Message in a Bottle

“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.”

No reaction.

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 a 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.”

~oOo~

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?

“Yes.”

“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.

Long Red Dress and a Gleeful White Dog

 

 

There are — moments.

Moments that pass by unnoticed.

Like the photo of you and your classmates at camp with the out of focus boy in the background.

Like the moments after your first child is born.

Or the day when your life began to unravel — you were happy if not contented, and the world was beautiful — except it wasn’t, and the whole unhappy mess can be traced back to that day.

I didn’t want my portrait painted, but I knew it was the done thing.

Our family is all about done things.

Dominic, the artist, was told to paint me in the style of an American President’s wife, so he chose the portrait of President Coolidge’s wife.

I didn’t mind, I have a long red dress and a white dog.

The process of posing was tedious, and the conversations about what I should wear were something beyond tedious.

I wore a simple pearl necklace, but it disappeared from the final work, as did my bracelet. 

It was never explained.

Our dog wouldn’t sit still, and I don’t blame her. Instead, she sat nearby and watched and sniffed all the unfamiliar scents.

The background was copied from the President’s wife’s portrait. Consequently, we didn’t need to leave Dominic’s studio.

 

The studio was just as you would imagine — dusty, paint-smeared with finished and unfinished works stacked against the walls.

Someone had written Genitalia is not an Italian airline, on one wall in tiny script. During a break, I asked him about it.

“Gerald, one of my friends — he thinks he’s funny. He writes something every time he comes to visit. Usually, I scrub it off when he’s gone, but I like that one. It’s hard to be explicit without using the word fuck.”

“Doesn’t he get his feelings hurt when he visits again?” I asked.

“No, he’s not my favourite aunt who expects to see the present she sent me ten Christmas’s ago on display when she visits.”

That made me smile.

 

I was sitting on a box, eating my sandwich.

“You have good legs,” he said.

 I kicked out my right leg and looked at it.

“Thank you,” I said. 

I could see he’d looked up my dress and when he looked at me, he blushed.

“See anything you like?” I said.

“Yes,” he said after a pause. I blushed.

“Your studio is very hot,” I said, and Dominic ignored me, “very hot.”

I waved my hand in front of my face, but the gesture didn’t help my case.

So, after our first session, I stopped wearing a bra and panties just to keep me cool. It worked, but I should have remembered when I raised my well-shaped leg. 

It was only a moment. 

He couldn’t have seen much, but I did feel a bit like Sharon Stone.

“Basic Instinct,” I said softly. 

I was trying to remember Sharon Stone’s name, and I usually have to work backwards from the name of the movie to jog my brain. It amazes me that I can always remember the movie’s name and not the name of the actor.

“Pardon?” he said.

“Nothing. Just trying to remember a name.”

“Sharon Stone,” he said. 

I didn’t answer. 

I was embarrassed.

If I’d wanted to seduce him, this line of patter would have done the trick — it doesn’t take much to get a man aroused. In truth — I wasn’t trying to inflame him.

I had wondered if the stories about artists were true. What would it be like to lie in this creative man’s arms?

He was tall — about the same height as my husband. 

Unruly hair unsuccessfully brushed back. 

Good muscle definition and a bump in his jeans where there should be a bump — he dressed to the right, as far as I could tell.

Our conversation was having an effect on him — I noticed that he crossed his legs and turned slightly away from me so I couldn’t see if he was aroused — which meant he probably was.

 

The portrait required two weeks of sittings. 

Every afternoon from two until four.

On the final day, he put his brush down, stepped back and said, “It’s done. Would you like to have a look?”

Up to that moment, he had jealously guarded the canvas, “No peeking until it’s done!”

My dog raised her head and sat up — as though she knew something special was happening.

I stepped forward and stood beside him. 

He put his arm around me.

“Do I really look that good?” I said.

“Yes,” he said as he slid down the zipper on my dress.

We made love on a pile of paint-stained canvas covers. I could feel his hands on me, his lips on mine. The rough canvas sheets rubbed against my skin and the smells of his studio filled my nostrils, creating an indelible memory.

The makeshift bed wasn’t at all comfortable — not at all what I was used to, but as I lay there, exhausted, I thought about all the artist’s models who had been loved in this way, in all the studios of Paris. 

Did they feel the way I felt?

I never wanted to be anywhere else but right here right now.

I put my hand on him, and he groaned softly.

“Are you trying to kill me woman?” he said, but I caressed him, and his protestation was belied by his ever-increasing interest.

“One more time,” I said as I straddled him. With a little help from me, we resumed erotic hostilities.

It was dark when I woke. 

My lover was making coffee wearing only a white t-shirt, which didn’t cover his buttocks — I enjoyed the view.

“Why didn’t you undress me earlier?” I said.

“I wanted to finish the portrait first.”

“Typical man. The work always comes first,” I said.

I rolled over so he could see my naked body while he prepared two cups. The steam rising from the boiling water looked like a genie coming out of its bottle.

I felt like that genie. 

I too, had been released.

“Cover yourself, woman, there are dogs present,” he said with a smile.

I opened my legs just enough.

“That’ll be enough of that,” he said, “I may never walk again.”

He put the coffees on a small stool, and we sat on the canvas covers. Our combined scent now mixed with the aroma of paint and turps.

“Cake mix,” I said.

“In what regard?” he said.

“That’s what we smell like — afterwards. Cake mix.”

 “I guess. It smells like sex to me.”

We sipped our coffee in the silence only lovers can conjure.

“Do you think your husband will like the portrait?” he said.

“Yes — do you think he will know I wasn’t wearing knickers?”

“Hard to tell. Does his mind work like that?”

“You know, I’m not sure how his mind works, but there is something incredibly sexy about him having to pay you to penetrate me.”

“Not sure he would see it that way, but I do get your meaning. You aren’t the kind of woman who would tell him just for the fun of seeing his reaction — are you?”

“No. That’s not me. I don’t dislike him. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

And that was the moment.

I hadn’t planned any of it and no one was supposed to get hurt.

They did — get hurt.

But that was still to come.

When I got home, I had to make up an excuse for being late, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t very interested. Part of me wanted to tell him what I had been doing — to wake him up!

I showered and dressed for bed.

I didn’t realise that oil paint does not wash off with water.

“Your back is all red and you’ve got paint stuck to your skin. Did you rub up against something in the studio?” said my husband as I climbed into bed.

“Yes, I guess I did,” I said.

And that was another moment.

 

As we boarded the flight to Rome, I laughed out loud.

“What are you laughing at,” said my artist companion.

“Alitalia IS an Italian airline,” I said.