Every morning after breakfast during the holiday I went to the beach with my sisters and I played in the sand and read my book while they swam in the surf or sun baked. I didn’t like the taste of the salt water or the way the sand would get pushed into my bikini bottom by the waves, so I was much happier building sandcastles on the beach than swimming.
After I had built my sandcastle up nice and high, I used a stick to draw patterns and pictures in the sand around it. I pretended I was an artist working on a painting, but every morning I would have to start all over again because the wind and the waves washed some of it away overnight.
Sometimes I just sat on a sand dune and read my book, getting lost in the world between the pages. The words would float past my eyes as I devoured every sentence and eagerly turned each page to find out what happened next.
Then I would put my book down at the end of each chapter for a rest and just gaze out to sea. The beach curved away for miles to the south until it was lost in a haze of salty sea spray. The other end of the beach ended in a rocky headland that stood tall above the curve of sand. There was a pathway to the top of the headland but I had never been allowed to go up there. Mum always warned me that it was too dangerous and I could fall off the cliff into the sea if I wasn’t careful.
As I looked out to sea, I could see yachts sailing across the bay, gently moving against the waves with their white sails flapping silently in the breeze. There always seemed to be yachts coming or going from somewhere, always just sailing out of my reach.
Seagulls high overhead called out to me, and as I looked up I wondered what it must be like being able to fly so high above the beach and look down on my sisters below as they played in the surf. I could hear the girls screaming every now and then from my spot on the sand hill as they jumped in and out of the waves.
I went back to drawing pictures in the sand, dragging my stick through the golden grains to make swirling clouds that followed the little wave patterns. I was intently drawing a sailing boat in amongst the sand clouds, when a shadow suddenly blocked out the sun.
I looked up and got a fright when I saw a boy standing there.
‘What ya doin’?’ he said.
I was so scared that I didn’t know what I should do. I quickly looked down the beach to see how far away my sisters were, but they were all in the water and a long way off.
‘Nice drawing,’ the boy said, ‘Don’t ya talk?’
I just looked at him with wide eyes, hoping that he would go away and leave me alone. Instead, he squatted down on his heels. ‘I like your boat. You’re pretty good at it, you know.’
I looked down at my sand drawing then looked at the boy again and he grinned at me.
‘My name’s Shawn,’ he said, ‘What’s yours?’
I was still too frightened to answer so I just looked away.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything,’ he said, and then sat on the sand and hugged his knees. He was wearing blue shorts and had dirty knees and hands. ‘I just want to watch you drawing.’ He grinned again and I could see that he was missing a tooth. It made him look a little lopsided and funny.
I thought if I went back to my drawing he might just go away, so I picked up my stick again and started to add some sails to my boat.
‘Why don’t you draw some fish?’ he said suddenly, and pointed with his chin to where I was drawing.
I still didn’t answer, but I thought for a moment about how to draw a fish. I curved a couple of lines together in the sand until my fish took shape and then added a tail so that he could swim. He looked like a great big fat fish swimming just below my boat.
‘Beaut fish. Do you wanna play with me?’ the boy suddenly said.
I looked at him and shook my head slowly.
He rested his head on his knees and kept looking at me for a few moments, before he stood up. ‘Okay, maybe I’ll see ya tomorrow.’
He walked off into the sand dunes and disappeared behind a banksia tree. I quickly picked up my book and towel and ran down the beach to where the girls had left their bags and waited for them to come out of the water so we could go back to Grandma’s house.
I worried about the boy all night, but when I got back to the beach next morning there was no sign of him. I thought he might have come back and destroyed my castle and drawing, but I was relieved to see that they had only been partly washed away by the tide and wind as usual.
I soon forgot all about him as I went back to rebuilding my sandcastle. As the morning sun climbed higher and the sand got hotter I sat under the shade of my big straw hat and read a bit more of my book. I only had a few chapters to go and wanted to finish it before bedtime so that I could start a new book the next day.
I became so engrossed in my book that I didn’t even hear anybody coming until suddenly a shadow fell across my page. I looked up with a sharp intake of breath as I saw it was the same boy again. I tensed, waiting for him to kick over my sandcastle or say something nasty, when he flopped down on the sand beside me.
‘What are ya reading?’ he asked.
I was so surprised by his question that I didn’t even think and turned my book around to show him the cover.
‘ ‘Gold at Lambing Flat’,’ he read out, ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a story,’ I said softly.
‘Can I read it with you?’
I was surprised again and just nodded. This boy wasn’t at all like I expected boys to be.
I opened the book and he leaned his head toward mine to see the page better. He got so close that his head pushed my hat back and I could feel his wiry hair tickle my forehead.
‘Is that where you’re up to?’ he pointed to the page. I nodded and he began reading. ‘J-James c-c-came to the c-c-cottage door. Mary, where are you he c-called…’ I looked at him as he read and saw a big frown of concentration on his forehead. He kept licking his lips as though the moisture would make the words slide out of his mouth easier. I felt a little sorry for him because he didn’t seem to be very good at reading. ‘… the old man was down in the dry c-c-c-creek bed…’ he paused for ages and stared hard at the page. ‘What’s this word?’ he asked. My eyes followed his finger down the page.
‘Fossicking,’ I said.
He frowned again and his lips moved slowly as if he was trying to get them in the right shape to say the word.
‘Fo-ssick-k-king. I wonder what that means.’
‘I think it means ‘looking for gold’,’ I said, ‘That’s what the book is about.’
‘Oh, cool.’ He looked around and picked up my stick and started scratching in the sand. ‘Do you want to play?’
‘Ummm… I don’t know if I’m allowed.’ My heart was racing and I looked down the beach again to see where the girls were, but just like yesterday they were a long way off.
‘Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll show you.’ He stood up and held out his dirty hand for me. I hesitated and then reached my hand up and he helped me to my feet. His hand felt all rough and I didn’t like the way it was so dirty.
‘First of all, we’re spies and we have to make sure nobody catches us. You need a codename, so I’m going to call you ‘Blue’,’ he said with his lopsided grin. ‘How old are you, Blue?’
‘Good, well I’m eleven so that makes me the boss. Quick let’s get behind the bush before anyone sees us.’ Shawn grabbed my hand and dragged me behind a banksia tree before pulling me to the ground. ‘We have to lay low,’ he whispered in my ear, ‘But when I say ‘run’, we have to run to that tree over there, okay?’
I just nodded my head and was wondering why he called me ‘Blue’ when he yelled ‘run’ and took off for the tree. I jumped to my feet and tried to keep up with him but I kept stumbling in the thick sand. I was puffing heavily when I finally joined him at the foot of the tree.
‘Good work, Blue,’ he said, ‘We can rest for a bit now because the enemy don’t know we’re here.’ We spent the next hour running from tree to tree, and each time I would get hot and puffed and my legs were starting to get really tired. We were resting for a moment in the shade of a big green tree when I heard Catherine’s voice calling.
‘Molly… Molly, where are you?’
‘I have to go,’ I said to Shawn, ‘That’s my sister.’
‘Oh, okay,’ he said, ‘Just be careful you don’t tell anyone you are a spy.’ The last I saw was his lopsided grin and then he was bounding away to hide behind another tree.
The next day I looked for Shawn when I got to the beach, but there was no sign of him again. I went back to my usual game of fixing my sand castle and then my drawing and had just sat down to start reading my book when I heard a loud ‘psssst’ from behind me. I turned around and there was Shawn grinning at me from behind a tree. He came and sat down beside me with a thump, and just like the day before we read a page of my book together before he got bored and wanted to play a game.
‘Today we’re soldiers,’ Shawn said. ‘I am the Captain and you are Private Blue.’
‘My name isn’t Blue,’ I said, ‘It’s Molly.’
‘I like Blue,’ he replied, ‘So that’s you’re codename, okay? It’s because you’ve got red hair.’
I was a bit confused about what he meant, but before I could say anything he started laying out his plans.
‘Okay Private Blue, we need to attack the enemy in that castle over there. We have to sneak up on them, and then throw these bombs at their castle.’ He pointed to a little pile of gumnuts and banksia men on the ground.
‘Stay low, and follow me,’ he said. He filled his hands with banksia men and began crawling across the sand on his stomach. It felt a bit silly but I didn’t want to upset him so I did the same thing. As we got closer, he yelled ‘NOW!’ and started hurling the banksia men at the tree. I threw mine but it didn’t go the whole distance. Shawn then grabbed my hand and dragged me behind another tree.
‘Look out, they’re firing back,’ he said, then made some noises like bullets flying through the air. We played like that again all morning until Catherine came looking for me to head home.
‘See ya, Blue,’ said Shawn. ‘You’re a lot of fun to play with, for a girl.’
‘’Bye Shawn,’ I said shyly and then ran down the sand dune to find Catherine.
As the week went on we played soldiers, and space men, and outback explorers, and one day we were even washed up on a deserted island! There were pirate ships, and monsters, and space aliens, and time travel, and giant bugs, and wading through swamps, and spying on the enemy, and we did so much running that I kept getting puffed all the time, but Shawn was always right there beside me. ‘C’mon Blue,’ he would say, ‘You can do it.’
We never had time to just sit and talk, other than spending a few minutes each morning when we would read some of my book together. Because Shawn was such a bad reader, I started reading out loud to him and sometimes we would get through a whole chapter before we went off to play in the sand dunes.
We began to read ‘Storm Boy’, a story about a boy who lived with his father in the sand dunes of South Australia’s Coorong, and it was Shawn’s idea that we collect driftwood and build ourselves a humpy just like the one Storm Boy lived in.
‘I’ll be Storm Boy,’ said Shawn, ‘And you can help me save Mr Percival.’ We wandered all over the sand dunes looking for a lost pelican to save, but the week came to an end before we found him.
I was sad when I had to tell Shawn that I was going to be heading home tomorrow and I didn’t know when I would be back again.
‘No worries, Blue,’ he said. ‘It’s just like when Storm Boy had to go off to school. We can play again next holidays.’
He bent his head down to reach under my hat and quickly placed a little kiss on my cheek before racing away over the sand dunes. I stood there and watched him until he disappeared. I didn’t know if I was sad or happy but I could still feel his rough lips against my cheek.