Originally published in Above Water Journal
Later published in Short and Twisted Anthology
I woke up in the morning when my Bernese Mountain dog, Humphrey, jumped on my side of the bed. His warm weight pressed against my back and I reached a hand out sleepily to stroke his ears. Harry stirred beside me, rolling onto his back, the filtered light through the thin curtains covering our bedroom window drifting over his bare chest. He smiled as I nestled my head into his shoulder and felt his lips brush my forehead.
I’d never been so happy.
We walked to the beach, holding hands through the empty streets that had no footpaths, Humphrey bounding ahead. The light was different here, sharper, stripped of the muting haze of the city. The sea was a dark steel blue under a heavy layer of cloud, and the sand was cold underfoot. Harry zipped up my wetsuit at the back, taking care not to pinch my skin.
“We’ll be watching you,” he called to me as I waded out, feeling the creeping chill rising up my legs. Humphrey gazed at my retreating form from the shallows, bewildered, then quickly forgot me as Harry tossed a ball down the beach. Steeling myself, I dove under the water, the cold hitting my face and filling my nose and ears. Then I was swimming, the mechanical motion of stroke, kick, breathe, the world compressed to blurred blue and pockets of air floating past my eyes.
Harry was there with my towel when I emerged twelve hundred metres later, Humphrey drenched after being coaxed into the water. We warmed ourselves with coffee and raisin toast.
We had moved to the coast to be together. From our rented beach shack I could hear the ocean before I fell asleep. We had filled the house with op-shop furniture and photos; a ten-year-old Harry squinted into the sun from a photo on the bookshelf that dominated the lounge room. We had no television, no washing machine; the oven didn’t work and so we knocked together meals on the stovetop. Humphrey explored the sprawling garden and chased bluetongues, but he was never quick enough to catch one. In the evenings, while I poured over the same old art books, Harry would read plays aloud, putting on different ridiculous voices for the characters and making me laugh until I cried with his Lady Plymdale. Every night we made love and I was engulfed by waves of pure joy.
I couldn’t remember falling in love with him – it felt as old as the sun, this sparkling adoration, it had always existed, its end was inconceivable.
We were struggling for money, as we’d known we would, but Harry worked on local building projects, and I had found a job in the town’s sole gallery, which was below their only bookstore in a small underground space. Most of the paintings were landscapes by local artists, and I was surrounded by all shades of blue. It was cool and very quiet there, my days interrupted only by the occasional tourist, and often I would wander upstairs to take a book off the shelves and spend the day reading on my stool in the corner, taking care not to bend the spine or mark the pages before I secreted it back into the store.
There was a strange pleasure to be found in being strangers to the town. I relished our anonymity, the fact that we could be anyone we wanted. The husband and wife who owned the restaurant we went to on Sunday nights – “date night”, Harry joked in a silly excitable voice – smiled at us, commented on what a sweet couple we made, and I felt a thrill run through me. We were a sweet couple, a perfect couple.
We couldn’t have kids, but I wanted a baby. More and more I felt myself drawn to prams in public, relishing glimpses of tiny faces. When we’re settled, Harry promised me, then we’ll look into adoption, and I was so filled with love for him at that moment that I wondered if it were even possible that another human being could find a place in my heart.
After work one Friday afternoon, I walked up the road to the grocery store to shop for dinner. Already I was noticing the changes that took place in the town every weekend – the sudden flux of weekenders made everyone a little less relaxed, the pace reluctantly picked up.
I was walking by a café when a voice stopped me.
I had grown unaccustomed to being addressed by any other voice than one I knew as well as my own. A woman had half risen from her seat at an outside table, coffee cup still clutched in her hand.
“Hi!” she said, “Wow, fancy seeing you here!”
I recognized her now; Wendy, who I’d been at school with.
“Wendy, hi,” I attempted to cover my discomfit at this sudden intrusion. She had stood up completely now, taken a few steps towards me.
“You’re down for the weekend?”
“No, no, we – I live here now.”
“Live here? How funny! Who with?”
I glanced up the street, searching for escape. “Harry.”
“Really? God, I can think of nothing worse than still living with my brother,” she said. “I suppose you’re saving money, but still, you must just be dying to have your own space.”
I forced myself to smile.
“No, actually,” I said. “We’re perfectly happy,” I made a show of checking my watch. “I need to get going, but it was nice seeing you.”
She looked puzzled. “Yes, of course. See you.”
I hurried down the street, feeling light-headed, my heart quivering. I forgot the groceries and almost ran home, desperate to immerse myself in a space that was ours and only ours. Humphrey sensed my distress and nuzzled into me as I collapsed onto the couch.
Harry would be home soon. Harry would make everything fine, he would tell me it was okay, because it was okay, no one had the right to tell us otherwise. I whispered encouraging words as I shakily made myself tea.
But it was useless, I knew.