Image by Wendy Schotsmans
The sun hauled itself into the sky. A tired mid-morning replete with gulls, low tide, a half-hearted breeze. He tugged at the boat till it nosed into the water, waves slapping at his ankles with nicotine-stained fingers. There was a urinous tang in the air. Seaweed raced against the sand and rolled out to sea again, frayed and harried. All this beneath a sky too weary to cling onto the furtive wisps of cloud.
The boat was a heavy thing, inert. It snagged on sand and caught each wave, thudding against his boots before shifting and turning and pulling sideways. He wrestled it and urged it away from the shore and then leapt into the thing, seawater sloshing between his toes, wet salty knees, bone-cold despite the sun. He settled into the listing of the boat, lowered the little motor and pulled the cord. Behind him the rooves glinted. The fibro walls held out their flat faded colours to the yellowed air. He thought ‘picturesque’, he thought ‘content’, he thought ‘take a lot of this to kill you’.
The thing about living on the island was that there were no surprises. There were people like himself – blow-ins, newbies, men and women who were done with their daily grind, channelling their nine-to-five diligence into gardens with electric fences to keep out the wallabies, working groups for the Save Our Bridge campaign. There were the true locals, one or two of them still, old families, money from logging or fishing. There were tourists, too, lumbering in their four-wheel drives, speed boats bouncing over potholes, bristling with rods, each one longer than the next.
A boat approached, a large one, red, but not large enough to be a commercial fishing boat from the salmon farms. He squinted, held his hand up to ward off the glare. A thin man with a thick red beard. A child. Twin waves. He waved back in return. Every house turned towards the view. A shared contentment with the world.
For sale, bunk bed, outboard motor, cheap; Girl wanted to man stall at produce fair; Flute lessons, qualified instructor; Nets mended within 24 hours; Carpet cleaner, local area only.
He stepped onto the carpet with his salt-damp socks.
‘I’ve called a carpet cleaner,’ she said, and he stepped off, back onto the cold tiles. He shuffled into the mudroom and pulled his socks off. Cold concrete underfoot. Scales on his sleeve. He brushed them and they shivered onto the floor.
Inside was the fire and the comfortable chair and the view. That view. You couldn’t beat that view.
Back in the untidy streets he stretched and kicked at the frozen dirt and wrapped his scarf around his neck. The noticeboard was a joy. Chainsaw, barely used; Wanted rabbit. Rabbit. He wondered if it was rabbit to eat or to feed and pet and play with.
It was on the same street that he noticed the road kill. Wallaby, cat, some kind of feathered thing. An old man in greased-up jeans, leaning into the gutter, hacking a leg off – what was it, a wombat? Surely not a wombat.
The old man looked up, squinted.
‘Bait,’ he said, and bent back to the sawing motion of his pocketknife.
Blow-ins, locals, holiday-makers. He grinned at them indiscriminately, waving out of his car window. A happy town filled with happy people. He parked, and stomped his boots on the mat and sniffed at his fingers. Smelled fish. Thought of a lover. A girl. Once, when he was a boy. The smell of her. He was startled by the sheer brute force of the memory and stood with his hands outstretched for a moment as if he had misplaced something that he had been holding.
His wife sniffed as he entered, shoeless, sockless, his toes freezing on the tiles. He hurried past the kitchen and undressed in the bathroom with the hot light turned on and his ageing body pricked with goose bumps.
‘There’s a chainsaw for sale, on the board.’
He said this after chewing and swallowing carefully. She hated him talking with his mouth full of food. He said this with his head bent to his plate, marvelling at the perfectly square pieces of potato and pumpkin, chopped as if they had been put through some kind of a machine that measured and diced.
It was chicken for dinner, lean chicken coated in some kind of spicy sauce. He cut a piece of chicken and held it up on the tip of his fork. He thought about the salmon he had pulled out of the net, filleted, individually wrapped, the soft flesh now icing over. The waste of it. Not waste exactly, because she would plan a salmon meal sometime in the next two weeks and then there would be another one a few weeks after that. Not waste, just such a shame to freeze something that had come straight from the ocean.
He looked up from his chicken and she was wiping her mouth.
‘We have the carpet cleaner booked for tomorrow,’ she told him.
‘You won’t be home tomorrow.’
Not a question. He chewed and swallowed. ‘I’ll take the boat out,’ he said, ‘if the weather doesn’t turn.’
He lifted the fork to his mouth and there it was, the smell of fish, so strong on his fingers, barely disguised by the chemical sweetness of rose soap.
Chicks, swap for produce; Fruit picker wanted; 3 tyres, fit a V8; Any information regarding Len Gardiner found dead in Esperance river, please contact police – no foul play suspected, but information would be helpful.
He stood there and read the note again. Someone edged past him. Someone smiled and waved. A blow-in like himself. A retiree with a perfect view and a new four-wheel drive and a boat, a new boat, like his own boat, something small and functional, just to pick up a few fish to sling into the freezer. He smiled back. He waved.
He wandered out to his four-wheel drive. A wombat. Definitely a wombat. Three legs now and a slow bloat coming on. The faint smell of death, but it was cold down there in the shrug of the back streets and the rot hadn’t yet taken hold.
He knelt beside the thing and pulled his own pocketknife out of his trouser pocket. The flesh pulled but the knife went through it. There was a place at the joint where he could slip the knife in and twist it, pulling bone from bone. He was thinking about how he could tie the thing to the base of a crab pot, haul it over the side of the boat, let it sink.
He stood and looked out into the wintry glare, shading his eyes with his hand and a severed leg. The same old man was leaning against a structural pole that struggled under the weight of his tired house. He watched as the old man rolled an unlit cigarette between his fingers, rested it between cracked lips, nodded quickly to him.
He wondered if this old man had known Len Gardiner, dead in the Esperance River without any foul play. He suspected that he might. It was a small town, an old town, a town with a thin veneer of holiday gaiety slapped haphazardly onto it like a cheap coat of paint.
He parked at the boat ramp and backed the trailer awkwardly onto the water. It was a small thing to unhook the boat and shake it off with a quick stamp on the brakes at the right moment. It was a thing he had seen the locals do. A trick he had done himself. He reversed and braked and urged the car forward, feeling the slip of the boat as it was abandoned to the lapping of the ocean. He hurried up the ramp and parked. The boat was drifting away but there was the snake of the rope still trailing on the asphalt. He heard the thud of its hip against the dock, the breath in, breath out of the tide. He reached for the rope, caught it in his hand. He observed the liver spots, the hardened skin, calloused, but the thinness of it between the calluses.
He tied the rope gently to the dock and wiped his sun-warmed forehead with the back of his hand. The smell of road kill, the slight whiff of decay and, behind it, that fishy reek. He stood with his hands against his face and the thud of the boat tugging against its mooring, and the bleached-out sun. And he could remain like this, lost in the darkness of his palms, inhaling. He wondered how long he could stand there before someone noticed.
At home, the carpets were being cleaned.
This thought more than anything made him stiffen, lower his hands to his sides. There were lamb kebabs for dinner. He knew this because he had seen his wife take the tray of them out of the freezer. They would be thawing on the bench top as the cleaner sprayed the tiny square of carpet that was not even two years old.
He heaved the boat towards himself, settling it fast against the dock. He lowered his feet into it and there was that perfect view in front of him and the glint of rooftops behind and road kill in the pocket of his trousers. If he caught a crayfish he would eat it tonight. Bugger the lamb kebabs. Bugger them.
He untied the rope. He lowered the motor. He pushed off and let the boat drift out into the breath of the ocean.