By Vita Forest
It’s the summer holidays and that means lots of time spent swimming in salt water. One of my favourite haunts is Balmoral Beach, a place with so many layers of memory washing over it.
There’s the lemon scent I catch as I walk down the street where I usually park the car, from who knows what plant – it’s not a lemon tree. This street with the sign at the entrance to the driveway of a block of apartments “Don’t even think about parking here” which causes equal parts outrage and laughter. The flats, with the garage that at one time had its door raised to reveal a private gym, and another time, another year, a stall of random items for sale including a couple of Margaret Atwood books. One day I bought The Blind Assassin. The next day I bought Alias Grace. A street I walk along and wonder, which house would I live in? If I could? Or would I choose that low-maintenance apartment with its shady verandah looking out over the beach?
There’s The Baths. Years ago, we used to have our initial swimming carnival for high school there (before moving onto to the more serious North Sydney Olympic pool for the finals). It was a fun day out, with those who wanted to participating in the races, diving off the floating blocks into the often choppy water, while those who didn’t, sunbaking on the slatted wooden jetty or splashing about in the shallows near the sand. In recent years, Max and Lucy have floated there on giant doughnuts or blow up boats or snorkelled under the jetty looking for fish and crabs and the rumours of seahorses living in the waving kelp. In recent years I have returned here to swim, simplifying my routine by swimming without goggles or a cap. Perhaps that is why I don’t do Freestyle anymore – too much water gets in my ears. Instead I keep my head out – all the better to see where I am going and to pause every now and then to look up at the bush on the headland or the clouds floating in the blue sky.
Further south, there are large fig trees that grow on the grass behind the sand. Some of them are like pavilions with branches extending over the beach itself. It was under one of these that I used to sit with Lucy as a baby, her body lying between my legs, her feet kicking into the air as she gazed up at the twinkling brightness of the sun through the fig leaves. It was here that her feet were first dipped into salt water, tiny toes flaring up at its coldness. It was here I rocked the pram covered with a muslin cloth, groggy with lack of sleep, and watched Max play on the pirate ship in the playground.
Heading north, there’s the island attached to the promenade by an arched concrete bridge. It was here we drank cheap champagne on one of our last days of high school. It was here I have stopped with innumerable friends on innumerable walks up and down the beach in summer and winter, sunshine and rain. It was here a month or so ago, I sat on a rock and drew a fig tree growing out of a crevasse between two boulders of sandstone, its roots clutching and wrapping around the rocks. It was on that occasion that I saw the young bride and groom, she in a backless white gown that showed off the tattoos on her tanned shoulders.
It’s to this place I have come in summer, either early or late, to avoid the harshness of the midday sun. And so I never see Freya, who I work with, who only goes there at the hottest time of the day. She is young and invincible and lies in the sun to get a tan, something I never do. Me in my long-sleeved rashie seeing if I can still swim a kilometre.