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The Bodysurfers : Popular Penguins - Robert Drewe

The Bodysurfers : Popular Penguins

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Published: 29th June 2009
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Set among the surf and sandhills of the Australian beach – and the tidal changes of three generations of the Lang family – The Bodysurfers is an Australian classic. A short-story collection which has become a bestseller and been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre, The Bodysurfers on its first publication marked a major change in Australian literature.

Author Biography

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne and grew up on the West Australian coast. His novels and short stories and his prize-winning memoir, The Shark Net, have been widely translated, won many national and international awards, and been adapted for film, television, radio and theatre around the world.

My father wasn't in his element in party hats. His head was too big; the mauve crepe-paper crown stretched around his wide forehead looked neither festive nor humorous, just faintly ridiculous. Annie and David and I sat embarrassed in silly hats as well. They were compulsory fun, Dad was definite about them. We'd always worn them at home and the normal Christmas dinner routine was being followed wherever possible. There was one major difference this Christmas: because our mother had died in July we were having dinner at the Seaview Hotel instead of at home. Consequently we were observing several other minor variations on our traditional dinner – we ate roast turkey instead of the usual chicken and ham, we children were allowed glasses of pink champagne alongside our glasses of lemonade, and the plum pudding contained plastic tokens like Monopoly symbols – obviously poked into the pudding later – rather than real threepences and sixpences cooked into it.

When Dad suggested that we eat dinner at the hotel we agreed readily enough. Since July we'd had a middle-aged woman, Gladys Barker, housekeeping for us. Dad called her Glad to her face, but to us he sometimes called her Gladly – as in the hymn 'Gladly My Cross I'd Bear' – because of her sighs around the house and air of constant martyrdom. We thought this was funny, but at the time we thought he was saying 'Gladly, My Cross-Eyed Bear' so we had it wrong for five or six years. Glad's cooking was unexceptional, a depressing prospect for Christmas dinner, and anyway, without anyone spelling it out, this Christmas we wanted to keep the family unit tight and self-contained.

I caught Annie's and David's eyes from time to time, but they showed only a vague self-consciousness as we sat in the hotel dining room in our party hats and school uniforms, picking at our meals, gingerly sipping pink champagne and pulling crackers. Dad was becoming increasingly amiable, however, even hearty. It was clear to us that he was making an effort. He made jokes and we laughed at them, for him rather than with him, out of mutual support.

'Remember I was travelling the other week to a sales conference down at Albany?' he said. 'Well, I stopped overnight at Mount Barker. I went down to dinner in the hotel dining room and on the menu was rabbit casserole. I said to the waitress, 'Excuse me, dear, is that with or without myxomatosis?''

''I wouldn't know,' she said, very po-faced, 'It's a11 in the gravy. ''

He was trying hard for all our sakes. It had not dawned on me before that I loved him and the realisation was slightly embarrassing.

Soon he became the dining room's focus of attention. Selecting a plastic whistle from the cracker debris, he blew it gamely. Other nearby guests, observing us and seeing the lie of the land, smiled encouragingly at us and followed suit. An old fellow gave Annie his cracker toy. A fat man tickled his wife's nose with a feathered whistle; she balanced a champagne cork on his sunburnt head. Crackers popped and horns tooted. Above these antics a fan slowly revolved.

Beyond the high expanse of windows the ocean glistened into the west, where atmospheric conditions had magically turned Rottnest Island into three distinct islands. Annie was struck by the mysterious asymmetry of this illusion.

'It's gone wrong,' she said loudly, pointing out to sea. The other guests began murmuring about the phenomenon. Annie's plaits looked irregular; one was thicker than the other; Dad still hadn't mastered them. 'The lighthouse has gone,' she said.

'No, it's still there,' Dad said, and tried to explain mirages, mentioning deserts and oases, with emphasis on the Sahara. I knew the horizon was always twelve miles away, but I couldn't grasp the idea of shifting islands or the creation of non-existent ones. So thirsty people in deserts saw visions of water – why would people bursting with food and drink see visions of land?

As our plates were being removed our table drew special atten­tion from the hotel manageress. A handsome dark-haired woman in her thirties, she clapped her hands authoritatively for more champagne, and more crackers for us to pull, and joined us for a drink, inquiring about our presents with oddly curious eyes. Dad introduced us.

She announced to me, 'You do look like your father, Max.' She remarked on Annie's pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper – fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked to Dad for con­firmation.

He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, 'Very, very kind of you.' 'Rex, it gave me pleasure,' the manageress said. 'They're a credit to you.' She called him Rex, not Mr Lang. His eyes were moist at her compliment. He lit a cigar and leaned back in his seat, crown askew, like Old King Cole.

After the plum pudding (he and the manageress had brandies instead) and another cracker pulling we thanked her again for our presents, on his instructions, and he sent us outside while he paid the bill.

'Get some fresh air, kids,' he said.

We trooped out to the car park. Before today the car park had been the only part of the Seaview Hotel familiar to us. Sometimes on Saturday mornings we'd languished there, watching the ocean swells roll in, dying for a swim, squabbling in the Ford's back seat or desultorily reading Shell road maps from the glovebox while Dad had a drink or two.

'I have to see a chap about something,' he'd say, bringing us out glasses of raspberry lemonade. A frightening hubbub sounded from the bar, yet he would turn and stride back into this noise and smoke and beer-smell with all the cheer in the world.

Outside, the mirage persisted. Rottnest was still three oddly attenuated islands which seemed to be sailing south. The after­noon sea breeze was late and the temperature lingered in the nineties. The heat haze smudged the definition of the horizon and the Indian Ocean stretched flat and slick to Mauritius and beyond before curving into the sky.

David said, 'Did you smell her perfume?' and made a face. He loosened his tie and farted from the champagne. Annie poked at her doll's eyes. 'I've got one like this called Amanda,' she said. We presumed who had given her the other doll yet by unspoken agreement no one mentioned her. I knew the others were thinking that normally at this time we'd be unwrapping presents from the tree. She would play cheery Christmas records on the radiogram and run from the kitchen bringing us mints and nuts and little mince pies.

Eyes remained dry as we walked to the car. The car park was almost empty because of the bars being closed for Christmas. Asphalt bubbled, a broken beer glass from Christmas Eve sat on the verandah rail and the smell of stale beer settled over the beer garden. Around the garden's dusty, worn lawn, red and yellow hibiscuses wilted in the heat. Christmas was running short of breath. One after another, David, Annie and I snatched off our party hats, crumpled them and threw them on the ground.

The imaginary islands, showing smoky silhouettes of hills and tall trees, kept sailing south. From the car you could see into the manageress's office. She was combing his hair where his party hat had ruffled it. He came out whistling 'Jingle Bells' and the stench of his cigar filled the car.

ISBN: 9780143180241
ISBN-10: 014318024X
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 168
Published: 29th June 2009
Dimensions (cm): 18.2 x 11.1  x 1.2
Weight (kg): 18.2
Edition Number: 1