Behind the houses the river slides away all night. Buttery and resinous, the air hangs heavy with the river murk, the wet stink of the mudbank. Across the water, the railway sidings with their abandoned boxcars lie quiet, generations of graffiti hiding whatever colour they may have been. Beyond, the ibises stalk the salt flats, reeking brackish plains filled with seawater gone soupy, which the sea breeze blows across, filling the town with smell of rotting kelp. And then, last, the sea itself, tin-grey and wallowing, thick and cold like old blood. Between the flats and the water the smooth sand stretches a kilometre or more, and here the ships lie, the metal of their broken hulls slowly being eaten by the salt air. The sky above is the colour of ocean, the horizon gone. A flock of cormorants punctuates the grey, oily wings stretched black, hanging themselves in the wind to dry. All around the rusting hulks sit silent, unmoving.
The winter blows hard and early in Point Hoffman most years, and this one is no different. The town hunkers on the southernmost tip of a cruel spit of land stretching down into the Bite, surrounded by the cold ocean. In the years of the steel boom the town had prospered, but the shipyard lies long abandoned, and the trains do not come any more. The houses in their bleak rows crowd together like old teeth, battered by the fierce unceasing wind. Finn wanders down the quiet main street, his cheeks burning in the sharp air. The light is nearly gone; night comes quickly on the edge of the world. His breath clouds in the half dark. On the corner the Franklin is an island of light. He pushes through the door of the pub, the bell above pealing feebly. The front room is mostly empty, but along the bar the men sit in a line.
‘You’re late, boy.’
Old Murphy stands behind the taps, facing the grizzled line of drinkers. The men who used to be the ship-breakers. Finn remembers when he was little they used to run the big ships aground on the wide flat beach and these men would be the ones to chop up the decrepit vessels. Dismantling the metal from the old ships was good work in the sixties, when the scrap-steel prices where high, and Point Hoffman’s flat wide beach was perfect for the slipping of the old boats up for recycling. Finn’s father came home at the end of the day smelling of salt and hot metal and hard work, full of stories of ships so monstrous big you got lost inside. But now the beach was a graveyard. Too late for these men was the asbestos danger realised, and now they waited, lungs full of fibre, rotting away from the inside like the boats they had left on the beach. The ships went to China now, or India, where it was cheap and they let barefoot boys cut them open and poison themselves.
It’s after midnight when she comes, and it’s just his father and hers left leaning into their pints. Finn sees her pause outside the door, though it must be close to freezing. He sees the crooked way she bends herself now, the unfamiliar twist of her body. She comes inside. The cold air has reddened the scars on her face, so much that they almost look like open wounds. For Finn, they still are.
‘Hello, Finn.’ She lets her hair fall over her face these days, and the proud look is gone from her eyes. ‘Come on, Dad.’
The old man slides blearily from the stool. Finn sees how he folds himself into her, how heavily he leans. They shuffle toward the door, back out into the night. Finn looks at his own father.
‘Guess we should get home too, Pop.’
Finn can hear the breath snicking in the old man’s throat. Eva told him once that cancer cells have the look of flowers, almost beautiful in their perfection. Finn supposes it must be blooming like spring inside that old hollow chest.
Sleep doesn’t come easy any more for Finn. He listens to the noises of his parents sleeping in the next room, the creak of the old bed springs, the buzzing of their night breath. The same as forever. The cracked walls of the room he has slept in his whole life are close around him. Even with the window shut he can smell the kelp wind, the stink of the rot. He can remember being taken to see his grandmother, the last time he saw her, and the way the air around her thickened, how he felt breathless. To Finn Point Hoffman smells like that, like something dying.
Down on the beach the winter rain drives into his eyes. The ships loom out of the sea mist, their leftover bits gone the colour of blood with the rust. Their tortured forms cast silhouettes like sculptures, a strange towering city of twisted metal. The wind makes an eerie sound skirling through the bowels of the hulls. The noise makes Finn’s stomach churn. He thinks of Jory Lewellyn’s dad, a metal cutter who was crushed when a one-ton slab of iron fell on him. Finn shudders, knowing the feel of mangled metal against his skin, of bleeding in the dark, of a mouthful of wet sand and no breath to cry out. Jory was gone now too, as most of them would be in the end, the slow way, fibrous but just as breathless.
A long time ago, when he watched the winter rain through the window of Eva’s bedroom, she’d talked about the future.
‘What will you do after?’
Finn, fourteen, didn’t care much for the talking; the wetness of her fascinated him.
‘I don’t know. Work with my dad I suppose.’
She snorted derisively. ‘A ship-breaker.’
He slipped his hand under the elastic of her underpants, breathing into her neck.
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘It means staying here. Surrounded by those old men. Staring at the ocean all day.’
Her eyes were the colour of a rifle barrel, and just as hard.
‘When I leave, I hope I never see the ocean again.’
The water moves all around. The ground is wet with it for miles, and salt crusts on all the surfaces. The quaggy flats which stretch around the town are rife with sluggish waterways which lace through like veins, filled with greenish water in which nothing lives. There’s a row of tiny houses, and the pub. One road out. The river bleeding out into the sea, colouring it dirty. A long way inland the trees start to grow, and Finn knows there is a desert after that, but cannot imagine what such dryness would be like. Eva had always hated the wet. The only thing she liked about water was the way the pressure underneath could equal that inside of her. Sometimes Finn could almost see her fizzing. When they were kids, they’d come down here by the river to sip stolen whisky and love each other clumsily in the frigid salty air. Afterwards, Eva would stalk the railways, balancing on the steel lines she knew led out eventually, turning her back on the sea. Finn looked at her, almost afraid of the way she burned.
After the accident Eva didn’t talk didn’t talk about leaving any more. Finn watched her dragging that leg around after her, and he prayed to be forgiven. Eva went away into herself; when he tried to speak to her, to apologise, her grey eyes were lost to him. From the smell of her breath the anaesthetic she’d chosen had come straight and burning from the bottle, no longer a child’s game. He had to turn away from her then, the smell of it brought the guilt up like bile in his throat; he’d never drink again. It was her face that hurt the most, not the cuts, just the heaviness of her. Weighty as an anchor dragging at the bottom. Stuck. Even after all this time looking at her makes him feel airless.
He works in the pub, watching the old men suffocating. The winter comes on them proper, and the air fairly crackles with the cold. In the afternoons he stalks along the oily smoke-coloured beach, watching the ocean churning off the gulf. The condemned ships creak and groan in the wind. There had been no ship too big to be torn apart in this way, and the cavernous holds yawn open, spilling their black innards onto the tidal flats. Poisoned like everything else.
In the dream Finn stands at the water’s edge. The Indiana comes looming out of the darkness, thrashing at the ocean’s surface with her hull. The hiss of the bow wave drowns out the humming of the engine. Then the keel hits the bottom and the ship drives hard up onto the beach, carried by her own weight, listing as the water goes from under her. The engine stops, the lights go out, and the Indiana lies still, no longer a ship, just a mass of steel, a corpse. Around her lie her kin in progressive states of dissection. Finn is awestruck by the immensity of her, but knows that in the morning the cutting will begin, and in the end nothing will remain.
It is barely dawn when his mother wakes him, the greyness just frilling at the edge with the light that will come soon. His eyes are gritty as beach shale.
‘Finn, it’s Jamie Casswell on the phone. There’s been an accident down near the sidings, he needs you to give the boys a hand.’
Finn feels his body tighten, his mother’s voice jagged. Jamie, head of the town’s small emergency services, was the one to drag him from the car that night, the one to call his mother. Small towns have long memories; she has not forgotten to fear Jamie’s voice. Finn shucks himself into his coat, the fabric crackly with the salt.
‘What else did he say?’
In the cold morning air they are standing still, puffs of steam rising from every breath. Finn stands among them, looking down at the river.
‘We found a bottle up by the boxcars.’ Jamie sounds very tired.
‘Did you call her mother?’
‘She wouldn’t speak to me. Tried to talk with her dad, but god knows if he understood what I was saying. Christ Finn, what the bloody hell do you think she was doing?’
Finn looks up to where he can see the ships casting their long morning shadows over the grey sand.
‘I don’t know.’
But he does know. She was getting out, the only way she knew how.
Pale in life, in death she is wax-like, utterly colourless. Her hair halos around her head, a dark cloud in the water. Her limbs sodden and bloated as driftwood in the murk. He sees the twisted leg, those old scars, and he knows for certain it is her. But he had known it already; he had walked her father home through the bitter darkness the night before. He had never known her not to collect the old man so long as he could remember, even before, when he knew her, and everything was different. Her mother had taken the weight of the drunk man from him on the doorstep and thanked him coldly; she had never forgotten what he had done. But Eva wasn’t there. Finn walked home through the briny biting night, and he felt it then. The town without Eva in it slid away from him, like mud off a mountain. He felt the weight come away from his chest, the same as it had that night they’d pulled him from the wreck. He knows it should have been him crushed underneath, but he breathes deeply just the same.
He watches as they get the hooks into her and drag her body from the water, seeing the way it cascades from her, and exhales.
‘A Body of Water’ was commended in the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize
Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.