Family outings. What fun! If you think I’m joking, you’re absolutely right! I’m stuck here in the back seat of the car sandwiched between my little brother and little sister. And let me tell you, I’m not the filling in a yummy freshly made chicken salad sandwich, or whatever your favourite happens to be. Oh no, I’m more like the filling in last week’s leftover cheese and Vegemite sandwich that has been left in your school bag for over a week. That’s me. Battered and limp.
My folks thought it would be cool to get me to sit in the middle to stop ‘all hell from breaking loose in the back seat’ – their words. So I’m some sort of unpaid police officer whose job it is to keep my brother and sister from killing each other. And I’ve been very successful, if I say so myself – they are both trying to kill me instead. And they have plenty of time to complete the job, as our car is crawling up the hill so slowly that sometimes I’m not even sure that we are moving at all. We’re towing the boat and our car is a bit of an old bomb. Behind us is this long line of cars, the drivers all swearing at us, I bet. How embarrassing.
Anyway, we eventually arrive at the boatramp and, as we all know, this is when the really fun bits of the day begin. We’ve all got our jobs to do while Dad backs the boat into the water. Meg and Thomas fight over the life-jackets, Mum gets the picnic food together, and I help guide the boat down the ramp.
Next, we sit through what feels like an hour, but is probably only about two minutes, of Dad trying to start the boat – pulling on the starter rope, swearing, getting told off by Mum for swearing; pulling on the starter, swearing, getting told off and so on and on. I’m so glad no-one was on the boat-ramp watching.
Much to my own personal disappointment, the motor does actually start and off we speed to the island where – according to my Dad at least – there is no better place to fish. I’ll admit that I like this bit – the fast, action-packed bit of the day. By action-packed I mean my parents yelling at my little sister to sit down in the boat. Sadly, it starts to fall apart when we stop and Dad gets out the stinking bait, and my little sister gets her fishing line tangled in mine, and I have to listen to my little brother give his non-stop, highly unfunny commentary on each of his catches: ‘And Thomas has got a big one on the line today… and he’s reeling in another big one… the biggest catch of the day is reeled in again by champion fish catcher, Thomas…’
Dad is just so proud of my little brother, whereas he just gets annoyed with Meg and me for tangling our lines and stopping him fishing. It’s Mum’s job to bait up the lines and take the fish off the hooks. Personally, I would’ve used the excuse that I had loads of ironing to do and stayed home. But not my Mum; she actually seems to like playing with stinking fish. When she isn’t busy playing with the fish, she gazes out at the sea, making pathetic comments about the beautiful day, the sparkling sea, the fascinating cloud formations. My Mum really needs to get a life.
Anyway, we get a ton of fish. Dad pulls the boat up onto the island so he can clean the fish (mostly flathead and two squid) while Mum gets the picnic ready. Meg tells Mum she has to wash her hands after touching all those stinking fish. We’re told to go off and explore. I remind my parents that perhaps they’ve forgotten that there is a number 1 in front of the number 2 in my age, and that perhaps I’m a bit too old to really enjoy playing in rockpools and jumping over rocks.
‘Well, look after the little ones, then’, Mum says.
Oh boy! So off I go, following my brother and sister, now the best of friends, from a safe distance. I poke around in a few rockpools, but don’t find anything much to get me excited, just the usual suspects: seaweed, sea anemones, periwinkles, mussles, tiny pathetic little fish. I’ve just sat down on a rock to think about all the things I’d rather be doing – all the things my friends Katie and Ali probably are doing – when I hear Meg shriek. At first I think she must have stumbled across some really interesting, disgusting creature.
‘What is it?’ I ask, momentarily relieved of my boredom.
‘I lost my bracelet.’ Meg is on her hands and knees peering into a narrow channel of water.
‘My birthday bracelet.’
‘The one you got from grandma that used to be her mother’s. That one?’
If it was, things had suddenly turned serious. The gift had been handed over as if it were one of the Crown Jewels, and I suppose it is, sort of – our family’s Crown Jewels. For my tenth birthday I got a necklace from grandma that had been my great grandmother’s. These special gifts came with very loud and clear instructions from our mother that the jewellery was only to be worn on special occasions and had to be kept in a safe place. I didn’t bother to tell my mother that there would be no occasion special enough for me to be seen wearing my grandmother’s necklace, although, just between you and me, I do take it out of the box and admire it every now and again. It is beautiful, a marcasite pendent a bit like a princess might wear to a ball.
Meg’s bracelet is a thick gold band with a heart attached to the safety chain. The heart is inscribed with the name ‘Maggie’ which explains why Meg got it – my sister’s full name is Margaret like her great-grandmother. We argued over whose was the most beautiful piece of jewellery and I still think it’s mine. It has like a thousand tiny pieces of stone and sparkles… Well, it sparkles like the sea, I suppose. Help me, someone! I’m starting to sound like my Mum!
‘Yes, my special bracelet. Can you see it, Zoe? Can you see it down there?’
‘You’re gonna be in the biggest trouble if you’ve lost it, Meg.’ Thomas is enjoying himself.
‘Shut-up, Thomas,’ I say.
‘Yeah, shut-up,’ Meg adds. ‘You’ve got to find it, Zoe.’
Suddenly, it seems that it’s my problem.
‘I dropped it onto the rocks and heard it bounce. I think it went into the water. You’ll have to go in and have a look.’
‘I’ve got to go in? No way! So sorry to disappoint you Meg but there’s no way I’m going in to look for your bracelet. Now, if I had been dumb enough to bring my best jewellery on a fishing trip and had been dumb enough to drop it in the sea, then maybe I’d be dumb enough to jump into that cold, creepy water and get it. No way. Got it? No way!’
At this point, Meg just rolls up into a little ball and starts to blubber. Oh boy.
‘You’ve got to get it, Zoe. You have to get it for Meg.’ Thomas, all of a sudden the little sister’s best friend, has spoken.
‘Me? What about you? I thought you were the Great Ocean Adventurer, going to pilot your deep sea submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Why don’t you go fetch it?’
My little brother is obsessed with everything to do with the bottom of the ocean. Every time there is some show on the telly about the ocean, it’s compulsory viewing for our family. He’s always coming up to me spouting such interesting facts as: Did you know that the tube worms that live on the bottom of the ocean floor feed on sulfur not oxygen? Or did you know that in 1960 the deep sea submersible Trieste made a record-breaking dive to a depth of 35,800 feet in the Mariana Trench?
I have a standard response to these exciting bits of information – don’t know, don’t care – but unfortunately it falls on my brother’s deaf ears. He’s probably got water on the brain, or something. So anyway, I’ve ended up with a head full of useless general knowledge about the bottom of the ocean. For example, I can tell you that the Mariana Trench just happens to be the deepest ocean trench on the planet. It is like the Mount Everest of ocean trenches. Exactly how this piece of useless information is going to benefit me, I’m not sure.
‘Because in a deep sea submersible you don’t get wet,’ Thomas replies.
True. A good point. I can see my little brother isn’t going to budge. He has that stubborn ‘you’re-not-gonna-tell-me-what-to-do-big-sister’ look on his face.
‘Anyway, you’re the oldest.’ If all else fails my brother and sister always retreat to this, their favourite fall-back position. ‘It’s not very cold,’ he adds, reaching down and paddling his fingers in the water. ‘See!’
Yeah sure, I think.
‘You’ve got to do it for Meg.’ At this point, Thomas walks back and squats down next to Meg.
‘Will you Zoe, please?’ Meg’s face is all red and blotchy and is like the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. ‘Can you see it in there?’
We all peer into the water between gushes of waves.
‘I think I see the bracelet,’ Thomas shouts, pointing to something silvery.
‘Be quiet, Mum and Dad will hear,’ whispers Meg, adding, ‘That’s not it. It’s an abalone shell, I think.’
‘Can you get that for me too, Zoe?’
‘Yeah sure, Thomas. Like I’ll have nothing better to do, such as getting out and getting dressed, for example.’
‘I think I can see it.’ Meg shrieks, forgetting to whisper. ‘There it is, Zoe. Please, Zoe, hurry.’ Like the bracelet has just sprouted legs and will soon be scurrying away like a crab, or something!
‘Okay, you win. It’s not very deep. You are both just so pathetic.’ I look around to see if there’s anyone else around before I take my clothes off. There’s no-one else on the rocks, which doesn’t surprise me – our family is probably the only one dumb enough to waste a day this way. There’s another boat off the island with a couple of people fishing in it. It’s a long way away, so I don’t think they can see me standing here in my undies, fortunately. Because it’s not like I thought to put on my best pair when I got up this morning. It just didn’t occur to me to think, now what will I be doing today? Oh yes, I’ll be whipping off my jeans and jacket and jumping into a channel of freezing cold water on an island in the middle of nowhere. Call me unimaginative, but it just didn’t occur to me! Boy, sometimes I hate being me.
‘Now watch out and make sure no-one comes,’ I say to Thomas and Meg. ‘I hope those people in that boat can’t see me.’
‘As if anyone wants to look at you in your undies, Zoe.’ Thomas laughs, as you would, if you weren’t the one about to make the plunge in your underwear.
I’m about to add that why wouldn’t they want to look at me – I am, after all, the only thing of interest within miles – when Meg jumps up and says, ‘Shut-up, Thomas. At least Zoe is helping.’ There is no way Meg was going to let a family fight get in the way of finding the bracelet.
‘I’m looking out for sharks. That’s more important,’ Thomas replies, rather too seriously. Oh boy.
So I take a deep breath and carefully lower myself into the water, so relieved to know that Thomas is on shark-patrol.
The water is cold, but not too bad. It reaches to just above my boobs. I like swimming in the sea, so I’m quite used to cold water. I am, at this point, feeling quite brave. Thomas begins one of his annoying fishing commentaries ‘…and Zoe Booth has descended into the ocean in search of the lost treasure…’ but Meg tells him to shut-up.
I wait for a break between waves before making the plunge. The bracelet is just under a ledge. I should be able to grab it, no worries. I don’t mind opening my eyes in sea water. I take a deep breath and dive. The water is shimmering close to the surface, but as I reach down to grab the bracelet it darkens, seaweed waving at me like a warning. I feel the panic rise in me, clutching at me from within. I almost grab the bracelet when something darts towards me. I come face to face with it, too terrified to scream, even if I could underwater. I know what it is. I’ve seen them on those boring fishing documentaries on telly, but I can tell you they are not so boring in real life when you come up close and personal with one: a conger eel.
If you don’t know what a conger eel looks like, then stop reading this. Stop right now and go and have a look for one in a book, or on the Internet. Go on, do it! You might read something like: Conger eels like the quiet and dark, or Conger eels have extremely sharp teeth and strong jaws. You might think conger eels are the scariest, ugliest things you have ever seen. And you’d be right!
Anyway, this conger eel stares at me, looks right into my face before disappearing like lightening. I jump up, I can’t breathe, I can’t scream. I can’t do anything. My throat is so tight. I try to take a deep breath. Meg and Thomas are talking to me, asking if I’ve got the bracelet.
Thomas says, ‘Dad’s coming.’
Meg says, ‘Quick, Zoe. Try again.’
I think, Dad’s coming, everything is going to be all right.
‘Please Zoe, please.’
I hear Meg, and my body responds, ignoring my brain. I dive down and grab the bracelet. I come up for air. I still can’t speak. I see Dad peering down at me.
‘What are you doing, Zoe? Get out of there, for goodness sake. There could be a conger eel or anything in there.’
Tell me something I don’t know, Dad!
‘She’s getting an abalone shell for me. See, there it is.’ Thomas points down into the water.
I have no choice but to submerse myself again, but somehow it’s okay now Dad is here. I come up with the bracelet still clutched in one hand and the abalone shell in the other. I hand the shell to Thomas, who says ‘Cool’ but ‘Thanks’ might have been more appropriate, I reckon. I give the same hand to Dad who hauls me out of the water. I keep the other hand with the bracelet hidden in it down by my side.
‘Now, come on, enough of this nonsense,’ says Dad. ‘Lunch is ready.’
Dad and Thomas walk back over to Mum.
Meg says, ‘Thank you, Zoe. You’re the best big sister in the whole world.’
‘Yeah, and probably the dumbest,’ I say, as I try to dry myself with my t-shirt.
‘Give me the bracelet, I’ll put it in my pocket.’ Meg holds out her hand.
I think, she’s got to be joking. ‘There’s no way I’m giving this bracelet back to you until we get back home, Meg. I will not be getting wet again today. Got it?’
Meg looks peeved, but doesn’t argue the point.
For lunch, we have egg and lettuce, salmon and mayo, chicken and salad sandwiches. Delicious. Dad says he’ll cook squid rings for a snack when we get home. Even more delicious!
I shiver a little bit from the cold every now and then, but when I think of Meg’s bracelet in the pocket of my jeans I get a nice warm feeling in my tummy.
I try not to think about conger eels.
‘Crown Jewel’ was first published in Lost, Ginninderra Press, 2005