Congratulations to Anna Granger who came third in the NorthWrite 2018 Short Story Competition. Here is her story. The winner’s story is available here and the second place story is here. Judges’ comments can be found here.
by Anna Granger
Last summer I found myself dreaming of Cristina. I’d see her floundering behind the breakers and I’d dive into the sea to find her, but she was always just out of reach, the current carrying her further away. And when I woke I could still smell the kelp and feel the salt stinging my eyes.
When the dreams wouldn’t stop, I went back up north. I took a bottle of cherry brandy and a few things in a bag and drove all day to get there. Now the winding road to the coast was sealed instead of sandy, and the pine forests were bigger and darker. In the reedy swamps, skinny dairy cows grazed strips between black-water ditches. Near the beach there were more houses than before. Most of the little baches, with their tiny porches, crumbly curtains and rutted sandy lawns, were gone, and around every corner there was another beige box with tinted windows and a gleaming four-wheel drive parked outside.
The beach store was still there, but the wooden porch was now a slab of concrete studded with faded umbrellas. The bay windows painted with ads for Meadowgold ice cream and De Reszke cigarettes were gone and the whole shop front was a sheet of salt spattered glass advertising takeaways and movies. I parked by a cluster of white plastic chairs and went inside. A lonely-faced woman was wiping the counter. I was the only customer. I was going to ask if she knew my Uncle Frank, if he still sold manuka chips, and firewood, and bags of lemons. If he still shod peoples’ horses and fixed their lawnmowers and drove the school bus, and if he still made wine. But instead I grabbed a local paper and some water.
“I’ll have these, thanks,” I said to the woman. “And a packet of De Reszke.”
She stared at me. “What are they? Some sort of biscuit?” A trickle of sweat ran down her forehead. It was a mean trick and I laughed out loud, but I wanted to cry.
“Sorry,” I said, turning to leave. “I’m really sorry…”
Only the beach hadn’t changed, rolling away up the coast, looking like a distant memory.
Out on the back road behind the dunes I found the house still there. What paint was left on the weatherboards now hung in chalky white flakes. Purple morning glory spread over one wall and hops climbed up the veranda posts, dropping a curly green curtain over the front porch. The lemon trees were covered in shaggy lichen and grapevine rampaged over the sheds and fences. I called out, but I guessed nobody would come. And when the cicadas stopped for a moment there was nothing but the roar of the ocean and the empty feeling inside me. Nobody could be living here anymore. I kicked the gate. It swung open and I went in, for a last look.
Uncle Frank sat on a dirty orange sofa on the sagging porch. When you don’t see a man for half a lifetime, you can expect him to be changed. He was small and brown, wrinkled like the last potato at the bottom of the sack. His thick white hair was chopped short and sticking straight up. He wore ragged overalls with food stains down the front and cut-down gumboots.
I struggled to get my breath for a moment. “Hello, Uncle,” I said. He stared blankly at me, then leaned forward, little cloudy eyes squinting behind thick spectacles that were mended all over with grubby sticking plasters. I stepped closer and leaned forward too, then he grinned and I saw several yellow teeth.
“Ben! Is it Ben? Yes? Haha! Look at you now! It is good to see you, very good, very good!” He was trying to stand, so I jumped the step onto the porch and helped him up.
“Cristina isn’t here,” he said, taking my hand and getting to his feet with a grunt, all hunched up and twisting his head sideways to see me. “But come in, come in, and I will make us some tea.” His hand squeezed mine before letting go to grope for his stick leaning on the wall. He walked bent over at the waist, shuffling down the short hallway to the kitchen. I followed him and saw that everything was the same, but coated with a grey layer of dust. The ceiling was draped in black swaying cobwebs and the walls were dingy with soot from the coal range. I thought I should be smelling fried fish and lemons, but instead there was the stink of old clothes and garbage.
Uncle Frank leaned over the stone-chip sink bench, which was piled with rotting potato peelings, tea leaves and empty sardine tins. He filled a kettle, talking all the time. He said he couldn’t drive or go fishing or make the wine anymore, and that the store delivered his groceries every Friday. He didn’t notice when I replied, so I guessed he was deaf as well as pretty blind. When he said he hadn’t seen any of the family in years and years, I shouted that neither had I.
The table was covered with greasy newspaper and crumbs. The old photos of our gum-digging relations were still on the wall and Auntie Tina still looked out from a frame on the mantelpiece. That face had once seemed old to me, but now the woman looked so young. Cristina hadn’t been able to remember her mother and had said she didn’t care. There was a picture of Cristina too, dark-haired, sweet and sulky in her school uniform, the colours faded into orange, the way snaps from the seventies all ended up.
I carried the teapot and Uncle Frank brought two chipped cups and a bag of stained clumpy sugar. He told me that Cristina had not been back from overseas. “But she is very busy with her work,” he beamed. “Look, see the pictures here.” I looked at the well-thumbed photos of a smartly dressed and beautiful Cristina with a variety of glossy well-fed children, and the shoebox full of Christmas cards from Sydney. The last postcard was over five years old.
“Of course this house is for Cristina,” Uncle Frank continued happily, his battered glasses crooked across his purple nose. “Yes, it’s an old house. But it’s a strong house, a good house. And a happy place for children… You remember, every school holiday? Christina’s boys will come too! They will ride the pony and swim, and pick the grapes, just like you and Cristina. But some work is needed, you can see – a few boards, a bit of iron for the roof, and of course paint…” He trailed off with a shrug, and dug in his shirt pocket for a thin pouch of tobacco.
I didn’t tell him that the place needed more than a few repairs and a bit of paint, and that the grandchildren would have grown into tattooed six-footers with iPods and mobiles grafted to their heads, who would rather stick pins in their eyes than cut manuka, pick grapes and take turns riding a ghost pony. I didn’t tell him that Christina always said she hated the house behind the dunes, the constant wind and the relentless drumming of the sea. I didn’t tell him how she had despised him for his loud clumsy foreignness and smothering love. And how I hated her for hating what I loved.
I didn’t tell him about the room I shared with Cristina in a cold villa in the city, about the plans we made, about the fights, the lies and why Cristina went away. And I didn’t tell him I could see she was keeping her promise, and that she was never coming back.
A drowsy afternoon breeze ruffled the hops as we stepped down into the sun. We walked slowly across the yard and, passing the barn, I peered inside. It was packed with timber, machinery and junk. I said, “You’ve still got all your tools, Uncle, that’s good.” But I don’t think he heard me. At the gate I remembered the brandy and gave it to him. He took a while to read the label, then grinned and we shook hands.
Now I’ve fixed the saggy porch, and this is where we sit in the evenings. Me with my laptop and Uncle Frank with his big-print fishing diary. Sometimes I think the sofa should go – it’s a bit of an eyesore. But Uncle Frank is right – it really is very comfortable. And later, in that deep sleep that comes from hard work and homemade wine, I never ever dream of my cousin Cristina.