Watching Puberty Blues reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago about my teenage years at the beach. It was published in the Newcastle Herald one summer.
I turned fourteen in the summer of 1976: the year of the beach. My friends and I were in love with the Bay City Rollers, Sherbet and platform thongs. But most of all, we were in love with the beach.
We couldn’t wait to get to the local beach and expose our delicate, winter-white skins. This was in the Seventies, before anybody knew about the danger of the sun. We didn’t know that sun damage caused wrinkles, or uneven skin, or skin cancer.
On the beach, the surfers ruled. We loved them. They lay on the beach with their surfboards stuck in the sand until some strange internal calling would send them all into the surf. Their beach-babe girlfriends gossiped and sunbaked, squealing delightedly when their boyfriends emerged from the surf and shook their wet hair over them.
Annette was the cool beach-babe we all aspired to. All the surfers drooled over her. She developed early and filled her bikini in exactly the right way, she had sun-kissed blonde hair, and was already brown when we went to the beach on the first day of summer. How did she do this? The eternal, envious question. She has since told me that every afternoon after school, for a month before summer, she lay out in the backyard in her swimmers, her body coated in baby oil.
My best friend and I tried so hard to be beach-babes. But I was a late bloomer and shattered when one of the boys remarked that I wouldn’t need a surfboard to go surfing because I was “flat as a board”. We wore the tiniest bikinis we could find so as much of our skin as possible would be exposed to the sun and slathered ourselves with Coconut Reef Oil in the vain hope that we would go that beautiful, longed for, chocolate brown. Even now, I smell coconut oil and am transported back to those days. My girlfriend had delicate, English skin with a light smattering of freckles … until she tried to get a tan. She burnt badly, peeled for a week, and ended up with more of the hated freckles.
We would lie on the beach for up to eight hours and get so sunburnt that we could hardly wear clothes. The worst place to get sunburnt is the back of the knees; it’s almost impossible to bend your legs. And riding home on the 322 bus was hell after a day at the beach – hot vinyl seats and sunburnt legs is not a comfortable combination. But the best compliment that anyone could make was, “Gee, you’re so burnt. You’re going to be sore tomorrow.” This was always said with admiring sympathy, and we agreed with our heads held high sporting a small, self-satisfied smile.
I always had a love/hate relationship with the beach. I loved the time with my friends, and spent all of my summer holiday there, but hated the sand (irrational, I know). The sand invaded every crack and crevice. It made your Pine Lime Splice strangely crunchy. It got on your towel, in your Pluto Pup and through the Coconut Reef Oil and there is no way to describe the agony of trying to apply oil onto sunburnt skin when the bottle is full of sand. I’d go swimming and my swimmers would fill with wet sand and it’s almost impossible to get wet sand out of swimmer pants under a cold outdoor shower while trying not to flash anything.
But I loved the ocean although our local beach was well known for its shore dumps – waves that picked you up and threw you down. Chundered. You emerged from the dump choked with salt water, coughing and nearly vomiting, with your swimmers not quite where they should be. The best place to be was out the back. Once out past the shore dumps, the rhythmic swell of the waves lulled you until a freak wave formed and chundered you back to shore.
Watching everybody swim was like watching a strange, tribal ritual. The boys ran and dived under the first wave. The girls tiptoed to the edge, shrieking whenever the water touched us, slowly taking dolly steps until finally we were in deep enough for a wave to wash over us. We would go under a wave and emerge, furtively adjusting the tiny triangles of bikini so no bits were showing. The string bikini ruled (I remember a crocheted string bikini) but we always made sure the knots were tied up double top and bottom. The boys loved to tease us by suddenly pulling on the string and there is nothing more embarrassing to a teenage girl than for her swimmers to suddenly fall off in the water.
At the end of the day, we went home by bus, covered in sand, our skin tight and sore with the promise of a major sunburn. And the thought that tomorrow we would do it all again.