Mention the beach, any beach, to most people and they will shower you with a warm and fuzzy flood of heart-felt, tender, life-spanning memories which may or may not include the time they first swam in the ocean, the freedom they felt when they first surfed, their baby’s first steps on the sand, the last time they looked good in a bikini/Speedo…
However from a young age I have always been wary of the beach and with good reason – it is the place where most of my accidents, injuries and embarrassing moments have occurred. Don’t misunderstand me, I have some fond memories of the beach, but I have many more terrifying memories of near-death experiences.
The first of these memories involves my father, who will deny this happened to his dying day. When I was about 8 years old or so (too old to be thought fragile, too young to seek cold-blooded revenge), he thought it would be hilarious to throw a piece of saltwater-soaked cardboard at me from across the beach. Imagine the scene; the cardboard pivoting beautifully, silently through the air, droplets of saltwater splashing the golden Cornish sands in a glistening, rainbow cascade before hitting me full in the face like a salty, papier-mâché slap. After the initial feeling of terror thinking that I was being suffocated by a giant octopus (the ones most often seen in a 1950s monster movie, tentacles wrapped round my head, suckers cutting off my air supply until my desperate screams for help are choked from my body) there was a momentary feeling of relief that it was in fact just a huge piece of corrugated cardboard. This relief was soon followed by a rush of anger and humiliation tinged with impotence as I realised that any attempt at revenge was futile because a) he was laughing it up half way down the beach by then b) he’s my dad who brought me up to respect my elders and c) he has no boundaries when it comes to practical jokes and my revenge would have been outdone by him burying me up to my neck in the sand. Head first.
Then there was the time that I tried body-boarding for the first time on Mablethorpe beach. What a rush! The wind in my hair, the crashing of the waves, the salty sea-spray in my face, the sound of my screaming family as I careered towards a jagged sea break with all the agility and grace of a floating turd…
And finally we have the time when my parents thought it would be a nice idea for me to try horseback riding on the beach. Oh, the feeling of expectation as they hoisted me into the saddle! Oh, the desperate anticipation of a 7 year old who had visions of galloping magnificently down the sands leaving nothing but hoof prints and dust in her wake. Oh, the terror as the saddle unbuckled and I slid sideways, slowly, until I was hanging upside-down underneath the horse. Oh, the sound of my families screams, yet again, as the horse moved off with me dangling underneath like an extra testicle.
A trip down the Great Ocean Road to some of Australia’s finest beaches therefore filled me with a slight feeling of discomfort, coupled with the disquieting notion that at some point this would mean donning a swimsuit and exposing my legs, which at the moment resemble two white chocolate Magnums, sans sticks but the same shape. We departed on our road trip on the Friday evening of Labour Day weekend, a veritable ‘Thelma and Louise’, although who was who is debatable. To be fair I have slightly saggier breasts, so by rights I should be Susan Sarandon. We arrived at Apollo Bay in the dark – I like that, it gives me sense of real anticipation for the next morning and I have rarely, if ever, been let down by what the dawn reveals. Our motel room was comfortable and clean, with a balcony that looked over the bay, and Apollo Bay itself is quaint and friendly.
Our first morning was spent driving down the coast, taking it in turns to look at the rugged coastline and the vast ocean which stretches out (at points, way below you) to a dark blue horizon. The road itself is an amazing example of what human endeavour and determination can achieve – from the planning through to the execution. Listed as the world’s largest war memorial, it was built by men returning from the Great War as a magnificent act of remembrance. Stretching from Torquay to Warrnambool, the road twists and turns through a variety of landscapes; cliffs, forests and bays each one more beautiful than the last and one cannot help but be swept away a little by the adventure of it all – a great section of the road hugs the coastline known as ‘Shipwreck Coast’, so it is difficult not to think of pirates and treasure, swashbuckling and smuggling with every turn in the two lane highway.
The next stop on our tour was Torquay, a lovely town with a beach of the fine white sand variety, and the minx was very excited at the prospect of building sandcastles with her Daddy.
To begin with, the sandcastle building began as an innocent time filler, a way to keep the minx entertained and away from other exquisite delights such as discarded cigarette butts and other beach debris which is oh-so-interesting to a two year old. We filled the bucket together, patted the top when we tipped it over and said the magic words ‘abracadabra-hocus-pocus!’ to make the castle magically appear. She seemed genuinely happy and surprised when even a crumbling, half-castle structure appeared from inside the bucket.
Not so Daddy.
I suppose my suspicions should have been aroused when he began asking for buckets of water to make his ‘compo’, however I am always one to give my other half the benefit of the doubt. Half an hour later, the minx and I had given up trying to join in and had wandered down the beach to play with a football. Every time she went to participate in the sandcastle building ‘fun’, she was met with demented screams of ‘Don’t touch it!!! I’m building the fairy castle towers!!!! For God’s sakes don’t put dry sand on there – you’ll ruin my mix!!!!’ It turns out that 30 years ago, he lost a sandcastle building competition in Spain to a young girl who couldn’t speak a word of the Queen’s, but who had fashioned intricate Disney-esque turrets using nothing but sand, water, her own hands and un-childlike skill, and this had marked him for ever. My other half, it appears, does not like to lose. He finally admitted later (when he found himself sitting alone on the beach at nightfall putting the finishing touches to his design) that when it came to building sandcastles, he was a little anal.
Sounds like a punk band…
And so, a while later, and after the minx’s heartfelt whisper of ‘Mummy, I’m a little bit bored…’, the castle was done, complete with turrets, a gateway surrounded by two towers, valet parking and tea and coffee making facilities. And 5 seconds after that, the minx and I took somewhat spiteful pleasure in jumping all over it.
I like to think of this sandcastle as a metaphor for life. One spends all your time building a happy home, taking love and care to mix the ‘compo’ of life so that you have just the right mix, just the right consistency, with solid foundations and the hope of protection, until some giggling gits come and stomp all over it.
Whatever one thinks about my sandcastle analogy, and whatever one may think about the sadistic pleasure I took in kicking Cinderella’s sandy castle in, it made my daughter laugh a lot and at last I have a warm and fuzzy memory to share with people when they mention the beach, any beach.