Lost: A tale of an impatient child and the lure of televised cricket

When I was ten years old, my father lost me. Like a set of misplaced keys, or the wallet he was certain he put down on the kitchen table, he set me down, and when he returned, I was gone.

As with every summer since I was eight and nearly drowned at my friend’s birthday pool party because nobody had thought it unwise to send a child who couldn’t swim to a pool party, or even let the parents of the birthday girl know I couldn’t swim, I’m at vacation swimming lessons.

My dad, assigned the task of fetching me afterwards, is running late. This is in the days before mobile phones. I finish my lesson, gather my things and go to wait at the entrance. I stand in the full glare of a midsummer, midday sun. Small, smelling of chlorine, tummy rumbling, the aroma of warm meat pies, Tab cola, and Twisties drifting towards me from the kiosk, I wait impatiently for my dad to arrive. One of only three brown kids to come to the pool on a regular basis, I stand out. The attendants start getting nervous.

“Are you okay? Is someone coming to get you?” they shout periodically from the booth at the entrance, their voices imbuing less concern and more irritation each time.

“Yeah. My dad’s coming,” I shout back, as the niggling thought that he isn’t coming creeps in and nests in my soul.

I wait, hopping from one foot to the other to stop the thin rubber of my two-dollar Kmart thongs[1] from melting onto the boiling footpath. They stare, the crease lines between their sun-bleached blonde brows deepening.

Ten whole minutes pass in this tense, stiffly polite back-and-forth between the gate attendants and me. Ten whole minutes that feel like eons, epochs to a 10-year-old.

At minute 11, I decide that my father has forgotten me. All evidence points to the fact that my family has mysteriously and suddenly packed every possession they own and left the country while I was at swimming lessons. My stomach a knot of nerves, the sun beating down on me, I set off on the Herculean three-kilometre walk home. It was the 70s, the era of lathering yourself in fancy coconut oil and lying in direct sunlight at noon to roast like a suckling pig, hats and sunscreen were not popular.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my father arrives at the pool.

He sees smiling, laughing, confident blonde-haired white kids gathering in gangs of three and four, flicking their wet hair at each other and shrieking, but there is no sign of his woebegone daughter, cold, hungry, and miserable at having to spend yet another lesson with an impatient teenaged swimming teacher who’s more concerned with collecting the pay cheque that will help fund that end-of-uni trip to see the glories of Europe’s YMCAs, than actually preventing children from drowning or teaching a love of, and respect for water.

He waits. He figures my lesson just went overtime and breathes a sigh of relief as he lights up a Benson & Hedges extra mild, his fifth that day. He feels less guilty about catching that last couple of balls of the over on Channel 9’s test match coverage. It’s the Ashes, after all.

About halfway through his cigarette, he realises there’s still no sign of a bedraggled brown kid, her wet towel in a tumbling pile under her arm, her clothes flung quickly over her head and askew. He wanders, unhurried, to the turnstiles to ask if the attendants have seen the little brown girl.

“Oh yeah. Her swimming lesson finished about 10 minutes ago,” they say. “She waited over there for you, but then she got bored and started walking home, I guess.”

My dad, worried now, trying to figure out if I even know the way home, nervous about how he’s going to break the news to his wife that he’s lost their youngest, trots to his car. A cigarette hanging from his lips, my brown father scours the leafy well-heeled streets of the old-money very white suburbs in his brown and white Holden Kingswood.

Three quarters of an hour pass with me wandering languidly home, inventing stories and songs as I go, contemplating stopping at my uncle’s house since he lives nearby, then deciding to just head home, and my father, panic constricting his chest, chain-smoking his way through his pack of 25s, driving up and down streets methodically, peering desperately into yards.

Running out of cigarettes, my father decides to go home, face my mother’s wrath, and possibly call the police about his missing child. (It was the 70s remember, nobody ever had any idea where their kids were. Kids’d just eventually turn up, looking for cake or biscuits and Cottee’s green cordial.)

He spends a minute or two in the car preparing his approach, then drags his feet up the concrete steps to the back door. He opens the door, and steps gingerly into the kitchen, eyes downcast, unable to look at his wife. When he eventually raises his head, he sees me sitting at the dappled-green laminate-topped table scoffing laddus and milk. Relief washes over him. Briefly. Then he catches the thunder in my mother’s face.

“She got impatient and walked home,” he says meekly.

My mother, tight-lipped and furious, says nothing. I, blissfully unaware of any tension in the air or anything amiss, carry on wolfing laddus and quaffing milk.

He will have to listen to my mother’s admonishments later, but for now he immerses himself in the soothing tones of Ritchie Benaud and Tony Grieg as they commentate the live-televised Summer Test Series.

[1] flip flops are called thongs in Australia.

A version of this first appeared as a threaded comment in response to a post on my personal Facebook page.

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