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south – ocean beach. story 4

The Headland

Snoring, heavy even breathing

‘ Grandad!’

Sharp intake of breath. Grunt.

‘ Grandad!’

Loud snort, muffled oath.

‘ Granddad!! ‘

Full and rude wakefulness

Early morning, dark and still with only the high perched kookaburras saluting a sun that was still far below the horizon. Half an hour before earliest light thought grandfather Tom as he turned in his bed to see what the young fellow wanted. He flicked on the bedside light.

‘ Whatsup Tobes? ‘

Toby stood by the side of the bed, close by the side of the bed with his hands clenched tight and Alf in close attendance.

‘ What are you doing in the house Alf? ‘

The dog smiled up at Toby and wagged his tail twice. Not my fault Boss, I’m with him.

‘ There’s ghosts under the house Granddad. They’re right under my bed and I can hear them all night. ‘ The little boy’s voice was serious, nervous and breathless.

‘ Well I can’t hear ‘em. ‘

‘ Yeah, and I saw some of them flying up past the window too. ‘

‘ When? ‘

‘ Just then. ‘

Just then Alf growled softly and barked once, and after a short interval Betty replied from deep under the house. Old Tom swung his feet over the bedside.

‘ Come on Tobias and I’ll show you your new mates. Where’s me torch? ‘

Betty and Alf were both crossbred golden dingoes and the two pups that greeted the flashlight were fat and hairless sausages with big heads and tadpoles’ legs. At least that was what the young fellow said they looked like as he observed them sucking mightily at their mother’s belly.

The female raised her head from licking down one of the pups to give Alf a low warning growl. Hearing this the big male lay quietly on the packed earth and watched, his eyes glittered yellow in the reflected torchlight and his big tail thumped regularly onto the ground.

‘ One thing about this type of dog young Toby. ‘

The little fellow was about to withdraw his questing finger from one of the puppy’s heads when Betty included it in her ablutions.

He went on. ‘ They don’t like each other much when there’s pups around. ‘

‘ Why? ‘

‘ That dingo in them is a fair bit wild and Alf is likely to get cheesed of when he can’t get close to his Missus. ‘

‘ Why does he want to get close? ‘

The old man began to regret bringing up the subject.

‘ He might like to see how she’s going, kind of. ’

‘ But why wont she let him? ‘

‘ Because she’s busy is why. ‘

‘ But he just wants to see his pups. ‘

‘ Yeah, ok.   Come on, let’s have a cuppa tea and pack up the boat. You ever been fishing? ‘

Ocean Beach stretched fifteen kilometers from headland to headland and for all the years Tom had lived on the coast it had been his personal retreat. The only other person known to have trod the hardpacked sands was Monty the hermit. They had met here twenty years ago and both of them had been shocked to see each other that day.

Now they met irregularly, usually when Monty needed to send some letters to his family in Albany over the west, or when the long right hander that broke down the side of the point tempted him into the water. Over the years Tom learnt that Monty had absconded from the lockup in Sydney after being convicted of wilful damage and goods in custody. He also had convictions for arson and unlawful entry. Town talk had him involved in the disappearance of two Maori stand over men in Sydney in 1987. He had the reputation as some kind of vigilante in the city, though a little on the violent side which was surprising given that he was not a big man. Perhaps that reputation accounted for his need for solitude now.

The long beach was open to the southern gales and the high seas that they drove onto the coast. A windswept shore, it offered little shelter from the weather.

At the foot of the back beach dunes centuries of such wild weather had accumulated a vast tangle of driftwood and  ocean debris and it was here where Toby uncovered a brass hinged hatchcover and length of hemp line that spoke of a wreck in days long past.

Tom knew that the sands hid the wreckage of many sail driven vessels and he suspected that the survivors of the Sydney Cove, whose whaleboat was driven ashore in 1797 on the Gippsland coast after having sailed from Tasmania, had passed through there on their desperate 640 km trek to Botany Bay.

When they had climbed to the summit of the highest dune they could see back and across the tannin stained waters of the lagoon that it sheltered and over to the small piece of cleared land on the beach where stood their home. The long gravel track that wound away from the rear of the house to disappear into the higher timber of the inland forests bore no travellers and it looked a fragile link with the township of Eden fifty kilometers away.

They picked out their beached dinghy with the two sets of footprints leading away and out of sight around the shallows of the lake entrance, towards the ocean beach.

One set was straight, true and unbroken. The other was a series of tangents, circles and random zigzags, but both were generally travelling in the same direction.

The old man thought about that for a moment before his grandson set off on a great bounding running romp down the warm slopes, yelling with joy.

And the massive Dusky Flathead basking in the shallows at the water’s edge far beneath them shook off the light covering of sand that had rendered it invisible before sliding its scarred bulk into the dark tannin stained water.

Old man flathead

The ancient fish trailed two short lengths of nylon fishing line that were attached to a couple of rusted hooks sunk deep into the bony sides of its lizard’s mouth, and both of them belonged to Tom.

‘ There’s a shark! ‘ Came a cry of unbounded wonder and delight.

No fooling the eyes on that little one thought the old man, and we’ll have that bloody old fish for dinner one day yet.

Later, after they had finished the lunch that Tom had brought, they decided to walk down to the southernmost headland, a low black cliff that from four kilometers away looked like an enormous whale stranded and astride the beach, waiting for the incoming tide to free it from the grip of the land.

Toby suddenly stopped walking and stared down at the body of a dead Shearwater that lay across his path. Stricken, he was about to say something when he noticed another a few yards away. Then another beyond that, then many more dotted amongst the sea-trash and dry sand for the length of the long beach, for this was the migrating season and a time of great losses amongst these swift sea birds.

‘ Granddad. ‘

‘ Yes mate. ‘

‘ Who killed all these birds?  ‘

‘ They got pretty tired out there and drowned mate. ‘

‘ Don’t you sink when you get drowned? ‘

The old man squatted down with Toby and they both examined the small head of one of the dead birds. Some of the feathers and flesh had fallen off already and the white bone of the skull was exposed.

‘ No, these little blokes float and the waves wash ‘em in. Most people call them Mutton-Birds, ‘

‘ What’s Mutton? ‘

‘ Mutton is sheep. ‘

‘ Why is a sheep a bird granddad? ‘

Tom rose off his haunches, greeted his lurking sciatica painfully, cast around for a suitable distraction, and then finally settled for some facts.

‘ Well, you know that some of these little birds live for thirty years, and they fly around the world every year. The old settlers reckoned they tasted like mutton, kind of.‘

Shearwater

‘ That’s pretty silly granddad. ‘ Offhanded his six year old grandson with a brutal confidence, and for the first time in many years the old man felt abashed for having uttered an unadorned truth.

They reached the headland about mid-afternoon and used a small track that led from the beach through the boulders and shoulder high scrub and onto the plateau. A small stone cairn had been erected in the middle of a grassy clearing there and when Tom reached it he took off his knapsack and turned towards the forest that rose west of the clearing. A wilderness of timbered landscape, a shadowed land of high ridges cleft with deep arterial waterways.

He placed his fingers against his lips and gave out a long piercing shriek of a whistle.

The little boy turned and stared at him, open-mouthed. ‘ Did you just do that? ‘ He asked.

Tom turned his head a little, as if he was listening for something before he answered Toby.

‘ I was hoping that Monty was around; he’d like to meet you. ‘

Tobias looked at the distant forest as if it contained unimaginable creatures.

‘ What’s Monty? ‘

The old man laughed. ‘ Not what. – Who! ‘

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