The WomanShe was escaping. Escaping the recent past, albeit just for a short time, but escaping nonetheless. Seated on a quivering plane at the end of a runway, she felt weightless, she felt perfect freedom. Soon BA 7312 would receive the all clear for take-off; it would plunge on down the tarmac and she'd be away – what she'd dreamt of for so long would soon be underway. Her Tonia was beside her. She knew how excited her daughter was; to be accompanying her mother on this adventure to the other side of the globe. But she was quiet too, as if she too sensed the import of these few seconds before the plane's dash to be airborne, the import of breaking away from all they knew.
The last seven years had not been easy. Financially it had all been so tight, but she knew that, even so, she was better off than most – and she would always be, so as long as the economy held. She and Ton still had their unit a stone's throw from Canary Wharf, and her job in insurance brokerage was reasonably well remunerated. The constant sniping from Rob, directly, or via his lawyer, over maintenance money, had been eroding at her in the years since the divorce. She'd had enough, but he was relentless. She knew he had a new life, new wife and a brand new daughter – but that wasn't the point. He still had a responsibility to Ton, and she was dammed if she was going to let him off the hook. The 'seven year itch' – what a joke! That's how long they were married, and it was the same number of years on now – and she still wasn't able to escape him – until this.
She had been Rob's PA – it seemed so long ago now – and it was her first job in the banking industry. At 38 he was more than ten years her senior. She suspected she attained the position for reasons other than strictly her experience and CV. She knew her looks, figure and 'front' counted for as much. Her small, slim stature, blonde bob and 'bounce', in that particular workplace, before she became 'involved', had made her immediately popular. The word 'perky' was, she knew, the one that came to mind when colleagues were asked to describe her. She took it as a compliment – she wasn't backward in coming forward – in her job, or in matters of the heart. She was soon giving out signals to Rob that she was 'interested', and certainly was 'available'. All too soon he had ditched his live-in girl friend and installed her instead – a whirlwind office romance followed in quick succession by a glorious wedding and Tonia. Of course, for a while he was smitten by both his girls, and it was all bliss. Rob was on an upward plane at the bank. He worked hard and provided well. They lived a good life enjoying the pleasures of London, as much as a couple with a young child could. But as the 90's drew on she started to notice a change in Rob, and that she and their life together were in trouble. She and Ton had become secondary to 'the greasy pole', so more and more evenings and weekends were given over to advance his ambitions. He was drawing away from her – sex became perfunctory, and then non-existent, and then, seven years in, the full circle had been reached. He announced it one night – and the 'delicious' irony – it was the woman that had replaced her. She was her age – back then, not now. She wasn't shattered. She didn't plead or beg. She didn't try to win him back when he walked out. She had too much pride – and she knew he could be replaced. She knew she didn't look her age – and in the time since she had ensured she never did.
As time went on she and Tonia seemed to grow closer – the reverse of the usual teenage/parental divide. Ton seemed to have little time for her father and her half-sister, let alone his new love. She assisted as much as she could in her mother's scrimping and scraping in order to put money away for the goal they were working towards. And now, they were on the brink.
This month away wasn't her first time out of the country, so she wasn't a complete novice. The previous trips to Spain, Greece and Morocco, though, were largely at Rob's behest. He saw travel to 'in' places as being a cog in his self-advancement. She didn't particularly enjoy those times back then. But now – this was entirely different. This was her dream – a dream that Ton grew to share. She'd been fascinated with the land she was visiting all her life, as long as she could remember – from 'Skippy', through 'Crocodile Dundee' to ‘Neighbours' and 'Home and Away'. Australia. She knew it would not be exactly like it was portrayed, but anything was better than the bitter winter to come, the signs of which were already evident this chilly autumn morning on their way to Heathrow. Yes, September, 2005 was going to be a month to remember.
As the plane started to rev up its engines, she began to repeat the mantra that had kept her going ever since she booked the journey 12 months ago. At times it'd felt that it would never happen; as Rob fought tooth and nail to prevent it, that mantra had been her crutch. She repeated it out loud now and Tonia turned to face her, her eyes sparkling. The craft lurched and took off down the misty runway, and Tonia joined in, getting louder and louder the closer they came to being airborne – Sydney, Gold Coast, Alice Springs, Sydney, Gold Coast, Alice Springs, Sydney......... As the ground diminished below them, mother and daughter hugged each other for all they were worth.
The sun and I are not best mates any more. Once upon a time I lived for the feel of it on my skin, and in summer I'd turn a shade of brown resembling dark chocolate. But these last few years it's lost its allure for me. Maybe it’s seeing mates suffer as a result of their unprotected youth, maybe it’s the constant drilling in of 'slip, slop, slap' during my teaching years that has finally caught up with me, or maybe it's something as simple as growing old. As a result, the yearning for the beach is not as powerful as it once was. Back in the day I could spend, well, whole days disporting myself on a strand somewhere; nose buried in a book, or simply just watching the passing parade. These days I live by a river, not overlooking the sea. It's a fair haul to a decent beach – and it seems that now, beaches are for walking on, and photographing, always photographing. I may have a bit of the Rennie Ellis in me, even if the type of 'social reportage' he indulged in – a curvy topless woman front and centre – is now something definitely not acceptable in these censorious times. Yes, looking back, the last hurrah for me was that September, back in 2005!
It is almost politically incorrect to say so, but my love affair with the coastal littoral of Queensland, particularly the Gold Coast, has been with me since my teenage years, and I've lost count the number of times I have visited. Each time I'd pinch as much time as possible to be on a beach, to throw a towel down on some creamy sand. On the trip in question, my DLP (Darling Loving Partner) and I had eschewed more frenetic Surfers and Broady for the demure, matronly pace of Coolangatta. I indulged myself with long walks 'around the corner' into Tweed Heads, watching dare devil surfers brave the break at Snapper Rocks, and perambulating northwards towards Currumbin. I was in heaven. When time allowed, after touring around with DLP, I retired to my spot in the sandy cove, under the lighthouse marking the state line. It was peaceful, with just enough human activity to keep me interested between book chapters.
On this particular steamy afternoon I suspect I had dozed. When I came to, I sensed something had changed in my neck of the woods, for when I looked to the right and left, no one else was similarly prone on the beach. I sat up, and looked across to the water's edge. Everyone was down where the Pacific meets the land, looking out towards the horizon. I immediately thought someone was in trouble, but the gathered throng seemed more elated than agitated, so I made my way to join them.
On arrival I couldn't for the life of me see what was so untoward to cause such spectatoring, so I turned to the person next to me and inquired of her what was up. She turned towards me with a 'perky' smile and responded, 'Just wait. You'll see.'
I returned to watching the ocean blue, and then, to my astonishment, it happened. A huge whale's head emerged from the deep, seemingly just a few metres off-shore. I gawped as I had never gawped before, for it seemed to be as much intrigued with the assembled crowd as we were with it. It seemed at least a minute before the head disappeared, and shortly later a giant tail emerged to slap the surface of the briny. My new companion turned towards me and joyously burbled, 'Isn't that just so great. I've never been so close to a wild whale before. It's just so marvellous, isn't it?'
I had to agree with her. We stood and made appreciative noises as our cetacean friend made repeat performances, soon joined by a pod of dolphins, who proceeded to wave surf as well. Then the whale must have tired, for it vanished, not to return, with the dolphins soon after. As it became evident that the show was over, I turned to what I now realised was a very striking woman in a quite spectacular white bikini. I had picked up on her English accent, so I queried her provenance and her reason for being on this beach so far from Old Blighty. As she told me her story, and she was not backward in coming forward with it, I gradually understood that she was somewhat more mature than I had originally figured, judging by what she was saying. I took her to be late twenties, early thirties, but her saga made her into the next decade at least. And that bikini – it was very difficult to maintain eye contact, and as surreptitiously as I could I gave into my inclination to survey it, and the body it only just contained. Stunning, just stunning. If she noticed she didn't seem to mind. All her details were soon unburdened – the disassembling of her marriage, her pride in her Tonia, whom she was shortly due to reunite with back at their hotel, and her temporary escape to Oz. She told me her views on Sydney, where they commenced their visit, how fantastic she thought the obviously laid back lifestyle of the Gold Coast was, and how much she was looking forward to the Red Centre still to come. She told me how smitten she was with Australia in general, even if she'd only seen a small portion of it. Sydney she found very exciting and glitzy – almost too much so, but she loved the area around the Gold Coast, felt very drawn to the freedom and space she perceived to be in this part of the world. Her Tonia, she was pleased to say, had been similarly impressed and they were beginning the process of discussing the prospects of actually migrating here one day. I made supportive comments of course. I sang the UK's praises from what of it I knew from my travels, but concurred with her that Australia offered so much more. I told her, with what I could deduce from our brief encounter, that with her 'perkiness' (although that was not the exact word I used), she'd fit right in. I didn't think I was being too overt for trying to delay her for as long as possible, but she seemed engaged enough not to make motions to move on.
Eventually the conversation turned to myself and my story. I told her about my island in the southern seas; the Tasmania of which I was so proud. I regaled her with its beauty, its pristine wilderness, its definable four seasons and of the most liveable little capital city in the world. She seemed genuinely interested, questioning me at some length about what it was like to live there and employment prospects. Then I received, for my trouble, a glowing smile, and she was off to rejoin her daughter.
With my beautiful DLP also waiting for me, I had no desire for more in any case. There is no doubt I enjoyed my conversation with another gorgeous woman, but I am no philanderer. Maybe if I was a decade younger and unattached, then – well, yes. But I was more than content with what had transpired. She made me feel buoyant, and I suspect I would not be the last male she'd make feel that way.
The captain's stentorian voice instructed the cabin staff to make ready for landing, and so it was over. Her dream was realised, but she was not sad. Far from it, for now she had another purpose in life; a purpose Tonia and she and had spent most of the trip back discussing – did Australia provide a viable future for them? She felt that this dream she could also attain, especially with this now sleeping girl beside her as an ally.
During their waking hours in the air they pondered on what they had discovered, and where it would be they'd try and make a home, if a new dream eventuated – if she could only escape Rob forever. Maybe it was a dream she'd simply have to be prepared to wait for – just as she'd waited so long for the trip in the first place. They thought about Sydney – its energy, vibrancy – but they concluded they'd just be exchanging one big city for another, albeit for one with a much better climate and a magnificent, sparkling harbour. She smiled as she thought of her visit to Bondi. Beforehand she and Tonia had decided to outfit themselves at a Darling Harbour swimwear boutique. Tonia chose a skimpy bikini her mother initially thought would be too revealing, until she saw her daughter in it. Once she had appraised how womanly her daughter looked, it seemed quite an appropriate choice. She was also attempting to be daring, and had her eye on a black one-piece that she felt gave promising justice to her ample bosom. But then Tonia found the white bikini. She laughed, but her daughter insisted she try it on. She felt almost naked, but in this country no one knew her – so what the heck. Disrobing on Bondi had been a revelation – she could still turn heads all right.
She knew, despite how extraordinarily awesome it was, especially Uluru, that she'd never cope with the Outback heat. They concluded the Gold Coast was probably the go, especially as they had taken tours to the hinterland and down to Byron. It had felt good – but gee, the prices there were not cheap. As her daughter slept on and the wheels of the giant plane were lowered, she thought of that afternoon on the beach – that magic afternoon when she'd watched a massive creature of the deep perform. She thought about the guy there she'd met on the beach – how well he spoke of the place in Oz he came from, and obviously adored. Maybe that island would be worth considering as well. He knew the Tasmanian liked what he saw once he took an evaluative look at her in her white bikini. She didn't mind his type of examination. In fact she quite enjoyed the obvious pleasure he took in what he saw. She knew he was trying to be discreet, and appreciated him for that. She felt safe in his company, and sure enough, he proved to be gentlemanly and was good to chat to as well. Maybe there are more on his island like him, only a bit closer to her age. Yes, his home was definitely worth considering.
Organising another trip to the Gold Coast bought back memories of a beautiful, curvaceous English rose in a white bikini back, and the shared joy of watching a whale of a performance and a conversation about possibilities. A trip to Mangoland always makes the Mexican winter more bearable, and with the wonderful DLP to share the adventures as they come, I know I'll have a great time. I hope I am never too old to appreciate all women and how incredible they are, and look - white bikini or no white bikini. But I do wonder if she was able to unpack it permanently in this land of her dreams.