Illustration by Amy Melksham, The Big Issue, January 2011
Week 47 – Saturday 20 April to Friday 26 April 2013
Swimmer and milk-bar owner Artie Davis died at the Williamstown beach ten years ago. Here’s a story I wrote a few years back, a story that begins in 1996 and then makes its way to April 2003…
IT WAS 1996, our daughters’ first year at primary school. We were on a school excursion at the local suburban beach. Bluey and I were sitting on the rocks near the fishing club while our girls, both named Hannah, looked for shells and crabs with their classmates and teachers.
It was a warm day, February or March, early in the school year. Bluey was telling me about the beach. He had lived around here all his life, all 35 years or so. I was just a blow-in from 10 years ago: a yuppie, they were called back then.
Bluey was talking about the suburbs’ milk bars, especially those that once lined the beach. “Four corners, mate, four shops,” he said, rattling off the street names: Stewart, Forster, Cole, Thompson.
“Mum and Dad had one just over the road from here,” Bluey said, nodding across the way to a café in Forster Street. “They had it for years.”
Bluey’s parents went on the pension, but his dad, Artie, kept coming down to the beach. Every day. For a dip.
“He’s been doing it for as long as I can remember. We kids would have to go, too, but I got jack of it by the time I was a teenager.”
Bluey, I sensed, knew the stories of this town: this once rough dockyard suburb turning into a nice, bland urban peninsula with pretty picket fences and heritage paint schemes and cafes or developers’ apartments on almost every corner.
That school excursion was probably the only trip Bluey and I went on together. We’d see each other at school, say g’day, pick up our daughters and go our separate ways.
Bluey is a tradie, maybe a jack of all trades. A knockabout bloke. I imagined he’d been in a few scrapes from time to time.
Our daughters shared a name and an artistic sensibility. They went to each other’s seventh-birthday parties, where the fun was in making necklaces and brooches rather than drinking red lemonade and eating cake. They were schoolmates for a year or two before settling into their own social groups.
I’d see Bluey down the street sometimes. We’d say a brief hello; me pausing on my bike, Bluey lighting, or stubbing out, a cigarette. We didn’t have much to say, not much more than a nod of recognition. But it was enough.
I found myself becoming a regular swimmer at the beach in 1996. Not every day, like Bluey’s dad, but Saturdays and Sundays. Week in, week out.
A FEW months into my daughter’s first year at high school, April 2003, I drove home via the beach after dropping her at school. Driving slowly along the Esplanade, I saw two fire engines parked opposite Bluey’s parents’ old shop. There was some action on the shoreline of the beach. Emergency workers in yellow uniforms.
And there, on the steps of the lifesaving club, sat some teenage girls in their school uniforms. Bluey’s daughter was looking out to the edge of the water.
My daughter reported the next day, as the local paper reported the next week, that Artie Davis had died in the water from a heart attack. A short obituary mentioned his navy days, his dockyard days, the popular milk bar and Artie’s love of the water. It also noted that there would be a scattering of Artie’s ashes at the beach early the next Saturday morning.
I would have liked to have gone to the funeral, to learn about the town as much as about Bluey’s dad, but I had no place to be there. I was just a blow-in. Funerals are no place for strangers.
The small service at the beach, though, was a more public occasion. And I was now a regular beach visitor. For seven years I’d been popping down every weekend for a dip.
I kept my distance from the 50 people who had gathered on the shoreline, where the emergency workers had gathered about 10 days ago. I stood at the edge of the group and waited for one of Bluey’s brothers – one a property developer, the other a footy and swimming coach, and motivational speaker – to say a few words.
But it was Bluey who did the talking, his back to the water, a hoodie over his bald head. Bluey welcomed friends and family, and spoke briefly. He knew this wasn’t the main act.
After his talk (‘speech’ is too formal a word) Bluey invited the gathering to swim or paddle out for the scattering of the ashes, about 100 metres offshore, near the tip of the rocky groyne. Almost parallel to the old milk bar.
I stood ankle deep in the water knowing I had no right to go any further, to venture any deeper. I was just an onlooker, possibly a voyeur, intruding upon other people’s grief.
A bagpiper played at the end of the groyne, silhouetted by the rising sun. Family and friends made their way out to a small boat, where Bluey’s mum and Bluey’s daughter held Artie’s ashes.
I had no place here, I told myself again. I’m an impostor, here for the benefit of my selfish curiosity. But, now standing knee deep, my feet had settled into the wet sand. I couldn’t walk away now and pretend I was just a passer-by who had happened upon a private ceremony in a public place. And I wanted to be here: for Artie Davis, a man I’d never met. And for his son, Bluey, a man I hardly knew. I wanted to be here for the beach, too. A place I was getting to appreciate.
The bagpiper continued to wail gently. People had gathered about the ashes boat, or at the end of the groyne.
And Bluey? He’d popped into the lifesaving club, checked that everything was in order and was now making his way through the water. He must have had a thousand things on his mind, but as he passed me he said quietly: “Come in, mate, come in a little further.”
Bluey headed out to the boat to say goodbye to his father. I walked in a little further, waist high, then chest high – deep enough for me at any time.
The bagpiper stopped. Ashes floated across and onto the water. Bluey’s daughter, in the boat with Bluey’s mother, cried as the sun split the horizon.
TWO YEARS later I presented a session at the local writers’ festival, and called it ‘Deeper Water: historical and contemporary stories of Williamstown beach’. I invited 90-year-old Dorothy Richards, a local writer, to talk about the beach days of her youth. And I decided to invite Bluey to tell a few tales, even though I didn’t have his phone number or address.
We bumped into each other down at the shops, and he said he’d give it a go. “But I’m not a writer, mate,” Bluey said in between drawing on a cigarette.
I was also planning to chip in with a few stories about being a blow-in whose sense of belonging to the suburb was linked to the beach as much as it was to my children’s schools, say, or the footy ground and our street. I also hoped to tell the story of Bluey inviting me into the deeper water.
Dorothy and Bluey charmed the audience of about 20 people. Dorothy didn’t need to read from her books; Bluey didn’t need to read from his hand-written notes. He talked about wagging school when the water was looking good for swimming or fishing or even surfing. “Me and me mates had our boards down at the milk bar, so we’d go there for lunch and somehow we’d forget to go back to school.”
And he talked about how his dad befriended a motorbike gang because he knew they could become regular customers. “He told them they were welcome as long as there was no swearing, especially in front of Mum, and no fighting. But he kept a baseball bat under the counter, just in case.”
Dorothy and Bluey could have talked all afternoon, but our short time was up. I didn’t mind that I hardly got a word in, and that I had said nothing about my own beach experiences.
Afterwards, Bluey spoke to me about knocking his notes into a family history of sorts, as part of a tribute to his dad, but I selfishly made no commitment to give him a hand.
Hannah and Hannah finished secondary school in 2008 and have continued on their separate ways. “Hannah?” Bluey said to me a while back. “Oh, she’s in Tasmania these days. With her mum.”
WHEN I stand waist deep in the water every morning at sunrise, I sometimes think of the swimmers who are no longer here, and of how much the beach meant to them. It’s as good a place as any to start the day, as good a place as any to draw your last breath when you heart finally gives way.
And I think of Bluey from time to time. We still see each other now and then. Not often these days. At the shops. In the street. We might nod to each other. Bluey might wink. We don’t have much to say, but we have enough.
This story was first published in The Big Issue in January 2011, under the title of Waist Deep.
Thanks to Amy Melksham for permission to re-produce her artwork. Visit Amy’s website for more examples of her work.
Scoreboard: 329 swims down, 36 to go.