Read the story being discussed onJesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 15 June 2017
by Eileen Merriman
They see the fish on their first day, laid bare on the tide line. The seagulls have nearly picked the bones clean already.
Liam turns around, his eyes solemn beneath his calico-blond fringe. ‘What happened, Mum? Do you think they were poisoned?"
Molly shakes her head. ‘They were probably dumped overboard by fishermen.’ She glances at her husband for corroboration, but he is already striding ahead, as if he were trying to put as much distance between the house and himself as possible.
‘They’re snapper,’ she says. ‘Maybe Uncle Joe will take you fishing tomorrow, if you’re good.’
‘If I’m good, if I’m good,’ Liam sings and takes off after Richard, his eight-year-old legs scissoring, clip-clip-clip.
Molly slows, prods one of the fish skeletons with her toe. She turns and looks up at the house on the hill. She sees figures on the balcony — three, maybe four. A peal of laughter drifts towards her. Drinking already, probably.
She sighs and looks back at the fish. Coming home is like this. It strips her bare.
You are nothing.
‘I worked my fingers to the bone for you.’ Her mother’s lament has worn thin over these years. ‘And you gave it all up for — what?’
‘Molecular biology.’ Molly watches her eldest brother flip the cap off the bottle of beer, accepts it with a smile. ‘Thanks, Sully.’
‘Cheers.’ Sully’s hair has receded almost back to the crown of his head, mimicking the outgoing tide. His skin is like a walnut shell, brown and lined. He’s still Sully, though. Constant, a rock. Sully-who-stayed, while the rest of them ran away.
‘Cheers,’ Molly echoes, ignoring Richard’s sideways look. He hates it when she drinks beer. She tips the bottle back, the amber bubbles fizzing across her tongue.
I’ve got three brothers, Rich. Guess there’ll always be a bit of a tomboy in me.
‘All the years I spent teaching you. All those hours of practice, wasted.’ Hazel’s lips are almost non-existent. ‘When was the last time you touched the piano?’
Molly sighs. ‘I don’t know.’ She hears shouts from below, walks over to the railing.
‘Joey!’ Ants is striding across the lawn to meet their youngest brother. Joe isn’t looking at him. His head is swivelling, as if he’s lost something. He tips his head back and looks up to the balcony, his eyes locking on hers.
It’s always a shock, seeing her twin again. It’s as if the cells in her body have been milling around all year, Brownian motion, and now they are humming and aligned toward him.
‘Hey,’ Joe says, and then he is trying to hug all the members of the extended family at once, swarming over him like bees. The favourite uncle, the favourite brother, the favourite son. She should resent him. She doesn’t. She loves him just as much as they do.
No. More than that.
They start up the barbecue around six. Sully and Ants drink beers and argue about the best way to cook steak, while the in-laws sit on deckchairs on the lawn. They talk about rising house prices, impending drought, terrorism. The kids play a complicated game of hide-and-seek, weaving in and out of the pohutukawa trees. The sky is duck-egg blue.
Joe’s eyes are cornflower-blue, the same as Molly’s and Liam’s. She and Joe, of course, aren’t identical twins. Still, they orbited each other for nine months, like a pair of moons. She feels his gravitational pull even when he’s across the other side of the world.
‘How’s life?’ Joe pulls back on his beer. Molly is onto her third. Her limbs feel heavy, as if they’re full of sand.
She shrugs. ‘I’m an associate professor now.’
Joe whistles. ‘Woo, Professor Lolly.’
‘It’ll be a while before I make professor.’ Molly smiles. ‘And you?’
‘Ah.’ He stretches his wiry arms above his head, the blond hairs shimmering in the evening sunlight. ‘The Middle East makes this place look like paradise.’
‘You’ll get yourself killed.’ She gazes out over the bay. Meringue-tipped waves, bleached sand, glassy skies. It should be paradise.
Joe shrugs. ‘There are important stories out there. Did you see my photos in The Listener last year?’
Molly shudders. ‘Yeah, they gave me the shits.’
Joe laughs, lowers his voice. ‘How’re things with Richard?’
She almost says they’re fine, but then Joe gives her that look. Joe is the last person she’d ever lie to.
‘Tolerable,’ she says, stretching out the four syllables, as they used to do with chewing gum.
‘He just needs to get that stick out of his arse.’
Joe raises an eyebrow at her. ‘Just saying.’
Later that evening the adults gather in the lounge, while the children play Spotlight outside. The air smells of overcooked steak and beer and feet. Sully suggests a game of cards. Richard rolls his eyes at her. He hates games, hates this yearly ritual.
‘You don't have to play,’ Molly says, resting her hand on Richard’s arm, and, so released, he retires to the balcony to read his Kindle. They partner up to play 500, her mother and Ants, Sully and his wife Teresa, Molly and Joe.
‘Ten no trumps,’ their mother says, as usual.
Ants groans, tosses his cards down on the table. ‘Mum.’
‘I’m good for it,’ Hazel says, her lips pursed in concentration.
Molly runs her hand beneath her nose to tell Joe her cards are good, but not that good, and he wrinkles his nose back at her. Me, too. Next time, maybe.
Molly and Joe win anyway, because Hazel loses her Ten No Trumps bid and then Molly and Joe win the next three hands in a row.
‘Jesus,’ Sully groans, and goes outside to have a smoke, which drives Richard back inside.
‘I’m going to bed,’ he says, his hand on Molly’s shoulder. ‘Don’t let Liam stay up too late, will you?’
‘He’ll sleep in.’ She tips her head back. ‘I’ll join you in a bit.’
‘OK.’ Richard grazes her forehead with his lips. ‘I’ll leave your nightie outside the door.’
She should have gone to bed with Richard. Her mother is winding up for the evening, even as the cicadas wind down.
‘I think it’s time for some music,’ Hazel says. ‘Molly, why don’t you play us something?’
‘I’m out of practice,’ Molly says, but her family jollies her down the stairs and into the music room. There’s a pair of Steinways down there, the pianos her mother uses for teaching students. The pianos Molly used to spend hours at every morning.
‘Play Für Elise,’ Teresa urges, collapsing into the remains of an armchair.
‘Ah, that’s such a cliché,’ Joe says. ‘Play us some Chopin, Lolly.’
Molly rolls her eyes at him. ‘Mum can play us something.’
Hazel shakes her head, and sits on the couch. Her flowery apron falls across her legs, still shapely even at seventy. ‘Chopin, yes,’ she says, as Joe sits next to her. ‘Fantaisie Impromptu.’
Molly plays a few scales. Her fingers feel stiff at first, these days more used to holding a pipette than stroking the ivory keys of a Steinway, but it doesn’t take long for their disjointed movements to turn into a fluid motion that spreads throughout her body. She hears her mother’s murmur of appreciation from behind her. The rest of the family have fallen silent, even the children, who have drifted in and are sitting on the floor and perched on their parents’ laps.
When she lifts her hands from the keyboard, there is a momentary silence, and then a whistle from Joe, and clapping from the others.
‘You were always my best student,’ her mother murmurs, and then, ‘such a waste.’
Molly stiffens. Hazel looks at Liam, sitting at Joe’s feet, and says, ‘I’ll give you a lesson in the morning, Liam. What do you say?’
Liam’s sandy eyebrows draw together. ‘I’m going fishing with Uncle Joe.’
It’s nearly eleven by the time Molly tucks Liam in. He’s sleeping in the downstairs lounge with his cousins, all of them laid out on squabs and inflatable mattresses like anchovies in a tin.
‘Don’t get up too early.’ She kisses him on the forehead. He tastes of salt and ice cream; there’s a smear of chocolate beneath his chin.
‘I’m going fishing with Uncle Joe. He might leave early.’ He closes his eyes, his long eyelashes quivering on his cheeks.
Molly smiles, ruffles his hair. ‘He’ll wait for you, don’t worry.’
She finds Sully and Joe on the balcony, drinking whisky and talking about authoritarian regimes. She leans over the railing, letting the sound of the waves roll into her ears. She thinks of the cochlea, and its resemblance to a seashell. Then she lowers her head and runs her tongue along her arm, still salty from her swim earlier in the day.
‘Coming fishing tomorrow, Lolly?’
Molly turns around, squints at Joe. ‘I don’t know. How long will you be?’
Sully laughs, and swirls his whisky around his glass. ‘Molly-Lolly, always in such a hurry. No wonder Mum couldn’t get you to the concert halls in Vienna.’
‘Piss off, Peter.’ Molly pushes away from the railing and walks to the stairs at the end of the balcony.
‘Have a sense of humour, huh?’ Sully calls after her.
Molly ignores him. She walks down the driveway and past the rusting letterbox, the gravel biting into the soft soles of her feet. It’s a two-minute walk to the beach at the bottom of the road. She walks across the powdery sand, lets the incoming tide wash over her feet.
‘Must be at least twenty-two degrees, that water,’ says a voice behind her.
‘Must be.’ The breeze percolates across her face, bringing scents of sun-baked seaweed and frangipani.
Joe wraps his arms around her, his chin slotting into the hollow of her shoulder. Two pieces of a puzzle, Molly thinks, as a feeling of tranquillity spreads through her.
‘Every year I tell myself I’m not coming back,’ she says.
‘I’m glad you did.’ He turns his head, his lips resting on the pulse in her neck.
He releases her. ‘Come for a swim.’
‘I don’t have my togs on.’
‘Since when did you need your togs?’ He’s stripping off, his butt cheeks glowing in the light of the half-moon. ‘Since when did you get so shy?’ He runs into the water and dives beneath a wave.
Joe, Joe, you never grew up, she thinks, but she leaves her clothes in an untidy pile in the sand, and follows him into the deep. They bob out behind the breakers on their backs, their faces turned toward the night sky.
‘I forgot how many stars you can see out here.’ Joe waves his arms back and forth. ‘It’s so clear.’
‘Don’t you miss New Zealand when you’re away?’ Molly flutters her feet, turns a slow circle.
‘Of course.’ Joe extends an arm, his fingers brushing past her as she revolves around him. ‘Makes me appreciate it even more when I come back.’
‘You’ll get yourself killed, one day.’
‘Could stay here and die, too.’ Joe stops moving his arms. ‘Look at Dad, he never went south of the Bombay Hills and he was dead at fifty-seven.’
Molly huffs through her nose. ‘You’re only forty.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘You’ll never settle down, will you?’
‘If that means shacking up with a stuffy academic and moving to a white, middle-class suburb…’
Her anger is quick, a lightning flash behind her eyes. ‘I’m going in.’
‘No.’ Joe grabs her arm. ‘Don’t.’ They face each other, treading water.
‘Stop it, then.’ She stares into his eyes, mirror-mirror on the wall, who’s the most stubborn of them all?
‘You started it.’
‘You finished it.’
‘You always have to have the last word, don’t you?’ Joe grabs her arms and licks her face. Molly shrieks and pushes his head beneath the water, and then they both go under, arms and legs tangling around each other.
Her head breaks through the inky surface before his. She fills her mouth with water and sprays him in the eyes as soon as he bobs up.
Then he chases her, and they laugh and cavort, like a pair of dolphins, all the way to shore.
‘What time is it?’
‘I dunno. Midnight?’
‘Huh.’ Molly has put her underwear and bra back on, has draped her t-shirt around her shoulders. They are sitting in the overhang of a bank, beneath the massive roots of a pohutukawa tree.
‘Still early.’ Joe, shirtless, lies back in the sand with his arms behind his head.
Molly hesitates, and then lies back, too. ‘I’ll have to shower when I get home now.’
‘Why don’t you just crawl into bed and give Dick a big hug?’
‘He hates sand.’
‘Even if you’re naked?’
‘Hmm, not sure,’ she hedges.
Joe rolls onto his side. ‘What, you don’t have sex anymore?’
Molly closes her eyes. ‘None of your business.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure you get it all the time. A girl in every port.’
Joe doesn’t take the bait. He says, ‘Remember when we had that argument with Dad and he locked us out of the house?’
‘Yeah, we spent the night on the beach.’
‘We built that shelter of driftwood …’
‘And then the wind came up . . .’ Molly laughs, remembering how it fell on top of them, and Joe joins in.
‘What was the argument about, Lolly?’
‘Oh.’ She sighs. ‘I can’t remember. Can you?’
‘Yeah.’ Joe deepens his voice. ‘Stop talking that nonsense, you sound like a pair of Chinks.’
‘Oh, the language.’ Molly rolls her eyes towards the stars. ‘Pidgin English. Dad hated that, didn’t he?’ They were just talking backwards, but no one ever figured it out.
‘I think that’s why he got sick,’ Joe said. ‘Because he was continually angry.’
‘Maybe.’ She thinks of the cancer that killed him, turning his bones to the consistency of cheese. She thinks of the mutations in the cells that lead to that cancer.
‘You’re thinking some logical, sciencey thing, aren’t you?’
‘Yeah, right.’ Joe trails his fingers along her arm. ‘Remember when we snuck out and hitched a ride to Auckland with Kit and Coke, so we could go to the Guns N’ Roses concert?’
Molly smiles. ‘Yeah, the driver let us smoke weed in the car, and we all got really stoned.’
‘Including the driver,’ Joe says, precipitating another fit of the giggles. ‘I still listen to them sometimes,’ he says, once they can breathe again. ‘November Rain.’
‘Huh. Haven’t heard that in years.’ She scoots closer, rests her head on his chest.
He curls his fingers around her shoulder. ‘Why are you still with him?’
‘Are we back to this again?’
Joe doesn’t answer. She listens to his heart, beating a tribal rhythm in her ear, their ancestral beat.
‘He’s a good father. To Liam.’
‘What about when Liam grows up?’ His chest rises and falls, mirroring the swells in the sea. Sea-shells-cockle-shells-cochlea-curl. How Freudian, Professor Dick.
‘I don’t know.’ She inhales. ‘He rescued me.’
Joe snorts. ‘You don’t need rescuing.’
Molly sits up. ‘How would you know?’
‘Jesus, Molly, you’re forty years old, an associate professor. How do you need rescuing?’ Joe sits up, too, his hands planted flat in the sand.
‘Look at you,’ Molly says, the lingering taste of sea-salt bitter on her tongue. ‘You’re still running.’
‘I’m a journalist. A war correspondent.’
‘You’re all the same.’ Molly runs her hands through her still-damp hair, sand, sand, as though she were a crumbed fish fillet. ‘You’re all running from something. What normal person tries to kill themself trying to get the best photo, the best story?’
‘I never said I was normal, Loll.’ Something in his voice tugs at her core. He sounds old, all of a sudden, battle-weary.
‘I thought Mum would get better, after Dad died,’ she says. ‘But she never did.’
‘She’s had a hard life,’ Joe says.
‘So did we,’ she says, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice.
‘Remember when Dad got so drunk he drove home from the pub with the door open, so he could look at the centre line? He kept saying, it’s awful foggy out.’
‘I’m glad you think that was funny.’ The Southern Cross has tracked across the sky, is now hanging directly above them. They’re still lying beneath the roots of the pohutukawa tree, slotted together like piano keys.
‘You have to laugh or you’ll cry.’
Molly keeps her mouth closed. She’s feeling so warm, and whole, and she doesn’t want to ruin this. It could be the last time. Every year, she thinks that.
She turns into him and runs her fingers over the face she knows so well. She pictures their DNA, twin double helices winding together, tangled and inseparable.
‘We should go,’ she says, as the sky begins to lighten.
‘Soon,’ Joe says. And then he whispers in her ear, ‘Remember when we …’
‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’
But she does, and they do.
And every time she tells herself it will be the last.
The sun is a thin rind on the horizon when she slides into bed. Richard is lying with his face turned toward the wall.
‘Mmph,’ he mumbles, as she pulls the sheet over her sandy body.
‘Go back to sleep,’ she whispers. ‘Still early.’ Then she falls into a dreamless sleep. The ache is gone, for now.
In a couple of hours, she will wake and join Joe and Liam as they glide across the glassy sea in her father’s old fishing dinghy, three peas in a pod. She’ll watch them together, Liam and Joe, with their cornflower-blue eyes and the freckles scattered across their skin like sand. She’ll think of the filaments of DNA, spiralling through all their cells, and the ties that bind, tangled and inseparable.
And so they go on.
This story won third prize in the Sunday Star Times Short Story competition in 2015.
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