Published Australian Love Stories, ed. Cate Kennedy, Inkerman & Blunt 2014
Sometimes in the winter, down this way, it is difficult to recognise the break between sea and sky; a weak pastel light fuses them into a minty peace. From her kitchen Natalie has a limited view of the sea, a blinking patch through the gums at the edge of the fence, but she knows from the light that today will be icy and indistinct. She loves this effect, this neutral merging, the wind’s ripple the only gesture of life. She tries to breathe the fluidity, her back to last night’s dishes.
In the shambles of the kitchen her ideals are lost. The children swear at each other; she does not bother to stop them. She threads from the window through the remains of breakfast to the coffee, pours another cup, lukewarm and bitter.
The clouds lift and a dull steeliness sears through the fusion.
They are late. She thrusts her feet into thick socks and boots, her arms into a jumper. Russ is already on his leash, Sarah struggling to hold him back. Natalie pulls the door behind her and gulps a shock of cold air. Scott has started walking; already he has climbed the driveway and is out of sight. By the time Natalie and Sarah have clumped to the top of the drive he is halfway along the road. He allows his mother only the pretence of walking with him. He scuffs his feet and his shoulders sag, but still his legs move quickly, the distance between them increases.
They plod in silence, panting mist into the icy air. Natalie’s ears are frozen; she has forgotten her hat again. Sarah’s hair hangs in tendrils from her beanie, chipped nail polish a flash of lurid colour on her skinny fingers. She brings them to her mouth and blows deeply. In the distance the surf roars, and Natalie’s head is full of her heartbeat after the steep driveway climb. The pounding gush of blood makes her frozen ears ache.
At the corner of the school she turns away from her children’s receding backs. When she reaches Wattle Lane she releases Russ from his lead. He cantors quickly ahead, his tongue lolling for the sea scent. By the time she emerges from the track onto the sand he is some distance along the beach, frolicking at the edge of the water, his coat golden against the shore. Natalie pulls her hands from her pockets and swings them loosely, working her shoulders. The tide is out, the waves lap calmly at her feet as she follows the dog along the beach.
The horizon holds only one ship, loaded so heavily with containers that its hull is barely visible. It labours silently, almost immobile from this distance. She shields her eyes and squints against the glare, aware of the black dog that has emerged from the dunes and galloped up to Russ. The two dogs tussle happily, their noses in the air, before Russ takes off at full pelt, the black dog hurtling behind.
Natalie loiters, watching the dogs disappear around the curve of the shore, listening to the pound of their paws on the wet sand, before she suddenly turns to the track that the black dog appeared from. The scrubby bushes seem to hum as she strides through them.
The door is ajar. She kicks aside the sandy collection of gum boots and sneakers discarded around it. Her breathing feels tight and her stomach flutters with dread. She is never sure. He sits at the kitchen table; a chipped mug steams coffee into the air. A second mug waits beside him. By the sink his dishes are washed and neatly stacked, the benches wiped. Wordlessly, he pours for her.
Natalie kicks off her boots and wrenches her jumper over her head. Ignoring the coffee, she circles the table and straddles him on his chair. He looks at her without expression. She presses her hands against his chest. He remains motionless momentarily, then sweeps aside his coffee cup, circles his arms around her hips, and pulls her into a hard fierce kiss. Their teeth scrape and her elbows protrude over his shoulders, like stunted wings. Without a word he lifts her, still straddling him, and carries her along the dim hallway.
It is primal rather than passionate, their sex, frenzied and gasping; hands that grab and push. His rhythm is determined, she bucks against his thrusts, wanting it to end and never stop. Within her the pain, and he groans, catches his breath. She loves this groan, it is his only show of surrender. He collapses onto the bed beside her and fights to control his breathing. Her heart pounds against her ribs as she stretches luxuriously, still joined to him at the groin. She always feels lithe after sex, sinewy and renewed. He shifts and she feels him slide from her. Outside the prefab walls a breeze is starting, the tea-tree shakes lightly against the house. He reaches beside the bed for a box of tissues, hands her some and begins to clean himself up.
From the kitchen comes the sound of a scuffle, and the clacking of dogs’ claws on lino. A black nose pushes through the bedroom door, tongue lolling. Natalie rolls off the bed and walks to the window. Far out to sea the container ship is merely a speck, over-laden but heading into the waves anyway. She begins to gather her clothes. In the cold bathroom she squats in the bathtub, and splashes water between her legs, rubs her face. She walks naked and dripping back into the bedroom, where he still lies on his back, his arms behind his head, watching her.
She stands in front of him. ‘Ask me to stay.’
He looks at her, then throws her jeans over. ‘Go home,’ he says.
At home the shower is on. Russ pants into the kitchen and sprawls on his blanket. She makes tea and sits at the table waiting for it to brew. The shower stops, and Dale comes in, drying his hair. He looks worn, and his reddish stubble is thickening towards a beard. Crow’s feet reach for his hairline. Shift work has aged him, the hours a slow, silent corrosion. She pours the tea.
‘How was work?’
A shrug. He slumps at the table, takes the tea. ‘Walking?’
‘Took the kids to school, Russ to the beach.’
He nods absently. ‘See John?’
She shakes her head no, directing her eyes into the milky hue of her tea. She still throbs, but it is subsiding into the dull echo of sensation. Outside the sun has burnt through the winter clouds; a muted blue sky ends abruptly at the thriving turquoise of the ocean.
Dale pushes his empty cup aside. ‘I’m beat,’ he says. ‘I’m gonna crash.’
Alone again in his kitchen, he sighs and fills the kettle, gazing out of the window at the line of tea-tree bordering the yard. The morning’s silence – discounting the thundering of the beach over the dunes – has resumed, but without its earlier peace. Natalie has jarred the winter quiet, leaving him heavy and empty in her wake. He hates even thinking about it; he doesn’t know why he does it, why he keeps leaving his door ajar. He is making a godawful mess, but somehow it seems to be beyond him to stop. It has something to do with Selena leaving, it is as if she has taken his safety guard with her, his sense of control. And Natalie seems to hone in on this weakness, as though she has sensed this loss. He wouldn’t even call it lust, more like a connection, a temporary bridge across the void that swallows his days now. They touched each other off like an electric spark, an ignition that needs more than his breath to extinguish it.
He takes her empty cup to the sink and leaves it on the bench to drain.
While Scott huffs over his homework, she tries to scrub the burnt egg from the pan. The remains of what should have been an omelette litters the kitchen around her. From the next room a huge cheer erupts from the TV. Someone must be close to big money.
She decides to forget the pan and just leave it to soak. She’ll deal with it in the morning. Her wine glass is almost empty; as she carries it across to the cask the kitchen door is pushed open and a bog black dog trots across the threshold, tail wagging.
‘Theo!’ Her stomach lurches.
‘Hey boy!’ calls Scott, pushing aside his homework and greeting the dog with enthusiasm. Behind it a figure appears in the doorway. He enters the room quietly, showing no sign of the discomfort that is making her hands tremble. His apparent ease infuriates her, but also makes her think with longing of his kitchen, where everything is neatly stacked against the roar of the sea beyond.
In the mess of this kitchen he pulls off his beanie and rubs his sandy hair back into life.
‘Hey Uncle John,’ sings Scott, as Theo leaves him and returns, tail wagging, to his owner.
‘Scott.’ He gives her the briefest of looks. ‘Nats. Dale in?’
‘Watching TV,’ she answers, her back turned. Behind her he nods.
‘Been to the beach today?’ he asks Scott.
‘Yeah, went down after school, but not much happening.’
‘Nah. Some guys floating on their boards, nothing major.’
The man and his nephew leave the kitchen together, with an ease so beyond Natalie that she feels she could choke. In the other room the television is turned down and she hears Dale come to life. She stands alone in the shambles of her kitchen, listening to the hum of their talk and laughter, and knows that this is the only possible result of the situation, that even in the fading winter light the horizon is still there, deliniating boundaries. She closes the curtains against the sea’s rhythm, gulps a large mouthful of wine and sweeps the broken eggshells in front of her into the bin.