Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Twinkle Drops

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil

BEYOND my body there is light. The baths sequined in sun, a scattered constellation from here to the horizon. Nathan, my boy, named this phenomena Twinkle Drops when he was a child; the spangled capture of sunlight on the curl and curve of water. 

The surf hums this morning, a timeless lull. I sway in my saltwater cradle gathering motivation for movement.  Rolling slightly to the right I raise my eyes to squint above the cliff-side gardens – evidence of the dedicated local Landcare group – I look to our house, where it glimpses out through a salt infused shimmer, landlocked behind a band of renegade bitou bush and the flat green weave of vigorous buffalo grass.

I imagine Janet as she hovers beyond the lip of the escarpment monitoring my progress, as she is known to do. If I float for much longer, rather than swim, she’ll disappear into the waxy shadows of our timbered hallway to ring Nathan and lament my passivity.

Nathan will then appear at the house after work booming with buoyancy and jovial back-slapping in an attempt to entice me out of this bewildering retreat. We are all navigating uncharted territory. I am the chief cartographer, lost.

A serious lapper churns past me, rocking me back to my surrounds. My board shorts, newly purchased by Janet, swish at my thighs, unfamiliar. I no longer wear my salt-softened Speedos; the exposure is beyond me. The skin on my upper right leg roars an indignant red at the interruption of its previous seamlessness. I watch mesmerised as my ballooning shorts waft in the swimmer’s wake.

I resemble a giant striped jellyfish. Further parallels don’t escape me as I wallow, spineless and directionless, in the murky waters of the past few months – unable, it appears, to take control and reclaim the solidity and shape of my life, a shameful invertebrate.

It wasn’t the shattered hip that broke me but the loss of everything that a whole and healthy hip allowed me to be. The fall cast me violently into an entirely different category of being. These days I enter the baths with a cautious tentative shuffle, clutching at the handrail until the water reaches for me and relieves me of my own weight. I come here daily. How lucky I am, everyone tells me, to have such a wonderful facility so close to home. Logically I know I’m lucky – in everyway – but when I’m here, crab-walking fearfully down the ramp, rather than diving from the blocks at the far end of the pool, I have a sense of dislocation that no attempt at description can pin down. 

For close to 50 years I’ve worked six-day weeks, now nothing. No work, and a huge hovering question mark as to what and who I am. I’ve worked on building sites since I was 15. A labourer, a brickie and eventually – once I got through Tech – I set up on my own business. Nathan joined me when he finished school and many a Merewether mansion bears our craftsmanship.

Our own home, Janet’s and mine, is modest but functional. Location is its glory. Janet struggles to understand me but she hasn’t given up. God knows why. She chatters on in cheerful tones about “bones healing in no time” and “making the most of things”. Her voice echoes through my emptiness, raw and dissonant. This is the very advice I would offer someone else but cannot, it seems, apply to myself. I’m reminded of that saying “Take my advice because I don’t use it”.

The break in my hip wasn’t tidy. I slipped down the back step of an apartment block. I’d worked on the roof, the balconies, atop the retaining wall; no problem. Then merely a metre above ground level I lost my footing. The right hip-bone smashed and shattered. Jagged shards embedding not only in outlying tissue but as thorns of fear in my psyche, a part of me I’d previously had no inclination to consider. What began as a physical injury fragmented and festered into this weeping existential wound.

I’m seeing a psychologist now. Me, a happy, stable, lucky man, surrounded by every form of support and advantage. We sit in her chrome and stainless steel office once a fortnight as she toys and tinkers around my thoughts and feelings. I do little more than endure the confusion. I sit silent, stewing in a soup of sadness.

She tells me the accident triggered a subconscious insecurity, a deep-seated fear of mortality, and a question of who I am beyond work. “But why?” I ask her. “Why?” I’ve never before lacked courage.

“It’s not unusual …” she tells me, “at your age.” 

But I’m not old, I want to shout. I’m not even close. 

“You’ll get through this.” Her default response.

On some days I doubt I will. Life which once flowed naturally forward, now requires an exhausting circuitous navigation. The energy for appropriate action and response leaves me longing for solitude, release from the constant demand of performance and pretence.

I spend my days either at the pool, or marooned on the deck at home where I nurse a mug of milky coffee and wrestle my idle body and clouded mind. The threat of further surgery looms, complications crowd me.

Janet provides me with a tempting selection of snacks then disappears into the garden where she kneels for hours, weeding and tidying, as if in prayer to the dusty grey-green deities of banksia, eucalypt and rosemary. The aromatic vapour rises toward the house like incense.

For the first time in months, as I think of Janet, Nathan, the garden, and this glorious coastline, I sense a faint tug, an old familiar current. I’ve been treading water long enough. A seagull wheels overhead, cawing encouragement. I kick out against the water’s weight, swim toward the light, and reach for the Twinkle Drops.