FIRST come the books. I can’t help myself, I’ve packed two juicy travel bios into my bulging suitcase. I draw the line at actual guidebooks, but only just. You see, last week I went where few travel writers dare to go. I took a holiday. A plain, old-fashioned, crunchy-sand-between-the-white-cotton-sheets beach holiday. The type of thing that we lonely travel writers dream about all year, often discuss late at night in empty airports when we’re away from family and friends, but rarely have the time, the will, or the money, when we’re at home. Which is what makes the concept all the more appealing. One whole week of doing nothing but getting up, having a cuppa while staring at the ocean, lazing around in my pj’s, and planning a day which consists of nothing more than alternating between the beach and the pool.
In old-fashioned beach holiday style I am away with one of my three older sisters – an early partner in crime when it came to this kind of thing. After 40 odd years, my sister and I know each other’s rhythms. It’s as predictable as the low and high tides at our Sunshine Coast destination. And predictable is what we want this week. It’s her turn for the room with the double bed, and so I cram myself into the room with two singles, one for my books and baggage, the other for my adult self, who lays awake each night wondering how on earth I did this as a kid. The bed springs creak and ping, and I hit my knees on the wall well into the dawn. I wake messy haired and bleary eyed. Yep, a typical beach holiday.
The hours are long and languid. These are fresh prawn sandwiches on wicked white bread type days. We drink crisp white wine with lunch. Chat about our childhood. People we’ve forgotten, forgiven and forbidden from our lives. Snatch lazy afternoon naps to the sound of the ocean curling outside. Take the odd walk but we don’t venture far. That’s not the point of this week. Late afternoon it’s olives, cheese, smoky sausage and sparkly Pimms on the deck. In between I dive into my books and delve into other people’s lives. For one whole week I put my life on hold. Try not to answer emails. Stay off Facebook as much as is humanly possible. Take late night dips in the heated spa under a Turkish moon which creeps behind the building. One night I look up and wave at my sister dimly lit and standing on the balcony looking down on me in the spa. Too late I realise it’s not her but the 20 year old male occupant of the unit below. Soon not one, but two of his mates also wave at me. Exposed, I have no where to hide in the spa, and just pray to the spa Gods it keeps bubbling away as I slink as low as possible. Upstairs, my sister laughs outrageously when I recount this tale.
When we do venture outside we attract unusual attention. “Are you two sisters?” complete strangers stop us all week in our tracks. We laugh to ourselves and think, if only our other two sisters were here. Worse, our Doppelgangers are somewhere on our beach holiday but we remain frustratingly one pace behind them. The night we get takeaway Thai, the operator welcomes us with open arms: “you’re back again!” he exclaims to our surprised bemusement. “Oh, two sisters who look just like you were in here last night,” he says as we clutch our curry, chuckle and shuffle into the night. The next evening, at the surf club, we are welcomed again: “Oh, you were here last night!” the waitress explains. No, but our Doppelgangers were. We never meet our Doppelgangers but by the end of the week every pair of women look like sisters to us. “Do you think it’s them?” we whisper in conspiratorial tones to each other over dinner. We wonder whether they are better versions of us than we are. We decide that’s impossible. It becomes our holiday joke. Every holiday needs a joke, that’s what makes families tick.
And our family has had its moments. Nine years ago, When my sister’s marriage collapsed suddenly, I was among the first people she called. “You need to sit down,” she said down the phone line. Little did I realise that a few years later I’d be having that very same conversation with her. Years later, she confessed to me that my weekly phone calls were all that got her through each miserable week. I think back to the season of my discontent, that winter that seemed so bitterly cold where I sat in her old country Queenslander and cried and shook while she just sat patiently with me. Not so long ago her two daughters – my feisty, fabulous nieces – were having a rip-roaring fight, the type that only adolescent siblings can. My sister turned to them and in the quiet way she has said to them: “You’re going to need her one day”. How right she was.
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