The cabin emerged like a neglected mausoleum from the blue-velvet twilight, its bare timber walls bleached to the colour of old bone by the Jeep’s headlights . The nausea she’d tried to pass off as seasickness from the barge crossing swelled, threatening to choke her. The noise of the engine died, subsiding to a hot tick in the chill evening air. The rhythmic soughing of surf rose up to fill the vacuum.
Richard slumped behind the wheel and rubbed the weariness from his face. ‘We’re here.’
No shit, Melanie thought. A hand flitted from her locket to her unsettled stomach as she willed herself to breathe.
They were here. Now what?
Melanie pushed open the door and clambered out, shivering before the breeze even reached her. The scar on her belly pulled; invisible hands jerked at stitches long gone. She still wasn’t sure coming back was a good idea, but she had to do it. They had to do it.
The smell of brine wafted over her. She breathed it in deeply and the nausea receded.
It had been too long. She hadn’t even realised how much she’d missed the beach.
Richard’s gaze burnt into her back as she followed her lurching shadow across the ground. Her sandalled feet sank into the soft soil, then slapped on the one, two, three creaky stairs as she walked up onto the deck. The mesmerising sound of the sea called her to the railing. Over the dune and past swaying sheoaks, waves glowed in the light of the half-full moon as they broke on the silvered beach. Desire for the ocean flooded her, sudden and strong. Her hands gripped the rail as though it was her sole anchor to the land. She wanted to strip off her clothes, run and dive into the sea and swim and swim until she couldn’t make another stroke. And then just float away on that dark tide, like Ophelia…
Richard’s hand on her shoulder made her jump.
‘Let’s get the Jeep unpacked, hey? Then we can have dinner. I’m starving.’ He kissed the crown of her head before retrieving the key from under the mat and unlocking the door. His laptop bag, suitcase and some shopping bags were piled at the top of the stairs.
She reluctantly left the rail and retrieved her luggage. Richard had propped open the screen door. A sign on the wall, branded into a piece of polished pine, named the cabin as Eden. She tried to hide a wince of dismay as she took in the queen-sized bed with its driftwood head against the far wall. It’d been more than a year since they’d last come to the island. She’d forgotten how open the cabin was: the scene of the crime. Melanie dropped her bag and fought back a sob.
She hurried past the bed and the sideboard with its television and DVD player to the bathroom at the rear of the cabin. The bathroom at least had walls, though the external one sported a large, louvred window facing the national park that hedged Jack Robinson’s Island Retreat. She splashed her face, then peed. The mineral scent of bore water filled the room despite the deodoriser hanging near the window.
‘You okay?’ Richard asked as she returned to the main room. He’d fetched the rest of their gear and set up his laptop at the dining table. The Esky perched on the kitchen bench surrounded by groceries.
‘You happy with that chicken and some salad?’ she asked.
He grunted assent, swore at the laptop.
‘Still no satellite wireless, huh?’ She peered over his shoulder at the screen.
‘I’m down to dial up,’ he said. ‘Fuck.’
‘This is meant to be a holiday, Richard.’
‘I know, I know, but that bloody Mackenzie project is causing me all sorts of grief.’
Richard had been supposed to leave the office early so they could avoid the Friday afternoon exodus from Brisbane, but he’d been late, as usual, and they’d only just caught the last barge. By the time they’d stopped at the island’s only store for milk and ice, the day was spent. They’d nosed along the sandy track to the far end of the island in the descending dark.
She carted her suitcase to the bed and threw it down. It barely bounced on the firm mattress. Earlier, she’d called into work and collected her latest order. The novels filled most of the space; she’d packed a minimum of clothing. She expected to put a dent in her reading list over the coming week. Richard hadn’t been impressed that she’d managed to pick up her books from Shelley’s but had forgotten the milk. She could already hear him chiding her about getting an e-reader; if he even mentioned the overflowing bookshelves, she’d show him just what she meant by the comforting weight of a book. The old joke made her smile, but the flash of levity faded as she reluctantly returned to the kitchen and began preparing the meal that she had remembered to buy. Some days she could be so forgetful, it was as though she were still pregnant. Tears welled again.
‘The fridge does have an ice maker,’ she said.
‘I forgot, all right? It’s been awhile. Fuck, it’s only ice.’ Richard stabbed at the laptop, as though thumping the keys would improve the satellite link. He pulled out his mobile phone and swore again.
She held her tongue. The island had never had reliable mobile reception. Why he’d thought the broadband would be any better was beyond her. There weren’t enough permanent residents to merit the expense of a phone tower, let alone a satellite dish. Part of the reason she’d agreed to come here was to distance Richard from the constant interruptions of telephones and internet; the other part was to test her courage — to see if she could cope with this place again.
Richard threw the mobile down and stalked over to the phone mounted on the wall near the kitchen bench.
Her hand paused mid-stroke, the knife poised over a tomato. ‘What are you doing, Richard? It’s seven o’clock on a Friday night.’
‘I’m calling the office.’
‘We’re meant to be getting away from it.’
‘I told them to ring me on my mobile if there was any trouble.’
‘It’s one week, Richard. You-and-me time. Surely―’
‘I’m not expecting any trouble, but just in case. That fucking Mackenzie building…’
Melanie sliced the tomato, hard, the crack of blade on cutting board ringing across the room.
Resentment bit at her throat as Richard’s voice filled the room.
‘Hi, Sandra, it’s me. Sorry to ring so late, but I wanted to let you know — no fucking reception here…’
Melanie finished off the tomato and shredded a lettuce with equal violence.
He always talked loudly on the phone. You’d think he was using two tin cans and a piece of string.
It was as though he was, by sheer volume, trying to convince her the call was purely business. Of course it was. Architects always called their secretary after hours on a Friday night to make sure they could get in touch with the boss while they were on holidays.
‘And can you let Leanne know? I’ve still got dial up as a fallback, if you can’t get me on the landline.’
Of course she’d let Leanne know. The business partner would need that information. Sweet Leanne, who’d been burning the midnight oil with Richard since well before Melanie’s pregnancy, working on the deal of a lifetime, the one that would make Richard’s reputation and secure his family’s future. Except he had no family. Just Melanie. She struck hard and drew blood, swearing as the sting registered and scarlet welled from the nick. She sucked her finger, mentally cursing tanned, curvaceous Sandra and svelte, conscientious Leanne and damning the Mackenzie project to hell. They’d barely been on the island for an hour and already Richard’s other loves were intruding.
He was still shouting into the phone as she walked past to get a Band-Aid from the first aid kit in the bathroom. She couldn’t help feeling it was going to take more than a bit of sticking plaster to fix the wound she and Richard had suffered. Maybe this week on the island would tell.
They ate dinner on the deck to a soundtrack of surf, clashing cutlery, a short solo from a frog that might’ve been tuning up in the cabin’s rainwater tank. Richard finished her leftovers while Melanie nursed her chardonnay. The tide was full, the sea restless and heavy. It had grown cold enough for her to drape a jacket across her shoulders, to wish she’d put on shoes as the breeze chilled her naked toes.
‘It’s good to be back, isn’t it,’ Richard said.
‘C’mon, Mel, you always loved the beach.’
‘There are plenty of others.’
‘Jack’s an old mate, like an uncle. He gives us a good rate.’
‘Hard to argue with a good rate from an old mate.’ She grinned to show the rhyme wasn’t meant to be an insult.
‘I thought you liked it here.’
He emptied his glass. ‘We don’t have to stay, if you don’t want to. Jack will understand. Like you said, there’s plenty more beaches.’
‘Give it time,’ she said.
‘Time… Is it really so bad, being back?’
‘No, no it’s not.’
‘We don’t even know for certain this is where—’
‘It is, but it’s okay. I’d forgotten how peaceful it is here. How close to the water. It’s fine, honestly.’
‘If it’s upsetting you—’
‘Richard, it’s fine. I like it.’ She smiled again, trying to make him believe her, and offered her glass. ‘Top me up, hey.’
‘Okay, if you’re sure. It’ll be like old times.’ He raised his glass.
She raised hers, with barely a tremble, and said, ‘Old times.’
They fell quiet, and she concentrated on the blinking green light of the beacon not far from shore that marked the passage between them and Moreton Island. It was a busy strip of sea, with boats making their way to or from Brisbane farther down the coast. How nice, she thought, to have someone show you the safe way to go.
‘You’re on the pill again,’ Richard said, gazing out across the sea. Moonlit clouds glimmered on the horizon, suggesting the chance of a squall. She thought maybe she could see the flicker of distant lightning.
The moment stretched out, the sheoaks whispering. She sipped her drink, then said: ‘Just to be safe.’ It’d been weeks since they’d had sex. She’d vomited afterwards.
‘It’s been four months, Mel. Almost five. The doctor said it was okay to try again.’
Tears pricked her eyes. She remembered his most recent invasion, his sperm on her thigh. She’d scrubbed the flesh raw, once she’d finished heaving.
‘Mel, you do want to try again, don’t you?’
She couldn’t look at him, though she felt his attention on her.
‘Of course.’ She pulled her feet up on the rail so her legs shielded her body. She tried to tuck her dress between her ankles, her thighs pressed together. ‘Just not yet.’
‘Then when? Tomorrow? Six weeks? Six years?’
‘When I’m ready, all right?’
‘Jesus, Melanie, a lot of women have miscarriages at some stage. Half don’t even know they’ve had one.’
She closed her eyes, wishing she could likewise shut her ears against his recital. ‘It was a stillbirth, Richard. Thirty-three weeks. I bloody well know I had it.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’ He took a deep breath, a swallow of wine, and when he spoke, his voice was again neutral, under control. ‘The doctor said it was normal. Sad, but normal. We can try again. We can still have a family.’
She rested her head on her raised knees and regarded him through her fringe. The smell of mosquito repellent hung heavy in the air. Tiny black shapes darted around them, searching for a chink in the noisome shield. She tried to see Richard’s features in the half-moon of shadow: his squarish jaw and generous lips and intelligent, lively eyes. His voice, while even, sounded taut and thin, not gentle and deep as usual, able to provoke a laugh or a sigh with equal ease.
‘The doctor said it was okay.’
‘I know what the doctor said, Richard, I was there. I was there when they gave me my dead baby and asked me what her name was.’
‘Jesus, not this again. How many times can I apologise? I couldn’t help being away. I couldn’t know it would come early.’
‘She didn’t come early, Richard. She died. Inside me.’ The grief robbed her of any more words. She turned away from his brooding presence, both hands clutching her locket.
‘Fuck.’ He sprang to his feet. She winced as his chair scraped across the timber deck. ‘I need a bourbon.’
He paused at the sliding door. ‘Would you like anything?’
She shook her head, then heard the door slam, the tumble of ice as he scooped it from the bucket, the mumble of the television.
Not a good start. But then, what had she expected? It had been Richard’s idea to come here, back to the place where their daughter had most likely been conceived. She had only to shut her eyes and she could replay that night, Richard ramming into her with such fierce urgency. The bedhead thumping the wall as he drove between her legs. They’d still had their shirts on.
The wine shifted in her stomach, her failed, empty stomach, and she felt her dinner lurch. She fought the nausea down and tried to think of nothing, nothing at all.
Richard came to the door.
‘Mel, I’m sorry.’
‘Come inside, hey.’
‘I like the sound of the surf,’ she said.
‘You can hear it inside. It’s cold out there, hon.’
‘In a minute.’
‘Okay, fine. I’m taking a shower.’ After a moment, he added, ‘Don’t stay out too long. Those fucking mosquitoes will eat you alive.’
The door shut gently behind her. She sat and marvelled at the stars and the soft smudge of the Milky Way that couldn’t be seen from the city. It was humbling, that sky. Humbling and lonely.
A cry pulled her to her feet. One hand grasped her locket, the other the verandah rail. Her heart hammered. It couldn’t be!
The high-pitched wail came again, from out in the dark.
A curlew. Just a curlew.
Pursued by the baby-like call, she hastily gathered the plates and retreated inside, her entire body numb. She hadn’t even felt the mosquitoes.