I was five, it was summer, 1977 and the six of us piled into a Ford Falcon XC to get away for the Christmas holidays. I don’t remember the long drive to the coastal town of Esperance, on the southern coast of Western Australia, but it became a holiday I will never forget, and the inspiration behind my novel.
It might have been due to bickering, it could have been the heat, but I left my three siblings playing in the sand dunes and I went swimming alone. My parents were asleep on the beach, lying in the shade of our large, fringed, floral umbrella, unaware of the danger I was about to find myself in.
Esperance’s Twilight Beach is one of the world’s most picturesque. With pure white sand, clear turquoise water, and a sandbar leading out to an interesting rock formation, it is also widely recognised as safe for swimming.
I’m not sure how long I’d already been in the water when I swam into a darker patch beside a large rock. I felt myself being pulled under by some sort of undercurrent, making it hard for me to swim away. Only five years old, I was not strong enough to resist the undertow. I tried to grasp the nearby rock but it was covered in moss and slippery seaweed. I was going under. I could no longer breathe.
My dad woke with a start, sprinted directly to the water and dived in, still wearing his fashionable, ‘Eric Estrada-like’ gold-rimmed sunglasses. He had no idea what gave him the urge to do so, but thank God that he did. He rescued me and I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep on the ‘safe’, pristine family beach.
I remember freaking out under the showers in the caravan park after that. Screaming as the water spray hit my face. Up until then I’d been a good swimmer. I could hold my breath from one end to the other in the neighbour’s pool. It took a long time to regain that confidence.
The near-drowning happened a few days before Christmas. I remember a tiny festive tree, maybe 30cm high, in our six-berth caravan. We decorated it with the foil wrappers from a box of shared chocolates; a rare treat.
On Christmas morning we were relieved that Santa’s ‘skeleton key’ had allowed him access to our caravan. The presents were unwrapped and we played with our haul. My younger sister asked a question:
‘What would have happened if Marie had drowned? Would I have got her presents?’
Fair enough question for a four year old. But this traumatic event has been the inspiration behind my manuscript. My fictional story has morphed into something entirely different, but at it’s core is a beach, a dearly missed sister, a family shattered by tragedy, and the protagonist’s connection with Christmas as a way of coping with all that has been lost.
Esperance is named after a French ship, the Espérance. It is the French word for ‘hope’. A serendipitous word to describe my manuscript’s journey and the story within it.