Stepping onto the beach, Ella heads away from the clustered families and out towards the steep, curving headland. Large boulders stand like shipwrecked hulls at the shoreline. Rocks tower above her, abrupt mountains. Stopping a moment, strangling a moan, Ella stands against the edge of the rock face wishing that it would crack apart and crumble upon her, an enveloping landslide of rubble, flinty and sharp, to cover her and smother all her fury.
Ella hates them all today. She hates her father, back at the restaurant, for his carelessness and his blatant disinterest. She hates Alice for her endless serenity, her acceptance of all things, and her unflagging devotion to the little ones. She hates them, those small round-faced half-siblings, for their upturned smiles and painless innocence. And she hates her father’s friends, so oblivious, sipping their French imported wine, asking her about Billy Idol as though she’s just a stupid kid.
A large black seabird flies down and lands near Ella on a rock. She thinks then of finding a dark crevice, a cave, and hiding inside. Clambering through the boulders, Ella swipes tears. They all think she’s either demanding, irresponsible, neurotic or stupidly consumed by death. Is this her? She hates herself this way. Fallen trees hang from the high rock of the headland, dry and grey, capsized and askew; absurd, as though they have dropped dead suddenly, their arms outstretched with longing. Ella averts her eyes, looking down instead. There are sliding tunnels between the boulders, worn smooth by the surging waves. She stops and shimmies inside. She runs her palm along the polished surface, imagining moving through the tunnel at high speed when the water has risen and it is dark with night. Ella pictures the tide coming up, covering all the rocks, the waves crashing against the headland. In her mind there is no beach, just water, and she thinks of swimming without breath beneath the roaring ocean, sliding among these smooth runways. She imagines her body, lifeless, propelled by the force of the sea, and slowly she is soothed.
In the restaurant there is panic.
“When did she go? What did she say?”
“She was mad, remember?”
“But she said she was going to thetoilet, right?”
“Yeah, but how long ago was that?”
“I don’t know. Ages. Fuck, where is she? Fuck.”
The detritus of a long lunch is strewn across the table.
“Come on, we’ll all look. You two check the beach, we’ll check out the back.”
Rushing down to the shoreline, Ella’s father and Alice scan for her form. There is no one, and they scurry back to the restaurant, flustered. Their friends scout along the headland, and her father and Alice drive into town, peeking into cafes and shops and asking people if they’ve seen her.
“She’s about this tall,” her father says, his hand trembling as he holds it up to Alice’s shoulder, “Beautiful, with blondish hair. Fifteen. She was in black, wasn’t she, Alice?”
Nodding her head, Alice lifts a hand to her forehead.
“She has no shoes,” her father adds. “She left her shoes in the restaurant. She’s barefoot.”
Alice cries then, tiny tears that creep from the edges of her eyes.
No one has seen her.
Ella’s father’s friends meet them back at the restaurant, empty-handed and quiet, unspeakable fears lingering between them all in the dazzling summer light.
Climbing through rock pools, grazed knuckles and knees, the wide expanse of shoreline opens before her. Ella observes the strangely comical seagull tracks, and then she runs, a sprinting dash, and she knows that she won’t go back to the restaurant. Running until she has no breath, she slows and drags her feet in the sand. Hot and sweating, she strides up a track to the grassy roadside, looking about for a tap. A little way along, finding beach showers, she drinks deeply from the small coppery faucet. Ella’s father says you can learn to love yourself just as much as you hate yourself. That the line is very fine, that you just have to click and practise. She is trying. She thinks then of leaving town and walking home, and sets off shoeless and hatless in the melting sun.
They drive to the police station, shaking and afraid, and the policeman takes half an hour to get down the details.
“Well, she’s been reported now, sir. It’s only been a few hours she’s been missing, right? In my experience she’ll just turn up, you know, in a bit.”
“What the fuck is a bit?” Ella’s father hisses, but the policeman does not flinch. He’s seen it all before.
“She’s vulnerable,” he adds, haltingly. “Delicate.”
They had relaxed at lunch, drank too much. Dropped their surveillance.
“What should we do?” Alice asks. “What’s the best we can do?”
“Go home and wait for her to call. Give her a bit of time, then we’ll start a full-scale search. That’s the procedure.”
“You don’t think we should keep looking in town?” Alice says, reaching out an arm to Ella’s father. “She doesn’t even have change for a payphone.”
“If she doesn’t want to be found, you won’t find her. If you don’t go home, she won’t be able to contact you when she wants to come home.”
“Right, but we live so far from here,” Ella’s father says, shaking off Alice’s touch. “Fuck, where would she go?”
The cars speed by and, averting her puffy face from the road, Ella trudges on, the soles of her feet stinging from the bitumen. It is 40 kilometres home, but Ella knows she can do it. She walks along the grassy roadside to spare her feet, and when her soles feel better, she steps onto the road and runs, fast and hard, as the cars race by. After a while she feels lighter and time slips on. She is trying. Picking roadside flowers, Ella notices the sun lowering in the sky. It is late, and her father and Alice would have finished lunch. Ella wonders if they miss her yet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Swimming without breath".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription