Wednesday, October 22, 2008

1969 - Ilario lost

The grey surf had welded itself to the grey of a sullen late-summer sky, on an afternoon when the ocean’s horizon seemed less than a ship length offshore. Those boiling, eccentric waves should have been enough of a warning. Yet after a solid hour’s work-out on Bellambi beach, towards the close of classes, we were hot, and the water cold. Besides, we were invincible and 15.

School was less than 300 yards away, and we’d only be in those waves for minutes. Plenty of time to get back. Get changed. Get on our bikes and trains. Get home.

The sandbank was deceptively soft underfoot; calm despite snapping, snarling frothing salt water thrashing in at us at all angles. Before any of us could comprehend, the entire class was rushing forward, fast into deeper water. Into instant dark terror. We were being pulled by a savage force that suddenly showed no mercy.

The harder I swam against the force, the more it wanted me. The more it wanted my classmates. The more it was determined to have us all. The Devil Is Making Me Do It, it seemed to scream. Panic swelling inside. The taste of salt water climbed my throat, scoured the back of my nose. Sand scraped my chest, my back, tore at my hair. I swam like life depended on finding energy I didn’t believe I could muster.

Then we were clear enough, several of us, to struggle against the tugging. Sea down below our hips, then below our knees, then below our ankles, freeing us enough to collapse, face first, into the cold lumpy sand. Then more of us struggled to the sand, face first, panting our panic away.

Just as the light grey rain started falling.

Father Lionel Dean was running desperately back and forth, counting all his charges, realising in his agony that one was missing.

Ilario Ceroni had never been a strong athlete. We never thought of him ever being a strong swimmer. He’d always been quiet.

It must have been an hour of us waiting in hope, watching Father Dean thrashing through that killing surf, before we realised Ilario wasn’t coming back. Wasn’t getting changed. Wasn’t riding his bike or the train. Wasn’t going home. By then other teachers were at the beach. Then police arrived, and the tragedy slammed into us all as volunteers pushed the surf club’s boat out through the raging swell.

When I finally got home, I found it impossible to find words to tell Mum what had happened. I was filled with a grief I’d never felt before, one all the sharper because it could have been any one of us. It could have been me. Unlike other, impersonal tragedies, I had a front row seat.

I simply could not imagine the fathomless grief his parents felt that night. They, nor any of us, ever saw Ilario again. He’d left home, gone to school, then gone to sea. Forever.


Blogger Nic Chaplin said...

Thanks for this story Pete. I also attended St Paul's College but later than you. I was there 1979 - 1982 (the last year before it merged with Holy Cross College to become Holy Spirit College). Fr Dean was my year master in Year 9 (1981) so he had a long stint at the school. His beloved football fields got underground piping to keep them from getting slushy in the rain while I was there. He died in 2003.
Ilario must have been incredibly frightened before actually drowning that day. There is a mass every year dedicated to the deceased staff and students. I noticed Ilario's name on the list and remembered reading this story. Your writing is very engaging. These essays should be a book.

11:29 PM  

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