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Saturday short story: The Golden Mary, by Fiona Grubb

‘She would be safe there, in his body, her limited heart clicking away beneath his sticky ribs, her cold ankles rattling in the cuffs of his school trousers’: a short story set in Greymouth by Fiona Grubb. Photography by Peter Black.

The morning sun finds him. It warms his shins and his arms, in that order.

He is awake. Sweating.

He breathes in and holds it, pulsing the headache through his hair.

Je-sus.

The sea is flat calm. A tall northerly sits unmoved in the closed grey chamber of the sky.

He realises that it's rained, and that it rained on him. How could he sleep through that for fucksake? But he did, obviously - there’s mud spattered all up his legs. Both surfboards have slipped off the edge of the deck and the last pile of bags headed for Vinnies is completely soaked.

He should not drink. Ever.

His phone beeps,

Port Authority DoNotReply; Marine Vessels/Port of Grey/FV Golden Mary/arr.11:30

He scratches his face and heads inside to put the radio on. There are still two vases on the sideboard, sitting in a halo of dry petals. He picks up the whole lot and drops it into the wheely bin by the backdoor.

The radio beeps twice for the marine forecast;

....ridge is deepening into a low, with a northerly front predicted in the south west later today, winds 30 to 40 knots rising to gale force by midday. Heavy seas increasing six to eight metres through the morning.....

Of course they are. Today of all days.

He brushes his teeth, milking the toothpaste foam off his fledgling beard. The mobility toilet seat is still parked in the shower, half up, half down.

We forgot that too.

He goes to move it but sits down on it instead, drawing his knees up to his chest. He tries to cry but the only thing that comes out of his mouth is toothpaste. Rabbit wipes at the long white dribble on his jersey.

You sad sack of shit.

He carries the seat out into the hallway, the headache tugging on his spine like a tail. There’s a small pile of clothes on top of the washing machine. He can’t find the powder. He opens the cupboard under the laundry sink but there’s nothing except the blank, graphite smell of shoe polish he remembers from school.

They did a good job of cleaning the place out, just him and Derek, the guy from Vinnies. Rabbit thought it’d take a week but they broke the back of it in a couple of days.

Derek had a spongy face and smelled of Lynx and taillies. He hummed while they worked, terminally fuckin chirpy. On the second day Derek had picked up a framed photograph - the four of them on that trip to Sydney. For a moment Rabbit thought Derek might recognise Martin from the hospital or maybe the medical centre. Plenty of people did. And, of course, some pretended they didn’t.

'This your Dad?'

'Nah. That was her husband. Not our Dad.’ Rabbit took the photo off him and put it in the ‘rubbish’ box.

'Been on her own a while then. I mean, in the house,' said Derek.

'Yeah. I bin up here the last few months, y’know, but yeah, on her own mostly.'

The cancer was slow, then quick.

‘Jist the two of youse?’ Derek was looking at the photo again.

No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

‘Mum and me sister never really got on eh’, said Rabbit. ‘She hasn’t been up here in years.’

'Can be a bit like that with women,' said Derek.

'Yeah,' said Rabbit although he’d never really thought about either of them as women.

His phone beeps again,

Katy - Coming in early, HTide at 9:30. Meet me?

Yes.

On the bike he starts to feel better. The XR wallops away, hot against his stiff legs. He rides too fast and thinks of nothing else but the engine and the job he did on it - the even bite of the honing tool, the perfect expansion of the bore gauge. Instinctively he reaches down and fingers the cooling fins, like it’s possible to feel hotspots with his bare hands. The toasted, fatty smell of unwashed skin puffs from the gunnels of his shirt. A stone kicks up and hits his kneecap. His eyes fill with water.

At the Ten Mile the weather hits. It's much, much worse than he thought.

He pulls into the carpark. A fresh gale blows across the wet flanks of the beach, forming wide arcs in the stippled sand.

No signal.

To the south an odd number of gulls sit sallow and whipped still, half-pickled in momentary sunlight. The rain turns the mud into a cold paste in his jandals. Katy will tell him off for riding without boots. He stands there for a bit turning his phone over in his pocket. And then he gets back on the bike and heads into town.

Twelve minutes, no trucks. He hits the ton on the straight.

It’s busy down on the breakwall. He knew it would be, weather like this. He spots the bloke from the Port Authority, coat flapping, short-hammered into his stiff white gumboots. On the town-side of the river a group of women huddle together, fenced in by little kids with their bright plastic gumboots glowing in the pall.

He’d asked her not to go. Which was basically like talking to himself,

'Stay for the funeral at least. For fucksake. It’s her fucking funeral.’

When they were little, maybe she was eight and he was 10, he reckoned he had special powers. There was a TV show, he couldn’t remember the name of it, but there was a teenager with a blue sweatshirt who could make people do things just by staring at them. Rabbit reckoned he could stare at Katy and make it so that she left her body and occupied his.

In this way they could sit together and watch her empty body filling its usual space at the dinner table, the atoms still perfectly arranged, the same grey shadows touched down evenly around her. They could watch as Martin leaned over Katy’s little body and pressed his thumb into the tablecloth beside her plate,

'This is what I’m talking about. This is disappointing.'

They could watch their mother too - the chilled winter sun falling across her lap as the thoroughbred scent of sweat stole off her.

She would be safe there, in his body, her limited heart clicking away beneath his sticky ribs, her cold ankles rattling in the cuffs of his school trousers.

There were other times though when he couldn’t take her into his body, the times when he heard the bedroom door click and the noises through the wall. And then would imagine he was underwater again, with the pressure bubbles pinging through his ears and the greenwater telescoping into a cold vitreous horizon in front of him.

There’s a young girl standing in front of Rabbit on the edge of the breakwall, her Dora the Explorer raincoat snapping in the eddy of her body. A wave breaks and a gust of spray leaves her shot-peened and grinning. She waits for Rabbit to tell her to get back but he doesn’t.

The waves are even bigger now, obscuring the tip-head, seabirds tracing their blind brown faces.

Mr Port Authority looks at Rabbit again,

‘Don’t worry. They’ll be in by 12.’

‘How many you waiting on?’

He taps his phone. ‘Just your lot. Everyone else came in yesterday.’

‘You know my sister then?’

‘Yep. Good worker that one.’

Rabbit nods. Not that he knows anything about it. He doesn’t go out on the boats. But he knows what they say about her: hard-case, no drugs, gives zero fucks. Five foot nothing with her polar fleece beanie and sideways shoulder. The crews change all the time but they always look the same when he turns up to collect her from the wharf, cock-eyed and sea-dumb, like being born.

Old mate touches his elbow,

Thar she blows.’

Rabbit squints into the rain. The boat looks heavy, sitting low in the water, wide-bowed and blue where she isn't white. There’s no-one up top, or not that he can see anyway. Foam pushes up her sides, the carousel of fat orange buoys swinging in the wind.

And he can see, they both can see, the boat is listing.

‘That’s not good is it,’ says Rabbit.

But Old Mate doesn’t reply, he’s on his phone, one hand cupped over it like a wound. Rabbit can’t see his face.

Spray shears off the breakwall, rain tinctured with salt. The FV Golden Mary lurches to one side then the other.

He’s seen this before. Couple of times. This is a recoverable situation. And they’ve talked about what to do if it does all turn to shit. Ditch the boots. Get away from the boat. Grab something. Don’t swim. Wait.

But it won’t come to that.

Rabbit rubs his face again. The PVC raincoat smuggles sweat down his sleeves. Water courses down his face, flowing and speaking into his ears. His guts crease and he crouches on his heels, wet jandals sliding beneath him. He wonders if he shut the door. If the chooks are in. If the fire's gone out.

She hasn’t even seen the house yet, seen the job he’s done of it.

This is the last trip. He will pick her up and take her back to the empty house. He will cook the creamy pasta thing she likes and then they will lie down on the thin, dry carpet and smoke spliffs and listen to the susurration of rain high in the gum trees out the back. And then they will sleep in the empty bedrooms, the cracked wooden windows drawing the sea-fog in at night.

He will fix up the house. He told her that, paint everything, maybe redo the kitchen. He’s got some money saved. He can go back to work too. FInish his apprenticeship.

He looks back towards the boat.

A wave comes. The vessel surges forward and Rabbit thinks he can hear the engine cavitate, but he can’t. Puffs of music float towards them from the tinny radio up on deck. And then one moment later they’re in, sliding into the calm of the river. The bloke from the Port Authority is still on the phone. He grins at Rabbit and mouths: toldya!

Rabbit rubs his face and heads back to his bike. He will take her home now.

Next week’s short story is from a newly published collection by the great Eileen Duggan.

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