'Personal Best' by David C. Shelley Jones
LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist
We ate our dinner while helicopters scoured the bay. That’s what I remember most, us eating, with the Hallsteads, watching the searchlights. It should have been a full moon, but the weather was terrible; so there was just darkness and wind and lines of light, starting off sharp and clear and then fraying in the driving rain. Patches of angry sea appeared and disappeared in momentary flashes. Close in, the boats strained at their moorings. Further out, the bombora was a cauldron of white foam. Which reminds me: the view from our old apartment was really something.
I said I would never return, but a month ago, I found myself in the right holding lane, with the blinker on, turning off the highway towards the old haunt. It was late afternoon. I was alone and starting to nod off. The old lady wasn’t going to see me that day in any case. At the doctor’s on Wednesday. That’s what she told me.
The children used to be fed up by this stage. A holiday flat so far north was not practical; but Marli’s parents live close to the Queensland border. They are Bundjalung, living on traditional tribal land in the middle of bloody nowhere. We’d stay for a night, then head for the coast. Marli did most of the driving. After an hour at the wheel, I’d become restless. I’d start yawning, and Marli would insist on taking over. These days, as far as I know, she only visits her parents. She’s never gone back the sea.
With just sixty kilometres left for the morning, I was sure I was ahead of the others, so a night in a motel seemed wise. I had been quick off the mark. News that the great lady was infirm and selling up was only just beginning to spread. Who would have thought? And, as always, it comes down to a case of the quick and the dead; or, in this case, the nearly dead. I remember finding it hard not to get ahead of myself and think too much about the trip back down the coast with the roof retracted and a couple of national treasures on the back seat. The prices would be good. I planned to work the old girl down.
The last part of the journey is, was, and ever shall be – absolutely lovely: the ponderous river winding its way to the sea, the dilapidated sheds, the dairy cows, the small green fields, the mangrove swamps and oyster farms and, finally, the houses – the weatherboard houses with their faded pastel colours and ragged, salt-washed gardens. It brings back the good memories. The family trips were wonderful; before things went helter-skelter – before the young couple and the storm. “This spot looks nice,” one of them had probably said, barely giving it a thought. “Let’s stay here!”
There was a room left at the motel, which did not surprise me. Despite everything, I’ve always counted myself a lucky man.
I unpacked, had a smoke; and then I took a walk. The options were north or south. In delta country, it’s usually either north or south. West means tidal channels and mud flats full of yabby holes – unless you follow the road, and who wants to walk beside the road?
So, I took south, southwards to the old jogging path that follows the clifftop towards the dunes and the long beach. Which meant that I would walk past the old flat. You might say that the decision was subliminal, psychological – and you would probably be right.
The bay itself was exactly as I remembered it – magnificent – an arc of Pacific Ocean biting into a sandstone escarpment, the southern cliff wearing a line of fancy apartment buildings like a tiara; and our old apartment and its long glass balcony, right in the middle. A 180-degree, uninterrupted view. That’s something I miss.
I climbed the narrow road to the top of the headland and followed the grassy clifftop verge, with an unusually tranquil sea to my left and the buildings to my right. Only when I reached the familiar “No Parking” sign, did I pause.
Except for the campervan and the faded lettering of the sign, everything was as I remembered. The campervan was already nicely set up on the clifftop when we arrived. It’s curious what you remember. Pistachio shells come to mind. There were always pistachio shells near the van door. The male occupant of the campervan loved pistachios. His girlfriend ate crisps – bags and bags of crisps; but, despite this, her figure was incredible; I mean, really, absolutely, incredible. They were a young couple from Ireland, on a long holiday.
I turned my back to the sea to study the apartment in detail. Nothing much had changed.
In that final summer, before the big bust-up, Marli was constantly complaining about the campervan and the way it intruded on our view. By day it was like a Matisse paper-cutting protruding into the ocean. At night, it became a black silhouette, a hole in the moonlit sea. Of course, I had agreed with Marli; it is never wise to argue with Marli; but you will appreciate, I did not mind its presence one iota. Within the van was the woman. The most beautiful woman on the planet had come a very long way to occupy the foreground of my world.
I grew tired of straining my neck and there was someone on the balcony in a banana chair staring back at me, so I continued onwards and that’s when the memories really rolled in. They returned like dead shearwaters after a storm, riding the shore break, forming a black rind on the thin white sand. I once described it that way to a psychologist. She congratulated me on the imagery, although maybe I stole it from a Slessor poem, I’m not sure – the dead things were soldiers in the poem. El Alamein, I think. In any case, I told her that such imagery comes from an artistic sensibility. Thinking about it, she would have said that I was a fool to be back “on location”.
Marli became hot-tempered in that last year of our marriage. It was out of character. Once upon a time, I would have called her “sweet”.
“Jesus, Simon, you ran right past them and said nothing? You didn’t say a thing! And look at the weather! They’re foreigners, for God’s sake!”
It is still as clear as yesterday, that last night, with the guests gone and Marli letting loose. Her face was quivering. There were tears. There was a hurricane of words.
Behind her, rain was washing down the glass doors that led onto the balcony. We were on our own this final trip. The kids were away at university.
“I know, darling. I know. I’m sorry.”
That was all I could say. Over and over again, I said I was sorry. I should never have told her the whole story. It was a big mistake. The police were happy enough with my report. I could have left it there.
The holiday had been a disaster from the outset. We left the city earlier than planned when it became clear that my inaugural art exhibition was a flop. I have always wanted to be an artist in my own right; but years of work, endless late nights in my cramped studio, culminated in this: faint praise from friends and derision from critics.
But life was not completely joyless. On the way up, there was the anticipation of opening the car door on arrival and feeling the sharp breath of ocean, hearing the low thunder of waves. And there was even a chance of inner peace, of improving the marriage, of getting things back to “the way they were”, as they say. But it was not to be. Unable to sleep, I took to sitting out on the balcony in the small hours staring out into the darkness, listening to the sea spilling onto the rocks below the flat. It was a summer of storms; although, at first, they were far away. I’d sit there, in my dressing gown, watching them in the distance. Whole seascapes appeared and disappeared in brilliant white flashes while the bay remained quite calm.
Sometimes, I’d return to bed to find Marli stretched out diagonally across it, claiming everything with her petite body. She’s capable of sucking the very oxygen out of a room. She could take over the world given half the chance. It’s no wonder she has become senior partner of her firm. She’s done so well. I always knew she would.
The young couple was something of an enigma. I could not understand what the woman saw in her tall, thin young man who was a mosaic of northern hemisphere white and newly sunburned pink. He was awkward, self-conscious, out of place – with his vintage swimmers, his broad straw hat with a chin strap, his absence of swagger. She, on the other hand, was perfect; she had a perfect smile, olive skin, green eyes and brown hair of many hues that seemed to perpetually float in the play of coastal light. Why had she chosen him? She could have had anyone, an Adonis or an older man of substance like myself. Someone who would really care for her. Her boyfriend read Wheels magazine, for God’s sake. And she read great literature.
I had taken to commenting on her reading choices whenever I walked past, which was often, and she was reading alone.
“Hard going, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Not my thing really, but I have to do it for uni.” I remember her looking up at me, squinting in the bright sun.
“Dubliners is better. Try Dubliners.”
I smiled, and she offered a warm smile in return. These small exchanges were unforgettable.
It was interesting to see how quickly the couple developed a routine. Mornings entailed an early swim followed by a walk. They were not to be seen in the slow hours of early afternoon. Then, at five precisely, a small camp table would appear and a bottle of wine. They would talk and laugh and sometimes they would reach across the Laminex and touch each other’s hands. I guessed that they had not been together for very long. It was a perfect idyll until the final day when the weather turned and the sea began gathering itself into hills of rolling green; when gulls spiralled in a purple sky; when the bombora came alive with white water. It was Whistler to Turner in the blink of an eye.
When I opened the balcony doors after lunch, a small gale entered the living room. Newspaper pages took off in independent flight. A vase toppled over, spreading freesias across the polished wooden floor.
I remember Marli calling out to me from the bedroom:
“Jesus, Simon, keep the bloody doors shut, will you?”
Instead of answering, I stepped outside, closing the doors behind me. It had become a habit – the need to reassure myself that the couple was still there, that they were chez nous. Luckily the rangers hadn’t moved them on. They had probably also taken a shine to the young woman.
The change in weather was particularly unfortunate because our neighbours the Hallsteads were coming to dinner that evening. Marli and I were surprised that our invitation was accepted and there was much preparation. I even went to the trouble of drilling a hole in the living room wall during the afternoon and putting up what I thought was one of my best paintings on the chance that the Hallsteads would buy it. They never did, of course; but never accuse me of pessimism. The fact that Richard Hallstead is presently in gaol for fraud is some consolation.
“Serves you right, you pompous bastard.”
I muttered these words at the top of the dunes, with the great beach stretching out before me, while I re-tied my shoelaces, not wanting to admit to myself that I was really pausing to catch my breath. I used to jog this part of the route, back in the time of the couple. I’d be warming up for the beach run. Barefoot.
I was actually thinking of giving the run a miss on the day in question; but then I spotted the young couple walking hand in hand along the clifftop path towards the long beach and I changed my mind. They were apparently going swimming despite the weather and the late hour. The man was carrying a new surfboard that was getting caught in gusts of wind. He was struggling to keep it in check without breaking stride, trying to “look the part”.
After preparing a plate of hors d’oeuvres, I put on Speedos and slipped out before Marli had a chance to object. Speedos only. No shirt. These were the days of a buff body – even if my running times were already in decline.
The young couple were nowhere in sight when I reached the shoreline. The lifeguards were gone. Windblown sand was shifting and eddying around two crossed flags. As usual, I checked my watch and broke into full stride on the hard, wet sand, on the mirror of inverted sky.
These days, I walk in short, shoe-clad steps, and by the time I was halfway to my old turning point, a small outcrop of rock where the Aboriginals used to fish, I was tired and my feet were hurting and I was promising myself that as soon as I got home, I would lay off the booze and get fit again. Nevertheless, the evening light was glorious, as glorious as ever, and I pushed myself onwards with the thought of a few well-earned schooners at the pub near the motel.
When the pain in my toes became too much, metatarsalgia they call it, I took off my shoes and continued barefoot, lowering down the gentle gradient of sand, so that I could feel the cooling pulses of water that were constantly drawing and redrawing the outline of the coast. And hear the lovely wash and hiss of a thin, shallow sea at low tide.
To my surprise, I came across the old oil drum that I once used to check my running times. If I reached the drum in eight minutes, I was doing well. The drum had been placed to mark the dangerous undertow of a rip; although now, half submerged in sand, it seemed forgotten, abandoned to continue its slow dissolve in the sea salt and coastal rain. The rings of rust were larger. A tussock of grass was growing in its lee.
Their beach towels were just beyond the drum, spread out evenly, neatly weighted down with shoes and bundled clothes. The young woman was on the shoreline up ahead, laughing as she watched the antics of her boyfriend trying to surf. She was wearing her yellow string bikini beneath a soaked white shirt.
And the detail of the following moments will remain with me forever – the slowing pace, the consideration of whether to pause and converse, warn of the strong current – and then the decision that this would spoil a good running time. I remember catching her eye and smiling as I passed. It was all mere moments, but, somehow, the memory has developed a surreal slowness.
The young man was in the periphery of my vision, drifting without skill or point of reference, just a tiny detail in a canvas of broad, grey brushstrokes.
There was a strong headwind on the way back which made the running difficult. Fine particles of sand stung my face. A heavy wall of cloud was pushing down from the north. I remember peering into the spindrift haze, hoping that somewhere between the horizontals of sky and sea there would surely be the reassuring verticals of human figures; but there was nothing, just huge waves rearing up and collapsing on the sandbars with sharp reports.
After a few minutes, an object had come blowing in my direction, sometimes skimming the sand, sometimes lifting skywards in mad flight. It was a hat, the young man’s broad straw hat. It flew past with surprising speed and disappeared into the gloaming.
Not far from the drum, a surfboard lay upside down amidst the seaweed and the driftwood and the dredged-up floor of the sea. Its smooth underbelly glistened in the twilight; its fin poked upwards defiantly. It was like a great cast-up fish.
And just beyond the board, there was a single white sandshoe, surely too small to be hers. And then a cap, surely too weather-worn, too cerise.
And then two towels, one striped, and one floral. They were entwined, drifting in the ebb and flow, dark and heavy and colourless in the fading light.
There was the futility of scanning an angry, empty sea before returning home with a king tide close at heel, erasing my footprints almost as soon as they were made. I had never run so hard in my life. The pain was total. Obliterating. Light rain was drawing a thin grey veil over the beach ahead.
It was nearly nightfall on return. The campervan was unlit, the police station a block away. I made a statement and was back at the apartment by nine, dripping wet, kissing Marli, apologising to the Hallsteads – while noting that they had taken the liberty of opening my 1984 St Henri Shiraz. I left them briefly to shower and change.
We ate while helicopters scoured the sea.
I bought several major works from the old lady and was back on the road in no time, driving through the sugar cane and banana plantations, waiting for the landscape to open into pasture.
There was little more to remember of that day – only the lights, the brief illumination of penetrating lights, catching the waves as lightning had the night before.
And my time, a personal best.