The Novel is an auto-fiction account of an expat polio survivor looking back on his past in a small central valley town in California and as he travels Australia with his wife.
You have to wonder what it was like when the L’Esperance and La Recherche came into these uncharted waters. The young ensign Jacques-Bertrand Le Grand high in the rigging of the frigate’s mast, pitching and yawing precariously in big swells and rough seas, guiding ships and crews through the treacherous waters of the archipelago. Here they were thousands of miles from their homeland. Nothing new for mariners but they had to wonder what they’d be returning to. France was in turmoil, revolution bubbled and boiled on beneath the surface. France divided. Their exploratory mission had been commissioned by the King of France in September 1791 to seek out and find the missing Jean-Francisco de Galaup, comte Lapérouse. But when they arrived off the coast of Western Australia more than a year later in December 1792, there was no king, he and his queen were in imprisoned and the monarchy abolished just a few months earlier, an event that would shatter the monarchies of Europe, topsy-turvy the pyramids of power and the ancient hierarchy of the divine rights of kings, that would challenge the Catholic stranglehold on governance and presage the culling of French clergy and aristocracy in an orgy of angry, blood-letting retribution.
Did they know of these events as they pulled into the pristine waters off this shore? Did they know that the France they’d left would never again be the France they would return to? The weak, the long suffering and the oppressed had risen and were no longer weak, long suffering and oppressed, but had taken on the callous cruelty and indifference of their centuries old masters and punished them with it.
Those aboard the two frigates were also divided, the officers, for the most part, royalists, the crew, to a man, republicans. The expedition’s botanist, Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière, a dedicated and vocal republican, was too intelligent and disciplined to entertain the wasteful empty-headed silliness of a monarchy with their palace in Versailles designed to strut and parade and intimidate with its wealth and opulence and silly pretence. He suffered no fools, even if they were the red-robed clergy living in luxury, clinging to their power, their obsequious adherence to an institution that promoted the fiction that monarchs were chosen by a divine force favoured above others no matter how insidious, silly, cruel, vacuous or inbred, while the people suffered. In truth, Jacques-Julien suffered few of his species and those he did suffer shared his keen interests in botany and science and language and the intricate components of things that made up life and earth. If they didn’t share those interests, then Jacques-Julien preferred his own company and company of plants and rocks he collected, recorded and classified. He was a man who entertained no sophistry and was scrupulously honest with money and his feelings.
The rudder of the Esperance was damaged and a forge was established on the rocks for blacksmiths to make repairs. A party was despatched to find water and the ships ecologist and physician, Claude Riche, became separated and lost. A search party was sent in search for the lost physician. Labillardière joined the search and used the opportunity to extend his collection of botanical and mineral specimens. They searched for two days and returned without finding Claude Riche. Labillardière returned with notes, samples and experiences. He was unashamedly grateful that Riche had been lost and the event had given him opportunity to further extend his knowledge of the region. When the search party returned, they discovered that Riche, hysterical and exhausted, had arrived back to the ship on his own accord.
The French hadn’t stayed long. They left no plaques or flags or structures, but they left names for the places they charted and mapped and Labillardière would later publish a seminal text on the flora he studied and collected.
A paved path leads to a picnic area with shelters and tables. Wildflowers border the way. The sky is clear with brushed-stroked clouds. Flagstones, firm and flat, provide easy access for the mobility impaired. Jake dawdles, takes photos. Spinifex and sedge, magenta-coloured pigface, yellow wattle, tiny white bridal rainbows tucked safe and low, sturdy spiralling banksia blooms dip and sway in the breeze. New Holland honeyeaters and wattle birds flutter and flit from flower to flower. Tilly goes ahead. A woman walking a bicycle comes alongside, short white hair, strong. She doesn’t bother to ask. They walk along the path together and chat. He is not a cripple. He just needs help. Don’t we all? The crutches are part of him like the bicycle is part of her. There are other things to talk about. More cyclists at the shelter, preparing, setting tables. He and the woman say goodbye.
Tilly waits for him at the top of the path. Her smile borders on laughter, a child presenting a present, a special surprise. And it’s true. She turns on the path and points the way. There is no way to prepare for the shock when the little bay and beach comes into view. The blue bay glitters like a jewel, mystifies, sand white, dazzles in the sun and the blue sea robs breath. Hellfire Bay, St Elmo’s fire, the electric-acetylene blue that splinters the sky on cloud-clustered nights above groaning timber masts of sailing ships and ignited the wonderment of ancient mariners who felt, rather than understood, the brevity of life, the wizardry of the vast oceans, the punishment of albatrosses and sea sprites.
They walk along the sand, wind fresh, cold and brisk. Tilly gushes, feasts on beauty. They reach midway along the slivered-mooned beach and turn back towards the entrance. Then, set out before them like a stage, enter three maidens, an impossible animation, an hallucinogenic vision. Swim-suited, lovely legged and young, they toss towels from shoulders. A ballet of youth, a dance, a poem, a celebration. A spontaneous choreography of grace and movement.
One stands in front and rises on her toes, her calves bunched and her buttock tightened, her shoulders back, elbows braced to her side. An onshore wind brisk and cold blows her hair back, lifts it from her neck and streams it out behind her. The water sparkles with low early morning sun. Chin raised, she smiles into that wind, sun, water. Eyes, lips, confident, mischievous, defiant ... all those things.
The girl screams ... war cry ... love cry ... joy cry. Liquid, she leans forward, rhyming muscles propel long lean legs. No hesitation. No second thoughts. No thought. Wave sweeps towards her. She leaps to meet it. Seal slippery, selkie smooth, she slips into the wave. No shock from cold. No blast and slap of hard water. Sea shimmers and sparkles from the embrace, splashes white and jewelled with each stroke as she swims out past the break.
Hesitant, cautious, behind, two disciples, acolytes of water wizardry, entranced, follow in her wake, tentative, cautious. The icy cold confronts, they shriek and laugh and splash water up to waist ... swirling round them in white and blue spirals, each rise and fall of oncoming waves inspires joyful screeches from chilly cold.
“They’re mermaids,” says Tilly.
And they are.
It is more than metaphor, myth and magic, legend and lore, the fabric of life. Merewif, water witch. Naiad, nymphs, sprites, mermaids. Mädchen des Meeres. Haf Maer, Old Norse with at least nine words for sea and much fewer for maiden. And he knew that in a thousand ancient tongues that lived by the sea they took form and word and became story and legend and their magic and beauty was not of catwalks, film screens, fashion covers and cosmetic ads but from their actions and movements and grace.
They leave this place and drive on.
Here there is a campground. The beach is larger. There’s a coffee van and the vender has set out chairs for people to sit and drink their coffee beneath an awning that flutters and flaps and snaps softly in the breeze. Four-wheel drives and people have set out their canvas camp chairs and they sit in the sun and watch the water. It doesn’t spoil it for Jake; it’s like people watching a stage production of a David Attenborough Documentary sans the soft dulcet tones of his voice and the audience have become passive participants in the drama.
There’s a young boy on a surfboard. He wears a loose-fitting wetsuit with enough room for him to grow into. Crouched and wobbly on the board, he pushes himself up and stands for short seconds. There’s a slight forward movement of the board. It pitches with the swelling wave, wobbles, tilts. The boy falls. Splash. Awkward without grace, a cartoon banana peel slip and fall. His head surfaces. His hands reach across the board and he climbs on. Lying on his stomach, he paddles out and positions himself again. If the boy is aware of people walking the beach, people in their camp chairs, he doesn’t show it. If they’re part of the audience and he’s part of the performance, he doesn’t care. For the boy there is nothing else, this is his Zen moment. This is between him and the board and the sea. Jake and Tilly watch. He continues to rise and fall and paddle and get up, over and over and over. There is something noble and strong and beautiful here. The cold must tire him, the effort exhaust, the falling discourage, but it doesn’t. He continues. It’s not a war. It’s not a game. You somehow know sooner or later that the boy and the waves will come to an agreement and a compromise and a bond will be formed. It’s between him and sea. He will continue to fail. He will continue to fall. Until he succeeds. It is a contest without a trophy and the winning is little more than an agreement, an understanding and a relationship between him, the board, the sea. And that winning is everything and worth more than anything.
Alone, a young girl, gentle surging waves, freezing cold, mid-calf. She dances in the shallows and talks to the waves and sings to the sea. She is dressed in a two-piece swimsuit of dayglow red, bright against the blue of sea and white of sand. Like the boy on the board in the waves, it’s between her and the sea. Her song is a gift to the sea. Her dance is a gift to the sea. And people on the beach go about their business and the girl dances and sings and no one but she and the sea hear. Her gift and reward is in the doing. Jake thinks she is training. She’s a novice, an acolyte, a water nymph, mermaid, sprite, priestess, water witch. It’s not a moment in time for her. It’s now. She is celebrating now and is overwhelmed and lost in it to the point that only she and sea exits. If she can ever really own anything, she owns this now, and maybe years later she will remember this and return to it and it will mean as much to her then as to the elderly couple on the beach who are watching and sharing.
They are leaving the following day and heading to Albany. Tilly is adamant. She must swim in the waters off Esperance and Jake must take her picture as proof. It must be done. It’s a sun-filled day and a vast improvement from chilling wind and hard rain that greeted them on their first day. There’s a light breeze with chill in the air.
Tilly walks with him to the water’s edge. His crutches lay next to the towel where they’ve arranged their things neatly on the beach. There are people here. Children in the water up to their knees screech and prance in and out. Adults sit on towels, soak sun, read books in the shade of hats, walk their dogs along the sand. Jake goes slowly, carefully, using Tilly’s shoulder to stabilise himself. She walks with him into the water. It takes his breath away, cold. Water up to knees, he wobbles, stumbles a bit further, teeters, drops his hand from her shoulder, lets go, balances for a microsecond, lunges forward to falling point and dives into the water. He swims out, strong strokes. His chest tightens. His body numbs. He can feel the warmth ebb from him like blood from a severed neck. He has slammed the wall. There’s little left of him. Jake stands, the water to his shoulders, woozy, weak and unsteady. He throws himself back into the water and swims towards the beach fast and hard while he can access what little is left in him. He swims until his hands touch the sandy bottom. He doesn’t trust his legs. On all fours, he slowly pushes himself up, standing, staggering, swaying in the knee-deep water like a drunk on the cusp of falling. Tilly grabs a crutch and comes to him, provides a shoulder, hands him the crutch.
He sits in the sand and feels the sun restore him. He’s not trembling with cold. It’s not like hyperthermia. It’s different. It’s every gram of energy depleted like he hasn’t eaten for days. Slowly some strength returns. His mind and brain are fine. His body doesn’t ache, there is no pain, only exhaustion.
Are you okay? she asks.
“I think so. Whew, that was fucking quick. I just hit the wall. There was nothing left.”
“Post-polio,” she says.
“Post-polio,” he says.
“Neuropathy,” she says.
“Maybe,” he says, because he’s still not sure he understands what that is. She would know because there are times when he just doesn’t seem interested, or his brain clouds over, something. Maybe he just finds living with it challenging enough without trying to understand it. But he knows, as a fighter he knows, that out there in the cold with energy draining from him like a severed artery, he would have simply sighed and died and let the water take him because it was racing to the point where there was nothing left to fight with.
“Hey. We haven’t taken your picture. Give me your phone and go back out.”
“No way,” she says, “I still haven’t warmed up.”
“Just go back up to your knees and face the beach. That’ll do it.”
Later after showers, they sip red wine and sit outside the door of their accommodation and collect the late afternoon sun.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“I’m fine now. Really. I’ve never had it happen like that ... so sudden. Scary.”
“No. Honest. I’m not pretending. I’m fine.”
“I haven’t warmed up. I was warm in the shower. Now I’m cold again. Cold in my bones. I was talking to Lara upstairs. She’s an ocean swimmer. She says it’s still a bit early for her. She says she gets like this. It just takes hours to get warm again. If she and I feel like that after being in cold water, what do you think will happen to you? You’re going to have to be careful with the cold. It’s a thing they talked about at the seminar. Do you know why I chose that particular beach today instead of the one with all the stairs across the street from here?”
“I could have done those stairs,” he said.
“No. You don’t pay attention. One of the speakers at the seminar gave a paper on this when we were in Sydney. Think about it. After a swim like that you could hardly get out of the water. Do you honestly think you would have had it in you to make it up the stairs?”
In his heart he knows she’s right. But somewhere deep inside he still believes he could have done those stairs.
Post-Polio and Cold Intolerance:
According to The Handbook on the Late Effects of Poliomyelitis for Physicians and Survivors, as polio survivors age, their limbs become more sensitive to pain as the temperature decreases. When polio survivors were cooled during a lab study from 30 C to 20 C, motor nerves functioned as if they were at 10 C and post-polio survivors lost 75% of their hand and muscle strength. When the temperature drops, the capillaries do not contract and warm blood flows to the surface of the skin and there is excessive loss of body heat. Motor nerves of cold limbs conduct more slowly. Muscles contract less efficiently. Tendons and ligaments stiffen and movement of muscles become more difficult.
Tilly sleeps next door and he reviews the notes from the seminar and runs a yellow lighter across the relevant text beneath the soft glow of the desk lamp. Sets the notes aside and turns on his computer and begins work on the novel that has never been written.