It really did feel like coming home. Not just the idea of it, but the feel. It was the heat as I left the cool airport air-conditioning. It was the smell of eucalyptus wafting down to me as I made my way to the taxi rank, my bag heavy with useless, winter clothes. It was the lilt in the voice of the fat, tanned man as he ushered me to the taxi-bay and his distinctive odour of sunscreen and sweat. But more importantly, most of all, it was the glimpse of sparkling skyblue summer water as the taxi crested that long hill over Waverley in Sydney’s Easter Suburbs and I could finally make out the ocean below.
I directed the driver down through the winding back streets and when we arrived paid and slowly got out on cramped legs. The driver nodded to me as he drove off, a smile under his thick greying moustache. I found myself on a familiar patch of pavement standing looking up at a small red-brick house that I hadn’t seen in ten years and yet could have left an hour before. It was strange, just how familiar, how normal, it felt. That house, the feeling of standing on its doorstep, the sounds of traffic in the distance, the soft sea breeze; it was all exactly the same. I expected my father to call out to me from the living room, The Weakest Link still blaring on the old boxy TV, telling me to come in, to stop mucking about.
I slid my hand over the top of the door frame until my fingers found the small rusted key that I knew would be there. The familiar smell of the house hit me before I even walked through the door; the smell of wood shavings and stale beer. I put my bag down in the small guest room, careful not to disturb the dust and wandered into the kitchen. There were two cans of VB in the fridge and I took one, glad of its coolness against my palm. I wandered through the musty rooms, trying to recapture some image or thought which would spark some feeling in me. Nothing came. Instead I thought of how much time it would take to clear the place out, to have it be empty, completely empty of everything, so that I could sell it and leave.
There were piles of things everywhere; photos, carpenter’s tools and stacks upon stacks of old newspapers; the vestiges of a single man’s life. I called and arranged for a skip bin to be brought to the house the next morning, using a landline for the first time since I left the country. The man on the phone spoke quickly in an accent I realised I had missed, laying out the pricing and conditions. His speech was interlaced with grunts and answers to people I could not see or hear. I stood in front of the crowded bookcase and listened, gazing at the orange penguin paperbacks on the shelves. Fingering those worn spines with my left hand I wondered how many of them my father had read. The man on the phone had stopped talking, he was waiting for me to say something. ‘Righto,’ I said and hung up. I went to the kitchen and took the other can of beer from the fridge. The TV was tuned to The Weakest Link when I turned it on and I let myself sink into the worn and threadbare armchair. From outside came the faint sound of children playing and, much closer, a solitary magpie crying the evening in. Soon I began to doze.
I woke early the next day to the sound of the skip being unloaded in the driveway. I was surprised to find myself still in the armchair. My back ached and my mouth felt dry and faintly sticky. I went and talked to the truck driver, then came back in and made myself a cup of bitter, instant coffee. Then I began throwing away everything I could.
I was just heaving an old dart board into the skip that I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. I turned to it and saw that it was the glimmer of the morning sun on the far breakers. I’d forgotten that you could see the ocean from there. I began to walk towards it, leaving the door of the house open behind me.
My feet took me down familiar streets, past old houses where I used to play with neighborhood friends, past the small park where we used to drink smuggled booze, past great chunks of my childhood and adolescence.
It was a hot day and soon I started to sweat. There seemed to be more cafés than I remembered, but that was about it, the rest was the same. I recognised the spot where you had stood in front of me on that lawn next to the road, as I lay curled-over, bloodied and reeking of piss. I had watched, through one swollen and blood-shot eye — feeling the prickling of the blades of grass against my cheek — as you stood against them, with their masculine size and muscle and strength. They had tried to drag you away from me, but you had refused to move, refused to be daunted, refused to be scared. You’d stared them down until they’d left with a cry of ‘fag’ and ‘next time cunt’. At the time all I could feel was the pain. You had sat down and took hold of my hands at me and told me that I would be okay. And I had believed you.
I rounded the corner and saw the beach head on. The sand was golden brown and the water a deep and inviting greyish-blue. For a second I felt the true pull of it, the need to strip down and rush into the water until I could dive into its depths and come up cool and spluttering and alive. But I didn’t. I don’t swim. I walked past the teenagers with their short-boards and their bikes, lounging on the red-brick wall outside the tuck-shop — exactly where we used to sit after school on those good, sunny days. I got down to the boardwalk and turned left, skirting the beach, making my way up the concrete steps towards the high grassy knoll. From up there I watched the surfers as they bobbed — little black dots — behind the lines of the breakers. For a second I felt again what it was like to sit, cool water hugging my legs, waiting for that perfect wave to come.
My feet kept moving and soon I was walking up to the road and along the walkway that led to the next beach. I didn’t know what I’d do once there, I didn’t think about it either. Tanned, healthy men and women walked by with big glasses and tight t-shirts, all teeth and muscles. I pulled my head down and walked on, trying not to catch their cold, unseeing eyes.
Someone shouted my name. Up ahead a man was waving. A tired looking woman followed him, two children in tow. I looked around but there was no-one behind me.
‘Jay!’ he shouted again. Then he was standing in front of me, smiling expectantly. I looked for some clue as to who he was, what he was to me. It was only when I searched his deep, blue eyes that I saw him staring back out. There he was: a boy of seventeen, beach-blond hair and the same devilish grin. He had a board under his arm, waving at me to join him in the water.
‘Jonathan,’ I said and tried to smile. He grasped me, pulling me into a hug. Then he introduced me to his wife and children. I smiled and nodded and was about to walk on when he took my shoulder, forcing me to stop. He turned to his wife and had a quick, whispered, conversation with her.
‘There’s a nice little café,’ he said, pointing. Behind us his wife’s eyes flashed as she pulled the girls to her.
‘Lovely. A handful though,’ he said as we walked, ‘but worth it, I think. And you?’ there was a pause, ‘nothing?’
I stopped and we looked out onto the ocean together. My hands held onto the white wooden fence that separated us from the cliffs as, down below, the angry, bruised ocean broke itself again and again on jagged rocks in great, sonorous crashes. I remembered how we used to climb down there as the evening came in, barefooted and brave and how we’d dive into the water; how we’d wait as the water swelled before jumping just as the wave broke. You and me, two pin-points against the never-ending ocean, as the water leapt up around us in great, powerful, jets.
We kept on walking. He took me to a new café overlooking the golden sand and the water.
Its exterior was a deep, navy blue. Inside it was cool and dark; simple woven metallic chairs and tables cluttered the tiled floor. John smiled at the girl behind the coffee machine and she returned it, shyly. She was pretty, though it was her youth that made her attractive; she looked to be about seventeen. I pictured her in her boyfriend’s Ute, her hand riding the wind as they cruise along the coast, music softly playing and a smile on her lips.
‘Too expensive. But it’s good to get away sometimes. You know?’
I nodded. He began to talk. Telling me of his troubles at work, how things had looked so good, but how now he was struggling to get by day-to-day. The girl came and stood next to us. She smiled as he ordered his usual, her hands held behind her back. I asked for an espresso.
He had heard about my father and he was sorry for my loss. I nodded. She came back with eggs and milkshake. She placed the frothing glass down and I watched as his hand, black hair creeping over the knuckles, lingered on hers. Then he began to eat, shovelling in great mouthfuls as he spoke. Then my coffee came, placed down on the blue-tiled table by a delicate hand. I felt something, a remembrance. I looked at the hand, followed the dark-skinned arm that it was attached to, saw the light blue dress and the thin neck, and then looked up into your eyes. They were still the same: soft, golden and unyielding. There was a puzzled expression on your face. Then you were gone. I opened my mouth to call but no sound came out.
‘…the gym. But then again you’ve got to stay…’
‘John,’ I said, ‘the woman…’ There was a bitter taste in my mouth.
‘Yeah, they’re pretty here aren’t they?’ he speared a tomato with his fork.
‘No. That woman…’
Later I walked. Along roads and paths, alone through the crowds of mute faces. I found myself at an old pub, empty except for the bartender; young and bored and angry. I had a drink and then another and when he asked me why I left my money on the counter and walked out. I walked on further and when I felt that I could trust myself and my senses I turned back to the café. I asked for you but the owner, a skinny, bald, Scotsman told me — as politely as possible — to fuck off.
‘But is she here? Does she work here?’
I didn’t know what he meant. My feet took me back to the house. I couldn’t tell if I’d been robbed, I couldn’t find my passport and the cash I’d been storing between its pages. I sat for a while at the kitchen table and stared at the white space where the dartboard used to hang.
I found myself sitting on the short wall overlooking the water. The bricks dug uncomfortably into the backs of my legs. I watched and waited and occasionally took a swig of whisky from a small bottle I had found in my father’s cupboard. It was like water in my mouth, empty of any real taste. I knew if I waited long enough you would meet me there, like you used. I didn’t have to wait long. You sat down beside me without saying hello, without saying anything. I continued to look out over the water. Above the evening surfers the sun had begun to dip and permute, infusing the world with a rich, pink glow.
You pulled the cigarette packet out of my shirt pocket and tapped the end of it until a single white cylinder fell into your hand. I lit it for you and, as you pulled in your first drag, studied your face. It was exactly as I remembered it: your features sharp, your expression quizzical; not quite beautiful but infinitely lovely.
‘You should quit these you know,’ you said. I nodded and then lit one of my own. A mosquito buzzed in the silence.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you remember?’
‘I think so.’
You placed your warm hand in mine and pulled me up. We passed down through the near empty carpark and through the brief scrubland before finding ourselves on the beach. We discarded our shoes and found the sand to be cold beneath our feet. Only when we reached the water did I risk speaking again.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Does it matter?’
We sat down on the hard damp sand, the water coming in just far enough to reach our toes. There was so much that I wanted to ask you, so much I felt I needed to know. But I couldn’t put my thoughts into words. So I waited in silence next to you, and felt comforted by your hip and shoulder digging into my side.
‘Try to forget.’
But I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and I still saw you as you were that day out on the rocks. I saw you as I do every day and night, standing precariously on the rocks, waiting for your chance to jump.
The sun was low but still bright in the sky and the beach was loud with the sound of crashing waves, of playful shouts and seagulls calling out in shrill voices. There was a smile on your face as you turned to me, your body made miniature against the waves. You laughed at the exhilaration of it, at the power of the waves that came crashing up your legs. Then the change. A grimace of surprise and fear flickered onto your face. You stumbled like a new- born foal, just as the crash came. The rush of the water picked you up and hurled you against the rocks. You pushed yourself up with your arms and tried to stand; the crimson blood blossomed like a rose from your head. Your face upturned, your expression confused; you looked stunned, and a little betrayed.
When the next wave came you disappeared so quickly, towed back into the ocean’s depth.
You were long dead by the time they found you. I remember the lifeguards in their motorboats circling wildly, shouting indiscernibly to each other. The helicopters above like buzzards as the night swept in. You were pale and cold when they pulled you out. I just had time to see your face; your wide sightless eyes, before they took you away. They wrapped my skinny body in a blanket. A paramedic patted my shoulder.
‘Nothing you could’ve done, mate,’ he said. I knew it was a lie.
I should have walked home then, when I saw that you were no longer sitting on the sand beside me. I should have tidied up my father’s house, had it sold, and taken a flight back to England. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I got up slowly, the wet sand sticking to the back of my trousers, and took a step forward. I gave in to the ocean’s pull.
The water was cold around my legs, but comforting. I pulled off my white shirt and watched it drift off like a pool of light into the inky darkness. I kept moving forward. The sand was rough and unyielding; shells and jagged rocks bit at my feet as the water rose above my waist. The moon, large and silver and beautiful, cast its reflection on the water. Behind me I could hear the gentle susurration of the waves rushing up the beach. I felt a sense of elation as I moved forward, a freedom with each progressive step. I continued to walk until the water rose too high and then began to swim in long, lazy strokes. The water was so cool, so welcoming. It really did feel like coming home.