Prizewinning Short Story 2019 Marjorie Barnard Award

Reproduced here is the prizewinning short story in the 2019 FAW NSW Marjorie Barnard Competition


by Diana Blackwood

By the time he reached the edge of the lake, Geoffrey had almost run out of indignation. He lowered the bow of the kayak, placing the boat half in the water, half on the mat of casuarina needles that had settled on the stony shore. Smooth pieces of driftwood lay scattered about like old bones. The launching spot seemed different somehow: where was the grey silt that would suck at his web sandals? As he straightened up he felt a tender pressure, like a bodily memory, in his right collarbone. It came back to him then that he used to carry his kayak with the upper ridge of the cockpit perched uncomfortably on his shoulder. Used to, but he had just dragged this unfamiliar boat by the plastic handle on the bow, letting the stern bump like a child’s toy against the hard, warty clusters of casuarina roots.

The orange kayak belonged to his new son-in-law, but that was not the only reason Geoffrey had taken it. It was already down by the lake next to his daughter’s, just out of sight behind some bushes, whereas his own fibreglass craft, so much sleeker and more serious than Marcus’s poly… polly-wolly-doodle plaything, was upturned under one of the shrubby lilly pillies. But which one? Geoffrey couldn’t remember. Also, there had been no time to search for his boat and haul it down the grassy slope. If his wife had woken and found him gone, she would have tried to stop him – or enlisted Marcus to do it, more likely.

That Marcus was an interfering bastard, always trying to fix things when Geoffrey was perfectly capable but simply hadn’t got around to replacing the broken drawer yet. He preferred the old son-in-law, who was cluey about the share market and would never have offered, over Christmas dinner in front of everyone, including Geoffrey’s younger grandson and his pretty Sri Lankan girlfriend, to help his father-in-law into his kayak and launch the boat from the neighbours’ property because it was safer. Marcus enjoyed feeling superior and noble, which was probably why he worked in meditation. No, mediation. A real pillock of the community, was Marcus. He also liked to crow about what he’d seen when he was out paddling: the flock of night herons roosting in a dead eucalypt, the brilliant flash of a kingfisher, a swooping sea eagle. He would make a show of consulting Geoffrey’s bird book – aha, I thought so! – and then record his sightings on that electronic pad. A few days earlier, Geoffrey had found him nosing around the CD collection and experienced the same dyspeptic resentment that would surge in him whenever Marcus had his mitts on the bird book. I’m not dead yet, Geoffrey had declared, and the interloper squeezed out a chuckle. He had probably been advised to laugh at his father-in-law’s jokes and was too thick to tell that Geoffrey was on the level. Next thing Marcus would be suggesting in his pulpity tones that he, Geoffrey Morecroft, take a kayaking course for seniors. Ha! It was complete and utter bullshit that he hadn’t paddled for a couple of years. That was the sort of tall tale the family concocted when they were conspiring in lowered voices around the kitchen table. Decline in executive function. Well, what was so surprising about that? It was yonks since he’d retired from the senior executive. But look at them now – in a Boxing Day stupor while he was up and at it.

The white posts with the diamond oyster-lease signs cast back a pure and beckoning light. Nearby a mullet jumped, and then another. A tiny fish skipped across the water, travelling with an enviable lightness. How free it seemed, Geoffrey thought, though it was probably just saving its bacon. He longed to dip his paddle into the lacquered surface of the lake; to move through reflected trees and sky; to feel the strength in his body, as if he could paddle all the way to New Zealand. When had the early mornings ceased to belong to him? So often now he would lie awake at night while Barbara snored beside him and the seabirds yapped and the frogs in the dam performed their rounds of call and response. After the kookaburras had taunted him with their dawn cackle, he would fall asleep, only to wake several hours later, bleary and disoriented from turbid dreams.

He laid the paddle across the rear of the cockpit, letting it rest in the indentation beneath the rim. Out of habit he had grabbed hat and sunglasses, put sunscreen, waterbottle, banana in a calico bag. Then he had quietly unlocked the garage and taken his paddle. He would apply the sunscreen later, once he had crossed the open water. His short pyjamas exposed a lot of pale limb; he would have done better to wear his long ones. Never mind, time to get a wriggle on. As he tucked the waterbottle beside the kayak’s seat, he noticed the large M emblazoned on the steel flask. Damn. If he got thirsty enough, he’d have to risk the Marcus contagion. He lifted the stern and nudged the boat further out, alongside the old fallen tree. To either side lay submerged rocks encrusted with oysters. The oyster farmer had given up tending his bloody-minded molluscs since sand had blocked the sea entrance to the lake. (Marcus, the only oyster slurper in the house, kept going on about what a shame it was.) Meanwhile the shells were still lurking with intent.

But how to get into the kayak? Geoffrey’s brain seemed not to be giving his body the proper instructions. He thought about straddling the boat, but it was wider than he was accustomed to, and his legs weren’t having a bar of it. Do what you’ve always done, he told himself – but what was that? If he put his left foot in the cockpit, how was he going to get the other foot in without capsizing and hitting his head on the oysters? But now, as if for the first time, he noticed the truncated bough, hollow and grey and blotched with lichen, that stretched upwards from the fallen tree like a stumpy, guiding arm. He picked up the paddle, shuffled between the log and the kayak, and leaning cautiously over the boat, grasped the paddle and port rim of the cockpit in his left hand. With the other he gripped an indentation in the branch; then he lifted his left leg into the cockpit, took a steadying breath and heaved himself in. The boat wobbled but soon forgave him. He adjusted his body into a paddling position – Marcus’s footrests were conveniently placed – but when he tried to propel the boat forwards, the stern would not budge. He had a fleeting thought for the welfare of the borrowed kayak. If he were beached out on the sandy flats, he would have pushed off with his hands, but he wasn’t going to risk it here, not with all those cutthroat oyster shells lying in wait for him. Instead he rocked back and forth like a hopeful toddler as he tried to push off with his paddle. A wail of impotent despair began to bubble in his chest, but before he could release it he caught the invasive monotone of an outboard motor. A fisherman’s tinny appeared at the northern point of the cove, moving way too fast as if it owned the place but creating a favourable wash. He had only to wait for the first little waves to roll in.

He was away at last, bending his breath to the rhythm of the paddle as he glided along the channel between the oyster beds. The orange kayak was slower than Geoffrey’s, but it was sturdy and reliable. And this morning he had no inclination towards speed, not when the world was asking to be savoured. In the clear early light, unmuted by the sunglasses that were stowed in his pyjama pocket, the blue line of hills to the west was sharply defined, while their wooded folds appeared soft and shadowy. He felt the embrace of country, of this place that had staked its claim over him long before retirement had made it possible to make his home here.

Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light
Eden saw play…

His mother used to sing that hymn to him when he was a boy. It seemed an age since he had last dreamed of her, straining for the attenuated voice of the woman who had been taken from him when he was barely ten years old. Now, as he allowed himself to think of her, what he felt was not the usual stale melancholy but something akin to acceptance, unforced and unruffled.

It took longer than Geoffrey had expected to gain the opposite shore. After skirting the oyster lease, he entered a narrow arm of the estuary, calm as a billabong, and made for a low, overhanging branch. He touched the stern of the kayak to the grassy bank and leaned his shoulder against the bough. Cicadas were rasping on the islands; swallows did aerial acrobatics in pursuit of insects. Several metres away a pelican descended and expertly aquaplaned to a halt. He spread sunscreen on the papery skin of his arms and legs and then ate his banana. Casuarinas, everywhere casuarinas, and not the graceful river oaks, either. This lot were colonising riffraff. Suddenly he wanted to be near the big old bangalays again, those few dignified survivors of a eucalypt forest that had been cleared for farming. He was pretty sure he knew where to find them – beside a stagnant reach further on. He put on his sunglasses and set off for the broken bridge.

With movement came memory. Why did the snake cross the lake? Because it wanted to get to the other side, where it would be in danger from some spiteful old bugger with a shovel. Geoffrey had noticed the snake’s head in the water as he was returning from a long paddle up the river. At first he could scarcely believe that the creature had set out to swim so far. Why leave its wild, protected island for a riskier place of human habitation? Did it know there were more frogs and mice on the other side, or was it driven by some vague hope of fulfilment? How like life and its blind strivings. Half the time we hardly understood why we did things. Go on or turn back, the mainland or the island: who was to know which was better? He had felt compelled to follow the snake, as if he could protect it from its foolhardiness, though he must have recognised that he was only adding to its stress. Sometimes it would stop to rest, its body sinking almost vertical with only the nostrils above the water. Yet Geoffrey could not bring himself to move away; he had to be certain that the red-bellied black had made it safely across the lake. At last it reached the shore and stretched out on the sun-warmed rocks, spent. He had kept watch from his kayak, admiring the reptile’s glossy back and the red scales that reached up its flank, until it roused itself from its torpor and slithered into the vegetation.

Where were the mangroves? Had there always been cows in that paddock? Where the blazes was he? He must have got turned around somehow, lost his bearings. He could see the double-humped mountain in the distance, but it was no help in orienting him. He felt as if someone were sitting on his chest, forcing the air out of him. Chill, he could hear Marcus say; take a deep breath and chill. The annoying git had got lost once in the maze of channels that looked like small rivers yet came to dead ends. But Marcus had an excuse: he didn’t have decades of familiarity with the estuary. Geoffrey became aware now that his left shoulder was hurting. Worse still, and far too early, the wind was getting up.

He stopped paddling and let the kayak drift where it would. He was alone – not an anchored tinny in sight, no paunchy fisher of flathead to point him in the right direction. He removed his sunglasses and pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, as if by that action he could retrieve the missing map in his head. After a few breaths he slid his hands down his face, raised his head, blinked. His heart flipped in fright. A few metres up ahead was a dorsal fin; a second fin surfaced to starboard. Geoffrey swore – and then he laughed. Really, he was no better than Barbara, who would scream whenever she encountered a basking blue-tongue, her excuse having always been that her brain experienced a delay between the primitive jolt of fear and the perception that the reptile was a harmless lizard. These dorsal fins, surprisingly dark, were sleekly curved to the rear. They belonged to the two unfortunate dolphins who had found themselves trapped in the lake when the entrance became blocked. A family of three had entered the estuary, no doubt chasing a school of fish, but something had happened to the calf. Not even Marcus knew its fate, though being Marcus, he had tried to discover it.

Now the dolphins circled the kayak – they could capsize it easily enough if they had a mind to – and came up in the same spot. They repeated the manoeuvre, as if inviting him to follow. Or maybe they were going crazy from grief or confinement and simply fancied a bit of sport. At some point after his mother died, Geoffrey had cast off his childish faith in God and life. Why would any rational person trust in either on the evidence of what this world could dish out? And yet now it seemed that his only option was to have recourse to this pair of captive mammals, who had no earthly reason to look kindly on human beings. He had heard stories, of course, of dolphins saving people, and even allowing for narrative exaggeration and an element of myth, he did not discount the tales – although he had to wonder what was in it for the dolphins. He began to believe that these animals meant to lead him back to the open water, from where he could find his way home.

He paddled towards them, doing his best to ignore the pain in his shoulder. Sometimes the dolphins would disappear, and for a desolate minute or two he would fear they had abandoned him. But then a dark form would curve reassuringly out of the water ahead of him, and another closer to the kayak. They did not show their faces; these were wild animals who knew nothing of rewards for acting cute. Geoffrey scarcely took in his surroundings, so intent was he on making headway and not disappointing his guides. Since he would need all his strength to paddle into the wind, he tried to keep something in reserve by moving efficiently through the calm stretches. He passed under the broken bridge but did not stop, much though he wished to. As he left the sheltered arm, the full blast of the wind blew him off course, and he struggled to avoid the posts of the oyster lease. Panic began to claw at him. What if he couldn’t do this? He looked around and saw only a choppy expanse of water. Where… Over there! Together the dolphins leapt clear of the lake, revealing their pale bellies and amiable, beaked faces.

Waves broke over the bow; his pyjamas were soaked. As he battled the wind, he felt weaker and wearier than he ever had in his long life. Frailty, thy name is Geoffrey. Yet his guides refused to give up on the panting old man in the kayak. They frolicked nearby, as if relieved to be back in deeper, saltier water. He kept his focus on the green sweep of the neighbours’ lawn as the effort of each stroke carried him closer. When at last he reached the lee of the cove, he collapsed back in his seat, gasping. Gradually his breath returned to a shallower version of normal. As he swigged from Marcus’s waterbottle, he searched for the dorsal fins, but they did not reappear. Perhaps the dolphins knew he could manage the final stage on his own.

He eased the kayak in beside the fallen tree until the bow came to rest on something firm. He had made it across the lake, but making it onto land was beyond him. Beneath the lapping water the oysters still leered. He had a stiff back and a numb bum, but he would stay in the boat, shaded by the casuarinas, and wait for someone to find him. Over a cup of tea and a slice or two of Barbara’s Christmas cake, he would tell the story of his deliverance and explain his plan to free the dolphins. If he offered to help pay for the dredging – he could cash in one of the unit funds the old son-in-law had recommended he buy – he was sure he could persuade the council to open the lake’s entrance. Geoffrey Morecroft would do whatever he could to help the dolphins reunite with their pod and roam the ocean once more.

A peace settled over him, despite the pain in his arm and an oppressive fullness in his chest. His heart was gripped with the mystery of life, its beauty and cruelty, its joys and suffering. He felt no pride now in separateness and yielded instead to the gentle pull of kin. Someone would come, even if it was only Marcus looking for his waterbottle. Someone would come for him soon.

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