Study Guide

On the Beach Chapter 1

By Nevil Shute

Chapter 1

  • Peter Holmes has just woken up beside his wife, Mary. Peter is a lieutenant commander in the Royal Australian Navy, though he hasn't been to work in a while.
  • Peter's in a good mood. There's still time before their baby daughter, Jennifer, wakes for the day, so he decides to lounge. Nice.
  • Peter's happiness makes sense when he thinks about it, because it was Christmas two days ago. This also means he'll have to report for naval duty in Melbourne later that morning.
  • Mary wakes up. She'd prefer that Peter stay home and "have a day in the shade with her," but knows that her hubby is excited to get back to work (1.6).
  • But Peter can't take the car...for some reason that he doesn't explain. Instead, he's going to ride to Melbourne on a makeshift bicycle-trailer-thing that he put together himself. Hmm…
  • Peter gives us a hint, though: there was a "short, bewildering war" in 1961, soon after Peter and Mary were married (1.14). Apparently, so many bombs were dropped that the Northern Hemisphere has been essentially destroyed. Yikes.
  • Before heading into Melbourne, Peter stops by a local farm to pick up milk for the baby. We are trying so hard not to make a dingo joke right now.
  • The farmer is impressed with Peter's makeshift trailer and asks him to build one for him. Peter agrees; he'll just need to pick up some motorcycle tires later.
  • After dropping the milk off at home, Peter heads off. He really doesn't know what to expect, though: since the war, the Australian Navy has been reduced to an eensy-weensy force.
  • When Peter arrives, he's surprised to learn that he's meeting with the admiral. Oh-la-la! The admiral tells Peter that he's now the official "liaison officer" on the American submarine Scorpion (1.48).
  • Scorpion is captained by a fellow named Dwight Towers; Peter has met him a few times before. The dude has a pretty crazy story.
  • Dwight's nuclear-powered sub was actually at sea when the war went down. He quickly realized how bad things were upon emerging to the surface because all contact with the States was gone.
  • The sub eventually made its way down to Australia—due to its southern location, the country remained fairly isolated from the radioactive toxicity that now coated the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Here's all we know about the war, bee-tee-dubs: the whole thing began when Albania started the "Israeli-Arab War," which in turn started the "Russo-N.A.T.O. War," which in turn started the "Russo-China War" (1.52). Phew. This massive conflict lasted a mere thirty-seven days.
  • While in Australia, Dwight and his crew received help from the Australian Navy. He then went on a supply run for another American sub located in Rio de Janeiro before returning.
  • Back in the present, the admiral informs Peter that this mission will take about a year. They'll be traveling around the Pacific to perform recon on other major cities.
  • This worries Peter—if the trip takes a year, he might miss the big one if "the radioactivity spread south more quickly" than estimated (1.63). Oh, man—this got real dark real fast.
  • Peter and the admiral come to an agreement: Peter will go on two missions with the ship. After he returns from the second, they can make a better guess at what he should do.
  • After the meeting concludes, Peter decides to go chat with Dwight. He finds him chilling with a bunch of other Americans on the aircraft carrier Sydney.
  • Peter and Dwight have a lunch together, during which Peter learn that Americans aren't allowed to drink while on duty. Without any booze to console him, Peter goes on a tour of Scorpion.
  • As Peter is about to leave, he impulsively invites Dwight to visit his family that weekend. After all, the dude must be pretty bummed out about what's happened to his homeland…
  • Although he hesitates, Dwight accepts the invitation. He and Peter decide to meet at the train station on Saturday.
  • Peter heads home. After picking up the tires for the farmer, he returns tells Mary that he "invited [Dwight] down for the week-end" (1.130). To his surprise, Mary is horrified.
  • Apparently, this isn't the first time our happy couple has done this: they invited an Englishman over once who just ended up weeping as soon as he saw Peter's baby. Awkward.
  • Luckily, Mary has an ace up her sleeve: Moira Davidson. Moira is a wild-child, a charmer who drinks hard and parties harder, and she can surely keep Dwight's mind off the nuclear holocaust.
  • On Saturday, Peter meets Moira at the tram station, and she looks done up to the nines. Still, Peter can tell that she partied hard last night.
  • Dwight arrives. He's immediately impressed by Moira's fancy ride: a junked car that has been transformed into a wagon. She even has a "high spirited grey mare" to pull her along (1.164).
  • Peter heads home, while Dwight and Moira stop for drinks: a double brandy for her and a whiskey for him. They vaguely flirt and Moira invites him to a sailing race that afternoon.
  • Later, Dwight, Moira, and Peter arrive at the sailing race. Dwight and Moira are going to be competing as a team while Peter sits back and watches.
  • Unfortunately, the boat flips over halfway through the race. Moira takes this opportunity to "accidentally" tear her bra off, which is a brilliant move.
  • After the race, the trio goes out for dinner. Once they're finished, they head back to the Holmes' home; there are several other couples coming over tonight for a shindig.
  • Let's fast-forward to the end of the night: Dwight and Moira are sitting in the garden, basking in their overwhelming sexual tension.
  • Moira is wasted. Dwight tells her about his upcoming mission and repeats rumors about a mysterious "radio transmission still coming through from [...] Seattle" (1.281).
  • The topic then shifts to radiation. By now, everyone knows that a giant radiation cloud is heading straight for them and will be there some time next year. And that's bad. Really bad.
  • This depresses Moira, because duh. Upset, she goes inside and grabs another drink.
  • Moira's made a mistake, though: she got whiskey instead of brandy. Never mix 'em, kids. This pushes her over the edge, and she breaks down into tears.
  • Dwight doesn't know what to do, so he heads inside and asks Mary to take care of her friend.