I’m ten years old. My parents stuff me into the back seat of their Datsun, and Dad drives us to Queensland from Melbourne. A carsick bookworm, impatient with drives from Melbourne to Geelong(about 2 hours back then before Westgate and freeways), armed only with two comic books and the Reader’s Digest Big Book of Fairy Tales. And I only grabbed that at the last minute, when I saw the Donald Duck comics Mum had supplied. Did ever a mother more underestimate their child?
I read both comic books before we get out of Bentleigh. It is to be a very long four days. Melbourne to Albury, Albury to Dubbo, and it’s a blur from then on until we reach the Gold Coast, and the holiday house my brother has rented us.
He lives in Redcliffes with his family. We head north to see them.
The holiday house is one of a set of wooden apartment/houses, all slap bang up against each other. Shared toilets. Our house faces the main road, and the foreshore.
Every room of our house has mosquito coils burning pretty much 24/7. We will spend Christmas here, and visit my brother every couple of days. Mum would be IN the house with my brother if she could. She sees her daughter-in-law as a son-thief.
The foreshore is crowded with Greek and Italian families in caravans and tents. From early morning, Mario Lanza and Maria Callas war with bazouki music, on tape, and portable record players.
Kids play Totem Tennis from first light until dark each day. One clever dad has painted his kids’ tennis ball and the paddles with luminescent paint. His kids play at night, and stay out of the tent where the grown ups are drinking wine and playing cards. Day 4 into our stay, the glowing tennis ball is cut from the string. A great fuss ensues. Families accuse each other. It is ugly, until the grappa comes out and all is well again.
Some nights, there are storms over Brisbane. Mum, Dad and I sit on our porch. Mum and Dad get kitchen chairs. I sit on the stairs that lead down to the public footpath. Our house is on stilts to cope with wet season flooding. I look through the wooden bars of the hand rail and watch the lightning over the sea.
“Sheet lightning,” Dad says, knowledgeably.
“Sheet lightning,” I murmur, entranced. I’ve never seen lightning spread out like this. Sometimes the more usual forked lightning cracks in front of the diffuse sheets.
Mum has told much younger me that thunder is the clouds playing football. I have to wonder what footballer clouds need with sheets on the playing field. I still believe everything Mum says, and most of what Dad says. I’ve not learned to spot jokes, and kidding around, least of all do I identify teasing.
This night, I am an odd, bookish child clad in Bonds white underpants, and a white singlet, because it’s so hot. I have pale purple scuffs on my feet because even my sandals are too enclosed, and Mum has enforced a shoes policy.
“There’s ball lightning, too,” Dad says, and follows up quickly: “Not here, not now, but it does exist.”
It sounds exotic and football-related. I want ball lightning immediately.
There’s more sheet lightning, and distant thunder. The air around us is still hot, humid, unmoving.
“I wish it would rain here,” Mum sighs. She has left off her girdle, a sign of high temperatures, and is still uncomfortable in skirt and polyester top. She has bare feet, most unusually. It must be over forty degrees. If Mum takes her shoes off, it must be very hot indeed. I still have to wear sandals or my scuffs though. Her feet are already ruined, from years in pointy-toed high heels. She has bunions, and deformed toe nails. My feet are perfect and are to stay that way. No splinters, no stepping on anything bad, no unladylike clomping around barefoot, like a peasant.
On the road, cars whiz by. It’s nearly Christmas. It’s holiday time. People are heading both north and south, to be anywhere but Where They Are.
This is my first ever holiday anywhere, discounting five days in a holiday house in Rosebud, in winter, with my Mum, sister-in-law, and two young nephews. Our main form of entertainment was to watch the man next door burn leaves.
I have brothers twenty years older than myself, and am thus an only child with siblings. I know how to entertain myself, but there’s only the comics, and the fairy tale book. This holiday is my first experience of extended boredom, of time slowing down.
I’m sure the sheet lightning takes whole minutes to pour down.
Across the road, men are shouting at the weather. In Greek and Italian, they are probably telling their families: “Sheet lightning. Look!” and “Somewhere in the world is ball lightning.”
In the morning, I will be sent to the local milkbar, the only food shop nearby, to get a plastic bag of milk. I think this is the most amazing thing. I can walk home, minus seventy five cents, but with a sweating clear bag of cold milk. I can poke the bag and watch the milk give. I can’t swing the milk bag. It’s not that strong. I don’t dare anyway. What if Mum somehow knew?
It’s my fifteen minutes of aloneness during the holiday. I am used to spending whole days unsupervised, as Dad works, and Mum works from home on her sewing machine. I am used to back yard space to drift from tree, to dolls, to Barbies, to paper dolls, to digging, to books, to my swing. This being close to my parents all the time, and sharing a toilet with other families, and hearing them behind us, and next door, living their lives – it’s all too much for solitudinous me.
In the morning, after the milk run, Mum takes me for a walk on the beach before it gets too hot. Scores of jellyfish are washed up from the Brisbane storm. I narrowly avoid stepping on a black-spotted one the size of an extra-large pizza. Not that I know what a pizza is, back in 1974. I see it at the last moment, awkwardly jump over it. My heart hammers in my chest. I’ve only just saved myself from a sea monster.
For days, I cannot swim in the sea. Juice from the jellyfish, Mum thinks, or perhaps blue-ringed octopi, make my breast buds sting and itch. It’s nearly unbearable and reduces me to tears.
Dad has to drive me to a swimming pool some miles away, where I paddle around in the human soup for a few hours. He sleeps in the shade.
At Christmas, I am given my first watch. A round Timex with a black strap. I’m told I’m a grown up now. I don’t feel it. I open up my fairy tale book and sink into ‘The Little Mermaid’, or perhaps ‘Koskei the Undying’. All the longer tales I’ve never tackled before.
At night, I wait for ball lightning to fizz into my room and illuminate me.
Photo: Lightning - Brisbane, Australia _ Aidan