From this week I will be posting some short pieces from my memoir writing. I am choosing pieces that can easily stand alone. This relates to events from when I was 15 years old.
‘Would you like to go to the beach tomorrow?’
‘I’d love to,’ I replied, already panicking about the state of my swimwear.
Alan and I had not long started spending time together. I was besotted with this tall, gentle Ceylonese boy who treated me like a princess. He was quite unlike any boy I had ever met. Alan had a quiet, measured way of talking and there was something chivalrous about him. For my part, I was trying my best to impress him in the summer of 1976.
I couldn’t tell him that my summers were mainly spent indoors. Most days I either rode my bike to the St Kilda library, where I experienced the luxury of air-conditioned comfort, or I rode over to a friend’s house where we listened to music or simply talked. The beach was the last place I went to in summer.
Alan had beautiful light brown skin, perfect for a day on the beach. I, on the other hand, had pale skin that was the height of fashion in 17th Century Dutch paintings but definitely not in Australia in the 1970s. To make matters worse, like a lobster in boiling water, I started to scald if I stayed in the sun for longer than twenty minutes.
But back in my mid-teens, I was determined to cheat my European genes. I poured on the coconut oil and headed to the beach with Alan, wearing nothing but an orange bikini and a towel slung over my shoulder. After a couple of hours lazing in the sun, Alan began to look worried.
‘You sure you’re OK in the sun? You look kinda red.’
‘Don’t worry, that always happens when I get hot. I just need to go back into the water and cool down,’ I replied, wishing it were true.
‘If the sun’s too much, we don’t have to stay,’ Alan said gallantly.
’No, no, it’s fine. I’m having a great time,’ I said, and that was true. I loved all the attention I was getting.
Alan dropped me back home late that afternoon. We made plans to go out the following Saturday to the Palais cinema in St Kilda. There was a rare showing the Woodstock music festival documentary. I was keen to see the film and even keener on spending an evening with Alan in the darkness of the cinema. It sounded promising for our burgeoning romance.
By the time my father arrived home from work, I had a throbbing headache. Every part of my body felt hot and dry. I was trying to suppress the urge to vomit as I felt the room shift under my feet.
‘Good God, what’s happened to you?’ My father said, as he dropped his briefcase at the door and reached out his arms to catch me.
I had been holding in the pain ever since had Alan left. Now I just buried my head in my father’s chest and sobbed.
‘Don’t touch me!’ I yelped as he put his arms around me.
‘C’mon, let’s have a look at it,’ he said.
We peeled my top off. I was so sore that the only thing I could do was to lie face down on my bed wearing nothing but my undies. I couldn’t even endure the weight of a sheet over me. My father found some Nivea creme and tried to put some on my back. The pain was excruciating; I couldn’t bear his touch. Somehow I fell asleep lying on my stomach. By the next morning my shoulders, back and legs were blistered and even more painful than the night before. I could barely move.
My father went to the chemist and returned with a burn spray in an aerosol can. It looked like pink shaving cream and offered some welcome relief. I think I must have stayed in bed for two full days and struggled to wear anything but a loose cheesecloth top. By the time Saturday arrived, my blisters had burst and I could sit gingerly on a chair as long as I didn’t lean back.
‘I don’t think you should go out tonight. Your back hasn’t healed yet and I can see you’re in pain.’ my father cautioned.
‘I’ll be OK, Papa, I’ll take some Panadol before I go.’
My father just shook his head and didn’t say another word.
That evening, when Alan arrived, I put on a brave face.
‘Are you sure we should go?’ Alan asked, full of concern.
‘Of course! I’m ready, aren’t I?’ I snapped.
Alan and my father looked at each other. Without a common language between them, they reverted to universal sign language. My father lifted both his hands, palms facing forward and shrugged his shoulder. Alan nodded his head and his gentle brown eyes conveyed that he would look after me.
I hobbled to the car, sat carefully on the front seat and did my best not to lean back. I held the seatbelt away from my shoulder and asked Alan to drive slowly, especially over any bumps. When we arrived, Alan had to lift me out of the car. At the Palais, we sat in uncomfortable wooden seats with arm rests that jabbed into our ribs when either of us tried to lean across. Alan carefully put his arm around me and I was glad he couldn’t see me wince.
I remember the film well. The music transported me to the long lost America of the late 60s, where a counterculture promised a new age of peace and free love. I wished I could have been born a few years earlier to experience it firsthand. But with my back still raw and weeping from burst blisters, what I longed for most on that big screen was the joyful abandon of naked bodies in mud baths as the rain came down. I so wanted that soothing shower to soak my clothes and feel the cool thick mud cover my sunburnt body as I leant over to finally kiss Alan.