Memories and Dreams
I remember thinking how cute Elsie looked that morning with her new sun hat and zinc streaked across her nose. She was just on five and the youngest of us kids.
I’d overheard a mother say they’re cute until they lose their baby teeth. Elsie still had hers while mine were at that awkward in-between stage – a mix of big and baby teeth between gaping holes. So she looked really cute but was behaving like a monster. I remember thinking she shouldn’t be allowed to come.
It was the end of summer and the end of something else, but I didn’t know what. Mum had recently gone back to work, so the holidays belonged to us. As long as we stuck together. When she said this I imagined the four of us shoulder to shoulder, walking down the street, people parting to make way for us – the four kids stuck together. Me and Elsie in the middle, Tom and Zack either side.
Tom was the oldest, thirteen and my favourite. He had recently developed a devil-may-care air and, with his newfound freedom, had come to the sudden realization he could go anywhere in the world as long as he was home by seven. Even as he took the money for the tram fare and appeared to listen to Mum’s directions, I could see he was planning something else entirely.
An adventure, was how he pitched it to us.
I was keen, and Elsie didn’t get a say. That left Zack. I could see Tom changing, becoming less and less interested in our old games. Any day now we might become a burden and I was desperate for that not to happen. I silently pleaded with Zack to agree, giving Tom no reason to forsake us.
We didn’t buy a train ticket for Elsie. Instead Tom told her to say she was three. Elsie didn’t want to ride the train, and she didn’t want to lie about her age either. Tom told her we were going to a mermaid beach, far away where the trams didn’t go. He described how they sat on the rocks, combing their hair, water lapping at their tails. I almost believed him, until he gave me a conspiratorial wink.
We rode out of the city toward the beachside suburbs. None of us paid any attention to the time, or gave much thought to the stations we passed. I remembered one that said Bonbeach because it reminded me of bonbons, but no-one else remembered that. We were all sure we went over a bridge and then Zack read a sign that said Eel Race Road soon after, and although we all thought the name funny at the time, later none of us could remember it. We got off soon after – maybe the next stop or the one after that. We didn’t take any notice. We didn’t think it mattered.
I often dream about that beach.
We sat near a couple. She was wearing half a string bikini and he wouldn’t leave her alone. Tom kept looking over and I thought maybe he chose this spot for that reason. To look at the girl in half a string bikini. To look at the half that was missing. I remember thinking about unrequited love – how would that go in Heaven? I almost asked Tom but he was eyeing string bikini. It seemed an inappropriate question at the time. I remember thinking that’s what growing up is all about, losing baby teeth and learning the right time to ask questions. It made me happy to know that Elsie didn’t have these complexities in her life. Elsie still believed in the tooth fairy.
She looked over at the rocks. ‘Do you think we’ll see mermaids?’ she asked.
‘I’m sure of it,’ Tom replied.
And the look on Elsie’s face. I’ll never forget that. That look of complete trust and absolute belief. The excitement of possibility. I remember feeling sad, wistful at the realization I would never be that young again. I think I even resented Elsie for a moment. Blamed her for my realization. For my in-between stage.
Tom and Zack and I had been close before Elsie came along. Then, I guess, because we were both girls and the youngest, we were paired off together forever after.
I missed the fun I used to have with the boys. Tom more specifically. Zack and I still played but there was something missing. Like someone went off to the toilet and we were just carrying on until they got back. We drifted in and out of games that never really began or ended. Zack must have missed Tom too. He was growing up fast and I imagined him like Major Tom in the David Bowie song – his favourite at the time. He had explained the lyrics to me in the car only days before. Mum and Dad hadn’t even known what it was about. Suddenly Tom was a guru, in a space suit, drifting away.
Elsie set up shop on the beach selling shells and seaweed, but none of us felt like being customers. She tried making sandcastles but either the sand was too dry and wouldn’t hold its shape, or was too wet and got stuck in the bucket. No-one thought to show her the right way. When she asked me to go in the water with her I complained it was too cold. I sat at the edge while she waded between the shore and a sandbar. She wasn’t allowed any further than that. I was careful to watch her because Mum had warned us about shifting sand and grown men being carried out to sea.
‘It’s really warm,’ Elsie said, trying to entice me in. I knew it was, but not a nice warm. More like warm from the wee of a thousand little kids. Littler than me anyway, because I’d learned to wee further out. I remembered to reapply Elsie’s sunscreen when she got out too.
‘You know Elsie will tell Mum she didn’t get to ride on a tram,’ Zack said. And for a moment Tom’s devil-may-care attitude was tested.
‘We’ll ride one home from the city,’ he said.
Elsie didn’t want to walk along the pier. She was scared of the gaps between the wood, scared she’d fall between them. After a lengthy explanation and several demonstrations, she was unconvinced.
‘Well then, you stay here,’ Tom said. ‘If you don’t want to come, you have to stay right here until we get back.’ And she did.
Once Zack asked, ‘Has anyone seen Elsie?’ and we all turned to look until one of us saw her head bobbing up and down. And once Tom said he saw her chasing the seagulls away. And there was another time when I thought I would tell her I’d seen a mermaid riding a seahorse, so she would want to come next time. And I checked to see that she was still there. And for a moment I wanted her here, to share my imaginary underwater world. Then Tom called and I forgot all about it. I remember that now.
There was a man fishing off the end. He reeled one in and let it flop around on the pier until it stopped. I didn‘t want to see its struggle, but I couldn’t turn away. I thought somehow, if I knew its struggle, then it didn’t die alone.
I remember thinking I was lucky to have Elsie. That, because we would all die in order of age, I would at least have her. While she, poor thing, would live and die alone once I was gone. I was pleased she hadn’t seen the fish. That she was too scared to walk on the pier in case she fell through the holes.
Years later I dreamt she was still there, waiting for us, all that time. I often dream about that day at the beach. But only once that she was still there, just waiting.
We left about four-thirty. At least I thought it was about then, but none of us had a watch. Now I think it was more like five-thirty, even six. We wandered down the main street a little, looking for an ice-cream shop. Elsie saw a toffee apple and wanted that instead. She took a few bites and said she thought a tooth was wobbly and could she have an ice-cream instead. The apple fell off and I thought she would cry but then Tom pulled a coin from behind her ear and Elsie forgot about her rotten apple. I only remembered that the other day. We heard music start up and followed it to a carnival.
It was easy to forget about Elsie after that, except for one moment at the Ferris wheel. She had looked up with such wonder that I wished for a moment we were both the same age. That we could both imagine a world at the top like a land in the clouds above the Faraway Tree. Tom wanted to try the Mad Mouse. We didn’t have enough to go on two rides. I wavered for a minute – the Ferris wheel with Elsie or a rollercoaster with the boys. I think I wanted to go on the Ferris wheel but the distance I felt between me and Elsie seemed to bridge the gap between me and the boys. So I chose the Mad Mouse.
Tom was about to pay for the ride when Zack saw the time. It was almost six thirty. Tom’s devil-may-care air was tested again.
‘A little bit late, that’s all we’ll be,’ he said, and handed over the money.
We hurried our step, only to find Elsie wasn’t behind us. She was mesmerized by a display of Kewpie dolls.
‘Please can I have one?’ she begged Tom.
He had two dollars left, enough for twelve shots at the ducks in the shooting gallery. The boys took turns. Zack got the most but it wasn’t enough to win the doll, just a crappy old flag that unfurled when you shook the stick. Even at five Elsie could tell she was getting a raw deal. Then Zack did something completely unlike him – because he felt sorry that Elsie was missing out, he said later. No-one saw him do it. All I saw was him grab Elsie’s hand and start running. Tom was a step behind. The man turned to see me, or rather the look I must have had on my face and the gaping hole where the doll had been, and he reached out a hand to grab my arm. He almost got hold but I windmilled it round and slipped away, racing after the others.
I dreamt about that doll once. That Elsie was going up on the Ferris wheel, just her, holding the stick with the doll on the end in one hand, and the plastic flag flapping in the wind in the other. I waited for her to come down, until the lights went off and everyone went home, and still every chair that came around was empty.
The line was long, and it moved slowly, but Tom was unperturbed. As the daylight slipped away I remember admiring his dedication to this new air. I think Zack did too because he didn’t even bother to check if the man was on our trail. It was contagious. Or maybe we were just pleased to have Tom back. I remember Elsie was trying to wobble her tooth. She couldn’t wait to get her first visit from the tooth fairy. Just before we got on she said to us, ‘Don’t forget to remember me.’ Zack and I both thought it strange she should say that, though neither of us thought to mention it at the time.
When I looked up it seemed to be darker – in that moment it took to strap us in. I think Tom noticed it too.
‘As soon as this stops, we’ll race to the station,’ he said. I remember hoping a train would be there.
The sun disappeared and the carnival lit up. I remember feeling pleased that I’d chosen the rollercoaster. It was just like old times but new and exciting. This is growing up, I remember thinking. And we completely forgot. We forgot to remember.
I didn’t take any notice of the stations or the people on the train. I was aware of them, I just didn’t see them. The thrill of the rollercoaster ride. The mad dash with the train just pulling in. The sound of the whistle and the rhythmic movement of the rocking carriages. We were intoxicated by our first taste of grown up fun. Tom remembered seeing two girls sitting together a few seats up from us, and a guy on his own down the back. But he couldn’t remember when they got on or off or how many stations we passed. Zack couldn’t remember being aware of anything. I didn’t notice anything else. None of us did.
Once I dreamt she tried to get on the train to come home but they wouldn’t let her, because she didn’t have a ticket. She forgot to tell them she was only three.
‘We definitely can’t ride the tram out of the city,’ Tom said, the first to break the spell.
I can’t remember anything after that, except mistaking blind panic for the worst feeling ever. That was before I knew how the worst feeling felt.
Once I dreamt they found her body washed up on the shore. It was a relief to know what had happened. She had no teeth though. I remember finding that the most disturbing thing. Those little baby teeth. And I remember hoping that the tooth fairy gave her lots of money for them in Heaven.