Who Are These Animals And Where Are Our Lovely Children
From Up She Rises: How to Grow Up at Sea
We came across the water like pirates. A small, straggly crew spread over a fleet of three motor dinghies, zooming towards the yachts. At least, that’s how it seemed to our parents. We didn’t feel like pirates, we felt like captives, forced to leave our island and go back to living on the yachts, under the rule of parents once more.
We were positioned at the bow of each dinghy while our dads sat at the stern steering. Our skinny arms reached out sideways to hold on to the dinghy handles, wiry muscles tensed, subconsciously in warrior stance, making our small bodies as large and fearsome as possible. For all I know, our teeth were bared.
We were motley brown with tan over sunburn over peeling skin, though it was hard to tell what was tan and what was dirt. Our teeth were furry, we’d hardly ever brushed them on the island, and our hair was matted thick with salt from swimming every day, with only the occasional rainstorm to wash the salt out. We were wearing the same threadbare togs our parents had sent us away in a fortnight ago. Our spare clean clothes were still folded inside our backpacks, having never been touched.
We were meant to be the long-lost children rushing home to the welcoming arms of their mothers and fathers. We were meant to have had a good play, a splendid game, some jolly Swallows-and-Amazons / Famous Five-type fun. And we were meant, now, to be ready for the game be over, and to be happily back in our warm and comfortable beds, like Max coming home in Where the Wild Things Are.
Except that we had gone to live on a real island, and we were the real wild things who did not want to leave. It was evident in our bodies and our faces, in our rough language and wistful looks. Watching from the yachts as these filthy pint-sized pirates descended upon them, my mother had her first inkling that our time on the island might not have been the wholly innocent game she had thought it would be.
‘We were terrified of you all,’ she told me later. ‘It was like you had gone feral. And my goodness, did you smell!’
On our island, we hadn’t noticed it. Living under the looping rise and fall of the sun and the moon, regimes of cleaning and manners had been quickly forgotten. Now, as we charged across the liminal space between our world and theirs, those regimes came back like distant memories, and we tensed against the impending oppression.
Because, despite the dirt on the outside, somewhere deep inside we were clean now, and we knew it. The relentless salt air and open space had put a new flavor in our mouths, and it tasted like freedom. We knew already that we were blameless, innocent of whatever they, ‘they’ being ‘the parent general’, might accuse us of. We were as clean as if we were coming straight out of the womb again, only this time we were wary, savvy, knowing, despite our innocence, we were probably already in trouble for something.
Each dinghy arrived at its respective yacht, and its kids clambered aboard. And then suddenly, for the first time in two weeks, we weren’t together anymore. Somehow in the journey of the dinghies, we kids had still been together. With the thud of our feet landing firmly on each deck, our adventure was over. We were back in civilisation.
Of course, relative to what most people call ‘civilisation’, we were still so very far from it. All we had done was travel a kilometre’s distance from our island to the next, where the yachts were anchored. We were still in the same tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But our barbaric tribe was now split, and we were each to be assimilated back into the civilized and controlled tribes of our families. Emma and I were back with the Contour tribe of Mum, Dad and Christie. It was disorientating. Looking out across the anchorage I saw James, Milo and Tina climbing onboard Nomad and hugging their mum and little brother Noah. And over on Sea Reaver, Lucian and Jules were back with their parents. And then we all disappeared below decks, back within an enclosed structure that wasn’t a tent for the first time two weeks.
The first thing I thought when I went inside was, there is no sand. I had forgotten that there existed in the world a non-sandy place. Without sand, Contour was so smooth, clean and shiny. The level of order and organisation everywhere astounded me. It felt, for a moment, like I had walked into an advanced futuristic world. I was excited to see my cabin again, but when I crawled into it, I found it to be full, absolutely chock full, of things. Books, toys, clothes, knick-knacks, things I thought I couldn’t live without and yet had now lived without and had forgotten. I sat on my bed and felt Contour’s hull curved tight around me and for the first time in my life, was amazed at how I managed to live in such a small space.
That night we ate a special meal of meat. Mum had opened some of the precious jars of mince she had preserved months ago in Malaysia, and made a shepherd’s pie. Real oven-cooked protein, in honour of our return. It felt heavy, hot and complicated in my mouth. I longed for the simple flavours of damper and coconut crab cooked over a fire. Mum must have been able to tell, because suddenly, unbeknown to me, I was being naughty, my manners were very bad and my sister Emma’s were also very bad, and we were both being told off for eating too fast with our mouths open.
‘Where are my lovely girls?!’ Mum cried, when I knocked over my water glass only moments after Emma had knocked over hers, our limbs too used to swinging freely to be able to deal with the tight confines of eating at a table. ‘I know you have better manners than that!’
I stared at Mum in shock.
‘I’m my own person,’ I thought. ‘You can’t say things like that to me.’
But I didn’t say anything.
After dinner, all the families went ashore to join the daily sunset drinks that always went on far beyond sunset. We kids grouped together down one end of the clearing, hanging out on the large white hammock. We’d each had a freshwater shower and were wearing clean clothes, shorts and t-shirts. On our island we’d never shut up, but now we swung on the hammock awkwardly with nothing to say. It was all too structured, too clean, too organized. This great sense of too, too much. The clothes were too much, the hammock was too much. Too much unnecessary organisation and clutter everywhere.
‘Did your parents give you meat for dinner?’ Emma asked the others.
‘Yeah, we had bolognaise,’ said Milo.
‘No. Our mum didn’t have any meat for us,’ said Lucian. The rest of us stared at Lucian and Jules and they stared defiantly back. On our island, no one really had any more or less than anyone else: we had all been equal. But now we saw that Lucian and Jules were different. They didn’t have something that the rest of us did. It came back to us that in the real world, families were private entities that operated differently to each other, and some families had things that other families did not.
Down the other end of the clearing the parents were huddled together.
‘They’ve gone wild,’ they whispered, sharing stories of the dinners just had and how bad all of our manners were.
‘At least they’re all alive,’ one of them laughed. Another Lord of the Flies reference.
That night my bed was soft and my sheets were clean. I should have still been young enough to fall into an easy slumber, exhausted but happy somehow that the emotional toll of maintaining the game, the adventure, was finally over. Yet I couldn’t sleep, and what’s more, I felt nothing but grief. Our revels now had ended, but ended too soon. It felt unnatural, cut short. Now in the dark heat of the tropical night the air in my cabin seemed to close in and stifle me, despite all three of my portholes being wide open.
I stared through them to the stars outside. I should have been comforted as I always used to be by the gentle rocking of the boat, but all I could think about was how few of the stars those portholes framed. I longed so badly for the full view of the sky and the feel of the tarp and the hard sand beneath my back that my chest ached. Tears ran down my cheeks, pooling in the corners of my mouth, warm and salty as the equatorial sea.
Yes, we were all still alive, but our island experience had not been without sacrifice. It had taken from us the freedom of childish innocence, and replaced it with an awareness of real freedom, wild freedom that knew no limits or control.
By the next morning our tans had begun to fade, the few hours spent away from the sun’s direct blaze already making a difference. No glasses were knocked over accidently at breakfast. Our limbs seemed to remember where to place themselves when squeezed in at the table, like fledging wings learning how to fold in tight to the body, shoulder blades knocking against each other. On the surface, we were fitting back in, and did so with the same speed that we fitted into all new situations in our nomadic lives.
But underneath, island fever had taken hold. The wild beasts we had found on the island had climbed inside us, and we had brought them home to the boats along with the sand on our feet and the tan on our skin. Stowaway beasts in our bellies. And now they were cramped, restless and growing in strength.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claire O’Loughlin is a Wellington theatre-maker. Her work, co-created with her company Binge Culture, has appeared on stages and streets across New Zealand and overseas. In 2017 her short play Huia was published by Penguin Random House in Bird Words: New Zealand Writers on Birds and she completed the MA at the IIML, writing a memoir about her childhood spent growing up on the sea.