Saturday, August 04, 2007

Treading Water At Turtle Bay

Tired. Lazy. Here is a short story of mine that appeared in a very nice book (Southerly) about seven (?!) years ago.

These stories may as well go up here as be sentenced to the silence of pages in now unread magazines and books.

I hope you enjoy.



TREADING WATER AT TURTLE BAY

"I think we should go to Turtle Bay."
This stops me mid-sentence. I close my eyes and feel my jaw muscles dance. Louise cannot see that my eyes are closed, not through the book, not through the sunglasses. I have not heard of Turtle Bay, but I do know I don't want to go there. Not when I am so content here. For several moments I fantasize that Louise has not spoken at all. I feel some sweat trickle down my back. I want to reach for my drink but don't dare move for fear of spoiling my fantasy.
"Pat? Did you hear me? I said I want to go to Turtle Bay."
I dog-ear the page and put the book on the ground beside the deck chair. I lean forward for my drink. The brown neck above the foam cooler is warm against my lips, the beer inside is cold.
"Where is it?” I ask, “and why do you want to go there?"
Louise tells me that it's near a place I've heard of but know nothing about. I think I’ve seen the name on sugar packets or bottles of cheap rum. She tells me that turtles go there to lay eggs on the beach. She tells me it would be really interesting.
I nod slowly, but not in agreement. I watch one of the other hotel guests pull herself from the pool and walk across to her deck chair where she settles without bothering to towel her glistening skin; second fantasy of the day.
"Pat? What do you think?"
"I don't know. I'm just as happy to stay here. What is it - two, three hours' drive?"
"About that."
"North?"
Louise nods.
"It'll be hot."
"It's hot here."
"Yes but ... we're here already."
"The turtles aren't."
I couldn't be less interested in the turtles, but I can't say no. That would be selfish. She must be made to realize for herself that it's a bad idea.
"We might go all that way,” I caution, “and there might not be any turtles.”
"This is their season." Louise holds up the brochure she's been reading.
"Anyway, we won't get any accommodation. You need to plan ahead for these things."
"If I get accommodation can we go?"
"If it's a tourist attraction we won't get any accommodation."
"But if I do ...?"
"It’ll be booked out. It gets really crowded during turtle season.”
Louise smiles as she stands up. "I'll make some calls and see if I can get us in somewhere."
I give her a suit-yourself shrug and a don’t-get-your-hopes-up smile as I aim my face to the sun.

Should have just said no, I tell myself, scowling darkly. And somewhat pointlessly, I acknowledge. But it makes me feel better, so I continue to scowl and berate myself for not having the balls to say no.
We've been on the road for three and a half hours and there's still another sixty two kilometres to go and the air conditioning's broken and Louise The Turtle Queen is sleeping like a baby. I consider jumping on the brake for no other reason than waking Louise, but that would be childish, so I just entertain myself by thinking about it. I also think about turning around and trying to make it back to the hotel before she wakes, but that would be foolish. Almost there now, I think gloomily. Soon my scowl starts to soften. Almost there. And it's only for a couple of days anyway. I shrug. At least we haven't broken down. At least we haven't had an accident. I sigh into the heat and think about turtle eggs on toast.

"You're lucky," the manager tells us in a thin, dry voice as he takes the key from the peg board. "This was a last minute cancellation, otherwise we're all booked up."
"That was lucky," I say. "Lucky us."
The man is old - seventy years or more - and thin and leathery. His face is angular with large, dark eyes like wet gemstones. He tells us to follow him in the car, he'll take his push bike.
"Do you suppose," I ask Louise when we are back in the stifling atmosphere of the car, "that everyone in Turtle Bay looks like a turtle?"
Louise giggles and slaps me casually on the shoulder.
We follow the manager as he leads us leisurely along a winding path through the caravan park. He rings the bike's bell from time to time and waves one large hand loosely at his guests. Kids are everywhere, playing games, bombing each other in the pool. I realize that although I have not set foot in a caravan park since I was their age, it is all so familiar it could have been here, just last week.
The manager waves us to our caravan and keeps riding. I pull into the car space and switch off the engine. We sit and look at our caravan, a relic, I suspect, from everyone's childhood. Already I know that the interior is fake wood grain, chipped chrome and green vinyl. Somewhere in the distance is the ping of a tent peg being driven into the ground.
"Not exactly five stars," I comment.
"It's all I could get. Besides, what do you expect for $12 a night?"
The humidity at this place is something I've never experienced before. I feel short of breath as we walk to the front door. I can imagine going mad in such heat. There are a few more caravans near ours and some aluminum cabins with air conditioners humming. There is a path leading down to a low, scrub-like forest beyond which is the beach. A father and son are walking along the path armed with fishing tackle.
Louise unlocks the door and we step into our $12 a night accommodation. I actually gasp.
"Unbelievable," I say. "Someone's left the air conditioner on hot."
After a brief inspection I am dismayed to find that this is not the case; there is no air conditioner. Our caravan is simply hot. Suffocatingly hot. Hot in red, shimmering letters. We open all the windows, winding the little crank handles furiously, and quickly escape to the comparatively cool heat outside. There is no breeze, no relief at all.
"You could go mad in this heat," I mutter. "Completely - "
"Let's go for a swim," Louise suggests. "Let’ cool off."
Images of heat-induced madness grow more vivid as we walk along the worn track through the scrub. Louise walks silently in front, and I wonder what she is thinking. It is generally unwise to intrude on such silences, especially with the observations, suggestions and recriminations I really want to make. I decide to save these for later.
On the other side of the scrub the track dips down before rising to a sandy crest covered sparsely with tough sand grass, and once over this there is at last some relief. The breeze, though warm, is soothing, almost intoxicating. I am stung with happiness. I stand with my eyes closed and feel the breeze wash around me. I am aware that I am smiling foolishly, but I am too happy to care. My comfort is sublime. I dream I am alone, drifting through eternity, a single, utterly content being caressed by this divine breath ...
"Better?" Louise asks.
I open my eyes. I am me again. At this place. "Yes," I say. "Better."
The beach is surprisingly deserted. I guess that everyone is reluctant to leave their air conditioners. We stop at a random place, spread our things and shed most of our clothes. I sit cross-legged like some guru.
"Aren't you coming in?"
I am content to sit and enjoy the breeze. I do not want to be wet. I do not want salt drying on my skin.
"Come on," Louise says playfully. "Come in with me." She tries to tug me to my feet. I force a smile and tell her maybe later. She pulls my hand once more before releasing it, her smile vanishing in an instant. She looks at me blankly for a moment before turning sharply and heading down to the water. She walks over the dark sand and dives into the water without hesitation, and while submerged the only evidence of her existence is her small pile of things. I stare at her things, and then I start to bury them. I bulldoze the sand over them, and when they are completely buried I sit back and it’s as if Louise has never existed. I am truly alone, as free as the last living creature.
Louise’s head and shoulders break the surface and sits like flotsam on the rise and fall of the swell. She looks up into the hard, blue sky, then out to the horizon. She is refusing to look in my direction in case I see her looking. I sigh and smirk. I stand and adjust my swimmers.
The water is like the breeze, somehow cool and warm at the same time. I walk lazily into the water, and soon the rolling swell is lifting me from the earth and setting me gently down again. I find this easy rhythm quite hypnotic. I close my eyes. I could almost fall asleep.
“Nice, huh? Glad we came?”
“Yes,” I agree, “nice. But where are these turtles?”
“They come out at night. They come up onto the beach at night and lay their eggs.”
“Oh.”

I am surprised by the number of people who want to see some turtles lay some eggs at 11 o’clock at night. Hundreds of them. Or a hundred, anyway. At least a hundred. Or maybe it’s only fifty. Or eighty. Or one hundred and thirty six. If there were only four people I would still be astonished that they would want sit up all night waiting for something to lay an egg. We are sitting on the ground waiting to be dispatched in small groups as each reptile is spotted making its way onto land. We have been through the turtle museum and have looked at shells and eggs and back-lit photos of turtles laying eggs and even dead babies in jars. People are talking in murmurs. Some - other city folk like us - are looking awe-struck into the vast depths of the brilliant night sky. An old man nearby has brought along a folding canvas chair in which he is sitting, slumped over, snoring gently. I look around and think that I am probably the drunkest turtle watcher present. Perhaps I am the drunkest turtle watcher who has ever lived. What in God’s name, I wonder, am I doing here?
“It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?” Louise whispers. “It’s like an invasion or something. It’s like being a kid again. I remember when my parents got me out of bed at three in the morning to look at the comet. It’s a bit like that.”
“Did you see the comet?”
“I can’t remember. I just remember that sense of excitement. They said it was a once in a lifetime experience.”
“Getting out of bed at three in the morning?”
“You know what I mean.”
Another turtle has been spotted. Another group is dispatched. By my count, the next turtle is ours. If there is a next one. What if there are no more turtles? What will the troops do then? A constant stream of people is still trickling through the museum and joining the expectant crowd. Why do they assume there will be more turtles? The arrogance, I think. What is it with people?
“What are you shaking your head at, Pat?”
“What?”
“You were shaking your head again. What were you thinking about?”
“Shaking my head?”
“You do it all the time.”
“I do not.”
“Yes you do.”
She could be right. Maybe I was shaking my head. People sometimes tell me I frown too. I frown as I consider this.
“Well?” Louise prompts.
I scratch my head and shrug and wish that I was uncouth enough to open one of the beers I have in my shoulder bag. I just want to get drunker or go to sleep.
“Oh I don’t know, just something that guy said in there,” I lie, referring to the museum curator.
“Mm?”
“Um ... when he told us that the sex of the baby turtles is determined by how deep in the sand the mother buries the eggs. I mean, yeah right. Guy’s got his wires crossed, for sure. It’s just too bizarre.”
Then I think about drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in a crowded pub every Thursday night, from a turtle’s point of view.
The longer I sit and wait the more restless I become. I want to go, but having waited so long it would appear churlish to leave now. Nearby, a fellow turtle hunter is deploying a volley of the most malicious weaponry devised by humankind. The two syllabled -
“Mar-arm?”
“Sh!”
“But Mar-arm?”
“I said sh!”
“Bud I don’t care about the turdles. I wanna go home. Mum? Mar-arm!”
I despise him whilst embracing him as a kindred spirit. I tip my head back and lose myself in the starry sky.

“Did you hear me Pat?”
I cannot tell how long I have been away.
“What?” I say as I close my eyes and roll the stiffness from my neck.
“I just wondered why you did it.”
“Sorry, must have dozed off or something. Did what?”
“Buried my things in the sand.”
I frown as I ponder this. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “I don’t think I knew I was doing it.”
“It just seems a strange thing to do.”
Her knees are drawn up under her chin. She is gazing at a twig she is twirling slowly between her thumb and forefinger. Strangely, she looks lost. I wince as feelings stir. I know I love her. I really know this.
“Okay folks,” comes a hushed voice infused with excitement, “we’ve got another one. I’ll take everyone up to ... here -“
“But Mar-arm ...”
“And the little boy too. Everybody follow me.”
Louise tosses the Twig Of Infinite Mystery casually to the side and stands. She waits for a few moments before falling in behind the group as it makes its way into the darkness. I swear quietly as I climb awkwardly to my feet. Using the cover of darkness and movement I fumble about in my bag. I twist the top off the bottle and silently toast the cosmos.
There are people everywhere, shadows moving through the darkness. Here and there torches cut the darkness, beams of light dancing madly across the sand. And after waiting for so long in relative silence the noise comes as a surprise; the white hiss of the surf washing over the wet sand, talk, laughter, the occasional shout. At various points along the beach, far into the distance, groups of people are huddled around pools of light, esoteric rites taking place. I stumble along over small dunes and hollows, entranced by the strangeness of it all. I have lost Louise. I have no idea where my group is.
I come across a small procession slowly making its way down to the water’s edge. At the front of the group there is a woman aiming a torch at the sand just in front of a large turtle which is clearly weighed down with ineffable weariness. A kid wants the torch but the woman grips it with dogged determination.
“What are you doing?” I ask quietly.
“What does it look like? I’m leading it back to the water.”
The turtle is not walking or even crawling; it is shoving itself over the sand. Each lurch forward is followed by a few moments of rest.
“Come on baby,” Torch Woman coos, “you can do it. Come on.”
If Louise was here she would be telling me not to say a thing.
“I don’t get it,” I tell the group. “Why ...?”
“Weren’t you listening to the ranger?” the woman admonishes in a matronly tone. “They follow the light. It looks like the moon and they follow it to the water.”
“It’s the breakers, darling,” comes a voice from the entourage. “He said the white light resembles the white of the breakers..”
“It’s the moon, Dad. Of course it’s the moon.”
“But they’re prehistoric creatures,” I point out. “They’ve been doing this sort of thing since ... well since prehistoric times. Don’t you think it’s heading to the water in spite of you and not because of you? Do you really think that waggling a torch about in its face -”
“Excuse me, but I don’t think you’re from this group at all.”
“No. Sorry. Excuse me. I’ll go and find my group, but you keep up the good work. All of you. You’re all doing excellent turtle work. “
I decide to wander aimlessly, drinking as I soak up the balminess, but almost immediately I bump into someone whose job is, it seems, to patrol the beach for stragglers like me.
“Are you here for the turtles?” the man asks in an earnest monotone.
“Yes,” I tell him in my own secret agent’s tone, ”I’m here for the turtles.”
“Then come this way. This one’s laying.”
The man leads me by the arm to a nearby group before vanishing phantom-like into the darkness. I look around at the under lit faces while a park ranger speaks inconsequentially about the number of eggs and the high mortality rate of the hatchlings. Louise is not present, but as no one has yet accused me of being an infiltrator from another group I decide to stay. I look down at the turtle. Its expression seems one of both intense concentration and desperate boredom as soft, shiny eggs fall from its rear end into a sandy pit. The ranger is on her hands and knees trying to angle a beam of light up into the egg-producing orifice.
“And ... yes, here comes another one!”
Another soft egg drops gently into the pit.
“So there’s a lot of job satisfaction, then, in shining a torch into a lizard’s private parts and stating the eye-glazingly obvious?” is a question I decide, inexplicably, to keep to myself. At least for now. I look around at my fellow spectators and am impressed by the range of expressions - everything from the awed to the bored. One little boy is openly disgusted by such a vulgar display. A young girl sitting next to him is not interested in what is happening at the other end; she is content to gaze lovingly into the ancient, glassy eyes. She is muttering to herself, or to the creature, perhaps marveling at the wonderful things those eyes have seen.
“Jesus.”
“Shit.”
“Bloody hell.”
“Oh my god I’m blind!”
“Please don’t take photos,” the ranger requests politely. “It’s not good for the turtle’s eyes.”
She continues to speak, but I am preoccupied with rubbing and blinking the spots from my eyes.
“You sir? Would you like to put out your hand?”
“Wha.. .? I reply as I instinctively put out my hand.
“ .. . to really experience it. Feel how soft it is? Feel the mucusy covering? Pass it along for everyone to experience.”
When I realize what I am holding I cannot pass it on for others to experience quickly enough. I shake my head, baffled by this woman’s behavior, as I flick the remaining warm slime from my hand. Others are apparently getting some thrill out of holding the egg. I am baffled by this too.
“All right,” the ranger calls as the turtle starts to use its thick, leathery fins to flick sand over the nest. “I need the egg back now.”
The egg is not forthcoming.
“Can I have the egg back please. I need to return it to the nest now.”
Milky light illuminates facial shrugs. We look at each other and frown in concern.
“Look, this is serious. If that egg isn’t put back in the nest now it will die. Now whoever has the egg, hand it over. You sir - I gave the egg to you. Who did you give it to?”
“I gave it to him,” I tell her, pointing.
“And who did you give it to?”
“I dunno. Her, I think.”
“Maam?”
“I haven’t got the egg.”
“Then who has?”
“Jason have you got the egg?”
“Why would I steal a stupid turtle’s egg?” is the belligerent defense.
“Because if I find out that you have …” hangs the threat.
“Frisk Jason,” I suggest helpfully. “He sounds like an egg thief to me.”
“Get stuffed mate.”
I wince at the sharp crack of flesh against flesh. “How many times have I told you not to talk like that?”
“Ow. Ya got me on the eye again. This sucks.” Jason marches angrily into the night, shouting back at us, “I haven’t got the stupid egg, and if I did I’d squash it and throw it in the bin with all the smelly rubbish!”
Jason’s mother runs after him. “Sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to get you in the eye. I meant to get you on the side of the head. You must have moved. Jase?”
“This is too much,” I mutter as I turn to leave.
“Sir - where are you going? No one leaves until I have the egg back. That egg … if that egg isn’t put back in the nest it will die. Whoever has the egg please think about the baby turtle. It doesn’t stand a chance out of the nest. It’s .. . it’s not fair.” Her voice is trembling with emotion now, and this fills me with contempt.
“Look, forget about it,” I tell her. “It didn’t have much of a chance anyway. You told us that most of them get eaten by seagulls or sharks - what’s the difference?”
“But that’s nature. This just isn’t .. .”
“It isn’t what?”
“Pat? Is that you? What’s going on?”
“Someone,” the ranger accuses in italics, “stole a turtle egg.”
“And who was the genius who took the egg out of the nest?”
“Pat, did you steal that egg?”
I am more depressed than angry that Louise would as such a foolish question.
“For god’s sake, Louise. You must be joking. What the hell would I steal a bloody turtle egg for? Why do you say things like that? I mean, you think someone knows you .. .”
The light is so weak that I cannot make out Louise’s expression. We stand there for several moments, looking blindly at each other.
“I was joking,” Louise tells me as she turns to walk away. “I was only joking.”


The night is long and hot and deathly still. I lay in the darkness with my head tipped back, my mouth gaping. I am desperately tired, but hour after tortuous hour is spent skimming across the surface of sleep. Occasionally I drop below the surface and almost dream, but this does not last and I am back in this box, clammy sheets rippled about me, head tipped back, drinking the hot, still air.
Beside me, Louise is sound asleep. From time to time she will snuffle and snore quietly. She might mutter slurringly. She grinds her teeth throughout the night, a sound so familiar it no longer bothers me. Our naked bodies touch, move apart, touch again.
This will do it, I think, another hour of this will kill me or drive me completely mad. I must fall asleep. I just can’t take any more of this. Not another minute.

“You’re up early,” Louise says from the doorstep of the caravan where she is sitting, brushing her hair. “Did you sleep well?”
“You’re kidding,” I reply as I look down at the large blisters of moisture on my forearms. I have returned from the shower block and cannot tell if the water is from the cool shower or if it is sweat. It is not full light yet and already the temperature is into the high twenties.
“You didn’t sleep well?”
“I didn’t sleep. I was murderously tired and I just couldn’t sleep.”
“I wonder what that means - murderously tired.”
“I don’t know. I’ll leave you to ponder my parlance while I drag my carcass down to the beach. I have to get out of this.”
I make my way to the beach plodding along the narrow path, arms hanging loosely by my sides. I trudge up the sandy crest and stare at a glorious, golden sunrise through stinging, half-closed eyes. My squint intensifies as I see, far out to sea, a giant waterspout. I have never seen one before. I look around for someone to share it with but the only other person on the beach is an old fisherman, and hell, he probably sees giant waterspouts every day of his life. I walk over the sand, vaguely aware of the chaotic mess of footprints, and down to the water’s edge. The sea bed drops away quite sharply and the water level quickly reaches my waist, my shoulders, and then I am swimming into the rolling swell. I remain focused on the waterspout, dancing and swaying on the horizon, as I swim farther out into deeper and darker water. My arms and legs ache as they sweep and scissor. I am in poor condition and am soon exhausted, but I push on regardless. I feel a desperate need to keep going. I want to be far out to sea. I need to make it to that watery vortex. I swim on and on, lost in my obsession.
I am jolted from my folly as true exhaustion sets in. I slip below the surface. My limbs are heavy. I sink further and further down, convulsing as I resist the urge to breathe. My wide eyes scream into the darkness. I see things. Shapes. Shadows. Things moving towards me and away from me. Something brushes against my leg. It feels rough, like shark skin. I tip my head back and look up at the vast halo above and know that I am doomed. This knowledge is terror in its purest, most blissful splendor. I reach out to the light. I can breathe this light. I can breathe it.
The halo shatters as some animal lust possesses me, propels me up with unexpected violence. The light is suddenly hard and dry. I retch into it, drink from it. I hear a strange barking noise and realize that it is my own desperate breathing. My arms and legs, though cramping with pain, have found the life to flail heavily through the water, and I continue to breathe, my breath gradually falling from desperate to merely exhausted.
Using a clumsy series of kicks and strokes I manage to spin by degrees until I am facing the shoreline. I am appalled (and vaguely impressed) by just how far I have managed to swim. I know that I cannot make it back; I can barely keep my head above the surface. I simply cannot make it. I laugh a little and feel hysteria close by. There is no logical way to explain this, I think. How did I - how did this happen? How did I get myself into this?
Through stinging eyes I look at the white ribbon of sand. Even from this distance I recognize the small figure walk down onto the beach. I know she is looking for me. She looks first one way along the beach, then down the other before doing a double salute to the horizon. I smile and want to wave to her but I don’t have the strength. Besides, if one limb ceases moving I know I will sink again.
She sees me. She runs to the water’s edge. She doubles over. Is she laughing? Is she laughing at me? No, she is not laughing. The fisherman runs to her. There is pointing and waving. The fisherman runs from the beach towards the caravan park.
Louise and I look at each other across this seemingly impossible expanse of water, and we wait for something to happen.

8 comments:

Bird said...

I love this story. I loved this story when I first read it and I love it now and I want to text you to tell you that but I am drunk and my phone has gone to the place drunk phones go.

Quick said...

Aw dude. Dunno why that means so much to me but it does. Because if your phone hadn't gone to that place where drunk phones go I'd have to put up with one of your inane drunk text messages :)

Nah. Seriously. Thank you a lot for saying that.

Kathryn said...

So well written with heaps of detail, I feel like I am on that beach watching the whole story pan out. But it makes me sad. I wish he had told her no. But I understand why he didn't.

Quick said...

And thank you for saying that Kat.

Two other published ones coming up are about an old guy who gives his wife a headstone as a love letter (Quadrant) and one about a dog that gets run over (Australian Short Stories). Sometimes I like writing sad as much as I like writing funny. Fun to combine the two occasionally.

meva said...

That is a fantastic story. I can't wait to read more. Thanks for putting them up here.

Quick said...

Thanks Meva, glad you enjoyed.

Funny - a story can be published in a book or a magazine, then it vanishes. The magazine is replaced by the next issue, the books are closed and put on bookshelves or thrown away and the stories might never be read again.

But thanks to blogging at least a few more people might read them and might get something out of them.

Annye said...

Oh I wish I could write like that!! I love your stories!! Seriously, I love the way you portray situations; feelings and most of it bizzare thoughts. I can't really explain what I mean it's more a feeling....a very familiar feeling! Please send me your other stuff as well!! X

Onion said...

well written! nice job.