Our family of three and a bit are approaching the last days of our annual beach house holiday. I am keen to explore the bush and beaches of a neighbouring area. But the other two want to laze about. Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle is always up for an adventure but I don’t want to be restricted by signs that forbid his kind. So he sadly watches me through the fence as I drive off. I find a nice beach but as there isn’t any more surf than the one we’re staying at, I decide instead to take a little bush walk. I choose the shortest – ‘The Wreck Walk’. It isn’t long before I notice a father and his two fat sons walking ahead of me with fishing gear. They stop and the father uses his fishing rod to attack a giant spider web and its large but out of the way inhabitant. He justifies his actions to his protesting sons by saying that it’s ok as it’s a common spider. I pass him with a curt, “Excuse me”. He’s surprised by this and jumps out of the way. “Sorry mate.” I continue on as quickly as I can, trying to put some distance between myself and the Spider Slayer. I come to a sign pointing the way to the shipwreck. There is some information about it. I read quickly, discovering that in 1928 a mighty steamer christened the SS Merimbula hit the rocks at Whale Point. I want to read on but the Spider Slayer and his obese offspring are waddling my way. So I walk down the sandy path and exchange bush for a mass of volcanic rocks and the Pacific Ocean. The rocks are randomly scattered about, chaotically heaped on top of each other. In the distance I see some that seem redder and more sharp edged than the others. As I get closer, I realise that these are the rusted remains of the steamer. I walk around them, fascinated by how they have now become part of the natural landscape. These are the original Sculptures by the Sea, erected decades before viewing twisted rusty metal was an annual event in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. I start to imagine what it must have been like on that stormy night in 1928, bodies being thrown about like rag dolls, crashing onto the rock pile. I notice that some of the rocks have holes that are eerily reminiscent of skulls. This unsettles me and I feel an uneasy sorrow for those who lost their lives that night. I notice that the Slayer and his brood have walked around to the other side of the point to try their luck at slaying some sea creatures. So I decide to head back to the path, my heart a little heavier. I return to the sign. As I am no longer rushed, I read it properly. In doing so, I discover that although the steamer did hit the rocks, it was stable enough for the crew and passengers to stay there overnight. Once the storm passed the next day, they all calmly boarded their life rafts and rowed about a hundred metres to the closest beach. There was no loss of life. Part of me feels disappointed. Another part feels ashamed about the part that feels disappointed. The rest of me just feels foolish. Even though he’s not with me, I imagine my thirteen year old son laughing and pointing as he says: “Ah ha – get wrecked!” This is a current expression that he and his peers use to taunt those who have suffered some sort of failure. Usually, I hate it. But under these circumstances, I concede that it actually does work on a number of levels.
I walk into the waiting room for my dermatologist appointment that I’ve put off for the last two years. As the receptionist gathers my details, I notice a sign standing on the counter. “As mobile phone use can annoy other patients and interfere with pacemakers, please refrain from using your phone in the waiting room.” I groan. It’s exactly what I had intended on doing – using my phone to kill time – just like any other person forced to wait around these days. But no – as it looks like I’m about to be thrown back into the last century, I take a seat and pick the least trashy magazine on offer. I’m reading a National Geographic article about scientists taming foxes in Siberia when another patient takes a seat and pulls out his phone. I’m annoyed by the very fact that he’s ignoring the sign while I have to read about Siberian foxes. But I decide to let it slide. At least he’s not making any noise. Until he starts tapping out an email, each letter echoing around the room. Bloody hell. Has this guy never heard of muting your phone? I try to let it go. But I fail. “Excuse me – I don’t know if you saw the notice but it asks if you can refrain from using you’re your phone as it can annoy other patients. Go ahead and use it if you want but can you at least mute it? Thanks.” The guy is taken aback. “Oh – fine – I wouldn’t want to annoy anybody.” He puts his device away and he too steps back into the previous century by picking up a magazine, possibly, like myself, for the first time in years. As my adrenaline fades, I start to become quite intrigued about the taming of Siberian foxes. Then another patient walks in, sees the receptionist, sits down and pulls out his phone. Terrific. He too decides to catch up on his emails. But rather than the normal typing sound, he’s set his keypad to emit bizarre froggy noises. You’ve got to be kidding me. I try to hold off for as long as I can, sensing that the guy I’d previously lectured is silently challenging me to do the same to Mr. Froggy. Finally, I do. “Excuse me – I don’t know if you saw the notice but it asks if you can refrain from using you’re your phone as it can annoy other patients. Go ahead and use it if you want but can you at least mute it? Thanks.” He looks back at me. “But it’s not making any noise.” I stare at him, incredulous, unsure of how to respond. Precisely at that moment, I hear my name called out by the dermatologist. Saved by the skin guy. As I follow him out of the waiting room, I offer a parting shot. “Sounds like it’s making stupid froggy noises to me.”
I am walking Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle along Bondi Beach – our nightly ritual. We are returning to where I had left my sandals about twenty minutes earlier – at the bottom of the southern most ramp. They are not there. Bugger. Not again. A couple weeks earlier, on Christmas night, I returned to find only one where I had left two. After much searching, I gave up and walked up the ramp. There at the top was my missing sandal. But this time – both are missing. I search the sand. Nothing. The ramp. Nothing. Even the rubbish bins. Nothing. So I give up, rationalising that I’m due for a new pair anyway but not looking forward to walking home barefoot. As I’m washing the sand off my feet at the shower station, I see somebody walk up the ramp. In his hands are what look like a pair of sandals. Thinking it’s possible that these are his own, I look down at his feet. He is wearing sand shoes. I move in for a closer look. They are my sandals. I look up at the guy’s face for the first time. He has a scruffy grey beard and curly hair poking out from underneath a pink plastic bowler hat. He looks like a homeless derelict. For the first time I notice that he has a mate, also scruffy but much younger and considerably bigger. He is pulling a battered suit case up the ramp. I turn to the pink hatted one. “Excuse me, but I think you have my sandals.” He lifts them up. “These? I just found them.” He hands them over. But I’m still flabbergasted. “Yes – I left them there while I went for a walk on the beach. Lots of people do. But you just see them and pick them up for yourself?” By now he has gone over by the showers. He mutters, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll just shut the fuck up.” Although I’m still pissed off, I decide to take his advice, especially now that his huge mate is checking me out. And what’s in the suitcase anyway? More sandals and other items of clothing they’ve just collected? Or maybe – body parts. Happy to have my sandals back, I quickly put them on as the odd pair shuffle off. Next beach walk – my footwear comes with me.
We are house sitting. Although the place is only a ten minute drive from our two bedroom unit in Bondi, it is a world away from how we are used to living. It is a beautiful five bedroom, two storey house with a newly installed lap pool. It is spacious, light filled and elegant. The three of us and Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle have been loving it. Except perhaps for one thing. The stairs. It’s not that we are unused to going up and down stairs. We have to do so everyday to get in and out of our block of units. So much so that it’s not even a thing I’ve ever given any thought. But for the past week, stairs have suddenly become something that I have been giving increasing consideration. Each time it is necessary to go up to the second level, I make sure I get everything I may need for the foreseeable future. Early in our stay there were times when I bounded up the stairs, grabbed something and headed back down only to realise that there was something else I needed. Gradually my bounding transformed into a trudge. Parts of my body that have never before complained about stairs are now grumbling. The fact that the staircase is fairly steep with a vanishing hand rail does not help. But there is one member of our family who seems to be enjoying the novelty of internal stairs. Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle has always felt obliged to follow me wherever I might go. Now that this involves running up and down a staircase – all the better. While he always follows on the way up, he makes sure he leads on the way down. This provides an amusing view of his little bullseye butt bouncing up and down as he hops down each step. I’m anticipating that one day he will over balance and go tumbling down head over bullseye butt. I’ve noticed that his lightly shaded bullseye actually matches the colour of the carpet. Of course there was a time, many years ago, when I lived in a house with several staircases – a huge three story house (four if you counted the basement) in Canada. I remember how the stairs from the first floor went down to a landing and then split into two – one heading toward the front of the house and the other towards the kitchen in the back. I sometimes found sanctuary in these less used back stairs, often a great place from which to eavesdrop on conversations in the kitchen. I also recall how my little brother, ever the daredevil, thought it was fun to slide down the stairs encased in a sleeping bag. And through the windows of each landing, we had a perfect view of the huge stain glass window encased in the church next door. These were special stairs. Stairs of my youth. Not stairs that make me feel old and creaky.
It starts with a cab fare. I accept a job from Bondi to Maroubra with several drop offs along the way. When I arrive at the pick up address, there is a woman organising a group of young adults. I can’t help but notice how beautiful she is. She’s naturally attractive but there seems to be something else that radiates from within. I try to pay attention when she explains that I have four passengers going to different locations. Oh – and by the way – they each have an acquired brain injury. They’ve just been at a gathering at Head East, a non profit organisation which helps such people in the Eastern suburbs. Right. Off we go then. The trip turns out to be a lot more fun than I ever would’ve imagined. The guy in the front passenger seat is especially entertaining. Although it’s obvious that he’s not functioning at a level to be expected of someone in his twenties, he still manages to be quite witty. Once I’ve dropped them all off, I notice how good I feel. Something about being around these guys makes me feel good. A seed is planted. Over the next few days I keep thinking about the experience. In the end, I decide to go back to Head East and volunteer my services in any way that is useful. The beautiful manager, Bindi, is surprised but happy to see me. Yes – they’ll take whatever help they can get. Am I interested in taking some of their clients bowling? Sure – why not. I am paired with Dave, another first time volunteer. Every second Wednesday for about six months we take three clients bowling in Mascot. There are two men and one woman, all in their late twenties. Their stories and conditions are different – except for the fact that, at sometime in their young lives, they had an accident that left them brain damaged. At times it is heartbreaking seeing how they struggle. One of the men battles with depression and actually misses a couple of sessions. It’s just too hard for him. Every time we pick them up, we can see the relief of their parents. For the next few hours, they get some respite from the challenges of caring for their afflicted children. The bowling itself is great fun – especially the joy on the clients’ faces when they manage a strike. Afterwards we always have a post bowling snack – usually involving hot chips. This is where Dave and I discover some of the more interesting things about our three clients, often realising that there’s a lot more to them than we might have assumed. You can tell they love surprising us – especially with any talk about sex. When I mention to other people what I’m doing with Head East, they often remark that it’s so good of me to volunteer my time to help them out. And each time this is said, I feel guilty. The truth is – I’m not doing it just for these brain injured people. I’m also doing it for me. I really enjoy the feeling I have in their company. It’s a buzz.