Lazy Luddite Log

31.1.11

Three Shoreside Tales - Story III

I tend to be a happy person and a lot of the things I make are likewise happy. However I have a tendency to end happy things on a sad note. So a playlist of generally cheerful stuff will end with a melancholy track. Likewise here I am making the third and final story of this set different from the others. It is rather different from the second story that it shares a scene with.

For the fifth time in five years, Elspeth sat in the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café, sipping a café latte and hoping Gregor would walk in the door. As she stirred her beverage she reflected on her first encounter with her surprising stranger in that café. It was the first time they had spoken even if it was the second time they had met. That they had spoken at all was surprising to both of them. They both had problems in talking to strangers, and indeed to anyone at all.

Ask Elspeth why she found communication difficult and she would have difficulty telling you. And even in her own internal dialogue she could never formulate an answer. All she knew was that she had always been this way. She could overcome her inhibitions for the sake of necessity – buying milk at the shop… collecting her pay cheque every week from the accounts office at the factory… telling her sister (whom she lived with) what she had missed in the last few minutes of Home & Away. Anything more than that was incredibly difficult, and had been so throughout her forty three years of life. That somehow changed on meeting Gregor.

A group of four young people came into the café and occupied the table next to her. They were three young women and one young man. All were glowing with life and possibility, and it was as if they knew it. They chatted in an animated and skilful fashion that had always impressed and intimidated Elspeth. The feller was wearing a necklace sporting a small shell and this reminded Elspeth of the first time she saw Gregor.

Elspeth loved to walk along the beach and wade in the rock pools at low tide. She had been coming to Cranberry Cove Foreshore Camping Reserve with her sister every Summer for over a decade. They stayed in the same caravan but would spend most days apart. Jessica had been given a much younger name by their parents and it seemed to affect her behaviour. Jessica seemed to know and get along with all the regular campers so, while she chatted and drank, Elspeth would go on long walks and collect shells.

As she collected shells and avoided stepping on crabs, Elspeth noticed another person doing the same thing a few meters distant. It was a bit unusual, she felt, to see someone alone, other than her, in such a pursuit. Mostly she saw children or families exploring the rock pools together. The stranger, who looked a similar age to her, moved slowly, deliberately, awkwardly, and seemed to pay close attention to everything in the water. At one moment they both looked in each other’s direction. The stranger tipped his sun hat momentarily, she smiled, and then they both returned to looking intently at things in the water, real or feigned.

Elspeth was distracted from her fond recollection by the young people chatting. What were they discussing now? They never seemed to stick to one topic. There was music, then politics, then movies, then more music, then something that made Elspeth blush. How did they do it? Maybe they all loved one another, outlandish as that notion seemed. That was how Elspeth supposed she could talk for hours with Gregor and only with Gregor.

Five years ago, and a day after the rock pool almost-meeting, Gregor had wandered into the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café and started examining the wall-menu. Elspeth had been sipping a coffee and reading a romance novel, and between sips she observed the stranger furtively. The subject of her observation ordered a milkshake, took a table number, turned round and then started walking towards Elspeth. He withdrew something from a pocket, proffered it at Elspeth, and declared that it was an “Undulate Volute Amoria”. His words were like poetry to Elspeth even if she was puzzled by them. She must have looked puzzled because the stranger then made a longer statement: “I am Gregor and I saw you collecting shells yesterday, and so was I, and this is one I collected”.

Following that, conversation seemed to flow and to this day Eslpeth wondered how. She asked him how he knew the name of that kind of shell. He told her of his avid interest in marine life. She asked him if he was a local. He told her he came here camping every year. Somehow Elspeth was talking like a normal person. She even uttered with feeling “you make me like talking”. At that the conversation paused. Gregor looked at her and then made the strangest statement – “it must be the magic of the shells”.

The magic of the shells – it was just a throwaway line Gregor later admitted, but he also felt that it was significant, given that he normally never managed to make such spontaneous statements. Elspeth later embellished that line with additional meaning. From childhood we are told that shells hold and store sounds, such as the roaring of the ocean, and for Elspeth the shells they had been collecting held conversation in them, an enchantment that allowed Elspeth and Gregor to talk. And from talk so many other things can grow.

Elspeth and Gregor walked and collected shells… they ate dinner at each of the three local restaurants on different nights… they watched the sun setting. Finally on the last night of her holiday, Gregor asked Elspeth back to his one-man tent, a request to which she happily assented. Both lacked experience of intimacy, yet both engaged enthusiastically in the activity of that night, buoyed by the thrill of having thoroughly immersed themselves in the strangeness of another personality.

The young people were discussing the pros and cons of skinny-dipping, a term Espeth only knew because of American movies set in the 1950s. It was all somehow very politically charged, which puzzled her. She was also puzzled by how long she had been sitting in the café. Her coffee was now cold and Gregor was absent. Gregor lived interstate cataloguing rare marine species on tropical reefs and only came to Cranberry Cove due to a childhood connection to the place.

Every year for the last three years they had met here and resumed their relationship as they had left it. Every year he would walk in with some unusual shell to show her and name. Normally it took only one cup of coffee for him to wander in and order a milkshake. What was different now?

Carla, one of the staff, came over and refreshed her coffee, and then made more than just the usual small talk with her:

“Hey, Elsie, I have a letter for you, addressed here and care of you.”

Elspeth was surprised, and stammered her thanks, taking the envelope and waiting for Carla to go back to her work. Who had written to her and why? How did they know she was here? She had a peculiar feeling forming in her tummy and a suspicion took shape in her mind.

She had never seen the handwriting, but then, Elspeth realized, she and Gregor had never written to one another. She opened the letter and read it in silence while the café clamour continued around her.

The wording was economical and sparse and the message was explicit. Gregor was staying home these holidays. Things had changed. He had gotten into a relationship with a workmate. The confidence he had developed at Cranberry Cove had allowed this to happen. He was sorry for his absence and hoped she had a nice holiday. He had included his return address so they could be pen-pals if she wanted...

Pen-pals? They had never written… never called… because the magic only worked in person, or so they had believed… and now she had lost even that… even her annual dose of attention and attraction?

Elpeth felt the forming of tears that seemed stuck inside her eyes. It was as if the shell she would never now be given held her tears imprisoned within it. Had she been in her tent alone maybe then she could have felt more but in this café she found herself thinking.

Yes, Elspeth felt abandoned, but she and Gregor had never promised anything except another Summer… and another… and another… one at a time. Was it good that someone she loved had grown as a person and had all the things he wanted now in one location? Should she be happy that she had contributed to the happiness of another? A line from the novel she had read that important day four years ago returned to her:

“Love compels us to want what is best for the other person rather than for ourselves.”

That line from a pulp romance gave Elspeth a moment of calm acceptance. Was that it? Was that all she needed to dispel the awful emptiness and hurt that had suddenly been cast upon her? Her dull dim pondering was momentarily eclipsed by the continuing chatter from the young people. They were arguing still, using discussion as a way of making decisions, and Elspeth started to converse with herself once more.

She needed more than just this thing in her past. She needed her life to touch and be touched by others. She needed to be part of a world she had only ever observed from a safe distance. If Gregor could benefit from what they had shared then Elspeth could do likewise. And she could draw on more than that… more than some silly love story… and maybe give some things back too.

Elspeth scoffed her second coffee down then left her table. As she walked past the young people she stopped and, directing her attention to the most argumentative of the group, told her something:

“Life is short and blue, honey, like your hair, so make the most of it, whatever you decide to do.”

With that Elspeth left the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café, feeling something she had never felt. She had made a profound comment to a total stranger and was now on her way to pay a bit more attention to life and make it notice her.

Elspeth had resolved to go find Jessica and her mates and see if they had anything for her to drink. Maybe she had a story to tell and they would be amazed and shocked by it. Maybe they would tell her theirs. Maybe the anger and sorrow that she knew would linger could provide an excuse to form new bonds. Elpeth knew now that it was she, rather than shells, that held the power of sharing her life with others.

That was the most difficult to write for me because it departs the most from my personal experience. And yet there are aspects of it that resonate with me and draw on things I have felt even if only in imagination. I worry that the kind of rapid personal transformations I describe in this story are just too difficult to make this story anything more than pure fantasy.

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28.1.11

Three Shoreside Tales - Story II

One challenge with writing in a realistic setting is that I cannot help but draw on personal experience and what I produce looks so much more like life... my life even... than if I was writing science fiction or fantasy. And then I worry - what if the characters I describe seem too much like friends of mine? What if someone reading it thinks "hey is that me?" Well all I can say is that the characters depicted here are original even if they draw on aspects of many I have known over time and across different groups. They were seen from a distance in the first story and now here they are seen more closely...

Tilda considered the arguments her friends were feeding her. They had gotten her to admit that she had no moral qualms about skinny dipping and she was wondering if citing a vague personal preference was a satisfactory recourse for her now.

“So what if I just have a vague personal preference to keep clothes on in a public setting?”

Tilda was a bit self-conscious to even be having this discussion in the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café. She only hoped the ambient volume in the café was sufficient to keep their conversation private. The chances of this were small given the strident intonations of Mellow Cello.

Melanie had a nickname – Mellow Cello – because she was the cellist of their group Stringy Things and because she cultivated a relaxed and nonchalant attitude to almost everything.

“But this beach is practically private at night – nobody comes along and even if they do they cannot see you in the dark. Besides – did I mention fun?”

Tilda had to admit that she had been having fun during their holiday at Cranberry Cove Foreshore Reserve, living in a tent and pretty much forgetting the life pressures of an Information Technology student in her Honours year. Tilda also had to admit that she secretly wished to emulate the mindset of the vivacious ginger-curled geologist. Nonetheless Tilda decided to debate the matter some more.

“I suppose it's just force of habit, but I think I'd feel way too self-conscious and most likely just abandon you a few minutes in.”

It was now that Nesrin waded back into the discussion. In other ways Tilda wished to be more like her fellow violinist. Nesrin had overcome adversity that Tilda could barely imagine, coming as she did from a family of refugees from Afghanistan. Now she tutored in International Relations. Besides, she had such a graceful and calm disposition. If Nesrin was fine with something then you wanted to be fine with it too.

“I understand the power of what you call habit and what I will call culture and tradition. But in some contexts we can overcome those. In some cases we exercise our fundamental human freedoms only by overcoming the conformity within us.”

Tilda could feel her resistance melting under the combined warmth of the fun-mongering Mellow Cello and the philosophising Nesrin. Still the fact that they were combining to change her mind frustrated her. She was the youngest and newest member of the gang and sometimes they acted like they knew it. Finally she decided to turn to the viola player of Stringy Things, Jake, who had so far been silently sipping his caramel milkshake.

“Do you want to harangue me too Jake?”

“Nope. I think we should all do what we want to do. If you three wanted to have a gender segregated swim for instance then I can go star gazing. Or we can all wear as much as we want. Or whatever…”

Tilda considered the star gazing suggestion but decided that if she was fine skinny dipping at all then she would be okay if Jake was present. For a start she had never noticed any indication of attraction between them, and for her he simply lacked whatever elusive quality made someone attractive. She knew Mellow Cello considered him ‘dishy’ – she and Jake were exes who got along but “drove one another crazy” if they spent too much time alone together. Nesrin had also admitted to finding him cute but she had a strict policy of never dating ‘colleagues’ and membership of a string quartet made them all that.

Tilda pondered the group and its interactions. Both Mel and Nes liking Jake… Jake seeming too absorbed these days in work in welfare advocacy to notice or care (they also suspected he was getting into an office romance)… Then there was Tilda herself, both wishing she was like a blend of Mel and Nes and

And what?

There it was – the thing in her mind she had been quashing for months now. Jake lacked “that elusive quality” but both Mellow Cello and Nesrin had it in the perceptions of Tilda. And this was truly what was making her argue – she desired to be closer to them and was thus also scared of perceiving them as objects of lust rather than as friends. This was something they could never discuss in a café. This was something she might never discuss at all. Just then her musing was interrupted.

A customer from another table was walking past and had suddenly stopped to say something to her. A older woman with some shells held in her hand was looking right at her and uttered these words:

“Life is short and blue, honey, like your hair, so make the most of it, whatever you decide to do.”

The eccentric then walked out of the café, and Stringy Things all exchanged glances, wondering what had just happened, and why.

* * * * *

Once they were in the waters of Cranberry Cove, gently illuminated by the moonlight, Tilda found she had concerns other that that of secret attractions. It was cold. Somehow she had let the others tell her it would be balmy even if that was patently nonsense – even in the day the water had been tepid despite the Summer sunshine. Her extremities were getting colder by the minute.

Another concern she had forgotten was that of marine wildlife. In the daytime it somehow never concerned her but at night the lack of visibility suddenly made her feel so much more vulnerable to… things… creepy swimming toothy things.

With all this nagging at her, Tilda stayed within a meter of each friend (within and also at a distance of a meter for the sake of respecting personal space). The momentary frisson she had experienced on seeing and being seen sans bathers had quickly evaporated. The sense left behind was surprisingly ordinary. They were human and had always been this way – clever animals that belonged to the world and to one another and who could optionally abandon the inventions with which they surrounded themselves.

Tilda experimented once with a splashing rise from the surface of the water, imitating Mel and Nes. Jake simply waded, staring out to sea and humming a tune. The simplicity of it all made Tilda feel giddy for a moment. Or was that the cold?

A time-span free of time-keeping passed and then Tilda declared that she needed a warm shower and sleep. “But you are having fun!” opined Mellow Cello. “Yes I am but it’s fucking cold!” snapped Tilda. “Okay, if you go then we all go” concluded Nesrin. Jake then chipped in with his only comment of the swim – “shall we run back in and give the kid hiding by our clobber the scare of his life?”

Tilda had gone from timidly refusing to swim naked to scaring a total stranger while in that same tender condition. She wondered at how quickly she had changed her standards. Did it worry her or was this just how one was supposed to live life? Tilda decided that human interactions necessitated rapid decision-making and she may as well get the practice in the company of her friends. It was silly to feel scared of those who cared for her as long as she never forgot to think and to assert her own opinion. Taking that warm shower felt like one of the best things she had ever done.

The third and final story of this set will be blogged here soon and will draw on an incidental character from this story. Of all three it will depart the most from my own personal experience and observations...

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14.1.11

Three Shoreside Tales - Story I

A week spent camping close to the beach gave me an opportunity to relax with friends but I also spent some alone time and went on my customary walks. I had wondered if I would get bored so had a novel and a sketch-pad with me but barely ever touched them (except for sketching a few shells). The hours and days just rushed by and yet also seemed like I was experiencing a portion of timelessness. Anyway while I went walking some fictitious tales set in a similar locale started forming in my imagination and I have three in the pipeline. Here is the first of three...

Jeremy was making a sand castle with his sister Bethany. He was thirteen and she was nine. They had always enjoyed making sand castles together during family holidays at Cranberry Cove Foreshore Camping Reserve. This time, however, something was different.

Jeremy was finding it difficult to engage in the activity as he once had. The fantasy of knights and dragons with which they embellished the past-time was losing its charm for him and this in turn made Jeremy feel empty. But Bethany still loved it and so Jem played on.

Jem had drawn on his natural artistic talent and a pictorial medieval history book to preserve his interest in sand castles but now even that palled a bit. He wanted to go riding his bike with older kids at the Reserve. Or wander alone along the beach and see how far he could walk. Or even just watch the four musicians playing in the water nearby.

Jem knew they were musicians because he had seen them carrying instruments into their tents on arriving at their site. It was one of the more unusual things he had seen over years of holidaying at Cranberry Cove, and “unusual” was the word for his temporary neighbours.

There were four of them – three girls and one boy. Or should the words be "three women and one man"? It was difficult to decide what words to use for them. They looked like what Mum would call “young adults” but acted strangely like children. They would burst into song of an evening. They would play chasy in the water. They even had made sand sculptures one day – of violins!

They were walking past Jem and Bethany right now. Jem acted like he was working on the central keep of the castle but listened intently to their conversation. He got snatches like “so we come back after dark right?” and “yes but only if the water is warm” and finally “hey those kids make one awesome sand castle”.

Once they had passed Jem noticed Bethany looking at him. “What you looking at?” he asked. “You, perving at those girls with the eyes in the back of your head!” she giggled and then went right back to working on the pony stables in the forecastle. Bethany took in way too much sometimes.

Later that night Jeremy was reading a book in the tent the family habitually called ‘Base Camp’ when he noticed the musicians all leaving the bigger of their two tents. They had torches and swimming clobber and were moving quietly. After a few minutes Jem looked over to Dad and yelled “I left my watch back at the sandcastle – gonna just go get it!” Jem put down his book, felt for his watch in his pocket, and made for the beach.

The musicians should be easy to find, thought Jem, as they were very distinctive. There was the gender ratio. Also, they were all sort of colour-coded. One was dark with straight jet hair. One was curly and ginger. One had short hair dyed blue. The dude had long sandy hair. But would all that be obscured by the night, even with a full moon? Was this whole excursion futile as well as incredibly embarrassing if anyone were to know about it? Was his hunch about the intent of the musicians even right?

The musicians were all-too-easy to find because of the racket they were making. Even from the tea-tree lined track to the beach Jem could hear them yelping and squealing. On reaching open beach, Jem only now wondered what to do next. The only thing he could think of was to return to the sand castle just as his ruse has proposed.

Quietly Jem walked, then crawled over to the sculpted structure. Surprisingly, he found himself intently studying his handiwork. The crenulations had deformed since this afternoon but still gave the castle a superior look to those made by kids. The splashing and energetic conversation persisted over in the water tens-of-metres away. Jem overcame whatever was inhibiting him and looked out to sea.

There were human forms moving in the water. Usually they were submerged to shoulder-height but occasionally one would rise out of the water to cheers and whistles from the others. In these conditions they were indistinct and yet they were also made entirely of skin, rather than the usual human composition of skin and cloth. Jem was suddenly concentrating on something very important – more important than the latest computer game or roller blades or collector card. And the compelling foci of his attention were now drifting in closer and moving into shallower water.

Jem had seen naked women in the magazines of his closest cousin James. What he witnessed now was somehow different. It was excursions to galleries and museums that Jem was reminded of, rather than the pages of Menagerie. What he witnessed were like age-old statues of marble or terracotta, but moving, constantly shifting in precise shape and form, interacting with the water and with the shadows cast by the moon. They were close enough now for conversation to be discerned. “But you are having fun!” “Yes I am but it’s fucking cold!” “Okay, if you go then we all go”. There were some other words muttered and lost on the wind, but Jem knew that they were emerging!

Jeremy tensed. If he moved he would draw attention to himself. But if he stayed they would discover him because he only just now noticed what must be their clothes piled close by. The musicians were coming towards him and he remembered that a man was among them. However it was the other three who were terrifying now – impossibly confident and powerful and primal in this moment – and Jem suddenly ran, kicking over his gate house as he did so, and glancing back only once. As he ran he felt he was chased by haunting laughter from the very depths of the ocean.

Jem managed to walk from the end of the track back to Base Camp calmly and sauntered inside as if everything was perfectly normal. His parents let his entry pass with only asking if he had found his watch. Jem proffered his watch in response. Only Bethany gave him a funny look as the mirthful conversation of the musicians returning nearby filtered through the canvass.

The next morning Jeremy and Bethany were back at their castle, which needed reconstructing following high tide. Bethany startled Jem by drawing crude images of breasts and buttocks in the sand and smirking at him. Jem rushed to erase them as his infuriating sister giggled at him. “Who watches the watchers Jemmy?” she taunted. It dawned on Jeremy then that Bethany must have followed him and observed him – possibly from the grassy dunes between the beach and track. Jem felt exposed. He also felt guilty for having let his kid sister see something that was, in his adult opinion, forbidden to children.

Bethany turned on one of her disarming smiles and crushed the keep with one hand. “How about today we sculpt a mermaid? I can work on the hair and jewellery and things, you can do the rest.” As sometimes happened, Jem felt that his sister was older than he, nodded his agreement, and got to imagining just what their mermaid would look like. He had some useful mental pictures to guide his hands.

I still feel very awkward in writing realist stuff like this. But I figure it is better to try and share than otherwise. Tell me if you think it can be improved. Also be aware that the second story will be told from the perspective of one of the 'musicians' so the mindset will be expanded somewhat. Any requests for what happens in that story are welcome...

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