Queenscliff – a sense of place
‘My heart pounded as I noted the empty beds and the partially opened tent flap. The girls were gone.’
My two daughters disappeared from the Queenscliff caravan park just after sunrise in January, 1985. I didn’t hear them leave their bunks. Nor did I hear the annexe unzip just enough to release the girls out onto the narrow dirt track that separated our two rows of camping sites. It was the intense silence that eventually drew me from deep sleep. The caravan was bereft of any sound – disturbing. I couldn’t hear the girls moving in their beds nor sighing as they sometimes did when turning from side to side on the squeaky, narrow canvas. There was just no sound.
I crept down the caravan steps into the annexe, unsure about everything. My heart pounded as I noted the empty beds and the partially opened tent flap. The girls were gone. I called to my husband and stepped out onto the track. There was nobody in sight, anywhere. Everything was still – unusually still for a caravan park. I ran to the bowling club gate towards the bottom of the track. Nothing. I turned and raced up the track towards the toilet block, then around the entire top park looking everywhere and finding nothing.
My husband was standing outside our van when I returned. I called to him to check inside every caravan. The girls were at home in most vans along our track and we had often found them happily enjoying home cooking during the day. People loved them. It had become a game to call for them and hear soft giggles in response as we popped our heads in to see if they were with this or that family. As we checked every caravan and woke families in our searching, panic found its roots within me. I ran to the oval. I ran to all the places we often went during a day. Nothing.
People joined the search and the weight of loss and fear grew within me as moments became minutes, and longer. The girls were only two and three years old and they were gone. Left on an adventure or, unthinkable, they had been taken. Tears fell as I shivered on that track, tremulous with dread for each minute that the children were not found, not discovered. Somebody mentioned the police. Reality too much to bear. I was surrounded by campers when the sound of a vehicle nearby turned our heads in unison. A police car was slipping along, towards us, two officers in the front seat.
Hysteria was not far as I stood in my pyjamas, wretched and filled with the worst of all fears. I stretched to look in the back seat. It was empty and dread was overwhelming. The police car stopped beside me and the officers eased themselves out onto the track. People moved back as if to give them room. One officer pointed behind us, back along the track, at another vehicle drawing near.
Turning back to me, he explained that they had found my girls playing at the bull ring, at the lookout just outside the park gate. They had stopped and asked the girls about their mum and dad, but the elder child would not speak with them because they were strangers. They had refused to get into the police car, choosing to stand their ground, confident in what they had been taught about stranger danger.
The story continued. Big Geoff, a local fisherman and bowler, happened to be sitting in his car at the lookout reading the morning paper when he noticed the children with the police officers. He approached to see what was going on. ‘Big Geoff,’ the girls called as they recognised him. They happily agreed to get into his car as he was no stranger. The police were highly amused by it all, as they pointed to the girls, just visible, smiling, in the back seat of Big Geoff’s car.
There was laughter as the girls got out and ran to us. The ubiquitous relief of laughter. I cried, guilt all over me. I had failed to wake when the girls got up, failed to hear the zip as it opened the canvas door. I had failed as a mother in the worst possible way. The girls, however, were elated at their adventure and thrilled be the focus of the large group that milled around our van that morning. Everyone was smiling, retelling the story as others wandered along the track to see what the commotion was all about.
It wasn’t long before the story got around. Queenscliff is a small place and we knew many locals. The girls were thrilled with their celebrity as we walked around town that afternoon. The ladies at Eddie George’s welcomed them with hugs and smiles. Ivan gave me a wink as we paid for our groceries in the supermarket. The milkman gave the girls flavoured milk, and the baker, a roll. I had to let my guilt slip away to enjoy people’s kindness and fun as the tale of the two children who refused to get into the police car took on its own momentum.
I took it all in and cherished this town that gave us such happy days across many decades. Swimming, making sand castles, walking, talking, meeting people and passing the time of day, enjoying barbecues and cooking fundraising fish dinners at the bowling club. Tennis, bowls, church, water, social groups, Queenscliff always felt like a vibrant community and we were part of that.
Queenscliff became a second home for the girls. Their names are on the tennis club honour boards and they have worked and lived in the town over the years. Twenty years after my daughters crept out of their beds seeking adventure, my husband’s ashes splashed on the waves down below the lookout as I said goodbye to a life together. More recently, heartbreakingly, the ashes of a young woman slipped onto more white-topped waves, the mother of her own two small children, and who, years before had led her little toddler-sister out of bed, unzipped the annexe door, walked down the track, around the oval, through the park gates and out to the bullring to play on the playground.
Queenscliff has become my refuge. It keeps me safe as I grieve and try to find my way – the library, cafés, the harbour, the ocean view lookout and the streets of houses, so many of which remain intact after so many years. What made it safe and joyful for my children makes it safe and joyful for me. My grandchildren visit each school holidays and they know it almost as well as their mother knew it. People ask when they are coming down from Sydney. My little grandson, Charlie, loves it as much as I. We visit the same places over and over and he greets people confidently and caringly in his joy of life. People adore him.
Sometimes, we walk backwards along the footpath in the main street near the bookshop, and sometimes we walk sideways, just for variation and fun. I cannot imagine Queenscliff ever losing its essence, the spirit that sees change and constancy, caring about the world, and its community.
By Pauline Parker
A Sense of Place, Queenscliff Literary Festival