I was lonely until well into my fourteenth year, a consequence of having been born profoundly deaf. I lived in a silent world, having no concept of the sounds hearing people take for granted.
I would see things happen, but no sound accompanied them. Lips moved but no speech ensued. Trees blew in the wind, but the whispers of the wind’s voice fell on unhearing ears. I learned that lightning was followed closely by thunderclaps, but I never heard them. Sometimes I could feel the air tremble, but that never translated into sound. The movement of a dog’s head and jaws when it was barking seemed rather comical to me because there was no sound to go with the animation. Surely all that effort must produce sounds… but not for my ears.
For all I knew a flower opening or grass growing might be quite noisy. I could only try to imagine the sounds the water in a creek made as it tumbled over rocks. What sort of noise did the water crashing down in a mighty waterfall make? As far as I was concerned the bubbling stream and the waterfall sounded exactly the same. I figured that a train, with its steel wheels running on steel tracks, made a different sound from that a car made running on its rubber tyres on a bitumen road surface, but how could anyone describe the difference to me?
I had wonderful parents but no siblings. Father and Mother married late and it was a difficult pregnancy and birth. My congenital deafness made my parents reluctant to try for another child. In any case she was at the upper limit of childbearing age, where the risk of a pregnancy harming her as well as being potentially hazardous for the foetus was much increased. They decided to not take the risk. They did, however, pour all of the love they could into their son’s life.
Father worked for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a civilian contractor specialising in security. He was moved around a lot within Australia, and overseas when Australian forces were deployed in other countries. We invariably lived on service bases or in ADF compounds. In these circumstances it was impossible for me to attend a specialist school for deaf children and well-nigh impossible for me to learn at the base schools, so I was home-schooled.
Not only was I unable to learn in a normal school environment, I was also unable to fit in with the other children on base. Children of defence personnel seem to be either very assertive and outgoing, or timid and introspective, perhaps due to having a parent used to living and working in an environment where orders were given and received on a daily basis, and compliance was the first requirement. The outgoing, assertive kids thrived in that environment; the timid, introspective types were suffocated. Because I could not hear their voices, and they generally did not know Auslan, the Australian sign language I used, the outgoing types soon lost patience with me; they gave up trying to communicate and ignored me. Faced with the same communication difficulty the timid types also ended up ignoring me, but for a different reason: they thought they were at fault.
After a few relocations and trying to establish friendships with a new batch of kids each time, always with the same result, eventually I gave up and kept to myself. Very occasionally there would be a single boy or girl who took the trouble to learn how to communicate with me and a friendship would develop. That, however, led to another problem — friendships broken when one of us had to move again. Despite good intentions on both sides, long-range friendships are hard for young kids to maintain, and it wouldn’t be long and I’d be alone again, emotionally as well as physically. In effect, my parents became my only real-life friends. The only others I had were all online.
By the time I turned twelve I was fiercely independent, but I was also fairly withdrawn. I could really only relate to my mother and father; anyone else encountered the walls I’d built around my heart and my mind. My parents did their very best to involve me in social activities with other families, but I suspect they had their own issues with the other adults. Forces personnel tend to be cliquey and talk shop; outsiders are made to feel, well, outsiders. I think my parents sympathised with me deep down, and they weren’t too critical when I resisted their efforts to integrate me. They were also older by then, and I think the effort of trying to fit in themselves had worn them down. Usually Father was called in to advise on security — particularly where there had been a breach — and he would be the only civilian on base. He was not permitted to ‘talk shop’ regarding security matters, and because he was not service personnel it was difficult to talk shop with anybody else. Mother was a moderately successful artist and usually had nothing in common with the service wives.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when Father called a family conference one day to announce that he had decided to retire a couple of years early. We had six months to decide where we would live. Father had no plans to take up another career, so the availability of employment was not a consideration. He would have a good income from superannuation and from property investments. Neither parent had any close relatives still living, and their friends were scattered widely, so there was no need, either, to be near family or friends.
We tossed around all sorts of ideas. The only thing we really agreed on was that we wanted to be somewhere warm, and somewhere in Australia. I stipulated that a good internet connection would be essential, since that was the main source of my learning materials, and my only source of friendship outside that of my parents. None of Father’s investment properties was suitable; most of them were not residential buildings and those that were didn’t meet our needs.
* * * * *
One day a few weeks after Father had made his announcement I was idly browsing through blogs I followed when one particular post caught my eye.
There was a lighthouse for sale in Queensland, and the blogger, a conservationist, felt that it should be available for the public to ‘enjoy’. A comment under his post pointed out that the property had been in private hands for some forty years and had never been open to the public, even when it had an operating light.
I was about to skip to the next blog, but on a whim clicked on the link to the real estate site where the lighthouse was advertised. What I found took my breath away, and I ran to get my parents.
The promontory on which the light stood stretched out into the Coral Sea, and a shoal of rocks extended out to sea for some hundred metres. The south side of the promontory was high with almost a sheer drop to the ocean. The north side, in company with a head about one kilometre to the north, enclosed a small bay. It was sheer at the eastern, or ocean, end but sloped down gently to the west, to a secluded beach on the bay. Besides the light tower there was a house where the keeper and his family once lived, a workshop and a garage. A short distance away was the new automated light. According to the website, maintenance staff would need occasional access to the new light, otherwise the whole place was completely private; there was a single road in, with a gate at the boundary. It seemed the only other access would be by sea. In fact that had been the only way to get to the lighthouse in the early days before the road was built. There had been a jetty at the beach but it had not been used for many years and had fallen into disrepair.
I tried hard, but was unable to convince Mother and Father that living at an old light station would be a good idea. I could see that they liked the look of the place, though — there were numerous photos on the webpage — so I refused to give up.
Every day for about a week I found a way to mention the lighthouse. When Mother was painting in her cramped studio, I told her “The lighthouse would make a wonderful studio!” When the contents of the hall cupboard fell out one day when Father opened the door to take something out, I mentioned that “The light keeper’s house has heaps of storage space!” In the early days, with infrequent deliveries of supplies, sometimes delayed due to bad weather, the keeper and his family had had to be almost self-sufficient — and room to store supplies had been provided. My parents didn’t show much sign of cracking, but I kept up my campaign.
Eventually I tried a direct appeal: “Couldn’t we at least go and look at the place?” That raised eyebrows, because we were living in Afghanistan at the time. A day or two later Father found he had to take a trip home to Australia for a meeting with ADF officials. He suggested we all go… and take the opportunity to visit the lighthouse at the same time! He’d decided that he would go in any case, whether or not Mother and I did. Needless to say, I was packed in about five minutes; Mother took a little longer.
* * * * *
We’d just turned on to the access road to the lighthouse when we were faced with a closed, locked gate. Armed with a key the real estate agent produced from somewhere, my father got out and opened it. A couple of minutes later we were bouncing around in the agent’s SUV and I decided that ‘bush track’ was a more accurate description than ‘road’. Judging by the look on her face Mother thought we were mad. I groaned inwardly. It was going to be hard enough to convince her to live there as it was. Father surprised me by saying “Nothing a grader couldn’t fix” and grinning at my mother, who looked far from convinced. The agent was talking away and every now and then Father would turn to interpret for me. Mother was in the back seat with me; usually she signed so that I would know what was going on, but she was busy hanging on to the grab handle above the door. I looked over and her knuckles were white. It was a rare occasion when Mother was too preoccupied to sign for me, but that was one of them.
The track travelled through dense bush at first, and I drew a sharp breath when we suddenly emerged into an open area with a beautiful beach on our left. We were only about fifty metres from the sand and there were no dunes, so the view out into the bay was unobstructed. Wow! I thought. Our own beach! It was a magnificent sight: smooth golden sand, stretching about a hundred metres around the tiny bay, with the blue-green ocean breaking on the shore.
In front of us the road rose and on top of the bluff was the lighthouse. Oh my, I thought, it’s beautiful… but where’s the house?
That question was soon answered. The lighthouse stood on the highest part of the promontory; the house was on the north side, nestled in a hollow that looked down onto the bay.
As we got out of the vehicle, Father was smiling. I could see that he was already convinced. Now there would be two of us to work on Mother!
As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. She liked the house and its location, but she absolutely loved the view from the kitchen window. I think that was what really sold her… that and the old light room at the top of the lighthouse, which she decided would make an excellent studio. I felt like saying “Told ya!” but decided that I’d better not push my luck too far.
Back at the agent’s office, my parents made an offer. The agent phoned the owner, and after some discussion they reached agreement. Some minor repairs were needed — and Mother adamantly refused to sign anything until the owner agreed to have the road graded. We returned to Afghanistan the owners of a small peninsula, complete with lighthouse and private beach. The land that was ours encompassed the entire promontory and ran all the way to the gate at the main road. All up it was about fifty hectares.
* * * * *
Father’s retirement duly arrived and we left Afghanistan, and moved into a cottage in the small town nearest the lighthouse. We had decided to make some alterations to the house, and paint the entire interior, and Mother’s studio had to be cleared out and painted. Living in town while we did the work seemed to be the best option. It took several weeks before the builders were finished their work, and we used that time to become familiar with the town and the surrounding area. During our regular visits to the lighthouse I explored the land and the beach. The painting took another couple of weeks, with the three of us working at it. We worked hard, but took time out to relax.
Finally, moving-in day arrived, and I woke the next morning in my room in our new home. The house had been extended over the years, and was on two levels. My bedroom was on the lower level, but I still had a great view of the beach. I got out of bed and looked out the window. It was early December, my school lessons had finished for the year, and I had the long summer holidays to look forward to. I planned to spend all my days on the beach, and I couldn’t wait to get down there and see what the tide had washed up overnight.
Mother had other ideas, however! “First things first!” she signed to me when I said I was going down to the beach, and made me stop for breakfast.
Aw gee, this is absolutely wonderful! I thought as I wandered along the beach later. There was seaweed everywhere. Some looked — and felt — like strips of dark-green rubber; other bits were long and stringy with odd bubbles on tiny branches; still others were fine and delicate, in amazing colours. There were shells, too, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as well as pieces of driftwood.
There were man-made objects as well: here a bottle (I wonder if I’ll ever find one with a message in it?), there a child’s thong (I could imagine some poor kid’s mother screeching, “What have you done with your thongs?” “Sorry, Mum, I took them off to paddle in the water and a big wave washed them away.” “You should have kept them on — you might have cut your feet on a sharp shell or something!”).
I couldn’t help laughing as I followed the imaginary conversation. Poor little kid, I thought, Enjoying a day at the beach and all his mother is worried about is his footwear!
At the end of the beach furthest from the house was a rock outcrop that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It wasn’t connected to anything; it just rose up from the sand. It was about three metres high, and rough enough that I was able to climb it without much difficulty. There was a smooth, flat section about a metre square on top, so I sat down to survey my surroundings.
The extra height gave a great view of the sandy beach and I could see the now-graded road where it came closest to the shore, as well as the house in its little hollow. The lighthouse stood tall on the rise, brilliant white as the morning sun caught it. The new light was on the south side of the tower, hidden from my view. I saw movement at the kitchen window, and realised that Mother must be able to see me: she was waving out of the window. I waved back, and she disappeared back inside.
Out to sea a container vessel was passing our bay, heading north. It was huge, and from my perspective, seemed to occupy the entire mouth of the bay. I watched as it slowly disappeared from view past the northern head. I sat there, wondering what would pass by next — an oil tanker, perhaps, or an oceangoing yacht? We were close to the Whitsundays, an island group not far off the coast, so there was likely to be a lot of boating activity. Our promontory was the easternmost point on this stretch of coast, so we were well-placed to watch whatever was happening at sea in three directions. Of course, from my vantage point my view was restricted by the promontory itself and the north head. All I could see of the ocean was between those two points, although I had an excellent view of the whole of our bay.
Climbing the rock (I called it the Citadel) became a daily routine, until the day that changed my life. It began like all my other days, with breakfast, followed by a leisurely wander down to the beach. I walked along to the Citadel and clambered to the top. It was a Saturday, the first day of holidays for the public schools, and the shipping lane was cluttered with yachts and cabin cruisers.
I was watching their antics when something else caught my eye. A small sailing dinghy rounded the north head and turned into our bay. At first I thought it was simply tacking to catch the breeze, but it kept on towards the beach. As it came closer I could see a single occupant, who looked to be a boy about my own age. At the last minute he took down the sail and ran the boat onto the beach, then hopped out, grabbed a rope and hauled the boat further up the sand.
A trespasser! was my first thought. I must go and warn him off! Then I remembered that, although the beach was part of our land, technically it was a public beach, so I had no right to prevent anyone from coming ashore. I could, however, try to make sure they stayed on the beach and didn’t intrude into our property. Either way, I felt resentful that someone was on my beach. I didn’t feel like sharing it with anybody!
I climbed down from my rock tower and began walking along the beach towards the intruder. He was facing away from me, but must have sensed something, for he jerked around, startled, when I was about fifteen metres away. That gave me a huge surprise, for the ‘boy’ was very obviously a girl.
She gave me a grin and her lips moved; obviously she was speaking to me.
Oops, I thought, how are we going to communicate? I tapped my ears and shook my head, hoping that she would realise that I couldn’t hear her. That produced a look of understanding, and she held one hand like a tablet and made as if to write on it with the other, at the same time asking the question with her raised eyebrows.
I nodded, and she looked around, spotted a piece of driftwood and walked over to it. Picking it up, she began to write in the sand. I followed with my eyes as she scratched out, “Are you deaf?” complete with question mark.
I nodded again. The girl pointed to herself and wrote again, “Sophie.” Then she handed me the stick.
“Alex,” I wrote, “I live there,” and pointed to the house.
At that she looked surprised.
“What are you doing here?” I engraved in the sand.
She took the stick and wrote quickly, as if she’d been communicating this way all of her life. “Come here most days to collect stuff.”
That surprised me… why had I never seen her before? I wrote “Haven’t seen u here b4.”
She giggled at my shorthand, and took the stick from my hand. “Usually early, b4 sunup.” She grinned at me; two could play the instant messenger abbreviation game. Then she added, “L8r in hols.”
I nodded my understanding, remembering that the school term had ended the previous day.
I was beginning to feel comfortable with this girl. She caught on quickly, and seemed friendly and open — quite unlike most of the ‘service brats’ I’d known. I had a sudden urge to invite her up to the house. It would be easier to talk with one of my parents to sign for me. “Come meet my parents” I wrote, and pointed up to the house again.
Sophie nodded, but using gestures, asked me to help haul her boat further up the beach. We did that, and set off towards home. Of course, we weren’t able to talk, so I used the few minutes it took to get there to observe what I could about her. She was tall and lean. Her effortless walk and her tanned skin made me think that she spent a lot of time outside. Obviously, she was a competent sailor: I’d noted the ease with which she had handled her boat as she came across the bay and landed on the shore. When we reached the top of the slope up from the beach the house was about a hundred metres away. I couldn’t resist, and broke into a run. I wasn’t surprised when Sophie kept pace with me. She was hardly panting when we stopped at the back door.
Mother must have seen us coming, for the door opened as I reached for the handle. She spoke to Sophie, who responded, and then an animated conversation ensued while I stood there watching. Finally they paused, which gave me the chance to ask, “Can we come in? I’m hungry!”
Mother laughed, and said something to Sophie, who grinned. I guessed Mother had repeated what I’d said. She turned to go in, and we followed.
In the kitchen, I looked at the clock. It was still only nine in the morning. I’d only been gone about an hour. Sea air sure makes you hungry!
Mother sat us at the table and we waited while she got us something to eat. She and Sophie talked nonstop, with Mother signing for me — it had always amazed me that her hands could be occupied as she worked yet were still available to sign so she could converse with me at the same time. Father could do it, too, although he wasn’t nearly as good at it as my mother.
I think Sophie was equally amazed, because her mouth seemed to be hanging open when she wasn’t actually speaking.
By the time we had finished our snack I’d found out that Sophie lived in town with her parents and two brothers. She was the youngest of the siblings by ten years. Her father and brothers ran a boatyard, and built and sold sailing dinghies and yachts. She had spent her whole life around boats, so it was no wonder that she was so at ease in one. She was a few weeks older than me, and had just completed Year 8. She was looking forward to spending the summer on the water. Somehow she hadn’t heard that the lighthouse had changed hands, which explained her surprise when I’d told her I lived there. The previous owner was kind of eccentric and something of a recluse, but hadn’t lived on the property for several years. Relatives had persuaded him to move to a nursing home when he aged to the point where he could no longer care for himself. He’d always allowed Sophie’s brothers to sail into the beach and roam the property when they were kids, and she had simply continued when she became old enough to handle a dinghy on her own. I was amazed that she’d been only ten or eleven then.
Mother, perhaps sensing that Sophie was a potential friend for me, quickly told her that she was welcome to continue coming to ‘our’ beach. She even suggested that Sophie could ‘show me the ropes’ — a particularly apt expression, I thought, given Sophie’s attachment to sailing. Mother wondered why I started laughing, but joined in after I explained. She never really caught on to puns.
Our snack finished, Mother shooed us out of ‘her’ kitchen. I led Sophie outside, because I thought she might like a tour of the buildings. It might be ‘fun’ since we were only able to communicate on a very basic level, but I decided to give it a try. I pointed to her and then to the lighthouse, raising my eyebrows questioningly. She shook her head, so I grabbed her hand and led her up the slope and into the tower.
Our breathing was a little heavy by the time we reached the top. One day, out of curiosity I’d counted the steps; there were exactly one hundred of them. The light room took up the entire top of the tower. It was empty now — the light and its mechanism had been removed once the new light was operating, and we’d cleared out all the junk that had been stored there when we moved in. Mother hadn’t yet set up her studio so the whole space was clear. Sophie stood in the centre with a look of awe on her face. Because the tower was built on the highest point on the promontory, and the tower itself was 25 metres high, the views in every direction were quite grand.
To the east, north and south you could look out over sea and the shipping lanes. As Sophie looked around in wonder, I counted four container vessels — three heading south and one north — and a bulk carrier heading for the passage through the Great Barrier Reef. There was a major coal export terminal not far to the south of us, so I assumed it had come from there. Closer to shore there were two yachts. To the northeast, in the distance, we could see the southernmost islands of the Whitsundays group. A little to the west of north, and seemingly right below us, was our beach, with the north head of our bay beyond it. Because of the height we could see over the head and into the next cove, where the town lay. Sophie got all excited and grabbed my arm, pointing over to the town. Of course, I wasn’t able to hear her explanation, but I gathered that she was pointing out her family’s marina and boat sheds — which she confirmed later. Due west, looking inland, we could see the road that ran past our property, although it was hidden by bushland at the point where it passed our gate. Further inland was the main highway that connected Brisbane with all points north. As we turned further south the city came into view. It was more a tourist town now, but in its early years it had been an important port, shipping thousands of tonnes of sugar each year. It was about an hour’s drive away, or 50 kilometres as the crow flies. I was glad it wasn’t any closer; I didn’t want it encroaching on our little piece of paradise. I looked at Sophie and she was frowning. I guessed she didn’t like the city much, either.
We left the tower and I took Sophie over to the new light. Although it was on our property the Maritime Safety Authority leased the little plot of land it sat on, and we didn’t have access to it, so all I could show her was the tower, really. The light wasn’t visible from below. It sat on top of a stainless steel tower some twenty metres tall. Solar panels that powered the light and mechanism were mounted on the north side.
As we turned away from the new light I looked at my watch and realised it was lunchtime. My parents had insisted on my wearing a watch as soon as I learned to tell the time. This was their way of giving me freedom to roam. A hearing child would have been a yell away; I wasn’t, and never would be. They set mealtimes, made sure I remembered them, and set me free. It worked well, as long as I remembered to look at my watch! I caught Sophie’s attention, showed her the time and gestured as if I was eating. She nodded and we headed back to the house.
* * * * *
After lunch I explained that it was time to go and collect the mail. “Would you like to come, too?” I signed. Mother interpreted for Sophie, who eagerly nodded her agreement. I wasn’t sure that she’d still be so eager when she saw how we would be getting there. Oh, why not? I thought, She’s been ‘driving’ boats for years!
Our mail was delivered to a letterbox at our gate, and when we moved in I became the designated mail-fetcher. It was just over one kilometre to the gate from the house, and a pleasant walk on a nice day. Both Mother and Father, however, had a habit of ordering stuff online, and I often ordered books. The first couple of packages that arrived fitted in the letterbox, but then came one that was too big. The mail delivery driver left a card notifying us that the parcel was awaiting collection at the post office in town. Not having lived in a rural area before, we hadn’t realised this would happen; we assumed the driver would just leave a parcel beside the letterbox if it wouldn’t fit inside. Apparently that wasn’t permissible, and a trip into town every time a larger parcel arrived was not to my parents’ liking… so we put up an extra-large mailbox.
Of course, extra-large packages also meant trouble for the designated mail-fetcher. If they were too bulky or too heavy I wouldn’t be able to carry them. I tried a couple of times, but the packages soon became very heavy and I had to keep stopping to rest, which meant I took a very long time to get back home. After that I simply left them in the mailbox and went home to tell Mother or Father there was a parcel and they drove to the gate and collected it.
Then, one day a few weeks before Sophie turned up on the beach Father was reading the local newspaper. He suddenly jumped up, picked up the phone and had a brief conversation with whoever was on the other end. Grinning, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come with me. I’ve found the solution to the parcel collection problem!”
We pulled up outside a large shed in a back street in town. The fading sign over the huge, open sliding door said, “Good Motor Repairs”. Very funny, I thought. Who would advertise ‘bad’ motor repairs? The whole place looked like it had seen much better days and made me wonder if Father had lost a few marbles since he’d retired. He led the way inside and we found an elderly man wiping his hands on an oily rag.
“G’day,” I think he said. Father introduced himself, and they shook hands.
The old fellow then held out his hand to me, and Father signed, “This is Mr Good.” Aha! That explained the name on the building.
Father hadn’t told me what he’d found in the paper, so I was pretty surprised when Mr Good led us out the back to another, smaller shed which housed the most amazing vehicle I’d ever seen. Mr Good laughed, probably at the look on my face.
“What is that?” I signed.
“A beach buggy,” Father replied. “This is your new mail run transport!”
Whoa! I thought. Awesome.
“But I can’t drive,” I signed.
Father grinned, and signed, “We’ll soon teach you!”
Thanks for the vote of confidence, I thought. I’d never even sat behind the wheel of my parents’ car. For one thing I couldn’t tell whether the motor was running. For another I wouldn’t know if anything sounded wrong. I’d never considered that I might ever drive; as far as I was concerned I was destined to always be a passenger. I guess my isolated upbringing had conditioned me to think that way; when I came into contact with other deaf people later in life I found that that they’d had no more trouble learning to drive than hearing people did. Their heightened other senses compensated for their deafness.
I told Father of my concerns, and he interpreted for Mr Good. The old man rubbed his hand through the stubble on his chin, thinking.
After much muttering to himself his expression brightened and he nodded. He spoke to Father, who interpreted for me, “I reckon I can do it. There’s already a tachometer—”
“What’s that?” I interrupted.
“A gauge that shows how fast the engine is running,” Father replied, then resumed his signing of Mr Good’s explanation. “The tachometer will show whether the engine is running or not, but I will add something more visual — a lamp that comes on when the engine starts. It will show a steady light if the engine is running smoothly, but will flicker if the engine begins to miss.”
Then Mr Good grinned, and added, “But I reckon you’ll feel this engine, Alex!”
I looked at him, puzzled; Father laughed.
Mr Good proved his point by getting into the buggy and turning the key. Smoke belched out of the twin exhausts momentarily, then the old man beckoned to me and pointed to the passenger seat. I climbed in, and immediately realised what he’d meant: the whole buggy was vibrating, and I could feel it through the seat. I grinned my understanding, and shook Mr good’s hand. He gave me a wink and a big grin. Father was still laughing. He must have known something about beach buggies… probably from the misspent youth that I’d heard Mother hint at, but which had never been properly explained.
The old man took me for a spin around the yard behind his workshop, and then parked the buggy back in the smaller shed. He and Father finalised the purchase, and agreed that Mr Good would deliver the new ‘mail car’ in a couple of days. Father looked smug all the way home; I was busy wondering what Mother’s reaction was going to be.
As it turned out she didn’t seem overly alarmed, and I began to wonder if she’d shared that rumoured misspent youth. I resolved to brush up on my interrogation techniques. After all, I was getting older; they could no longer claim ‘you’re too young to understand’.
Late the following day Mr Good turned up with the buggy on a trailer; the work had taken less time than he’d thought it would. With Father and Mother watching intently, he showed me how to start the engine, and demonstrated how the tachometer needle responded as he pressed on the accelerator and the engine revs increased. The new lamp was mounted on top of the dashboard, right in the driver’s line of vision; it lit up as soon as the engine fired, and then stayed steady while the engine was running. As soon as the ignition was turned off the lamp went out.
Mr Good got me to sit in the driver’s seat. A little nervously I turned the key and felt the engine respond even before the light came on. Then he told me to watch the light while he went around to the back of the buggy. Suddenly the light began to flicker, and the vibration I could feel through the seat changed markedly. I assured Mr Good I’d noticed both. He gave an exaggerated sigh of relief and held up his hand for a high-five. What an old character he was! He went to the back again and the vibrations returned to normal and the light changed back to steady.
“Over to you, now,” he said to Mother and Father. “Don’t let him kill himself!”
We gave him our thanks, said our goodbyes, and he headed off back to town. I was now the proud (I think — I was still trying to process the events of the last couple of days in my mind) owner of a VW beach buggy. Now to learn to drive the thing.
That turned out to be easy, and within a couple of days I was allowed to go for the mail solo, with an admonition to not exceed 40 km/h until my parents believed I knew the vehicle well enough and I was confident in my driving ability.
By the time Sophie turned up I’d been going down to get the mail on my own for about two weeks, so my parents were confident enough to let me take Sophie with me that day.
* * * * *
I told her to wait with my parents for a minute, and walked over to the workshop. The look on Sophie’s face when I drove out in the buggy was priceless.
“Can you drive this thing? What is it? Does it go fast?”
Father and Mother were laughing so hard they almost forgot to sign for me. I couldn’t help joining in when I understood what Sophie had said.
“Yes. A beach buggy. Yes, but not with me driving.” I answered. “Are you coming?”
With a nod and a mixture of excitement and (judging from her facial expression) trepidation, she climbed into the passenger seat and we were off.
The trip to the gate had taken me about fifteen minutes when I used to walk. At 30 or 40 km/h in the buggy it took about two minutes. I parked the buggy inside the gate because if I drove beyond it and the law caught me my parents and I could be in serious trouble. I left the engine idling while we got the mail — several letters and two large packages — out of the box and stowed it in behind the seats. Then we climbed in, I did a U-turn, and we headed back home.
Just before we emerged from the trees where the road neared the beach, Sophie tapped on my shoulder and gestured to me to stop. I pulled over and turned off the ignition. Pulling on the handbrake I turned to Sophie and raised my eyebrows.
She responded by climbing out and beckoning me to follow her. I got out and she took my hand and dragged me back down towards the gate for a few metres before turning into the bush. To my surprise, there was a barely-visible path. We followed it for a few minutes, and then she turned off into the bush again. We’d been heading towards the main road but now we were going towards our southern boundary, and I was hoping Sophie knew where she was going. Suddenly we emerged into a little sunlit, grassy glade.
Whoa! I thought. Nice!
Sophie grinned at me and promptly lay down in the grass. It had been windy up on the promontory when we were looking at the light towers, but here, in the middle of the bush, it was calm and still — at least at ground level; I could see the tops of the tallest trees swaying, so it was still windy. Sophie patted the ground beside her, so I joined her, lying on my back and looking up at the small patch of sky visible directly above us. It was a deep blue, and there were no clouds. It was kind of mesmerising and I almost drifted off to sleep.
Before I knew it, half an hour had passed. I sat up with a jolt and pointed at my watch. Sophie looked disappointed, but I managed to indicate that we could return the next day. She made me lead the way back to the buggy and I managed to find it without too much trouble.
Back at home we found that Mother had had one of her brainwaves. She asked Sophie if her family had a DVD player, and when told they did, she handed Sophie a DVD case. “This is a video Alex made a few years ago to help a friend learn some Auslan. I thought you might like to watch it…”
“Oh, I’d love to,” Sophie said, with Mother signing for my benefit. “I’ve been trying all day to think of a way to communicate with Alex. I feel really stupid not being able to talk to him the way you and his dad do.”
Wow! This girl is something else. She feels silly because she can’t communicate with me. I’m the one who can’t hear! That brought tears to my eyes; I couldn’t help contrasting Sophie’s attitude to that of so many ADF kids who had looked down on me because of my deafness. Very few of them had even tried to communicate with me once they found out I was deaf.
Mother gave me a hug. “Sophie’s a bit different, eh?” she signed to me.
Sophie wanted to know why I was crying. She cried, too, when Mother explained.
I’d forgotten all about that video. I was ten and we were living in Western Australia when I made it. One of the ADF kids had befriended me and he’d been really interested in learning Auslan. He learned enough that we could communicate fairly easily, and he was a great friend for about six months… until his father was posted to another base. We still kept in touch online, by instant messenger, but it wasn’t the same as having a ‘real-life’ friend. That gave me a thought.
“Sophie, do you have an instant messenger account?”
“Yes, do you?”
“I do!” I grinned. “We’ll be able to talk online!”
She returned my grin and asked for a piece of paper. She got me to write down my ID so she could add me when she got home. I got my laptop and added her right away.
It was time for Sophie to head home. Mother was a bit concerned that her parents would wonder if she was OK. “Should you phone them before you leave, to tell them you’re on your way home?”
“Nah, it’s OK, they’re used to me being gone all day in the holidays. As long as I’m home for tea they’re happy.” Then she added, “They’re great. They trust me to do the right thing, so I always let them know if I’m going to be late. That way they know I’m safe, and I get to keep my freedom!” She grinned.
I went down to the beach to see her off. Her dinghy was still there, but the tide had come in and the water was much closer than it had been when we hauled the boat up the beach in the morning. I could see now why she’d wanted to do that. I hadn’t taken much notice of the tides before.
We pushed the boat down to the water and kept going until it was floating. Sophie hopped in, raised the sail, and the breeze, now offshore, quickly had her moving out into the bay. She turned and waved. I waved back.
I cried all the way home. I’d really, really enjoyed the day with Sophie… but that was the problem. Would this friendship end quickly, as nearly all the others had? Would Sophie get tired of trying to communicate with me, and drift away as so many others had? Would she be around all summer, and then forget me as soon as she went back to school? I’d had so few proper friends in my life that I hardly dared to hope that Sophie would stick around.
Mother looked up as I burst into the kitchen. I wrapped my arms around her and cried my heart out. She held me tight, rocking me back and forth, and rubbing my back. Eventually, I calmed down. Mother was crying, too, as she held me at arm’s length, looked me in the eye, and said, “Oh, love, it’s been so hard for you, hasn’t it?”
* * * * *
The following morning I went to the beach and climbed my rock. I stared out into the bay, willing Sophie’s little dinghy to sail around the head. It seemed like hours later that it appeared. I was so ecstatic that she’d come back that I scrambled down from my perch and ran along the beach to meet her. She was barely out of the boat — and I nearly knocked her flying — when I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her, right on the lips. After a moment’s hesitation she returned the kiss. To be honest, I was as surprised as she was at my behaviour, but there were no words — signed or spoken — to express my joy that Sophie had returned.
The biggest surprise, however, was that after I let her go she signed, “Are you happy to see me?” We were both grinning fit to make a Cheshire cat jealous.
I grabbed a bit of driftwood and scratched out in the sand, in huge letters, “YES!” In my excitement it didn’t occur to me that I could have signed my reply and she probably would have understood.
We looked at each other and burst out laughing, and ended up falling on our backs on the sand, still cackling.
I couldn’t believe that Sophie had learned to sign overnight. Sure, she had only learned basic signs, but she had made a huge effort. No one had ever done that for me before; I couldn’t help myself — I hugged her over and over again. From then on she kept at me to teach her more. She was a fast learner, and it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks before we were able to carry on a decent conversation. That was impressive enough, but I was even more surprised when she insisted that my parents sign to her unless she got stuck, so that she could understand better what it was like to be me. What a girl!
One morning she turned up with news… “My mum and dad said I have to invite you and your parents around to our place for a barbecue next week.” It would have to be midweek, because the boatyard was too busy at weekends during the summer. We arranged it for the following Wednesday.
Sophie must have been looking out for us, because Father had just pulled into the boatyard when she came running out and showed him where to park, then grabbed my hand as soon as I was out of the car and dragged me into the office. Mother and Father stood abandoned in the car park until Sophie remembered her manners and called to them. They followed us in, and met a delegation of Sophie’s entire family. She did the honours and introduced everyone, using Auslan for my benefit. We shook hands all around, and then her dad gave Father and me a tour of the boatyard, while Mother went off with Sophie’s mum, presumably to help in the kitchen. That was always Mother’s way of getting to know somebody new.
Sophie’s dad and her brothers accepted me as I was, and took time to answer my questions. Sophie did most of the interpreting, but allowed Father to help out a few times. Her brothers expressed surprise: “We thought she was kidding when she told us she was learning sign language,” Ben told me, with a grin. Then he ruffled his little sister’s hair and pulled her into a hug, looking very much the proud older brother.
“You shouldn’t be so surprised,” their father said. “I gave up long ago wondering how she does these things!” He winked at me. “She’s not only good looking, she’s really smart, too!” he said to me.
Sophie blushed, and hit her dad on the arm. “I am not good looking!”
She forgot to sign, so Father did it for her.
“Oh, yes, you are!” I said, making her blush even more. I felt myself blush, too; I’d never told her that before.
I turned to her father. “I know what you mean,” I said, “she’s managed to surprise me a few times!”
Sophie was really embarrassed. “Um, guys, can we change the subject, please?”
Her other brother, Sam, who was the oldest of the siblings, gave her a hug, saying, “We’ll change the subject as long as you agree that we’re allowed to say you’re good looking — because you are!”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “OK, OK, stop! Just don’t say it when I’m within hearing distance!”
Sam was big and burly, and it looked like one squeeze from him would crush his young sister. He leaned down and gave her a peck on the cheek, which set her off blushing again. “OK, Sis, we’ll go easy on you.”
Sophie rolled her eyes, grabbed my hand and led me out of the office to the car park.
I couldn’t resist: as soon as she let my hand go I signed, “You are, you know.”
“I am what?”
I felt my face redden. “Good looking.”
Sophie looked at me and started laughing. “You’re as embarrassed as I am!”
I nodded. “Yes, but it’s true!”
She rolled her eyes. “Men!”
“Come inside and I’ll show you my house,” she said, changing the subject adroitly.
* * * * *
The evening went well, and my parents and Sophie’s parted firm friends. After that night I was allowed to go anywhere with Sophie because my parents were confident that she could interpret adequately for me.
A few days later Sophie began introducing me to her other friends.
I was just about to go down to the beach to wait for her when the phone rang. Father picked it up. “Sophie” he signed to me. My heart sank, thinking she wasn’t going to come over. Father was smiling, though, so I guessed the news, whatever it was, wasn’t too bad.
“Sophie wants you to meet her in town,” Father said as he hung up the phone. “She said she has a surprise for you. I’ll take you; be ready in, oh…” he looked up at the clock, “twenty minutes.”
I ran to my room to get changed. Frayed cut off jeans and a ratty old tee shirt were fine for our private beach, but I didn’t want to look like a total bum in town.
Sophie had told us to meet her at the town’s only cafe, the Bayview. When we pulled up she was sitting at one of the outdoor tables with another girl and a boy.
Uh-oh, I thought. This might be interesting. I was always shy around new kids. I was self-conscious because of my deafness, and my social skills weren’t exactly brilliant because they’d had so little opportunity to develop. This was the first time — ever — that I’d been invited to go somewhere without my parents.
My fears were unfounded, however. Brad shook hands and greeted me warmly, and Jodie gave me a hug. With Sophie signing, she said, “Sophie’s told us so much about you we just had to meet you!”
Father hung around until we worked out that Sophie would arrange a ride home for me, and he handed me a fifty dollar note, “In case you need to shout lunch or something.” I thanked him, gave him a hug, and he hopped in the car and left.
I had a wonderful day. Brad and Jodie, or Jode, as the others called her, were as personable as Sophie, and weren’t at all troubled because they had to wait while Sophie signed for me. By the end of the day Brad and Jodie had both picked up a few signs. We had a lot of laughs when they got them wrong, which led to their saying some very odd things.
They took me around all of the shops. It was a small town, so there weren’t that many, but between the three of them they seemed to know everyone, and after a while all the new names were a complete jumble in my head. Everyone was friendly, though, and I began to feel less isolated.
For lunch we bought fish and chips and cans of drink (my shout), and sat at the end of the town pier. Seagulls crowded around us, looking for scraps of food. Occasionally a fight would break out over a chip one of us threw out for them.
We were still sitting there, talking, when the other three suddenly turned their heads and looked behind us. I twisted around to see what was up, to see another boy standing there. He’d obviously come to fish, because he had a fishing rod in one hand and a container of bait in the other. More introductions, and I’d met Bruce, another school friend of Sophie’s. Bruce abandoned his fishing for a time and just sat and talked with us. “See you around,” he said to me, when Sophie decided it was time we moved on. Bruce picked up his rod and began to bait the hook. I waved goodbye as we set off along the pier.
Brad was very interested in my beach buggy, and got excited when I told him to come for a visit and I’d take him for a ride.
“Why don’t we go now?” Sophie asked.
I looked at my watch. It was only just after two o’clock, so we had plenty of the afternoon left. I nodded. “But how do we get there?”
“By boat,” Sophie replied.
“That little dinghy’s too small for four of us,” I protested, “and, anyway, I’d probably get sick!”
“I agree!” said Brad, “I don’t feel safe in that little thing. I always feel like it’s going to fill with water and sink.”
“Bah!” said Sophie. “You’re a pair of wusses. But, don’t worry, there’s a bigger boat we can take. Come on…” and she set off for the boatyard at a fast clip.
It was midweek, and the hire business was not so busy. Sophie pointed out a Wayfarer dinghy. It was quite a bit bigger than her little boat, and looked altogether safer to me. She got her dad’s permission to sail it around to our beach, and half an hour later we were on our way. I was hoping I wouldn’t get seasick, but that turned out to be the least of my worries.
As we rounded the head I was standing in the bow, eager to see what home looked like from out at sea. Suddenly something whacked me hard in the small of my back. The next thing I knew was I was in the water.
I surfaced, spluttering and gasping for breath, to see the boat sailing away from me. Fortunately, the others had seen me go in, and I only had to tread water for a few minutes until they turned and got back to me. Brad and Jode each grabbed a hand and hauled me back on board.
Sophie hugged me and kept telling me she was sorry. Finally, I said, “It’s OK, Sophie. I’m wet, but I’m alive. I’m sure you didn’t do it on purpose.”
Then she explained that, as we rounded the head, she had to change the set of the sail so that we could turn towards the beach. Not being used to sailing with passengers, she’d forgotten that I was in the bow, and the boom caught me as it swung around. When it became obvious what was about to happen, the other three all yelled at me to get down — the natural response of a hearing person, but, of course, of no help at all to me.
Sophie was really distressed about it all, and had tears in her eyes when she hugged me for the umpteenth time. I gave her a peck on the cheek and told her I’d find a way to return the favour one day. Brad and Jodie cracked up at that.
“Oh, Soph, he’s got your measure,” Brad said.
“Well and truly,” added Jodie.
Mother and Father were a little surprised to see me in still-dripping clothes when we got to the house, and laughed their heads off when we explained what had happened. Sophie had expected them to chew her out, and hugged them both when she realised that wasn’t going to happen.
Father enlightened her. “Sophie, accidents happen. We’ve had our share of scares with Alex, but if we protected him so that nothing at all happened he’d never have a life. It’s done, finished, don’t dwell on it.”
After a shower and change of clothes I took Brad down to get the mail; since my parents were so used to my getting it every day they hadn’t given it a thought. I’d become pretty good at driving the buggy and I couldn’t resist showing off a little by getting up a bit of speed and doing a 180 degree handbrake turn when we got to the gate. Brad’s eyes shone with delight. When we got back Jodie wanted a ride, so I took her down to the gate, but more sedately. There was a sharp little hump in the road at one point, so, on the way back I sped over that and gave her a thrill when her whole body lifted off the seat and then crashed down again. As we got out of the buggy she was making all sorts of dire threats.
We filled in the rest of the afternoon by showing Jodie and Brad around. We included the tour of the old lighthouse and the new light, as well as the ‘thinking glade’ as Sophie called her secret spot in the bush — although I wondered how secret it would remain if she kept showing it to more people.
Mother invited the other kids to stay for tea, and after phoning their parents, all accepted. There was much chatter and laughter as we sat around the dining room table eating. Mother caught my eye and gave me a warm smile. I grinned back, knowing that she understood how much it meant to me to have my new friends gathered around our table. In my old life I’d rarely had one friend come to a meal, let alone three at the same time. I jumped up and gave my mother a hug from behind, which made her wipe her eyes. I looked over to Father and he gave me a wink. I smiled broadly; he understood, too.
My friends were looking a bit puzzled, so I explained why I was so happy.
Jodie’s mouth opened in surprise. “You’ve never had friends over before?”
“Only very rarely. No one ever wanted to hang out with me.”
“What fools!” Brad exclaimed, and everyone cracked up laughing.
“Yeah,” said Sophie. “They never knew what they were missing out on.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Alex, you’re awesome!”
I felt my face reddening, but couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear. “Nah, it’s you guys who are awesome,” I signed.
After tea I walked with them down to the beach to see them off. It took all four of us to push the heavier boat into the water, but we got it there eventually. They jumped in, raised the sail, and headed for town.
I walked home slowly, wondering at my good fortune. It had seemed too good to be true when Sophie turned up on our beach that morning. Now, thanks to her, I had two new friends who were just as amazing as she was.
I was crying again by the time I got to the house, but this time the tears were from joy. I gave Mother another hug, just to be sure she knew how much I appreciated her letting my friends stay so long. She hugged me back, then said, “I can see that they’re great kids. You can have them over as often as they want to come.”
That turned out to be pretty often. And not only Brad and Jodie came, but Bruce began to turn up occasionally. We spent time in town together, too. That led to Mother suggesting I got a bike so that I would be more independent. There was nowhere to buy a bike in town, so Brad’s mother took us to the city one day in their family’s van. Her brother owned a bike shop, so it was a combined family visit-bike purchase trip. The other kids mostly had mountain bikes, and Brad urged me to buy one like his, pointing out that the roads around town weren’t really the best for road bikes. I ended up with the exact same model, and could hardly wait to get home to give it a run. I hadn’t owned a bike since I was about eight years old, as some of the places where we lived had not been suitable for bikes.
Some days the group of us would just hang out at the Bayview but my new mobility meant that my friends could take me out of town. There were several tourist spots in and around the town. One of those was a spectacular waterfall, on a river that emptied out to sea a few kilometres north of town. What made it spectacular was that it tumbled eighty metres down a vertical cliff face. I’d been there once with my parents when we were waiting for the work on the house to be done. I liked it, not only for the awesome sight of so much water crashing down, but because I could get a sense of the power in all that water because I could feel it. The whole area around the waterfall vibrated. I was amazed, and actually lay down with my cheek to the ground, allowing the vibrations to pass through me. At first Mother was a bit put out because only the day before she had washed the clothes I was wearing. She relented, though, when she saw the look of delight on my face. The gang rode out there one hot day, and we were all grateful for a dip in the huge pool at the foot of the falls. The pool was held back by a natural rock ledge over which it dropped in another tiny waterfall into the stream below. The waterfall and pool were surrounded by tropical rainforest, so the whole area was shady and cool. The others were amused when I got down so I could feel the vibrations. Because they could hear the roar of the falls none of them had really noticed that they could actually feel it as well. In no time they were all prone like me. That made me realise that they could learn from me, too.
It was so nice there that none of us wanted to leave; the thought of getting back on our bikes and riding back to town was almost too much on such a hot day. I groaned as I picked up my bike. “Why did we come way out here on such a hot day?” I asked no one in particular.
“Like we have lots of cool days to choose from at this time of the year!” came the sarcastic response from Bruce.
“Duh… good point!” I said, grinning.
That got a laugh from the others.
“Doofus!” said Sophie. “At least you don’t have to ride all the way home.”
That was true. In another first for me, I was going to have a sleepover. Brad had asked me to stay at his place overnight. “Yay!” I signed, then hopped on my bike and we rode off.
* * * * *
I wasn’t sure what to expect at Brad’s place. He wasn’t as proficient at signing as Sophie was, but he tried hard, and I appreciated that. I guess we’ll manage, I thought as I rode along, even if we have to use a pad and pen to ‘talk’. He’d told me we would probably spend most of our time playing computer games and watching DVDs. I was fine with computer games as long as I didn’t have to rely on sound to know what was going on, and DVDs were OK if they had subtitles. Perhaps communication wouldn’t be a problem at all!
I’d already met and liked all of Brad’s family, so there wasn’t any problem there. He had younger siblings — a brother who was twelve and a sister who was ten — and they idolised him. They were also very entertaining. I think Byron was destined for a career as a standup comic, and Amy was great at telling a story through mime. She put on a show for us after tea, and then brought tears to my eyes when she told me she’d written it especially for me.
That night when I went to bed I lay awake for ages, thinking about the new friends I’d made over the summer. Where had these wonderful people been all my life?
* * * * *
The following weekend I had another sleepover, this time with Bruce. Although I hadn’t seen as much of him as I had of Brad and Jodie, he’d nevertheless been a significant presence during the holidays, and we’d become good mates.
With two weeks left until school resumed for the new year, everyone was trying to fit as much into their days as they could. Bruce was determined that I should learn to fish, so he dragged me down to a stream near his house at some unearthly hour of the morning. He was confident we’d catch enough fish for his whole family to enjoy for breakfast.
“The sun’s not even awake yet,” I grumbled.
Bruce just laughed and mimed crocodile tears. I thumped him on the arm and he affected an exaggerated stagger and held his arm as if it was broken. Bruce was quieter than the others, but just as much fun when you got to know him.
I watched, through half-open eyes, as he showed me how to bait the hook and then where to drop it into the water. Then he made me do it myself. At first I succeeded only in pricking my finger. Bruce rolled his eyes and dug a Band-Aid out of his backpack. He’d made the baiting look so easy; I discovered I was all thumbs and struggled every time I had to do it. I did manage to catch a fish, though, and Bruce seemed as excited as I was. When we’d caught enough to feed the family we headed home.
Later, we were resting on the back lawn after throwing a basketball around for a while. Bruce hadn’t learned enough Auslan, so we were using a pad and pen to supplement his signing and understanding skills. I was lying on my back looking up at the sky — a favourite pastime since Sophie had introduced me to her ‘thinking glade’.
“How have you enjoyed your first summer here?” Bruce asked.
“It’s been awesome,” I wrote. “I can’t believe how you guys have let me hang around with you. I’ve never had friends like you before. I’m gonna miss you all when school starts.”
“Why?” Bruce asked.
“You’ll all be at school, and I’ll be on my own again.”
“Why? Aren’t you going to the high school?” Bruce looked genuinely surprised and puzzled.
“No, I’ll be home-schooling again. High school wouldn’t work,” I wrote, trying to explain.
“But that sucks! Why can’t you go with the rest of us?”
I looked at Bruce. Why did he seem to have so much trouble understanding what I was saying?
“I can’t HEAR! Duh!” I wrote, somewhat annoyed at him.
“So what?” he wrote in reply. “You’re smart, and you’ve managed OK with all of us. Why not at school?”
Now, that made me stop and think. Because of my past experiences I’d simply assumed that home-schooling was the only alternative for me. My parents hadn’t mentioned anything, so I guessed they had assumed the same.
The truth was, however, that I had managed OK over the summer. My friends had included me in their activities. We’d used various ways — some of them very creative — to communicate. And I’d had more fun than I’d had in my life up to that point.
My mouth must have been hanging open, because Bruce reached across and gently put his fingers under my bottom jaw and pushed up. By the grin on his face he realised that I’d just had a ‘Eureka’ moment.
“Wait here!” he wrote, then disappeared into the house, leaving me to my thoughts.
Would I survive in a hearing environment? I had no doubt I’d do well academically; Mother and Father had seen to it that I’d had a good education so far. They had taught me good study habits, and, perhaps more importantly, had taught me to figure things out for myself. “Question everything!” they’d dinned into me. “Don’t take anything for granted; don’t accept everything at face value.” As a consequence I’d always loved finding out stuff for myself — and at times frustrating those on the receiving end of my questioning.
Lost in the thoughts that Bruce had inspired, I didn’t notice that Brad had arrived until a shadow passed over me.
I sat up, signing, “Hey!”
“Hey,” he replied. He’d no sooner sat down with me than Sophie and Jodie came out of the house with Bruce.
“Um, guys, what’s going on?” I asked. I knew the others hadn’t been planning on joining us — they all had other things to do that day.
“Bruce phoned us,” Jodie said, as if that explained everything.
“I see,” I signed. “But why?”
Sophie rolled her eyes, and I knew I was being dense. She always rolled her eyes at me when she thought I was slow catching on to something. “What’s this about you home-schooling?”
“I’ve always been home-schooled,” I answered, feeling defensive.
“Yes, but that was before. This is now!” Jodie said.
I shook my head, not understanding. Jodie seemed to be talking in riddles.
Brad tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to him.
“Alex,” he began, “you moved around a lot, and only had your parents to help you, so home-schooling was the only option. Before.”
“But now you’re living here permanently, and you have all of us to help as well,” Sophie added.
“So… why can’t you come to school with the rest of us?” Jodie asked.
“But…” I hung my head because my eyes were moist.
“No buts!” Jodie said.
My mouth must have been flapping again, because Bruce closed it for me, gently.
I found my voice again. “You guys want me at school with you?”
“Of course!” said Bruce. “You’re part of the gang. Why wouldn’t we want you with us?”
I hung my head, feeling sheepish and a little ashamed. Why had I doubted them? Why had I assumed that I was a ‘holiday diversion’ and that they would abandon me when they returned to school?
Well, that’s easy! I thought. That’s what’s happened every other time I’ve tried to make a friend. Whenever I got close to someone they moved, I moved, or they decided that being friends with me was too much hard work.
These guys are different, though! came the counterargument. I had to concede that one. No one else in my whole life had taken the trouble to learn Auslan the way these kids did. Certainly, only Sophie had become proficient at it, but they had all tried.
When I thought about it, though, communication with this lot took numerous forms. None of us relied on any one means to indicate what we wanted to say. Touch, gestures, facial expressions and eye movements all played a part when we ‘spoke’. Then there was written communication, and that had taken several forms — from the words scratched in the sand when I met Sophie for the first time on our beach, to pen and paper, and instant messaging online. Signing was there, too, of course, but it was by no means the only way we communicated. What’s more, none of them ever became exasperated or impatient, and we’d had a lot of fun together. Misinterpretations had led to a lot of laughs, and I was continually amazed at the creative ways my friends had found to get their message across. For the first time in my life, I suddenly realised, I had friends who cared. They appreciated me for who I was; never once had they appeared to think of me as ‘the deaf kid’ and someone to be pitied or patronised. They’d just got on with being friends and had expected me to do the same.
“You guys are too much!” I signed, and then dissolved in tears.
Each of the kids hugged me, silently telling me how much they cared.
“So… what’s your answer?” Bruce asked. My friends, gathered with me on Bruce’s family’s back lawn, waited patiently while I pondered these new revelations.
“OK,” I said, “I’ll have to talk to my parents, but I think I’m willing to give it a try.” They erupted in cheers and everyone high-fived me. Except for Bruce; he’d disappeared again.
With everyone telling me how cool it was going to be to have me at school with the rest of the gang, I was on cloud nine. I thought it was cool, too. But there were butterflies in my stomach as I contemplated attending an actual school for the first time in my life. I’d had eight years of home-schooling, and now, a couple of months away from my fourteenth birthday, I’d be a Year 9 student. I’d have to mix with hundreds of other kids from varying backgrounds and with all sorts of attitudes. How well would I cope?
Bruce returned a few minutes later, and asked me, “Can you come back tomorrow? Or you can just stay another night, if you like.”
“I should be able to stay,” I replied. “I’ll just need to text home.”
Texting was another new thing for me. I’d never needed a mobile phone before because I was never far from my parents. As my new friendships deepened over the holidays, and I’d been spending more and more time away from home, Mother had apparently decided I need a way to keep in touch with home. She returned from a trip to the city and surprised me with an early fourteenth birthday present — a brand new smartphone that did just about everything. With it set on vibrate I always knew when a text message arrived. It made me feel more independent, and gave Mother and Father a modicum of comfort knowing that we had an easy and effective way to contact each other if we needed to.
A few minutes later I had permission to stay overnight with Bruce. He gave me a wicked grin when I gave him the thumbs up. I just knew that meant another early morning’s fishing. I groaned inwardly. “Man, I fell into that trap, didn’t I?” I signed.
Bruce managed to look entirely innocent until one of the others wondered why he didn’t just set up a permanent camp at the fishing spot.
“Nah,” I said. “He sleepwalks. He’d probably drown!” I cracked up laughing at my own joke, which got me a hug from Sophie.
“Oh, I love your laugh!” she said, which produced laughs from all of the others. I could kind of hear sounds I made myself, so I had some idea of how my laugh sounded. How it compared with that of other people I had no idea, but Sophie, apparently, had fallen in love with it from the first. The others teased her that the only reason she remained friends with me was my laugh.
* * * * *
Bruce did drag me out of bed at five the next morning, and again we caught enough fish for the family breakfast. In fact, Bruce insisted that we stayed until we had more than enough. The fishing wasn’t the real reason he’d asked me to stay the extra night, I discovered.
We were all seated in the kitchen enjoying the fruits of Bruce’s fishing skills, and my poor attempts to help, when his mother jumped up from the table. “Doorbell,” Bruce indicated.
A few moments later his mother returned with a tall man dressed as if he was on his way to work.
“Hi,” he signed to me, “I’m Trevor McIlwain. I’m Bruce’s uncle.”
“Uh, hi,” I replied. My surprise must have shown on my face because Bruce and his young sister started laughing.
Trevor joined us at the table and Bruce’s mum put a plate of fish in front of him. Now I understood why we’d caught the extra fish. I turned to speak to Bruce, but he shushed me by putting a finger to his lips, and nodded towards Trevor.
“I work for Deaf Services Queensland,” he signed. “One of my duties is to liaise with schools and help them with their efforts to integrate deaf kids into their communities. Bruce thought you might like to know about the resources that would be available to help you at school.”
My friends had come through again! I looked at Bruce, my eyes full of tears, and shook my head. I couldn’t believe these guys!
Bruce just grinned, and managed to look like the cat that got the canary.
Trevor was like my mother — seemingly able to sign at the same time his hands were busy with other things — and he talked as he ate his breakfast. There were numerous ways hearing schools could help deaf kids to fit in, he told me. Teachers could prepare written lessons, and a few teachers were qualified in Auslan so they could sign to their deaf students. Some schools had access to Education Interpreters who could sit in class with deaf kids and interpret for them.
“We can run Auslan classes for schools, to teach staff and students sign language so that they can better communicate with deaf students.”
“Wow!” I signed. I was flabbergasted.
I looked at Bruce.
“We’re going to try to get an Auslan class going at school,” he said. “We’ve already talked about it, and everyone agreed that we’d enrol.”
“I… wow!” Pardon the pun, but I was speechless.
“And if we can’t get a class at school, we’re all going to enrol at the one Uncle Trevor runs in the city,” Bruce added.
I looked at him, amazed. “You… all of you?”
He nodded, grinning.
I hugged him so hard I think I stopped his breathing, and he had to thump me on the back to get me to let go.
“Mum and Dad and I are going to enrol in the classes, too,” Sherry, Bruce’s sister said.
Now, that really boggled my mind. I looked from one to the other. They all nodded.
“We all want to be able to communicate with you,” her mother said.
“Oh, gee…” I burst into tears. I’d been isolated all of my life. Only my parents had taken the trouble to learn how to communicate with me. And, now, in this little country town in the middle of nowhere, I seemed to have found a whole group of people who would go out of their way to help me.
Bruce’s mum had been standing at the kitchen bench. Now she came over to me and pulled me out of my chair and into a warm hug. I could feel that she was speaking. Trevor was in my line of sight and he interpreted: “It’s going to be OK, love,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said when I’d recovered my composure. “I’m just overwhelmed.”
“I can understand that,” she said. “From what Bruce has told us, you’ve had a bit of a rough trot, but you have people around you now who will help. We’ll all help. I know you’re apprehensive about attending school with hearing kids, but it’ll turn out all right. You’ll see!”
I gave her a weak smile as we broke the hug. “Thank you,” I managed to sign.
When Father picked me up that afternoon I was on cloud nine.
* * * * *
The next two weeks were a flurry of activity. Mother and Father agreed that attending school with my friends would have advantages over home-schooling — particularly the social aspect and learning in a group situation — as long as it could be made to work.
The first thing they did was meet with Trevor, to get his perspective on deaf kids in hearing situations and to get all the information he could give them on the resources that would be available to help me.
Then they dragged me along to see the school principal, Mr Chadwick, who was very helpful as well as very keen to see me ‘mainstreamed’. I got the feeling he just wanted another success notch in his belt. He was, however, warm and friendly and very encouraging, and I actually liked him even though I was dubious about his motives. He spoke highly of my friends — evidently they were all high achievers academically, fitted in well socially, and he had no doubt they would support me in every way they could. He was even able to confirm that an Auslan course would be offered at the school during first term, thanks to my friends’ lobbying.
Finally, just to make sure that my friends meant what they said, Mother and Father met with each of them individually, in their own homes and with their parents present. Sophie, Brad, Jodie and Bruce and their parents probably felt like they were being interrogated, but I think they understood that my parents were trying to cover every aspect of my prospective move to ‘normal’ schooling, and that they needed to be sure that my friends’ enthusiasm for helping me wouldn’t dissipate after a couple of weeks. The fact that they had stuck with me all through the holidays was a huge point in their favour.
Reassured as much as they could be Mother and Father gave their approval and for the first time in my life I was enrolled in a mainstream school.
My friends were ecstatic, and insisted on accompanying us when we went shopping for my uniform and school supplies. Mother and Father were a bit nonplussed, but accepted the other kids’ presence with good humour, and even shouted everyone to lunch.
* * * * *
My first day at high school was notable for three things.
The first occurred when I rode down to the gate to wait for the bus. A car pulled up and dropped off a young guy dressed in my school’s uniform. He walked over to me and introduced himself using Auslan. His name was Andrew Pierce and he was a Year 12 student. He explained that he had learned Auslan because his mother was deaf, and he thought I might like some support on the bus. “Normally I’d get on a few stops after you, but I figured it might all be a bit strange on your first day, so I decided to join you here.” What he didn’t mention was that someone — I found out later that it was Bruce’s mother, who was a close friend of Andrew’s mother — had asked him if he’d mind just being there in case I needed help on the bus. None of the kids I knew travelled to school by bus, so I wasn’t expecting to know anyone, and I must admit I had been a bit apprehensive. I had no idea how kids behaved on school buses, and I didn’t expect that I’d be able to communicate with them.
The kids on my bus turned out to be boisterous but fairly well-behaved. When we got on Andrew introduced me and explained that I would not hear if they spoke to me, so not to think that I was snubbing them. Apparently most of them had never known a deaf person and they were intrigued that he and I could communicate by signing. They watched intently as we spoke, and a couple even tried signing for themselves. That produced a few laughs when they got it wrong, but I appreciated their efforts, and told them so. Andrew became a good friend — we shared an interest in history and enjoyed the same novels — and we usually sat together on the bus. It took about 35 minutes to get to school after he got on at his stop, and we had many a lively discussion about an event in the past, or about the merits of a new novel. Other kids often joined in. My fears about the bus trip were unfounded; the other kids treated me well and I never had any problems in all the time I travelled on that bus.
The second was the warm welcome that I received from staff and students. Mr Chadwick welcomed me at assembly and hoped that I would be happy and do well. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but he did mention that this was my first experience of school and he expected the whole student body to look out for me. The school’s newly-appointed Auslan interpreter, an older lady called Betty, was even on the dais, obviously to interpret for me, but also to get the whole school used to seeing her around. Betty’s position was a part-time one, but she was present in all my classes that first day to ensure that my teachers and I understood each other well enough to manage on the days when she would not be present. Betty was my interpreter at school for nearly three years. She turned out to be a great friend and support.
The third was an incident that took place in a corridor. A big lad (and I use ‘big’ in the physical sense — he was taller and chunkier than me — in just about every other sense I could think of he was anything but big) took exception to my standing in front of his locker. Well, I didn’t know it was his locker, and the reason I was standing in front of it was that it happened to be near Brad’s, and I was waiting while he stashed his new books in his locker.
This big guy appeared out of nowhere and started yelling at me. Because I was turned towards Brad, with my shoulder leaning against the lockers, and concentrating on our signed conversation, I didn’t even realise that the kid was there. I found out later that the ‘conversation’ went something like this:
“You’re in front of my locker!” he said, fairly loudly. When I didn’t respond, he got louder. “Move!” When it seemed like I still wasn’t going to respond, he added, “Now!”
When that brought no response from me, he changed tack. “What are you… an idiot? MOVE!” By the last word he was shouting, and people were starting to gather. Finally he gave me a shove. “MOVE, RETARD!”
That was his downfall. A teacher, attracted by the commotion, came up to us just as I staggered backwards into his arms. I think he was more embarrassed than I was. Not having had time to react, I simply fell; he suddenly found himself with an armful of nearly-fourteen-year-old boy — not a good state of affairs in this day and age.
After making sure I was OK, he marched the big kid off towards the office.
When Brad and a couple of others replayed the incident for me, I burst out laughing.
“You had a run-in with Abbott and all you can do is laugh?” one kid said.
“Well, I think he missed the irony,” I explained. “He was calling me a retard… and he was too dumb to notice that Brad and I were signing.”
Abbott, it turned out, was the son of a local bigwig, and thought he was Somebody. Sadly, as is the case with a lot of people like that, he was really just a big kid who liked to throw his weight around. We never saw him again. He was already skating on thin ice after numerous suspensions the previous year. Apparently another, on the very first day of school, was too much for his parents. We heard that they shipped him off to boarding school.
* * * * *
True to their word, Sophie, Jodie, Brad and Bruce all enrolled in the Auslan course, along with a lot of other students, and all of my teachers. Bruce’s parents and his sister were there, too, as was Sophie’s mother. This was no small commitment for any of them. The classes were held on Wednesday evenings. Each class was two hours long, and the course ran for eight weeks. For Bruce’s family and Sophie’s mother the commitment was even bigger: the cost of the course was subsidised for students and teachers at the school, but everyone else had to pay full price. At around $150 per person it wasn’t cheap.
My teachers prepared abbreviated copies of their lesson plans for me so that I could see exactly what each class session would cover. My classmates were happy to provide copies of their notes if I needed them, but usually I didn’t. I soon found out which kids took the best notes, though! I shared most of my classes with at least one of my friends, so if I needed to ask questions and Betty was not present they could usually interpret for me. Of course, as the Auslan course progressed it became easier, because the teachers became more proficient at signing. If one of them got stuck a student was often able to step in and help out. As a last resort we used pen and paper.
My parents were happy with my grades, which were comparable with those I’d achieved during home-schooling. They were especially pleased, however, with my social and emotional development. As the weeks passed I became more outgoing and Father remarked one day that he’d never seen me so happy. Apparently I arrived home from school every day with a smile on my face. I told him he could thank my friends for that. They made school, not to mention life in general, fun.
I was very surprised to find myself involved in school sport. Pretty much a bookworm from an early age, and never having the opportunity to get involved in even street games with other kids, I grew up mostly ignoring sport.
My parents had taught me to swim when I was very young. I enjoyed it because it was something that I could do alone, although I never expected to swim competitively. I never even knew if I swam well or whether I was fast, slow or indifferent. Over the summer I’d spent a lot of time in our bay with my friends and it emerged that I was a pretty fast swimmer, hence Brad’s persuading me to put up my hand to compete in the school swimming sports. For sport the school was organised into houses. To compete in the swimming sports I first had to be chosen to represent my house. The day the elimination races were held I must have been in particularly good form. Either that or the other swimmers were mediocre. I won the event I entered — the Under 14 boys 100 metres freestyle — and that landed me in another event as well, the Under 14 boys 4 x 50 metres relay. The sports took place at the town pool, on a hot Friday a month after school began. Much to my surprise I won my freestyle event, and our relay team came third. The real result of my race didn’t emerge until after the weekend. My win seemed to gain me a new respect. Now I wasn’t just ‘that deaf kid’ who was tolerated. Now I was a deaf kid who also swam well enough to win races, and a lot of people made the effort to get to know me.
* * * * *
With Easter came the end of term and two weeks’ holidays. The weather was still hot, so our gang spent a lot of time at our beach, and some nights Mother found herself cooking for seven instead of just Father, herself and me. Other nights I was invited to tea at one of the others’ homes. Communication at all of my friends’ homes was much easier now that they had all completed the Auslan course.
A special occasion was the night we celebrated my fourteenth birthday. I had asked if my four friends could come for tea, but Mother and Father had grander ideas. The day of my birthday they sent me off to Brad’s place for the day. They had agreed to my friends’ coming, and let me think they were simply organising a special meal and needed me out of the way. However, they had decided to make it a celebration of friendship and growth as well as my adding another number to my age. Unknown to me they invited my friends’ parents and families, as well as Trevor McIlwain, and Andrew Pierce and his mother. She and I hit it off just like Andrew and I had. I spent quite a bit of time talking to her in Auslan — the first time I’d ever had a proper conversation with another deaf person. Mr Chadwick, Betty, and some of my teachers put in brief appearances. Other teachers had prior engagements and weren’t able to attend, although they all sent greetings.
Following a lot of begging by certain siblings, and with parental permission all round, I was allowed to take the younger kids for a spin in the buggy. It was strictly one at a time as there was only one passenger seat, and I was told, on pain of death, to keep the speed down to 40 km/h. They enjoyed the trip to the gate so much I had to take every one of them twice.
We opened the lighthouse and Mother’s studio (now completely set up) and everyone — adults and children — made the climb to the top and enjoyed the view. Games and other activities were laid on for the kids, and everyone had a blast. By the time the food was served we were all pooped and more than ready to sit and take it easier. There was an amazing spread of food and more than one of my friends complained, “I can hardly move!”
“Ah, the old seafood diet,” my father said, rather cryptically. He got a few heads shaking when he added, “You know — you see food and you want to eat it.”
It was an amazing night, and by the time I crawled in to bed after everyone had gone home I was worn out.
* * * * *
The following Monday we returned to school.
This time as I rode my bike down to catch the bus I was full of anticipation rather than apprehension. Minor incidents apart, Term 1 had proved to be a positive experience all round and I was looking forward to returning. The strength of the commitment my friends and their families had made to me had been proven, and it seemed like the whole school had helped.
The gang were waiting at the front door of the school when I got off the bus. Sophie and Jodie took an arm each and, to the amusement of the other kids milling around, we skipped inside. When I looked back, Brad and Bruce were walking behind us. They were both shaking their heads, but had broad grins on their faces.
Yep, I thought. I’d had a sudden revelation: I was no longer worried that my friends would abandon me.
“Yay!” I yelled in my head. “No more loneliness!”
I wish to acknowledge the assistance given by Liza Clews and Trish Galliford of Deaf Services Queensland in vetting this story to check for cultural and factual errors. I am not profoundly deaf (although I do have a hearing loss), and I do not know anyone who is profoundly deaf, so their help was invaluable. Thank you Liza and Trish!
~ Alien Son
Copyright © 2015 Alien Son
Thank you, once again, to Azyclar for his editing skills.