The waders coming off was a signal, it seemed. Marion grinned in spite of herself at the sudden change in the dog’s behaviour. An energetic red heeler, it hadn’t left the tray of the battered white ute all afternoon, torn between barking at passing 4WDs and snapping at the marauding seagulls diving for the bait bag. But when the man climbed out of the rubber trousers, the stocky little dog leapt down, tail going gangbusters, and raced madly in circles before cocking his leg and letting out a long stream of pee. Relieved, he strutted back to where his master was packing away the rods, and sat calmly, grinning like a fool.
I should be going home too, she thought. Tears pricked her eyes at the thought and she tapped out another cigarette to push them away. Shit, last one. She lit up. Inhaled deeply. The sand was cooling beneath her, the heat disappearing with the light.
She inspected the hand holding the durrie. Even in the fading light it looked old: gnarled veins, raw red flesh. Nicole Kidman’s hands went the joke. Pity it wasn’t funny. How can you feel impossibly old and far too young at the same time?
She pictured her daughter’s face. With a burn of shame she recognised that fear had been etched on the familiar features. Not fear of me. Fear of the situation. A voice whispered ‘Go home. Look after her,’ but again the tears came. The anger had gone, faded along with the light and heat, but Marion still could not move.
She’d had a tough shift. The night shift had been short-staffed, so her crew had to pick up the slack, and to top it off one of her favourites had died; a horrible, stressful death. He’d got into his head to try to go home. When the orderlies tried to coax him back he got agitated and resisted, had a panic attack. And then his heart just failed. He collapsed to the floor, and that was it. It upset everyone. All Marion wanted when she got home was some peace and quiet to slough off the day and mourn.
Walking in to the TV blaring, Coke cans and pizza boxes littering floor, she tensed immediately. The remote was nowhere in sight so she yanked the cord from the wall and shouted for Kathy to bloody come and clean her shit up. Jesus! Is it too much to ask?
Kathy appeared in the doorway, a rabbit in the headlights, stuttering apologies. The teen was nervy and tense but if Marion noticed she ignored it, launching straight into a tirade about how Kathy has no respect for anything, she can bloody go and live with Jonah if they can’t learn to clean up after themselves and treat other people with a bit of respect. In the end Kathy shouted at her, crying, saying, “Stop, stop, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Then she dropped it.
“Mum, I’m pregnant.”
It was as though the room dropped away and it was just the two of them, suspended in space and time. Kathy bit her lip, searched her mother’s face for a response. Marion felt her hopes and dreams swirl around them and drain away like so much dishwater. To the echoing emptiness that remained she said it.
“You stupid bitch.”
Kathy recoiled in shock and disbelief. Marion watch her daughter’s face crumble and felt nothing but a surge of anger boil through her veins. Kathy begged, reached for her. Marion stepped away. Stepped away and walked out, and kept on walking. Kept on walking until she reached the beach and even then she wanted to keep on walking into the sea, like Harold Holt. To let the water engulf her and wash her away from trouble. But she didn’t.
The ute rumbled off, and Marion was alone. A few stray 4WDs trundled past on the sand below, their headlights carving through the moonless night.
Marion did the sex talk with Kathy when she was ten, a real occasion over Sweet and Sour Pork at the Pearl Garden. Even then Kathy had the jump on her, having heard the basics at school. Still, she repeated it on her thirteenth birthday and again when she had her first period two months later. Offered to take her to get contraception. They fought about that, too.
And still, this.
The day Marion found out she was pregnant with Kathy, she was overjoyed. So was Ben. They hadn’t exactly planned it but they were in love, fools that they were. Her parents threw her out, and she and Ben set up home in the dingy flat above the panel beaters’ where he was apprenticed. They stuck glow-in-the dark stars on the ceiling and lay awake at night whispering to the baby, telling it how much different they would be from their parents, how much better. Marion dropped out of school and took a job at the supermarket.
When she held Kathy in her arms for the first time, longing to have her own mother by her side, she whispered a vow that she’d always understand her daughter. It never occurred that Kathy might not understand her.
Ben left when Kathy was twelve, and that was Marion’s fault. Through it all, Marion had clung stubbornly to her vows. The grief she felt when he walked out was muddied with relief, a lightness of heart she was too guilty to name. But it didn’t last. Despite the nights they’d cuddled up in Kathy’s bed, reading by torchlight after a supper of tinned food heated on the camping stove, because the power had been switched off. Despite the nights they fled the house with the housekeeping money and came home to find everything trashed. Despite everything, Kathy blamed Marion for pushing her father away. That’s when the eyes that had once gazed on her with trust and love filled with loathing.
Marion tapped the cigarette packet again, and remembered. Her stomach grumbled. Across the bay the lights from the houses on the spit cast a warm glow. She shifted, her bum numb.
There was something ironic about Kathy repeating her biggest mistake. How many times had Kathy screamed I hate you? And now she’s following in my footsteps. Laugh? I cried.
The breeze carried the faint sound of voices to her. She looked down the beach. Beams of torchlight cast about on the sand.
She heard the fear in her daughter’s voice and closed her eyes. I should answer, she thought, shrinking back in the sand. As the beams came closer, her anxiety rose. She searched frantically for escape routes. I can’t. I won’t. This is not the life I chose. Her hopes for her daughter- Uni in Brisbane, travel, a good job – choked her, took her breath, her will, her courage. Tears streamed down her face and, as Jonah and Kathy came closer and closer to where she sat on the edge of the dunes, she covered her mouth and nose with her hands to stop the sobs from escaping.
A beam of light swung across her and she froze.
“Hang on, what’s that?”
The beam swung back, spotlighting her, huddled on the sand.
Kathy dropped the torch and ran to her, crying.
“Mummy! I’m sorry.”
Marion released the flood of emotions she’d been trying to hold back in a gasping, shuddering wail. Her daughter, her baby, threw herself at her and instinctively she embraced her, the two of them crying out their pain and anger and fear together. When the worst of it passed, Marion became conscious of Jonah standing wide-eyed a few feet away, his lanky frame more awkward than usual. Jesus, he’s just a kid.
Marion wiped the last tears from her eyes, shushed her daughter gently, ruffling her hair with one hand, beckoning Jonah with the other. As Kathy hiccuped a few last sobs and sat up, Marion caught a whiff of apple shampoo that flashed her back to Saturday nights long ago, watching Daryl and Ozzie ’til Kathy fell asleep. Of carrying her to bed, her long hair freshly washed and smelling like innocence. Sometimes Marion would curl up behind her, just so she could inhale that scent.
No one spoke. It’s me, thought Marion. I’m the grown up.
“I guess we should get some dinner,” she said eventually. Kathy poked holes in the sand with a stick. Jonah watched, not daring to look at Marion.
Marion nudged her daughter.
“Anything but pizza, eh? You guys have had that once today, already, haven’t you?”
Kathy looked up, questioning. Her mother’s eyes were puffy from the tears and the crooked smile on her lips didn’t quite reach them, but her gaze was steady. She held the gaze and nodded. Jonah reached out, took her hand, and for the briefest moment Kathy thought she saw pain flash in her mother’s eyes.
“C’mon then. Help me up,” Marion said.
Jonah obliged, his bony hand warm in hers. Her bones and muscles creaked and complained as she stood, damp sand fell away from her slacks. Jonah pulled Kathy up too, still sniffing back the last tears. He handed Marion a torch, wouldn’t let it go.
“I love her,” he said, urgency in his voice. All Marion could do was nod. He let go of the torch and she switched it on. Took a deep breath and started picking her way across the dunes. After a few steps Kathy slipped a hand into hers. She knew Jonah held the other. Behind them, the soft sounds of the tide lapping at the sand kept up its eternal rhythm.