On the weekend, Lily drives with her small sons to the beach. The boys sit in the back together, watching the flickering of the trees outside, enveloped in the early morning hush of their mother’s thoughts. Choosing with care amongst the curving coastline, Lily avoids the white sands and brisk winds of her childhood, landing instead upon an unfamiliar, neutral stretch of sea.
Oscar and Noah race from the car across the prickly grass and along the sand to the water. The beach is quiet, and a little way off a man stands fishing at the shore. Oscar plunges into the water, laughing and splashing. Noah inches in slowly and then lies down in the shallows, keeping his head up and dry. Standing on the sand, Lily watches her two boys in the water. Her oldest son romps in the surf, going out further and further until she must call him in. Her youngest skips about at the shoreline, jumping the frilly waves and occasionally submerging himself in their endless ebb and flow.
Lily walks to the water’s edge, her gaze following her elder boy’s form. She cannot relax with her boys in such separate spaces and panics every time Oscar goes under a wave. But he’s a robust swimmer and the waves are not rough. Watching him play in the sea, something tight within Lily gives way. Noah scrambles along the shore picking up shells and digging haphazardly. Approaching the lone fisherman, Noah speaks, and the man smiles down at him and then up at her in reassurance. Lily wonders if she should rescue the fisherman from Noah’s tireless inquiries, but the man laughs then, a deep warm sound, and looks down at Noah with bright, joyful eyes.
The waves lap at Lily’s ankles and splatter up to wet behind her knees. She wears a simple green sundress and she tucks it up so the waves won’t splash the hem. Watching Oscar in the surf, her mind flies off toward the blue line of the horizon.
Suddenly, she hears her small son’s high-pitched scream.
‘Fuck, fuck. Shit, mate show me your hand,’ the fisherman shouts.
Running toward them, blood banging at her temples, Lily’s eyes are already blurred with tears.
When she reaches Noah, the fisherman is holding her son’s whole hand firmly between his palms.
‘He reached out and grabbed the hook when I was reeling it in. Shit! Hold him still while I try and get it out.’
Noah screams, his eyes filling with horror as he stares at the hook poking through his finger. Lily holds him as the fisherman pulls at the wedged hook.
‘Fuck, it’s all the way through. Fuck fuck,’ he mutters.
She cannot speak and Noah screams louder, white with fear. Oscar comes in from the surf and stands by, his face hovering at the edge of tears.
‘Mum, what are you going to do?’ Oscar’s voice is husky and quavering. ‘Mum?’
Lily shakes her head, a small sob escaping from some deep place inside her. She swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand.
The man looks at Lily’s stricken face and then back at Noah’s finger with the barbs of the hook protruding. ‘Okay mate, just wait, one more try.’
Delicately, the fisherman grasps the base of the hook, and gives it a sharp, hard wrench and the metal barb pops free. Noah’s finger spurts blood. Scooping her small son up, Lily whispers to him as she cries against his hair. The fisherman stands beside her, his face pale and sad and sorry.
Noah is quiet now and Oscar stands still, dripping and quivering.
Reaching out, the fisherman places a palm on top of Oscar’s head. ‘It’s okay mate. He’s okay,’ the man says softly.
Lily shifts Noah onto her hip so she can gather Oscar into her embrace. He falls into her, pressing his face into her sodden sundress.
Squeezing him, she tries to stop crying. ‘It’s okay baby, it’s not that bad. It just gave Mummy a fright.’
The fisherman watches her, hesitating. ‘He just put out his hand and grabbed the hook, so fast I couldn’t stop him.’
‘It was an accident. He doesn’t know about fishing. He wouldn’t have known there was a hook on the end.’
‘Come on mate, give us a look at your finger. See if you need a bandaid.’
Noah turns his face from Lily’s shoulder, holding his pierced finger wrapped like a treasure in his other hand. The man gingerly steps forward and peers at Noah’s hands, carefully prying away his small fingers.
‘Not too bad, but it’s bandaid material. I’ve got a first-aid kit in my car. Do you want to come and I’ll fix it up for you?’
Noah looks at his injured finger held gently in the fisherman’s hand and his bottom lip begins to tremble. Tilting his head back in abandon, her youngest is overcome, his lips pushed together like a tiny sad bird. Lily watches his face and she cannot keep from crying. She hides her tears in Noah’s hair while they all walk up the grassed slope to the fisherman’s car. It is a banged up old ute and he opens the passenger door and motions for Lily to sit down. Edging herself in against the torn upholstery, she holds Noah on her lap. Oscar presses in worriedly against her knees and the fisherman walks to the tray of his truck and comes back with a towel for each of the boys and a large metal first-aid chest.
‘Come here mate, and I’ll wrap you up.’ The man motions to Oscar and her boy steps away from her lap and into the fisherman’s towel. He hands Lily the other towel and she drapes it over Noah’s shoulders.
‘Thanks,’ she whispers, sniffing softly.
He puts the metal chest on the bonnet of the truck and opens the lid. Both the boys watch in awed silence. They have never seen a first-aid kit. Noah holds very still and makes his pursed-lipped-sad-bird face, and the fisherman washes his injured finger with disinfectant and gently dabs it with white cream. With great solemnity he produces a narrow white bandage, and both the boys watch, wide-eyed with expectation. Wrapping up Noah’s finger with careful movements, the fisherman winds the end of the bandage around his palm and ties it finally in a neat tight knot.
Lily is smiling now at the man’s grave face and he bends over to check his handiwork. Looking up, he grins at her with gleaming black eyes. She sucks in a breath at his smile, wondering if her own dark eyes look anything like his.
‘Well, boys. That is some fancy bandaid. Thanks. Thanks a lot. That was awful wasn’t it?’ Her voice is deep and wet.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Shit, you know?’
Smiling at the fisherman, she clambers out of his truck. Lily is not sure what she should do but feels the sudden urge to be home.
‘Come on boys, let’s go, hey? Let’s go home.’
‘Wait a minute. Sit down on the grass for a while, get your bearings.’
Lily looks at her boys and feels a pulse still beating in the back of her head. Feels the tears damming behind her eyes. Perhaps she should wait, and not jump straight into the car.
Standing Noah on the ground at her feet, she wraps him up snugly in the towel. Sitting down then on the grass, she pulls her small boy onto her lap. Oscar stands beside her, the towel flapping off his shoulders, his gaze on the water.
‘Mum, can I go back in?’
‘Hmmm, but I’m all the way up here.’
‘Just in a little bit?’
‘Only if you stay right at the edge. No swimming, just paddling.’
‘Up to my knees?’
Oscar runs down to the sand and into the water. Jumping the small waves, the water splashes up against his belly and he turns back to check Lily is watching. She can see him restraining himself from going any deeper. Wriggling on her lap, Noah loosens the towel. He watches his brother carefully as though an imagined game continues between them in his mind. The fisherman sits beside Lily on the grass and the three of them are silent, watching Oscar play at the shoreline.
After a moment Noah stands and shakes out of his towel. He lingers at Lily’s crossed knees, and then turns to face her.
‘Mummy, my finger doesn’t hurt anymore. Can I go down and play with Oscar?’
‘Yeah baby, just try and keep the bandage dry, and stay on the edge, okay?’
He wanders towards the shore and stands a moment watching. Noah calls out to Oscar in his high sing-song voice and then he too jumps over the small waves and laughs as the water sprays up against his body.
‘They play well, your boys.’
Though Lily is alert to the man beside her with his tattered rolled up jeans and his strong bristled forearms, she is surprised by his voice, which seems to edge toward her in the salty wind.
‘Yes, they’ve always been like that. Happily compatible. It’s as though, you know, they just fit each other’s little nooks and crannies, they slide together somehow. It’s lucky I suppose.’
‘My kids fought like demons when they were small.’
Lily looks at his face, slipping a family into the picture of him that is forming. He is perhaps thirty-five with a wife and three kids. The man smiles, his lips turning up on one side. His eyes slide away from hers. He seems subdued now in the aftermath of the embedded hook, and Lily is enlivened by his sudden quiet.
‘Thanks for looking after Noah like that. They were very impressed by your first-aid kit. Does every fisherman carry one of those in the back of his truck?’
‘I don’t know, really. I’m sorry about the hook.’
‘I’m always like that, you know? When it’s them – my boys – I just can’t hold it together.’ The words tumble out. ‘You’re supposed to have a rush of adrenaline or something that makes you capable of reacting when something goes wrong, but I just… fall apart at the seams. It’s bad. I mean it must upset them, it must make them panic more, but I can’t stop it.’
‘It was nasty, that hook in his tiny finger. It was all the way through. I could see it. It made me feel sick and he’s not even my kid.’
The fisherman looks out toward the boys still bounding about the shore. Lily pulls out a blade of grass and breaks it into small pieces, arranging them in a green flower on her bare knee, thinking perhaps she should say something more.
The man beside her shifts, restless. She brushes the grass off her knee.
‘Sometimes I feel like the only person left on earth, besides the boys, you know?’ She starts. ‘If I think of myself from the outside, I think I must cut the loneliest figure in the world. It feels like the edge of the world just here, don’t you think? The horizon looks like the distance between me and everyone else and I stare at it and wonder what the rest of the world is doing, and if anyone’s watching me wandering around on this side by myself.’ The words keep spilling from her mouth and she wishes she could scoop them up and lock them back inside.
She is blushing now. Looking away, she hopes the man is not watching her. Suddenly she feels the heavy presence of her own body. Conscious of herself sitting there beside him, she stands up crossing her arms over her breasts, wondering if she can just walk away.
‘What about your bloke. Where’s he?’
Lily stares at her bare feet in the grass. ‘He crossed the ocean a while back.’ She scratches her toes against the green. ‘I was with him so long, and when I had the babies he just seemed to slip away. I mean, slowly, and after a while it was like there wasn’t anyone left.’ She glances up at the man’s eyes. They are sad and dark and unflinching. ‘I used to prod him, you know, to see if I could find him again, but he was gone. And after a while I made him go. Leave. It was lonelier with him there.’
‘Sometimes I think I’m like that. Like there’s nothing left inside me.’ His voice is quiet.
She cannot stop the slight quiver of her body and hugs her arms about herself feeling exposed, restraining the urge to rush away.
‘Do you come here a lot?’ she asks, not wishing to be rude, wanting to be friends.
‘Yeah, I live not far off. I haven’t seen you here before.’
‘I’ve never been to this beach. It’s nice. Quiet.’
‘Look, I’m just going to check on my boys.’ Stepping back, Lily edges away from the man before her.
Turning and walking down the grassy slope to the sand, she stiffens against the man’s gaze on her back. She cannot stop from bracing against the thought of his eyes on her and feels juvenile and ashamed. When she reaches the boys they are sandy and happy and Noah’s bandage hangs limp from his hand.
‘I accidently got it wet, Mummy.’
‘It doesn’t matter, just leave it. We’ll fix it up when we get home.’
Lily looks up toward the man, and he waves. Standing, he walks down to the sand and back to his discarded gear. She watches him a moment and then walks across to join him.
‘I’m going to go in a minute,’ she says. ‘Thanks for everything. Thanks for the towels. I’ll put them in the back of your truck when I go.’
She stands, awkward, swiping the sand with her toes.
‘Maybe I’ll see you again one day. It was good to talk to you.’
‘Yeah. What’s your name?’
The fisherman grins then and points to the sand at her feet. Lily has drawn a large circle about herself in the sand.
‘Are you defining your boundaries?’
Lily laughs an unexpected, springing giggle.
‘Well, don’t worry Lil, I won’t step inside your circle.’ His face is teasing, bright.
She smiles, unsure what to say.
After a long moment the fisherman turns from her and rebaits his hook, flinging his line out into the water, and Lily turns and walks back to her frolicking, leaping boys.