On the other side of the country, author Robert Drewe encountered a piece of history that was very close to home.
The journey: Sydney to Broome
The year: 1999
I arrived in Broome at the start of the monsoon season, taking a break after finishing my memoir, The Shark Net. Tired after the flight from Sydney, I sought
a coffee at Mangrove Point on Roebuck Bay. Pearling luggers used to shelter here while shrewd operators sold stolen pearls. From the café, the horizontal slashes of red pindan earth, green mangroves, white sand, turquoise sea and cobalt sky, framed by the café’s verandah and roof columns, suggested the flag of some passionate tropical nation.
As did the turbulent epitaphs in the tiny cemetery nearby. Here lay Police Inspector Herbert Thomas, who “quelled the racial riots of 1920” but collapsed and died after saving the town. Here were remembered many seamen simply “lost at sea”. And 105 refugees from the Dutch East Indies, machine-gunned by Japanese Zero fighter planes in 1942 while waiting for their flying boats to take off for the safety of Perth.
So fascinated was I that I almost missed a simpler gravestone. In Loving Memory of Richard Cornelius Male. Passed Away 17 November, 1962. Aged 17 Years.
The gravestone didn’t say so but Richard Male had drowned. I knew this because I was with Richie that Saturday at Perth’s Cottesloe Beach, 2000 kilometres south. I’d just relived his drowning in The Shark Net.
I stood stunned. I’d attended Richie’s funeral and presumed he was buried in Perth. No. He’d died in the sea and his father, the pearling master Sam Male, had brought him home and buried him by the sea.
A pearler’s life was a risky one but who would have foreseen the tragic irony of the pearling industry’s youngest son drowning on a suburban beach?
That afternoon, 37 years earlier, we five teenagers were bodysurfing on a reef we called The Slimy and the dumping surf was churning with kelp. To get a grip, you had to thrust your feet into the swirling mess and find a crevice with your toes. Who knew what was down there? Buffeted by churning weed, we found it hard to catch waves ashore.
Then three older surfers on plywood longboards began dropping in on us. Those knife-nosed monsters could slice right into you. One by one, we gave up and staggered ashore. I thought I was the last to reach the beach. A line of straggling figures was trudging home along the shoreline. I headed back, too.
Monday’s paper said: “Student Drowns at Cottesloe.” Richie’s body, shrouded in kelp, had washed ashore on Sunday.
Now I stood by his grave, wondering yet again if I’d had any inkling he was in trouble. Could I have prevented it?
A breeze rippled across Roebuck Bay. The she-oaks whispered like graveyard trees in a movie, except the tropical sun shone defiantly through them. I must say it was a most heroic view, looking out on the world and the centuries, across the timeless bay.
His new collection of short stories, The True Colour of the Sea, is out now.