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The Creeping Sea

One hot summer, rather than languishing amongst the flies and horse manure of the hot valley, my family migrated to the coast. The six-hour journey was punctuated by frequent bathroom stops, fights over who should be made to sit in the middle, and Peter Coombe’s upbeat songs about toffee apples. My brother, Edward, was carsick and I had to hold the ice-cream bucket for him. Tired and sticky-faced, we eventually arrived at the beach town of Minnie Water. Our peach-coloured rental house faced onto the water and had two storeys with an open balcony. There was an old flat out the back – a fibro ruin inhabited only by shadows. I scared myself imagining faces peering out at me through the sad remains of gauzy curtains.

The interior was stuffy and worn. Before long, a fight broke out over bedrooms. By parental decree, the girls were stuck with the back room, which was separated from the rest of the house by a narrow hallway with rough brown carpet. Madeline and I fought over the beds, one of which was near a window- the only relief from the stuffiness. Our bedroom opened onto a makeshift closed-in verandah. It had a strange green roof that caught the sun and made our temples pound if we looked at it for too long.

Our mother made us stay inside until late afternoon when the sun had lost some of its heat. In the meantime, to everyone’s delight, we discovered facilities for even better games of hide and seek than we had at home. The carpeted staircase outside the girls’ room led down to an enormous garage. The garage was a dark maze full of old tools and forgotten machinery. The only light down there was broken, so we didn’t linger.

We camped out in the boys’ non-green bedroom until finally being released onto the beach. Our father herded us across the road and the sloping field that tourists liked to use as a car park. Edward squatted to study the sandy crab holes, pockmarks barely covered by the sparse coastal grass. I ventured into the shallows clutching the hard yellow plastic of my kickboard. The waves were much higher than they’d appeared from the house – cliff-faces cloudy with sand that stung my eyes. Our father showed off by bodysurfing, cresting the waves like a flesh-coloured dolphin. I never imagined he could be so graceful.

By evening, our tiredness had returned as, damp and salty, we lounged in front of the small black and white television. It was exciting to eat dinner accompanied by the sounds of the surf, but as darkness descended, the house and its sounds began to feel more alien. The green room began to appear more and more isolated from the main part of the house. At 8:30, Edward and I were packed off to bed. I dawdled unobtrusively, making many trips to the bathroom and kitchen, back and forth, until my father noticed and threatened a smack.

In the green bedroom, Madeline was tossing in her bed. She was at her touchiest when she wanted to sleep. I carefully closed the curtain that separated our room from the verandah before sliding into bed. The breeze caught it, making it flutter. The end of my bed was right near the curtain. I drew my feet up a little more before turning off the light.

Usually, I loved to hear the sounds of my parents getting ready for bed. At home, it was these sounds that lulled me to sleep. In this new house, all I felt was dread of an approaching aloneness in the dark. I sent a probing whisper my sister’s way, but Madeline was silent. I strained my eyes to check if my sister was really asleep, but as soon as my gaze flicked to the billowing curtain, I squeezed them shut again. I hadn’t forgotten the haunted old flat out the back.

As the last sounds of the house died away, I was the only person left in the world. The air was hotter and thicker. I tucked my head under the covers and tried to focus my thoughts on banal, happy things. Edward’s birthday, the cats at home, school. I dozed off, only to jerk awake again at a distant sound. The green roof’s magnified heat had found its way under my covers. I was forced to come up for air. I listened for any strange noises, but all that reached my ears was the pulsing of waves hitting sand, hypnotising and insistent.

In the darkness, I imagined the ocean was creeping closer. My head filled with its sound until I was desperate to run through the sleeping house and out onto the balcony, to see for myself what the logical part of my mind kept telling me – the horizon hadn’t shifted. But I lay still, unable to suppress the image of the yawning hole outside my bedroom door: the staircase that led to the cold, dark garage where things lurked behind old clotheslines and bits of timber. So trapped, I lay awake under the hot, itchy covers, counting down the hours to light.
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We took a morning walk and a breakfast of our father’s fat, stodgy pancakes. The tangy breeze soon banished memories of the night’s terrors. We set up camp in the back yard. Hide and seek was a favourite game until it became widely known that the seeker, by way of standing on the lid of the outside toilet, was well placed to watch through the window as everyone scrambled to hide.

We were herded off for another swim, all except Edward. He was always stubborn in his resistance. Our parents felt he’d be fine left to himself, quietly pottering in the garden. Edward was fascinated by the resident bad-tempered chook, Mrs. Thompson, who made a point of eating any spider our mother carefully transported out of the house in a dustpan. He had started a collection of her feathers.
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That night, in a tantrum of hot tears, I angled for a sojourn in my parent’s bed. My mother just snapped at me. The fear was back, roaring through my veins with cold efficiency. The tempo of the surf echoed in my pounding head. The lights went out. I wrapped myself in the scratchy bedspread and opened the bedroom door. The darkness of the hallway was complete; my imagination was lost in it, but I needed to look at the sea.

The crashing of waves was ear-splitting. I found myself pressed against the front door, straining to make out the black glitter of water. I could hear it creep up over the verge and across the open field, washing up against the peeling olive of the front steps. I couldn’t see the horizon. Any moment, a wave the height of a skyscraper would emerge from the gloom.

I breathed in the metallic tang of the salt-weathered gauze. A soft footstep sounded behind me. I turned to see a pyjama-clad figure looming in the kitchen doorway. His eyes wore the glazed look of sleep and his auburn hair stood in tousled peaks.

“Edward?"

I emerged from my cocoon, the everyday concerns of a big sister temporarily replacing fear of the tide.

He was disorientated, like a sleepwalker or someone just awoken from a dream. I led him around the island bench to get him a glass of water. He grunted and pushed it away, moving back to stare out through the glass and out to sea.

The darkness was edging in on my consciousness once more. A little impatient, I took Edward’s skinny arm and suggested he go to the bathroom and then to bed where he belonged. He didn’t protest. We shuffled through the gloom of the sleeping house, pausing so I could switch the laundry light on. We sidled past the dark canyon of the backstairs and I pushed my brother into the closet-like bathroom. His eyes looked expressionlessly back at me until I pulled the flimsy door shut.

I lingered until Edward was back in his room and I was once again alone in the darkness. The sighing creaks of the stairs sent me running for my own bed. I was comforted by my sister’s soft snoring. Exhaustion set in and I knew nothing more until morning.
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I was woken by the sounds of my mother’s hysteria. Edward was missing. The door to the balcony was open, as if he’d left during the night for a walk on the beach. On the olive steps off the front porch, a carpet python was calmly sunning himself, the lump in his sleek coils all that remained of the chicken, Mrs. Thompson. I sat and watched him, all day, as people came and went. He never moved. I was too afraid to touch him.

There was a strange justice in the spider-swallowing chicken’s fate. There was none in my brother’s. Behind my eyelids, I kept seeing him, standing in the doorway with that sleepy innocence. I felt panicked, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t help him.

My brother was swallowed by the ocean.

The Creeping Sea

pinkelephant

Joined February 2007

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