Life Saver

Piha, January '67 (mrscarmichael's mother)
Piha, January ’67 (mrscarmichael’s mother)

 Look, I’m eating a tomato. It’s home grown, red and juicy. My mother has shaken salt from a greaseproof twist onto the bitten edge for me. I don’t need salt. I have plenty enough in my mouth already but I say nothing.

Here I am on the bleached buffalo grass with Dad. My feet are still stuck with Piha’s iron sands. There’s black sand all about me; you just can’t see it. My bathing cap, swimming costume and body crevices are full of iron filings. It’s on my tomato as well, sandy, salty seeds and flesh.

My knees are scrapped. They sting. My mother hasn’t noticed and I am not going to mention that they hurt. She wouldn’t be taking the photo if she’d spotted the injury. Instead she’d be mercurochroming me purple. Margaret Bourke White to Florence Nightingale in one maternal pulse. She probably thinks the reddened knees are dotted with tomato juice.

“Please don’t tell Mum,” I begged my father once he’d dragged me from the rip, hauled me from the spin cycle beyond the safe swimming notices and I could speak again.

So far he’s kept his word. But he is quiet and has just refused the frothy foamed lager Derek’s offering him. He hasn’t yelled at me, not even after the life savers told him off.  They shouted “keep a better eye on her” –  especially if he’s going to wear a surf rescue outfit. I wish he wouldn’t wear it. It embarrasses me. There’s even a little moth hole near the left side seam. Maybe he’ll buy new togs* now, now he’s in trouble.

I’ve still got my swimming hat on. I don’t want to hurt anymore and pulling the rubber off my head always hurts.

“Take your cap off, “ Mum says. “Let the sun at your hair.”

I shake my head.

“Are you going back in after lunch?” she asks.

I nod. “Maybe,” knowing that’s the last thing in the whole world I’m going to do.

I catch a glance from Dad, a warning shot across my bows. He wants me back in Piha’s clutches even less than I want to be there.

“I’m going to change, Nola,” he calls to my mum and heads towards the car. She takes another photo.

That morning, as we drove down to the beach, I thought the sea inviting. Blue and deeper blue the water with waves like foaming heads on a coke and ice cream spider. The reality, I’ve discovered, is somewhat different. Blue, in one second, transports me to dark, green, gritty terror and the stuff of Maori legend.

“I saw your cap,” Dad said. “It’s so lucky you had that white cap on.”

We trudge across the black iron sand to the picnic.

Look, I’m eating a tomato. It’s luscious and red. I’ve stained my robe with its juices.

* Swimming costume, trunks, bathers


54 thoughts on “Life Saver

  1. It is a gripping tale, and makes me choke a little too. Maybe ‘cos you learned at a very young age that life is very precious, and that Dads are heroes even though sometimes embarrassing and Mums… well let’s say there are things that Mums are best off not knowing.

  2. A wonderful memory and well written. I love how you were in cahoots with your Dad and yet hoping he would buy a new costume and the normalcy that was going on whilst both of you had just had the most traumatic experience.The mecurochrome brings back memories. You don’t see it now. Loved it.

    1. Thank you Irene.Yes I wish I’d had the chance to turn my daughters purple. I know I’d have enjoyed it. God, that swimsuit of his upset me. I think he wore it just to annoy the b’jesus out of me. It did go after that, I’m pleased to say.

  3. Wow, Mrs. C, this is so different from what you usually write. I mean, you’re usually gritty, but this really brings the day to life. Thanks for making it so real.

    1. Spotted, Eda! I’m doing a memoir course at the moment and this was 500 words inspired by a photo from at least 10 years ago.
      Having not had the chance to write the Bob Seegar post I wanted to I thought i’d pop this one up.

  4. You really know how to write evocative. The scene is so distinctly described, but still there is much left for us readers to fill in. It is touching and impressive.

  5. Ohh Madame C, this is one of your best yet. Economical, powerful, vivid. You may be missing people to talk to, but your course is tapping into something wonderful.

    1. Yes I think I’m more of a classroom girl but am flooded with ‘homework’ having swopped, in a moment of not- like- me kindness, with another and need to have 3500 (good) words in by Tuesday morn.

      Thanks for your generous comments.

  6. In reading, even knowing you lived to tell the story, I was anxiously reading to the end to see you made it. One of those events in which life is nearly out of our hands… but dad’s hands save the day. In ’83, Nanny and I spent a few days in Ramsgate. One day, at the beach, we went way out with the tide. Tide came in faster than Nanny could keep up. At 12 years old, I was trying to drag 76 year old Nanny in to shore, with great struggle. “Out of nowhere” appears a man, in his street clothes, came way out to us, and carried us both to safety. Who was he? Never knew, aside from an anonymous hero. A salted tomato would’ve been a nice recovery meal from that event.

      1. In true Nanny fashion, she was wearing a dress. During the rescue, she kept trying to hold her dress down out over her knees in a ever true grasp at modesty. Once on shore, we thanked the man for his act of heroism, assured him we were fine, and he left. Again, in true Nanny fashion, and knowing my dad’s immediate initial tirade to follow if he heard of it back in the states, her orders were we were never to tell the fam of the event. “We must not speak of this to anyone.” 31 years later, I’m thinking its safe to tell the story. 😉

  7. Yes, Downton Abbey lines often stand out as Nannyisms from the past. The way she addressed her friends as Mrs… I would think “You’ve known this person for 40 years, and you address her formally?” Back to your beach story, i can envision the NZ sun’s warmth from my snowy spot of the world. Always an enjoyable read from you, Mrs. C.

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