A gorgeous teenager turns a young bloke’s world upside down. It’s going to end in tears, isn’t it?

 

On holiday. Ten days out from school. Headed home for a barbie at our beach shack. Content, fulfilled the way you can only be when you’re eleven, wind-burned and salty from beach-fishing. Rod in one hand, bucket in the other. Ten feet tall with my dad at my side.

Then Lois blew the sand out from under my sneakers.

Her hair enchanted me first, aflame with the setting sun at her back. Then a twitch of yellow pleats framing curves that dried my throat and a full-lipped smile that stopped my breath. She had a tiny dark spot just above her lip that twitched as she spoke.

“G’day, Mr Ashworth. Bin’ fishin’?”

Dad stopped, smiling.

Crikey Moses. Did he know this goddess? Was she one of the endless rellies and family acquaintances scattered around Dad’s home town like confetti? A dumb thought for reasons which will become obvious as this tale progresses, but I was hardly thinking at all — with my brain — beyond, wow!

We didn’t have girls like her at Northshore Middle School.

“Hey, Lois,” Dad said. “Where you headed?”

She flicked at her bikini top. Did I mention unfathomable oceans of bare flesh? Calves, thighs, shoulders, a silky smooth stomach with a sheen of tiny hairs?

“A swim before tea. I like the beach this time of day. Don’t you?”

Dad chuckled. “Yeah, the view’s pretty good.”

I considered my father with renewed respect. Mum and I were the ones who loved books and sighed over baby animals and romantic vistas. Dad was more your footy and four-wheel-drive bloke, but fair play for acknowledging the splendour of Harrison’s Cut. Low dunes and the curve of the bay were spectacular in soft light. Perhaps that’s why we kept Dad’s parent’s tumble-down shack for weekend breaks.

Lois flicked hair off her ears and smiled at me. “Who’s this?”

Oh, God, did she want me to speak?

How did I do that again?

Dad thumped my back. “This is Damo.”

“Your little boy?”

Little boy? Noooo.

“Jeez, you’ve grown up, haven’t you?”

Better. I managed a dismissive shrug without falling on my nose.

“How long are you blokes down for?”

“Coupla weeks,” Dad said.

“Bonza.”

Bonza? Did people like Lois say ‘Bonza’?

“Hope I see you around.” She skipped past us with a waft of something exotic and sweet. Scent? Girls at Northshore didn’t wear perfume. Not even the seniors.

Lois held eye contact. Looked right at me. Definitely me, not dad. I couldn’t have moved if my pants caught fire.

She looked back once, laughing. Gave a little wave. “See ya, Damo.”

Dad tugged on my shirt as she sashayed down the dune path, a straw bag stylishly clutched at her shoulder — I hadn’t noticed that before — and that little skirt swaying.

He chuckled the way people do when the fool on the telly does the dumb thing everyone knew would happen. “Put your tongue back in, mate. It’ll get sunburned.”

 

 

Our shack was a fibreboard cottage on Cherrybush Lane where it turns towards the inlet. Two bedrooms, kitchen, living room. Ideal for getaways, apart from the plumbing. At eleven, a life goal that summer was to use the backyard dunny after dark without packing death.

Dad paid a kid to mow the lawn and trim the bushes while we were in the city.

My little sister Jeanie was bringing out cutlery for the picnic table when we got home, with Mum scrubbing madly at the barbie, a steel plate with a rusty dip in the middle balanced on bricks.

“No need for that, love,” Dad said. “Half a beer’ll clean it when I get the heat on.”

She straightened, rubbing her brow with her forearm. “It’s disgusting. I swear rats live on it when we’re not here. How was the fishing?”

“Bonza,” I said.

“Yeah?” Casting doubt on my assessment or perhaps the addition to my vocabulary, but people would have to get used to bonza.

“Caught our dinner, did you?”

She always asked that. We never did.

“Not tonight, just fed the blowies a few maggots.”

Dad always said that, too.

“Did you see anyone?”

“Nah.”

Mum meant any of our Harrison’s Cut social circle, or the boys I ran with most summers, but surely Dad couldn’t have forgotten the vision. I flicked him a frown. “Dad? We saw Lois, Mum.”

She raised her chin. “Would that be the girl—”

“Yeah. What’s for dinner, hun? I’m starved.”

“Sausages. In the kitchen, Damian. Stow those rods and bring them out, please, but wash your hands before you touch the plate.”

 

 

Key moments signpost the passage from childhood naivety to adult cynicism.

Mum turned from the sink the next day, wiping her hands. “You boys fishing tonight?”

“Oh, crap. Is it that time already?” Dad pushed back his chair and rose, reluctantly, his eyes still fixed on the laptop screen.

“S’all right. I think I’ll go to the park.” I hitched a thumb. “I saw the Baldwins pull in earlier.”

Pete and Sean Baldwin were occasional playmates from years past.

Dad dropped into his seat, one arm over the chair back the other on the desk. “Oh.”

Seriously? If father-son bonding meant so much, why did he have to be torn from his work emails every night?

“I’ll be back for tea.”

I got out before they delved any further, or asked why I wore boardies for a trip to the swings. “See ya, Mum.”

Eyes burned holes in my tee-shirt. Mum’s not Dad’s. No way. He’d go straight back to the computer. So, I went up Cherrybush Lane until I was around the corner, out of sight.

I scooted past the Baldwin place and turned down the beach path off Seaview Circle.

I came out on the sand and there she was, blue bikini and all, down by the waterline, perched on her elbows, presenting her cheeks to the sun.

For a wild moment of panic, I thought she might be topless.

Jeezus!

Then she tossed her hair and revealed a pencil thin strap across the middle of her back.

Probably a good thing. I might have died on the spot otherwise.

Don’t ask me what I had planned. There wasn’t a plan. An irresistible urge, that’s all. If I’d thought about it, I’d have spied from the dunes. If I had more balls, I’d have sneaked out my dad’s binoculars. Don’t doubt it for a moment, dear reader, a peeping Tom lurks in every eleven-year-old boy.

I could hardly turn around now — she might see me bolting for the bushes. So, I opted for a nonchalant stroll. ‘Hi, Lois. Fancy meeting you here.’

Yeah, coz a luscious, sophisticated teenage country girl was totally going to talk to a pale, weedy city middle school kid, right?

If I remember correctly, I clasped my hands behind my back.

What would be more terrifying? Marching across a minefield to a line of entrenched machine guns or slinking past a teenage girl on a towel? I’m serious. That’s not a rhetorical question.

I took a wide berth and advanced from the south, scanning the horizon. ‘Oh, Lois,’ I’d say. ‘Didn’t see you there. Remember me?’

I’m pretty sure I held my palm at my brow, scanning the horizon for broaching dolphin. Just a mature male on an evening nature hike, while my heart thudded, and I sneaked peeks out of the corner of my eye.

“Hey, Damo!”

She spoke.

To me!

I just about jumped out of my shorts.

“Oh, hi.” What was I going to say again?

“Come and sit for a bit. The sun’s lovely.”

So we sat. Me rigid with anxiety, desperate to speak — something adult and suave. Struck dumb with fear that I’d mumble dumbass, childish blather. Snapping glances to make sure she hadn’t left and because I could. I might never be this close to human perfection again. Our hips were almost touching. I could pick out individual, golden hairs around her perfectly formed belly button.

Lois sprawled. A contented lioness, shading her eyes with one arm.

She knew I was looking. I like to think she enjoyed the attention, or at least didn’t mind.

“Wanna swim?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure.” Not the slightest bit scared witless by the chest high waves. Not me. Shit!

“Race ya.”

She belted into the surf, laughing, dived under a big dumper and popped up like a seal.

I blundered in, tripping up to my waist, eyes closed until the next wave lifted me off my feet and slammed me face down in the sand.

I rolled over spitting, wiping stinging hair out of my eyes as the wave sucked back, leaving a miserable bundle of pre-teen misery in the backwash…

Lois stood over me, hands on hips — an image that haunted my fevered dreams for the rest of the summer — laughing her head off.

Ultimate humiliation.

Nice try, Damo!

“Jeezus,” she said. “What do they teach you in that city school? You can swim, can’t you?”

I nodded. It shook sand onto my lips. Not that I’d have opened my mouth in a blue fit. I’d have sobbed. And I could swim. Come on, I was eleven. I was Australian. I’d done two hundred metres in the Northside pool.

“Come on then, nipper. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

 

 

I suffered hours with the Baldwin boys over the following week. Kids. Babies. Building bush camps in the dunes and kicking the footy. Keeping a wary eye out in case Lois should see me and think I was still into that stuff. I don’t know why I was worried. She had a summer holiday job washing up at The Copper Kettle on the high street.

Torture. 

Not Lois’s job, the Baldwin boys. Playing for God’s sake. Bike riding and telling fart jokes. I’d grown so far beyond those games, but I needed cover in case Mum and Dad ran into the Baldwins, because every night before tea, as far as my oldies knew, I was hanging out with Pete and Sean.

Instead, I got a priceless education in the delights of body surfing from the world’s most captivating teacher that went far beyond water safety.

The first time I properly caught a wave and soared into the shallows without getting a mouthful of ocean, Lois grabbed me around the chest and kissed me.

Full on the lips.

I can still taste the velvet caress—salty caramel.

Oh boy.

Soaring violins. Sleepless in Seattle meets Mr Darcy with Love Story playing in the background.

Better than my first time — think Dumb and Dumber in that case — better than getting married. The happiest, most exultant seven days of my life, bar none, by a country mile.

 

 

Then Beau came home.

Lois and I were in our spot, where the break was most consistent about two hundred metres from the river mouth — I’d become a connoisseur. Lois on her elbows, me cross-legged by her ankles. I’d made it onto the towel by that stage. Lois laughing at whatever stupid story I was telling when a shadow loomed.

Just under six feet of smouldering muscle. Beau Cochrane. Thighs bursting out of skin tight footy shorts, singlet straining over bulging pecs, fag packet stuffed up the left sleeve, tufts of wiry stubble sprouting among the bumfluff on his chin, hands on hips with his surfy mullet rippling in the breeze.

Lois sat up and straightened her hair. “Hi, Beau. You’re back.”

“Yeah.”

But he wasn’t looking at Lois.

I might have melted under that glare.

“How was the footy camp?”

“Good. What’s this?” He nodded to me, cowering at Lois’s ankles.

“Damo Ashworth. You know the Ashworths—”

“Out on the spit.” The flick of his chin heaped scorn on all Harrison Cut’s transient population.

“Well?” The full force of his contempt bore down on me.

“Well what?” I knew I shouldn’t be inching away on my arse cheeks, but this was bloody Beau Cochrane. What had I done?

“Skit.” He pointed towards Cherrybush Lane.

I turned to Lois.

She shrugged. “Best get on, Nip. Beau wants to catch up.”

So, I trudged up the beach, seething with impotent rage, while Beau settled onto Lois’s towel. Full on, not perched at her feet. The bastard.

Nip?” he said.

Lois laughed.

 

 

Revert to plan A. Skulking miserably in the dunes while Beau writhed over Lois. Twice, horribly, pounding at her while she mewled like a forlorn kitten.

I missed her so much.

Sue in my barely pubescent certainty that she loved me, not him.

But what could I do?

Beau Cochrane. Footy hero. Policeman’s son. Demon prince of Harrison’s Cut.

I thrashed in my sheets at night, with visions of smashing him down.

Truth was, I’d have given every pitiful scrap I owned and all my future income just to sit on her towel again and see her smile.

 

 

Family parade, every Saturday morning. Showers, clean clothes, hair combed for an excursion to Coles with Jeanie, Mum and Dad, followed by lunch at Tilly’s Diner.

Never The Copper Kettle.

Not that I’d have been so lame as to peer longingly into the kitchen hoping for glimpses of Lois.

I rode back and forth on my bike most mornings on that hopeless quest.

But she came to us, swaying down the High Street past a high school group. The girl’s scowling — rightfully jealous. Lois looked like a film star in a skirt and collared blouse, clutching a bright red leather bag.

The boys all stared, too, but none of them were scowling.

Mum sucked in a breath.

Which was about how I felt.

Dad eyed up power tools in the hardware store. God knows why, he owned a grand total of three screwdrivers, but I wasn’t about to miss my chance.

I stepped into her path. “G’day, Lois.”

“Oh. Hi, Damo. Fancy seeing you.” She nodded to Mum and Dad. “Mr and Mrs Ashworth.”

Before I could sweep her into a doorway for the desperately urgent discussion I’d honed all week, Lois leaned in with an intoxicating whiff of roses, touched my shoulder and swayed on, giggling.

Leaving me with a warm spot on my collarbone and a confused sense of rejection mixed with certainty that in two or three years’ time I totally had a chance.

I’d hit the weights.

Take boxing at school.

Beau Cochrane wouldn’t know what him.

He couldn’t get any bigger, could he?

“Damian!”

“What, Mum?”

“Don’t talk to…” She clasped the shopping bags at her waist in both hands. “Girls like that.”

“Lois? Why not?”

Surely not because she was Koori. We called them Abos and much worse in those days, but Mum wasn’t a racist. Or was she?

Mum turned her back to the teenagers. “Because she’s no better than she should be. Honestly, say something, Doug. Where do you think she gets the money to buy a bag like that? They’re seventy-five bucks in Myer.”

“Don’t look at me,” Dad said.

Jeanie pulled out her Chuppa Chup and tugged on Mum’s sleeve. “What’s a—”

“Never you mind.” She turned on Dad. “Doug?”

He shrugged. Mum huffed. “Well, if you can’t… Damian, I think you should go home. Now.”

“What did I do?”

“We’ll talk about this later.” She glared at the high school girls, chuckling behind their hands.

Okay. Mildly humiliating. But my depths of disappointment in my family wouldn’t deny a heaven-sent opportunity.

If I got a move on, I might catch Lois.

I made sure Mum and Dad weren’t watching. Mum had Dad by the arm, giving him a close range, whispered earful. Jeanie walked backwards with her lolly in her gob, taking it all in, but she didn’t matter. I dipped into Lamont Terrace where Lois went. To the pictures, if I was any judge.

I went round the corner at a trot, keeping a half an eye on my family — wham! — straight onto Beau Cochrane’s fist.

Like a ten-pound sledge crushing my ribs.

I staggered back a yard, but Beau was straight on me. He grabbed my shirt and pulled me into his stinking ciggie breath. “I told you!”

Told me what? 

My jaw wagged up and down. I couldn’t get a breath, let alone answer. He’d winded me with a single crushing blow.

“Stay away from Lois.”

His other fist pumped into my stomach. Below the belt. I swear his knuckles grazed my spine.

 

 

I lay on the pavement in a foetal position.

Christ knows what happened to all the adults.

Perhaps they stepped over me, thinking I was a discarded pile of clothes.

When I’d recovered enough to throw up in the gutter — I think my appendix spewed out with my breakfast — I propped myself against a lamppost for another ten minutes before my legs stopped shaking.

Mum made Dad stop at the Baldwins, so she was in a fine old bushfire when she stormed through the door.

“DAMIAN! How dare you lie to me. Oh, God, what happened?”

Flaming amazon of retribution to Mother Teresa in an instant.

Bloody hell, I must have looked bad.

“Nuffin’.” I got it out in a sort of strangled croak.

“Doug, get in here! Why are you holding your chest, Damian? Let me see.”

She pushed me back on the sofa and hauled my tee-shirt up despite my feeble efforts to hold it down. “Who did this to you?”

“No’un. Fell.”

“Like hell you did.”

“Holy moly,” Dad said. “Did someone take a baseball bat to him?”

The flesh equivalent. Yes.

“Tell her, son.”

I pursed my lips and kept them shut through twenty-four hours of good cop, bad cop, interrogation and a visit to the local quack.

Why dob on Beau Cochrane? No one would do anything. He’d deny being in the same postcode, and half a dozen cronies would back him up.

He was the town cop’s son and everyone knew Constable Cochrane for the dickhead he was. He scared the life out of Dad.

Not Mum. She’d drag me down to the police house by my ear and scream at the toad until he hauled Beau in for questioning.

And what good would that do? I’d be dead before I reached high school.

They confined me to quarters after four p.m. until I apologised to Mum for refusing to reveal my assailant and lying about playing with the Baldwin boys.

Not about to happen. I raised my noble brow to the ceiling and stoically refused. For obvious reasons described above, but also out of loyalty to Lois, or maybe memories of those few golden evenings at the beach. Mum and Dad must never be told. They couldn’t possibly understand what I’d lost.

 

 

I took to early morning fishing to get out of the house. Dad came the first couple of times, full of ludicrously false man-time bullshit, but if he ever had any genuine enthusiasm, he chucked it in pretty quick. Blabbering away on subjects he didn’t know or care about — video games, school — got old fast with me staring sullenly at the horizon.

So, for the last few days of our holiday, I’d take the bucket and rod alone to our spot — mine and Lois’s — for a few precious moments of self-pity, planning my future vengeance on Beau Cochrane. I can’t remember taking bait, so Mum and Dad were obviously paying peak attention.

On the last Thursday, before the drive back to the city, there was something weird in the tidal pool where the river flowed into the ocean. A dark lump, wallowing in an eddy as each wave receded. A dead seal or a shark, maybe. Enough to spark the curiosity of the most thoroughly world-weary pre-teen.

I tossed the bucket and rod when I recognised fingers and dark hair.

Lois. On her back, staring at the clouds through dull, lifeless eyes. Neck and lips oddly swollen. Her bikini top had somehow torn aside, exposing a single naked breast. The first I’d ever seen.

I should have done something. For Lois. At least covered her nakedness, closed her eyelids, but panic took over.

Shit. I was eleven.

I ran.

All the way to the surf club kiosk.

 

 

I bottled the funeral, as well.

To my eternal shame.

I heard Mum and Dad whispering and put my ear to a crack in the kitchen door.

“Father Michael won’t bury that girl in the cemetery,” Mum said.

“Yeah, well, the blackfellers—”

“Because it was suicide.”

“Suicide!”

“Yeah, she was pregnant.”

“Preg — Where are you getting this?”

“Elaine Taylor’s sister is a nurse at the hospital.”

A pause. Rubber gloves slapping on the sink. “Doug. You don’t think Damian—”

“Damian! What the… For heaven’s sake, he’s only ten!”

“Eleven.”

“Eleven. Whatever. It’ll be one of the… What does that look mean? Not me, love. I’m home every night. You know that.”

“Keep your voice down. Damian’s in his bedroom.”

“What does he care?”

Everything. That’s all.

 

 

I’ve never loved again the way I loved Lois.

None of the girls at university. Not my wife. Before or after the marriage.

Puppy love? Of course it bloody was, but that’s the most perfect adoration, isn’t it? And the tragedy denied the usual outcome, disillusionment and diversion to other shiny things.

My love for Lois was unsullied by ego, performance expectation or any of the other anxieties the physical side introduces along with its gloriously grubby release.

That first puckered nipple intruded more than once when I was faced with the real thing. Too often in my dreams. The ones where I woke up nauseous and sweaty.

But that’s not why none of my relationships have come close to that first brief, doomed encounter at Harrison’s Cut.

They’ve lacked the purity.

I think Lois loved me, too. In her way. Why else would a sixteen-year-old goddess be so sweet to a dorky eleven-year-old? Pity, you say? No, it wasn’t like that.

I know now the mewling I heard from the towel probably wasn’t pain. And I’ve come across women who need to be dominated, who mistake cruelty and disdain for strength, but that wasn’t Lois, either. She was on a journey of exploration. Testing the limits of the immense power women have to enslave men. Men who like girls at least.

Perhaps Beau Cochrane loved Lois as well.

In his way.

He left town before the funeral. A football scholarship in Queensland, we heard. The game has a place for mindless brutality.

I’ve thought about little else these past few days, back in Harrison’s Cut to prepare the beach shack for sale.

Well, that’s the advertised purpose. I can’t tell people I’m running away from my divorce, can I?

Perhaps that’s why the dreams are back, with gut churning intensity.

Or maybe it’s because Beau’s in town, too, at his mum’s since his dad passed away.

And they found another girl last week. Another pretty teenager washed up in the shallows…

 

 

 

Cover photo by Sebastien Gabriel on Unsplash