When I was seven years old, my parents took my brother and sister and me out of school for three months to sail around the Whitsundays.
I know how that sounds. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to be discussed over soy chai lattes in a private school cafe between two girls called Brianna and Gwendolyn. “We set out on Daddy’s yacht, you see. To suckle at Mother Nature’s teat and be educated in the School Of Life, darling. More gluten-free low-fat scone?”.
Wrong. My father has always had an unquenchable passion for sailing, observable in black and white photographs in which he has a remarkable amount of hair and salty, sun-ruddied forearms. I can’t remember a time in my life where he didn’t own a boat, and a considerable amount of his frenzied weekend tinkering included vast knotted mats of fibreglass or careful gunwale-varnishing. The boat that occupies the biggest slab of my childhood memory, dubbed Roadrunner due to the fact that it trailed behind our massive LandCruiser between home and the water, spent most days of the week sitting proudly and redly on its trailer next to the house. It was twenty-two feet long, bright red with an always-sparkling white cockpit, and countless father-generated modifications and customisations inside the cabin. The tiny galley, which one didn’t cook “in” as much as “on”, was a gas-burning corner bench that my mother generated truly remarkable meals from on overnight trips, especially considering that there wasn’t enough headroom in the cabin for grown adults to stand upright, so dinner was cooked by bending at the waist with hunched shoulders, impersonating the question mark at the end of “What’s for dinner, Mummy?”. We washed the dishes in a sudsy plastic tub, sipped at long-life milk and dutifully sat up on the comparatively fresh-aired deck when Dad settled himself onto the tiny white tank toilet for his morning evacuation. There was nothing even remotely private-school-yachtsy about Roadrunner, which is one of the main reasons she was so wonderful. Huh. I think that might be the first time I’ve ever referred to any of Dad’s boats as “she”. The boat was always just “the boat”. Never “the yacht”, Gwendolyn. Now drink your latte so we can go pick up the labradoodles from the grooming salon.
Our trip to the Whitsundays occurred happily before tourism in Queensland had reached the mildly tacky zenith it is today, when our Airlie Beach grocery-purchase stop-overs entailed lugging plastic bags of non-perishable food across what seemed like miles of sodden sand at low tide. We trailed Roadrunner slowly up the east coast, stopping for tiny half-cans of soft drink and takeaway meals on the way. My reminiscing brain tells me that the drive took two weeks, which I’m sure isn’t true, but to a child, a day is ten years and a week is a lifetime. However long it was, it seemed that an intensive period of motorised forward motion followed immediately by a gentle waterborne rocking motion did not agree with my digestive system at all. I’ve always had remarkable, almost super-human intestinal fortitude, particularly in the non-upchucky area – a trait shared by all females in my family – but during the first evening on the water, my stomach was gurgling an operetta. Mum gave me a glass of Dexsal which I dutifully drained, and then lay on one of the cushions in the cabin, summoning all of my considerable melodramatic powers. Eventually I lifted my feeble head, as Mum and Dad had opened a bag of peanuts to have with their pre-dinner drinks and I was a veritable garbage-disposal unit whenever food was around.
One peanut. I ate one peanut. It was almost as if my stomach was a trampoline. The peanut dropped, bounced once on my gut-trampoline and suddenly rebounded, bringing with it everything I’d ever eaten in my life. Being a usually-non-vomiting, highly dramatic seven-year-old, I panicked, cried, and spent the next hour bent over the stern railing, depositing cascades of beige directly into the water via mouth and nostril. Again being a highly dramatic, self-important seven-year-old, I didn’t quite appreciate my father grabbing a fishing reel and dropping a hook into the water with the hope of landing a fish. “Good burley”, he said of my apparently fish-attracting vomit-stream, whilst I continued to regularly and violently turn myself inside out.
When my chunky volcano finally became dormant, I curled up next to my sister Shelley in our nook bunk wedged up in the bow, zipped snugly into orange polyester sleeping bags. Mum came to kiss us goodnight. “Goodnight”, I said weakly, summoning my most plaintive eyebrows. “BLEAAAARGH!” said Shelley, coating the bunk with what was previously her dinner. Shelley and I spent the next two days taking gentle sips of lemonade and nibbling on dry biscuits. Mum spent the next two days washing sleeping bags and cushion covers in low water pressure laundromats on the mainland and cursing the day she was born.
Once the gastric tidal-wave had ebbed, we spent three idyllic months sailing around islands, fishing, running the generator, playing draughts and generating tans that were to be the future envy of Mimosa Public School. Our education, never neglected for a moment from birth until our mid-twenties, certainly didn’t suffer. Mornings were spent hunched over maths problems in dull grey exercise books, rising to parental spelling challenges and keeping illustrated journals of our adventures. Our physical education was also steadily maintained – Shelley and I were to appear in a ballet recital (more artificial sweetener, Gwendolyn?) shortly after our return to Sydney, so whenever we were moored near a beach, Mum would supervise our bikini-clad rehearsals. In the recital, Shelley and I were appearing as the Two Turtle Doves in the (certainly near-interminable to the poor audience) Twelve Days Of Christmas dance. We would wear pale satin tutus, painstakingly and tastefully adorned with swan down via Mum’s ever-humming sewing machine. Our ballet routine ended on a grand scale, with a mirror-image jete towards each other and a final, hopefully graceful drop to one knee each, arms artfully arched. Over and over we practised on the sand, spinning, jumping, toe-pointing and knee-dropping for all we were worth. Not even our gap-toothed grins (thank you for your diligence, Tooth Fairy) would detract from the turtle-dovey elegance that we would bring to the stage.
Once we dragged our deep brown torsos back to the big smoke, it was time for one final rehearsal at Janece Green’s Dance Academy – home of lycra, resin and false eyelashes that could be seen from space. The willowy, bendy and generally terrifying Janece was delighted that we had been practising during our holiday, and requested a run-through. Our little hair-buns zipped and twirled through the air at the whims of our collective leg muscles, and we pranced and flexed through the motions. At the dance’s crescendo, we both arced through the air in our ultimate jete. It may or may not have occurred to us in mid-air that our rehearsal surface for the preceding countless weeks had been the silky-soft sands of Northern Queensland, and that now we were about to land on our pre-pubescent knees on hard, polished pine floorboards. BANG! said our knees, as observers’ faces and shoulders winced collectively.
The final performance went without a hitch. Mum told us later that she looked back at the faces of the audience while we were dancing, and everyone was beaming at the adorable widdle twinnies with missing teeth and bruised knees. It was exhilarating. It was exciting. It was the last time I enjoyed ballet.