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The River Baptists
By Belinda Castles
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Belinda Castles
All rights reserved.
Rose sat at the desk beneath the open window in the smallest room in the house, watching the green marker on the wide black river blink in the dark. Beyond the glow of the open laptop lay the night, and all the people in it. The black turtle shell of the island was dotted with lights, but between these she knew were more houses, their inhabitants moving and dreaming in the dark. She closed her eyes and imagined that they were some heat-sensitive, X-ray device that saw across distances, through walls, to the shapes within the houses, seeing the things that people did in secret to make themselves feel loved.
She lifted her hair off her sweaty neck and tied it in a knot, forcing herself back to her work. Her days were spent in a dream, floating around on the silver river. She could only work at night. All the busyness of the world must end so you could sit in this little pool of light, the night dark around you, and imagine the ways that people wanted to touch each other, and themselves, if there was no one to answer to about it.
When she'd done her thousand words, she snapped shut her laptop and left the room, closing the door. Out in the living room she arranged herself carefully on her side on the sofa, settling her swollen belly on a cushion. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed a dark figure cross the gap in the verandah fence and she caught her breath. Soon she saw it was pissed, grumpy old Tom from next door stumbling about — she recognised the slight hunch, the spindly legs beneath his shorts. She sank back into the sofa. The silence here, when it came, was deep.
Even now, though, she heard the low increasing hum of a tinny approaching. Then its light appeared in the gap, growing larger in the dark, steady on the flat river. It was like watching her memories, coming towards her in the blackness. She imagined that if she kept watching, the light would slow as it reached her jetty and become a little boat, two figures climbing out of it, onto the ladder, laughing, drunk. She and Ben, people from a different time, eight months ago, before the year was severed, into the time before and the time after.
She closed her eyes. They'd been drinking at the pub. The ride back across was chilly, but the alcohol had made her immune, excitable. 'I love this place,' she'd said, gripping his arm for warmth, her backside cold on the seat of the tinny.
'I can see why,' he said. 'Sub-zero temperatures, mud, a pub full of guys who look like Cousin It ...'
'But the river at night — look at it, Ben. It's magical.' The night was just black shapes, the moon thin behind a cloud. The mound of the island, the looming cliff on the opposite shore. A train rushed out of the tunnel north of the river and thundered across the bridge, a long snaking worm of orange lights sailing above the black water.
She could just make out his features in the glow from the tinny's light. He was shivering, his lips darkening against his white skin. 'Inspirational place to write your porn, I imagine. All those hotties at the pub.' She gave him a sharp nudge that rocked the boat. 'Steady, kid!' He gripped the bench.
'It's not porn. It's erotic fiction, for adventurous ladies.'
'Ha! The kind of adventure you can have with one hand.'
'I have to tell you, it's a damn sight better than working for Wank Weekly.'
'That I can believe.'
The cliff reared above them; they were almost at her jetty. 'I always have trouble finding it at night,' she said, slowing the boat to a putter.
'How do you find it?'
'Well, I usually find next door first. His dog starts yapping as soon as you get anywhere near his place. And there's a yacht that's often moored just out from my jetty, too.'
'Your jetty. How long's he letting you stay here? Hasn't your sister dumped him?'
'Yes, well what?'
'I'll tell you when we get inside.'
'This doesn't sound good.'
She giggled, and pointed the tinny at the ladder, bumping the pillars of the jetty twice as she tried to get the nose into position so Ben could jump off. 'Look, I can just grab hold of it now,' he said.
'No, no. I'm going to put you in the right spot. Have faith.'
When she'd finally tied off and they'd staggered along the narrow, rotting jetty to her verandah, she pulled back the screen door noisily and the dog began to bark. 'There he goes,' she said.
'Fucken shut up, Dog!' a voice snarled from the darkness.
'Delightful neighbours, too,' Ben murmured as they stepped inside. 'This is nice,' he said as she turned on a couple of lamps, illuminating the old sofas, the bright rug. 'Sort of slum chic.'
'I like it.' She emerged from the tiny kitchen at the back of the living room with a bottle of white wine and two tumblers.
'No, it's nice. I mean it. Are we really going to drink a bottle of wine?'
'Well, we can start it. Put the rest away for later.'
He laughed and threw his coat on one sofa, flopped on the other. She wedged herself into the small space he'd left. 'So, what's the scandal?'
'Oh, God.' Her face was hidden behind her hair as she worked the corkscrew.
'What, Rose?' She looked at him. She'd known his face all her life — his curly hair, his huge brown eyes, the mouth that seemed too small, insignificant in comparison. She had pictures of him as a kid — he looked just the same in them as he did now. She concentrated on his eyes for a moment. The teasing in his voice, his eyes, had disappeared. She didn't want to tell him, now, but he was looking at her, waiting.
'I've kind of got a thing going with James.'
He stood suddenly. 'You're kidding, right?'
'No, I'm not kidding. It's not that big a deal. Sit down.'
His hands were on his hips. 'What did Billie ever do to you, Rose? Are you getting your own back for something?'
'No.' She poured the wine, her stomach turning over. 'No, it wasn't deliberate. She dumped him. What does it matter? She can have anyone she wants. It's just a bit of fun. I'm not planning to tell her about it, actually.'
He began to say something, then sat down. 'Rosie,' he sighed. 'You're a disaster.'
'I know,' she giggled. She put a hand on his arm. 'Do you forgive me?'
'What's it got to do with me?'
'But if you forgive me, then it's OK. I can sleep at night.'
'I forgive you,' he said, holding her hand against his leg, drinking his wine. 'Oh my God. This wine is fucking terrible.'
They'd been on this sofa. Right here. They drank the awful wine, all of it. They crashed together in her bed, in T-shirts and undies, the way they always did. He faced away from her; she hugged his back. They'd slept like that since they were kids, through uni. She couldn't imagine they ever would again. 'I wish you were my brother,' she'd whispered in his ear. He shook his head into his pillow.
It was seven months now since she'd last seen him. She couldn't call him; couldn't imagine breaching the gap. She'd seen him one more time after that night, and had a feeling, even then, that he'd only come because, when she rang him, she'd been crying. It was a month after the night she told him about James, and she'd heard nothing in the meantime. They usually talked every few days. When she could speak, she asked him to come to the funeral.
He came, of course. His eyes were wet as he walked along the track towards where she was attempting to tie off the boat. She couldn't hug him; she was ankle-deep in mud, down in the riverbed. She'd woken to thick fog clinging to the river, the end of the jetty not visible from her bedroom window. There was no ferry for two hours, so she'd had to take James's boat. As she edged forward into the mist, she felt she was entering a cloud she would never leave. She eased the boat slowly in the direction of the opposite shore, and knew she would only find it by chance. Sounds came to her through the cool white fog: a train's ghostly wind as it whipped from the tunnel, a voice sailing through the cloud from another boat. She slowed almost to a standstill; the boat must be near. Eventually, little gaps began to clear in the fog and she caught glimpses of the island, the railway bridge, and navigated slowly towards the shore. By the time she reached it, her black suit was clinging to her and she was sweating with a mild panic in spite of the cold. She fought the urge to be sick.
In the channel that ran alongside the rail tracks she killed the motor and took off her shoes, stepping carefully into shallow water and foul-smelling mud. As she unlooped the rope from the bottom of the dinghy, she saw immediately that the boat wasn't close enough to the rocky bank for her to tie off around the post at the top, and glutinous mud gripped the hull. She gave the boat a fruitless push, and felt another prickle of sweat break out on her forehead and under her arms.
She took off her jacket and laid it carefully on the rocks, above the watermark, next to her black, heeled shoes. Looking at her feet, she saw they were covered with thick mud. As she approached the boat for one last try she felt like climbing inside and lying down on the bench, drifting out onto the silent river in the fog. Where was Ben? Where was his train? Like he'd get down in the mud and help, anyway.
She couldn't think about the day ahead. She needed to tie off the boat, that was all. Pulling her skirt high around her waist to keep it out of the icy water, she waded back in and leaned against the stern. She heard the growl of a large boat behind her, roaring into the channel, ignoring the speed limit. She felt its wake surge up her legs, wetting her skirt, lifting the boat free of the mud, and pushed again. When the wake calmed, the boat was a metre further into shore. That was when Ben appeared. She dropped the anchor in the mud and scrabbled up the rocks to tie off. When she'd finished, he took her hand.
'Haven't seen you in a suit since graduation,' she said quietly.
'It's the same one.' He looked like a rock star at a wedding, his mad curls at odds with his clothes. 'You're drenched.' He looked her up and down. She nodded, and fought back the urge to cry. She carried her jacket and shoes in one hand and held his arm as she walked with muddy feet down the dirt road towards the car park. A train emerged from the gloom on the tracks above them, rushing into the mist that enveloped the river, lights gleaming in the fog. It left a wind that chilled her wet legs.
'I saw Billie the other day,' he said. 'With James.'
'It's all right. You know, he's really a bit of a tosser.'
'You don't say.' He put his arm around her. 'What are you going to do about your feet?' They both looked down. Mud gleamed all the way up her long shins.
'I think there's a towel in the car,' she said.
There was glass on the ground as they approached her car, a green Hondamatic, and she peered carefully around her feet, trying to avoid it. 'Bugger,' he said quietly. She looked up and saw that it was her windscreen that was broken. She put a hand to her face and took a breath.
'It's all right, mate,' he said. Again that urge. She wanted to lie down on the ground and sleep, wake up in summer and all this be gone. 'We'll get the train,' he said.
'No, we're going to have to drive. There won't be another train for an hour.'
In the back seat was an old towel. She dried her feet before brushing the glass off the front seats. They'd done a thorough job, anyway. The windscreen was entirely gone. So were her CDs and her stereo. 'Wankers,' Ben muttered as he eased himself into the passenger seat.
They took the old highway; she couldn't get on the freeway without a windscreen, especially not in this weather. She took it as fast as she dared, the mist making it hard to see even to the next bend, the dense bush looming, uncanny. Occasionally the highway came so close to the freeway that the rumble of trucks was almost deafening, though she couldn't see them, and shafts of light appeared then vanished as the traffic blocked out the weak sun between the trees above. It was strange to drive with the air directly on her face, and she concentrated on that: on the cool wetness of her skin, her hair damp against her neck, her glasses fogging and needing a wipe every few minutes.
'What happened, Rose?' he said eventually.
She heard herself tell him, but her voice seemed remote, unnatural. 'A truck rear-ended his van on the freeway. I saw the smoke, from my verandah. I was having dinner with James. Didn't know what it was, till later. It seemed — beautiful at the time.'
He put his hand on her knee and she trembled for a second. They said nothing on the long descent through the bush until they reached the glaring stretch of suburbs that lay between the national park and the ocean. The mist had lifted and the sun was growing hot on their faces. Outside a bungalow, a table of paintings was propped up next to a sign on which was daubed '$60'. 'Doesn't change, does it?' he said.
She shook her head. They were passing the browning oval of the high school, the one they'd both attended, where her father had been the music teacher, until the week before. 'The bay does, though. You been back lately?'
'Saw Mum a couple of weeks ago. There's some crazy money down on the beach. She reckons she'll sell up, eventually.'
'Oh, no. Where would she go? She's been there forever.' He shrugged. 'She coming today?'
'Yeah. She liked your old man. Everyone did. Between you and me, I think she had a bit of a crush on him.'
'I reckon. Then I could have been your brother,' he laughed. She blushed, and stared straight ahead at the white- and yellow-brick houses, the orange roofs, peeling away towards the ocean.
When they reached the little blue church, a block back from the beach, there was a sea of shining cars, baking on the grass verge, on the street, on the path. Must be people from school, she thought. He'd known so many people she didn't. All those children — not just the ones he'd been teaching now, but all the ones that had grown up, and remembered him, and had heard somehow. He'd been a presence in so many lives, and now she had to share her grief with them, give up a little of her claim to each one.
The door was still open, but the pews were full. She made for a space in the back row, but an elderly woman — tiny, hunched, a distant relative she recognised but could not immediately place — ushered her forward firmly, gripping her still-damp arm. 'There's a place for you next to your sister, Rosie dear, at the front,' she whispered. 'And your friend,' she said, glancing up at Ben. 'Go on, love. It'll start soon.'
As they passed the crowd in the back rows, she spotted three of her dad's on — off girlfriends — the hot chickas, she and Ben always called them. He always brought home stunners, but none as beautiful as the portrait of her mother he had once painted — so like Billie now she was an adult — that leaned against the wall at the back of the garage, dusty and wrinkled with moisture. She'd always felt sorry for the chickas and intimidated by their sleek womanliness all at once. Always was a sucker for a pretty face, her dad.
In the front row was her sister, her wide silk ribbon of blonde hair clinging to the back of her suit. Next to her was James, and it was beside him that there was empty space. 'Can't we sit at the back?' she said under her breath as Ben guided her, hand on her back, down the aisle. She could feel heads turning towards her, as though she were a bride.
'You've got to be at the front,' he said. 'I'll stay with you.'
She tried to duck past Billie quietly, nodding hello, but her sister threw her arms around her and pulled her close. 'We were so worried about you! Where have you been?' Rose drew back. Billie put her hand on Ben's shoulder. 'Bless you, Ben.' She was as fresh and lovely as ever. Her eyes shone moistly from an unlined face. If she was wearing make-up, you couldn't see it.
'I see she hasn't lost any sleep,' Rose whispered to Ben as they sat down.
He put his hand on hers. 'Shhh,' he said gently. 'Not now.'
Rose dared herself to look at James; he was as handsome as always. It was a shock when you hadn't seen him for a while. His eyes were fixed firmly on the casket. She took it in, the impossibly long box that held the body of her father, and sat down quickly. 'Christ,' she breathed. A tear slid down Billie's beautiful cheek.
Excerpted from The River Baptists by Belinda Castles. Copyright © 2007 Belinda Castles. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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