Angus looked at the fish flopped lifeless in the floor of the dinghy. It wasn’t the most gourmet offering for Claire on her first weekend at the Bay, but it was a good feed just for the two of them. He tucked his rod away under the seats and hauled in the anchor. He pushed a button and the outboard sputtered to life. He revved it up, and headed back towards the Bay.
He was just picking up speed, when a white flash caught the corner of his eye. He jerked on the tiller and the dinghy swerved, throwing the fish onto his foot. He kicked it off, turned the boat and circled back. He thought he might have been seeing things, but there she was.
A woman, way out here to sea. His brow furrowed in puzzlement. He took the boat in closer, still not believing his eyes. A woman, with long dark hair and a raised, white arm. He nudged the boat right in and let the motor idle.
‘Everything alright?’ he asked. ‘What are you doing out here?’
She swam over to the boat. He stood, looking down at her in uncertainty, but when she placed her hands on the gunwales, he leant over and hauled her aboard. She was naked, pale and glistening like a fish. He averted his eyes and helped her down on the seat.
‘What happened?’ Get caught in a rip or something?’
She nodded. ‘Couldn’t get back to shore,’ she said, in a croaky voice.
Angus struggled to keep his eyes from shifting down to her naked frame huddled there, dripping.
‘Here,’ he stood up and pulled out the towel he’d been sitting on. It was striped green and blue. It belonged to Clare. He handed it to the woman. She wrapped herself in it and sat looking back at him with dark, hollow eyes.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked. ‘Do you want me to call someone? Am ambulance?’ She shook her head. ‘I’m cold, and hungry,’ she said. ‘Take me back to shore.’
He nodded and turned the dinghy back towards the Bay. She sat with closed eyes, shivering. As they neared the beach, she twisted around on the seat and looked to shore. The moment they grounded she jumped out and stood there while he switched off the outboard and pulled the boat out of the water.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Are you sure you’re allright?’ He repeated again. ‘Are you staying in one of the shacks? I haven’t seen you before.’
‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m just cold, and hungry.’ She began to take off the towel. ’No, no! he said hurriedly. ‘Keep it. I’m at 7 Peppy Lane, if you feel like dropping it by later. It’s my girlfriend’s.’
She was was already walking away along the beach. He watched her go with a frown. Something wasn’t right. Perhaps he should have called an ambulance anyway. Spending all that time in the water couldn’t be healthy.
He turned to pull the dinghy higher up and saw Claire, standing on top of the dune looking down at him. She held her arms across her chest and her wayward red hair was backlit in the sun. Angus felt a tinge of unease deep in his belly. He glanced along the beach but the other woman was gone. Claire stomped down towards him with long, angry steps making furrows in the sand.He slid the cover over the outboard and grabbed the fish out of the bucket, holding it up as she approached, like a shield.
‘Claire!’ he called out, ‘I caught a skippy!’
She ignored the fish. ‘Who was that? That woman wearing my towel?
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I rescued her. She was way out to sea, just floating there. Said she was caught in a rip.’
Claire glared at him silently, indignation starting to shift into tears.
‘So I pulled her into the boat,’ he stumbled on. ‘And I lent her your towel.’
‘You come back from fishing with a naked woman and expect me to believe a crap story like that?’ Her face crumpled, and she whirled about and ran back up the dune.
He looked down at the fish in his hands. He recalled the pale gleam of the woman’s skin and shuddered. He put the fish back in the bucket.
The village was deserted. Even the campground was empty. Not a soul about. Maybe the woman was in one of the holiday rentals. He was sure he’d never seen her before. He took the shortcut through the neighbour’s place and across the narrow lane into his front yard. Clouds were coming over, heavy and dark, and the old shack looked lopsided in its cavern under the trees. A glow from one of the solar lights simmered in the kitchen window.
He took the fish over to the cleaning table, got out the knife, and began to scale it. It was a young fish with clean, fresh skin. He watched the metallic shimmer of it as he pulled the knife along. He scaled the other side, then cut off the head, ran the knife along the belly, and gutted it. He scraped the mess onto a board, and into the compost bin.
He approached the shack warily, fish in hand. The front step creaked. Claire was sitting at the table and wouldn’t look at him when he came in, but took the fish and started washing it. He went out to the back verandah, stripped off his shirt and gave himself a good soaping at the sink. The bedroom was in disarray but he found a clean shirt and pulled it over his head. He ran his hands through his hair in an attempt to tidy it and noticed that he still smelt like fish.
Claire was wrapping the skippy in foil. He stood uncertainly, waiting for her to acknowledge him. She slapped the fish down on the bench and stalked over to the cupboard, extracting a pot and a bag of potatoes. The old wooden floor shuddered under her feet and the window rattled as she went back to the sink.
‘The glass might pop out if you keep doing that,’ he said.
‘Fuck the glass.’ She filled the pot with water and tried to light the stove, but her hands trembled and she dropped the match.
He took the box out of her hand and struck a light, holding it to the gas. There was a bang and a burst of flame. The smell of gas hung between them and Claire grabbed a tea towel and flapped it around. The edge of it fanned the stovetop and it caught fire. Angus tore it from her hands, threw it into the sink, and dowsed it with water.
‘Jeez,’ he said. ‘Just calm down a bit will you?’
She turned on him, fighting for words that wouldn’t come. She picked up the fish and whacked him hard across the temple with it. It slid out of the foil and fell to the floor. They both stared down at it. She scrunched the foil from hand to hand and threw it at him.
‘Stuff your fucking fish!’
She left, slamming the door. It bounced back off the frame and hung open, trembling. Angus pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. He put his hand to his head and felt a trickle of blood from his burst eyebrow. He sat there, looking vacantly at the floor.
After a while the clouds fell in and it began to rain. Big droplets at first, then in a heavy suffocating downpour. It rained on and on, and water leaked in through the hole in the old tin roof. He got up and turned off the gas, then emptied the water out of the pot and put it under the leak. He took the scorched teatowel and cleaned the blood off his face. He sat back down, hoping that Clare would return, at least to take shelter from the rain.
When it stopped and she hadn’t come back he ventured outside.
‘Claire!’ He called out. He looked for her in the car, then headed down the lane and around to the little shop in the campground. Jann was hulking behind the counter reading a magazine. She looked up and her old face crinkled at him.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘Have you seen Claire? She went out in the rain and now I can’t find her.’
‘Had a tiff did you?’Her gaze lingered on his forehead. ‘She was out walking with a friend. Before the rain came.’
‘That pale woman. Gave me such a fright before, looking in the window all white like that. I thought she was a ghost.’
Angus felt all the blood drain out of his face. He put a hand on the counter for balance. ‘Did you see where they went?’
‘Down the beach.’ She waved a weighty bronzed arm. ’I’m about to close up, if you were wanting more bait.’
Story and image by Jinni Wilson