A man in bleached overalls unrolled a cloth as long as the corridor. Over five days he painted overlapping poppyflowers, each flowerhead wider than the height of the wall. When I told Maritsio he shook his head:
‘There was a red-head I was seeing. She had a poppyflower on the ceiling.’
We were up in his dorm at the ocean backpackers, a gust of wind swayed the rickety trap. I suggested we go down. The stairs were lit by a small, high-up window. At the door onto the street a man waited for us to pass down.
‘When are you going to move out?’ I called over my shoulder. ‘I’ll stay at my backpackers.’ ‘You’ll have a lot of fun.’ ‘I’m getting on now.’ ‘How do you get a girl home as it is?’ ‘I say: “my place is being re-carpeted, let’s go to yours.” But we come back here, into her dorm. The next morning she sees me and says: “what are you doing here”. “Oh, my house was burned down, you know.” I have had a town of houses . . .’ But I had not heard the question: he gestured to ask if I would have a drink. The barman took two Smirnoff blacks from the long fridge under the counter. He used one bottle to lever the top off the other, and set them down together. I smacked the top clean on the lip of the bar. ‘Lucky you didn’t chip the bottle,’ said Maritsio. ‘What kind of place is this?’ ‘You should get one of these,’ he had a bottle-opener ring on
his middle finger.
We went for a wander around to the dance floor. There were a couple of girls dancing to each other, prancing in heels and self-conscious, and each of them with a shoulder-bag. There was a boy on a low couch. We danced away. For my part I felt like a duck, but it seemed we were a chance. One said to Maritsio they were going for a smoke and we filed across to the smokers’.
‘Do you have a smoke?’ she said. ‘You don’t smoke?,’ he said. ‘I only arrived last night,’ she said. The other one asked a guy for a smoke, he had a t-shirt that said: ‘Save South Port’. ‘I’m with North Port,’ I said. He stepped back, his eyes wide, (he had been drinking), and rocked forward: ‘Get off it,’ I said. ‘Honestly honestly honestly,’ he said, and twisted against the crowd to call to some one over his shoulder. He had blonde dreadlocks to his ears, a thin face and the t-shirt had a worn-out, loose collar. I doubted he was a member of any action group. ‘I thought it was just dock lands,’ I said. ‘It’s a quaint little beach,’ he said. ‘Must be,’ I said. ‘What do they want to build?’ ‘Some high rise tower, some big whack-off. I’ve been going to that beach since I was little. There’s no way they can build there.’ The two girls wanted to know what we were talking about. ‘This gent is Convenor of North Port,’ he said. ‘And he’s the convenor of South,’ I said A mate leaned over his shoulder. ‘Grand to meet you,’ said his mate, who seemed less drunk. ‘Happenings down your
end. I was at the rally in October, we both were. That guy who spoke for the developers - I
was like brou-ha-ha. Did you hear the guy yelling out with the trumpet? That was me.’
‘Are you with South Port?’ one of the girls said. She had a slant fringe and the other had a white shirt. ‘Yes,’ he said, chastened. ‘We’re only getting a thing together now.’ Adressing me he said: ‘It’s hard to know whether we make a big deal of it, or just hope it blows over. Because on the one hand, I know they’re working behind the scenes. But on the other hand I don’t want to get everyone used to the idea of the beach being lost. To get the idea in their heads. They’ll be like: “ah that’s a shame, but anyway, moving on”. And it’s just mumbo-jumbo from the council as well.’
A few big raindrops fell, it was a rosy dusk at the top of the shaft. More rain fell and everyone groaned. A girl with big mascara eyes said in a quietly urgent voice that she needed to squeeze through.
‘You can shelter under me,’ said Maritsio. ‘What?’ ‘Come shelter under me.’ The girl looked around to her girlfriend and fairly manhandled a passage to the exit. She got down and bumped her own tributary into the queue and crawled through. ‘It’ll pass girls,’ said the dreadlocks. ‘So where are you from originally?’ They were from North England, from a town with a steelworks. It was the largest steel works in Europe, or maybe in England. It never stopped. ‘Sounds like one hell of a steel works,’ said his mate. ‘I’ve never seen a steel works, but
I’d see that one.’
‘We send our iron ore to Japan,’ said dreadlocks. ‘And they send it back as Toyotas.’ The outlying works of each town had been amalgamated. At night it made a red glow. It surely was a steel works. ‘Do you have local action-groups?’ ‘No one cares,’ whispered Maritsio. I said lets go get a drink. Outside of the backpackers we walked along the promenade and down onto the beach and then north along the shore sand. When the wash ran up over the sand she ran up to the dry sand. I just walked along on the dry sand. After a while of this, she said: ‘I’m going down south tomorrow.’ ‘That’s a beautiful area,’ I said.
She walked on. I caught up and put my arm over her shoulder and showed to her the light fading over the ocean, the container ships, the island light house and the pine trees.
‘Slow down,’ she said.
The distant lights of the dock cranes, the farther glow of the petrodiesel refinery, the figures of dogs and dogwalkers making up the beach toward us.
‘But it’s being re-carpeted,’ I said.
A spotter plane high up and alone, the hunting kites of the kite surfers, a synchronised blink of the oceangoing vessels.
There was to be a Swanbourne action group. The local residents sat on stackable chairs that curved away like vinerows on a hill. A beefy man took a wheezing gulp of air and said: ‘Are we sure this is going ahead?’ ‘We will do everything to stop it going ahead’, I said and looked about the room. ‘That
is the point of this group, to stop a marina from happening.’
‘But if it is not going to happen, why do we need a group?’ said a second man in the far
‘But it may happen, if we don’t have a group to stop it.’ ‘It seems to me,’ said beefy, ‘that a project of this size and scope, being as it is a partnership of our tiers of government, and of the private sector’, he paused to wipe with thumb and finger his plumped lower lip, clearly being a man used to holding an audience, ‘is doomed to success or failure, regardless of our actions, well meaning though they may be. For example, the resort up north . . .’ ‘Not in praxis,’ a voice called out, ‘and we don’t participate to hear the incensed and articulate.’
He continued to address me:
‘Look I’ll say my piece, and then you can talk among yourselves: we have to play smart. It’s no use climbing trees like a . . . beserko!’ He grunted and shifted and hurriedly wiped the lip. ‘Because listen: people don’t care about that.’
Each person who wished to volunteer was to stand up and state their qualifications. Two stood up. Each in turn was heartily applauded.
‘Good luck to you boys, may the road rise up,’ said the fat man. ‘They’ll do fine,’ I said. ‘Will anyone else volunteer?’
A nursing mother with a shawl said she surely would if it was not for a certain Mr Tom. Her partner stood up and she tugged him down. He was a big-handed and shy, dark-bearded man.
‘Get up,’ said the fat man, ‘what if it should go ahead?’ ‘On which occasion you would have been a volunteer,’ said the earlier voice.
He got to his feet and turned around, with a knee on the chair. We all waited for him to reply, finally he said softly:
‘My story is that I own a boat.’ The mother turned a shoulder across the infant. ‘A 32 foot trim cuda-boat, with an Egyptian sail.’ ‘The aphrodisiac of power,’ said the earlier voice. ‘I hoped it would be different.’ He gathered his coat and went out. The earlier voice
stuck up a woolen-jumper arm to volunteer, his name was Bryn.
After the residents left, we had our first meeting. Tim Tucak said the big concern was the group would be seen as a reactive Nimby: a not in my backyard group. Which it fairly was. We should think up an alternative site for a marina. He set about arranging the chairs to form the coastline and he tipped chairs upside down to make sand banks. We threw the chairs about. Other things were the currents and storm wrack and the prevailing sou’westerly and the kite surfers. Jean-Paul stood to the side and he ended up as the island, which was good because of the lighthouse, and the water sheltered by the island fanned out as bottles. ‘I’ll bring a streamer to the next meeting,’ said Tim Tucak ‘While the question of the efficacy remains,’ said Bryn. ‘I mean for the storm wrack.’
Two more things were the seaward corners of the three kilometre [???] live-fire restricted zone. It was late at night and time to go home. We met once a fortnight and at each close Tim Tucak, sighing, locked up.
It seemed that almost everyone aquired a stake in an action group: be it for a coastal stretch, a forest or a bushland, or be the group an umbrella-styled conversation society. Where once two Treasurers, grateful to meet one another, had retired to a corner, up to twenty congregated in the living room. I was drinking cherry brandy. No-one would admit the subject and the ambit of their group, else they harm the cause. There was the turtle conservationist who wore a folded paper hat, stubby-shorts and hiking boots, and who seemed to be always striding urgently across the lawn, at the edge of the cast light. There was the hook-nosed, wordless man at the kitchen sink, associated with desert rock-art. A pair of Treasurers talked about an episode of a sitcom, the one balanced amiably on the arm of a couch. Girlfriend Alison introduced herself as the Convenor of the Swanbourne Action Group. ‘An aerodrome,’ she said abruptly, with a trace of pride. ‘You know, who knows why they want anything. But they’re saying they want it and we don’t want it.’ ‘Won’t they need a landing strip of some sort?’ ‘They’ll get the aerodrome and then they’ll say: “oh no - we also need a landing strip. Can we use the road? No? Oh we’ll have to construct.” Construct! mind you. Construct a long landing strip along the beach.’ ‘Bryn’s probably told you about North Port,’ I said. ‘Where we met,’ she said, ‘and what about your one?’
I looked at him.
‘There was a rally with a man and another man,’ she said trailing off. ‘It’s ongoing,’ I said. ‘Outcomes are precipitating for the worse at North,’ said Bryn. ‘Steadily, steadily for the worse.’ ‘Islands,’ said Alison. ‘Offshore islands,’ he gestured to shape the islands. ‘Political elites are moving to dump rubble and bricks and cars.’ ‘Bullshit,’ I said. ‘Any solid matter,’ ‘Islands,’ she repeated.
Bryn drove us to the sea.
‘We’ll have to wait for the dawn.’ ‘Listen to yourself,’ she said. ‘We’ll have to wait for the dawn,’ he said again.
The three of us sat on the bonnet waiting for the dawn.
‘Limestone,’ she said, ‘is made of dead marine life.’
An hour or so later:
‘Calcareous planktons humdrum sediment.’
At the hospital, Maritsio let us in the glass doors and we went in the lift to the geriatric ward on the top floor.
‘It’s mainly English,’ he said, giving me the exasperated eye.
He led us down the corridor to the common room and the three of us slumped down on the couches and waited for the dawn. A backpacker wandered in and assembled a fuel stove on the carpet by the window. He boiled water and cooked a pack of instant noodles. His mate wandered in and squatted barefoot. They were going down south in a few hours.
‘Have you got some Haloumi?’ said Alison. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Do you Haloooo-mi?’ ‘I can’t understand you.’ ‘It’s a progressive vegeterian model of cheese, cogent with evaporated noodles,’ said Bryn ‘Oh no!’ he said giggling and turned back to the window. The mate had Beckham-type tribal tattoos on a forearm and shoulder-length hair with a topknot. A call-bell went and the backpacker looked up at the display. When he had gone, I asked the mate who they had. ‘Some demented bitch.’
Alison got up and exited the room. The backpacker returned and said:
‘She says she is short of oranges and that I have to trim the hedge. So I bring her an orange, she says trim it shorter!’ The mate shook his head sorrowfully and looked out the window. Dawn was breaking. Maritsio joined us for the drive back to the sea. ‘Those English,’ he said.
Bryn and Alison wandered off along the promenade and we sat on the bonnet. They appeared down on the sunless beach. Alison splashed about in the shallows and the sun was on our backs.
‘This is a shitty car,’ he said. It was a shitty rustbucket of a stationwagon. ‘Why does he speak like that?’ ‘He’s doing a Masters,’ I said.