When I was a child new to Perth, everyone I knew lived in the dunes. Some people lived in the loose white limestone sand near the ocean. I thought of them as the Sand People. Every afternoon the fierce sea wind, which they dismissed as The Breeze, blew their sand into the air and scalloped and corrugated their properties.
Sun and wind had rearranged the appearance of the Sand People as well – tanned, freckled, scabbed and bleached them. With their darker skins, red eyes, raw noses and permanent deep cracks in their bottom lips, they looked nothing like Melbourne people.
Some were as eroded as the cliffs, their noses and ears worn and peeled away, so that grown men had the snubbed features of boys. Around their edges – noses, ear tips, cheeks, shoulders – they were pink and fraying. Shreds of skin poked up from their general outline and fluttered in the sea breeze. Boys bled if they smiled too fast.
From a distance, most of the adults seemed stained a smooth reddish-brown, like my paint-box burnt sienna, but close up at the beach, walking behind them down the wooden ramp to the sand, you saw they were stippled like people in newspaper photographs, spotted with hundreds of jammed-together freckles and moles – brown and black on a pink background.
The women had chests and backs like leopards. The men and boys all looked tough but relaxed, even sleepy. They were slow smilers, and I could see it was because they were being careful of their split bottom lips.
I wanted desperately to be like the Sand Children. I envied the confidence with which they peeled sheets of skin from their shoulders and passed them around for comparison at the Saturday afternoon pictures. The aim was to peel off a perfect unbroken strip of skin from shoulder to shoulder. I was filled with wonder that in this delicate parchment you could see every pore.
Some boys ate themselves. Their scabs of course – even Melbourne boys ate those – but also nose skin, cheek skin, forehead skin and especially shoulder skin. By now I was impressed, but not all surprised, by boys who ate their own flesh. Sometimes washed down with Fanta.
In the world of sand, life generally seemed strange and risky. In a place smelling of coconut oil, hot human skin, drying kelp and fried onions, I thought anything could happen. Where else but the white sand could there be such prospects for pleasure and danger?