Cowry Dice and Lizard Handles

It glistened in the gentle wash of the intertidal zone. He stooped down and picked it up. For a man approaching ninety he was remarkably agile.

Here, check this out, George,” he said as he handed the shell to his step-grandson, who was now an adult and a parent himself.

Nice cowry, Door?” Funny the nicknames that stick.

It certainly is. How shiny is that one, eh?” George went to hand it back. “No, keep it. Maybe give it to your daughter.”

George put the shell in his pocket. He had a jar full of these shells at home; most of them given to him by Door, back when he was just a kid. Back when they all lived up in Queensland. It would be a competition at times to see who could find the best cowry shell – the one that had been subjected to the least amount of sandpapering by the perpetual motions of the ocean on the shoreline. He also had a jar filled with shiny black sea beans that also show up occasionally on the beach. They’d been given to him by Door’s wife, Moo. She made bracelets and necklaces from these. Moo was his blood grandmother, or whatever you call the relations that are not step or in-law. Moo was his mum’s mum. Families can get complicated.

Door and Moo live on an acreage down on the south coast of New South Wales. It is a special place that their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, and so on down the generations, come to visit – sometimes for a weekend, sometimes even for months – there’s plenty of room. From their place you can walk to the beach through a national park, or you can hop into the blue canoe and paddle it down a tannin-stained creek and across a shallow lagoon over to the beach’s sand dune. Maybe once every two or three years the lagoon will empty out into the sea. You need a lot of rain for that to happen, and when it does break through, to be flushed clean, releasing fish and getting new stock, Door will inevitably say to Moo, as they stand and watch the power of nature, “Do you want to paddle over to En Zed?” And she will smile, but not encourage him.

Door. Can you find cowry shells everywhere in Australia?” asked George, ever curious.

Yes, you can. And you can find them all over the world. They were once used as money in parts of Africa and in India as well. And did you know if you have six of them you can use them as dice?” Door explained the method: “When you roll a cowry shell it will land either shiny side up or the other way showing its aperture, the side like a toothy grin. So you roll six of them and count the grins.”

George smiled, but did not encourage him. Door could go on and on if he got started, his head was full of all sorts of stuff. But if you didn’t ask too many questions, Door was equally happy just being – good company, no words needed. Today, George just wanted to be. To be at the beach, the beach deserted of other humans. To be with Door, the zany old step–grandfather who he can’t remember ever not being around. Door and Moo had been a constant in his life, a comfortable constant. They never had expectations and possessed a zest for life that seemed so rare these days.

They continued in silence walking along the length of the beach down to the rock platform.

Many years before when Door and Moo first moved here from the Sunshine Coast, Door took George and his brother Harry, and cousin Kate, out onto the rock platform at low tide to get some cungevoi for bait. George and Kate were about ten – just old enough to go beach fishing later that night with Door. Harry, only seven, knew he was not allowed to go. He was dirty about that and started smashing limpets with a rock. George remembers the fury in Door’s eyes. It was the only time he’d seen a hint of anger in the man. Harry saw it too and dropped the rock. “This sucks,” he said and he walked off.

Let him go,” said Door to the other two, “he’s old enough to walk home by himself.”

George was worried. He thought his mum would be annoyed that Harry was let to walk off alone. But this was not suburbia, and a long way from where the recent abduction of a ten year old had struck fear into the hearts of the nation and young parents alike. George watched his brother disappear over the dune as Door cut open a sea urchin to share some roe.

Here you go, kina, bushtucker. Better than caviar!”

The two ten year olds watched with disgust and amusement as this crazy man sucked out the bright orange slop with relish. There was no way George was going to give it a try but cousin Kate tried it.

That’s not bad,” she said. Then she turned to Door and pulled a face indicating that she didn’t really like it but was in on the caper to George to try it. “Come on George, it’s bushtucker. One day it may be all we have to eat.” She was a smart one that Kate.

George broke the silence. “Remember that day we got the cunjevoi and you ate that orange stuff inside the sea urchin?”

Yes, I do. You wouldn’t have a bar of it but I recall your cousin Kate gave it a shot. I remember too that that was the day Harry chucked a wobbly and stormed off because I wouldn’t let him come night fishing.”

Yep. It was. And he stubbed his toe on the way home.”

That didn’t help the whole hullabaloo.”

No, it didn’t.”

The two men without speaking further mulled over the memory of a rare moment of disagreement in the extended family’s south coast history. Rachel, Harry’s mum was not happy about her son being left out from the night fishing trip, nor about him being let walk off by himself.

But it’s not fair if the other two kids are going,” she said.

Sometimes things are not fair, Rachel. But it’s not really about fairness. Harry is not ready yet. If anything it would not be fair on the older kids. He’ll have plenty of chances to go fishing in his life.”

The issue of age appropriateness got thrashed out well and proper that afternoon. Rachel and Door debated the matter from every which way, there was some heat, but thankfully a fundamental respect prevailed. Moo stayed out of it and decided to take the grandkids into town for an ice cream. She was relieved when she got back to find her husband and daughter laughing as they stood side by side in the kitchen, preparing a big salad for dinner.

Hey Door. What about that house you and Moo used to stay in up at Alex Heads?”

Oh that place. That was a real treat for us.”

There were plenty of cowry shells on that beach. I remember that house. It had a centipede on the toilet window that I thought was real. And the hall cupboards had lizard handles.”

Yes, that’s right. They are lovely memories, George. Thank you. You know the woman that owned that house, she hardly knew Moo and I, but she was so generous to let us stay there whenever she was away. She had absolutely no expectations of us either. Purely unconditional. I’ll never forget her. Jane Major was her name.”

George quizzed, “Wasn’t it Jane Minor?”

No, it was definitely major.”

At first, George thought Door’s memory must be going. But he thought again and laughed under his breath – Door was just as likely being cryptic. The two men, with nearly fifty years age difference between them, walked back to the blue canoe.

As they paddled across the lagoon to the sound of a whistling kite, George thought about showing his daughter how to use cowry shells for dice and Door thought about the many beautiful sunrises he had shared with Moo at Jane’s house by the beach at Alex Heads.