angel sent by God. An angel in a wetsuit. His hair was long, and he had a beard. If he’d been wearing a white robe, he would have been Jesus! Instead he carried a large white surfboard and he rushed down toward the beach and across the sand. Without fear, he plunged into the ocean from further to our right and walked through the waves from the opposite direction. He walked, all the way, to where my brother was bobbing, and placed him on his surfboard, then he walked my dad and brother back to shore. To my young mind it must have been a miracle. Dad had been over his head in the waves, yet this stranger didn’t even have to swim, he had his feet on the ground the whole way.
We rushed to my bedraggled and exhausted father and brother as they emerged from the surf, hugging and crying all the while. I’m sure my mother was saying thank you, I was just crying. Eventually the man with the surfboard went on his way. Not sure where he went, but we didn’t see him again. It was like he showed up to do one job, perform one selfless act, then he vanished. Our paths met, momentarily and a miracle occurred, before we moved on our separate ways.
I call him my Guardian Angel on a Surfboard. If he continued on his way to surf that day, I don’t recall, I just know that one moment he was there, the next he was not. Once the shock wore off, we bundled ourselves back into our car and left the beach, made the hour long journey home, wet tired and grateful to be together.