A sea change

We have pulled over three times already, trying to identify the source of the squeaking in my grandparent’s station wagon.

‘Just ignore it!’ my grandmother implores, but my grandfather is resolute.

‘I’m not going to listen to a bloody squeak for the next four hours,’ he snaps. I groan loudly, wondering how I will survive yet another summer holiday with my grandparents, held captive by familial DNA and my inability to secure friendships that allow me to spend my school holidays elsewhere.

At midday we arrive in Yamba, a small seaside village on the far north coast of New South Wales, a town my grandparents and I have visited almost every summer holiday for as long as I can remember. It once was my favourite place – where I spent hours in the surf, a mixture of seawater and sunscreen stinging my eyes as I watched my grandfather, tanned and agile, diving under the waves. Afterwards, I would sit beside my grandmother on the sand, her tiny frame hidden beneath a giant sun hat while she devoured a Mills & Boon paperback.

Yamba was the place where we came as a family to decompress, to relax, to regroup. It was a constant in our chaotic lives, a solace from the suburbs; loved like a reliable, predictable friend. But now, at 14 years of age, I find myself bored by this friend of mine, whose company I once longed for but whose presence I now find dull and bland. I notice that little has changed since our last visit. Pelicans gather near the calm water of the channels, pine trees line the streets, spiky pandanus nestles into the mangy soil near the beach. Hand-painted signs offer fresh seafood, vacant accommodation, Friday night raffles at the bowls club. It is all the same as it’s always been, every summer, every time.

We arrive at the same unit we stay in each time we visit, an orange-carpeted, vinyl-couched flat that smells like melted plastic even after my grandmother has opened all the windows and balcony doors.  My grandmother wants to go to the club for a “flutter”, as does my grandfather, but I am too young to accompany them to the area where the poker machines are, so I offer to entertain myself with a walk around town.

After wandering aimlessly past stores that have all shut for the day, I sit outside the bottle shop in the hope that someone will offer to buy me alcohol. Then I hear my name called.

‘Sarah. Sarah?’

A man in his twenties, in a black t-shirt, Converse sneakers and cut-off fatigues approaches me. He has straight teeth and blue eyes that make me immediately self-conscious about the oversized board shorts I’m wearing.

‘Are you talking to me?’ I ask.

‘Oh, sorry – I thought you were a friend of mine,’ he says.

‘My name is Sarah,’ I say.

‘Really? That’s weird,’ he says, laughing.

I soon learn that my new friend’s name is Adam. He is 19, on leave from the army and based in Wagga. I am nodding and smiling and laughing but have very little idea what else we are talking about because Adam is cute and I can’t concentrate. I want to run my hands through his scruffy brown hair, and press my small hands against his broad chest. I feel my stomach flip when he scratches his arm, inadvertently lifting the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a toned bicep and a Superman tattoo.

Adam happily buys a six-pack of Sub Zero for me and as I turn to leave, he tells me there are few people meeting for drinks at the lighthouse tonight if I wanted to come.

‘I’m leaving tomorrow; be good to see you before I go,’ he says, and naturally, I am hooked.

***

I drink two Sub Zeroes in my bedroom then sneak out the front door of our unit at 10pm, grateful for my grandparents’ staunch belief in early to bed, early to rise. I lace up my Doc Martens in the driveway, then jog in the dark to the lighthouse, the smelt of salt in the air, my stomach tingling from a combination of nerves and a faint sense of inebriation.

When I reach the grassy landing near the lighthouse, I hear murmuring and laughter, including the reassuring giggle of another girl’s voice, the red glow from lit cigarettes piercing the blackness of night. I walk towards the group and am grateful when Adam notices me before anyone else. He introduces me and asks if I smoke. I say I do and try to unbuckle my bag in the dark.
‘Have one of mine,’ he says, lighting a Winfield red in his mouth, before placing it between my lips, his thick fingers brushing my face.

After a few drinks, Adam and I go for a walk. He tells me he is just stopping in Yamba on his way back to base from a trip to Queensland. He doesn’t know the others well; he met them at the pub last night, they’re backpackers. He tells me it is hard to socialise in a holiday town and I know what he means. As soon as a connection is made with someone, a friend in the backyard for cricket or a surfer in the waves, they are gone. They go back to their regular life, away from the sea spray and the sand and the quiet little town that never changes.

I run my fingers over Adam’s Superman tattoo, asking him why he got it. He says he is strong, prompting me to mock him before he retaliates by playfully and effortlessly lifting me above his head. When he lowers me, I straddle my legs around his waist and we kiss in the dark. I feel queasy; possibly from drinking my Sub Zeroes too fast, so I focus on the sounds of the crickets in the shrubs and the roar of the ocean humming in the background, steadying myself as Adam holds me against him. Adam takes his shirt off and places it on the ground, gesturing for me to lie on top of it. I take a deep breath, inhaling the salty scent of the beach and the sickly sweetness of the frangipani trees.

***

On our drive home, my grandfather remarks how much Yamba has changed since our last visit. More units. Bigger shops. A new Chinese restaurant.

‘It’s not like it used to be,’ he says, and I nod and smile, because he is right.

It has changed.

And so have I.

Image: Zack Minor

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Sare Tucker profileSare Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.

 

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