Don't know quite what it means. Started as horror but I preferred to tone down the horror element to almost nothing and create some melancholy instead. It's only a first draft, so go wild with hard, firm, veiny crits.
â€œThe sand gets in everywhere,â€ she said, shucking off her thongs. After only a month the sun was already working hard to deepen the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, to make her forehead crease even more deeply when she frowned. â€œWe need a hose out back.â€
â€œIâ€™ll bring one next week. Promise.â€
She smiled and took my hand. Her skin was cold and dry, paper stretched taut over bone. â€œYouâ€™re a good boy. Do you have time for a cuppa? Or does your father need you back?â€
â€œHeâ€™ll be fine,â€ I said, and looked over her shoulder out the kitchen window to where the waves tumbled endlessly on a beach as white as bone. A storm had come up and swallowed the sun in banks of rolling grey clouds and the ocean beyond the breakers was as grey as ash. I imagined swimming there and coming out fish-belly pale, as if the water had leached the colour from my skin. â€œAutumn turns nasty fast, huh?â€
â€œIf you wanted summer all year, you came to the wrong beach.â€ Mugs clinked as she poured the water. â€œSee? Sand on the floor. I told you to wipe your shoes.â€
â€œIt creeps, doesnâ€™t it?â€ She stirred in the sugar and then sagged against the counter. She pressed one hand against her forehead. I started towards her but she waved me back. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Itâ€™ll pass. It always goes.â€
She fell asleep at eight and I tucked her in and went to kiss her forehead but hesitated. In the thin amber light of the tiffany lamp I could see the sharp lines of her cheekbones cutting through. The floorboards echoed like stone, and I imagined I could taste the dust of ages on the air. The bedroom wasnâ€™t a bedroom any more but a burial chamber beneath the great pyramid and my mother was King Khufu, desiccated by time.
I took the coast road home, wending along the cliffs, ocean on one side and sheer rock on the other. I caught glimpses of the waves between the tall gums. Night had turned the sea into an oil-slick and the beach itself was ice. Watching it made a lump rise into my throat and I kept my eyes on the spot between the headlights. Every few minutes I glanced at the rear-view mirror but there was never anyone following.
â€œAnother week,â€ I said, and my hands tightened on the wheel. â€œAnother week down.â€
My motherâ€™s sea-side cottage vanished around a bend and the beach with it, and I finally began to relax.
It was me that chose the beach house, not my mother. Six months after the divorce came through she called me and said, â€œIâ€™m tired of the noise here. The cars never stop. You think I could paint better at the coast?â€
I searched for weeks but even the cheapest properties would have swallowed her pension whole. Then, in the listings of a tiny real estate agency: one bedroom one bathroom remodelled kitchen priced to sell. We drove three hours to inspect. My mother wound her window down and stuck her head out, and her hair blew back in a silver tangle. She closed her eyes and the wind fluttered her eyelashes and I saw her suddenly as she must have been to my father; the girl who wore a baseball cap in high school to keep the paint from her hair, a girl who took to laughter as naturally as breath.
â€œDoes Dad know youâ€™re moving?â€ She didnâ€™t reply.
The beach house was hidden down a gravel path, behind a gate, shrouded by drooping ferns. The car bounced into the driveway and my mother almost leapt out the door. â€œPerfect! Itâ€™s perfect!â€
It was a thatched roof bungalow small enough to fit in a suburban backyard, the windows blinded by spiderwebs and the screen door hanging askew. The key didnâ€™t fit in the lock but the door still swung open.
â€œThis is decrepit,â€ I said, but my mother dragged me inside regardless.
Small bare living room, small bedroom with a water-stained carpet. The kitchen was neat and plain; white tiles, white cabinets, fat stainless steel faucets like hubcaps. â€œLook at that,â€ she said, and pulled back the curtains to show me the surf pounding at the shore. The sun refracted through the window and shot straight into the back of my skull and I threw a hand up to block the glare. â€œCome out,â€ she said. â€œTake your old Mum to the beach.â€
The beach was cold between my toes, tickling up my ankle, sucking at the sole of my foot. Not the light dry sand of Coogee or Bondi, but perpetually sticky, like traversing jungle quick-sand. My mother didnâ€™t seem to notice. She danced down the beach to the shoreline. â€œThis is it! This is the place. You think I could be happy here?â€
â€œSure you could, Mum.â€ The sun was no less piercing outside and I shielded my eyes with a hand. There was something about the light reflecting off the waves that made everything seem unreal. The slow tumble and hiss of the waves was like television static and even in the midday sun the water wasnâ€™t blue or green or even glassy clear but a dirty monochrome. The horizon was a blank line; no airplanes, no yacht sails, no gulls. Blue sky and colourless ocean. It could have been a beach ten hundred thousand years in the past, long before anything had begun to breathe or dream.
The longer I stared the more my stomach clenched. â€œCome on. Back inside.â€ But she didnâ€™t listen, dancing in the shallows.
I called Dad on Friday. His voice was quieter than usual. â€œHowâ€™s work?â€
â€œSlow and unending.â€
â€œIt wonâ€™t be forever. Youâ€™ll find something better soon. Howâ€™s your mother?â€
â€œSheâ€™s fine. Sheâ€™s painting.â€
â€œThe beach always suited her.â€ He coughed twice, sharp reports like a pistol in my ear. â€œYou think I should go visit? That house probably needs some work.â€
â€œSheâ€™s fine for now, Dad. The house is fine.â€ But I thought of the sweep of sand, and the way the waves coiled around her ankles, and I shuddered. â€œMaybe in a few months.â€
â€œGuess you understand her better then me.â€ A pause. I heard papers shuffling. â€œItâ€™s come back.â€
The words Iâ€™d been expecting for months but hadnâ€™t wanted to believe. â€œHow bad?â€
â€œSame as before. No real idea. I could have some good years left in me.â€
â€œDonâ€™t tell her,â€ he said, and coughed again. I could hear the rattle in his lungs. â€œDonâ€™t. Unless you think you should.â€
Twenty minutes later the phone rang again. â€œAre you coming down this weekend? The weatherâ€™s cleared. Itâ€™s as good as itâ€™s going to be this time of year.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be there, Mum. I always come.â€
I arrived just before noon.
The screen door rattled when I knocked but there was no reply so I let myself in. Miles Davis crooned on his trumpet in the living room. The kitchen was empty as well, but through the window I saw her halfway down the beach, summer-print dress blowing around her skinny white legs. I waved and she waved back, and I settled into the wicker rocking chair by the stereo.
She came in with the hem of her dress soaked dark with seawater. â€œSee, thatâ€™s the sort of weather that keeps me here. You see that sky? Not a cloud. Not even a bird. Tea or coffee?â€
I followed her into the kitchen where she set the kettle to boil. â€œIâ€™ll have to have it black this time, dear. Would you look at this?â€ She thrust the sugar-jar under my nose. â€œTaste that.â€
I sprinkled a pinch on my tongue and then spat. â€œIs that sand? Whyâ€™d you-â€
â€œI didnâ€™t. It was just in there. Didnâ€™t know till I put some in my tea. I found some in my socks as well.â€
I rinsed my mouth under the tap but the taste of sand and salt refused to clear. â€œYou walk on the beach. Of course thereâ€™s sand in your socks.â€
â€œNo, no. I bought new socks from the shop down the road. Didnâ€™t even get to wear them. No matter. Could you have a look at the washing machine? I think the filter is clogged.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a plumber, mum. I sell fruit.â€ But I went to the laundry anyway and yanked the filter. Out the slit-window I could see the waves breaking on the headland. The tide came in and stole over my motherâ€™s footprints, erasing them in slow sweeps, sucking greedily at the pits left by her bony heels.
I turned the filter over in my hands. The mesh was choked with lumps of sand and grit. Out the window the tracks had already vanished.
â€œI know I said this was only supposed to be a retreat, but maybe Iâ€™ll finish up here,â€ she said later that night.
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
She blew steam from her mug of tea. â€œI love it. Iâ€™ve never felt so inspired to paint. You remember how many years I talked about painting again, and I never did? I couldnâ€™t paint in that house.â€
â€œIt wasnâ€™t Dadâ€™s fault.â€
â€œNo,â€ she said. Her wicker rocking chair creaked back and forth. Outside the wind was a low moan and I could smell salt and seaweed and the strange greasy tang of fish washed up on the beach. The moon was a rotten eye. â€œIt wasnâ€™t his fault. It was mine.â€
â€œDonâ€™t say that.â€
â€œOh, it was.â€ She tipped her mug up and I watched the muscles of her throat work as she gulped the last of her tea. â€œI donâ€™t regret it. Too old for regrets, dear.â€ She set her mug down. â€œI should call him.â€
â€œMaybe you should,â€ I said, and remembered how tired my father sounded, as if every word ached in his gut. Itâ€™s come back. â€œMaybe tomorrow.â€
â€œAre you staying the night?â€
â€œOnly if you have the spare bed made.â€
She stood unsteadily. Her legs were chicken-thin. At the door of her bedroom she looked back. â€œI love this place,â€ she said. â€œYou sure picked it. I just wish I knew how to swim. Sometimes I look out there and wish I could just swim out past the headland. Maybe you could teach me?â€
â€œNot like I can swim either, Mum.â€
â€œOf course. I forgot. But still, itâ€™s been years. Youâ€™re not still scared of the water, are you?â€
â€œNo,â€ I said, and it was the truth. It wasnâ€™t the water at all. â€œSleep well, yeah?â€
She smiled. One hand trembled against her breast. â€œI always do, here.â€
When I finally went to bed there was sand scattered beneath my pillow, collecting in the folds of the white cotton sheets. I brushed it out onto the floorboards and when I woke it was gone.
â€œIâ€™m going into town,â€ I said, and she waved me off.
I took the battered mazda down the dirt track past the palms and around the long bend of the coast to where a grocery and bait store nestled in the shadow of tall gums. The man behind the counter was a bush-pig trapped in a uniform, thick black hair curling on the back of his hands. He squinted at the name on my credit card. â€œYour Mum lives up the way, right? By the cove. Howâ€™s she doing?â€
â€œSheâ€™s enjoying the beach. Bit of a change for her.â€
â€œWell, good. Some move in and give up after a few weeks, head straight back. Too quiet.â€ He raised one tangled eyebrow. â€œShe alone in there?â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m there.â€
â€œGood lad.â€ He handed back my card. â€œTake care of her. Shouldnâ€™t leave a lady alone on the beach.â€
â€œHa! No sharks on this coast. Well. Not for thirty years now.â€ His smile was almost swallowed by his bottle-brush beard. â€œJust take care of her. It creeps.â€
â€œYou shouldnâ€™t have gotten so much.â€ She strained to lift the carton of milk, the tendons in her wrists taut. â€œI donâ€™t live off tea, you know. Only when youâ€™re around. Did you remember the hose? No? Oh well. Next time, love.â€
We sat in the living room and ate dry toast. I drew the curtains to block my view of the beach. She frowned. â€œDonâ€™t do that. Itâ€™s lovely out.â€
â€œYou really like it?â€ I pulled the curtains back. The sand pooled in ink-blot patterns, squirming as the clouds passed over, shifting from butterfly to clenched fist and back again.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t live here if I didnâ€™t like it. Itâ€™s soothing. I could watch the waves for hours. Some days I make breakfast and I go out and watch the waves while I eat. Then, bang, itâ€™s lunchtime! You ever do that?â€
â€œOnly while driving.â€
â€œYou should watch the road.â€ She sighed. â€œI just wish the local sold proper paints. Iâ€™ve run out of turquoise. Did I show you my paintings, last time?â€
â€œWell. Sometime. You should take some photos. Show your father.â€
The toast stuck in my throat. â€œAre you going to call him?â€
â€œMaybe. Maybe he should call me.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think he can.â€ I set down my plate and laced my fingers together. â€œI thinkâ€¦ he asked me to tell you. Well. He asked me not to tell you.â€ My foot tapped out a nervous rhythm on the floorboards. â€œHeâ€™s not doing so well.â€
â€œWith his work?â€ But I saw how her shoulders stiffened, and a shadow fell over her eyes, and for a second it seemed as if she was falling away from me, being pulled into the distance, smaller and smaller until she was too tiny to see and her rocking chair sat empty and silent.
Then I blinked and my mother was back. She stood slowly, her knees grinding with rust. â€œJust canâ€™t run from some things, I guess. Put the kettle on, will you? Weâ€™ll have a cup and Iâ€™ll show you what Iâ€™ve been painting.â€ Then she stepped out the back door onto the beach.
I filled the kettle and set it to boil and watched her through the window, her head bowed, hands behind her back, the wind catching her long white dress and tossing it out behind. She could have been a nervous bride but for the silver of her hair. She picked each step carefully, toe first, then heel. The sand slunk up around her ankles.
The kettle clicked off. I found the tea-bags, poured the water. I watched the second hand on my Seiko make three round trips and fished out the bags. I stuck a finger in the sugar jar and licked it off, just to make sure. Two spoons for me, one for her.
When I looked out the window the beach was empty and the sand had crept in over the door mat and into the grooves between the kitchen tiles. I called her name.
Later that day I searched her bedroom but there were no canvases or oils, and the beach had made its way into her dresser. I left.