Benny told me he only came along because he jumped some kid on the T-way and he needed to bounce from the area before the cops beat down his door. But I knew his mum wanted to clean the house so she could finally sell it, so she passed Benny onto her brother for the day, and she passed her younger son, Daniel, to her mother.
We ate zaatar on the street, sitting on a squat brick fence that ran alongside the Lebanese bakery. There were ten of us. My parents, my aunt, her husband, their three kids, me, my sister, and my cousin Benny. The bakery sat on Guildford Road, parallel to Guildford train station. Trains hadn’t passed through this morning. My cousin said it came down to the trackwork they did on the weekend. Every weekend. I was sure he was exaggerating.
He always did that, exaggerated a point, and to some extent it bothered me, but I was glad he was here alone, without his friends. Ahmed would barely have said a word; he’d just stare at you through squinty eyes until you became uncomfortable. Ninos had a bad smell attached to him that made me think of spoiled food or the dead cat that was thrown on the nature strip in front of our house last summer. Together, they stood staunch, like they had something to prove, which apparently was a lot. They didn’t even have their learners yet. But really, they were just another group of teenyboppers doing what all the teenyboppers did in the area: a whole lot of nothing.
Before Dad finished eating his manakish, he ordered shanklish and two servings of lahembajin to share with my uncle. One hand paid for the new order, the other still grasped the manakish wrapped in torn white paper.
Outside, the bakery’s exterior was run down, with a faded sign and paint peeling from the walls. Inside, it was plain, white, with a Lebanese flag tacked to one wall, a portrait of Christ hanging beside it. The quality of the bakery was the same as any other house and business in Guildford. It was a wonder a strong wind didn’t blow these buildings down but my uncle always said old buildings were built better. He’d say, They don’t make them like they used to. Benny said the houses in the area would all end up looking like the houses in Guildford in about twenty years: not in need of a paint job but a complete demolition.
‘But the gov’s gonna say they’re historical, these old pieces of shit,’ he said, ‘like they did with the houses in Guildford, so we’re gonna be stuck with crappy, broken-down houses. But we should be happy because we’re living in a part of history.’ He said this with a dry tone. He had started talking that way more and more, in an exhausted, defeated way.
From a thermos, Mum served herself and my aunt black tea. We ate with a ravening appetite, ignoring the minuscule seeds of zaatar wedged between our teeth. At some point during our feast, an old man with white hair, white skin, and eyes as brilliant and blue as the sky above him, spat out, ‘fucking Arabs.’ He walked by us, never looking over, never accusing us to our faces. Benny suddenly stood up with his fists by his side, waiting for the man to turn around. My dad waved Benny down to his seat, saying with a little laugh, ‘Don’t worry, he crazy.’ When I bit into the manakish, it tasted sour.
After Dad slipped into the corner store to buy a pouch of tobacco, we began to pack our things and climb into the cars. Next to me, Benny leaned over and said, ‘We’ve been sitting here for an hour. How many trains did you see go by?’
It took just under two hours to drive to the beach because there were two breakdowns on the M5. We were all melting into the leather seats. At one point Dad began to complain about the drive and Mum told him it wasn’t even midday so he better not start. Then she said, ‘You’re smoking again?’
Benny’s mood curdled under the sun. The heat acted like a radiator, like gasoline, stoking his anger until it palpitated and not even the cool, crisp ocean water could diffuse it. He was still angry about his breakfast being interrupted but why he took such offence to some crazy man was something I didn’t understand, especially since Dad seemed unfazed by it. Maybe I was a few years too young. Maybe Benny knew something the rest of us didn’t. He was always making out like he knew better. What if he did?
From the back of the car, Mum pulled out a blue esky and Dad helped carry it to the beach. My uncle pulled out the watermelon; my aunt grabbed the bags and the rest of us. We squeezed into a spot between what sounded like an Indian family and an Italian family. The towels were laid out and my dad, mum, aunt and uncle, my cousins and sister all went to swim between the flags.
After what seemed like long consideration, Benny yanked off his shirt and headed to the water, kicking sand everywhere. For a few hours we splashed water at each other, wrestled the waves, our skins darkened, became golden, then we broke for lunch. Mum cut up the bread rolls she bought from the Vietnamese bakery—six for two dollars—and made sandwiches with cold cuts from the deli. She handed me one with tomato, fetta, and salami. Benny appeared disgusted at what I was eating. Mum handed him a sandwich of tomato, cucumber, and ham. Once we finished, Benny told me to come with him to the toilet.
‘Pee in the water,’ I said.
‘Ew, you povo grot,’ he said.
Cars drove slowly through the carpark, allowing sweaty beachgoers and pedestrians to cross from the beach to Bondi Pavilion. We crossed and Benny headed underneath one of the many archways of the Pavilion while I sat on the steps underneath an archway that read Gallery.
People were drenched in sweat and ocean water, others bought coffee and sandwiches in their bathing suits. Beachside, two men carrying large surfboards stopped past a cart selling corn. A tanned girl with long, dark hair smiled at them, flashing pearly-white teeth. Benny stood under the Gallery archway having finished in the bathroom. He surveyed the sun-struck beach, then lingered his gaze on the cart and its attendant. It was so hot that the fumes rising from the asphalt made the cart shimmer like a mirage, all hazy and distant and unattainable thanks to the harsh elements of nature. Because we had no money, we believed the mirage.
On the beach, my aunt sliced up the watermelon. A small girl from the family next to us watched as I ate, watched as pink juice ran down my arms and spotted the sand, and didn’t stop watching until I bit into the green skin. My aunt put the remainder of the watermelon in a container to store in the esky and said in Sureth, ‘What’s wrong with this girl? She’s always looking at us.’ I looked away from the small girl to Benny eyeing the corn cart. More people were lining up. Benny told me to get some money.
‘Dunno, just get some. I wanna see what it’s all about.’
Then, as though making a feeble wish for water amid sand dunes, I turned to my mum.
Since I’d started school, my hold on the language had begun to slip. My mum detested this and threatened to enrol me in the Assyrian school at Horsley Park. I spoke carefully, afraid that if I slipped up on a word, she would be angry and I could forget about the corn or anything else for the rest of the day. So, with the utmost care, I said, in Sureth, ‘Can I have some money for corn?’
‘Me and Benny really want corn.’
‘You have watermelon.’
‘Benny says his mum buys it for him all the time,’ I said, after another pause to find the appropriate word for ‘buy’ and ‘all the time’.
I made the point of asking for myself and Benny, who, if denied, would mention this to his mother, who would then bring it up with my mother, who really didn’t want to hear it from her sister-in-law, I was sure. And because Benny was there, she gave me a twenty and the mirage became tangible.
The woman managing the cart asked us what toppings we wanted on the corn. Butter, pepper, chili. Butter. I could tell Benny was interested in her by where he was staring at her when she wasn’t looking. To make conversation, he asked her where she came from, and in a thick, musical accent she said, ‘Colombia,’ her tongue stretching over each letter to elongate the sound. She asked us where we came from and Benny spat, ‘Fairfield.’
He added, ‘It’s my first time at the beach.’
‘Really?’ the girl said. ‘You should come here more. It’s so beautiful. And the surf, it’s perfect today.’
‘Of course. You don’t know how? You live in Sydney!’
We sat on the towels to eat the corn. The waves rolled back and forth in a mesmerising rhythm. Benny ate with a scowl on his face. I found that so funny I couldn’t suppress a laugh. Butter ran down his fingers and smeared the sides of his face. He knocked the kernels around his teeth but his expression revealed he was thinking about something else.
We wiped our hands on some napkins but to properly clean them we needed the salt water. The sun hung overhead, beating our skin bronze. Me and Benny headed down to the water and I didn’t stop until I was waist deep. When I looked around, I found I was alone.
Then I saw Benny looking around the beach, the waves licking his toes. At either end of the beach, houses and apartment buildings speckled the tall cliffs. He stayed like that for a while as I splashed around, tired, and headed back in. Benny pointed out the cliffs and said, ‘You ever imagine that guy living where we’re living?’
I looked to where his finger pointed, to one of the balconies where someone the size of an ant stared out at the sea. The person was so small I wasn’t even sure they were a man. I didn’t get why Benny was so fixated on those people in those houses when we were right here, in the water. The ant was all the way up there and here we were with the water cooling our feet and inviting us to splash around in it.
Benny kept staring at the ocean, watching the waves tease the sand. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it and stared out, far, to the horizon. He stood there a moment longer, as though something had struck him, before he gathered himself and entered the water with a new heaviness on his shoulders, a weight to his legs.
I sat down on the solid sand, watching him go. In my mind, I saw a lion backed against a brick wall, standing on his hind legs, front paws swatting the air. Surrounding the lion were men with shotguns. The lion’s paws flailed, broken. I lay back on the sand, closed my eyes, feeling the waves rush up and outline my body.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.