Stingers

The sun was coming to rest on the dry shoulder of the coast. The bay was quiet. Ski boats leaned on the shore, ripples nudging their hulls. Occasionally, a tired wake made its way to shore with a weary slap.

Families and friends wandered back across the sand, to their asbestos shacks amongst the peppermint trees.

Who’s first in the shower? Don’t use all the hot water; there are other people in the house, you know. We need some kindling for the barbeque. You coming over? Don’t forget to bring the umbrella up. Will there be a bonfire? Might see if we can’t get some crabs. Haven’t been guardy-ing for ages. Come on, the beach will still be here tomorrow.

Rogue couples meandered north and south in silence. Just being there, together, now, said enough. A lone spaniel chased fleet-footed gulls with the same enthusiasm he’d mustered all day.

As a toddler he had reached up to grab whatever was on top of the table. There was no need to reprimand him. The thick broth had scalded him enough. His mother couldn’t put him down for weeks. Whenever he rolled in his sleep, the flannel sheets would tear at the scabs. The wounds would weep.

He’d had six or seven years to get used to it, shedding his skin half-a-dozen times every summer.

It’ll never get better if you pick it.

It was the lotion that stung most. The protection blazed across the lesions when his mother dabbed it on. Sometimes his siblings would see the humour in this, sometimes the humanity. The irony was undoubtedly lost on them all.

The boy, kneeling on the board, as at prayer, scanned the beach. His father emerged, approaching from across the distant sand like that bit in Lawrence Of Arabia, when the guy on the camel takes forever to cross the void of the desert, shimmering in the rising heat.. Even at this distance, he knew it was his father. His silver hair atop the thick, black-rimmed glasses caught the fading light.

The boy looked down at what was left of the wet sand he had piled on the nose of the surfboard before setting off on his mission. He’d been planning it all afternoon. Ever since he’d seen his brother dropping sand-bombs on the stingers in the shallows that morning. The fine grains compounded and heavy with water, played havoc with the suspended state of the little buggers.

How are the stingers this year?

The answer to that question could make or break your expectations for the holiday. Most, however, swiftly relegated stingers to a vacational hazard. A necessary evil. Water off your proverbial back.

Not to the boy.

The boy was going to get them. All of them. And as the afternoon breeze dropped, as the coast emptied and expelled its charges homeward, he set off. Covertly. He didn’t want the world to know what he was doing. Should he fail, the humiliation would smart far worse than the welts the stingers left upon legs, flanks and arms. He wasn’t the most confident of paddlers, either. And often found himself clinging to the rails of the foamie in unsteady seas. He could still hear the laughter from the last time he went over. He rolled right off the board, turning turtle like some aquatic cartoon.

The sortie started well enough. He had made it out beyond the crystal band that hugged the shore, into the greener depths. The water would be up to his shoulders for sure, maybe even over his head. He was only halfway to the relative safety of The Raft, where the water was too deep and too cold for the stingers. He had already ambushed so many of them, but there were just so many more; many more than he had prepared for. He was surrounded. There were hundreds of them. Waiting. Waiting for him to stick his hands in the water, and unleash their charged vengeance. They had him where they wanted him and he didn’t know what to do.

He’d been stranded here, on his knees, all at sea, for a while. His legs were stiff, his back sore, his arms tired of gripping the gunnels. And he had drifted up the coast. Way past Beckwith’s, toward The Drain.

The boy turned his head. His father was waving at him from the shore.

Come in now.

The boy had nothing to say.

Come in. Now.

I can’t.

It’s time to come in. It’s getting late. I can’t.

There’s too many.

The cracks in the boy’s confidence were audible. He bowed his head in shame and started to cry. The gentle bob of the stingers broke the surface of his reflection, their tentacles lacing the sea with fear. He thought there would be some shouting coming his way soon.

He dared to turn again, and face his father.

His father had left the beach and was wading towards him.

Hope dammed the tears. If he could just hang on a little longer.

His father was waist deep, picking his way through the stingers. Ploughing through them. His arms dug into the water, sweeping them away. Chest high. The motion of his arms became a kind-of vertical breaststroke. His progress had become slower, but no less steady. His eyes were fixed on the boy. Behind the black rims there was no anger or inconvenience, just resolve. Reassurance. And no pain! Had he found a path between the stingers?

Now he was shoulder-deep. The boy had sat upon those shoulders not long ago. At Leighton Beach. As his father took him out beyond the breakwater, into the Indian Ocean. The boy held on for grim life as his father braced against the surf. His father stood his ground as the waves crashed and broke over them. And they forged their way through the undulating swell into the open sea.

His father was swimming for him now.

Not a word was spoken as he brought the boy to shore. He knelt before him and offered a yellow towel, the one with the tiger on it from the Claremont Football Club.

You shouldn’t go out that far on your own.

His father spoke quietly. Sometimes it’s hard to get back on your own.

There was no I-told-you-so in his tone. It was an observation. Advice. Still, the boy failed to hold back his tears, having been such a disappointment to himself. And to his father.

I’m sorry.

The father smiled and wrapped the towel around his son.

You just have to be careful, okay? Don’t go out too far on your own. You could drift all the way to China, and then what would we do?

Across the sand, the boy walked in his father’s shadow, through the peppermint trees and dragged the foam surfboard behind him. He looked up at the man before him.

A familiar red welt began to crawl across his father’s shoulder. Another formed on his arm, and one on the back of his leg . They must sting, he thought.

Smoke rolled across the lawn from the brick barbeque between the pre-fab cottages. A neighbour, clutching a beer in one hand, threw jarrah off-cuts on the fire with the other.

Found him, did you, Pete?

Tomorrow, the boy would do better.

 
     
 
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