Declan pulled up outside the Commercial Hotel, sat there and looked around. Monks Real-Estate Agent was still there. The bakery. The local newspaper office. Two new cafés. The Rising Sun Hotel, which had been his local. Stomping in there after he finished work in his Yakka shorts and Blundstone work boots, bindi eyes stuck in thick socks after mowing the whole of the damn caravan park. The Commonwealth Bank stood on one corner, next to Hayden’s Garage. There was a twenty-four-hour BP Servo further along.
Declan drove out of town, crossed the old bridge, drove for another ten minutes out to the caravan park. It was winter so he was sure to get an onsite van. He got out of the car, pulled his brown cord jacket around him as a gust of wind hit him. A bell rang when he opened the door. He knew straight away the Currans still owned it. The office had barely changed at all. The calendar on the wall may as well have read 1988. Wicky came out of the back where he and Mardi had their unit. He stood and stared at Declan, then broke into a smile, came around the counter, shook his hand, gave him a bear hug. Declan laughed, said,
“Steady on Wicky you’ll crush my smokes.”
Mardi came out now, Wicky let him go and Mardi, small bird-like Mardi, came and kissed him on the cheek, said,
“Good to see you, Declan. I always knew you’d come back one day.”
“How long are you here for, Dec?” Mardi asked.
“Don’t know. Thinking about going up to the Territory, always wanted to see Ayers Rock and Kakadu.”
“Wendy’s still here, she married, Ray.”
Declan winced, looked down at his shoes.
“You’ll be wanting a van.” Wicky said.
“Yeah, how about mate’s rates, Wick?”
“$30 per night in a two berth. $190 if you stay seven nights, winter is killing us. We had a bloke doing your job in summer but he left when winter came, we’ve had so many different blokes in that job since you left. I’ll put you out near the headland where you can see the sunrise.”
“Thanks, Wicky, haven’t seen too many sunrises, lately.”
Declan gets back into his car with the van key, drives to the spot, gets out. He has three bags, some loose stuff floating around in the car plus about twenty books he couldn’t stand to give away. Cassettes and CD’s and other stuff too. He loads everything into the van. From his bed he can open the curtains and see the ocean. He leaves the van door open, plenty of fresh cool air.
Raymond and Wendy: Ray: everyone’s best mate; son of the owner of the Commercial Hotel. They never liked each other much. Ray was a prima donna according to Declan. They played in the same Opal Beach rugby league side. Raymond playing on the wing doing the flashy stuff while Declan was in at hooker doing the hard work. Ray, the silly prick, running down the wing his ears pinned back, diving over the try-line like it was an Olympic event. Declan shut the door, lay down and drifted off to sleep.
In the morning he took the track down to the beach from the caravan park. It was around 16C, so not too cold. Declan had his board shorts on under his jeans, wearing a t-shirt and his brown cord jacket again. A towel underneath his arse. The water looked black and freezing but tempting too. He just wanted to dive in, catch a wave or two and get out. He slipped out of the jeans and t-shirt and ran down the beach and straight into the cold water, diving under the first wave, his head freezing under the water, the rest of his body following on behind and he struck out into the ocean, swimming freestyle hard, ducking under the waves as he swam. He found his spot and treaded water waiting for the right wave. He saw a young boy or girl fifty-metres further out on a board, he kept treading water but could see the surfer paddling, trying to get onto a one-and-a-half metre wave. The surfer joined the wave, pushed up into the standing position in one fluid movement, it was a girl, she was good. He could see her smiling as she rode it for another ten metres before cutting back over the top of it, back into flat water.
Declan stayed in the water for fifteen minutes catching waves, feeling the cold but enjoying it. He watched the girl surf from the beach. Was Wicky trying to tell him he could have his old job back in summer? He had savings, he could get the dole, take it easy. But what about the Territory and his hopes of seeing Ayers Rock and Kakadu.
The surfer girl walked up the beach towards him. She was only twelve or thirteen. She smiled at him, said,
“Don’t ever see swimmers in this time of the year before breakfast with no wetsuit.”
“The water was too tempting. You’re pretty good on that board.”
She looked around not saying anything. She had short black hair wearing black nail polish.
“No school today?”
“Going now. I’ll only be a little late. Are you on holidays?”
“Yeah, sort of, staying at Currans Van Park. What’s your name?”
“Julia. I have to go, see you round.”
She walked off board under her arm.
Declan lit a cigarette as he sat in the front door of the van, legs down on the step, reading Bliss by Peter Carey. He saw the girl from the beach approaching, started to cough, a bad hacking cough he’d just developed recently.
“You can’t be a swimmer and smoke,” she said.
He smiled, butted the cigarette under his right foot.
“What’s your name again?”
“Julia, my mum named me after a song by this band called Pavlov’s Dog.”
“What’re doing here?”
“Mr Curran pays me to water the garden beds and do weeding on the weekends. He mows the lawns though.”
“Going surfing today?”
“Yeah, after I finish here. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“How come you’re here in winter?”
“I used to live here. I used to work for Mr Curran too.”
“Before you were born. What kind of music do you like?”
“I like Kasey Chambers and The Waifs.”
“Hang on a sec,” he says, goes into the van to search through his cassettes. He comes out with a cassette, hands it to Julia, says,
“I reckon you’ll like this too.”
She reads the front of the cassette: Martha’s Vineyard.
“Where are they from?”
“They’re from WA. Better than The Waifs too.”
She smiles at him, says,
“We’ll see. I’ll see you tomorrow maybe and stop smoking.”
He laughs and says, “OK.”
Julia wanders off.
He goes into the van and says to himself, she’s right, and he crushes the packet of cigarettes and on cue he starts coughing, “that’s it,” he says softly.
He asks Mardi where Wendy lives. She gives him directions and he drives there, slowly. She lives in a big, white weatherboard house, surrounded by bushland. He parks, gets out. He hopes Raymond is working. He knocks and after a few seconds Wendy opens the door. He smiles at her. She looks older, sure, but still attractive. Wendy smiles brightly at him, touches his arm,
“I heard you were back.”
“Mardi couldn’t help herself I suppose.”
“Don’t be mad with her. Come in, Ray’s not here, working as usual.”
He follows her in, sits on a light brown coloured couch.
“Yeah, strong, just a dash of milk, no sugar.”
Wendy goes into the kitchen to make it and he looks around. Photos all over the place. And he sees her, Julia in a photo. Wearing her wetsuit, holding her board. He knew of course as soon as she mentioned Pavlov’s Dog.
She comes back into the lounge holding two cups. He smiles at her as she passes him the coffee.
“Nice house, you look like you’re doing well. You and Raymond.”
“Thanks, the pub prints money, even in winter. We have a daughter too, Julia. That’s her with the surfboard there.”
“I met her.”
“I was on the beach yesterday morning and…”
“That was you. She told me about a man swimming without a wetsuit, in winter.”
“She’s a nice kid, you should be proud.”
“She is but she gets restless.”
“Are you happy, Wendy?”
“I’m content. Ray works too much but I have friends and Julia of course. I heard you were working in Kings Cross.”
“Yeah, the whole twelve years. Saw some shit too.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Not sure, really.”
“Mardi said that Wicky practically offered you your old job back.”
“Despite what you might think. I do love this place. I’m probably going to go to the Northern Territory, see some places I’ve always wanted to see. I just wanted to, to um, I don’t know. I’m glad I came though.”
“You said that.”
Julia wanders in from her bedroom.
“I thought it was your voice,” she says to Declan, “but I didn’t see how it could be.”
“Hi Julia. I’ve known your mum for a while. I told you I lived here before.”
“Mum, this is the guy who was swimming at the beach.”
“Tell me about the pub and Ray.”
“He runs the pub now, his dad died. It has accommodation too, mostly for backpackers but that means they go into the bars too. You wouldn’t believe how much cash these backpackers spend.”
“They stuff up the beach,” Julia says, “they have parties and leave their rotten beer bottles and cigarettes on the beach.”
“Ray coaches the Dolphins too, they won the Flag last season.”
“Are you going swimming, tomorrow?” Julia asks Declan.
“I’ll be down at the beach. I want to see a proper sunrise.”
“Me too,” she says.
He smiles back at her, Wendy says,
“Looks like you made a friend.”
“He gave me a cassette too, mum.”
“Oh,” she says, “yes, I remember them.”
“I better be going,” Declan says.
“Drop down to the sports ground tomorrow to see the Dolphins play. We’ll all be there.”
“Thanks, I will. I’m not sure how long I’m staying but it feels good to be here.”
“OK Dec, look after yourself.”
“Declan,” Julia says.
“How old are you?” Wendy laughs, Declan smiles, says,
The next morning, he walks down the track from the caravan park onto the beach. It is slightly warmer than the other day and he finds himself looking forward to seeing Julia. He can’t see her but he does see the sun slowly rise above the water, a golden sun, and he’s so glad he came down to the beach to see it. He runs down the sand into the cold water, again diving under the first wave, stroking out deep into the ocean, not afraid. He sees Julia just getting into the water and then he catches his first wave, riding it down the crest with his right arm out straight guiding him along the wave.
Later, she comes out of the water, walks up to him, puts the surfboard down gently on the sand.
“You used to go out with my mum.”
“Did you love her?”
“How come you surf on your own?”
“I don’t really get on with the other kids.”
“Do you read much?”
“Mum says I’m either surfing or I have my head in a book.”
“Nothing at the moment. I’m going to the library later.”
“Hey, why don’t you come up to the van. I’ll give you a book to read. I’ll make some bacon and eggs, OK?”
Julia gets home, yells out to her mum,
“Dec gave me a book to read, it’s called, Looking for Alibrandi.”
“Declan used to drive me mad talking about books like they could change the world.”
Declan drives into the sportsground, walks around to the pavilion, familiar faces look at him and nod or look away. He feels his face flushing, wondering if this was a good idea. He sees Wendy and Julia, walks towards them. He sees Raymond addressing the team on the ground before the game starts. Julia says,
He smiles at the way she used the shortened version of his name. Wendy says hello and he sits down with them. The game starts and Raymond stands on the sidelines yelling instructions to his players.
The Dolphins win and the home supporters clap and cheer. Raymond takes a bow as he walks off. He comes over to where Declan sits with his wife and daughter.
“Declan. They told me you were back. You look a bit worn out mate, a few creases on the brow. Those hookers in The Cross give you a hard time?”
Declan can only nod and smile. Eventually he says,
“Still running the pub too, Ray. Nothing much changes.”
“But it does, it does. I’m married, the pub is going gangbusters. Life is good, Declan.”
Someone calls out to Ray, he waves and says,
“My public wants me,”
An hour later, everything has wound down. The hard-core drinkers are still at it, will be for hours but the families are leaving. Declan says goodbye to Julia and Wendy. They leave. Raymond claps him on the back, says,
“A word, Declan.”
“I want you to keep away from Wendy and Julia. Some people might not like you, a middle-aged man, hanging around a young girl. Things could get out of hand.”
Declan stares at him defiant.
Raymond fixes him with a hard stare of his own, says,
“You understand me, Declan.”
“I get the drift, Raymond.”
“Good, good. I hear you’re leaving tomorrow.”
Declan drives back to the caravan park. The more he thinks about what Ray said the more anxious he feels. He knows what Ray is capable of. He cooks some fish fingers to fill the hole in his gut. He knows things could spiral out of control here. Mardi comes over to the van, tells him that Wendy rang, that she’ll ring back at 9PM and to be in the office to take the call.
He’s in the office at 9PM and the phone rings, Mardi answers then calls him across then walks out the back, closes the door.
“Hi Declan, Ray told me what he said to you.”
“I should have told you this a long time ago.”
“She’s yours, Dec. Julia is your daughter.”
Declan doesn’t say anything for ten or fifteen seconds.
“Positive. Didn’t you see her eyes? Just like yours, pitch black. And the timing, Dec. Ray knows that’s why he…anyway, I thought you should know.”
“Took your time about it.”
“The reason you left is cos you didn’t want kids.”
“I’m sorry, I mean, um, she’s beautiful, a beautiful kid. Told me to give up smoking and I’m doing it.”
“There’s more, Dec.”
“Shit, what else could there be?”
“I want her to go on this trip with you to the Northern Territory. Raymond barely acknowledges she’s alive. Julia doesn’t make friends easily, then you come here, give her music, a book, really talk to her. She’s young and a bit lost. She can make up the school time. Take her for six months or a year. Just be with her.”
“She’s only twelve, Wendy. I mean, I don’t know anything about girls and their periods and what not. I…”
“She’s had her first period,” Wendy laughs, “She’s OK, she knows what to do. Oh, the hormones will be raging soon enough but you can handle it, Declan, you’re a natural.”
“Let me think about it for a few days, alright?”
A week later, Declan drives over to the big weatherboard house, gets out of the car, walks up to the front door and knocks. Wendy opens the door and hugs him. He sits and they chat for a few minutes. Julia comes out of the bedroom with a suitcase on wheels, her surfboard under her other arm, says,
Sean O’Leary has published 5 short story collections, My Town, Walking, Wonderland, Tokyo Jazz and Other Stories and This is Not a Love Song. His novella Drifting was the winner of the ‘Great Novella Search 2016’ and published in 2017. He has published over 40 stories in literary and crime fiction journals. His crime novella The Heat was published in 2019. His interviews with crime writers appear in Crime Time magazine. His crime novel Going All the Way is out now and his crime series includes, City of Sin and City of Fear. The third book, City of Vice drops late 2023. He has worked in a variety of jobs including motel receptionist, rubbish removalist/tree lopper, farm hand and night manager in various hotels in Sydney’s notorious, Kings Cross. He has lived all over the bloody place but now resides in Melbourne, thinks that test cricket is the greatest game of all and supports Melbourne Football Club. He writes like a demon, loves travelling, is mad about photography, does some AI art and tries to walk everywhere.