Shortlisted Wet Ink Short Story Prize 2010. Published in Wet Ink Shortlist edition, June 2011.
The caravan park is cheap but not very clean. At other times this might have bothered her, but she is not very clean either and she’s pissed off with Jed, so she shrugs and starts digging in her purse as if looking to lighten it of change.
The proprietor hands her a barely legible receipt and she tries not to watch the long wisps of hair that rotar round his head in the blast from his fan. The faded sign behind him says his name is Jim and he welcomes her. He barely glances up, keeping his eyes on his newspaper, forearms stretched along its sides to stop it fighting the breeze from the fan.
‘So,’ she tries, ‘is there much work around here?’
She’s not really interested, but finds herself wanting to pierce Jim’s indifference; have an excuse to loiter in the cooler air of the office, knowing that when she slides open the screen door the heat will embrace her like bandages.
Jim’s eyes flicker up and scrape over her clutter of jewellery, her trim waist carefully displayed above the Thai fisherman’s pants she purchased – on her credit card – in a suburban Westfield shopping centre. He has seen so many of her he is not even amused.
‘What sorta work you do?’
She rises to the bait of his challenge, shrugs an indifferent Been-There-Done-That, and tries to hold his gaze. ‘Not bothered. Anything really.’
‘Shouldn’t have any trouble then. If yer not bothered.’
The heat is a body blow. As she slides the door shut behind her Jim calls out.
‘You could try the fish factory.’
Jed has parked the van on the dusty patch assigned to them, as close to the spindly paperbark as he could manoeuvre. But with the sun directly overhead it won’t give them any shade till the late afternoon, if at all. He has spread the blue tarp on the ground beside the open van and is dragging out their gear, dumping it into a careless pile. Around them a clutch of other campers sprawl under awnings or in patches of shade, legs stretched.
Jed has taken off his T-shirt; his dark ponytail straggles against the sweat on his back. He looks good, she thinks. The dirt and sweat make him look a bit rough. He only glances at her though, before turning to dig under the seat.
‘Have you seen the power cord?’
‘Nup.’ She is still miffed with him over this morning.
‘Christ,’ he says and slides down onto the floor of the van, his bare feet on the ground outside. ‘Did you ask for ice?’
Heat flows across her cheeks, like interior sunburn. She hopes nobody is watching.
The ablutions block is old and dilapidated. The shower roses are dull and jammed at odd angles, and the thick rubber mats sag where they drape over patches of missing tiles. There is a smell of drains that somehow makes her think of Jim with his exposed scalp and waving hair.
Still, she feels better once she has washed her hair and scraped the grit out of her ears. She can’t even be bothered being angry with Jed anymore, especially now that he’s annoyed with her. Back at the van she kisses him when she gives him the soap, in case anyone saw him swear at her earlier.
While he’s showering she crams all their clothes into plastic bags and lugs them to the laundry, a concrete room with two old washing machines and a dryer marked ‘Out of Order’. Airbrushed celebrities beam from the fly-spotted covers of old magazines, piled by the ancient ironing board. Outside, two lines of socks and T-shirts hang lifeless in the heat.
When she gets back to the van there is no sign of Jed, but his towel is hanging from the finally-located power cord. Their gear is still strewn over the ground outside. She goes back to the laundry for some magazines and stretches out on the van’s long seat, pretending to read but really keeping an eye on the people round her. The campers across the way from them are old, clustered together under someone’s awning, the men bloated and the women shrill. Empty cans rattle into a bucket beside them as they condemn the Aboriginal drinking problem.
When Jed reappears he has ice and is buoyant. At the office he got talking to Jim and met some guys who are camped in the long term area, on the other side of the toilet block. They’re working on the fishing boats, earning big money, and they reckon they can get him a place on the crew even though he’s never done it before. They’ve been here for five months.
Five months. She shudders.
They’re low on supplies and have sardines on toast for tea. As she starts to load their dishes into a bucket to take to the sink, Jed says he has told ‘the guys’ he’d be back for a couple of beers. He pulls a six pack from the already melting ice in the esky.
‘Can I come?’ she says, and he looks guilty and annoyed. She realises he’d intended to leave her behind.
The guys – Trevor, Skeets and Danno – look surprised to see her, but not pissed off. Unused to female company, they rally themselves into overblown chivalry; insist on finding her a clean chair and blame Danno for the untidiness. They flirt a little, seeing she is comfortable and putting each other down, but it is showmanship more than any real interest. Once they have played their part to mark her inclusion the conversation quickly turns to fishing, then on to yarns revolving around mad mates and decrepit vehicles. She is soon bored, but Jed, who worked in tech support for an IT company, has no stories of his own to contribute and is entranced with this blokiness; loud laughter around the kerosene lantern, improbable exploits. The tales are like a cloak, a cover of masculine invincibility, making them immune even to the mozzies which are savaging her legs.
She makes a show of being a part of it, but realises after a while that she might as well leave them to it. They are charming again as she takes her leave, acknowledge that they’re full of bullshit and it must be boring for her. But it is obvious that her departure is little more than a brief distraction from their evening; a pause rather than a rupture.
Jed says he’ll stay on a bit longer.
She keeps up her smile as she makes her exit.
When he stumbles back much much later, he is clumsy with the door and lets mosquitoes in. In the narrow bed he reeks of beer. His breathing seems to use up all the air.
On Friday they drive to the shops for food and more beer. When she reads the balance on her ATM receipt her stomach turns.
That night in the camp kitchen Jed boasts casually to some passing backpackers that he’s secured work on the trawlers.
‘When do you find out about the job?’ she asks him later.
‘The boats go out in a couple of weeks. Skeets says they’ll start pulling the crew together the week after next, so I’ll know then.’
‘Yeah, well, the boats have to be unloaded and re-stocked, serviced before they head to sea again.’
‘How long are they out?’
‘Three weeks! You never told me that!’
‘It’s not a bloody day job, Kate. That’s why it pays so well.’
‘But what am I gonna do for three weeks?’
It is the wrong thing to say. He looks away, but not before she sees herself transformed into a burden.
She rings her mother from the phone booth near the office. Her mother is glad to hear from her, but distracted by the time; she has things to do. When Kate tells her where they are, she is unimpressed, can’t believe Kate would pack in the good job she’d had for two years, for this. She is not angry, states it simply as sad fact. Kate is rankled by this impassive attitude to her adventures, and finds herself dramatising her new way of life; so much better than hanging round the city. All the people they’ve met; what great friends they’ve made here, what a ball they’re having.
‘Jed’s got a job lined up on one of the fishing trawlers,’ Kate tells her, proud that he will be doing something so out of character, the boundaries they’re pushing. ‘He’ll be at sea for three weeks.’
‘Three weeks?’ says her mother. ‘What are you going to do for three weeks?’
In the laundry a woman in an old hat tells her about a job in the local newsagent, the morning shift. The hours are awful and minimal – 5.30 till 9am, so her earnings are as insulting as the shift times. But they’re tearing through their money, buying slabs of beer every few days, even though her drinking is now severely restricted by her early mornings – by seven in the evening she is falling asleep. Jed drinks with The Guys most nights still, even though he didn’t get on the next trawler. The Guys leave next week, but said for sure they’d be able to get him on the March trip, and they’d pay him back the money he’d lent them when they got back.
He is disappointed but doesn’t mind too much. He’s still under their cloak, comfortable in its folds.
She hadn’t known he’d lent them money. She starts to despise Danno, his bad teeth and thunderous belching.
The woman who told her about the newsagents asks her how long she and Jed have been together.
‘Two and a half years,’ Kate tells her proudly. They are good-looking; people who could afford to be choosey. But the woman looks unconvinced rather than impressed, and Kate finds herself alarmed.
Later, alone again, she goes walking and finds Jed sprawled on the ground, talking to two Norwegian girls outside their tent. The girls lounge in front of him, long brown legs and tiny bikinis. Beach charms hang seductively within their bikini tops. When they laugh they allow their shaggy blonde manes to slide over their faces, then they sweep it in veils over their shoulders.
Jed does not see her until she is almost beside him. His guilty look is obvious to all of them, and it is this more than anything that makes her furious.
At work her boss’s hands are huge, his fingers like fat stumpy sausages. She tells Jed he’s always rubbing against her, trying to squeeze past her in tight places.
She stretches. ‘Maybe I should make some extra money?’
She says it as a joke, casually, as if the situation does not really bother her. But she anticipates that it will bother Jed, she expects that he will be angry on her behalf.
The look he gives her is swift but unmistakable. She feels the impact of it physically, as she did when the Eftpos receipt revealed her almost empty bank account.
The next week they circle each other, spending their evenings in the camp kitchen for the distraction of chat with the flow of backpackers. They can continue along this road while there are other people to provide curbs.
One night they talk to a German couple. The girl is around her age, with pixie blonde hair and cool piercings. Her boyfriend has a thick bushel of dreadlocks. Jed starts telling them some of The Guys’ yarns, but he is clumsy with them, as you often find yourself with other people’s babies. Kate has already heard them anyway, and gets bored, distracted. She keeps drinking, is thinking maybe she won’t turn up to work the next morning, when she suddenly tunes in on Jed’s jumbled narrative and realises he is drunk, slurring his words. The groovy German couple are obviously unimpressed, bored and embarrassed and looking to get away.
She is mortified and attempts to make a dignified exit, which instead appears churlish through its suddenness. The Germans follow suit when they realise Jed intends to stay on with them, so Jed follows her back to the van, feeling amiable after a good night’s entertainment.
In bed she pushes off his hands with furious disgust.
At work the next morning she is hungover and distant. Her boss’s wife uncharacteristically brings her a cup of tea. She accepts it with a tight smile, embarrassed by the unexpected kindness. The older woman puts her hand instinctively to her greying hair and turns away with a shrug.
When she gets back to the park her head pounds and even her eyes are beginning to throb. Jed is lying in the sauna-like van, already drinking beers. When she opens the esky there are only three left.
The row is bitter. At first she tries to keep her voice low, an angry hiss, hoping no-one will hear, but when Jed calls her a Princess, his voice loud and carrying, she responds with fury, all pretence dispensed with.
That night, as they lie in the narrow bed, with as much space as possible between them, she is taken aback at the realisation that she thinks of their life together as pretence.
The next day is too hard. She wakes very late and, though her headache is gone, she feels spent. When she rings her work, close to ten o’clock, to say she’s sick but she’ll be in tomorrow, her boss curtly tells her not to bother. She does not care about not having the job, but the rejection rankles. As she dawdles back to the van she wonders what she should do. After the unpleasant nature of the phonecall she doesn’t feel up to any kind of confrontation. But when she gets back she finds Jed in conversation with a couple of English guys who have pulled in next to them. They have loud Cockney accents and abrasive personalities, like foul-mouthed versions of Jamie Oliver.
They are leaving the next day to camp along the nearby peninsula, where the fishing’s good. Jed’s eyes are gleaming; he glances a challenge at her.
She can rise to it. She says, ‘I’ve had it with that fucking job. Let’s go to the beach.’
The English boys are impressed with her spirit. She is buoyed by the effect she has made. No-one need know she has no alternative.
In bed that night she decides that when The Guys return and pay Jed back she will demand enough money to return to Sydney. If he gets on the boat in March, which seems unlikely, he can pay her out her share of the van. Her sister might share a place with her.
When they pack up and leave a day later, there is no-one to see them off. Jim stays in his office, engrossed in his paper in front of his sagging welcome sign. The woman in the laundry sniffs and asks her if they are going off with the Pommie boys. The Grey Nomads cluster under their awning and aim cans at the bucket. A couple of them give stiff salutes when they pull out, but there are no good-byes or leave-taking.
They’re all a bunch of snobs, she thinks. She has never felt so alone. At the end of the corrugated driveway they turn out onto the road.
The beach is wonderful. They park their vans at the edge of the sandy car park, under the sprawling and twisted trees. Beyond them the wide shore slopes gently down to the waves, which sparkle in the sun like a jewellery counter. Long wreaths of kelp swill lazily in the tide.
The breeze off the sea is enervating; she realises how stifling the caravan park had been, enclosed along its dirt road. They drag out their towels and the esky.
There are a couple of families draped on the sand – some Europeans with a small daughter who is over-excited by the huge expanse of water and sand, like an enormous novelty play-pen. Further along is an older Australian family, mum and dad and a handful of teenagers. The girls lie sprawled, immobile in the sun, a sacred quest, while the father and the older boy are gathering together diving gear, snorkels and wetsuits, and heading for the breaking waves.
The English boys and Jed bellow and throw themselves into the waves. Punctuating their shouts is the ongoing rhythm of the sea, steady and unaffected. She stands at the point where the waves break, letting her wet feet cool her down, disgruntled at the boys’ loud swearing, which jars against the peace and beauty of the beach. The divers are nearby, pulling on their flippers, awkward in the waves, and the father turns and says something about their language, gesturing to the small girl playing with her parents nearby.
The English boys laugh. ‘Sorry mate!’ they call, as if they are merely a pair of naughty schoolboys. They watch the divers clip bags to their belts. ‘What are you going after?’ asks Dave, the older one, who has a rowdy mess of tattoos and is already going to pot.
‘Crabs,’ answers the man, barely looking at them.
‘You need a spear-gun,’ Dave tells him, ‘that’d be the shot.’
The man gives Dave a look of contempt and gestures towards the car park. ‘Didn’t you read the sign? Illegal along here.’
‘Oops! Sorry Pop. Not doin’ too well am I?’ Dave’s laughter is more aggressive than good natured, it mocks rather than shares. The man stops briefly and looks at him, not bothering to disguise his recognition of this. He mutters something to his son, which she doesn’t quite catch, but doesn’t need to. The son keeps his head turned away from them all, concentrating on his mask.
The divers turn their backs; once they’ve waded past the breaking waves, they clear their snorkels and head, two black torpedoes, for a small island of rocks not far from the shore.
She watches them swimming out, methodically churning their flippers and riding the currents. It looks peaceful, purposeful, in harmony with the beautiful day and their surroundings, unlike the raucous boisterousness of the others. Back on her towel, she scrapes her hair into an elastic and thinks about getting it cut properly when she gets back to Sydney, cleaning herself up a bit. Suddenly she longs for female company, and – uncharacteristically – for beauty products. There is no room in the van for these things.
There was only ever enough room for the two of them, unencumbered. She thinks how it has divided them, this lack of distraction from each other. She watches Jed diving through the breaking waves, coming up back through them like a small seal, and feels sad. He has not survived the intensity of focus, but, even harder to bear, neither has she. The sudden obviousness of faults, the unavoidable destructiveness that living so closely, inescapably wedged together, has on your lives, has toppled them, like a pair of unwitting Humpty Dumptys.
She has not realised she’d dozed off. She’d been wondering what standard of flat she and her sister might be able to afford, was imagining spreading cushions and rugs over stained carpet in drab, lightless rooms, and trying not to let these thoughts dim the sunshine, the sea air. She doesn’t know how long she has been asleep, but the couple with the young child has gone, and there is only the other family left on the beach. There is something going on. The boys’ shouts have changed in pitch, arrogance has been replaced with alarm. The women from the other group are standing, shielding their eyes against the blinding glare, and then the mother starts to run.
The boys are still at the edge of the sea, agitated but rooted, yelling to the boy who is frantically swimming to shore, and every wave that lifts him, carries him that bit faster, is a gasp of relief. She can see splashing further out, near the rocks where they’d been snorkeling, but still she doesn’t register what is happening until she hears someone yell ‘Shark!’ Only then does she realise what she is seeing; that the churning not 100 metres from shore is a huge white body, rolling and wrestling with a much smaller, wetsuit-clad shape. She starts to pant involuntarily, and finds herself also running, as if by reaching the edge of the water she can somehow chase away the danger.
The son has reached the breaking waves, and is carried the final distance on the crest of one, into the arms of the other men, who help him stagger from the foam, keen to do anything to help that doesn’t involve going into the deeper water. When he reaches the sand his mother is there and she grasps him, holding him close as he collapses forward onto the sand. She begins to cry great heaving sobs that are more like drawn out grunts, animal in sound and acutely distressing. Behind them the two teenage girls clutch each other, frozen, unable as yet to register what has just occurred. Out at sea the thrashing has stopped.
The four strangers stand uselessly by the small family, overwhelmed by what they have just witnessed, but excluded from the personal grief. The woman has recovered herself enough to concentrate on subduing their son, who is in a state of shock, gasping incoherently. The girls have sunk down beside him and are now also entwined within her clutch, her desperate embrace.
Dave rouses himself first, runs to dig in his bag for his mobile, while Phil, the younger one, continues to scan the horizon with desperation, in case the older man might somehow, miraculously, be swimming for shore.
She stands outside the small group who are trying to contain their loss inside this huddle of togetherness, subduing the traumatised boy who has escaped his father’s fate only in the sense that he is still alive.
Other people are arriving, who witnessed the attack from distances along the beach. There is the wail of approaching sirens, echoes of the grieving on the shore. People pace the water’s edge, some with binoculars, but there is no longer anything to be seen. The water is peaceful.
The awful, random savagery of what has just happened is suddenly too much for her; she realises she is shaking and moves away from the other people, from the building cluster of drama at the water’s edge. Alone, she sinks to the sand, her knees bent awkwardly like a child’s. The unexpected suddenness of the loss – she is overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability, like teetering at the edge of the unknown, and she starts to cry uncontrollably, partly with grief and shock, but mainly from the inescapable burden of this new awareness.
When Jed kneels beside her she reaches out with a sob. She keeps her eyes squeezed closed, her face pressed into his chest. His embrace is like a cocoon; with her face buried against him like this the crashing of the waves subsides to a rhythmical soothing again. She wants to simply stay like this, never open her eyes again. Beyond them the sky is filled with gulls, which swirl, screaming over the empty sea.