Christie lived with his dad in a little shack on the south side of town. He left school when he was 16, soon as he could, to go help his dad out in the open sea. His dad was a fisherman and had leathery skin and deep wrinkles round his eyes from squinting against the sun. They’d go out early every morning. Around 5am, I’d wake to the sound of the motor of their tractor starting up as they’d head off down the beach.
Years ago, me and Christie were best mates. His mum and mine were friends and he used to come over and we’d play in the backyard while our mums drank Nescafe and gossiped about the neighbours around town. That was before his mum lit off with old Len Johnson down the road when Christie was still a kid, about 9 or so. She’d still call my mum sometimes, and I’d try to tell Christie about it, but he didn’t want a bar of it. He’d either change the subject or just fair walk off.
We went to school together every day. He’d walk down the West Coast road to our house and I’d be waiting out front on the steps as he walked on by. We’d fall in to step alongside each other and talk and laugh all the way to school. He’d tell me all about his dream of sailing around the world and writing back to his old man about what the fishing was like on the other side of the globe. He was a dreamer alright, and I liked that.
Things were good for a long time. Yeah, he got the sweet eye for a girl every now and then but he always came back. And me, I had eyes for no other boy. It was Christie or bust and everyone in town knew it. I aint never been so captured by a spirit in all my life. That’s no word of a lie. He had clear blue eyes flecked with gold and looking in to them was fair like looking in to the caves of Atlantis.
After school, we’d go hang out down on the beach. We’d scour the shells on the shoreline, climb the rocks along the cliffs and later, when we was 11 or so, nip in between the dunes for a quick smoke or two. He was the one who taught me how to build sand castles with moats, how to boogie board, and how to roll a cigarette. Sometimes he’d come over to ours for dinner and Mum would send him home with extra for his old man. They weren’t much for cooking, except for frying fish out on the bbq out back and they didn’t even have electricity until Christie turned 14 and his old man finally had enough dough to get the solar power hooked up. It was bizarre to look out over the sand dunes at night and see their house all lit up like a Christmas tree where once there’d just been the glow of flickering candles. Folks in town joked that we no longer needed the lighthouse, that Christie’s joint did the job proper now.
They never got the phone on though or any fancy heating system or nought. I thought once they got the solar power for sure that’d be next but Christie said these things take time, that his old man don’t like change much.
“One thing at a time,” Christie said to me with a small smile and a shake of his head. “Let’s just take it one thing at a time.”
Not long after they got the power on, Jessica Knot moved to town and Christie turned in to a damn lovesick idiot. I guess I always knew I wasn’t good enough for him, but it still hurt something fierce to see those stars in his eyes like someone hit him on the head with a frying pan. She was a surfer. You know the type, long stringy salt washed hair, tanned skin, killer white smile. She’s American as well so she’s got one of those sexy accents. Sometimes when I was home alone, I’d stand in front of the mirror and try and pretend I was Spanish or something, like I was somehow exotic and interesting and desirable. But always, all I could see looking back at me from the mirror was plain, boring ol’ Suz with her round face and snub nose.
Jessica was the worst kind of enemy. The nice kind. She never said a bad word to me so I couldn’t fault Christie for running after her like a puppy with his tongue hanging out. I just had to watch them walk on by. It hit me hardest the day I was waiting on the front steps as usual, waiting for him to come on by and he never showed. I waited long as I could but when it came time to leave or be late, I set off on my own, gnawing on the inside of my lip, worried about what had gone wrong. Maybe something had happened to his old man? Or worse yet, Christie himself. Their shack didn’t have no phone or nothing. But then I got to the school yard and I saw him and Jessica sitting over by the basketball courts holding hands. It hit me like a punch in the guts. I pulled myself up tall as I could and walked right on over to them.
“Christie.” I said loudly.
He stopped laughing at whatever it was that Jess had said and looked up at me.
“Where wasya this morning?” I said. “I was waiting for ya, like normal.”
He looked down at his shoes. “Well, Jess here, she lives down on Granthem Street. And if I cut across the park, I get there quicker, see?”
I felt my face going red. “What about me? You not gonna walk with me anymore?”
Jess was staring off to the distance looking embarrassed as Christie stammered, “Suz, you know how it is. Me and Jess, we’re going together now and… well… ”
The bell rang and relief washed all over Christie’s face. He usually didn’t give a rats about being on time but now he jumped to his feet. “Anyway, we better get to class – we got Mr Lucas first period and you know how he gets if we aint on time.”
He pulled Jessica along by the hand and she threw a glance back at me like she was saying sorry or something. I could have spit in her eye.
It was different from then on. Now it was Christie and Jess, not Christie and Suz anymore. I tried hanging out with them a few times but it was awkward and not quite right. The two of them would go out surfing and I’d be left on the shoreline alone, digging in the sand and collecting my shells. I’d watch them out there, and it was like she got a death wish or something. The bigger and badder those waves got, the harder she’d ride them. Taking crazy chances and slamming her life down like cards on a table. All the time I’d be hearing the sound of Christie hooting and hollering at her over the sound of the crashing waves.
The last time we went to the beach together, they were teasing and pushing one another about in the sand and I knew they didn’t really want me there. I was wearing my black one-piece and she had on a little string bikini made out of scraps of the Australian flag. Her stomach was flat and body toned from long hours on the surfboard. I looked down at my own pudgy stomach and short flabby legs and the sound of their playful voices sent my heart dropping like a stone. I didn’t belong there and I knew it. So I just snuck off home when they weren’t looking. And not once did they call me back.
* * *
This morning, half awake at 5am, I forgot everything that has happened and I was listening out for the sound of their tractor pulling the boat down to the beach. And then I remembered, like a bolt to the brain, that everything has changed and there won’t be no chugging motor no more.
I got out of bed, threw on my tracksuit and headed off down to the beach in the semi darkness like usual. I’ve been walking up and down the shore every morning since the accident. Aside from a couple of bits of boat that washed up about a mile down the coast, there has never been anything found of Christie or his Dad. I wouldn’t admit it to no-one but I’m searching and hoping I’ll come across something else of them washed up on the shore. That maybe, just maybe, the ocean will offer up some kind of explanation that I’ll be able to hold on to in the creeping dawn.
But, there’s nothing for me to find, except the usual shells and sea urchins and occasional beer can, and I’m left here with my feet sinking in the damp empty sand. I think of Jess, and wonder what beach she’s running on now. She left town not long after, and I aint bothered to keep in touch. Maybe she don’t feel the same emptiness as me. Like this ocean is a big boiling pot of nothing, full of take and tease.
It’s eerie, looking up to the dark dunes where the lights of their house used to be, knowing there won’t be no-one home there anytime soon. I stand there a while, nothing I can say, nor do. I just watch the waves come in and go out and then walk on over to that empty shack with my pocket full of shells and sand and sit on the front porch.
Narelle Hill is an Australian writer living and working in the Great Southern region of Western Australia. She has spent the last 7 years traveling the world and has recently returned home to focus on her writing.