The Blue Wall

By JULIE SMITH | Published: April 2, 2009

The whole scenario is so simple and natural; children chasing a soccer ball, running and splashing on the most beautiful beach she can imagine. Canoes are anchored to the trees and bob over the small, gentle waves. An early morning tropical breeze blows; cooling and soothing, giving a sensual reality to her dream. This is happening right now. It’s taken us three years to save for a sunrise breakfast in Indonesia and I’d pay more.

The ball lands on Charles’s head and laughter fills their space. Give children a ball on a beach and watch them play together anywhere in the world; the perfect, level-playing-field. She sips on coffee and contentedly runs her fingers through the sand. She shuts her eyes and listens to the natural background music of occasional screeching monkeys, periodic barks from the distant village dogs, lapping of waves and birds calling to each other. No man-made sounds.

Kelly reaches for her camera and looks at the children playing. The sun comes directly into her lens as she squints through the glare she notices the tide is going out, exposing brown rocks and pools. It’s a very low tide and she puts the camera down. Something isn’t right... it feels wrong. She trembles and can’t put the feeling in sync with her mind…it is gut-driven, isolated and eats at her while trying to push it away as an unwanted, stray anxiety. Her eyes rake the shoreline, flitting from exposed marine life to tyres, bottles and refuse the natives use as a hidden tip. The once-bobbing boats are now beached on their sides like fallen whales. Within minutes it is not only receding; it is racing towards the eastern sun with an urgent summons. Kelly puts her hand on Charles’s arm and grips it firmly.

“Look at the tide, hon. I’ve never seen a tide so low.” Charles stands up and looks out with his hand on his brow to shield the sun’. The lagoon is almost retreated from the bay. Already the organic stench is wafting up from the exposed sea floor. Silence. Heads turning, watching in awe at the sound of the sea sucking its way out.

“Look at the horizon, Kelly!” She stands up and sees it come closer… several miles out at sea; a monolithic wave is blocking the southern view to Banda Aceh.

“Hey kids get up here now! FAST!” Charles is picking up our belongings like a fire threatening to burn the few possessions. Kelly is paralysed.

“Don’t worry about the stuff! Hurry!

Unaware of the pending danger, their two boys amble towards the bamboo picnic mat, taking their leisurely time laughing and playfully punching each other.

“NOW!” He runs to them, taking their hands in his, jerking them towards the mat, their home base.

Kelly looks north then to the south. My God, the horizon is huge and coming nearer. Monkey chatter has changed to terror shrieks as primates panic and run like directionless ants into the tropical forest. There are no dogs. Silence seems to scream for a moment.

Still holding the children’s hands, Charles yells, “Tsunami! Run for the hills…hurry!” He lets go of their hands, runs down to the beach screaming at the natives and pointing to the hills. Some start running west for higher ground while others are pinioned by fear. Kelly looks back again and the wave is getting closer. Charles is still screaming and waving like Don Quixote - a windmill out of control, saliva spitting from his mouth. Directionless and out of focus, he runs in tangent angles hollering, “Run for your lives!” Panic is gripping every cell in his body. He is stunned. She takes his hand, “We need you, Charles. Let’s go”, she says in a commanding voice.

The adrenalin-turned-panic native herd yells, crying and screaming as it stampedes west. Four figures join a crowd of fifteen; the group of fifteen joins another twenty. Fallen elderly try to get up only to be trounced back down; abandoned young children scream for their parents.

The couple form a protective circle around the two boys. Other children, too young and frightened to move, are plucked up and added to the growing band. Charles has an infant in his arms and Kelly adds another three to the moving roundabout. Too many to help! No time to help! Get my family up there and safe! Then she sees the old woman.

She was sitting holding her bloody, mangled foot. Kelly will never forget the toothless wail coming from the old woman with her scarf askew. I have to save her. She bends down to grab the woman’s arm and the woman withdraws, echoing a croaky lament and wails as she points to a shrub. Kelly looks and sees a swaddled infant who curiously looks right into her eyes. The old woman’s arthritic index finger jabs in the air towards the baby. Kelly’s bewildered face turns to comprehension…she wants Kelly to take the infant and leave quickly. Kelly rushes over and picks up the small bundle and looks back at the old woman. Her toothless grin accompanies the hand gesture pointing towards the hills, quick, go – up there, I am ready to die and not afraid. Kelly starts running and looks back. The old woman is smiling.

She doesn’t remember time. Afterwards she would shake her head at the nonsensical, free-association of thoughts which raced through her mind like calm in the middle of a storm. Her mother sitting by the Christmas tree, smiling, the smell of dinner wafting through the house, the happy faces of her children as she picks them up from school, McDonalds and Vegemite, a hot shower, clean sheets, the smell of fresh-mowed grass, an lone airplane droning on a Sunday afternoon, Bertie, their retriever, running for the ball and catching it only to lie down. God, she misses Bertie.

Kelly stops to glance back and sees the moving sea-wall is dotted with litter like a giant rubbish-tip returning with its contents. She looks west and asks herself, can we make it? The panicked survivors turn into a fatigued herd; heads down, stumbling, out of breath, stinging muscles, burning lungs and cut feet. They stop at a higher plateau to catch their breath and look back. Kelly puts her fist in her mouth as she sees the wave surge over the bamboo mat, swamping everything in it’s pursuit to consume. When it reaches halfway up the hill, it stops like a shark with indiscriminate pursuit. Then the wave seems to think for a moment…next time. It wants time to settle and regroup after gorging a meal. Satisfied, it slowly starts to retreat, taking bodies, fauna, flora, pieces of wood, broken boats, clothing; everything, including a village with it.

The family wrap arms around each other as they listen to people weep and scream. They are alive.

* * * *

Four months later Kelly is waiting in line to pay for groceries with a ‘thousand-mile-stare’, listening to the chit-chat between mothers and children…we used to be like that. Intensive psychotherapy has stopped her son’s nightmares but Charles is not coping well. Jobless now, he tries to fake bravado and his endless optimism echoes through the house like fingernails on a blackboard. He is fooling no one. Her sons will not take the bus to school and their studies are rapidly going down. It all falls on her and the burden is awesome but she is getting by, just.

She empties her trolley and each item is unmercifully heavy. A man accidentally bumps her and she jumps with fright. “Sorry”, he snaps without eye contact while grabbing a newspaper. Kelly notices the headlines – “Death Toll Still Rising From Tsunami ” and her heart beat rapidly picks up. A kaleidoscope of flashbacks rush into her head; the young children, the old woman, men in their prime, some desperately holding on to pieces of wood, trying to survive. How long is it going to take to be normal again? But one memory scars her badly…the ultimate sacrifice of the old woman for the baby.

The man looks down at her and says, “Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of people dead?”

“No.”

“Probably serves them right after the Bali bombing. You know, my son’s best friend got killed there. All those gooks running around suiciding and all them Muslims…drop a bomb on them all.”

Tears runs down Kelly’s cheeks as she picks up her bags and rushes through the door.



Comments

1. Betty Eastman on April 11, 2009

Another good short story by Julie. Felt like I was in Indonesia and couldn't stop reading.

2. Alison on April 12, 2009

Very Good Julie:) It had me from the first sentence!

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