A couple of years ago, a friend and I spent five days camping on these isolated cliffs about a thousand kilometres from where we live. We spent the time fishing and swimming and sitting in this big cave on the beach. Each sunset we’d drink beers in our cave. Then I’d cook tea on the gas stove, we’d eat and finish the day with wine. One night a small kangaroo came into the campsite and we fed it lettuce from our hands.
Steve and I had been friends for more than 20 years. We had worked together, lived together for two years and travelled to Europe and Asia. Now he was getting scared of things, talked too much about doctors and specialists, anxiety attacks. When we fished he would no longer come to the cliffs with me but prefer the beach even when he knew the chances of catching something were less.
When I climbed down the short rocky cliff face into the cave, he went down a sandy path and then walked around from the beach. It was sad to watch because he is not old or unfit. He’s just become scared of stuff, unnameable, ill defined but real like a toothache. I made a promise to myself never to get scared like that but I also knew that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes life breaks you and there is nothing you can do about it.
On the last day we went out to the end of a rocky point to watch the surfers. I climbed to the top of the tall scythe of rocky cliff that pointed out to sea. On the way I frightened some kangaroos escaping the mid-morning heat under some low trees. Then we packed up and headed south again. We’d promised ourselves to stop at beach we’d spotted on the way in a few days before, just on the off chance that the fishing might be good. But the water was shallow and the bottom mainly rocks and reef.
The tide was coming in and waves were pushing up under the low cliffs we were standing on. Broken coral, rocks and shells were being bustled up and back by the surging water. I walked a few metres then stopped when something dark caught my eyes in the sand below. A cowrie shell, still intact was sitting shimmering in a momentary lull in the tide’s relentless attack on the cliff.
I found a point midway down the cliff where I could get enough footing to launch myself safely into the water below. But the shell had disappeared already. Under the cliff there was a narrow strip of sand where all the detritus of the reef was being tumbled together, broken and scratched. I searched for the shell for about five minutes and had nearly given up when I found it resting high and dry under a low ledge.
I held it in my hand. It was old and its colours had run together like wet paint, blacks and greys and white. A few dots of the original pattern still clung to the bottom edges. One side had been scratched of any pattern at all. That shell was a survivor though. The air was hot and the sea raced up around my legs filling my shoes with sand. Except for swimming, I had not bathed for 5 days. I was brown, my hair stiff with salt. There was salt too on my lips and in my mouth. I held the shell. I looked for Steve but the cliff top was empty. I stared down at the shell then out to sea again.
The shape of the cowrie in my hand started to become the only sensation. Then gradually I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be; this moment, this piece of the earth, this age, this friend, this me. And the shell was sent there to remind me that I was alive. And there was nothing to be scared of. I felt happy.
When I climbed back up my friend handed me a pile of shells he had found further along the beach. I noticed his hand shake slightly.
“Did you find anything down there?” he asked.
I slipped the shell in my pocket. There are some things men don’t talk to each other about. “Nah, nothing, mate. Just broken stuff.”