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H

2018 Short Stories

Highly Commended

Highly Commended

Ray
Guy Salvidge

Northam, WA

I.

Driving up the ramp from the ferry, Ray knew he had at long last arrived on the island. For months he had been troubled and exalted by dreams of coastal cliffs under leaden skies, of vast forests and wild rivers. In these visions he found himself rushing to an edge of things that was forever vanishing before a limitless horizon. Now the end was finally in sight.

Ray’s two children were bickering in the campervan’s back seat, exhausted from the tedium of the long journey behind them. The rain came in squalls, banks of dark cloud looming left and right. The wind worried at the van and he drove like someone who has known death and will know it yet, both hands gripping the wheel. Road as funnel, road as river, sweeping Ray and his children southward on its swift-moving current, past all available turn-offs and tributaries, spurning any opportunity of rest.

‘Dad, are we stopping soon?’

Nine-year-old Eleanor, two years older than her brother Liam.

‘I thought we could make it to the lighthouse…’

But the afternoon was already ending, the van’s windscreen a latticework of rivulets and streams. Bulwark against the darkness, the beachside caravan park offered safe harbour. Descending from the driver’s cabin, Ray found himself assailed by a barrage of saltwater spray from the roiling ocean. A motley assemblage of chipboard structures and salt-encrusted vehicles confronted him like some shantytown of the post-apocalypse. Shielded from the elements in the nearby barbecue area, a small group of people were huddling around a fire in a rusted metal drum.

The sliding door to the dimly-lit reception was unlocked, the sign turned to OPEN, but the counter was unstaffed. Through an open door behind the desk, Ray could see an empty couch and squawking television. When he rang the bell, a sandy-haired boy of perhaps three appeared.

‘Hello, where are your parents?’

The boy said nothing, and then he was gone.

At length a dowdy woman appeared, her expression little more animated than her son’s.

‘I was hoping you had a powered site for tonight?’

The wind rattled the frame of the sliding door and the woman angled her head, as though hard of hearing. ‘Thirty dollars.’

Back in the van, Ray drove around to the site, across from the ablutions block. ‘Anyone need the toilet?’ But both children were asleep, the animated films on their devices still playing. It wasn’t possible to set up the bed with them still in their seats, so Ray left them buckled in. At the toilets, he fumbled his way inside with the key. WATER NOT SAFE FOR DRINKING, a sign said. The showers required a one-dollar coin to operate and a mop bucket accompanied a second sign that said MOP AFTER USE.

Ray entered the fray a final time to plug the van into the electrical switch outside. Without this he wouldn’t be able to operate the microwave or charge the children’s devices. He cooked his microwave dinner in the van’s cramped kitchenette, burning his fingers and very nearly spilling the piping-hot sachet of Pad Thai in the process. There was two-thirds of a bottle of shiraz stashed beneath the coldwater sink.

As he ate and drank, the rain intensified and the dark deepened. With no remaining tasks to occupy him, the thoughts that he had for hours succeeded in pushing down began to resurface. Thoughts like now that I’ve lost my job, how am I to live? and how will I ever be able to pay for this trip?

The truth was that Ray’s sun was long past its zenith. Midday had been the births of Eleanor and Liam, but by mid-afternoon he’d sunk into depression and his marriage had broken down. By twilight he’d been removed from his position at the local council for misconduct, but neither his ex nor the children knew about that yet. Ray had intended this trip as a last hurrah and he’d chosen this most southerly of places for his swansong.

Tomorrow they would drive further south.

Tomorrow they would drive out the light.

II.

Ray woke to a grey dawn.

Disoriented and dehydrated, his back and shoulders ached from where he’d eventually slept, strung awkwardly between the driver and passenger seats. He returned to an upright sitting position, a burst of pain zapping the sciatic nerve of his left leg. The children were where he’d left them, slumped sideways, heads lolling. They had slept that way the best part of twelve hours, but now they were starting to stir. Eleanor’s eyes were the first to open. ‘Dad, where are we?’

‘Caravan park, remember?’

He helped her down through the van’s sliding door onto the wet grass. It wasn’t raining, the park a cacophony of birdsong amid the rhythmic heave and boom of waves on the white-sand beach. Ray waited at the Ladies’ while his daughter went inside. A pair of fairywrens hopped around on the grass nearby, their heads and shoulders draped in brilliant blue.

Liam was awake when they returned to the van. ‘Dad, I’m thirsty.’

Ray turned on the water pump and poured them each a glass. The children sat outside on the folding chairs eating their cereal and he brought them jumpers. It was cold, maybe ten degrees. After breakfast the three of them looked for shells on the beach, but only Liam was game to brave the icy shallows. Then, a sizable pile of shells collected in his cap, Ray gave them each a dollar for the shower.

By nine o’clock it was time to go.

Ray had the narrow, winding cliffside road to himself. It was blustery, the timorous sun in hiding behind a wall of grey, and the first fat droplets were starting to hit the windscreen. A little further along, he was puzzled to be approaching a give way sign. Had he turned off the island’s main road last night without realising? He crawled toward the intersection to read what was written on a second sign.

To the right:

FERRY 35KM

And to the left:

CLOUD BEACH 25KM

LIGHTHOUSE 40KM

Turning left, Ray wondered whether they had time for the beach. Despite the cold, Liam had been ecstatic splashing in the waves. There was nothing left for them on the mainland, but perhaps they need never leave the island.

The journey took them through a tiny hamlet, no more than a smattering of fibro shacks and a boarded-up general store. No one there, nor anyone on the gravelled forest track. He kept the speedometer at fifty on the straights, even less on the hills and bends. The gravel soon gave way to imperfectly-compacted sand, soft enough to bog them if he didn’t keep to the middle. Cresting a rise, Ray caught his first glimpse of the gunmetal ocean and the dull ochre sand of Cloud Beach. No cars in the car park, no buildings except for a wooden outhouse. The crescent beach stretched for miles around the bay, the sea channelled between two rocky capes.

‘Dad, can we swim?’

‘I think so, Liam, but we’ll need to watch out for rips…’

Down at beach-level there was little to distinguish sea, sand and sky. All was a maelstrom of mist, salt and foamy breakers. It was a place for abandon, a place to throw yourself away. The beach was flat and smooth, but the waves rushed in further than Ray would have anticipated and then tugged at the children with an insistent suction. No sign of human activity except for four-wheel-drive tracks, no habitation but for a single maroon blob nestled behind the dunes.

 ‘Let’s walk to that house. It isn’t far.’

Appearances were deceptive, however. What had seemed to him a ten-minute walk turned into a forty-minute trek, the beach apparently without end. When he finally reached the house, he realised that whatever aura it possessed at a distance was obliterated by proximity, its mystique a mirage. Turning back, the children were little more than specks. He saw now that he was putting their lives in danger.

I’m leaving you, Ray, his wife had said. There’s no more magic between us.

Maybe there never was any magic, he’d said.

First his wife had left him and now he was leaving himself, or trying to.

But not here. Not yet.

Only at the southerly terminus would the shape of further things reveal itself to him.

III.

Ray’s first sighting of the lighthouse came through a break in the trees a few kilometres short of the southern cape. Pulling the van up to the railing of a cliffside lookout, he opened the windows despite the persistent drizzle and tried to banish the swirling thoughts from his head. From this distance, the lighthouse was overshadowed by the granite cliffs and jagged rocky spurs it served as warning against. Down at the shoreline, a sliver of beach was tucked up against the dense scrubland and, further up, a couple of low buildings clung to the olive-green headland in defiance of the wind.

He rolled up the windows and put the van in gear.

A gate at the entrance to the empty car park stood open. One of the dwellings, formerly the residence of generations of lighthouse keepers, now served as a small museum. While the children used the bathroom, Ray learned that the lighthouse was no longer in use now that its fully-automated younger sibling operated on the far side of the cape.

The path to the summit was steep, but they were sheltered from the wind by thickets of native vegetation. Emerging onto a modest plateau at the base of the lighthouse, they ran their hands over the smooth, white-painted stone. The sky was filled with wheeling seabirds and the scent of brine. Over the padlocked door, a shield read AD 1836.

‘Can we climb it, Dad?’ Liam asked.

‘I don’t see how, there’s no one here.’

Deflected from this final ascent, they milled around reading the tourist signs and taking in the vista of honeycombed dolerite cliffs and the tumult of the ocean below. Nowhere left to go but back, or over the edge. A yellow sign depicted this second scenario vividly, a stick figure throwing out its arms on the threshold of a killing height from which it was poised to plunge.

As the wind picked up, so too the malevolent words began once more to swirl and intermix.

Words like precipice, befall and abyss.

Had Ray really brought his children here to perpetrate such an evil as this?

From his clifftop eyrie, Ray looked out over the Southern Ocean, imagining himself one day traversing the frozen continent beyond. And if he somehow reached the pole, what then? From there, a step in any direction would be a step to the north. After his recent run of misfortune, Ray had imagined himself funnelled to this point like a raft on a river, but it wasn’t so. It wasn’t too late to change his mind.

‘It’s beautiful, Dad.’

Eleanor smiled up at him—

—and slipped on the crumbling edge.

In an endless instant, Ray shepherded Liam back with his left hand while the right shot out and found purchase on Eleanor’s flailing arm. Father and daughter seemingly destined to tumble together, he hauled her down to those precious remaining centimetres of terra firma. Clawing at stone and grass and mud, they scrabbled back. The look of terror on Liam’s face was one Ray knew he would take to his grave, but with any luck that would be decades from now.

Mute with trauma for the moment, Ray and his children made their way down to the van and the terms of the natural lives that stretched out ahead of them.

There was only one road from the lighthouse, and that was the road back.

 

 

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