The Penguin and the Albatross

She waited for him in her car and watched his long legs lumber down the driveway. It had only been a few days since she last saw him and she felt nervous. She didn’t know what to expect; would he be anxious or sad? Clear or hazy? Would there be fear? Agitation?

He opened the door and folded his body into the passenger seat of her tiny car. She decided he looked awake today, a notable physical change from the week before.

‘Hi pumpkin,’ he greeted her along with the customary kiss on the cheek.

‘Hi Dad. Up for the beach?’

‘Hmmm it’s pretty overcast today. Definitely not swimming weather, even with a wetsuit. A walk maybe?’

‘And a coffee?’ she proposed.

‘Sounds good.’

She put the gear stick in reverse and jetted out of the driveway, starting down the familiar road that would take them to the beach.

She knew it was a cliché but the beach had always been a haven for her. It was a place where she had always felt calm and she knew her dad, who chose to dump inner city life over 30 years ago, felt the same.

They made some small talk about the weather and if he had walked the dog today. She tried to be subtle and guide the conversation to acknowledge the huge elephant that was sitting in the back seat, but subtlety was not her forte.

‘How’s the new medication going? Do you feel clearer? Less, cloudy?’

‘Oh, the medication is magic,’ he said. ‘It’s like I’m finally awake. I don’t feel…’

‘Stressed? Tense? Agitated?’

‘Yes, agitated, agitated is the word. That feeling was like…a big red hot water bottle. It was just sitting right here, waiting to explode.’ He pointed to his chest, eyes wide with disbelief, like the heat was burning up his insides. He moved to rest his hands on his lap. ‘I also don’t feel as afraid you know, to talk a bit more.’

‘Yeah? What is it you have been afraid to talk about?’ she asked.

‘Mostly what happened that day in the bathroom when I, you know, lost it.’ He rubbed his forehead, as if reliving the pain of banging his head against the bathroom wall. ‘I need to start saying what I feel rather than doing nothing and just worrying about it. I don’t ever want to get to that point again, it was just awful.’

She nodded as he spoke and silently recalled the day she found out. The sun was beating through the blinds of her office when her phone rang, it was her mum.

‘Dad has been admitted sweetie.’

‘Christ Mum,’ she felt her throat become dry and her body tense. She knew her dad had been unwell but the news was still hard to hear. ‘What’s the diagnosis?’

‘They say it’s Agitated Depression.’

‘Do you know how long he will be in there for?’

‘I don’t know, it could be days or it could be weeks, however long he needs. He just looks so tired, defeated even.’

‘Should I come see him?’

‘You don’t have to yet, they’re just doing a few more assessments at the moment. I’m just sitting, waiting with some other patients.’

‘Well, I’m less than a five minute walk away so I might come up now. How are you going?’

‘Yeah I’m doing okay. Just enjoying some complimentary caffeine free tea.’

‘Caffeine free tea? I didn’t even know that existed.’

‘You better believe it, no caffeine allowed in this place sweetie.’ Her mum paused and as if reading her daughter’s mind suggested, ‘best if you have a coffee before you come in. I think you’ll probably need it.’

Pulling into the main car park at the beach now, she tried to blink the memory away. It lingered and she looked at her Dad, wondering if he knew it was hanging between them.

‘Well this is much nicer than the washed walls of the unit?’ She said, an attempt at making light of her dad’s situation, ‘Still a bit grey but hey, at least its outside!’

They got out of the car and started walking. She enjoyed the sting of the salty wind and the feeling of each individual grain of sand touching her feet. The swell in the ocean was small, but it built with intensity as each wave burst and folded into the wet sand.

‘Dad?’

‘Yes pumpkin?’

‘What was it like for you in there? I mean, I know what I saw when I visited you. But I don’t know. Was there more?’

He hesitated, quiet for a moment while he thought about it, ‘It was just…’

‘Crazy?’ she offered.

‘Well, yes and no. I mean, it was the nut house after all!’ He scanned the beach as if what he was about to tell her was a secret, ‘Funnily enough, it kind of felt like a holiday.’

She considered this and wanted to know more.

‘How on earth could it have been like a holiday?’

‘All I had to do every day was get out of bed. No-one expected anything of me, no-one was judging me; I could be anyone or anything, no questions asked.’

‘So you felt more comfortable to be yourself then?’

‘I don’t know that I was comfortable and I don’t know that I was “being myself.” I think it was just feeling safe and looked after, kind of like being a kid again.’

She had never heard him speak like this before and she felt like it wasn’t her dad talking to her; it wasn’t their typical father/daughter conversation, it was more like two adults walking and talking about life. It was in that moment she realised her dad was no longer her protector, it had now become her job to protect him.

They pressed on, growing tired from walking against the wind. With the exception of a few people running, the beach was deserted. As she looked ahead she spotted something odd lying at the foot of some wooden steps.

‘Dad, do you see that at the bottom of those stairs?’

‘What? That little pile of seaweed?’

‘Dad, come on that’s not seaweed.’

A sheepish expression spread across his face, ‘I didn’t bring my glasses.’

She picked up the pace to get a closer. He dawdled behind her.

‘Is that a… dead penguin?’ she asked as he finally caught up.

‘It sure looks like it,’ he said, squinting to confirm.

The small body lay peacefully on its side, only one of its tiny wings resting on its chest. She nudged the grey and white figure with her foot and watched it wobble against the stiff sand. She was thinking how strange this was when her dad interrupted excitedly, ‘Pumpkin look at this!’

Not far from the penguin lay another dead animal. It was a large, white bird.

‘Is that an ibis?’ she asked, ‘It is definitely too big to be a pelican.’

He knelt down to inspect the bird further, ‘It’s not…an albatross, is it?’

‘Isn’t that a bird from the Antarctic or something?’

He nodded his head thoughtfully but ignored her question, ‘Yeah, I think it’s an albatross. Look at those wings, they’re huge!’

Flat on its back its wings were spread out like it had been crucified. He continued to investigate the corpse.

‘I’ve never seen an albatross around here before, and this penguin washed up next to it? Very weird.’

‘Hmmm. Hey, do you think they were star crossed lovers, you know like Romeo and Juliet?’

She started to dramatically re-enact Juliet’s “what’s in a name?” monologue when her dad stood up with a speed that made her stop mid stanza. He put his hands on his hips as if imitating a tea pot.

‘It’s just so…’

‘Crazy?’ she offered.

‘Yeah. Crazy.’ He paused for a moment and she saw his eyes narrow and a small smile form. ‘Did you know, that the albatross is sometimes used as a symbol of something that weighs you down?’

‘What, like a burden, or a curse or something?’

‘Yeah, something like that. So whatever this guy was carrying, his “burden” we’ll say, dragged him from the sky so fast and so hard that he never even had the chance to land safely.’

She noted the irony and shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. It was a sad display of bodies before her.

‘Can we head back now? Maybe get our coffee?’

He kicked some sand onto the albatross, ‘Yeah. Coffee would be good.’

A hint of sun slipped through the heavy blanket that was the sky. The waves continued to roll in edging closer to their feet, encouraging them to walk faster. She noticed him look back a couple of times, like he was hurrying to get away from the penguin and the albatross.

With heavy, sandy shoes they climbed the stairs and entered the café. She selected a window seat while he ordered the coffee.

‘You wanted yours in a mug right?’ he asked.

‘Yep, you got it.’

He smiled like a child who had just been given a principal’s award.

‘Hey Dad?’

‘Yeah?’

‘About the albatross.’

‘Mmmm?’

‘What do you think he was carrying that weighed him down so much? I mean, what was his burden?’

‘Probably that,’ he pointed to the ocean.

‘So you think he went down carrying that?’

‘It’s like they say, sometimes you’ve got to hit rock bottom to be able to get back up,’ he paused and said with a slight smile, ‘I like to think that when our albatross friend crashed, he believed he would be getting back up. And so I think, in his final moments, he felt free.’

She considered this, ‘Hmmm…. Free as a bird then?’

He shook his head, ‘No pumpkin, free as an albatross.’

‘Cappuccino in a mug?’ interrupted the waitress.

‘That would be me, thanks.’ She sat back and indulged in the scent.

‘Aaaannd a skinny cappuccino in a mug?’

‘Right here thank you,’ he looked embarrassed and explained, ‘I’m trying to watch my figure.’

With that, he gave her a quick wink and shifted his focus to scooping the chocolate froth off his drink. Watching him, she wondered if she really did need to protect him from himself or whether he could get up and take flight without her.

Either way, she knew that when they reached the car, the big elephant that had been sitting in her back seat would be gone.

Image: Sarah Yeomans

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