Every year we go to Rottnest in November. It is our family tradition. We have done it since Jasper was in utero and before he was even thought of. In those days we had an imaginary child called Pee Wee. Somehow she skipped childhood and we never envisioned her at Rottnest. She was a gamine who grew up to be a singer in a jazz band and who lived a groovy loft on Manhattan. In our musings we were aging grey-headed parents who visited her there. But that’s another story. Instead we got a blue-eyed boy, who, like the real boy he is, comes with us on holiday, a forty minute ferry ride from home.
Arriving at Rottnest is like going home. You have stepped out of your Fremantle cottage to shortly enter your more primitive but better abode. This home has no messy desk, no laundry, no bills and, most of the time, no telephone coverage.
So much of every part of the holiday is soaked in familiarity. Do you remember the year I nearly fell off my chair onto the Dugite? What about the time Vinnie cracked his helmet smashing into the wall as he stacked his bike? And when Jasper caught his finger in the flywire door? Each year melds with the former so it can no longer be recalled what year it was and who was there. That time we stayed in the back row, with Troy and Jo and the boys were babies. Remember when we showed the Nordic Anja the flickering of the orbiting satellites. She had never seen a sky so black, so unaffected by city light. There is the routine of arriving at the ferry terminal early enough for someone to unload the plastic containers full of belongings and beach gear and still have time enough to drive home again and return riding their push bike, into the head wind, with the semis roaring by. This year Jasper is old enough to do the bike run too.
There must be enough time to sweet talk the ferry men into the delivery of the-above-allowable-safe-lifting-weight beach wheelchair in its bag. They have not denied me thus far.
Once arrived at the island there is the picking up of the key from the accommodation office. Invariably the unit is not ready, but they have taken to texting you when it is, and so we just go to the bakery to wait. Here donuts are bought. Not because they are especially good. It’s just what we do. Energy for the hill. Is the peacock that frightened Jasper as a baby still alive doing its dance? The seagulls that live around the settlement are the most brazen and will snatch a chip right out of your hand just as you are about to put it in your mouth. But this year I have learnt that seagulls mate for life, and some how knowing this makes me feel kinder towards them. Somehow I notice that they are in pairs when I have never seen this before. Before I thought of them as flying rats. Me; older, softer.
There is the ascent to climb on the way to the Longreach. The kids race off, well ahead on their geared bikes. No one is pushing a pram, or hauling a trolley with little ones. The way is known to the boys. Past the Police station, the nursing post, the oval, the Basin. This year I am walking alone to the chalet. I have a heavy load of extras under the chair and a bag on my lap. But it is not super hot and who is in a hurry anyway. The odd moth-balled quokka is about attracting the odd tourist who squats in front with a camera. To the boys the sight of a quokka is no more interesting than that of a seagull. The new attraction is freedom. Ahead of the parents. Gone.
The oval is dry, the grass cracking, and the sign still says the water used to reticulate the grass is unsuitable for drinking. The potholes in the bitumen remain.
The hill to Longreach is my test. One day I will falter here. One day I will not have the steam to make it up unaided. For now it is doable. Tough if it is hot and the chair is loaded. But still. Flies make a nuisance of themselves when my hands are too busy pushing to shoo them away. At least the glasses keep them from the corners of my eyes. I am slow enough to look up and see the windmill and marvel that its spinning is providing the island with its energy. A large black skink, like an expensive sunglass case, slithers through the scrub. I love the whoosh whoosh of the giant windmill blades as they rotate. They give the wind muscle. Cyclists whizz past going down hill, wind-smiles on their faces. I look at the bitumen as they pass, think about how sweet it might be to stroll up the hill, taking step after step in soft leather sandals, then put my head down and keep pushing.
Then the familiar Longreach Bay comes into view. It has a large section of light blue water where there is no weed. We call it the Big Blue. Yachts are anchored to moorings around the edge of the blue, but it is mid-week and there are only a few. The moorings are familiar too. There are ones that we swim out to as a test. There are ones that we have swum to and then whilst treading water in the deep we have gasped as beneath us the dark shadow of a stingray swims by. There is a descent now to the front row of Longreach chalets. I can get some speed up. I get my own wind-grin. Still the others will have been there a good fifteen minutes already. They will have brought the luggage inside. They will have chosen their beds, checked the fridge is filled with the groceries delivered by the shop and rearranged the kitchen table. Graham will have disconnected the tv and faced it, like a naughty child, into the corner. Single-handedly he will have manoeuvred the couch out onto the verandah and faced it towards the Big Blue. We always strung a hammock, but since a child died when a pillar collapsed, the authority that runs the island has banned this. On this holiday a worker erects a sign on the balcony saying maximum capacity of nine persons. Graham will have set up the sound system and might even be flopped on the couch with his feet up.
When I arrive the boys will have their shoes off. They will be jumping on the bed, climbing the door jambs Spiderman-style and exiting through the windows of the front bedroom. They will have scattered the cork tile floor with their belongings. Already Hot Wheels will be lost in the far reaches under the beds. It will have taken only a moment for them to turn feral. From now on they will sleep in beds full of sand, with black feet and salt-encrusted hair. They will wear the same boardies and t-shirts for days. They will reluctantly put on sun-screen and a hat. They will joyously travel to the shop several times a day for whatever it is the adults need, just in case they can wing an ice-cream or a sweet lolly.
Sometimes there will be a surprise in the chalet like a new coat of paint. This year there is a photograph of a sunset at The Basin adorning the wall.
Otherwise it is like returning to your own home. Few things are different. They have decided to give you more dishwashing liquid, but anyway I bring my own. The scrubber is still crap. Don’t worry I bring that too. The single tea towel is still inadequate. I have several. They have dispensed with the enormous stainless steel pot big enough to boil a whole crayfish. Shame. They still only give you one roll of toilet paper. Tight. Over the years the beds and pillows have improved but we still bring our own foam eggshell and our latex pillows. Because that’s the thing about Rottnest. It is a little bit of home. For the people who go there regularly, it is just an extension of chez-moi. We have friends who take their own elaborate coffee makers and their Thermomix. They make sure everything is just so. Someone might have the ritual of tying a red ribbon to their gate latch for the littlies to know which is their chalet. Someone else might set up a table for cards or scrabble or jigsaw puzzles. Someone might set up a sun shade on the beach and leave it flapping there all week, like they own a bit of Longreach.
You know it so well that you recognise the sound of the closing of the yard gate. It has made a groove in the sound memory of your mind. You know that at night the bathroom door will bang softly, but loudly and consistently enough to keep you awake if you don’t stopper it with folded cardboard. You know the sound of the metal latch on the front door, designed to stop it slamming shut in the afternoon gusts. You know which bay will be most sheltered for the direction the wind is blowing. You know one day one kid will be sunburnt and another will fall off his bike. You know that ice cream will make it better and it will come from the freezer so cold that you can’t scoop it out with a spoon unless you boil the kettle and warm the spoon first. Note to self – next year bring the Zyliss ice cream scoop. When one boy has forgotten a toothbrush and he is sent to the shop to buy one he returns with a toothbrush so old-fashioned that it reminds you of your own childhood. It has a handle of a single colour. It has no grip for your thumb. No knobs to scrape your tongue. It has no fancy bristles of different lengths or fading colours to massage your gums. It reminds you of when the Colgate toothpaste tubes were metal and to squeeze them in the centre got your Dad riled. It reminds you of communal bathrooms in caravan parks where your mother made you wear your thongs in the shower incase you caught something off the concrete. It is the simplest of brushes. He tells you that that is all the shop had in the way of tooth brushes. Nothing fancy.