Blood on the sand

Mar 03, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

January in Sydney has always been hot and the Western suburbs, where my friends and I grew up, have always been hotter. In my neighbourhood in the 1960s, homes were generally modest three-bedroom fibro/tile ‘hot boxes’. My family didn’t own a car, a telephone, or a backyard pool, let alone mod cons like a colour television, computer, and air-conditioning. The municipal pools were packed with swimmers and were, I suspected, full to overflowing with disgusting bacteria.

I escaped from the stifling summer heat that blanketed the suburbs by heading to the beach with my then-best friend, Heather, and because it has a train station, our destination was always Cronulla. As the crow flies, Cronulla is nearly 40 km from my then home and substantially further away by public transport.

Affectionately known as ‘red rattlers’, the trains had open doors and windows with nothing but common sense preventing passengers from sticking their heads out or hanging rakishly onto the floor-to-ceiling poles at the open doors. It seems to me that during the summer holidays when the train was full of teenagers, such antics were the norm.

Heather and would sit inside the train carriage, whispering and giggling, sharing our longings about first kisses and friendship rings. Though we were too shy to flirt, we would admire the teenage boys, often yahooing in the standing-room-only area near the open doors of the carriage. Their stripy towels slung rakishly over their shoulders, talking loudly and smoking cigarettes, the boys set our hearts aflutter. They rarely gave us a second look.

Once at the beach, the surf was always quick to remind me that I was out of my natural habitat. Heather and I would frolic for a while, but before long I would grow tired of being swept up, churned around, swallowing saltwater, and then being dumped in the shallows. Anyway, I was always fearful that the dark shadow lurking in the swelling wave was a shark.

Out of the water, Heather and I enjoyed lounging around on our beach towels, imagining we looked glamorous. We lingered over our packed lunches and watched seagulls fight over morsels we threw in their direction. Sometimes we walked to Wanda at the northernmost end of Cronulla beach to watch wannabe surfies sledding down the sand dunes on corrugated pieces of cardboard.

By the time we joined the growing tide of sunburnt teenagers heading home, we were damp and gritty with sand stuck between our toes, in our undies (or cossies if we hadn’t changed), hair, and in our ears. We contemplated the long train ride with tired resignation. When I look back on those days, I note how much has changed. First, young teenagers (Heather and I were both fifteen) were routinely allowed to make unsupervised journeys on public transport to the beach (or anywhere). With mobile phones and instant communication decades away, teenagers who were out and about in the 1960s could not be contacted until they returned home. I cannot imagine that happening today.

Second, while teenagers may still engage in attention-seeking behaviour on our airconditioned trains, the doors, and windows remain firmly closed. The improvement in passenger safety is obvious. Last, we were only vaguely aware of the dangers of sunburn and rarely used products to minimise the risk of skin cancers. I mention this in particular because my then-best friend Heather who was once a brilliant mathematician and photographer, was also a mad keen fan of water sports and died from melanoma at the age of 36.

There is yet another Cronulla beach memory that stands out for me. You see, Heather and I were both at Cronulla on 11 January 1965. On that day, two other best friends from the ‘burbs’, fifteen-year-olds Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, also caught the train to Cronulla. They were accompanied by four of Marianne’s younger siblings. When Marianne and Christine left the little ones to play on the beach to go exploring the sand dunes at Wanda (at the northern end of Cronulla Beach), the two friends were brutally murdered, stabbed, and bludgeoned to death.

Despite extensive and ongoing investigations, Marianne and Christine’s killer has never been found. Marianne and Christine didn’t go home licking the salt off their lips as Heather and I did that day. They didn’t go home at all! Though Heather also died young, she had the opportunity to succeed in her chosen career and continued to enjoy her outdoor sports for another twenty years or so before succumbing to melanoma. Then there is me. Nearly 60 years on from the Wanda murders, I am happily retired. I have travelled, enjoyed a rewarding career, pursued my many interests, had children and grandchildren, and so much more.

I often wonder what might have been if Heather and I had been the ones walking in the sand dunes or if Marianne Schmidt and Christine Shorrock hadn’t gone to Cronulla that day. I have led a fortunate life, but I won’t forget them, Marianne and Christine (or Heather), and I hope that one day the killer will be identified.

Note: On 11 January 1965, best friends, Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, went to the Wanda beach near Cronulla in Sydney. They were accompanied by four of Marianne’s youngest siblings. Marianne and Christine were brutally murdered in the sand dunes. Despite extensive and ongoing investigations, their killer has never been found.


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