Sand dancing [May 8]
(This essay was first published in The Big Issue in April 2020)
It’s summer and I’m at a surf beach on the west coast. I had planned to have a quick swim and then walk the dog, me zipped up in my wetsuit, the two of us hermetically sealed in our solitude. But on the beach a family is sitting at a picnic table; a man, two women and two girls. As I walk past them the girls spring up from the bench seat and lunge towards the dog.
‘Oh oh oh, can we pat her?’ Jazzy is instantly ready for play, leaping around them and barking. ‘Oh, can we play with her?’
Dark eyes, mid-teens, tight blue jeans, but still children when it comes to dogs and the chasing of them. I laugh and laugh at their dancing game, grit kicking up around them, Jazzy swerving so the girls lunge and fall in the soft dry sand.
At the picnic table the two women in headscarves nod and smile at us, as the girls pick themselves up and come towards me.
‘What’s your dog’s name?’ The older one speaks in a rush. ‘We had a dog, he was a Jack Russell cross, we loved him so much, but we couldn’t look after him, mum said, so we gave him away to one of mum’s clients, but we miss him.’ And now they’re off again, chasing Jazzy to the water’s edge and back.
‘Are we holding you up?’ the older girl asks.
‘No, I’m just about to have a swim, you go right ahead.’ I inch my way through the biting waves, glancing back at the dancing trio. Oh, to be able to run like that still, to fall with impunity, to have teenage daughters to run with, fall with, laugh with.
As soon as I come out of the water they’re by my side again, telling me more stories about the Jack Russell, about puppy school, about their aunt who’s come from Turkey to visit them.
‘Where do you live?’ I ask.
‘In Victoria. Oh, you mean what street – no, what suburb?’ They look at each other, shrugging. They don’t know.
I play a guessing game. ‘The west? The east? Did you come over the West Gate Bridge?’ They don’t know where they live. They live at home, with mum and dad. That is enough.
In between quizzing me they speak Turkish to each other and I love how it rushes from their lips, all sibilant like the waves behind them. And then they ask me that question.
‘Do you have children?’
There is a pause – the first pause – in the conversation.
‘No’, I say eventually, but they are waiting for more.
Not here. Not today. Finally, I say, ‘Jazzy is like my child.’
Then on they go, telling me their names are Joozher and Azra, laughing about how, if you put their names together, you’d get something like Jazzy. They talk about the boys who break the rules at their high school, and more about their lost dog, and then somehow it is time for me to go, because I cannot keep them.
I walk slowly up the hill to the borrowed beach house, full of their beauty and openness and unknowingness, and with the fact that they are not mine.
Later in the evening I make myself walk down the hill to the pub, but it is a mistake. It is all and only families, clusters of kids being herded and fed, and nowhere for me to sit. I lean against the balcony railing and sip my wine and fiddle with my phone and watch the children, the easy chatting, the blurred lines between family units, and today it is too hard.
So I take my glass and head back to the beach, where I sit in the sand, gulping the wine and staring at the grey ocean. When the wine is gone I walk home fast, waiting to feel Jazzy’s sandy paws jumping at my knees.