It’s one of those Adelaide days when the sky seems to be coloured with crayon: a deep blue that stretches overhead seemingly endlessly. No shading into paler colour or cotton-white clouds. Just a swathe of burning blue, backlit gold.
We are sitting on the grass between the Esplanade and Semaphore Beach, hunched over our parcel of gluten-free chips to protect it from the squawking seagulls that surround us. I look at my husband, wincing in the blue light as he eats his chips. His long, lean body, folded on the lawn, is clad in a fitted red flannel shirt and black jeans.
On the train today, I shook my head at a twentysomething girl in a daisy-patterned sleeveless playsuit. She’s going to be cold. But though the weather forecast reads 24 degrees, it’s hot under the sun.
I wait for a cluster of dogs to finish drinking, then fill my water bottle at the fountain near the miniature railway. I opt for the slow arc of water rather than use the tap positioned over a trough, in case the tap water is recycled.
‘It might be, for the dogs,’ I say to Luke, and he nods amiably, though as the words leave my mouth, I realise they are ridiculous.
On the beach, a distant man is doing push-ups while a young woman cheers him on, her black hair blowing behind her as she claps and shouts. A small blond boy in a red bucket hat walks past with his parents; he goes to touch the push-ups man, but then backs away, retrieving his hand from an inch above the man’s bare back. The black-haired woman laughs. The man continues his push-ups.
The flat sea is seeded with boats, arranged as if for an invasion. The shore is thick with brown tangles of seaweed. A man pushes a kayak towards the water, patiently unwinding brown strands from the red-painted boat as he goes.
I ask Luke to sit on a bale of seaweed for a photograph; in his plaid, he looks like a sea-farmer. He smiles at the lens of my phone, patient with an edge of wariness, then comes to fold me into his side again as we walk.
I am carrying a handbag, holding the book I am reading and the book I impulsively borrowed from Semaphore Library when I went in to use the toilets, while Luke was waiting for our chips at Soto’s across the road. And a cloth bag, with a voluminous cashmere scarf (in case of cold), my drink bottle and a muesli bar and almonds (in case of hunger). And a second cloth bag, holding the five items of clothing I bought from my favourite op-shop, Trashville, on Semaphore Rd.
Luke offered up this trip – an impulsive gift – last weekend, when I said something about missing the beach.
Today, we woke just before 12, after a night binge-watching the final season of The Office until midnight.
‘Too late,’ I said sadly, burrowed against him under the sheets, preparing to go back to sleep. ‘We’ll have to do it another day.’
‘It’s not too late,’ he said. ‘Why is it too late?’
He got up and returned damp-haired, wrapped in a towel. While I showered, dressed and packed my bags, he made me coffee and washed last night’s dishes.
At the entrance to Trashville, I ask Luke if he wants to come in, or if he’d rather go to the record shop next-door.
‘I’ll see you in there when you’re done,’ he says, and kisses me goodbye.
A woman on the verandah of the vintage shop, browsing a rack of clothing, meets my eyes and laughs. A toddler perches on her hip.
‘We just had that conversation,’ she says, shifting her hip. ‘My husband’s in there now.’
I remember when I argued that we should keep stocking records at Readings Doncaster, in the sliver of time I managed the shop, because I thought it attracted couples who might otherwise not have spent time in there. I’d seen men amiably flip through the records while their partners peeled off and browsed the bookshelves. Sometimes (not often), they even bought a record.
I liked having the records there, too.
When Luke visited Melbourne, that one time, before I moved to Adelaide, I brought home a Radio Birdman record as an impulse gift for him.
‘You’re in love,’ said Giselle as she rang the gift through the register for me.
‘I am not!’
But of course, I was. Technically, we were on our fifth date. Which seemed too soon.
It’s Giselle’s birthday today. I wrote her a Facebook message from bed this morning, while Luke was in the shower.
Further down Semaphore Road, at the pubs and the newsagent and the library, the grassed strip in the middle of the road is colonised by picnickers, who seem to have overflowed from the footpaths. Outside Foodland, a man in shorts and sneakers strums an acoustic guitar and sings ‘Heart of Gold’, an upturned hat at his feet.
I try not to do it, but I can’t help it.
‘I remember sitting at that window, texting you,’ I say, pointing to the beige brick apartment block across the road. Luke follows my eyes dutifully, then kisses me. The kiss is not dutiful.
I have pointed this out many times before, at this spot. But memory demands I do it again, every time.
Technically, I was messaging him on Tinder, not texting. But that sounds too transactional, too distant and precarious an activity. Nothing is real on Tinder, until it leaves the world of the app.
Here, at this beach, on this stretch of bitumen and the stretch of sand and sea at the bottom of the road, I fell in love with the idea of returning to Adelaide, some day in the not-too-distant future.
And then I met Luke, in real life, two days after I moved from my holiday flat into Mum’s ‘good’ lounge room, my suitcase permanently open next to the sofa bed, waiting for my train ride home.
He looked up from the front bar of the Exeter as I came in, wearing the red polka-dot skirt I’d bought from Trashville, my hair hastily braided to one side. I was going home to Melbourne in two days, and had been racing to finish proofreading a manuscript. Mum drove me to an Express Post box to mail it, then dropped me into town. I hadn’t had time to make an effort.
Luke was wearing a red plaid shirt (the same pattern as the one he’s wearing today, only thin cotton), short sleeves curled in a careful roll at each side. Black jeans, Converse sneakers. Close-cropped hair, closer than I usually liked. He looked ahead, his face set. I took another step towards the bar. Then he raised his head and saw me; his face broke into a smile like a sunrise. He stood, kissed my cheek, sat down. Within minutes, we were joking together, riffing off each other as we ordered another drink, then went upstairs for Wednesday curry night, where Luke ordered a dinner that – I later learned – might have given him an allergic reaction. (When you can’t eat garlic, onion or chilli, ordering a curry is a decidedly risky move.)
In the morning, Luke ordered coffee to be delivered to his door by UberEats, which I thought was the height of sophistication.
I missed my train home, and texted Luke to tell him I was in town for two more days. He said he was free Saturday night. When I got to his house, I could see that he’d cleaned it for my visit.
A week after I arrived back in Melbourne, I rode my bike from my Footscray flat overlooking the river and the docks, to Williamstown beach, with a book and a towel. And for the first time, it felt like not enough. The strip of sand too narrow and brown, the crowds too thick, the bay too squat. The sky not blue enough.
I keep telling this story, over and again, because I can’t quite believe it’s true.
Walking down Semaphore beach, towards Largs – where I lived when I moved to Adelaide; where Luke and I had our wedding reception a month ago – I look between the sea and Luke’s face, silhouetted against the burning blue sky. The dark hair he wears long because I like it, the fledgling beard he lets grow until it itches too much (because I like it), the silver flecks he no longer dyes black (because I like them, too).
I take his left hand and finger his rose-gold ring, matching mine. I put it to my lips, and he smiles.
‘Are you really mine?’ I ask.
Luke waits outside the toilet block at Largs jetty with my three bags. A woman and her two kids are in the other cubicles. I don’t see them, but their voices float to the ceiling above the open doors. One girl complains that her dad is embarrassing.
‘You’re lucky to have him as your dad,’ says the mum. ‘He’s fun. At least your dad’s not boring.’
‘Most people play video games,’ says the other girl, in a comment that may or may not be connected to this. ‘But our family plays board games.’ Her tone does not endorse this state of affairs.
I wash my hands slowly. I like this family, and half-wish I could linger to hear what they’ll say next.
In the kiosk, I buy a one-scoop cone of banana ice-cream, and Luke chooses a raspberry icy pole. Outside the door, facing the playground, a woman sits behind a table covered in hand-made earrings and dreamcatchers.
‘Where do you want to sit?’ asks Luke.
I look at the wooden tables and benches under umbrellas, which are all full. Two years ago, I sat at one of these tables with Dad, after we’d traced the journey he used to make with his mother every Sunday, walking from Semaphore to this spot, where they always finished with an ice-cream. I had been messaging Luke on Tinder for a few days then. I’d had my sister and nieces for a sleepover in my holiday flat, walked the beach every day, luxuriated in the intensity of the Adelaide summer sky. I told Dad I was thinking I might move back to Adelaide, probably in a year’s time.
‘I think I want to live here,’ I said, meaning Adelaide, but also this stretch of sea and sand.
‘You might think you do,’ said Dad. ‘But you probably don’t. You’ve lived in Melbourne for a long time. Your life is there.’
I knew he was wrong, that it was time for a change. But I didn’t know how soon that would come. I didn’t know I would marry the man I’d just asked to have a drink with me, and that on our wedding night, we’d stay in the hotel across the road from where Dad and I crunched into our ice-cream cones.
‘Let’s sit under a tree,’ I say to Luke, and we sprawl on the grass beside the kiosk.
At the train station, we sit on a bench painted lumpy purple, on uneven bitumen. Across the road, a vine voluptuous with magenta flowers lolls over a galvanised iron back fence.
‘Would you say I’m a summer girl?’ I ask, turning my face to the sun.
‘And that you’re a winter boy?’
‘And yet, we’re together,’ I say. ‘And we match perfectly. Isn’t that strange?’