Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Me and the Sea | Shell-sea Ellem
It’s seven on a Sunday morning, and Pete’s at it again on the mower. He is, mind you, the only one who actually bothers to mow the lawn in this dump of a town. But seven on a Sunday morning? Fuck, that’s not on!
I kick off the doona and stagger over to the window. I try to jam the damn salt-rusted thing open to yell out some abuse, but then realise I’m still stark naked. I fling the curtains back and grab my dressing gown instead. I stiffly walk down the hall past the kids’ old rooms. Leaving the bathroom door wide open, I plonk myself down on the dunny. With my bare ass exposed to the freezing air, I slump over last week’s paper. I’m not much of a reader, but I’m the type who likes to take my sweet time on the loo, so I don’t mind sinking my teeth into The Telegraph all the while. I like to know what’s going on outside of this old town Cathos every now and again.
The pipes clang and rattle in the rickety cottage as the dunny flushes, and bracing myself against the basin, I stare at myself in the streaky mirror. Same old dial, and despite the smudged mascara, I wink at myself and grin.
"Doin’ orright for an old gal."
I’ve always unnerved blokes. Just a swing of the old hips and the lads around town still get a little jittery, though I’m getting worse for wear every day. I lean in close to the mirror to examine my drooping eyelids and my blotchy skin. My head pulses, and it feels like there’s a few bats in the attic. God, hangovers get worse with age.
I turn the tap on, but it takes a little while for the pipes to kick into action. Eventually, they spurt some icy water into the basin. I splash my face then rub it fiercely with the hand towel. I look in the mirror once again.
"God, what am I gonna do today?"
My stomach growls, and I walk to the kitchen. The tiles are cold underfoot, and I mutter something about saving up to carpet the place. I open the fridge and stare at the guts of it for a while–full of beer and not a whole lot else. I figure that beer for brekky isn’t a great habit to get into. With nothing to eat and nothing to do (except for the backlog of washing piling up in the laundry), I decide to head to the beach. It’s about time I got outta the house. Been doing a lot of drinking by myself in the lounge room these last few weeks. I open the front door, and a gust of wind tears through the house. I pull my dressing gown tighter.
I walk barefoot on the dewy grass to the old panel ute in the driveway. My brother, Jimmy, left it for me. It used to be red, but it’s faded now to the colour of a rotten peach. It’s a banged-up, leaky old beater, but I like it. If nothing else, it reminds me of him. It takes a few goes before the engine kicks into gear, and when it does, the exhaust spurts a whole lotta gritty smoke. I’ve got to wait a coupla moments for it to clear before I can see out the back window to reverse. It takes me three minutes to get to the beach, and two of those minutes are driving along a twenty-metre stretch of potholes. The council doesn’t invest much money into this town. We have always been a forgotten lot.
I reverse the old beater into the north-end car park, wrap myself up in a coupla crusty towels, and sit on the tray. The onshore wind hits me with an onslaught of sand and the stench of seaweed. I squint my eyes into that bastard sun. The panelled tray isn’t particularly comfy, and when I lean back, the tray digs into my spine. I grab a few more towels and lay them over the tray to make it a little comfier. It’s not exactly pleasant sitting here, but I suppose it’s better than moping around the house all day. I reach into the front cabin and grab a tattered copy of The Old Man and the Sea from the dash. It’s got "C.P.S. Library" stamped on the second page. I took it from the school library all those decades ago and never read it. I just found it in the back of my wardrobe the other day, amongst a few mothballs. I tell you what: your past is always lurking somewhere, whether it be in the back of your mind or the shadows of your wardrobe. So many people think you can just get up one day and run away from it all as though it’s of no consequence. But take it from me, your past is a part of you, and there’s no escaping it, no matter how fast or how far you run.
I haven’t read much of the book, but it’s a thin one, not too many words. With no kids in the house anymore, no bloke and my brother buggered off to the city, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands. And fuck me, I’ve resorted to reading.
I don’t really know what the story’s about. I kinda just read it without reading, if you know what I mean. I read a sentence, then another, then a chapter–and fuck, who knows what just happened! It just gives me space to think about my own story–not a very exciting one. I spent the whole shebang in the one bloody house. Back in the day, that was what every sitting Bob did. No one thought about leaving. It was a meat-and-po-tatoes kinda town, and back in the day, everyone was satisfied with what they were dished. If you were a bloke, you worked in the mines, and if you were a lady, you had a coupla kids. That was the way life worked. It was just us at Cathos. The only other people that came were the blow-in surfers from up and down the coast of a Sunday, and the lingerie ladies from outta town of a Wednesday and Friday night at the pub–though, occasionally, a Catho gal would make an appearance in her lingerie too. If a bloke blew all his wages on beer, the missus would put her dignity aside to put dinner on the table by flashing her titties. I never got that desperate. My bloke pissed off ten years ago, but I got myself a job making snittys in the pub kitchen. The bastard left me to raise the kids by myself on $20 an hour. It’s a quarter of the wage of the lingerie ladies, but a gal has to draw the line somewhere. Besides, it gets to be nippy work in the winter.
Just about everyone from the old days is gone. Everyone, except bloody Pete with the lawn mower. I think it was the church pastor who took off first, and my husband pissed off not too long after. Each for very different reasons, though: one for the "calling of the Lord" and the other for the big bucks and boobs elsewhere. The mines began to dry up a good decade ago, and there was a mass exodus amongst the old codgers for the coal, dosh, and titties in Kalgoorlie, except instead of crossing the Red Sea, they crossed the red earth. The young ones took off for the big city. My brother was amongst them. He went to Uni to study everything from engineering to Plato, Jimmy tells me.
What hit me the hardest, though, was when my kids left. That was just a few weeks ago. Up until then, I was going okay. I was working my ass off tryna get dinner on the table and didn’t have time to think about much else. They always warned me that they’d leave. They told me that they’d applied for Uni, that they got accepted. But I never really listened. I didn’t want to believe them. Then a coupla weeks ago, I came home and they were gone. And I was left alone in this empty old house. I got a call from Jimmy a few days later saying they were with him. That they were starting Uni. And I shoulda been proud, shoulda replied with a "you fucking beauty!" But instead, I hung up and cried. All I felt was alone. Alone and abandoned. Do you know what it feels like to have every single person you have ever loved walk out on you and leave you behind? Do you know what it feels like to sit in the dark for hours listening to the fire hiss and seethe until you can’t stand it
no more, until you finally drink yourself to sleep? This whole fucking town has upped and left me behind.
I look out at the sea, and it’s all wind-blown, churning all around with red algae. My hair whips back and forth across my face. Sometimes I wonder what Kalgoorlie would be like. All those thousands of kays away. Or Sydney. The brother rarely comes to visit, and the kids have only called once since leaving. They said it’s the duck’s nuts down there. Though they didn’t say it like that; they use smart words and that now, apparently. I get the feeling that they’re embarrassed by where they come from, embarrassed that their mother raised them with a wage from the pub in a potholed town. I think maybe they’re tryna leave their past behind. And I know this place ain’t nothing special. And sometimes I wonder myself what it’d be like to leave. Sometimes I wish I had the courage to just piss off too. But I dunno. I’ve got this deep gut feeling that it was always just meant to be me and the sea.
Shell-sea Ellem was the kind of girl who read by torchlight under her doona after lights out. She still loves a good yarn and is now learning the art of spinning one. Currently she is working on a series of short stories inspired by Cathos, her local surf break. She is studying the Associate Degree of Creative Writing at Southern Cross University.