Newcastle Herald short story: Unconstrained by Diana Threlfo

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 28. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 28. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

I STAND on the balcony of our apartment overlooking Newcastle beach and swallow the dregs of my wake-up espresso. 

I try to scrub away memories of my girlfriend’s distorted features, the iciness in her voice. They’ve plagued me ever since dinner last night when I’d excitedly shared some incredible news. My girlfriend sank plenty of red wine throughout the meal but none to celebrate as I’d hoped. Her tight lips and angry glares signalled her disapproval. Now I straddle a fence between being bogged down and feeling free.

Along the balcony, gauzy curtains flutter through the open French doors of our bedroom. My girlfriend mutters in her sleep. I stare across the sea to the horizon.  Clouds obscure the rising sun but their crowns are tinged pink and the clear sky above glows rosy. I suck in the salty air and listen to the breakers pound the shore. 

Images of my childhood flood my mind.  Like those endless summer days on the beach below, always with Mum or Dad or both. When I was very small the waves would chase me across the sand. I explored rock pools for crabs and anemones, sucked on chocolate paddle-pops and collected shells. Best of all were the hang-gliders that swooped and soared overhead like giant birds. They moved so freely I gasped in awe. When I grew older I’d squeeze into a wetsuit at our Merewether home, grab my boogie board and skateboard through the sharp bends of King Edward Park down to the beach with my surfie mates. 

The sound of the shower in the en-suite hauls me back to the present. I go inside and prepare fresh coffee. The aroma reminds me of my university days and the long hours spent at my girlfriend’s flat, cramming for exams with coffee at my elbow. Instant coffee. We laughed and joked about touring Europe to search for real coffee. 

The memory prompts a wry smile.  Above the desk against the far wall hangs a framed copy of my architectural degree; beside it the university medal.  When I recall Dad’s chest expanding on graduation day and the glow on Mum’s face, my own chest swells with gratitude. Down the hall in the bedroom, my girlfriend’s hairdryer suddenly burrs to life. I groan and rake my fingers through my hair. Is my news really all that incredible, incredible enough to still share with my parents?

My girlfriend pads into the kitchen.  Her eyes are puffy and have dulled to a muddy brown overnight. The coffee machine spits steam.  I gesture with a cup.

“Want one?”

She shakes her head, pours water into a tumbler and swallows what I presume are analgesics.

“How’re you feeling?” I ask.

“How do you expect me to feel?” Her reply cuts as intended. I wince. She begins to unload the dishwasher. Useless trying to talk over the clatter and clang of crockery and cutlery so I cross the room to the open doorway and gaze back out to sea.  She clears her throat, suddenly alongside me.   

“Are you taking that job in London?” That job. I sigh. London. European architecture.  Actually working alongside the architect who’s had the greatest influence on my own work. 

“Well?” my girlfriend demands. “Have you decided?”

I shrug. “It’d be an awesome opportunity to drink real coffee,” I say smiling.

She rolls her eyes: “You drink nothing but real coffee here in Newcastle.”

I suck in air through clenched teeth. Her arguments from the night before reverberate: if I even think about giving up my well-paid job and fantastic apartment for some pipedream in London then I’m definitely totally selfish and a complete moron.

My defence had been laced with sarcasm.

“Now I wonder where in blazes I got the idea you’d want to come with me?”

She’d spat an ultimatum at me then and stormed off to bed.

“Your choice,” she said. “It’s either London or me.”

Mid-morning I hit the beach. The surf’s pretty rough.  Several seagulls bicker over discarded french fries. I trot down to the water and without pause dive headlong into the first wave. It’s icy cold. When I emerge my skin contracts, tightens as if to fit me better. 

Another wave. One after another they break ahead of me. I lunge into the spume then resurface to tackle the next, and the next. Finally, breathless but reinvigorated I’m through and in the swell. I turn onto my back and float awhile, allowing the placid water to gently rock my body, soothing it like a mother soothes a baby. The familiar smell of brine, the taste of salt is like nectar to my spirits. But suddenly my dilemma thuds against me like a rogue wave. 

I face out to sea. From head level I can’t see far. But each time I lift in the swell I catch a glimpse of the ocean intersecting the clouds still piled on the horizon. Far beyond lies the rest of the world. Europe. London. They beckon like the tug of a powerful rip. I force myself to swivel and face the shore. Nearby stands the block of apartments. Home. My girlfriend. Further on still live my parents, friends and work colleagues, all the things that have tied me to my hometown until now. My throat constricts and I surf the waves in to the beach.

Back on shore, I trudge through the hot sand toward the kiosk and a much-needed coffee.  It tastes disgusting but a flash of citrus yellow high up on my left distracts me.

A hang-glider. 

It swoops low then climbs above the sea in a smooth rush, a bright contrast against the summer blue sky. I shade my eyes and follow its flight until minutes later it disappears over the headland at the southern end of the beach. I wait, anticipating its return.  Eventually I accept it’s gone for now, as free and unconstrained as the wind. Although I know it will be back some day.

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