We are free now. Floating in the green phosphorescence of sunlight diffused through water. Our bodies, warm-blooded, writhe and twist as sea creatures. Below us and around, the other fish are pieces from a forgotten jigsaw. They hover and dart with cautious indifference. We are welcome to share their world.
We both break the surface together and the first thing I see is that familiar smile.
“Did you see the ray?”
“No,” I say, suddenly uneasy. “Where did it go?” It seems a stupid question and I’m sorry I asked it. Kit keeps grinning. He is seventeen and full of all the life and beauty of adolescence. He’s almost a man. But not quite. Perhaps it’s just that he is my sister’s son.
We become mammals of the land again, the water spilling off us as we struggle to the shoreline in our flippers. Kit is laughing as he takes off his and I realise that it is a joke, our funny walk, so I follow his example, remove my flippers and laugh as well. He turns and smiles at me, taking easy strides as the dry sand begins, his brown legs spare, his bare torso already crusty with salt where it isn’t beaded with sea water. As the sand rises and becomes grass, he is well ahead of me, holding a flipper in each hand. He’s lean and dark with blue board shorts sitting low on his hips, revealing the white of his lineage against a mochaccino tan. The surfer’s tricolour.
“Lunch is already on the table,” my sister calls from the doorway of the villa.
I have been given the ensuite room, for which I am grateful; although I worry I might become too comfortable. The blinds can be operated by remote control from anywhere in the room. There is a bathtub right by the bed. Just inside the door is a full height mirror that runs for six feet. This is modern style. There is no hiding from yourself. As I walk around I see my sagging breasts and my tummy, which looks far too big. I am a forty eight year old woman I tell myself with mock confidence. I am allowed to be this way.
The room looks out to the Broadwater, and across the northern suburbs of the coast to the hinterland range. I imagine it to be horrifically hot in summer, being the western aspect, but then remember air conditioning. My sister would like it all to be hers, but must settle for the generosity of her employer.
“This isn’t our place,” she tells her children. “We have to take care of it.”
We sit down to eat together.
My sister has three kids. Kit, the eldest, is about to go to university. Alex is into his second year at high school and is already starting to rebel, cultivating an attitude of determined refusal towards everything. I suppose he’s exercising the adolescent’s right to non-conformity. Sarah the youngest is ten. Her entry to the world was a futile attempt to save my sister’s marriage. Sarah has become a real tomboy. She tells us she’s going to be a marine biologist.
“Mum,” says Sarah, her mouth full of chips, “Is Mr Fraser coming to stay here? I want to go fishing in his boat.”
“Not this time darling.”
“That boat of his stinks,” says Alex before turning to me. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
“I’ve told you kids before, don’t talk with your mouths full. Auntie Susan is here on holiday, not to discuss details of her personal life.”
I tell her I’ll help with the dishes.
“No, no. The boys will do it. Go and have a nap if you like.”
My brother from Sydney arrives in a big four-wheel drive. He’s on his own, which is a surprise. Usually he has a love interest in tow. Some other lawyer from the city, or a lifesaver or a party boy. Never the same one.
“I like what you’ve done with your hair,” he tells me. Will is excited by appearances. There’s always a new look. Lately he’s been cultivating a rangyness at odds with his career and impending middle age.
“Thanks,” I say, not altogether sure whether being here on my own makes me more deserving of his compliments.
Will is tall like Kit. He’s always been the odd one, the middle child, the wild one. In our family he was known by three different names. I wonder that his life isn’t more of a mess. But he’s the least confused of us all.
“Just you this time?”
He nods. “How about you?”
“Just me,” I say, “just me.”
The next day the kids are out and Will has gone on one of his long walks. I join my sister for tea.
“I really like this place, I mean the style of it all.” Her legs are tucked on the couch beside her and she cradles her cup like something precious rescued from a fallen nest. “They call it ‘bare minimalism’.”
The villa is flawless. It has nothing of the harsh frugality of the places we knew as kids. No peeling lino or chipped crockery. No bare bulbs or exposed fluorescent tubes. No making do.
“And it was some kind of work deal?”
“My reward,” she says, “for meeting targets six months in a row.”
“Mmm.” I wash it down as if it all makes sense. And it does. I know my sister well.
This development is like a vacant film set. It’s the last in a series of islands formed from pumped-up sand and joined together with bridges. It’s the reverse condition to the canal developments eating their way across the Gold Coast, labyrinthine waterways through every second suburb. Everything is overstated and artificial. Who owns these houses and why are they so big?
I find Will sitting at the end of the jetty, hairy legs sprouting from the ends of ragged, cut-off jeans.
“Stealing a moment to yourself?”
“How’d you guess?”
I get down beside him and peer into the water. “So what’s happening?”
“I’m leaving my job,” he says.
“Oh really? What will you do?”
“I’m moving to a Murwillumbah.”
“Something like that. I bought a little avocado farm just out of town. I wanted mangoes but it’s a bit too far south.”
“What happened to Martin?”
“We’re mates,” he says. “You know how it is.”
I guess I do, but then I don’t. The lives of gay men seem so random. I want more. I want to understand the world the way he does.
We watch a young windsurfer struggling with his craft. A boy a little younger than Kit, his skin unused to the sun, in shorts that seem too big for him. The sail mast wobbles and tilts, the boy loses balance and falls into the water.
As vague as Will seems, I know I can count on him to tell it how it is. My sister is not like this.
“How about you, Susan? Any changes on the horizon?”
“Not really, nothing to speak of.”
“Oh c’mon. How about… men?”
“Heavens! None of those!”
He puts his hand on my shoulder, a gesture equally intimate and jarring. Ours is not a close family. It’s rare that we are all together. Our parents pushed us to do our best, but they didn’t nurture our filial loyalty. Now they murmur to us from their graves you can do better.
The windsurfing boy is on the board again, but not having much success with keeping upright. I wonder whether he will keep trying or give up. We watch him until it is time to go in.
“You could have brought someone,” says my sister. “I wouldn’t have minded.”
“I know,” says Will.
It is late afternoon. We are sitting on the deck with a bottle of chardonnay, looking down the Broadwater. We can see the high-rise apartments of Surfers’ Paradise in the distance.
My sister glances into the lounge room where her second born is engrossed in front of the wide-screen TV wearing headphones and playing Tomb-Raider.
“Alex!” she calls, “Why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air?”
He either ignores or can’t hear her and she reaches for her wine glass, frowning.
“It’s a nice place here,” says Will topping up the drinks.
“Thank you,” says my sister.
“So, this boss of yours. Are you having an affair with him?”
She looks down and then away, towards the beach.
“You haven’t exactly got an impeccable record,” she says to the table.
It’s quiet in this new holiday neighbourhood. So quiet I can hear the reverberation of the fridge motor. A stranger humming out of politeness.
“It wasn’t an accusation,” says Will.
“Anyway,” she starts, recovering her composure, “it’s not an affair. We just have to wait a bit before we go public. He’s just left his wife.”
Will is smirking at me in a self-satisfied kind of way. He’s always enjoyed teasing her and I know he’s amused that even now, as imperfectly formed adults, we continue to react the way our personalities dictate. I look at my sister and feel sorry for her. What worries me is that she goes from one thing to the next like this and still thinks the decisions are hers. She is someone who life just happens to. No matter how hard she tries to direct the future, she will always be the unhappy beneficiary of luck. I am in two minds whether to say anything but the alcohol has taken effect.
“Are you sure you are doing the right thing?” I say.
They both look at me and my sister says, “Well what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re all adults here. At least Will makes an effort. When did you last fall in love?”
I say, “Love? Is that what you call it?”
“Well,” counters Will, “she’s happy.”
I almost ask him whether he’s serious, but then I realise they have probably had this conversation in my absence.
Sarah trots up the stairs. “Check this out!” She holds up a large jellyfish.
“Oh no,” says my sister, “not in the house. Take it outside!” And the child obediently does.
I keep forgetting we are on an island. A man made oasis of concrete kerbing and manicured turf. Sometimes I think our domestic comforts will kill us as a species. And then I think I am thinking too much.
I excuse myself and pick up my hat and sunglasses. As I follow the path to the beach I pass the jellyfish fading on the path where Sarah has left it. By tomorrow it will reek so the gardeners will take it and toss it somewhere where the smell won’t bother anyone. I see Kit practising his dives off the jetty, each one a little better than the last. I watch as he slips into the blue, disappearing for a few seconds, then springing out and stroking his way back to the pontoon.
I call out to him and wave my arms but he doesn’t see me. So I make my way over the grass towards the beach. And I anticipate the cool relief of the water and being in that strange, clear world again. A place where things are neither right or wrong or as we want them to be, but just are.
Evocative. I like your eye for detail.