When I was six and my brother was four, Mum took Dad on a work trip to Switzerland. We were left with my grandparents, whom we affectionately know as Nan and Fred; Fred because he thinks that any variation on Granddad makes him sound old. He's a strong man with a head of curly, steel-grey hair, a deep authoritative voice, and a kindly temper. He used to shake my hand and squeeze it inside his until it felt like it'd be crushed, and I begged for mercy. Sometimes he would let me win at arm wrestles, despite the fact that I couldn't shift him a degree under my own strength. He wasn't at all ticklish. I know this because he would frequently tickle me into hysterics, and I could never get a reaction out of him no matter where my desperately probing fingers went.
Anyway, at some point in this holiday, we went along to Lake Cathie, which is a tidal lake that opens up to the sea. Often, when there isn't enough rain, the sand builds up and blocks the lake mouth. The tea trees all around it would leak tannins into the water, dying it a rich brown colour not unlike tea. As the water is fairly static when this happens it made a lovely place to swim, heating up in the sun to a bath-like temperature. Even when the mouth is open, it's quite nice to swim out into the lake at low tide and let the water carry you out through the mouth and into the waiting waves.
On this visit, the mouth was choked up with several tonnes of sand. Fred suggested to us that we should clear the mouth, probably to give us something to do. So my brother and I made it our mission, clad in legionnaire's caps and armed with plastic buckets and shovels, to dig a channel through a hundred metres of sand or so to the ocean.
At almost a metre in, Alister got bored of this. Fred took him over to the surf to swim, while I, disappointed at their lack of dedication, continued to excavate my miniature Panama canal. It was hard work, shovelling load after load of wet sand. I ran into issues encountered by all such sandcastle engineers: my dug-up sediment would periodically collapse back into my channel, and I had a hard time getting it deep enough for any real flow. As I plowed onward, I scooped some sand from the upper layer and felt an agonising sting. I dropped the sand with a yelp and shook my hand, glaring around for the culprit. There, in the damp sand just above the waterline of my artificial river, was a now-stingless bee, struggling to crawl away. It took me a few seconds to register what had happened, but when I did the tears didn't take long to come bawling out. Howling, I stumbled across the sand, trying to get to Fred. The sight of a lonely six-year-old crying his eyes out, clutching his hand as he made his way across the beach, must have caught someone's attention, because a man came up to me, from his own children, and asked if I was OK. Through my blubbering I somehow managed to communicate the cause of my woes. The kind stranger examined my hand and brushed the sting away. He asked if I was allergic, and I told him that I didn't know. This was my first (and still only) bee sting. It turns out that, apart from a ridiculous propensity towards hayfever, I don't have any allergies at all.
The man escorted me over to Fred, and that's all I can remember from that episode.
Without my parents around I seemed to have quite a talent for getting myself in trouble. In that very same holiday, Fred took us to Flynn Beach, a nearby surf location. Being an idiot, I was swimming before the flags had been set up.
I loved swimming in the ocean. I still do. There's something about the rhythm of the waves, where you play a tug-of-war with the tide, and the way you feel afterwards, the saltwater drying on your skin. It's the most refreshing thing in the world.
I found a location right next to the rocks, of course. Fred said it was fine so long as I didn't go too deep. But that wasn't any fun. My favourite thing to do was to go out to where I could only just stand, and then jump when a wave came and let it carry me up and then back down to the floor. It's an exciting sensation, letting the sea pick you up and put you back down like that. I liked to push it further and further, going just a bit deeper with each wave. This time, though, I had ventured just a little too far. I pushed myself off the bottom, and came back down expecting to feel sand on the soles of my feet. I never did. Instead I was left treading water, still trying to reach the bottom with my toes. I had managed to wander into a rip, and was now making my way merrily out to sea.
I wasn't all that worried yet. I tried swimming back (I was a pretty strong swimmer), but the current was a bit too fast for me. Not having yet learnt the wisdom of "swim parallel to the beach", I was directly pitting my bony arms against the power of the ocean.
As the beach got smaller and smaller, I began to worry a bit. I tried grabbing at the branches of rock that passed me buy; I remember very clearly seeing one of these outcroppings approaching, like the stump of a tree branch, through my goggles. I tried to catch it on my foot, and felt the slimy seaweed and the sharp rock scraping against the sole of my foot as it passed me by.
Turning back to the beach, I could see Fred, who had noticed that I was in trouble and was sprinting into the waves. He was quite fit for a grandfather, and made his way pretty quickly through the waves. I glimpsed the lifesavers on the rocks, preparing a rescue. I remember thinking that it would probably be ok, but still having that worry in the bottom of my stomach.
I don't remember exactly what happened after that, but for what seemed like forever I kept drifting out, struggling valiantly to stay put. Somebody finally fished me out, depositing me on the rocks where the lifeguards were waiting with a towel. I'm not sure whether it was Fred or one of the lifeguards who actually pulled me in, but I do remember that Fred ended up needing help too. But we all ended up safe, if a bit shaken. I wasn't sure I'd ever want to go swimming in the ocean again after that. But that didn't last long. I can't stay away from that remarkable body of water. I still like to test myself in it, go out as far as I feel safe, and then just a tiny bit further.
After what had been quite an eventful holiday, I was happy to see Mum and Dad come back. They had brought my brother and I a bag each full of Swiss chocolate, which pretty much made up for it.