On 19 January 1976 a tidal wave was set to wipe out my home city of Adelaide. If that wasn’t enough, an earthquake would follow it. The wave was in all the newspapers, on TV and radio. People began panic-selling their houses along the coast – or so it was said.
On the day of predicted doom, my friend’s mother drove us to an opulent house in the Adelaide hills. The owners weren’t there, so my friend and I prowled about the split-level floors, with their shag pile carpets and pale, flimsy curtains, pretending we were on a Hollywood movie set.
An out-of-bound swimming pool glittered in the yard. Luxurious deck chairs waited for high-society types to flop down on them, clutching their martinis, flaunting their golden tans. Adelaide in midsummer is usually beset by dry desert heat, but that day was cold, windy, overcast. My friend’s mother stared out at the view, her dark eyes and hair like Ava Gardener’s in the end-of-the-world movie On The Beach. Every few minutes she checked her watch, told us to stay inside, strode down the path, gazed out at the blustery view, and came back in.
After what felt like hours, we stood at the end of the garden where the ground fell away, and squinted out past the flat grid of Adelaide streets below, way out to the silvery line of distant sea.
Nothing happened. We drove home.
Twenty-five years later, I started writing short stories as part of a newly-established Creative Writing MA at the University of Adelaide, and memories of the wave resurfaced. I’d been reading a biography of the US naturalist Rachel Carson, whose 1962 bestseller Silent Spring called for a universal ban of pesticides, including DDT. Carson raised the ire of many in government and beyond. An esteemed marine biologist, she was belittled as a ‘spinster’ and wrote compelling and engaging books about currents and tides and sea creatures – and rogue waves.
Halfway through her biography, I was stunned by a reference to Rachel Carson kissing her friend, Dorothy Freeman. I flicked to the endnotes to find only a brief comment about the women comforting each other over the death of a beloved pet.
As so often happens in accounts of women living in earlier times, doubts have been cast over the nature of their relationships, as if it’s too outlandish that women of a certain age, in a bygone era, could actually love each other emotionally, intellectually and sexually, displaying all the desires, joys, comforts, mistakes, and complexities that we recognize today.
Dorothy Freeman was married, but it seems that her husband did not intervene. She and Rachel Carson wrote each other many letters, the bulk of which they destroyed. Perhaps they felt compelled to protect others – and themselves.
As I wrote my short story, I thought about what’s hidden from history, not only by those who benefit from these distortions, white-outs, and erasures, but by those who couldn’t risk exposure. What does it mean for those of us who never hear about the glittering, courageous provenance of others who lived and loved against the grain? How does omission diminish the fights, surprises, ingenuity, wit, losses and wins of the past? What does it mean to know that we are on a continuum of progress and backsliding, that things can change – and change back again?
I wrote my short story from the point of view of a teenager on holiday at her wealthier relative’s beach house in the mid-1970s. The family in my story is an invention, perched on a cliff. The protagonist sits up late with her binoculars watching for signs of catastrophe, with or without her increasingly distracted elder sister.
I drew on memories of holidays in a bunk-bed lined one-roomed hut at Lady Bay, or a rented house at Victor Harbor with snazzy nylon carpet tiles you could lift up and reconfigure, to hide any stains.
My ever-patient mother, a fulltime French teacher, would be holed up in her beach dress with her precious books, tucked away from us five kids. My father, a self-taught agricultural journalist and one-time sailor, disappeared for solitary dawn walks on the beach, returned to cook bubble-and-squeak for breakfast, and showed us how to catch the hapless rabbits that hopped into the yellowing salt-bitten seaside grass.
But mostly I remembered how it felt that summer of 1975-76, knowing that, if the predicted wave did hit, it might be our last time together by the beach.
After I’d written a few drafts, I researched the 1974 Adelaide-wave-that-never-came and discovered the sinister reality behind its genesis.
Homosexuality had just been decriminalised in South Australia, the first place in Australia to pass this legislation. In Tasmania it would take another twenty-two years of lobbying for the law to change.
According to the man who foresaw the wave, the sinners – including homosexuals and their allies – would die, and the non-sinners saved. During the height of the 2019 bushfires, similar reasons were trumpeted from certain quarters as the cause of the fires, this time attributed to the outcome of same-sex marriage ‘debate’.
Most of the old newspaper articles about the apocalyptic wave included photos of ‘beach party’ gatherings on CBD office rooves, businessmen in snorkels, flippers, secretaries in bikinis, placards saying the Glenelg tram would not wash away. Everybody was making light of it, getting into the theatrics, as a joke.
But that was only part of the story.
There was powerful activism against serious, tragic, urgent, ongoing prejudice, including bashings, assaults, sackings, estrangements, evictions and murders. The most high-profile case was the death and drowning of Dr George Duncan in 1972, a British academic invited to work at the University of Adelaide, where I was now studying.
There’s always a paradox in turning to the historical record for information, peering at the past through a muddied lens. You never know if your gleanings will support, clarify, illuminate, deny, disappoint, ignore or subvert.
Whenever I do find something, I ponder how they/we are depicted – and why. I try to imagine the author, if they’re working from a position of understanding or antagonism. What they accentuated or left out. If there was pressure to deliver what their superiors or reading public would accept, or if they were encouraged to inflame, outrage and spark a flurry of letters to the editor.
I submitted my re-written short story to my male lecturer, received a solid pass. It was lower than a HD, therefore deemed ‘not publishable.’ So I mailed it off to the Australian Women’s Book Review who told me to cut a third, and published it in 1999. This was my first publication, and my first lesson in the subjectivity of readers, finding the right place to submit and responding to an editor’s guidance.
I don’t know if I was aware back then about what generated talk of that wave, namely the idea that a section of the community – my community – deserved to die. I certainly knew about Dr Duncan’s murder. It’s the feeling I remembered, the half-knowing, the fear, the secrecy tinged with a shadowy haunting shame. That’s what I love about writing fiction, its ability to capture and illuminate what’s not quite been hidden, or washed away.
Image: Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman