Writer's Retreat – Chapter 2
The big stingray glides over the pale ground, propelled by a languid ripple of its wingtips. I follow at a respectful distance — until it grows uncomfortable with my persistence, and powers off with a beat of its wings and a snap of its tail, throwing up a concealing cloud of sand. The sun casts a shifting golden net of light over the turquoise shallows.
I kick my fins and head out towards the reef. In the shadow of the rocks, murky olive greens and burnt umbers prevail, shading into Prussian blue. Vibrant red fronds of Plocamium seaweed wave in the wash. Ten metres down, on the sea floor, a large, electric-blue wrasse is dining on a hapless crab. I can hear the cracks and crunches of its powerful teeth. Suddenly the water is breathtakingly cold, even through my wetsuit.
I was always a strong swimmer in the pool but nervous in the sea – being a city kid from inland Canberra. That changed when I first donned a mask and snorkel in my thirties, on honeymoon in Bali. Freed from the necessity of coming up for air, I felt the constriction in my chest disappear and my limbs uncramp. Add fins and a blubbery layer of neoprene wetsuit against the cold, and I’m as happy in the sea as a marine mammal.
Stooping in the shallows to remove my fins, I become aware of a figure on the beach. As I pad ashore, he raises a hand in greeting. An old man, bent but still tall and broad-shouldered, leaning heavily on a walking stick. A kindly, deeply tanned face fringed by a wispy, white beard.
‘No luck?’ Indicating the empty net bag hanging from my waist.
‘Oh. I wasn’t trying for abalone. Just like to take the net, in case I find interesting bits and pieces.’
He nods. ‘How you getting on at Ma Reid’s place?’ Indicating the dune behind which my cottage lies hidden.
‘Yeah, old Martha Reid. All us little tackers called her Ma. She never had no kids of her own. No husband, neither.’
‘Ah. That’s why it’s called Martha’s Cottage?’ He nods again.
‘How did you know I was staying there?’
‘Word gets out on the bush telegraph. Writer lady from the big smoke come down to write a novel about us.’ He nods some more, solemnly.
‘Bush telegraph? I didn’t think anyone knew I was here. I’ve hardly spoken to a soul in the last four weeks. Just a couple of surfers, and all we said was “How’re you going?” and “Good.”’
He grins mischievously. ‘Sorry. Pulling your leg. I’m Trisha’s neighbour, Bill Winters. She said you were staying here. Told me to keep out of your hair. Which I have been doing, but an old bloke gets curious.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Bill, I’m Alice.’ He shakes my cold, damp, sandy hand. ‘Trisha never told me about Martha Reid.’
‘Interesting lady.’ Bill nods again, thoughtfully, but seems disinclined to say more. ‘Well, I must be getting along … Enjoy your stay.’ He pauses, appears to reflect, and waves apologetically at the dunes. ‘This is my mother’s country. She was a Gunditjmara lady. There’s a lot of stuff in the dunes that … needs to stay put.’
‘Don’t worry, Bill. I would never disturb any cultural artefacts.’
He smiles sadly. ‘No, I’m sure you wouldn’t. Just thought I should mention it. Well, I’ll be going. Nice to meet you, Alice. Enjoy your stay!’
‘Thanks, Bill. And don’t be a stranger. Drop by the cottage some time, if you’d like. Tell me more about Martha Reid.’
‘Will do. Bye now.’
It’s a warm day for winter. After a couple of hours’ productive work at my laptop and a late lunch, I go beach-combing, barefoot in sun-bleached denim shorts and a well-worn flannel shirt.
Hooded plover nesting season is approaching. Every couple of hundred metres along the beach, the little skittering birds have staked out their territory, in the berm of soft sand at the foot of the primary dune. I’m careful to keep well away. Victims of sea-level rise and changing human beach use, they’re clinging on, at the threshold of extinction. This stretch of coast is one of their last strongholds.
Pairs of oystercatchers quarter the beach, searching for juicy prey in the firm, damp sand. Out on the rocks, gulls squabble and harry the long-suffering cormorants. Mewling terns wheel and dive. The surf crashes rhythmically. The sound so pervades my life and my dreams now, it barely registers.
At length, pleasantly tired from walking, I lie down in the dry, soft sand, in the lee of a big, sun-warmed chunk of basalt, and drift off to sleep.
I wake to find a figure standing over me.
Blinking into the light I make out a child, and the icy hand of panic releases its grip on my heart. A girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, in an old-fashioned pinafore and dress. Long, dark pigtails.
‘Hello. Daddy wants you to know that the sea is coming. He sent us to tell you. You should go home now.’
I look around. The tide has advanced almost to the foot of the last headland I rounded. I’ll get wet to the waist on the way home unless I hurry. There’s a chilly breeze from the west whipping through the dunes, and cirrus has stolen the sinking sun’s warmth.
‘Oh, thank you! And thank you to Daddy, too,’ I glance around, rubbing my goosebumped arms and rolling down and buttoning my shirt sleeves. ‘But who’s “us”?’
‘My brother and me,’ she waves towards a small figure wandering head down, further along, the beach. ‘He’s shy,’ she shrugs.
I scramble to my feet and brush myself down. ‘Thank you very much. I’m Alice.’
‘I know.’ She regards me seriously. Big, dark eyes in a pale face.
‘What’s your name?’
A sharp gust of wind blows sand in my face. I raise an arm instinctively to protect my eyes. When I look around, I’m alone on the beach.
When I get home, Tubs is waiting for me outside the back door. ‘Couldn’t be bothered to let yourself in this time, Tubs?’ I ask him. He regards me silently for a moment then answers: ‘Meow.’
I still have no idea how this cat gets into and out of my cottage. Sometimes he slips in around my legs after I visit the outhouse for a late-night pee. Other times he’s just there, curled up by the dying embers of the fire. When I wake up in the morning, he’s gone.
I decided to call him Tubs. What else would you call a tubby tabby tomcat?
In my weekly emails to Adam, I call him Tubs the Ghost Cat. ‘Too much red wine again, Mum?’ is Adam’s usual reply.
Ghost cats and serious, old-fashioned little girls called Martha. With daddies who know where I live. Friendly but enigmatic Aboriginal neighbours. Is it weird that all of this has started to seem normal?
Next week in Writer’s Retreat:
Chapter 3 – Ma Reid
Alice finds out more about the cottage’s former owner …