Sanctuary (Linda Godfrey)

Sticking out of the grey and white choppy water are four grey and white shapes. Not waves; they don’t break and roll to the shore. It has to be more than water. ‘What are they?’ I can’t work it out. They look like paddles.

Marcella shrugs.

We are sitting in the front room of my house above the dressing sheds, overlooking Austinmer Beach. We’re relaxing in armchairs, enjoying the warmth of the July sun through floor to ceiling plate-glass windows. Looking straight out to sea it’s as if you could see all the way past the horizon to Chile.

One or two people walk up the steps from the pool, towels over their shoulders, goggles dangling from their fingers, hair dripping, lips blue. There’s a breeze, the water is breaking onto the sand in small, messy waves. We’ve been talking about Marcella returning to Santiago for a holiday.

Some of her family is still there. Marcella’s husband was in the army, jailed because he knew a secret. Marcella petitioned hard to get him out. She didn’t elaborate on what she had to do in those interviews with his superiors. When he was released, they found sanctuary in Australia, with their two small children. He is permanently damaged by his experience.

Because she is a good friend, because Chile is on the other side of the Océano Pacifico, because Santiago is almost the same latitude as Sydney, I have this fantasy that the Pacific basin is one big cradle, rocking back and forth, lulling us with the movements and sounds of water. Both of us come from the rim of this basin (for this fantasy to work New Zealand has to sink or rock along with us in our cradle of water).

‘More tea?’

I come back with the tray of tea and biscuits topped with dulce de leche.

‘Dolphins?’ Marcella suggests.

I can’t make sense of the shapes, shades, colours, spots, size. ‘Sharks?’

Orcas? But those whales are not here, not at Austi.

‘It’s quite shallow there.’

The paddles are waving in the air. Waving’s exactly what they are doing, like when you have your hands above your head, dancing to a techno beat. The beat of these arms are more adagio.

They’re fins. Long, grey with scalloped edges, white and spotted.

Humpbacks. Humpback whales travelling north, heading to warmer water to breed and birth their babies. It wasn’t that long ago that they were killed for soaps, paints and their tough, flexible bones that predated plastic .They were almost extinct. Now they can frolic off the coast, looking forward to their summer holidays in Queensland, playing with their calves until they are ready for the long swim south.

I’ve lived here for a long time. I know this beach. The southern end has deep ripples of sand, rocky underfoot and treacherous. It’s where the rips develop; if they catch you they will drag you out past the saltwater pools.

We’ve been talking, drinking tea, eating caramel and watching the fins sloshing about in the waves for an hour.

I ask Marcella, ‘What are they doing?’

‘Where are my keys?’ She’s talking to herself.

‘They must be on their backs.’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘scratching an itch.’

Rubbing their barnacles off on the ridged layers of sand, probably finding a rock near the surface to really get rid of those last stubborn ones.

The whales have found sanctuary.

Marcella breaks my reverie. ‘I need to get going,’ she says.

We are witness to whales resting off our beach but all I say is, ‘You good to get down the steep driveway?’ I stand and farewell my friend in broad morning light, after tea. The bulbuls sing in the oleanders, the waves lap the sand and the fins wave noiselessly in the air.

I come back from saying goodbye and the fins are gone. Itches scratched, the whales continue north in the big warm basin of the Pacific.

Linda Godfrey — Poet. Writer. Editor. Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. Curator of Rocket Readings, readings of poetry and an open mic, part of the Sydney Writers Festival and Wollongong Writers Festival. Series editor of microliterature anthologies, reader, manuscript assessor, teacher, judge. Fiction and poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies.