Friday 30 July 2021

Happy or Sad Place

 by Karen Lethlean

chai latte

Drawing breaths between gritted teeth, in response to more up ended bins, rubbish strewn wide, Sonya also noticed still wet graffiti daubed on toilet walls and tried to ignore Faberge egg shapes morphed into sharp edged phallic looking shapes as she walked down to the water. And wondered about necessity to appreciate this daubing as art, no matter how she looks, nothing artistic jumps out and bites her.

There, as if an ultimate contrast to her mood, she saw a vision of happiness. A young woman was throwing a stick for a big, handsome dog. He tore back and forth on narrow shores, bounding and leaping with pleasure. As if this tripled any other euphoric canine experience. Be lapping up milk froth at the Café soon. Dog body language said, beach, walk, best day ever!

Rather than harbour thoughts of dog joy, Sonya forced herself away, kept her lips pursed, almost bit her tongue. Conceded she missed owning a dog, unconditional affection, canine happiness vibes and simple dependability. Another thing her ex had removed. She gathered herself inward, instead of speaking, else her anger at yet another vandal attack gets loose on some poor innocent dog walker.

Thin edge of a wedge pushed more positive vibes as Sonya felt water curl around her toes. Warm and welcoming, liquid did not cut, punish or destroy. Instead licked her ankles. Salt in the air caresses her stomach. Ocean rolls, connecting with her belly. She looks at minute details in the sand, tiny undulations and high water marks.

Sonya began to wonder why, this morning, she didn’t take the headland track, walk through to the end. Catch a view back to the mainland. Sight a wallaby half hidden but making sure to look back at her. Pass through heath on bluffs until they suddenly dropped away and she could look down onto the endless curve of a southern beach. An oceanic domain, low coast, vegetation stunted and wind shorn. Blue so voluminous it seem to mount the horizon and nothing but the notion of a shoreline prevented sea from annulling land.

Far to the south, almost beyond view, sat a vertical shimmer of clusters of high rise apartments. In middle distance, still miles away, cleared space like a raw space, soon to be a new development. Sketched with geometrical clear-felling on low undulations previously marking out dunes. Linking them, rising and dipping with land contours but veering neither left nor right, a new bitumen road. A categorical line, smudged in places by sand blows. Occasionally sinking from sight, later in the day dissolving as a heat mirage. But always returning to view. Along it crawled a few isolated cars as small and hard as beetles, glinting, making trip logic decree movement between one newly constructed place and another. No better to wash such negative progress from her mind, by turning her back on such scratching onto pristine island coasts.

Not far away from the woman and her dog, was her neighbour, John. For the umpteenth time, told herself their relationship possessed more dimensions than proximity. Once again, with his tripod set up close to water’s edge. When he noticed Sonya, he waved. A grateful acknowledgement, stronger than earlier visions of hooligan damage. Feet propelled her in his direction. As if repelled by opposite magnets she associated with still dripping graffiti.

‘They’re always changing,’ John said, enamoured by watery weeds. ‘Light, current, wind, way they float and move, fluttering on all sorts of rhythms. I’ve taken dozens of pictures and each one is subtly different. Can’t decide which camera aperture captured image is best.’

Something about his manner, broke through Sonya’s negativity. To her, John brought good vibes; a token photography magazine in her letter box, or tiny, still warm pancakes, delivered on Shrove Tuesday. Little things, a smile, and raised eyebrow of recognition, visible through a crowded meeting hall. John embodied more family member traits than orbiting merely as a neighbour. Indeed, less judgmental, because she could talk more candidly with him, than to her own brothers. 

‘My dad believed we’re made up of invisible currents. He used to say there were ‘thin places’ where we’re closer to unseen worlds.’

‘Name a thin place.’ John asked without looking up from rock puddles and weeds.

‘Island ocean sides. You stand next to seas and you’re in touch with longings and losses.’

‘Longings and losses. Does sort of sum up Island sensations.’

Her mind swung back to a time when no excitement competed with an island arrival. In a loaded-up van, full of siblings arguing about seating arrangement. Soon about to glimpse blue waves in gaps through bush, out a window past her father’s sun spot flecked arm. Heavy wheels, produced new divots on well-worn tracks, which pushed through thick Banksia trees and lower growing melaleuca shrubs.

‘Won’t be long before I can bring my hives down here.’ Her father scanned vegetation more than actions of his offspring. ‘Be a mass of flowers in no time.’ 

All about blooms, seasons, hive sites, according to Dad. Whereas back then Sonya lusted after empty island beach sands, shifting waters, salt spray and next best-ever-special shell discoveries. A twinge of nostalgia for a more pristine coast needled. Too many people, houses and cars pushed in these days. If only she might travel back to, so much easier, childhood days.

‘So much easier now cameras recognise low-light algorithms. I can past water surfaces,’ interrupted John.

‘You’ve crossed another thin place barrier.’ Words released while Sonya maintained her nostalgia. Driving in as kids, many corrugated minutes after they’d left smooth highways, it was possible to note subtle differences. Top sand which faded in two long wheel spaced strips, first grey, edged with wild oats and twigs, turning to paler as dunes dominated. Big trees decreased until low scrub took over. Ought to be clear lines on a map to mark zones. Smells of salt, open water expanses, rushing waves drifted into wound down windows, as deeper breaths were drawn. As the last hill was crested, full views of the beach visible. Blue of water and sky almost melting into each other. There is an energy that washes over the land, brought in by the ocean. Sky is constantly changing canvas of colour, ocean breathes blue and green pigments dreamed of by painters, air like a rare whale sighting, mellowed by sea with random birds floating above on thermals.

 Just as quickly hillocks enclosed again, sometimes they caught sight of swamp reeds in a low depression.

Dad often said, ‘occasionally reeds flower. Each bloom has male and female parts, you know. People call them cat’s tails. But when they fluff up and explode into a mist of flakes, more like tiny flea infestations. Useless to bees, though.’

Words only wafted like those seeds until hidden ocean blues were revealed.

Further away, before the family car vanished down unsealed tracks, closer to highways where tiny shops encouraged those here for surf activities to partake of fresh fish and crisp fried chips. Tantalising glimpses of ocean vistas. Promised rideable waves and cooling swims. Now any distance between buildings, commercial businesses and beach drastically reduced. As if dunes and coastal shrub had been chewed away by some introduced predator.

Other times when everyone sat on a cliff edge eating fish and chips as sun caught fire and sunk into ocean, catching flames on clouds and even smallest waves. Seagulls shrieked, hovering and diving about their heads. Dad threw chips to gulls, Sonya told him to stop.

‘You sound like a fishwife,’ he said. ‘Or someone shouting coffee orders at the local.’

‘I wonder which ones are wives and which ones are husbands.’ She couldn’t resist a rare answer back.

Dad, sure to comment, bee sites so much further away now. He did keep struggling until he sold remaining hives to a man who marketed, via face book and websites, coastal honey (whatever that meant) at grower’s markets.

Sonya recalled island flowers glossed only by rising, or setting suns. No need to take out phones, post on Instagram. And John’s photographic activities weren’t they just a step up from juvenile, takie-photos.

Childhood arrivals meant a laden station wagon being embraced by sand hills, followed by expectations displaced by sheer joy of being near this tumbling blue goddess. Father’s words, ‘everything’s changed.’ As if citing a thin edge, evoked sensations of lust for ownership strong enough to preserve swaths of coast and grieve for environments lost.

John broke through Sonya’s memories touching a cold finger to her wrist. Leaving her wondering, how does he do that?

Sonya looked around and concluded, current arrivals didn’t provide similar sights nor anticipation. Especially when she need only glace to see evidence of constant vandal attacks.

Shading her brow, looking at this view, she took in a narrow beach, captured by rock pools soon to be refilled by incoming tides. Tides, time and rising oceans, along with crowds stolen those remembered wide shores. Recalling how even on the greyest of days water glimmered a most extraordinary blue, as if generating its own light. Possible to follow line of shores, see hills rise around quiet bays, detect summer green grass slowly fade toward winter brown.

Sonya recalled another time perched close to a thin moment. Her sandcastle being eaten away by an edgy little tide. Her father is instructing me to watch horizons for exact moment of sunset. If she is observant enough she’ll see a meteorological phenomenon called The Green Flag. She squint, eyes watering in sparklers of a setting sun.

‘Watch for the splash, the colour of petrol,’ he says.

Now she wondered, how long before local marauders launched projectiles into those ocean edged pools, rubbish tipped from bins, plastic bags, broken surfboards and random shrapnel collected into crevices.

While she was happy to linger, John again interrupted. ‘We best make a move, before we need water boots to make the car park.’

As they walked John’s camera gear clunked.

‘You really have to stop getting so cross about things.’

‘It’s that obvious.’

‘Look on your face, gave things away.’

‘And here was I thinking an encounter with dog and stick brushed clenched jaw and wrinkled brow away.’

‘Not quite. Besides you seldom beach walk when you’re calm and collected.’

‘Again, you’re right. I hope for better therapy, thin edges to take me away, confirm longings, give me ability to ignore losses.’

Rain out over the ocean obliterated a stretch of ragged cliff with squally grey sea beyond dissonance between rock and water. While she looked Sonya craved her tempers breaking like a thunderstorm, just so she could relish a post-tempest freshness. A metallic aroma lifting in wafts of released moisture equal to one-time aggression.

Buff-green swellings indicated elevation and magnitude of land-ocean edges. In one dimension, water appeared to be part of land, while obviously and entirely two separate elements. Yet residing on a thin edge, longed to be one in the same and shake off their separation. As if another dimension existed only in this place, where water and land met.

Sonya hears again her father’s, ‘closer to unseen worlds,’ belief in the fantastic. What if she could vanish on those invisible currents? Or devise a way to make stronger connections with shifting waters and sand to push away her tempers. If so who’d shout at councillors, who’d write to newspapers and ultimately who’d keep powerful developers away.

Gulls, dark-headed and greedy, spun on thermals above cliff edges and then dropped away, like bit parts in some conjuring trick. Seemed to be more birds lately, or maybe they stuck closer to beachside all-you-can-eat rubbish bins. Perhaps envoys from more pristine shores sent to warn, if only tone-deaf humans learnt their idioms.

Heading back towards houses John and Sonya encountered butterflies dancing in a depression between low scrubby sand hills. Moments later, before John could swing his camera into use, these insects were gone. ‘Damn, missed a calendar shot, right there.’ As if the extent of any interaction with scenery reduced to a monthly portal only available free from the local chemist.

Glare from white sand edging an estuary below cliffs made Sonya squint as if walking from a darkened room out to a whitewashed courtyard. Her shoulders stooped, and sweat gathered underneath Sonya’s shirt.  

‘All very beautiful,’ John said, looking again out to sea, ‘in some ways more real than anything I’ve seen.’

‘So how do you preserve this serenity?

‘I try not to think about big things, focus instead on miniscule elements, weeds in a rock pool resembling green hair floating in tiny currents, butterfly wings, a dog chasing a stick.’

‘Yet, look out there, its huge. Makes me feel helpless, as if I can’t possibly fight against so many negatives.’

John reached out, held his hand lightly over her shoulder. Almost touching, for the umpteenth time Sonya noticed yellow flecks in his eyes. ‘What is it you want to change?’

‘I’d be happier, calmer if council members would listen to suggestions, especially about development applications. Be fabulous if policemen they send down here, during summer’s influx did something more pro-active about wilful damage to changing rooms, toilets and beach rubbish bins. But those fly in, fly out authorities don’t care. Be nice if keep-cups were used, and not paper coffee mugs finding their way into the ocean. Shouldn’t be so hard to identify, they keep daubing repeated symbols. You’d think officials track down who is Tap’n Dude?’

‘At least the Council purchased some of my prints to display in public buildings, and ensured an annual arts festival. I feel affirmed, as if I’ve broken through what might be damaged.’

Sonya smiled. ‘You are my best friend John. But I get angry. Wilful destruction of facilities and the environment are issues more than recoverable by pretty pictures and art works.’

‘Maybe we could organize groups of those kids to daub artistic creations, not only along foreshores but within the age care village. Might take a while, but things may change as those kids grow up. Encourage more people to visit your father’s thin place.’

‘Maybe then they’d fall through and vanish into unseen worlds, along with broken shorelines and ugly graffiti.’

‘A tad cruel to wish on another person. Besides I think I’ve worked out who is Tap’n Dude. Got to be Saltant’s boy, Joel.’

‘How’d you figure that out?’

‘Crosswords, it’s another word for leaping, jumping, dancing. Sort of a puzzle, shorten words, sometimes reverse their names, I’ve been watching, guessing, making connection. Plus, other tiny bits of evidence.’

‘Such as…’

‘Spray cans out in their rubbish, same name on the back of his cap.’

‘I know you focus on small things, but I’m not convinced, photos, murals and art work can make a difference.’

‘No matter, Joel will be the first one I approach. What d’you think?’

About to reply, too slow, lips moving but words not ready. John continued. ‘Seems to be a creative force. Possible to be channelled. I’ll ask if he wants to be part of an artistic project, to splash new images and pictures around. Worth a try, I reckon.’

Sonya stamps her foot. Believed John needed to fix a wide-angle lens to that camera of his. Take some images to demonstrate intensity of increased storms. Show less run off and flushing of estuaries and rising tides eating away at the very bedrock. Only then would he be able to appreciate how loss functioned.

No matter how much nostalgia Sonya evoked doors to unseen worlds were creaking closed. Thin places growing scarcer by the minute. 

About the author 

Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. With fiction Barbaric Yawp, Ken*Again, Pendulum Papers. She has won a few awards through Australian and UK competitions. Including Best of Times, with Bum Joke. In her other life Karen is a triathlete who has done Hawaii Ironman championships twice.


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