Amanda Aitken (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)
Greta cut a familiar figure on the seashore not long after dawn, stooped and searching in her brightly flowered hat. She liked to start the day by trying to find something beautiful. Each morning, the sea delivered different shells for her to rake through, but over the last few years the search took longer as it seemed harder to decide which would be worthy of keeping. And so it was that Clint’s presence could be felt much sooner than she expected.
She turned when she could sense him there, tall in the sand, his body looming behind her. He was carrying their sun umbrella and a beach bag. Raising her hand in greeting, she watched him arrange their beach gear. With a clenched jaw, he started to erect the umbrella—screwing the pole into the sand before locking in the bright top half, then tossing open their oversized beach towel and firmly securing each corner. Then he gestured at her, drawing her into the shade and noticing the shells spilling out of her hands.
‘That’s a lot today. Where are you going to put all those then?’
She stood and looked at him, her face slackening. He knew where she would put them—it was where she always displayed them: in glass jars of various shapes on their living room shelf. The question, though, was enough for her to gauge his mood and she decided to sit down not on the beach towel but on the sand. She would put up with the flies.
Around them, Whiritoa beach was coming to life with the buzz of cicadas, shouts from children tottering down to the water’s edge and the distant hum of a jet ski offshore. But all Greta could hear was the stonewall of silence next to her, leading her to wonder what the next barrage of criticism would be. Her hands fell to the folds of her stomach. Her figure sometimes was a cause for commentary. She felt exposed in her bathing suit, in any case, these days. Girls with long tanned legs would soon swish by in short skirts and stretch out on striped towels. Ripe young buttocks, virtually uncovered, would gleam at her out of the sand, catching her unaware, like the eyes of a hippopotamus rising up out of murky waters.
She glanced at Clint, who wrapped his lean arms around his knees and looked out to sea.
By nine, the sun was scorching and Greta couldn’t put off a swim much longer. But before she could move, Clint yelled out.
‘There’s Dan!’ He turned, checked his reflection in Greta’s sunglasses, and took off down the beach, putting on his jaunty straw hat, which was too small for his vast noggin. She could see a grin forming on his face as he shook hands with Dan. She remembered when she had first met Clint and how he used his smile on her. He had an arm around Dan’s back now. She could just make out shards of the conversation. Clint must be talking about the renovation they had just done; his hands were gesturing the shape of the roof, trying to convey the grandness of it all.
It wasn’t long before Clint pointed to Greta, who was still sitting on the sand. She supposed she should get up and say hello.
‘Greta, this is Dan,’ Clint called out as she wrapped her kaftan around herself and walked towards them. Clint was always good with introductions. Dan, he explained, was a contact from his property development days. Greta nodded and leaned in as Dan kissed her on both cheeks.
‘Clint’s just telling me about the house. You’re obviously doing well—back on your feet.’
Greta nodded. Clint had made sure people would think that. She hadn’t wanted to aim so high. It wasn’t a commonplace design, especially among all the old baches. It was going to stand out. ‘Look at us,’ the house commanded. ‘We’re more than ok.’
‘It’s great you’ve managed to come this far, you know, after everything.’ Dan’s tone was bright. But just the reference to their near bankruptcy caused the heat to rise within her; it was almost enough to melt her into the ground.
‘Exactly right Dan,’ agreed Clint. ‘I am still trying to convince my gorgeous wife here that we deserve this. You know, the house and everything. Bit of bad luck, that’s all it was.’
‘And if the rumours are true, I hear another development is on the cards.’ Dan winked at Clint. ‘Strictly under wraps for now though, eh?’ he added looking down and digging a hole in the sand with his foot.
Clint’s smile fell from his face. ‘Ah,’ he blustered. ‘Not quite sure what you’re alluding to there, chap ….’
But Dan pressed on. ‘Didn’t think you’d get another project of this scale past your wife, that’s for sure. Greta, what do you make of—” He looked up and his voice petered out as Clint moved next to Greta and put his arm around her shoulders, his huge frame casting a shadow over her and blocking her from the light.
‘Um, not sure,’ she replied, feeling faint all of a sudden. ‘Look, I’m going to have to duck into the water.’ She arranged her face into a smile and gave the men a flat wave. ‘Nice to meet you Dan.’
After dropping her kaftan, Greta could feel her thighs rub together as she wandered towards the shoreline. She hoped her gait wasn’t turning into a waddle. A dead bird caused her to stop—its carcass splayed, its essence long gone. She wondered absentmindedly how long it had suffered. With her toe, she pulled some seaweed over the bird to cover it up.
Once in the deep water, she dived down but kept her eyes open to look at the fish. She had always enjoyed snorkelling and would have loved to learn to scuba dive. She could imagine the freedom of not being stuck on the surface. But Clint had always said it was better to stick to snorkelling. He felt that diving was too dangerous due to the swirling dark waters. She might become overwhelmed and not know which way was up and which way was down. She laughed inwardly now at the thought. She had been lured in and pulled under by him anyway and lost all her bearings.
Bobbing in the ocean, Greta tried to get her head around what Dan had divulged. After all she had been through with Clint, all they had rebuilt, he was planning another development—securing funds from who-knows-where and putting them at risk all over again. Despite his promise to her, he couldn’t help himself. She had stalled her own career, put off having children, and all for what?
Turning on her back with her arms outstretched, she imagined being in a rip and what it would feel like. The more she thought about it, the more she realised she would be fine: her body in the clutches of the sea—not being able to fight the current, having to go with its flow. What’s more, she thought as she smiled to herself, her plump body would float easily on the tide. She would have to bide her time patiently, and then swim out to the side. Out of the rip’s way, to safety.
Back on her stomach, she dived under the smooth water, only to feel a prickling pain spread over her left thigh. In an instant, she knew what had happened. She could just make out the culprit floating away. On autopilot, she swam freestyle to the shallows, dragging herself out of the water, breathing heavily and clutching her leg. The sky had darkened; slate-coloured clouds had appeared like fingers. She looked up at the men and could see that Dan was pointing at her.
Then she heard Clint call out.
‘You ok?’ he shouted, but his voice had no depth. It sounded tinny and distorted from across the beach. She limped closer and stood in front of them dripping, her hair hanging down in strips.
‘What’s happened?’ Clint cocked his head.
‘I’ve been stung.’ Her voice sounded raspy in reply.
She could feel their eyes on her, working their way down her body until they took in the sting. She pushed her pale thigh towards them without her usual timid reserve.
‘Yikes,’ Dan gasped.
The mark had risen up and was blistering. It was a funny thing, pain, she thought. Sometimes you could see it and sometimes you couldn’t. She could feel the deep thud of her heart as she controlled her breathing, and stood there, her leg open. Let it be an indication of all she could withstand. In actual fact, she wouldn’t mind if the angry bubbles of fluid that were gathering under the skin burst forth.
The sun came out again, placing her in the light.
‘Some blister,’ said Clint, whistling under his breath and peering closely as if she were a specimen. ‘Always a sensitive one, our Greta. Did you see what the jellyfish looked like? The water’s clear at the moment.’
‘I did see it,’ she said, looking directly at Clint. ‘It had such charming colours—pinks and yellows. Appeared innocuous,’ she added lightly, running her hand over the burning skin. ‘You would never know it could cause so much damage.’
‘Jeez, it must be sore.’ Dan had averted his eyes. It was a big mess rising up at them.
Clint just kept talking. ‘It might have been a mauve stinger. There are more of them here now the water is warmer. Council probably needs to start keeping vinegar on the dunes, like they do in Queensland.’ He turned around and motioned towards a good spot to put the liquid. Dan looked at her and smiled—with embarrassment or sympathy, she didn’t know.
‘Let’s get you up to the house,’ Clint said to Greta eventually, taking off his hat and running a hand through his hair. He reached out to shake Dan’s hand, sending him off with a pat on the back and murmurs of ‘You must come round, see what we’re doing to the place.’ Dan took off down the beach with a backwards wave for Greta.
‘You coming then?’ Clint called to her. Greta looked up at him. A pall of cloud had spread over them both, and she no longer had to squint to see.
‘Actually, I’ll meet you up at the house. I’ll soak it in the salt water for a bit.’
As he left, Greta bent down and examined the mark once more. It would likely leave a permanent scar on her skin, but over time, the memory of the sting would recede, and the only fragments of pain remaining would be the ones she chose to keep in her mind.
On her way back down to the water, she spotted a perfect looking clam shell, still joined despite its rough journey to shore. She picked it up, folded it in the palm of her hand and clasped it, feeling the emptiness within.
Then she threw it as far as she could.
Amanda Aitken is currently undertaking her Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology. Her areas of research include shame, vulnerability and empathy. She is working on her first short story collection.