Sitting. Sitting on the Esplanade. Sitting and waiting. Waiting for what? If I knew the answer to that question I wouldn’t be here, I’d be far, far, away, beyond those blue hills I can see when I turn my head and look back towards the town; beyond the edge of that straight horizon directly in front; oh yes, I’d be far away doing something else and being someone else.
As a small boy my mother would bring me to this spot, of course the Esplanade didn’t exist as such in those days. There was an untidy bit of beach with a dirt track running alongside of it, rocks, stones, pebbles, the sea and the gulls. We kids thought it a rare treat, the freshness of the sea breeze and the sparkle of the water broke the monotony of dust and heat we experienced all the other days of our lives. Mum would sit with us while Dad did his business in the town, then we’d up on the cart and bump our way home, waving regretfully ‘Goodbye’ to the sea.
Even when I was little this place used to give me weird thoughts and I’d ask .. “Mum who am I? Why am I here? Who are you?” If she were serious she’d refer me to ‘God’ – now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I don’t believe – it’s just that I’ve never met him, face-to-face like, and been able to ask him my questions, so they’ve gone unanswered; but if Mum were light-hearted she’d laugh, clap her hands together and exclaim telling me I’d turn out to be a professor in something or the other. Lizzy, my sister, would squeeze my hand and say “Don’t worry Arnold, we’ll find out.” Once I went all the way over to Europe to her gravestone, it was with a lot of others, I felt I owed it to her to see where she’d been put. There was an archway over the entrance which said ‘Their name liveth forever’ and underneath ‘They made the supreme sacrifice’. I was the only living being there. I found the headstone ‘Elizabeth Andersen’ it said and in a loud voice I spoke, “Lizzie girl, “ I said, “Did you find out? Can you tell me why? It’s Arnold, your brother.” If anyone had overheard me they’d have thought I was stark staring mad, I didn’t expect an answer only an indication – over all these year – nothing, nothing came.
When I was courting our Meg I would sit with her on this very bench, the palms and bushes had been planted only a short while and the whole place looked new and scrubbed. Come to think of it, it was the Esplanade’s fault that we ever came together, I always pick up my ideas here. After that decision the game called ‘life’ caught up with me and I had no time to sit and think of asking questions like why? – how? – for what purpose? Every waking moment was filled with work and at night I was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. I hadn’t grown up to be a professor as Mum prophesied, just an ordinary farmer, taking over Dad’s few acres, adding a few of my own.
The Esplanade was here all the time while my kids grew up, by then we had cars and trucks, Meg could come and go in and out of town as she pleased; the ‘stead was no longer considered to be in the outback, it was only fifty minutes from shops and schools. We saw more of other people than my folks ever did, we acquired neighbours on both sides. Me? I waited. I waited for the day when my children would look up at me and ask “What’s the reason behind it all Dad?” and I would have to admit that although I played the game, although I worked and strived, lived and breathed, tried and failed and then tried again, I didn’t know what the purpose of it all was. My biggest disappointment was that they never asked.
Meg, a stranger to me now, is an old, tired woman who’s only interest is her children and her children’s children. I’m left on the outside because their problems are not my problems – anyway I’m not supposed to have any of those, I’m retired, I’m Dad, left here sitting in solitary splendour on the Esplanade, in the sun. The cars flash by on the road behind my back, not one stops, I have as much contact with them as I do with the people on the pathway in front of me. They, like the cars, go by, one after the other. The odd one might say “How’re you doing mate?” in a friendly manner but they don’t stop for an answer, however I have found out something and this has made me content to sit and wait. I’m an old man, I shouldn’t have too long to go.
The other day a young man with a priest’s collar, what we used to call a dog collar, sat down on my bench beside me. We sat together in silence looking out at the calm sea, the boats, the hot sun, the blue sky, the shadows of the old trees. I thought to myself ‘Now here is a man who must know all the answers in the world or he’d be ashamed to dress himself up like that and proclaim his faith.’ On the spur of the moment I found the courage and without preamble, mainly because I’d thought about it so much I was past the point of explaining anything to anyone, I asked:
He must have known something was coming ‘cos he didn’t turn a hair but swung round and replied.
“To give us shade on a hot day, to give us somewhere green to sit in under this tireless sun, to allow us a place to rest close to the bustle of town, here we can be with our fellow man and contemplate God’s miracles.”
Not exactly the answer I’d expected: I could have told him that it was the Shire that put the money down and built the Esplanade, that it was gardeners who had watered, weeded and worked on it, that it hadn’t even been there sixty years ago. But I held my tongue, because he had given me an answer I could accept, the first one.
Sitting here, looking out at the sea, I know why the Esplanade was created and can even give God his due for part of it. I know why this place is here, NOW I only have to find out why I’m here too?