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Authors: Sam Carmody

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BOOK: The Windy Season
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Jester

THAT NIGHT, IN THE SPARE ROOM MICHAEL
had prepared for him, Paul lay uselessly alert in the heat, the skin of his back stuck to the bedsheets. He lay on his right side, turned where he couldn't feel the throb of his heart against the bed. Measuring time between pulses. He listened to the wind outside and studied the bedroom that was still new to him. The room was empty of furniture and the walls were blank. There was just the mattress he was lying on and his suitcase in the corner of the room with his clothes spilling out the top of it.

There was the familiar grip in his stomach, the ache from a day of purging but also of worrying. Paul had never talked to his parents about it, but for a long time, since he and Elliot were kids, he had worried about his brother. There were times when his brother's listlessness had drifted into something worse, darker; something that scared the shit out of Paul.

When he saw Elliot like that he had capered around him like a jester, as though it was his duty to resuscitate his brother's mood. In those times, Elliot looked at all things, living or inanimate, as though waiting for them to perform. A television show. Food. Paul could sense the pressure he applied to each experience and he took it on, urging them to please his brother, yet they invariably disappointed.

Occasionally Paul could persuade him down to the ocean. He'd talk up the conditions, the likelihood of finding octopus or groper, the evangelising speech coming out of his mouth almost involuntarily, and if he went on long enough he could get Elliot moving. He'd pull the gear from the shed then herd Elliot into his bedroom, waiting outside as his older brother languidly put on his wetsuit.

On the short walk up to Swanbourne Beach, at the edge of the Cottesloe marine reserve, Elliot would state what Paul had known all along. That the time of day was all wrong. The ocean was too warm, the sandy bottom barren and exposed. That they'd be unlikely to find anything. Paul willed there to be fish. He could physically feel the urging in his skin, like he was trying to summon the elements. In the water he wouldn't even be afraid. All he wanted was for Elliot to find something. His brother's spear became his own. But there would be no fish. The sea would go quiet on them, as if it could sense their desperation. And Paul would feel all the emptiness his brother felt. He cursed the sea under his breath. The sea that had all the potential to make things better would feign lifelessness. The brothers would walk home together in silence, Paul feeling the full weight of failure, and a creeping worry that wouldn't leave him until night came and he knew his brother was asleep.

Torpedo

ON SUNDAY PAUL WOKE AT MIDDAY
. Fingers stiff. The pillow smelt of shampoo and salt and fish blood. After three weeks he had almost grown used to it. The wind was going outside. He could hear the German's voice, deepened and muffled by the plasterboard separating their bedrooms. Paul couldn't make out what he was saying but there was an odd pattern to his talk. He spoke in short, careful sentences that no one responded to. Then he heard Shivani moaning. It began as a gentle calling out, as though Shivani was trying to keep quiet, maybe aware that he could hear them. He closed his eyes and pictured Kasia, the barmaid from the tavern. Imagined her naked body on top of him, her belly against his. Calling out for him. But the sound beyond the wall grew. Something somewhere between pleasure and pleading, a contradictory call for help, before it opened up further into a big, whooping exhalation that repeated itself over and over like an alarm.

Within what seemed less than a minute the noise had grown almost violent and it stirred Paul again into wakefulness. He opened his eyes and withdrew his hand from his cock like he might get sprung, as if the neighbours would wonder what the hell was going on in their house and press their faces up to his bedroom window, peer at him through the blinds. But Michael and Shivani continued, the volume impossibly escalating. Paul snorted. He felt his heart gallop. He knew he had listened to them for too long and when at last he had decided he should sneak out of the house he had only put one foot on the carpet when the girl let go a scream that seemed endless and that made him freeze where he was. He listened to her call trail off, replaced by the finishing grunts of the German. Paul sat on the edge of the mattress, silent, not wanting to move in case the bedsprings gave him away. He waited until they were in the shower before he grabbed the beach towel from the couch and stepped out the front door.

Paul cut through the caravan park, the buffalo grass coarse underfoot and a bore-water-fed, supercharged green. The park was full with tents and vehicles, beach towels drying on bonnets. He didn't see many of the campers on the grounds. Most would be down at the inlet, he figured, or in town, or surfing further along the back beach or up at the point. He saw a few locals from the permanent lots drifting about, eyes down, carrying washing and cleaning up their caravans. Above a lot of the annexes, alongside large aerials, flew Australian flags, the cheap cotton faded and shredded by the weather.

At the back beach the nor'-easter was hot against his skin. Far around the bay he could see a herd of four-wheel drives parked adjacent to the surf breaks. The section of the beach
where Paul entered the water was just enough in the shadow of the outer reefs to be waveless, but it was still open water. It was of course preferable to swim in the ocean rather than a pool, but a shark barrier or sea bath seemed a more reasonable management of risk. Open water always gave him that feeling of entertaining unnecessary danger. It was going to sleep with the doors unlocked, a window left open.

He walked until the water was waist deep then sank into the warm sea, felt the sting of it on the fine cuts on his palms and a graze on his shin. The sun was now above the dunes but it glanced over the water in a way that rendered the surface a dull, impenetrable green. Paul had once heard Elliot say that a great white shark begins its attack from up to eighty metres away, driving itself like a torpedo at its target in one smooth, unerring trajectory. Elliot had always been full of this kind of information. He always smiled when he said things like that.

Paul lay belly up, feet free of the water. He looked beyond his feet to deeper water. Out of the cover of the dunes, where the water went dark with the reef below it, the surface prickled by the breeze. He imagined the torpedo, hurtling over the weed and reef and then across the sand, charging at the wrinkled soles of his feet. He shook his head, annoyed at himself, trying to dislodge the image. He knew that few of the stories Elliot told him were accurate; they had been manufactured to feed his fears. It was unlikely that a shark could even be aware of its target from eighty metres, let alone begin a fully motivated assault. But the thought lingered. He wondered if he would see any movement of water at the surface. Did the charge begin with a big sweep of the tail, like the kick of a sprinter against the starter blocks? Would the ocean eighty metres out from him stir at all? Would he notice it? Or would there be nothing?

He felt the beginnings of panic and tried to focus his mind on the face of the girl, imagined Kasia in the water with him, bare legs about his waist. When the swell picked up out on the boat, or when Jake was in one of his moods, driving
Arcadia
in a rage, as though he was trying to sink them all, the image of that girl had become for Paul something like an anaesthetic. It soothed his nerves, blunted the seasickness. Out on the ocean he thought of her all the time.

He started for the beach. When he was knee deep, he made a shallow dive, eyes clenched shut, and then stood and waded to shore. He resisted the urge to look back over his shoulder.

The police station was at the far end of the main street on its own block, an island of dead lawn, trimmed hard. There was a long driveway, a squad four-wheel drive parked at the end of it. A boat, a small runner, sat on an unhooked trailer. The nose of the boat pointed skywards like a rocket.

Inside, he pressed the buzzer on the front desk. Paul had never been inside a police station before. He was struck by the bareness of it. The bare counter. The blank walls and polished concrete floor. It reminded him of a McDonald's, the hard surfaces easy to clean, designed to deter anyone from getting comfortable enough to linger.

He walked over to a small collection of posters on a far wall, expecting to find Elliot. There were pictures of three missing persons, profiles underneath each image; none of them Elliot. On the left was Chris ‘Camel' Paolino. Thirty-two. He had fisherman's eyes, shining red. Sore. He had been missing fifteen years, last seen in the Stark inlet car park. In the middle was a woman named Dixie Hill. Forty-four. Looked twenty years older, mouth sunk back into her face like there weren't teeth behind it,
the skin around her brown eyes swollen and scarred. Last seen hitchhiking the North West Coastal Highway a year earlier, fifty kilometres north of Kalbarri. And last there was a small boy. An eight-year-old French tourist: Nicolas Peret. Missing two years, last seen on Cable Beach, Broome. Police held concerns for his safety.

Paul studied a large poster on sexually transmitted diseases, photographs of bacteria and viruses taken through microscope lenses. They were bright, blooming figures, like galaxies, fluorescent-lit against black backgrounds. HIV was a neon planet, towers reaching from its surface. Chlamydia something like a meteor shower. The interstellar images were hard to relate to one's own body. They seemed less repulsive this way, Paul thought. Even the long, snaking form of syphilis looked almost graceful.

Not sure I can help you with that.

He turned. A woman stood behind the counter, studying him through her glasses.

You look lost, she said. The nursing post is back towards town.

I don't have . . . he began, glancing at gonorrhoea. He turned back to her. I'm looking for Officer Gunston.

You are lost. He left a couple months back.

Who's in charge?

Senior Sergeant Freda Harvey, she said. Call me Fred. What can I do for you?

She pulled on a thin fluoro-yellow vest.

Officer Gunston filed a report on my brother, Paul said. Elliot Darling. He went missing.

She nodded. Paul eyed the revolver on her belt, at her right hip.

Do you know about Elliot? he asked.

The Missing Persons Unit would be looking after that now. You'd be better off talking to them. She picked up a duffel bag and walked around the counter, heading to the door. I've got to get to the dunes, join the circus up there. Fred shook her head. Who puts a seven-year-old on a quad bike? she asked, speaking more to herself than to him.

She held the door open and waited for him. Paul stepped past her and out into the sunlight.

Sorry, mate, Fred said after him, through the open driver door of the squad vehicle. I just can't help you. MPU. Give them a call.

Paul watched her leave the island of dead grass and drive off down the street, without sirens.

The town centre was busy with weekend surfers and families from out of town, up for the long weekend. Their cars filled the gravel car park in front of the bakery. The small skate park in the centre of town, unused by local kids, was now crowded with agitated children who had endured the drive from Perth.

It was a long way to come for a weekend, but Stark wasn't the sort of place you stayed long. Three or four days at most. Maybe that was the idea, Paul figured. To get in and out. Swim in the inlet, surf at the point, take photos from the cliffs south of town, then head home. See what you wanted but not stay long enough to have to see everything else, the way things might really be.

That's all Paul himself had ever known of Stark: glimpses. He had been there a few times with his family when he was much younger. His memories of those holidays were limited to the Stark caravan park and the two-man tent he had to share with Elliot. There was the sea, of course. The cliffs. The point. He had some recollections of visiting Aunty Ruth and the cousins but they were distant. His parents hadn't brought them here in a long
time, and he knew it had something to do with the trouble with Jake. His parents had been coming to Stark for years, since before Elliot and he were born. They had honeymooned there. And then one year, when Paul was about ten, they just stopped coming. They no longer even talked about it. Maybe by avoiding visiting they were able to keep the town the same, untarnished. Maybe the memory of the town, the idea of it, was all they needed, was all anyone needed. It made him wonder if a memory, or an idea, was all Stark ever really was.

Twenty-one

IF THERE IS ANY REASON TO BELIEVE
in god then a girl has to be that reason. Michael squinted into the sea wind from the cabin doorway, a transcendent grin on his face. Making love, he mused. Now that is intelligent design. It is a genius concept to hinge existence on. Do you not think so?

Paul had been half listening, thinking instead about Elliot and the police officer, Fred. The lone sheriff of Stark. Paul looked towards land. It was just visible, the coast a pastel smear. He wondered too about
Deadman
. Her mooring was empty when he'd walked upriver the previous afternoon. He noticed Michael still watching him and paused at the thought that the deckhand might know he had listened to Shivani and him the day before, heard the German climaxing through the thin walls of their house.

BOOK: The Windy Season
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