We met at the jetty as we did when we were kids—Meetcha at the jetty afta school—and as we hugged and laughed and introduced our partners, a seal came into the shallows.
‘It’s an omen,’ I cried like a kid as we ran onto the beach.
It was so close we could have waded into the water and touched it. Again it dived and when it surfaced it had a fish in its mouth—surely a good sign for renewing a friendship after more than fifty years.
Some weeks before, I’d answered the phone to a stranger’s voice, a rosy pink voice with a deep gurgle of laughter in the undertones.
I often see colour in voices on the phone. My accountant is a boxy kind of blue. The wisp of Polish that clings to my husband’s ‘th’ sounds, translates into an exotic green. A bubbly friend is an effervescent orange.
To my surprise, the rosy pink tones belonged to Jean, my best friend from childhood. We’d last seen each other when we were ten-year-old girls.
Jean had recently read The Lost Child and she’d heard I was returning to the tiny fishing village where we grew up to speak to the local book club. Although she now lived more than three thousand kilometres away on the far west coast of Australia, she offered to fly over to meet up again.
‘You were my inspiration for Lizzie,’ I told her with the guilt of the writer who’d pillaged another’s life and never expected to have to answer for her crimes. ‘But she’s nothing like you,’ I assured her. ‘I had to make Lizzie a foil for Sylvie. She’s entirely fictional.’
‘I have a very thick skin,’ laughed Jean.
We talked for more than an hour that day, jumping from topic to topic. Are you married? Who did you marry? What did you do when you left school? What happened to your brother? What about Jackie? Colleen?
I said I remembered her mother with gratitude for the kindness she’d shown my mother during her divorce and nervous breakdowns.
When we met up again in our home town, we continued talking. We talked until we were hoarse. In between, we laughed and laughed.
By nature I’m dark with a wry sense of humour; I see hurt and sorrow before I see anything else. Jean sees life in lighter shades and has a gloriously infectious laugh. She is the sun to my moon.
I now wonder if Jean’s laughter helped me through the strange childhood that I’ve written about in my novel.
Over the following days, we walked to the end of the jetty that spears into our beautiful bay. We walked along the saucer of sand that cups our little town, and we walked over the dunes to the wild ocean beaches beyond.
In the street where we’d once lived, we saw how little our childhood homes had changed. And we reminisced about the time we had measles together and how, because my mother worked, I’d spent days with Jean in her bed, playing with our dolls, reading comics, cutting and pasting and colouring in.
And Jean told me of the terror she’d felt on the night she looked from her bedroom window and saw our house engulfed in leaping flames. She said she’d sobbed because she feared I was in the burning house, the house my father torched after my parents’ bitter divorce.
I felt humbled by her distress. I wondered if we ever really know how deeply we affect each other’s lives. How we live on in the hearts of people we’ve touched, and they in ours, without ever understanding the true significance.
The lagoon where we’d once poled rafts and built forts was now a sculpture park. As we wandered from sculpture to sculpture, Jean told me that several of her friends had expressed doubts about our meeting.
What if you’ve got nothing to talk about? they’d said.
We convulsed with laughter. We’d talked so much I’d almost lost my voice. Partners and marriage. Children and grandchildren. Life’s ups and downs. Our loves and losses. And always Jean’s laughter; it lifted me up, it was such a joy. I said: ‘Do you think we laughed like this as kids?’
Jean couldn’t remember but she said one of her brothers used to call us a couple of giggling gerties so perhaps laughter had always been her gift.
I looked back at my old home, half-hidden under a kurrajong tree and, as is my way, I returned to the sadness of my mother’s life.
Jean demurred. She said that she and her mother would often hear my mother singing as she hung the washing on the line.
‘Singing?’ I had no memory of her even humming a tune. Depressed, yes. Sunken into her own silent world, yes. But singing?
Jean insisted. ‘She used to sing Mockingbird Hill at the top of her voice. Mum would stop what she was doing and listen. She’d say: Mavis is alright today.’
I felt tears choking my throat. ‘When my grandson was young, I used to sing him that song as I pushed him on his swing.’ I had remembered after all.
After three days together, Jean returned to her home in the west and I drove east to Melbourne.
The whole way home, I could hear my mother singing. I still do. Her voice is a joyous egg-yolk yellow, anchored in those moments of reaching and pegging, waiting with courage and hope.
Her singing gives me hope.
Jean and I speak on the phone every few weeks. I carry the joy of her laughter with me for days; she reminds me of what really matters in life. Love. Family. Friendship.
The Druid Animal Oracle tells me the seal is a symbol of love and healing.