The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 4


by Tim Winton


It was dark when they rolled into White Point, and nobody had anything to say. They all knew why they were hours late but with Nanna in the vehicle everyone was silent. Vic squirmed in his seat and sighed again, despite himself.
          You must have worms, his grandmother said sternly.
          I always bring my own bait, he said.
          Vic, said his mother with a note of warning.
          Sorry, he mumbled.
          But he wasn’t sorry. If the others hadn’t kept them waiting half the afternoon they’d be there by now. They’d be set up on the beach with a fire going. It was the usual Uncle Ernie balls-up. When they’d arrived at his house at noon all the girls were packed in the Land Rover out on the hot street, their faces as red as their hair and their parents inside having a blue. The dinghy was hitched up, the motor was running, the rods and mattresses and iceboxes were thrown in, and they were still in the house with the door locked. When Vic’s old man banged on the window nothing happened. He rattled the door, rang the bell. He got Vic’s cousins out of the vehicle and sat them in the shade. They were the sorriest-looking bunch of girls, freckly as all get-out, with needle teeth and big nostrils. Vic had seen carpet sharks that looked better than them. Uncle Ernie was a little ginger rooster of a bloke and Auntie Cleo let everyone know she was too good for him. She was blond. She had the looks of an old-timey movie star gone to fat. She had cleavage that damn near made an echo when she spoke.
          Everybody sat out in the street until Vic’s baby sister began to scream in the heat and his grandmother yanked the keys from the idling Landy and opened the front door herself. Ernie and Cleo came out pushing and shoving and swearing like sailors and all the wobbegong cousins began to bawl and then the Land Rover wouldn’t start because it had overheated chugging out there in the street for God knows how long and there was more bitching and backbiting while they waited for it to cool and Nanna wouldn’t hear a word against her favoured son.
          So there they were in the hot night, two vehicles winding through the tiny town to where the white dunes banked up like a snowfield in the moonlight. Not that Vic had ever seen snow; it’s just how he imagined it going on white forever.
          They climbed into the dunes, motors grinding and whinnying. Vic rode the rolls and jerks and tried not to think about food. When the going was smooth the rumble of the diffs lulled him close to sleep and several times he stirred to see that Uncle Ernie was bogged up ahead and Vic had to get out with his grandmother to dig or set a tow rope.
          It’s the boat he’s pulling, said Nanna. It’s the load and all those kids.
          His mother pressed her lips together and cradled his sister in the light of the moon.
          At every bogging Nanna directed her sons. In the end she rode out on the side step and talked through the open window, giving the kind of instructions only a nondriver could give. They came into saltbush country and down into firm tracks. The red eyes of the boat trailer up ahead finally put Vic to sleep and when he woke they were on an endless white beach hard as a highway and they drove fast and easy until they came to a spit where several campfires burned already.
          Vic put up poles and ropes and tarps with the rest of them and ate cold roast lamb and potatoes in a stupor of fatigue. He fell onto a mattress and wound himself in a sheet and slept with the surf roaring all around him. He woke in the night, certain the sea had overrun them, but it was only the cool breeze and he slept on till dawn.
          At dawn the wind off the land was already hot and it smelt of saltbush and dry grass. His grandmother was frying eggs over a driftwood fire. His father and uncle had the dinghy at the water’s edge and were loading it with big cane craypots. Vic sat at the trestle table beneath the billowing tarp and ate eggs and drank tea from an enamel cup. The girls were only just stirring and the women were still asleep. The men came and ate breakfast and when they were finished Vic helped them push the boat into the shorebreak and jumped in when the outboard fired.
          They eased out into calm water and Vic looked back at the cluster of tents and tarps in the sheltered bend in the beach. He saw an old army truck and a tractor and a striped tent big as a circus marquee. The sun was low on the rolling dunes and he felt tired and strangely old. Today was the last day of the year. He wished there’d been room for a friend.
          Uncle Ernie steered the boat like a man with too much confidence. Vic held on as they blasted out toward the reef. The wind tore his hair. Beneath them the water flashed white, green, blue, yellow, and out in the open water the swells rolled in smooth and oily across the deeps. Vic’s old man baited the pots with ham hocks and dropped them into green reef holes, and when they got back to the beach the carrot-top cousins were squealing for a ride in the boat.
          Vic got out and went up to their makeshift shelter between the Land Rovers and saw that his mother was up. The men began to give his cousins boat rides around the shallows. He nursed his baby sister while she ate breakfast and listened to Auntie Cleo talk about fingernails and cuticles. Vic’s auntie wasn’t really a Cleo; she got the name from a magazine that sported male centrefolds. Her real name was Cloris and it was clear that she was boring his mum stupid. Vic watched his mother nod and smile and say nothing and at one moment, the very second Nanna happened to look over, he saw her raise her eyebrows at him as if to say, Look what I have to endure. His grandmother looked at them and her mouth was like a knife-edge.
          Vic was only thirteen but he knew something about Uncle Ernie. His oldies tried to keep it from him but he knew that Ernie had protected status. In the eyes of his mother he could do no wrong but everything he touched turned bad. He liked the nags. He liked two-up and always knew a bloke who knew a bloke who had something or other on the highest authority. He was, therefore, always in trouble. It wasn’t unusual to have men come knocking on the door for him as though Vic’s old man was Ernie’s father and not just his brother. Vic remembered the time soon after his sister was born when he and his dad took Ernie’s truck out all night to deliver milk for him. Nobody said where Ernie was. Nanna came along and read out the orders with a policeman’s torch held over the seat. The streets were dark and still and his father hardly said a word all night.
          Vic was always uneasy around his uncle. He was funny. There was always a joke on the boil, something to keep from the women, but you’d never tell him anything important about yourself. One Christmas, when Vic was eight, Uncle Ernie arrived with a brand-new red bike, a Stingray with a T-bar shift. It took Vic years to understand why his parents were so subdued about the gift.
          Ernie and Cleo think they’re irresistible, he overheard his mother say one Easter. So who gets to break the news to them? Vic knew his mother was sick of his uncle and aunt. He couldn’t figure why they were all on this trip together but it clearly had something to do with Nanna and her firm ideas about family. In his grandmother’s presence everybody else’s firm ideas went soft.
          Even in the shade of the tarp the morning air grew hot and when he could sit still no longer Vic unstrapped his surfboard from the roof of the Land Rover and struck off down the beach. He walked until their camp was just a solitary blot in the white distance.
          The water was cool and the waves only small but he wasn’t much of a surfer yet so he didn’t mind. He caught a few waves and nosedived. He fell off even trying to sit on the thing out beyond the break. It was like riding a greased pig. He had to laugh at himself. Out there with mile after mile of deserted beach stretching out behind him there was nothing to be embarrassed about. He could have surfed in the nude if he wanted. Out in the calm he dived to the bottom and saw the ripples of the sandy floor stretching to the horizon. The water traveled over his skin like a breeze. He felt free and happy.
          When he surfaced he saw someone watching him from the crest of a dune. Someone sitting with her arms across her knees. Vic hung in the water holding his board. He waited for the stranger to move off, but she stayed put. In the end a big set came through and cleaned him up. He lost the board and tumbled bum over breakfast into the shallows and when he had his shorts back on he trudged along the shore to where the board was washed up.
          From over on the dune somebody clapped. It was a girl and not one of his cousins. He wanted to bolt right then and there but he really needed a breather so he sat on the board with his back to the dunes and his head between his legs. He felt like a turtle pulling its head back into its shell and while he hunched over a stream of water gushed from his nose.
          You didn’t see that one coming, said the girl, suddenly behind him.
           Vic whirled around and a string of snot and saltwater landed on his arm. While he scrubbed at it with his knuckles he saw the green polish on her toenails.
          Sorry, she said. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.
          Vic shrugged. The sun was right behind her head; he couldn’t see her at all.
          Nice in the water?
          Yeah, he said. Nice.
          I was wondering. If I could have a go on that thing.
          She stepped over and put a toe on the board. She wore Levi’s and a T-shirt that said PHI ZAPPA KRAPPA. There was a picture of a naked man sitting on the toilet.
          Okay, he said.
          You sure?
          He shrugged again.
          Always wanted to try, she said. And Christ, I’m so bored. You know?
          Vic smiled hesitantly and wiped his nose twice—once with each hand. He got up off the board. The girl reefed off her shirt and shucked off her jeans. She dropped her mirror shades onto the little pile they made on the sand. She wore a lime green bikini with little plastic hoops at the hips like that Bond girl. Sunlight caught the fine hair on her thighs. She had brown hair down her back. She had real breasts. She was older, much older than he.
          Any tips? she said, hoisting the board to her hip.
          Um. Don’t fall off?
          She smiled kind of sideways at him and walked down to the water. He watched her go, alert to her calves and the way her bum moved. He wondered what it’d be like to have an older sister. How could you stand the sight of all that flesh without turning out some kind of sister-weirdo?
          The girl was no natural. She floundered around till Vic felt better about himself. When she came back she dropped the board at his feet and squeezed the water out of her hair. There was sand salted down the fronts of her legs. She was pretty. He didn’t know where to look.
          Thought you’d come out and help me, sport, she said, grabbing up her shirt and wiping her face with it.
          Sorry, he mumbled and turned away from the sight of her dabbing at her chest with the damp shirt.
          What’s your name?
          He told her.
          From the city?
          He shook his head. Down south, he said. Angelus. He looked at her green-painted fingernails as she flapped the shirt. Something wasn’t right.
          She sat on the sand and crossed her legs like a primary schooler or a hippie. She pulled on the mirror shades and then he saw it. There was a finger missing.
          What? she said.
          The finger?
          No, he said.
          Bullshit. Come on, sport, own up. Here, look.
          She held up her left hand. The third finger ended at the joint.
          Vic felt himself grimacing, tried to undo his face but she’d seen it.
          Hay baler, she said.
          Oh, he murmured, not knowing what a hay baler was. It sounded like a farm thing.
          You on a farm?
          Kind of. Boarding school, really.
          Did it. Hurt?
          Like a total bastard, she said. But, you know, all the big things hurt, the things you remember. If it doesn’t hurt it’s not important.
          You really think?
          She grabbed him by the ear, pinched his lobe so hard he saw spots, and the more he tried to squirm free, the tighter she gripped him. It felt like his whole ear would be uprooted from his head. She was a psycho; he was stuck out there with a psycho and he had tears in his eyes now and she had her mouth on his, kissing him soft and slow until his mouth slackened, and all the time, even while her tongue slid across his teeth and he all but snorted like a frightened horse, she pincered his ear without relenting—she pincered his ear until the long hot kiss was over.
          She let go. He gasped.
          See what? he said, grabbing his ear.
          You won’t forget your first real kiss.
          You’re nuts.
          Wrong choice of words, sport, she said, looking down at the stiffy in his shorts.
          Vic hunched away from her.
          Just trying to make a point, she said with a grin.
          Fuck you, he said.
          My mother’s worried about my wedding day. Says it’ll be awkward when my husband goes to put the ring on in front of all the dearly beloved.
          Does it worry you? he asked.
          Nah. Weddings are bourgeois. Marriage is over. Who the hell wants to get married?
          Your mum did.
          She’s a farmer’s wife. She doesn’t know any better.
          Vic looked at her hands.
          I call it my abbreviation, she said, lying back on her jeans, holding out her damaged hand like a starlet admiring the ring Rock Hudson or somebody had just bought her.
          The finger. My abbreviation. Drives the old man spare. He can’t even look at it.
          Vic couldn’t take his eyes off it.
          Guilty, I spose. I was six years old. Thinks he should have been more careful.
          Maybe he should have.
          Nah. Wasn’t his fault. Wasn’t even an accident. I just stuck my hand in because I was curious.
          To see how it all worked.
          Man, he murmured.
          And the lesson is that it all works too quickly to see, she said with a laugh. But I remember everything about that day. What everyone was wearing, all the daggy things people said in the car on the way into town. The smell of stubble, upholstery. The taste of tomato in my throat from lunch.
          What’s your school like? he said.
          A battery farm. A thousand girls trying to lay an egg.
          How old are you? he asked, emboldened.
          Sixteen and bloody bored.
          Can I see your finger? Close up, I mean?
          I don’t care, she said, holding out her hand from where she lay.
          Vic hadn’t been looking at her legs all this time or the wedge of cloth that covered the mound between. He’d been watching her hand raking the sand that separated them and now that hand was frosted with it. He shuffled over on his knees to get a closer look. She turned it one way and then the other for his benefit. He leaned down and blew sand from her finger and the grains settled on her belly.
          She tilted her hand down the way posh ladies do in the movies when they want their hands kissed and without thinking he kissed it.
          Kiss my aura, Dora.
          Frank Zappa. It’s a quote.
          This sun’s a bugger. I need some blockout. And I’m hungry.
          She grabbed his face the way an auntie would and let him go. They walked back up the beach in no great hurry, talking a bit as they went. Her name was Melanie and her family had the big blitz truck and the circus tent. They were here for a few days’ break before harvesting, keeping an ear on the radio’s weather reports of a big low in the north. Neighbours and cousins were with them but she was the only one her age.
          We’re in the same boat, he said.
          She laughed.
          We’re having a bonfire, he said. For New Year’s.
          Us, too.
          Vic caught sight of himself in Melanie’s mirror shades. His lips were white with sand where he’d kissed her hand.
          I’m hot, he said.
          I’m gunna swim a bit.
          See ya, then.
          Vic’s skin all but sizzled when he hit the water; he lay there watching her walk back into camp. It would be easier returning alone. The sea sucked at him and he tingled all over.

That afternoon Vic sat out in the dinghy catching flathead and whiting with the men. Uncle Ernie bitched about traffic fines and summonses and the tax man, and Vic’s old man let it go. One of Ernie’s balls kept peeking out of his tiny shorts like a dangling gingernut and both Vic and his father struggled to keep straight faces. Now and then, in lulls in the bite, Vic felt the tender lobe of his ear.
          When they came in at dusk the women and the wobbegong girls were in the water, splashing and screaming. Nanna had the baby on her hip, searching the water for unseen perils.
          They ate fish and potato salad and green beans while the bonfire took hold. A big tangerine moon rose from the dunes and the breeze died out altogether. The girls rooted through the icebox for bottles of Passiona. Vic drank ginger beer with his mother and felt his skin tighten with sunburn. Nanna had her ice water and the watermelon she kept cutting long after everyone was full, and the others had beers open all over the trestle.
          When the fire was really crackling Vic walked down to the water in search of driftwood. Up the beach a little way, out in front of the big old army truck and the striped circus tent, there was a fire burning twenty feet high. He walked up into the dunes so he could come up behind Melanie’s camp and look on without being seen.
          He crouched in a bit of saltbush and gazed down on the fire and the pile of mallee roots beside the truck. There were people laughing down there, big men’s voices and squeaking kids and the titter of women. He smelled meat grilling and onions frying.
          Like a peasant feast, said a familiar voice beside him.
          Vic nearly cried out in fright. Melanie was tucked into another clump of saltbush, a bottle glinting in her hand.
          Scared you again.
          No, he lied.
          Bored, too, eh?
          A bit.
          Want some?
          What is it?
          New Year’s Eve.
          Very funny.
          Feel like a swim?
          No, said Vic. A walk maybe.
          Okay, a walk.
          They walked out into the rolling white sandhills as the moon dragged itself back into shape and when they stopped it looked to Vic like the bottom of the sea; fluted ripples went on and on. Cheer me up, sport, said Melanie.
          Vic told her about Ernie’s dangling gingernut and the jugs on Auntie Cleo. He told her about his cousins, their needle teeth and wobbegong skin.
          Woebegone, said Melanie.
          Wobbegong. It’s a carpet shark.
          I know this. Sport, I’m with you.
          They sat down in a hollow to rest a moment. Melanie pulled the lid off her bottle and drank.
          Happy New Year, she said, passing it to him.
          Ginger, he murmured, sniffing.
          Stone’s Green Ginger Wine. Made from the little ginger balls of strange uncles.
          Vic laughed. He took a sip but didn’t like it. The stuff tasted like ginger beer mixed with diesel fuel.
          How’s your ear? Melanie said, reaching over and giggling as he drew away warily.
          Orright, he said.
          Let me see, then.
          Vic didn’t trust her but he couldn’t resist the idea of her touching him. She took his earlobe tenderly and rubbed it between two fingertips.
          You’ll remember that.
          Mean old trick, she said, grabbing his chin like an auntie again.
          How come you’re sad? he said while she still held his face.
          It’s nothing, sport.
          You really seem sad.
          New Year’s Eve.
          School’s not for another month.
          Not for me, sport.
          Posh school, then.
          No, she said. I’m not going back. A few months on the farm.
          She put a finger over his mouth to stop him talking and she held him like that while she socked back another drink. He closed his lips over her finger.
          Ah, she said. A kiss. But what about this one?
          She held the stub of her ring finger up before him in the moonlight and Vic took her wrist and drew it to him. He felt her whole hand across his face as he drew the stump into his mouth. It blotted out the sky and the moon and tasted of salt and ginger and sugar all at once. There was no texture of a fingerprint against his tongue, just a slick smoothness that bubbled his blood.
          Come here, she said. What the hell. Auld lang syne.
          She kissed him. Her mouth was soft and hungry as she bent down to reach him and he heard the bottle gurgle out into the sand where their knees had knocked it while her tongue found his and he shaped his mouth to hers. He let his hands settle on her hips, felt his head cradled in her fingers and he swam up into her, happy and awake as he’d ever been. When she broke off and kissed the top of his head he was bereft. He pressed his brow to her throat and she dug her fingers in his hair and tugged up her shirt so that her breasts shone in the moonlight. She guided him down and he kissed them. They were full against his face and when he drew the nipple into his mouth she murmured and gasped and finally, confoundingly, began to cry.
          It was midnight when he got back to the bonfire. The others were singing and kissing and nobody asked him where he’d been.

Vic woke in the night to the sounds of puffing and moaning. Everyone was in bed but a camp stretcher was grinding and squeaking. He felt his mother stir beside him. It was Auntie Cleo panting over there. Vic saw her legs up in the moonlight.
          Oh, for God’s sake, whispered his mother.
          He listened until his lap was wet and the sheet clammy around him. Ernie gave one sharp grunt like a man who’d suddenly remembered something and in the quiet that followed, while the sea crawled against the shore and the moon spilled through holes in the tarp overhead, Vic thought of Melanie and the strangeness of her tears and the long, silent walk back to camp. He hadn’t hurt her, he knew that much, but he sensed she was in some kind of pain; something important was out of his reach, the way everything is when you’re just a stupid kid and all the talk is over your head. He thought of the hollow between her breasts, pressed his face to the pillow, and slept.

His father woke him at dawn. The boat was already afloat in the shallows. Ernie yanked at the outboard’s starter rope.
          They were almost across the gap in the reef before Vic was properly awake. The water was clear, he could see sandy bottom in the green holes in the coral. Kelp rose yellow and brown and fish sprayed in all directions.
          When they came upon their first float Vic’s old man gaffed it aboard and hauled in the rope. The boat wallowed in the swell and tipped precariously as the pot came over the side, all clicking and slapping with tails and feelers and dropping legs.
          Happy New Year, said the old man, dragging crays out and dropping them into the bucket.
          Shit! said Ernie. Hang on!
          The engine roared and the boat surged and the old man all but fell onto Vic, who saw the wave looming beyond him. The bow rose. The old man’s head was on the seat beside him, one hand gripping Vic’s leg as they speared up and fell from the back of the wave. They slammed back onto the water and the old man laughed but Vic could already see the next wave coming.
          Go! his dad screamed. Go!
          Ernie throttled up and the old man crawled out of a nest of rope to sit up in the bow, head swivelling. This wave was much bigger. It was beginning to pitch already and in its path the water was dimpled and lumpy with the contours of the reef beneath them.
          The old man pointed one way. Ernie steered in the opposite direction. And just as the wave broke a few yards off their beam, he turned the boat shoreward and tried to outrun the thing.
          Vic felt it bear down on them—a spitting, roaring draught behind his ears—before it snatched them up and left them, for two or three seconds, surfing down its face. The motor snarled. Sea and air roared in his head.
          And then it was quiet. Bubbles danced before him. His hands were pearly and his hair swooned all in one direction. His head hit something sharp and hard before he realized he was beneath the boat. The water was crowded with rope and lines. Something bit his leg. He was bursting and the grey shell of the boat held him under till the water pressed at his lips.
          Something collared him, dragged him down and sideways. Vic felt the water against his teeth. He screamed out the last of his air and then he was up.
          He’s snagged, said his father.
          Except for the fading carpet of bubbles the sea was smooth again. The air was raw in his lungs. He began to cry. The old man dived and came up pulling line so Vic could move, but every time he kicked as he trod water something bit deep in his calf.
          It’s a hook, said the old man. Can you swim?
          Vic nodded, still bawling, and Ernie climbed onto the upturned hull with the cheeks of his arse bare to the morning sun.
          Vic floated and sculled while they righted the boat and bailed it, and as the old man sawed at the heavy monofilament with a knife wrenched from the gunwale Ernie swam for the floating oars. It took a long time to get in. Women and girls cried on the beach. Vic’s cousins looked uglier than something dragged from a reeking craypot.
          In the shade of the tarp the women held him down while Ernie and his father pushed the big hook through his leg until the barb broke free of the skin and then they cut it off with pliers and dragged the rest back out. He thought of Melanie the whole time. The cousins didn’t bother him. Let them see him writhe and blubber. He thought of her. And in the long subdued aftermath, once they’d doused him with Mercurochrome and plied him with eggs and sugary tea, he took the barbless hook and limped up the beach to give it to her.
          The blitz truck was gone and the tractor, too. A great mound of ash smouldered on the sand. Where the big tent had been there were bottles and cans and the smooth imprints of mattresses and bodies. The harvest, he thought. There must be rain on the way. He took the hook from his pocket. It looked blunt and misshapen. It shone in the sun. His leg throbbed and burned. He looked out across the sea for the first sign of cloud but the sky was pale blue and as empty as he felt, suddenly shaking there on the shore.

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