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Fiction

VU Short Story Prize joint runner-up: Late change

Walking back late afternoon, salt-crusted and heavy from her swim, Helen follows the high tide line along the cooling sand. Her eyes search the ridge of drying seaweed, empty plastic bottles, lengths of yellow fishing line, and half-rotten birds. If she sees a specially smooth, bleached piece of driftwood, she pauses to examine it, turns it over with her toes, maybe takes it home. Other than that, it’s an exercise in distraction, something to fill her mind with chatter. What’s that smell? Oh, a baby seal. Look at that. Another blue thong.

It’s on the calm windless afternoons that she’s most aware of just how wordless her walks have become. With Graham, there was always conversation. Or rather a monologue. Commentary on the weather mostly. That’s what comes from marrying a merchant seaman. Wind’s picking up. South-west swell today. Looks like that change might come early. But now that she walks alone, so often there’s a silence in her head that she’s still getting to know.

There are some afternoons, with the wind blowing east to west along the beach, when it catches in the hood of her jacket and whirs around like a seashell held to her ear. Those afternoons she hears him calling from behind. Helen … Helen. The first time it happened, she’d turned around and seen the empty stretch of beach behind. Despite the strength she’d surprised herself with in the weeks since his death, she’d stopped there in her tracks and hadn’t been able to move. And then she’d sobbed and sobbed, while surfers and dog-walkers passed her by, not knowing how to help. Until finally another older woman, without asking any questions, came and wrapped a towel round her shoulders and waited for her to stop. And every time it’s happened since, that trick of the wind that calls in Graham’s voice, she has to dig her toes firm in the sand to stop from looking back.

 

*

‘Look what I found,’ says Helen. ‘It’s quite rare to find one of these.’

The little boy’s eyes narrow as they slide from her hand along her bare arm and up into her eyes.

‘It’s an egg case. There was a baby shark in there not long ago,’ she says, holding it level with his eyes. ‘Fancy that.’

The little boy puts down his spade, dusts off his hands and holds them out in front of his belly.

‘Can I hold it?’ he asks.

The mother, young and hurried, approaches and places her hands on the boy’s shoulders. She smiles at the older woman, then crouches next to her son. He backs up against the inside of her sandy thigh and raises his palms to her face.

‘It’s a shark egg,’ he whispers.

‘No, it’s just curly seaweed, sweetie,’ she says with a smile.

‘Actually, it’s a Port Jackson shark egg case,’ Helen corrects her.

The mother smiles, lips together. ‘I think it might just be seaweed,’ she says.

‘No, it’s not!’ replies Helen, a little too loudly, then lower and slower. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’

The mother stands and combs the boy’s salt-stiff hair back from his forehead.

‘Come on, sweetie. We have to start packing up.’ She smiles at the older woman. ‘Enjoy your walk.’

 

*

Helen knows there’s going to be a late change today. Every day she checks online before starting the fifteen minute walk along the cliff top and down the stairs to the beach. Today they’re forecasting a late change with squally winds and rough seas. So she sets off an hour earlier than usual. At the top of the stairs, she pauses and rubs her knuckles hard along the outside of her thigh, just below where the hip joint grates. Her fists are huge for a woman’s. As big as Graham’s. When she was a girl, her mother had made her take piano lessons, but her teacher had said her hands were too big. It wasn’t enough to have long fingers. They needed to be slim too. And hers weren’t. But they’re good for swimming. Her legs aren’t needed for propulsion. Her hips just roll with the strokes. It’s her arms that do the work. They’re still strong. Freakishly so for a seventy-three-year-old.

Graham had been a reluctant recruit to the swims at first. He found it frightening and exhausting, but gradually took to it when she taught him her technique. She got him to think of his body as a boat, to apply the same principles of drag and streamlining, of balance in the water. To begin with, she led him out past the sand bank and let him just float on his back. She helped him feel the water nestle him, helped him feel the buoyancy. She showed him how to trust the sea, to feel safe out in its depths and currents; to know that, if you played by its rules, it would pigheadedly bring you back to shore.

She reaches the bottom of the stairs and goes straight into the water. She wades in waist deep and swims out past the bank. The rocking motion of her torso is entrancing and keeps her stable, balanced. The flow of cool across her back rolls her thoughts from Graham to the water and brings the two together. She knows the change is coming. It’s just that it’s come earlier than she thought. She’s out quite far between the bank and the rock shelf that catches the northerly swell when it blows in. The rain starts up and is hitting heavy from above and bouncing off the sea against her face. She knows she mustn’t turn her back to the waves, but she feels uneasy too about losing sight of the shore. When she’s looking at the cliffs, she feels tethered like a kite. She turns away and faces the incoming waves. They approach in silence, lifting her high and sliding her down their backs. She turns to see them peak, the wind pushing silver spray off the tops and whipping it up and out. A couple of metres past her, the waves stretch and tear as they fall away and break. There’s a long gap between them and they’re bigger than she’s swum in before. Above and below the surface, everything’s gnarled and scrambled. She takes a few quick strokes, trying to get a bit closer to the beach. The rain is falling heavy now and through her goggles all is bleary grey and white. The next set approaches and she strains to see. By the time she sees the outline of the wave hanging over her, it’s too late to dive. She ducks her chin to her chest and lets herself be tumbled, doesn’t fight, tries to keep her head amid the surging and wrenching, with salt stinging high up in her nostrils and her eardrums booming. Her feet are above her head and she flips, dishevelled and knotted with seaweed. Her mouth emerges into the air and through the churn she sees the next wave coming. She gulps a breath before the water pushes her down, hands scrabbling for the bottom, trying to stabilise and push her body upwards. When she surfaces her arms are too heavy to lift so she dogpaddles forward, fighting to keep her head above the surface, amongst tangled flashes of sky and waves. Her throat is clenched against the chaos of the wind and foam.

She’s left of the break zone now, between the sandbank and the rock shelf. The outgoing backwash builds in pressure as it tears through the channel, sweeping her horizontal. The water charges under her, panicky, pushing, desperate to escape. She keeps as vertical as she can, trying to get her bearings, her arms outstretched, her knees drawn up to her chest. Her neck is strained and sore. On the rock shelf to her right she sees a figure. She struggles to focus through the steamy goggles. It’s a young woman. Her bright orange hair is leaping around in an updraft like her head’s on fire. It’s the same colour her own hair was as a girl. She’s wearing a yellow and white checked dress just like one Helen used to own with big white pockets in front that she used to hide her big boy-sized hands in whenever she was nervous. The young woman’s right arm is waving high above her head, big arcs left to right like a metronome and Helen is sure she hears a ticking in time with the movement of her arm. She strains her eyes and she could swear the woman is waving right at her. Her face is pale and nervous and Helen feels a shudder travel down through her belly and flow between her thighs. It’s colder and the sky is heavy. There’s the clear awareness now that she could die out here.

A big wave lifts her and then slides her back down into the trough and the young woman is hidden from her view. When she bobs back up high enough, the rock shelf is bare. The ticking is still there, regular and slightly faster now and she realises that it’s the throb of the pulse in her neck. She watches the rocks receding and she’s slowly turned around and round.

The wind drops slightly and she’s no longer part of the storm. And suddenly, the water is calmer. She stretches her limbs out and floats on her back, breathing deep, the rolling still high, but regular and firm. The sky is clearing, clouds drift and dissolve, showing background glimpses of blue. Her neck is aching less now, but her thighs are tired and her feet are starting to cramp. Her lips are numb and she knows she has to start moving again, make her way back to shore. When she lifts her head and finds the beach, she’s not sure where she’s drifted. The cliff face is higher and there’s a ridge of red rock splitting the beach. Her arms are limp and she lets herself be rolled in under the waves. They’re smaller here and break neatly on a low bank. When her feet touch the sand, she buckles and pitches forward. She pulls her torso along with a few strokes until her knees scrape against the coarse grains of sand. She pushes herself to her feet and reels through the thigh deep swirls, spitting foam from her lips. When the water is low enough, lapping at her calves, she lowers herself onto her knees and hangs her head in exhaustion, eyes closed.

The sea has fallen silent and all she hears is the rasping of her breaths against her teeth. She opens her eyes and looks down at the surface of the sea. It fades in and out of focus with the pulsing of the blood beneath her temples. She lifts her hands from her thighs and out of the water. They drip sand and salt and pucker with the cold. On the beach before her, the strandline is lower. Just feet away she sees the thick flat belts of kelp. There’s a huge piece of wood, like a sleeper, half burnt, and a dead fairy penguin. Further along there’s a seal as well. A big one.

She turns and looks back out at the water. It’s calm now, but grey and sullen, as if hung over from its rage. She thinks of Graham and his distrust of the sea. As if it acted out of spite. As if it took pleasure in our pain. But she knows it’s only physics, just pressures and speeds, energy and friction. And the human body in all that. Her body.

Gently she lowers her arms and lays her hands flat on the quiet surface. The water enters the deep creases of her palms and the fine channels and whorls of her fingerprints. She feels the contrast between the coolness underneath and the heavy warmth of the air above. She registers its resistance, presses down against its weight, not breaking the surface, remembering the feel of it. Registering its existence. As though, tomorrow or the next day, or whenever she returns, it might have gone far out from the shore and not come back. As if some day soon, there’s a chance it might not be there anymore.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Michelle Wright lives in Eltham and writes short stories and flash fiction. She’s won the Age, Alan Marshall, Grace Marion Wilson and Orlando Short Story Prizes, and was awarded the 2013 Writers Victoria Templeberg Residential Writing Fellowship.

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