Beach Walker – Chapter 24
A Trick of the Light
Sea Gal whinnies and canters across the paddock to greet us. She’s a pretty chestnut mare, long-legged and gracile. Too delicate and fine-boned to make a champion, or the dam of future champions, she had a bleak future until we took her in.
‘How’s she settling?’ I ask my companion.
‘Really well. We’re so pleased with her,’ she smiles. ‘After their little tiff the other day, Barty’s come round. Looks like they’re best buddies now.’
The mare shoves her nose into Shiksha’s jacket, prehensile lips searching for the carrot which she knows is hidden in a pocket. The slight young woman, a South African of Indian descent, laughs as a vigorous nudge rocks her back on her heels:
‘Hey, babe — take it easy!’
I rub Sea Gal’s neck as she crunches on her prize. After two years around them almost daily, I’ve grown comfortable with horses. You still wouldn’t get me on the back of one, though.
We have to choose our new ‘residents’ carefully, based on an assessment of temperament, health and the degree of risk they’re exposed to. We can’t take on a dangerous or antisocial horse, or a sickly one likely to blow our veterinary budget, but still we prioritise animals for which we represent a last chance. We have ten mares and geldings, including Sea Gal, our latest. We’d adopt a hundred if we could, but funds, stabling and grazing limit our intake.
Employing Shiksha has proven a sound decision, one of my best. The manager’s job is not a well-paid one: rent-free living in the house, use of Leonard’s battered old ute, and a modest stipend which barely covers groceries. Still, it’s all the trust can afford, and this isn’t a job you do for money: you do it for love or not at all.
They never found your body, Leonard.
I learned that you evaded the reporters by driving across your neighbour’s paddock, that Easter Sunday afternoon. He saw you go, in your ute with the boat on its trailer bumping along behind. He waved as you closed the gate, but you didn’t wave back. No doubt you were preoccupied. Did you think a dive would clear your head?
Anglers came across your little RIB at break of day on Easter Monday, just the way you left it: at anchor in Nepean Bay, blue-and-white ‘diver down’ pennant flying. A radio exchange confirmed that the boat had been in the same spot the evening before. Marine Search and Rescue was alerted.
Boats, rescue divers and a chopper looked for you, but you eluded them all. You chose your dive location well for that. Just where the shallow, sandy seabed drops off into a labyrinth of rocky canyons scoured by the current.
It’s place of wonder and strange beauty, by all accounts, although I’ve never seen it myself. I expect you’d be happy there — in your native element.
The coroner recorded a finding of accidental death. Yet so many questions remain. Did your gear malfunction? Were you taken by a shark? Did your distracted mind make a fatal mistake?
One thing I know for sure: you didn’t take your own life. You would have found a way to say goodbye, and you would never have abandoned your beloved horses.
There was speculation in the media, of course. You would have had a good laugh about that. You were attempting to recover a drybag full of banknotes and jewels stashed in a secret cave or one of the Rip’s many wrecks. Or you faked your death and are living in Phuket on Shorty’s millions.
Fanciful nonsense about the least money-minded man I’ve ever met. There was no loot, or if there was, you didn’t have it.
The police couldn’t find otherwise, when they looked into your affairs. The tax office had a good poke around, too. You didn’t submit tax returns because you had no need to. Astonishingly frugal, you lived for years on an income below the reporting threshold. Your substantial inheritance from Uncle Jimmy was invested on behalf of a trust fund — and you weren’t the beneficiary.
Your solicitor contacted me to confirm that I would take on the role of trustee to the Bellarine Racehorse Retirement Trust. I learned you had also appointed me executor to your will — a last cheeky surprise.
It was the least I could do for you, and keeping busy helped me in those raw early days of grief. We changed the name to the Leonard Voss Retired Racehorse Trust. I hope you approve?
Your beautiful Brough Superior fetched more at auction than you dared hope: three hundred thousand dollars for the trust. She returned with her new owner to the green hills and winding country lanes of her native England.
You left behind a great mass of papers and files, including a completed manuscript. Sifting through it all, evaluating and sorting, took expert help and many months — but was worth the effort. Your monograph, Marine Algae and Vascular Plants of the Victorian Coast, will soon be published. ‘There’s enough original research here to qualify for a Ph.D.,’ commented one scientific reviewer.
You suspected your community of harbouring ill will towards you. Well, matey boy, you were wrong. Many people have approached me with kind words for you — and they’ve been generous with their money too. Your legacy is in good shape.
It’s a bright spring morning as I walk the firm, damp sand toward Point Lonsdale. The Beach is almost deserted by human beings, but there’s Stumpy the one-footed oystercatcher at the water’s edge, and farther on I catch a brief glimpse of a pair of little skittering shorebirds with black hoods.
I stop, raise a shielding hand and squint eastward into the intense glare. Images shiver and shift. Is that a man I see in the distance, stooping to inspect a mound of kelp?
No, it’s just a trick of the superabundant light.
Disclaimer: The people and events described in this story are entirely the product of the author’s imagination; they bear no intentional resemblance to real-life people and events. The locations are authentic.