The Bilgola Clown
*An excerpt from Sweet Dreams of Fanta
I pull Lizzie in for a cuddle while I sit on the steps of the front verandah and look down at my feet in a pair of double pluggers. I start shuffling them in a Michael Jackson moonwalk dance and sing along.
“Just eat it! Eat it! Eat it! Eat it! Get yourself an egg and beat it! If it’s getting cold reheat it!”
Lizzie starts barking. Mum stands over my shoulder. “You’re a funny sausage you are.”
I look up to see Sam Chambers jog past with his Balmain Tigers singlet on. He’s covered in sweat and big muscles.
I jump up to run to the gate to see Sam but he’s already raced through the door and inside to his house.
“Pete will be here soon, honey.” Mum smiles from the doorway and walks back inside. I’m waiting for Dad. Peter is my Dad’s name, my real Dad not my step Dad. I have both. I try a quick Spiderman down into the garden. Still nothing.
Dad’s taking me up to Bilgola Beach this arvo to try out my new boogie board. I only ever wait for Dad to pick me up on the front step. I could wait inside and watch TV or look at the Harbour Bridge from my window because it’s the best view in the world just like Pop always says but I don’t. I sit on the front step and make sure that I can hear Dad’s old Saab turn into the street. You can hear it all the way round the corner at the Darling Street traffic lights. Every time I hear Dad’s car I smile because I know I’m definitely going to have fun.
He’s always late. The old green Saab breaks down all the time and Dad doesn’t wear a watch either. He lets me steer sometimes. Whenever we turn left he tells me that his first car could only turn right and couldn’t reverse either. He says he could still get around everywhere just fine but life was different back then, son.
I stare across the street at the crazy house next to the laneway that’s my shortcut to Victoria Road. The crazy house looks okay from the front. It’s white, two stories high, just like ours, and has a brown roof. It doesn’t have any sign to say it’s for crazy people but every Tuesday night there are some men and women who park in the street and go in there. Soon after that, all the whole street can hear is those people inside screaming and yelling. Sometimes I sneak up to Mum and Ricci’s balcony to listen when they’re downstairs watching television and think I’m sleeping or watching TV in my bedroom. That is probably my third best present ever. I don’t think anyone else at school has their own TV.
I hear Dad’s car turn into the street and jump up. Mum hears it too from all the way back out in the kitchen. She walks up the hallway to hand me my backpack with swimmers and boardshorts, my rash vest, towel and sun cream.
Dad hops out of the car and walks over to the front gate. “G’day Li Li.”
Lizzie runs over to give Dad a sniff and Mum gives me a hug while Dad closes the gate behind him so Lizzie can’t run off like a naughty girl.
“He’s been a good boy I hope, Trish.”
Richard waves from the hallway. I wave back and walk over to Dad. Mum walks over too. “Pete, you wouldn’t happen to know why Liam’s worried about the doctor not being fast enough to sew my legs back on after the baby’s born would you?”
“Well…umm…it’s a very tricky procedure, cutting the legs off for the baby to come out is the easy part but attaching them back on again, that’s a lot more difficult, isn’t that right, Li Li?” Dad bends down to scruff my hair up.
“Yeah, that’s what I told Mum. She doesn’t want to end up like Lou with one leg.”
“That’s right! Good boy!”
Mum rolls her eyes for a second, laughs and reaches over to run her hand through my hair.
“I’ll have him back tonight if that’s ok.” Dad grabs my bag to throw in the boot next to the new boogie board.
“Great, of course. See you then. You two have a great time. I love you, darling boy.”
“I love you too, Mummy.”
Mum closes the front door behind her while Dad opens the door on the Saab for me to hop in. I hope it starts first time. It’s got lots of rust. I take my seat but I can’t get the heavy door to close. It gets stuck in the grass on the side of the road once Dad hops in on his side. I keep trying but I can’t lift it out to close it shut.
“You’ll have to use that superman strength to lift it up and close it, son.”
“I can’t.” I keep pulling at it, sitting forward in my seat. It’s stuck. The door won’t budge. Nicole appears. Her blonde hair is all I can see as I look up and the sun shining down behind her like a Disney princess.
“Put your hands back inside, Liam. I’ll get it for you.” She lifts the door and closes it for me. Tapping on the window to let us know it’s ok and smiling with perfect white teeth as Dad and I wave back to thank her.
“You got a girlfriend, Li Li?”
“Yeah, sure. An older woman too…that’s my boy! She’s a real spunk, son. Good on ya!”
“She’s not my girlfriend, Dad!”
I blush and try not to see Nicole still waving goodbye as Dad takes off. She’s in year 5 at Saint Augustine’s school, tall, thin, has bony knuckles, no freckles and long, blonde hair that flows like honey down her back. But she’s not my girlfriend. No way! It’ll be good going to the same school as her though.
“If you need to borrow the car to take your girlfriend on a date, Li Li, you just ask.”
Dad laughs and lights up a cigarette as we do a youee and head back towards Darling Street. Luckily the lights are green. Nicole is still waving at us as she continues up the street. Dad turns left and we’re on our way to Bilgola Beach to go surfing.
“We’ll stop to pick Shaun the prawn up on the way.”
Shaun is my cousin and is the same age as me. He’s not an actual prawn. We both got new boogie boards for Christmas. We make our way down Victoria Road and over Glebe Island Bridge. Our teacher once said that this bridge can open in the middle to let boats through to the fish markets. I’ve never seen that happen. I asked Dad if we could wait to watch it open one day last year. We got some fish and chips and waited and waited and waited. Nothing. Good fish and chips though, very good. Dad calls fish and chips ‘F and C’s’. I do too now. It sounds rude but you can’t actually get in trouble. It’s like saying ‘buckin custard’. Whenever I say that all the grown-ups give me dirty looks but I didn’t say anything bad. Dad taught me this. Ricci doesn’t teach me funny tricks like Dad.
We keep going towards the city with Centrepoint Tower making all the other buildings look small and head to the Harbour Bridge.
“Wind’s blowin’ nor’easter, Li Li. Surf should be good at North Billy.” That’s Dadspeak with his Harbour Bridge flag trick to say there’s gonna be fun waves at North Bilgola Beach. That’s where we always go. North Billy. Dad says it’s the best spot all summer, offshore in the nor’easter. We go to Palm Beach in winter, to Kiddies’ Corner. It’s offshore in the sou’easter.
Dad opens the ashtray and hands me a 20c piece. “You ready?”
“Remember if you get it in, I’ll give you another 20c to keep ok.”
Dad stops at the automatic toll and leans back in his chair to make the shot easier. I have to throw the coin from my seat across and into the toll machine. I take a deep breath and let it fly. The coin goes straight out the window, hits the white plastic and drops down into the collection basket.
“On ya, Li Li!!”
The light switches green, the boom gate shoots up and we’re off again. As Dad drives on he grabs 50c from the ashtray and hands it to me.
“That was a really good shot, Li Li. It deserves more than 20c.”
He pats me on the head and we continue on. There must be a smile ear to ear on my face. I look at both sides of the coin and put it in my pocket, already thinking about the 50c mix I’m going to buy first chance I get at the National Street corner shop. Dad takes the back way through Neutral Bay and Cremorne to Shaun’s house. He’s out the front of his house waiting as we turn into his street. Dad parks and helps Shaun put his things in the boot.
“Have fun guys!”
Shaun’s Mum, my Aunty, Margaret, waves at us from the balcony up at the house. Shaun and Peter wave back and I hop out to wave too as Dad swishes the chair forwards so Shaun can hop in the back. It’s only fair the son sits in the front. Shaun understands.
“Thanks, Uncle Pete.”
“No worries, Shaun the prawn. Back in you pop too now, Li Li.”
Shaun jumps through to the back, I hop back in the front and Dad shuts my door for me this time. We take off up the street and Dad gives Aunty Margaret a couple of hoots from the horn.
“Let’s go find some waves, boys!”
We drive through Mosman past Dad’s house on Milner Street and back out to Military Road to go up to North Billy. Last year Dad was living down in Jindabyne to build Uncle Gerard’s snow house and I really missed him. It’s good he’s back in Sydney now to build Gerard’s beach house at Palm Beach. Uncle Gerard is rich. Dad builds all his houses. He lets me go on site too and gives me a tool belt with nails, hammer, chisel and a measuring tape. The belt is for a man but it fits me just right.
Gerard’s home at Hunters Hill is a mansion that Dad finished when I was only in Kindergarten. At the start it was just a hill. Dad took two photos of the hill, one from the top and one from the bottom. It was all dirt and one really, really big tree near the bottom. Dad wrote the date and address on the back of the photos, and kept them on his desk. Then, after a year, there was a big, beautiful mansion with a pool. Just like that!
Dad took two more photos from the exact same spots at the top and bottom once the mansion was all finished. He keeps these photos on his old desk that has lots of little drawers and hiding places and a wooden curved cover just like the roller door of a garage but it’s on a desk! You can pull it down and lock the desk with a key.
Dad says it is the only antique in the world that he cares about. He loves that desk. He can sit there for hours looking at building plans that you have to roll out on really big paper. When he’s finished looking at the building plan papers for hours and hours and rolls them away into his special grey tube container he likes to have one of his cigarettes that has all white paper without the brown ends and show me the photos of the houses he’s built.
He tells me what the hardest parts were with the roof or the balcony or the windows or the driveway and says that building is hard work but when it’s all finished you feel proud of what you’ve done and glad you put in all the hard work. The starting photos are always the same, a big hill and lots of dirt. The end photos are much better to look at.
We drive down the hill to the Spit and as we get to the bridge, Dad puts his hands over his head. “Quick! Li Li, you want to drive?”
“No, Dad, there are too many cars. That’s dangerous.”
“Good boy!” Dad puts his hands back on the wheel.
“I was just testing. You’re a smart fella, son. What have you been learning in school lately?”
“It’s school holidays, Dad.”
“Yeah, Uncle Pete!” Shaun yells from the back seat.
“That doesn’t mean you have to stop learning.” Dad reaches across to pat me on the head and scruff my hair up. “Pass me that water bottle on the floor could ya?”
I grab the bottle of warm water and pass it over to Dad. He always fills up empty drink bottles with tap water to have in the car for whenever he gets thirsty. He takes a sip and hands the bottle back.
“You know where water comes from don’t you?”
“Yeah, from clouds, Uncle Pete. Derrr.” Shaun is smart like me too.
“And how does it get in the clouds?”
“When the sun heats up the earth, some of the water rises as steam and that’s how clouds start. But when it gets cool again, it falls as rain.”
“See, you really are a genius, Li Li.”
“Me too, Uncle Pete!”
“Yes, you too, Shaun the prawn.”
I nod back at Dad and smile. He taught me all this stuff anyway. I’m just good at remembering things, that’s all. Like last year the Manly dumb, dumb Sea Eagles won the grand final. This year the Tigers will win. They will.
“And do you know also that cavemen drank the same water as us three?”
“The water in the world, in the ocean, in your very own body, they’re all just lonely molecules. You can only see them if you look through a microscope. They do the same journey over and over again. From the clouds to the mountains to the streams, to your mouth! And you pee them out so they can keep traveling on their way. But their journey is a circle. They will live forever. Once they’re back in the dirt they rise up again and back to the clouds.”
I stare across at Dad as he says all this and drives on along Wakehurst Parkway, but in my head I see all sorts of things. I am thinking about the clouds in the Never Ending Story that Falkor flies through. I am remembering the mountain streams of ice water that run under the bridge from the car park to the ski lifts at Smiggins.
“Can I have a sip too, Liam?”
I pass the water bottle through to Shaun then look out the window at the sun shining through the trees. Dad turns the volume up full on the cassette player and taps his fingers to the beat on the steering wheel and I can’t stop wondering that if I go for a wizz, am I really peeing out water that a caveman has had to drink?
We see the waves breaking at Newport as we continue up the hill and start round the bends before Dad takes the turn off down to Bilgola. From the hill I can already see whitewash in the north corner. “Looks fun out there, boys.”
Dad parks in the dead end street in front of the waves and we put some sunscreen on and grab our boogie boards. We run across the sand.
“Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot!!!”
Shaun races to the water’s edge and cools his toes first. There are lots of people at the south end of the beach and the flags are set up down there.
“Should we go down to the flags, Uncle Pete?”
“No, Shaun. It’s fine here. Look, there are good waves. No people. Just go out right here.”
Shaun and I walk out along the sand bank. The water reaches up to our waist. There are waves breaking just a little further out. I turn back to see Dad waving us on. There are no other people here. Dad let me watch Jaws last year and I try not to think about sharks. But then Mum asked me if I ever think about sharks. She said she doesn’t like the beach and every time she dives under a wave she just thinks some shark will be waiting and swallow her whole. That’s all I think about too now. I shake my head and try to forget about Jaws and dive under the next wave.
“Look how good it is!!”
Shaun screams out and we jump over some more whitewash to get ready for the next wave. The water is about shoulder deep now and as a wave comes Shaun and I both push off tippy toes on the sand and fly down the face. I ride the whitewash back to shore and Dad gives us a clap and yells out.
“Nice work, shredders!”
Shaun and I turn and race back out again. We keep catching waves for a while and then a lady runs out topless for a swim. No top, just swimmer bottoms! She has huge boobies that are bouncing up and down as she runs along the sand and out to where Shaun and I are. She is really tanned, even her boobies, and she has big, fuzzy brown hair like Gabriella Sabatini. She looks like the girls in the magazines in the portaloo at Dad’s building sites. Shaun and I watch her drop her head in the water then fling her hair back as water shoots straight up and she walks back to shore. A wave smashes Shaun and I on the head and we lose our boards. Dad doesn’t notice. He is watching her walk all the way back to her towel.
We focus back on surfing and a wave forms up just right. Shaun and I swing to catch it. As we ride the whitewash in towards shore, we see a lifeguard on the beach in his red speedos and wearing his little yellow cap with white strings running under his chin, white zinc all over his nose, whistling loudly, waving at us and calling us in.
“Boys!! Boys!! Come in right now!!”
He looks like he’s doing star jumps on the shoreline. Shaun and I walk across in ankle deep water, holding our boards on our sides, but Dad waves us to go back out as he walks over to the lifeguard. Shaun and I stand on the shoreline and drop our new boards down in the sand.
“Are you responsible for these children, sir?”
“Yeah mate, that’s my son and nephew. They’re havin’ a bloody great time.” Dad turns to wave at us. “They’re not safe here. They must be between the flags.”
The lifeguard motions to the south end of the beach where the flags are set up and there are hundreds of people swimming almost on top of each other.
“It’s fine mate, I’m watching them. It’s a circus down there in the flags. This is much better for them right here.”
Dad turns now to face us. “Off you go boys, back out there.”
“You, sir, are you a lifeguard?” The man now rests the whistle around its rope and it hangs in the middle of his chest. He places his hands on his hips. Dad turns back to face him straight on.
“A lifeguard? No, I’m not a grown man that walks around in red speedos and whistles at little boys like you. I’m not a clown.”
The lifeguard brings his finger up and points it at Dad’s chest. “You’re the clown mate! These kids aren’t safe here. What if they get caught in a rip? What will you do then hey?”
“Well I’ll do more than you, clown. You’ll be busy on the beach arguing with people.”
Dad steps right up to the lifeguard’s face.
“Now stuff off!”
The man steps away from Dad and turns towards Shaun and I. “Boys! Come in, you need to ride your boogie boards in between the flags!”
Dad steps once more over and in front of the lifeguard man in his red speedos. “You need to stuff off right now, clown.”
The man tries to wave once more at Shaun and I but Dad moves again to be right before him.
The man finally gives up and starts to walk back towards the flags. He takes a few steps and then shouts back over his shoulder. “You’re the clown.”
“Whatever, clown! Off you go.”
Shaun and I have not moved the whole time. What has just happened? The lifeguard is all the way back down at the flags and yells out once again. “Clown!”
Dad fires straight back. “You’re the clown, mate!” Dad’s face is totally red and he has veins on his forehead and neck that I haven’t seen before. He takes a deep breath.
“Don’t worry about him, boys. You wanna catch some more waves?”
Shaun and I shrug.
“You wanna go to Maccas instead?”
Sweet Dreams of Fanta is Liam Carroll's second novel, an autobiographical look into the world through the eyes of a freckly little chubber, set in Sydney in 1988, the golden age before mobile phones and political correctness, Ritalin and helicopter parents, helmet laws and Kardashians.
The sketches are by the ultra talented Marty Schneider