“This is the exact spot,” I said, but the kids had already wandered off.
“Right here. It was a day just like this one.”
By now, I was talking to myself. My wife was standing not far away, but she wasn’t listening — not really.
She was listening in the way that wives do when their husbands talk a lot — not really listening.
It amazes me when I hear women complain that their husbands never tell them anything. If he suddenly started talking to her, she’d be over it in about a fortnight.
“Sorry dear, what were you saying?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Usually, when I say, ‘it doesn’t matter’, I get a disgusted sound that says, ‘why say it if it doesn’t matter?’ Which is a fair point, I guess.
“I thought a lot about what to write, what with the size restriction and all.”
By now, my wife was making a bum shaped hole in the sand. Positioning herself so that the sun wasn’t in her eyes and where she could still see the kids. The kids were knee-deep in rock pools. I told them to wear old runners to protect their feet from the sharp rocks, and they did. Which is amazing. They rarely listen to me. I guess they thought it would get them to the beach a lot faster if they didn’t put up their usual fight — the usual arguments.
“I dug the bottle out of the garbage. We didn’t have recycling bins in those days so I had to scrape the bacon fat off the bottle and wash it. It was a Haig’s bottle. Someone gave it to my dad for Christmas. We never had booze in the house but mum looked the other way when it was Christmas. I never saw dad drink it, but by late January the bottle was empty. I hid the bottle under my bed and got to work on the note. Such a small space for me to unburden my soul.”
One of the boys held up a hermit crab, shell and all. He waved it around a bit until the crab bit him, and he dropped the creature. I could hear his yell over the sound of the waves. His younger brother had to restrain him from stomping on the tiny creature.
“Serves you right you little shit. A bit of your own medicine,” I said softly, and the breeze carried the words from my clenched lips and wafted them away.
My wife offered consoling words from her bum comfortable position, and his wounded finger became an afterthought as he began to beat his restraining younger brother.
“Knock it off you little bastards,” I said, just a little too loudly, and the older couple with the small dog looked at me as though I’d shot their dog and left it to die. The dog, on the other hand, was delighted that there was another loud human close by — it hadn’t noticed me up to that point. So it bounded in my direction, tripped and face planted into the warm sand, recovered itself and continued to bound my way.
I was impressed with its resilience.
I squatted and mentally put down the bottle I had been describing and embraced the wiggling mass of fur.
“Dougal! Come away from that nasty man!”
I ignored the insult and continued to rough up the happy fluff ball.
“If you head over that way you can continue the fun. Those two boys love dogs. Feel free to bite the bigger one if it takes your fancy,” I said, and the dog rushed off in the direction of the two brawling boys.
“Dougal! Come back.”
Small smelly boys trump annoying older owners every time.
“So where was I? Oh, yes,” I said as I picked up the imaginary bottle with the imagined note enclosed.
“I chose the paper very carefully. It was hard to find, as I recall. It had to be thick but not too think to fit through the neck. I made several attempts at the text. I don’t think I ever put in that much preparation to any of my school work.”
“What was that dear?”
“Nothing. You go back to whatever it was you were doing.”
The dog had reached the boys. All of them seemed to be watching the hermit crab making its way out of the kill zone.
The youngest (why did we name him Reginald?) said something to the eldest, and the fight started all over again. This time the dog joined in. The dog had hold of one of my eldest’s shoes and was giving it a good shake. Beelzebub, as I like to call him, flicked the small dog high in the air, and it landed on a sandy patch with a yelp. It shook itself and immediately rejoined the fray.
“I really like your dog,” I said. “Can I take him home with us?”
“No you can not,” said the furious lady who was halfway towards the melee.
The woman detached her dog from my son’s shoe (he’d reattached himself) and gave Beelzebub and clip over the ear. Beelzebub put his hand to his head and said, “Ouch.”
“Are you going to do something about that?” said my wife.
“What would you suggest?” I said. “I’d give the woman and the dog a medal, but I left the box of medals I usually carry around in the car.”
“Typical,” said my wife.
“You should be ashamed to call yourself a parent,” said the older woman with the wriggling dog under her arm.
“I am lady. Deeply. But, at least your dog likes me,” I said.
“He doesn’t know any better,” was her reply, and I’m sure she will think of a much better comeback line halfway home in the car.
“So,” I said to an audience of none, “I studied the tide times in the newspaper to work out the best time to launch the bottle. No sense floating it if it was just going to wash back up again. I remember my mum was impressed that I was taking an interest in something ‘scientific’. ‘It’s oceanography, mum,’ I said and she was even more impressed. I don’t think she thought I was as bright as I might be.”
A seagull flew down and sat on the sand in front of me. I wondered why until I noticed that I was holding my hands as though I had something in them — a bottle.
“Sorry mate. I don’t have anything for you,” I said and showed my hands like I was a blackjack dealer. The seagull got the point and flew off.
“My parents were sitting down there.”
I pointed unnecessarily.
“I wandered up here and took the bottle out of my beach bag, and stepped to the water’s edge. I couldn’t decide whether to throw it in, which might draw attention or just float it out. In the end, I decided on the latter and pushed the bottle gently towards Bass Strait. It bobbed around for a while, and I thought it might beach itself, but ever so slowly, it floated away on the tide. I sat and watched it for a couple of hours. My eyes hurt, and eventually, dad called me to come so we could go home. I lay in bed that night and every night for the rest of our holidays, wondering if I had attached the cork correctly and wondering where my bottle headed. Where would it make landfall?”
“Shouldn’t we gather up the kids and go and buy some lunch?” said my wife wiping the last of the sand off her well-rounded bottom. “I must do something about that when we get home,” I said.
“What was that dear?”
“Nothing,” I said.
I called the boys, and we all ate lunch, listening to the waves on the other side of the trees.
“What happened to your bottle dad?” said my youngest.
“Don’t know. It just floated away, never to be heard from again,” I said.
“So, why do you keep going on about it,” said my oldest with a mouth full of chips.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
The woman who found the bottle, thirty-one years after I launched it understood.
“Everything you wrote in that note, I was feeling the same way at the same time,” she said.
“I still can’t believe you tracked me down. After all these years.”
“When you sold your mum’s house the new owners kept the same phone number. They gave me your number and here we are.”
The current holder of the bottle was a little weather-beaten (aren’t we all), but she has eyes that look right into me.
We talked about our teenage selves. Our late-in-life marriages. Her divorce. The death of close friends and our total surprise at our ages, considering we felt we could still be sitting on the beach wondering what our lives would be like when we got to be our age.
The sun was going down, and I excused myself and rang home with a thin excuse. I’d be back as soon as I could – boozy meeting.
“What were you doing that day? The day you found the bottle,” I said.
“Do you really want to know?”
I knew that tone. Did I? Really?
“It’s not as dramatic as it sounds and I wasn’t going to do it there and then, but I was taking a last walk along the beach. I’d planned to take my life that night.”
She looked down at her drink, and I took a breath.
“But you didn’t. Kill yourself, that is.”
“Oh, I did. I’m just a ghost these days.”
“And a very attractive one if I may say so.”
She put her hand up and moved a stray hair back into place.
“The bottle and its contents distracted me. I took it home, opened it and fell into your teenaged embrace. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I believed, at that time, that the universe sent me this gift. A way of saying, ‘give it another go – there’s magic out there’. Everyone wants a reason to hang around, don’t you think?”
I thought about my dark times.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I didn’t ring straight away. I knew it was a long shot that you would be at that number after such a long time. I wanted to sit in the glow of possibility before the bubble burst. And besides, what if I found you and you’d grown up to be a prick, or worse still, happily married with kids. I’m not sure I could have handled that then. I’m okay with any outcome now, but not then.”
“I’ve dreamt about this day. I won’t pretend I haven’t. But I’d given up. Sure, I’ve told my kids the story about the bottle so many times that they glaze over now when I tell it. I thought that some beachcomber from some far off island in the South Pacific might pick it up and cash in the bottle and discard the note. There was a type of comfort it that. I never thought that an attractive (that’s the second time I’ve used that word) woman from Melbourne would find my message and tell me that it changed her life.”
“Don’t get too smug. The night is young. I may still top myself.”
I smiled. She smiled, and I wondered.
We had grown up and grown middle-aged through all the same world history. We listened to the same music, watched the same movies, endured the same politicians.
We drank a bit more, and my cheeks were glowing. Driving home was looking like a dangerous idea.
We stopped talking. I guess we knew. All that shared history lived separately but at the same time.
“I’m not saying you would want to, but if you did, I live quite close to here. You probably shouldn’t be driving. You could get a taxi, of course, but my place is cosy. Small but cosy. If I open the bedroom window I can hear the waves. Do you like waves? Do they help you sleep?”
“I fear that sleeping would be the last thing on my mind if I came back to yours,” I said.
She stood up and took my hand, and we walked up the hill to her tiny flat — one half of an old weatherboard house with a glimpse of the bay.
She turned the key, and we stepped inside.
The bottle was perched on the mantlepiece in her lounge room. There was wood in the fireplace and logs stacked next to it.
I lit the fire, and that night we made up for all the years we had lived apart.
Tomorrow would be early enough to make sense of this.
For now, there was the fire and her body and all the dreams I had all those years ago.