Taking a break from yarns…
Edward was seven.
It was winter. The guest house where the family was staying that long weekend was heated. In the main lounge, full of adult smells of beer, tobacco smoke and perfume, whole logs burnt in the fireplace which was more like a cave. He loved it when the logs burnt right down and made a busy little world of glows and sparks. He would sit closer and closer, belonging to that world, till someone told him to draw back a little.
He was allowed to go down the beach on his own, though no further.
It was not like a summer beach, the ones far from Sydney where they stayed at Christmas. Here the water was grey and flat; the sand had none of the rich yellow or blinding white of the surf beaches he knew. There was no ringing of cicadas from nearby bushland, none of that spicy smell from gums and the hairy little trees called casuarinas – one of which his father always cut for a Christmas tree. Here the drab town pressed up to the narrow esplanade so that there were only scraps of bush and park land.
Yet he could patrol the sand for strange things, though he was afraid to touch most of them.
On the last afternoon the weather was so cold he almost chose not to go for a ramble. Then, on realising that all the snooker and ping pong tables would be monopolised by older children who were also staying in, he changed his mind and wandered, alone, down to the sand.
The sky was colour of metal and a wind came cold from the south. Edward wondered if he should keep walking – then thought of the boredom of waiting about in the recreation rooms and hoping for a few minutes of play when the older children went off to get lollies or briefly chased one another.
He walked on, against the wind, with just his pullover for protection, wishing he had been allowed to wear the tweed jacket he had been given for Christmas – but that was kept “for best”. He recalled a picture of Kingsford Smith in pullover with tweed jacket. Edward wanted to look like Smithy. Sometimes, as he walked toward a motor car or bus, he imagined it was the Southern Cross and that he was wearing a leather jacket with wool-lined collar, and goggles pushed up over a leather headpiece. Then he would smile Smithy’s easy smile.
As Edward strolled along the beach he noticed a lot of sea-rubble which had not been there before the weather turned foul. Among a tangle of seaweed and shells, something odd caught his eye. Drawing near, he saw it was a sponge, just like any of those which people had in their bathrooms and kitchens. Thanks to his Nature Studies classes, Edward already knew that sponges came from the sea. But he had the idea of something which came from a great depth and far out. Here was a normal-seeming sponge, average in size, just presented to him on a public beach. Anyone might have found it – but it was Edward who did so.
It was something which sold for money, but here lay free for the taking. It was a discovery, something to take away and show, perhaps to those older children who had been ignoring him all weekend.
Almost, he felt a sense of triumph. This sponge would go from beach to bathroom, he thought. And he thought of a hot bath, with clouds of steam making the mirrors fuzzy. It was his sponge, to use and to show around.
It was an easy, lucky thing, but Edward somehow felt clever.
Not knowing what lay poised within each cell, Edward picked the sponge up without squeezing. A surprise: it felt heavy. As he looked at it, the surface vaguely reminded him of his grandfather’s face, lumpy and pitted.
Now he squeezed a little.
Slime dripped out, like an old man’s spittle. Like his grandfather’s spittle, after one of his vibrant coughing fits.
Edward squeezed again. Slime. Then he wrung the sponge hard. More and more of the slime.
Now he squashed the sponge with both hands.
But there was no end to the slime. And his hands began to chill.
The year was 1929.
The ocean, like the eighty-four years of life which still lay before Edward, did not vouch for what it gave. It did not care what it gave. The ocean just gave.
Edward dropped the sponge. He left it there, still bleeding its colourless ooze on to the cold sand.