If there is a God, surely he would show mercy and give me rain. Preferably a downpour, but even a few droplets would do.
But no. The heavenly sky stretches for miles, taunting me with its cloudless blue. My car tootles along, barely hitting the speed limit. I spot the sunshine-yellow sign pointing to the left: ‘Sandy Bay 2kms’.
I grip the steering wheel, make the turn, and begin my mantra. I will be okay. I will be okay. I will be okay.
The car park is nearly full. There are people everywhere, smiling, laughing, bragging that they’ve won the lottery. Some are digging into their car boots, fishing out boogie boards, towels and a raft of sandcastle building gadgets. Others are crowded around the outdoor shower, waiting for their turn to wash their sandy bodies.
I duck into an empty park. As I turn the motor off, I notice a toddler strapped in her special seat, throwing around her arms and legs like she’s being attacked by killer bees.
“That’s enough,” comes a stern voice. “It’s time to go.”
“No go! NO GO!” the child yells out the window, in my direction. She’s still wearing her togs. Her dark hair is a matted mess. One side of her face is plastered with sand where it has stuck to the sunscreen. Her nose is runny. There are tears. I try to tell her with my eyes I’d trade places in a heartbeat. Then I grab my stuff and shuffle past. I can still hear her cries from the far end of the car park.
I shouldn’t be here; I’m supposed to be visiting my nanna at the retirement village today. It’s her 80th birthday and I promised I’d make a carrot cake, her favourite, with cream cheese icing. She said she’d rustle up her best china and we’d have an afternoon tea party. She’s a hoot, my nanna. She loves getting dressed up in her finery on birthdays. She even brings out her tiara. She says it makes her look like Princess Di.
The sea comes into view; its rolling waves thrill the beachgoers. I get a whiff of fishy air and notice the flocks of squawking seagulls hovering overhead. No going back now.
I peer in both directions. It takes a moment to pinpoint them. It’s a big group, bigger than I’d thought. They are set up under the twisty-turny branches of a pohutukawa tree. At least there’s shade, I think, as I wander toward them.
I must look a sight. One hand firmly fixed to my wide-brimmed hat and the other is holding down my sarong so it doesn’t blow open. I’m not doing a Marilyn Monroe on the beach, thank you very much. My overfull beach bag is clamped under my arm. I limp along, my feet sinking into the sand.
I’ve told my boss Colin a million times my name is Melanie, not this lazy shortened version. Everyone’s eyes turn as I stumble toward them. I wish I’d had the courage to tell Colin I couldn’t come. I should have told him about my nanna’s birthday, but he was insistent everyone be there, and I lost my nerve. I put on my photo face and wave at my workmates. “Glad you could make it,” Colin says cheerfully. “I didn’t think you’re much of a beach person.”
My mind goes into overdrive, trying to work out what he means by that. But then Sarah, the company’s newest accountant, calls out to me.
“Come and sit with us,” she says, shuffling over on an enormous beach mat to make room. “Carla and I nabbed the best spot.”
Like me, Sarah is in her twenties, but that is where the similarities end.
I dump my bag next to her and plonk myself down.
Carla, our long-serving receptionist, smiles at me. “Hi, Mel. Glad you could make it.”
I should say it’s good to be here. Instead, I smile politely.
“Good turnout, isn’t it?” Sarah says.
“Bit of a change seeing people in their beach gear rather than their suits. Hardly recognised Colin when I first saw him in his Hawaiian getup.”
I nod again.
“Colin was keen on the tenpin bowling at first, but I suggested an outdoor activity. I told him beach volleyball and a picnic would help shrug off that boring accountant stereotype. I adore the beach. What’s not to love?”
“Hmm,” I say.
While she is nattering, I am checking out the scene around me. There must be at least 20 people here. Lots I don’t know. Sarah, Carla, and I seem to be the only ones here without partners. This must be the spinster area.
“Going for a swim?” Sarah asks.
Before I can blink, she’s abandoned her oversized t-shirt and now sits beside me in a plunging bikini top and a towel wrapped loosely around her tiny waist. She has tipped a blob of sunscreen into her hand and is lathering it over her toned arms and shoulders.
“Nah,” I say. “Don’t really like swimming.”
“How about you, Carla? Coming in?”
Carla, who I’d guess is in her mid-fifties, shakes her head. “Not just yet.” I sense Carla’s eyes on me as I watch the sunscreen show going on in front of us.
Even in a sitting position, Sarah’s stomach refuses to jut out. There is no sign of a muffin top or anything resembling flab. Her hand slides over her ripple-free mid-section as she rubs in the cream.
“Suit yourselves,” Sarah says. She stands up, throws off her towel and struts toward the water. Her long, lean legs move gracefully across the sand. I can see no lumpy cellulite patches. Her olive skin is flawless. Nothing jiggles as she moves. She is athletic and strong. Her blonde hair swirls up behind her in the breeze. She reaches the shore, jumps playfully through the waves, then dives into the surf. Her lithe body is magnificent.
Inside, I am groaning. This is exactly why I detest coming to the beach. It’s a flesh festival; a stage for the body beautiful. It is not a place for the more generously proportioned who would rather be sipping tea and eating cake with their tiara-wearing nanna.
“I’ve always wondered how secure those bikini bottoms are,” Carla whispers into my ear. “Those bows on the sides need to be firmly fastened. You wouldn’t want anyone pulling the strings for a laugh now, would you?”
I’m not sure how to take that, so I say nothing.
There is a bunch of guys from our group playing volleyball on the sand in front of us. Except they’re not playing volleyball. They have been stupefied. They range in age from mid-twenties to mid-forties, yet they are acting like teenagers. Goofing about, leaping wildly this way and that. Ribbing each other, calling each other dickheads. Taking off their shirts and hurling them to one side. Thumping their chests like apes. All while sneaking peeks at the goddess in the water who is waist-deep, slicking back her golden hair.
“I used to hate the beach,” says Carla.
I’ve barely spoken to Carla in the 18 months I’ve been with the company. I think it’s her roaring voice. Colin jokes he can hear her from the toilets. I never quite know what to say to her.
“So, what changed?” I ask.
“I decided not to give a stuff about what people think.”
There is so much noise around me, workmate chatter, birds, the sea, ape sounds, clinking bottles, kids laughing, kids crying. I block it out and tune into Carla’s frequency.
“I decided to be comfortable with who I am,” she says.
I study her and here’s what I see. Shadowed eyes behind whimsical giant sunglasses. A glimpse of a bikini under her beach robe. Strands of flaming red hair poking out of her sombrero. Sparkly girlish sandals. A warm, genuine smile.
I feel the scorching sun on the back of my neck, and I move out of its way. My sarong falls open and my pasty-white sausage legs poke out. I quickly cover them up.
Another workmate, Rhonda, appears in front of us clutching a plate of Cheerios. “Fancy something to eat?” she asks.
I shake my head. Carla places three on her serviette. Rhonda moves on.
Carla and I chat. She tells me about her three grown-up children who have all moved away. At first when she tells me their stories, she is animated and excited. By the time she is finished, she’s wistful and melancholy. She goes on, telling me about her messy divorce from her cheating scumbag husband. She lives alone now and loves it, she says, because she doesn’t have to put up with his crap anymore.
The conversation shifts to me, and I tell her I should be at my flat making a birthday cake. Carla laughs when I tell her about Nanna’s tiara birthday tradition. Then she asks about the rest of my family. She immediately goes quiet when I tell her my nanna is the only family I have. She slips her hand over mine and gently squeezes.
“What about a boyfriend? Or girlfriend,” she adds.
Something is digging into my leg, a shell maybe. I shuffle over a little and shake my head. “No boyfriend. I think Sarah is more of a boy magnet than me.”
I spot Sarah leaping about in the waves like a dolphin, with her adoring audience watching.
“What about Angus?” Carla says. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
I feel my cheeks burn and I make little circles in the sand with my finger. Angus is one of the auditors I’ve worked with on a few jobs. He’s always been friendly toward me, but I figured he was like that with everyone. We often catch up at the water cooler. He’s got kind eyes and an infectious laugh.
“He’s not coming today,” she adds. “Said he hated the beach. Colin was pissed about it.”
I smile to myself. Lucky him.
“He asked if you were going.”
Carla nods, then jumps up. “I’m going swimming, and you’re coming, too.” She must see the panic in my eyes. “Just a quick dip, then you should head off home. You’ve got a cake to make for that awesome nanna of yours.”
I had my no-swimming excuse prepared in advance. A cold coming on. A headache. But before I can get anything out, Carla has shrugged off her robe and is wearing only a polka dot bikini and a grin.
I shake my head, but she leans into me, arm stretched out, ready to pull me up.
“And before you tell me you didn’t bring your togs, it doesn’t matter. Just go like that.”
I want to tell her to go to hell. That there is no way I’m frolicking in the water in clinging wet gear next to goddess Sarah. But before I know it, I am letting her hoist me off the mat.
“Let’s run!” she giggles.
My legs are rubbing together as I get going. We both must be jiggling around like wobbly jelly as we pick up speed. We pass the apes and Nigel wolf whistles at us. “Bugger off, Nigel,” shouts Carla.
We reach the water’s edge, and my sarong flaps around like a trapped bird. And I don’t care.
We are goddesses of the sea.
About the Author: Leah Carter
Leah Carter lives a hybrid existence juggling her day job, teenage dramas and writing in every spare minute. As a child she dreamed of being a published author, and she still does. She lives near the beach in the Bay of Plenty with her book-loving family.