February 19th 2008
It’s good to write your name.
I want to say it aloud, see if it sounds the same now that you’re gone, but I don’t. I know the sound will be strange and you’ll feel further away than before. How long has it been since that other part of our lives, the part before all this?
I try to see you again, laughing, the sun on your face, smiling for me. I fool myself, believing that smile was only for me. But I know you smiled for him. Now that he’s gone I wonder if I’ll ever see you smile again.
I’m sorry for everything, not that it matters. Not that we can change anything or sorrow can bring him back. I wish it were different, all of this. That he was still here and you were happy, even if none of that happiness could ever be mine. And although I know it’s wrong I relive that night in Seacrest over and over. I reach for you, wanting that again, the perfection of you in my arms.
I love you, though I can never have you, but there it is.
Dropping the pen roughly on the scarred, wooden work desk he stares at the words, the letters in ink; another layer of permanence in a new and strange reality. He closes his eyes and exhales long and slow, then in a flash of motion slams a fist on the table and crumples the letter into a tight ball.
He writes to her, he has to, but she’ll never see the words.
The house has never been so quiet. He’d always thought quiet was what he needed, what he wanted, but that was before. This quiet is not still, but unsettling and empty, a quiet that echoes the barren landscape of his life. A blanket of uncomfortable silence that settles after the sounds of life are gone.
Picking up the sandpaper from the bench he crouches to reach the underside of the boat and rubs methodically, smoothing the roughness of unfinished wood. The movement feels good. He’s been sanding the hull for weeks now, a job that should have taken him half the time, but he’s in no hurry. There’s an odd comfort in the repetitiveness of the task, the predictability of movement and certainty of outcome. His mind can wander freely while his hands do the work.
He ought to hurry this boat along. He’s already behind the deadline he set himself but the thought of starting anew is too much. So many changes lately. He’ll stick with this boat a bit longer; its solid form a physical link to the time before.
He’d started it the day he met Evan on the wharf, when they’d talked awkwardly and he’d tried to speak to him about the drugs. One of the last times he saw Evan alive.
He’s replayed those last few weeks so many times, wondering if he could have done anything to change what happened in the end. He’s consoled himself with the reassurance that it wouldn’t have mattered. Evan would never have listened to him.
The truth is the guilt won’t go because he knows Evan could feel Billie slipping from him. A gradual movement toward Jack and he can’t deny it, that’s what he wanted. He’d wanted her for years and for every mess Evan made, Jack was there to clean up and comfort her. He’s not stupid enough to think that didn’t contribute toward the events that last night.
He’s been sanding the same spot for too long. The wood is smooth and the gritty paper has lost its rough edge. This is the way it’s been since; his head can’t seem to stay in one place without retreating back to that night. A night where everything he’d guiltily wished for was within reach for a few short hours before the fall that tore life in two.
The phone rings from underneath a pile of rags, wood shavings and tools and he takes his time reaching it, digging around till he finds it; neglected and dusty.
“Hello” his voice cracks, rusty from days of quiet. He clears his throat and tries again, “Hello?”
“Mama,” the familiar voice makes him smile.
“You don’t call like you used to Jack.”
“I’m just working Mama. How are you?”
Ignoring his question, she continues. “Always working, you work too much. Come home, come see your Papa.”
Jack catches the inevitable no he is ready to deliver to the familiar question. “Maybe soon. After I finish my boat.” He hears her sigh on the other end of the line.
“Always another boat.”
It’s been too long, he should have gone months ago, but home is the last place he’s wanted to be lately. He’s never been able to hide at home and he doesn’t want to have to explain his inertia, this stalemate he’s come to.
How can he tell them he screwed up again? Made another mistake. One with consequences that ripple and spread; it’s a story he can’t reconcile. He hadn’t meant for it, had tried to avoid it. The more he’d pushed it all away the more certain it seemed. Despite knowing there could be no happy ending, he’d quietly loved her, never expecting the ending that was to come.
So to go home and see his parents now would be too hard; Jack the great disappointment. He can’t face his father’s judgement and bitterness. His well-contained temper feels dangerously close to the surface and it makes him wary. Since that night, a lifetime of carefully stored emotion threatens to break the surface and create a wave he’s not ready to deal with. When he’s with his parents it’s too hard to escape the past, and right now the present is hard enough to deal with.
They’ve been meeting at Santos again every Thursday night for a month. Trying to get some sort of routine back. Meet up like they all used to, have a few beers, spend a few hours together and talk, about anything really, anything but the fact that someone’s missing.
Santos never changes and he likes that. Rough hard wood floors, a few well used booths lining the back wall, cracked red leather seats either side of the bare wooden tables. The walls adorned with island memorabilia; beach shots, yellow edged photos of local’s mid party, posters advertising bands, fiestas and street parades. Faded over time, partly covered over with newer versions; Friday night’s band, next month’s reggae festival. It’s all comfortingly familiar.
A long wooden bar runs the length of the far wall, a line of sturdy stools prop up the front. Behind the bar the back wall is an array of bottles; shelf upon shelf of glassware, every colour and variety of liquor available. The impressive collection of bottles is framed by the owner Bastian’s collection of international notes and coins. Over the years he has fastidiously pinned and stuck each one to the wall.
Santos has been around as long as Jack can remember and Bastian has always been there. He hasn’t changed much either, less hair perhaps and a little heavier around the middle but like everything in the little bar, Bastian is comfortingly predictable.
For Jack, Bastian is like family; one of the familiar St. Cloud local’s he’s grown up with. Originally from Germany, Bastian arrived in St. Cloud in the seventies. Long haired and flared he was ready to surf and party before returning home to begin a career as an accountant in Leipzig. Somehow, that planned future never quite worked out and Bastian, having had enough of the limited choices in island beer, decided to take action. In the late seventies he opened Santos - version one - a small bar, better described as a portable beer cart. Licensing laws on the island were loose so he custom-fashioned a travelling bar which moved from beach to beach selling European beer in long necked bottles. Having secured a shady no questions asked shipping deal, Bastian managed to supply real beer to the people of St. Cloud, a populace who had only ever tasted watery lager from the island’s only brewery.
Bastian and his beer were soon so popular he was able to set up permanent residence in the city, securing Santos’s current site and building the small bar from scratch with the help of a few friends. Around this time, he met his Mexican wife Josefina, who christened the bar Santos: little saint. Although some would argue it mightn’t be saintly to sell liquor for a living, Josefina and Bastian have saint-like status with the island’s beer drinkers and lonely souls.
Santos has always been a place to go where the welcome is warm. And on an island where home may be far away, a warm welcome, cold beer and friends on tap comes close to heaven.
This bar has seen Jack in many different phases of his life, some prettier than others. Bastian has been there through it all, Josefina at his side.
Jack at sixteen with the surf crowd, feeling like the big shot, drinking beer at the bar. No-one cared about ID in St. Cloud back then, he had the beginnings of a beard so they served him. Later, stupid and reckless, with his brother Raife and their friends, drinking too much and causing trouble, getting kicked out by Bastian who never made much of a fuss. He’d take them firmly by the elbow and guide them out the door using a few German expletives. He’d tell them to come back when they could handle their beer like men.
Later when things got bad, and Jack had nowhere else to go, he’d drink alone in Santos. He’d drink to try and forget that he’d fucked up and life was a mess. Bastian didn’t ask questions. Josefina would feed him, give him a bed for the night and a place to be when he didn’t seem to fit anywhere else.
Here he is so many years later, still heading to Santos, not to get drunk or to forget, but to remember. To try and figure things out in a place that never changes despite life’s turmoil.
The bar is quiet, familiar faces at tables or tucked in booths, country music plays low, muted conversation interspersed by the mournful sounds of Garth Brooks.
“Jackie boy! Good to see you brother, where you been hiding? You don’t like my beer anymore?” Bastian greets Jack with a smile, barely looking up from the glass he is polishing.
“What’s with the music?”
Bastian shakes his head, reaching for a bottle of beer. “Josefina, she’s just discovered country,” he shrugs passing the beer to Jack. “Could be worse, last month it was Lady Gaga. I blame the internet.” Jack smiles raising the bottle to his lips as Bastian continues. “How’s life? That boat coming along well?”
Jack shrugs setting the bottle back on the bar. “It’s good.” He’s about to say more but another customer approaches the bar and he’s saved the unappealing prospect of having to talk about himself. He’d rather not, there’s nothing to say; he’d rather sit here and watch life go by for a while, although Garth Brooks is seriously depressing him.
“Jack.” A hard slap on his back announces the arrival of Felix. He’s beaming, looking relieved he’s made it, his bulk and mop of spiky blond hair cast a shadow across the bar.
“Easy there, almost knocked me off my stool.” Jack grins.
“Don’t know my own strength.” Felix sits down beside Jack and gives Bastian a wave.
“Does Zoe know you’re out?”
Felix is married to Zoe and together they have two boys, Matty and Nate. Felix is usually the last to arrive anytime they get together and usually sports the look of the frazzled, sleep deprived father. His wife Zoe is a whirlwind and they all marvel at how Felix manages to keep up.
“She does.” He smiles warmly, shrugging, used to the jibes from his friends about being henpecked by his over-achiever wife.
“Felix!” Bastian approaches with a glass of dark beer. Apparently real Germans prefer not to drink from bottles. The men greet each other with a firm handshake before Bastian passes the glass to Felix.
Felix has lived with his American wife Zoe in St. Cloud for six years. Originally from Munich, Felix’s accent still forms words and phrases with clipped, guttural, Germanic sounds. There’s no mistaking where he’s from. Bastian however, has been away for so long his accent has formed a strange Germanic/island hybrid, soft drawn out vowels that transition to clipped consonants. It’s an intriguing sound and often tourists will try and guess where he is from; few get it right.
“Danke,” Felix takes the beer, gaze fixed on the amber glow and frothy top before drinking deeply.
“Nichts zu danken,” Bastian’s smile reflects Felix’s. A small taste and sound from home. They chat in German for a time, Bastian’s accent changing immediately back to the way it sounded in the seventies.
Dan enters the bar with Jed ten minutes later, and after greeting Bastian the four men take their beers to the pool table where they can find comfort in each other’s company and conversation has a focus. It’s only been a few months since Evans death and they need each other, but no-one has the emotional energy to talk about it anymore.
Dr Dan or DJ Dan, depending on which hour you meet him is always immaculately groomed. Direct from the pages of GQ or maybe if you know him a little better Out Magazine, his chiselled features an alluring advertisement for other gay men. Dan is a doctor on the island who moonlights as a DJ by night. Jack has grown up with Dan and their friendship is an anchor.
Dark haired with olive skin suggesting Italian or South American heritage, Jed, like Jack and Dan has also grown up on St. Cloud. Jed’s youthful appearance and unwillingness to settle down had given him a bit of a playboy reputation on the island. A reputation now in tatters as a result of meeting Sadie, a pretty dreadlocked Canadian who came to St. Cloud for a month, two years ago. Another traveller who didn’t get around to leaving. Jed’s other reputation however, the one that really matters, is thankfully pristine; Jed is St. Cloud’s number one barista.
Without Jed island life would be a few shades more stressful for the entire population. As owner and manager of Beaujangles, St. Clouds best coffee shop, Jed is a popular guy. Along with Santos, Beaujangles forms the heart of the St. Cloud community; another home from home in a city full of immigrants on an island far from everywhere.
The evening is pleasant, comfortable and undemanding. For a short time, Jacks’ head feels grounded. He remembers: this is home, the only one he knows.
“Hey Bastian can you please change that music? You’re about to see four grown men cry.” Dan calls across the bar to Bastian who shrugs and calls to Josefina in the kitchen. She’s busy making Chili Rellenos. There’s laughing and swearing in Spanish before Garth Brooks stops dramatically and is replaced by Lady Gaga.
A chorus of men’s voices holler in protest from around the pool table as the smell of fried Poblano Chilies and melted cheese wafts through the bar. The music changes again to Peter Tosh and everyone breathes a sigh of relief (in St. Cloud no-one complains about reggae). The game carries on amicably and soon a chuckling Josefina arrives, bearing a tray of hot chili rellenos.
Since they’ve been coming back, coming back without Evan, Josefina always cooks for them. Every Thursday night she arrives with a smile and a tray of comfort food. It’s the unspoken language of grief; offerings and tributes when words won’t do.
Josefina is small in stature, and standing next to Jacks 6ft 3inches she resembles a child. But there’s nothing childlike in her determined manner as she pushes the tray of food under his nose.
“Eat,” she watches him steadily as he reaches for a relleno and bites down through the crisp fried coating to the hot green chili and its molten cheese filling.
“Josefina,” Jack breathes between bites. “You’re wasted here with this old German, come live with me.”
She slaps him affectionately. “You know I’d never leave that crazy old German. He’d be lost without me.”
“You boys leave my girl alone!” Bastian shouts from the bar, his hearing always perfectly attuned to conversation, gossip or trouble in Santos. Josefina rolls her eyes and leaves the tray on the table, returning to the kitchen and her home-made corn tortilla.
“It’s a good thing I can’t cook these myself, I’d lose my figure and these hips won’t look this good forever.” Dan licks a greasy finger then reaches for a paper napkin.
Jack isn’t really listening. He leans on his pool cue, eyes focused on the table, attention elsewhere.
Dan turns to him, “What’s up lover boy? You look like shit.”
Jack can’t help but smile. “Go easy with the compliments.”
“Don’t get used to it. Go take a shot and show Jed how it’s done. He’s a cocky little ass. Always thinks he can win. I’ve got the next round resting on our victory.” Dan gestures toward the table where Jed and Felix stand smugly, arms folded, sure of certain victory after Jed’s last play.
Dust scatters as Jack chalks the top of his cue.
“Come on baby, show them what we’re made of.” Dan is confident as Jack leans over the table and steadies himself to take aim. The cue rests between thumb and first finger and his aim is perfect, it always is. But his head is crowded and the cue seems to know. As the tip of the cue makes impact with the white ball it quivers and jumps sending the ball off target to collide with the green cushioned edge of the table, potting one of Jed and Felix’s balls in the process.
The others laugh as Jack swears and Dan shakes his head. “Man, you’re in worse shape than I thought.”
March 13th 2008
Isle of Arrasaigh,
I keep waiting to wake up. Waiting for that moment when reality starts to bend and I realise that this isn’t the real world at all.
I am here, Evan is gone and that chapter of life is over. I lie awake and think of the many ways I might have stopped it, might have seen it before it happened. I lie awake and wonder if I helped push him to that place where he ended his life alone.
How do we keep going? I can’t see beyond each minute and I’m terrified for the twins. Will I always feel this way? They carry on, unaware the sky has fallen. They laugh and play and they ask for him. They ask for you, for Louie and Bets and the beach. I need a story to tell them to make sense of it all but my words are gone.
Did he know Jack? I can’t help but wonder. Did he know?
I will stay here in Arrasaigh until I’m strong enough to come back, until I can survive these equal measures of grief and guilt. I can’t stop thinking that my love for you contributed to catastrophe, yet here I am holding you like a lifeline.
There’s a box under the bed that holds all the words I want to say, I open it at night when the house is dark and quiet, and place another letter inside. Letters to Evan, to Jack, to the twins, to Cam, to Mom. Conversations I must have, questions I must ask and apologies I need to make. I write letters I will never send like my life depends on it. Maybe it does.
I hear them at the foot of the stairs, the hushed tones stop me in my tracks. Pressing myself against the wall I listen to another concerned conversation about me.
“It’s time Cam, you have to talk to her son. She’ll listen to you.” I picture Cam rubbing his eyes or running a hand through his hair, thinking carefully about what he’s supposed to say. I am not the only one who is suffering, but the thought isn’t enough to shake me from my grieving stupor.
“I’ll talk to her Nell, she’s not strong enough. I don’t want to rush her.” I hear the fear in Cam’s voice and slide down the wall to sit on the hard wood floor of the upstairs landing, head on my knees. “The doctor said to give her time.” Cam’s voice sounds unsure and I imagine Nell taking his arm and squeezing it in reassurance, but when she speaks I know I’m mistaken because she’s firm and authoritative.
“The girl needs to be out of bed. She needs to be with those wee ones, she needs to taste a wee bit of life if she’s to carry on. Of course she needs to grieve, and she’ll keep grieving, but she needs to live.”
There’s a pause and I imagine an embrace. I imagine Nell pulling Cam, weathered and worried into a mothering embrace. In that moments silence Nell’s last four words crowd me, pressing on closed eyelids, unwilling to pass by and let me hide away in my own selfish grief. She needs to live.
This is my new reality; Evan, my husband, is dead and I am here, hiding away at the home of my stepfather Cam, and Nell, housekeeper and surrogate grandmother. I ran here to Arrasaigh, another island, this time in Scotland. An island as far away from St. Cloud as I could manage. I hide here, far away from the real world that waits.
Downstairs my children wait. Their understanding of the present simple, perfectly so; they live. I hear Nell’s words again, in a quiet voice that sounds like mine, a whisper repeating. I need to live. As the simple message sinks through my grey mist, the very reason I need to live screams in chorus down the corridor; two small voices in harmony.
“What are you two up to? Now what’s that you’ve got in your hand Ms Evie?” Nell’s voice changes tack, full of indulgence. Giggling follows as a small child is tickled or cuddled.
“Nell’s told you about that before. Don’t put it in your mouth, it’s Samson’s toy.” A tussle ensues, Nell must be wrestling the dog’s toy from Evie and despite my curled position on the floor, and the tears that lie wet on my cheeks I can’t help but smile.
“Ganda, Ganda…” little hands are being clapped together; Sunny must be holding out his arms to be lifted. The chant turns to laughter and I picture Sunny in Cams arms being nuzzled by his stubbly chin.
“Let’s get some dinner fixed, then we’ll get you in a bath.” Nell bustles away, I imagine the twins in tow as Sunny yells, “Bye bye Ganda. Bye bye.”
The words summon a dusty memory; my own grandfather, Mom’s Dad, a farmer back in Kansas. I remember his plaid shirt and leather work hat, the smell of tractor gasoline and the way his hands were hard and calloused but his smile soft and warm.
There’s a moment where I’m looking down at my sorry self from above. I see the pale, curled form below through the eyes of another. I see myself feeling the weight of the world, wallowing in helplessness. Maybe it’s through the eyes of Grandad, long gone, looking down, shaking his head. Or, maybe it’s through the eyes of Mom, her arms folded across her chest telling me; Enough now Billie. Get up off the floor and start walking. It’s time to start walking.
There’s a sensation of ice cold water, a bucket thrown unexpectedly over my head. My eyes spring open as I gulp in a sharp breath. It’s time.
Pressing my palms against the floor I feel the wood below me, comfortingly solid. Easing myself up to stand I take a moment to breathe evenly. Breath by breath, in and out. I listen to the laughter downstairs, the twins and Nell and the creak and groan of farm gates outside as Cam retreats to his predictable animals. Life all around and I must step back in. I need to live. Awkwardly I place a cold foot on to the floor and move forward. One step at a time. I walk slowly, but with intention, to reach the shower where I will wash away some self-indulgent grief to make room for my babies who need me.
“I used to come here as a wee boy and swim in the rock pool.” Cam’s stride is long and I struggle to keep up with him as we walk along the track that forms a rough path through the valley.
“On your own?” I have this image of Cam as a little boy, alone, maybe with a dog in tow, a bit like now.
“Sometimes,” Cam smiles down at me, my walk breaking into a jog to keep pace.
“Shall we slow down?” he asks kindly. Months in bed with a box of hankies for company have left me thin and unfit. I’m ashamed of my weakness and nod, stopping to tie a shoelace which hasn’t really come undone. I catch my breath as Cam stands waiting, hands on hips, admiring the scenery he never tires of.
Glen Rannach is breath-taking any time of year, but today it is warm and the sun bright. Arrasaigh is not known for its warm sunny climes and the day is a gift. Stones crunch beneath our feet as we follow the well-tended track that leads from the edge of the village up over the brow of the hill to the lush valley below. A brown, peaty river runs alongside the path, widening here and there. Water bubbles over rocks and mossy banks into deep pools where the flow appears still for a time.
We follow the path side by side in companionable silence. Cam carries Sunny on his shoulders and Evie sleeps on my back, snuggled into a backpack whose weight makes my shoulders ache. I steal a glance at Cam; he is lost in thought, the sight comical. His face is set and serious but Sunny’s head lies atop Cams; a sleeping hat, mouth open and drooling despite the bumpy ride, chubby arms encircling Cams neck. That anyone could sleep so peacefully in such a position makes me laugh aloud and Cams head jerks toward me. My laughter is an unfamiliar sound these days.
I gesture to Sunny, and Cam smiles. We walk on in the afternoon sun, only the sounds of the river and the odd call of a bird overhead to interrupt the quiet. As the path changes from gravel to grass even our footsteps are silent and we walk, step by step, side by side, till we reach the rock pool from Cam’s childhood memories.
Evie and Sunny wake as the motion of our footsteps stop. We unload a small picnic and let them paddle by the edge of the cool water. The surrounding hills are vibrant in the sun. Deep greens mixed with the lemon yellow of gorse flowers in bloom.
Cam unwraps a sandwich and takes a bite, eyes fixed on the twins, careful they don’t venture too deep. “What will you do Billie?”
The question takes me by surprise, but his manner is nonchalant, his mouth half full as he speaks. “Have you thought about it yet?”
I suppose I’ve been waiting for this question since I arrived, but my answer is only really half-formed and I’m afraid it’s not the answer he’s hoping for.
“We’ll go back.” I bite down on my sandwich, wishing I could say more, could feel more definite in my plan for our next chapter. Life without Evan.
Cam nods and chews thoughtfully. “Evie lass, come back a wee bit,” he calls gesturing Evie to come to him and away from the water. Mischievous as usual she takes a step back but slips on a mossy stone and ends up sitting in the pool, cold water up to her tummy. She cries balefully at the shock and Cam hops up to scoop her into his arms. “Come and sit with Granda and we’ll get you dried off.” She looks up at him, then at me and smiles, wet bottom forgotten she cuddles Cam and Sunny follows. Wherever Evie goes Sunny is inevitably close behind.
“Have you decided when?” Cam asks, ruffling Sunny’s hair.
“In a few more months.” I nod as I speak, hoping to convince him and myself, that by then I’ll be ready.
“Are you sure?”
I keep nodding, afraid to trust my words.
“What will you do love?” Cam eyes are kind. I know he will support whatever decision I make. It’s what he’s always done, but I see the sadness and the worry and I wish I could take it away.
“I don’t know.”
Tears are never far away and I don’t try to hide them. Cam pulls an old cotton hankie from his pocket and I dab my eyes and start again. “I don’t know. But I do know I’ve got to go back. I’ve got to try and start again.” I stop and take a breath. “St. Cloud is our home. I’ll figure things out when I get there, but I know I’ll never be able to start again if I don’t go back.” I nod, the words said aloud making sense of months of quiet thought. I must go back to move forward. I need to be back in St. Cloud, in our home, with our friends. I need to make peace with my memories to carry on.
Cam nods, his eyes on the pool and the bubbling river flowing merrily into its depths.
“You won’t stay then?”
“You knew I wouldn’t.”
“I know, but you know you can. You could move in here and I’d have these two milking cows for their keep.” He smiles gesturing to the twins who are squabbling over a cookie. Evie wallops Sunny in the face sending him toppling backward. He sits, eyes wide as cold water pools around his tummy. Evie is quiet for a split second, secretly impressed with her own strength until Sunny starts to giggle and splash and she barrels in after him determined to be where the fun’s at.
Cam and I laugh together and he rummages around in his backpack emerging triumphant moments later with a tarnished silver hip flask. He winks as he unscrews the silver stopper and takes a long slow sip.
“Cameron McMahon, tell me that’s not whisky!” I pretend to be shocked.
“Not just whisky Billie…Laphroaig. Here!” He throws the flask into my lap and I roll my eyes, undoing the stopper and inhaling deeply. “No, not just whisky,” he shakes his head with a look of reverence on his unshaven face. “Single malt. Try it, you can taste the peat.”
I wrinkle my nose, “And that’s a good thing?”
He smiles. “You’ll see what I mean,” he nods again toward the silver flask.
“Bloody hell! What’s become of me?” I smile, raising the flask to my lips. “Hard liquor and it’s not even a weekend.”
“A weekend? Christ.” Cam laugh. “It’s been daily for me since dealing with these two urchins.” He gestures to the twins.
I laugh feeling the hard tang of whisky evaporate on my tongue. The depth of flavour takes my breath away, and just like Cam says I can taste the peaty riverbank where the water flowed as it made its way to the whisky barrel.
When I open my eyes Cam is staring at me. “Are you okay lass?” I nod. Warmth emanates from my chest as my heart reaches out in love.
“I’m fine.” Something quiet and sleepy is wakening and I remember how it feels to have hope. And although it’s probably just the whisky and the Highland air, I breathe in that taste of happiness and know in time I will be.
Later, on the return journey with Evie and Sunny snuggled on our backs and shoulders, the sun is low in the sky, and the gentle sound of birdsong echoes from the hills as dusk approaches. Evan appears, unbidden in my memory, a clear vision, and for a moment I can hear his voice.
“What I’d give to fly Billie…to feel the flow…just to fly.”
In the world we lived in, together, not so long ago I’d answered: “But you’ll never know.”
In this world, my new world, where Evan flew with his birds, I wonder if he did know. If he always knew this is how it would end. That death was the flow he’d have to surrender to. Maybe he tried to prepare me, maybe he never knew himself.
The image vanishes and the birds sing and Cam squeezes my hand. “Be brave Billie, be brave.”
He returns to a light flashing on the answer machine.
The room is dark and shadow less, the moon hidden under low cloud. The red flash breaks the dark intermittently, throwing the room briefly into the seedy tones of city nightlife.
Disinterested, Jack ignores the machine and flips on the light as he crosses the room to open wide wooden doors to the deck. The night is heavy and the complete darkness comforting. Kicking off his shoes, he walks barefoot to the edge of the deck and leans heavily on the rail. His eyes strain for a glimpse of the ocean. From here the view is best, he built the deck to face the sea, and with tea trees framing either side his view is private and almost always clear. But tonight there isn’t a glimmer of moonlight on waves. The sky is black and the ocean follows suit. He hears the water only barely, the low hum of insects in the bush masks the gentle lap of waves below.
He should feel differently about the ocean, especially here, at this very point on the island; the point where Evan fell to his death. It should feel tarnished, ruined somehow. A place of beauty and peace now one of heartbreak and anger. But it remains the same, Evan hasn’t taken that away, although in his darker moments Jack wonders if he maybe he wanted to.
He never wanted to be angry, to feel this rage against fate and circumstance…against Evan. But the anger is there nonetheless and it shames him. He stands leaning on the rail, eyes focused on the darkness beyond for a time until the red flicker interrupting the solitude of blackness annoys him enough to head inside.
Sinking on to the sofa he hits the play button, instantly the red light is replaced by a once familiar voice.
“Jack, you there? Pick up, it’s me Raife. Hey…I know it’s been a while but I need a…” There’s a noise in the background that’s hard to define, a low beat, voices, a distant siren. “Look, don’t sweat it, it’s all good. Forget it for now. I’m in…” The message abruptly ends as the caller is cut off or hangs up deliberately.
Alert, Jack hits the play button again, listening to the voice that used to be as familiar as his own. A voice now so strange and unexpected it takes his breath away. Raife…what the hell? Where was he and why would he call now? Bets sidles over on the sofa and rests her head on his lap, sensing tension and wanting to relieve it. Jack exhales slowly, rubbing the dog’s ears distractedly. The message has unnerved him.
By three am he is asleep on the sofa with Bets by his side and Louie curled by his feet. The doors to the deck open to the still, black night, the phone thrown to the floor,
His dreams are exhausted and black, dark imaginings, faces from his past and present, boats and babies, Billie and his brothers and the sound repeated in an emotionless tone, It’s me Raife…pick up Jack.
The smell of coffee wafts down the driveway that leads to Felix and Zoe’s house. Jack breathes in the welcome fragrance as he climbs the back steps leading to the open kitchen door.
“Smells like I’m just in time.” He enters without knocking as is expected of him.
“It’s mine, I told you not to touch it, I said, like three million times, the blue light sabre is only for Luke Skywalker.” Six-year-old Nate is wrestling a plastic light sabre from his younger brother Mattie who is not about to give up without a fight.
“You did not, you said I could have it! You said I could, cause you wanted to be Darth Vader and he only uses the red one!” Mattie looks around for support, someone to confirm that indeed the blue light sabre is his and Nate really should be Darth Vader. Jack steps into the kitchen just as Nate pulls the light sabre so hard it flies from Mattie’s hand knocking over a plant, spilling damp soil over the rug.
“Shit.” Nate breathes in a serious voice as his mother rounds the corner with a murderous look on her face.
“Who taught you that word Nathaniel?”
She ignores the plant that lies crumpled on the rug. Her hands are on her hips and Nate looks around the room for help or an escape route. He knows he’s in big trouble; she’s just used his Sunday name.
“Dad says it all the time.” Mattie pipes up suddenly ready to stick up for the brother who was about to flatten him for a light sabre only moments ago.
“Does he really?” Zoe answers, nostrils flaring.
“Yeah,” Nate has found his voice, sensing Mattie’s on to something. “He says other stuff too Mom,” his expression is all serious, “like…”
“Okay you can stop there. Get this mess tidied up, then get outside.” Zoe is blushing as she notices Jack leaning against kitchen counter. She rolls her eyes and heads toward him, “Coffee?”
“Wonder what else Dad says?” he grins opening the milk carton and pouring some into the steaming mug.
“I’ll kill him.”
“Kill who?” Felix enters the kitchen holding the remains of the sorry plant.
“You!” Zoe grabs the plant and punches his arm as she passes with a brush and shovel to help Nate and Mattie clean up.
“What did I miss?” Bemused, Felix shrugs and heads to the coffee pot.
“Zoe was just getting a few tips from the boys on your parenting style.” Jack smiles, sipping his coffee, surveying the cluttered kitchen with its mismatched paint colours, pots hanging from the ceiling and kid’s art stuck to the fridge.
“Shit, they didn’t tell her about the x…”
Zoe breezes back into the kitchen, her timing perfect. “The x-box? Oh I’ve known about that for a while. I’ve just been waiting for the right moment to bust your ass.”
Felix opens his palms in a gesture of supplication. “They’re boys Zoe, it’s just games, they love it.”
“You didn’t buy it for the boys, it’s for you…and you know I don’t want them on video games. Did you think I wouldn’t see your little set up out there in the garage?”
Felix looks sheepish. “You never go in the garage.”
Zoe turns to Jack, eyebrows raised. He laughs, raising his palms. “Leave me out of it.”
“I give up.” She sighs. “Pour me a coffee will you?” Jack passes her a steaming mug and Felix, sensing a window of opportunity, pulls her in from behind and kisses the top of her head. He places a hand on the small of her belly.
“How is she today?” He touches her tummy which swells below her loose shirt.
“Will you stop with the she? It’s probably a he and you’ll give him gender issues in utero.”
“It’s got to be she! What the hell will we do with another one of those?” He gestures toward the backyard and all three turn to see Mattie and Nate in the middle of a mud pie fight.
“Oh man. I’m getting the hose.” She makes for the door, “Jack, there’s fresh bread on the counter, eat something will you? You look awful.” She breezes into the garden and the two men hear the splash of the hose and ensuing screams of delight as the little boys race around muddy and wet.
He’d promised to help Felix take down some walls and the job takes longer than expected. By 4.00pm they stop for a cold beer outside. The air is warm and damp. Zoe has taken Mattie and Nate to the beach and the house is unusually quiet.
Felix exits the kitchen carrying two beers, his blond hair now white with dust from the wreckage. “Zoe’s going to flip over the mess.” For a minute he looks concerned then his face breaks into a smile.
“Can’t believe she knew about the x-box all this time,” he shakes his head. “I was sure she’d have a fit, must be the pregnancy, most women get grouchy but it’s the only time Zoe goes easy on me.”
Although the baby wasn’t planned according to Felix, Jack suspects differently, he’s pretty sure Zoe had plans for another baby all along.
“I know I shouldn’t say it, but God I hope it’s a girl.” He looks to Jack with mild concern, “Not that another boy wouldn’t be great, but I think if it’s not a girl she’ll want to keep going.” He blows out a long breath of air in a slow whistle. “I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
Jack smiles and claps him on the back. Felix, his strong, reliable friend looking genuinely terrified at the thought of his wife’s hormones and a football team of kids.
“Come on then, let’s get finished before they get back.” They head inside, a trail of dust in their wake, the mission to clear the way for the new baby’s bedroom still a few hours from completion.
With each swing of the sledgehammer the once solid wall chips, cracks and crumbles. Jack swings harder than necessary, the rough physical action a relief. Every bang releases another layer of frustration, but by the time each loose brick is cleared the feeling returns.
At seven, Jed arrives to find Felix and Jack ghostly white, leaning on their sledgehammers, surveying the day’s work. The once three room corner of the sprawling house has been opened into a wide airy room which when the sun rises and the dust clears will begin its transformation into a baby’s room and play space.
“Holy shit, what happened here?” Jed stands open-mouthed, eyes creasing into a smile as Jack and Felix turn to face him. “Does Zoe know you’re demolishing her house? Jed claps his hand on Felix’s shoulder surveying the mess.
“Are your here to help or be a pain in the ass?” Felix asks.
“Both. Zoe sent me down to tell you guys to call it quits, she says the banging is driving her crazy and… hang on let me get this straight…she said to tell you, to shower and go play on your x-box.”
Jack laughs and claps his hands together in a bid to rid himself of some dust as Felix stands hands on hips, open-mouthed. “She said that?” his smile dazzles through the dust.
“Just kidding, she said to get your ass up there and help her get the kids to bed.” Jed punches Felix on the arm. “Had you going there.”
“Easy, I’m the good guy. Anyway I was looking for Jack, been calling your place all day, figured you were either in the boat shed or here.”
Jack dusts his shoulders with his shirt. “What’s up?”
Discomfort flashes over Jed’s usually cool demeanour, but by the time he answers his tone is casual. “Raife called the shop yesterday, said he was trying to track you down, didn’t know if he had your number right. One of the girls answered and gave him your number and address.” His expression is careful. “Hope that’s okay. I know you guys haven’t been in touch for a while.”
Jack closes his eyes, rubs a hand over his mouth and waits for Jed to continue, but Felix pipes up first. “Who’s Raife then?”
No-one answers, Jed continues. “Sorry man. He must know where you live anyhow, right?”
“Don’t worry, it’s okay.” Jack’s voice is stiff. “Listen, I’d better head, got to do some work on the boat.” He smiles at Felix. “You want me back tomorrow to finish this?”
“Sure.” Felix nods as Jack heads toward the door. “Who’s Raife?” He mouths the question to Jed.
“His brother.” Jed stage whispers to Felix while Jack’s back is turned.
When Jack turns both Jed and Felix are watching him. “See you first thing.” He nods to Felix and pulls a dusty t-shirt over his head as he exits the room.
“Stop in for coffee. Not too early though!” Jed shouts through the open doors, but Jack is already reversing quickly down the drive.
Speeding around the dark bends toward Frontiere Point Jack’s head is elsewhere. It’s back in an era he doesn’t like remembering. But if Raife is set on seeing him, he’ll have to face it again. But he doesn’t know if he can, not right now, with Evans death still fresh and the loss of Billie still raw.
The truth is, she was never his to lose, so why is it so damn hard?
The dark bends in the road suddenly feel threatening. The heavy line of trees cloyingly close. He’s back, just for a moment to that time, another night when everything changed. Another slice across time; a before and after that has clouded the years since.
Breathing unsteadily Jack pulls the truck carefully to the side of the road. Eyes closed, he grips the steering wheel, hands slick with sweat. He concentrates on his breath and heart rate, willing calm to return. It does, slowly, with the hesitance of a disloyal friend. Frustrated and ashamed at his loss of control he starts the car shakily and begins the slow drive home. Maybe it’s finally time to deal with Raife, time to try and heal old wounds?
As the trucks’ high beams alight on his house the dogs bark and race to meet him, certainty descends. It is time. He needs to face Raife and try to heal old wounds. But this time he’ll face him as a man, not a boy.