When I told Dad I needed the binoculars for bird watching, I wasn’t really lying. Most of the day I’ve used them to stare at Robin Davidson’s neck. I don’t even like him and I hate that he’s eating chips and gravy. They’d be good and salty and I don’t have any money.
Robin isn’t from around here. He’s from somewhere big and you can see it on him, the way he moves. I wish I wasn’t from here either, that I could live somewhere else, even if it was only with Nan on the other side of town.
When Robin’s finished the chips he runs his fingers around the box and licks all the gravy off before wiping them on his t-shirt. I watch as he puts the rubbish in the bin then races up the sandy track. At first I just stare after him. But then I’m running, holding onto the binoculars so they don’t bounce off my chest. I cut through the sand hills and duck down in the long grass that shivers around me like water.
Dad says I should stay away from Robin cause his mum’s a troublemaker. I reckon a lot of people from the cannery have told their kids that. But no one’s ever said anything about not looking at Robin’s neck. His skin there is brown and smooth like the inside of a seashell and his muscles stick out at angles. There’s a mole on the left side that’s shaped like Tassie. I can see it as he bends down to look at a mutton bird on the beach, its head twisted in that way that makes you know it’s dead. Robin’s eyes are all wide and red—like he’s about to cry.
Sometimes I feel like crying too.
Dad’s gone to check the nets with Warwick so I’m having dinner at Nan’s. The smell of the roast fills up the whole kitchen and when I take a breath I can taste the rosemary and onions. It takes Nan ages to carve it. Her hands are all shaky and usually I feel sorry for her but right now I’m too hungry and wish she’d just hurry up. When she puts my plate in front of me I nearly fall into it. It’s really good, not like when Dad cooks meat and it still tastes alive.
‘I met the new woman working for the fisheries,’ Nan says. She places a small piece of pumpkin in her mouth, chewing it slowly. I stare down at my plate and smash peas into potatoes. My face has gone hot at the mention of Mrs Davidson and I hope Nan doesn’t know about Robin and his neck.
‘I don’t think Warwick’ll be able to get around her the way he did Greg Dunn,’ she says.
I look up. ‘You mean with the secret fishing?’
She nods then reaches out and brushes hair from my face the way Mum used to.
When I finish eating I help Nan put the leftovers from dinner in a container for me to take home. She gives me some other shopping too—eggs, milk, bread, and the blackberry jam I like, as well as a packet of Iced VoVos she tucks in my backpack to hide from Dad. She’s just finished doing the zip when we hear his ute pull up out front.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ she says before kissing my forehead.
I nod and push my arms into my bright red parka. Nan opens the door and hands me the shopping and I go out into the wind. I take slow, careful steps to the car hoping Dad’s caught lots. When I get close I can see that he’s grinning. I let go of my breath and get in, sink into the seat that’s damp with seawater. The heater’s on and it makes the stink even worse, like when you slice open a fish’s belly and its guts spill out.
Dad tosses something into my lap. A seashell. Curled like a horn and silken inside—the sort Mum and I used to collect. I smile up at him but he’s not looking. He slaps the steering wheel as he drives off and says, ‘We got nearly a grand’s worth.’
The next day I follow Robin down to the beach and there’re more birds laying in clumps all over the sand, like seaweed made from feathers.
The day after that it’s even worse.
They’re not just on the sand anymore, but rising up in the glass faces of the waves and when I stand at the edge of the water they knock into my ankles. They knock into me so hard that all my thoughts fall out of my head and into the ocean with them.
‘It’s so sad.’ I turn around to see Robin. His jeans are rolled up and he wades into the water beside me.
‘It happens sometimes, when the wind’s like this,’ I tell him.
‘Mum says it’s happening more often, that it isn’t just a freak thing. She says it’s part of something bigger.’
He nods and looks out across the ocean and I notice his eyes are the same grey as the waves. ‘You know the birds get all the way to the Arctic?’
I tell him I didn’t know but that I wish I could fly and see the world like they do. Robin smiles when I tell him that. He says he wishes the same thing.
Robin and I meet at the beach every day after that. Sometimes we just stand still in the cold water, letting it grab our legs and Robin tells me about the birds. Other times, when we don’t want to look at them, we run up into the dunes or go to the bluff where we can watch the surf going up real steep over the black reef.
Robin knows a lot about the birds—how the storms they go through are getting bigger and that the fish are going someplace else. I listen hard so I can think about everything later. So I can let each bit of what he says fly around in my head the way they should be doing, instead of lying still and broken on our beach.
‘Do you think the birds are dying because people have wrecked the ocean?’ I ask Dad. I’m standing at the sink, my hands in the washing up water and as soon as I turn to look at him I know I should have kept it inside.
His eyes are all bloodshot and I get a whiff of that sticky smell that makes me think of the carpet in the pub. ‘What tree hugger told ya that?’ he growls.
The last thing I want is for him to find out about Robin so I tell him I haven’t ever seen anyone hugging trees. He smacks me on the side of the head. It makes my ear scream and I put my hand up to rub it. My eyes are a bit watery so I blink. It’s better not to cry around Dad.
Nan says something snapped in Dad’s head when Mum and my brother died. But I reckon it was his heart. That’s what breaks when people lose other people in the movies. Now it’s like there’s this big hole in him and everything good leaks out of it.
When I finish washing up I go to my room and lay down on the bed. The window’s open and I can hear the wind outside pulling the waves up to the sky. I go to sleep and dream about the birds. They’re falling all around me until they cover my head and I can’t see anything except for black feathers. I can’t breathe. I’m drowning in them like they’re the sea.
There’s too many of them on the beach the next day so Robin and I go for a walk, right up past the bluff and into the car park where the surfers are peeling off their wetsuits like seal skins.
Robin points at the Mr Whippy van, the pink and white bright against the purple sky. ‘Wanna get one?’
I shake my head and tell him I’m too cold.
‘It’s never too cold for ice cream,’ he says, heading for the truck. When he gets there he studies the pictures on the side of the door. ‘If you were gonna have one, which would you pick?’
I pause for a second then point to the one dipped in chocolate and hundreds and thousands.
Robin nods and orders a nut sundae and a choc dip freckles. When we get to the bench he hands me the ice cream. I already know it’s going to be the best before I’ve even taken a bite. I feel the chocolate on my lips and I smile at Robin.
He smiles back, pushes his spoon into his sundae and says, ‘I knew you were following me, you know.’
‘That first day on the beach.’
‘No I wasn’t.’ I feel hot even though it’s windy up here and the ice cream’s making my insides cold. ‘I’m not even supposed to talk to you.’
Robin tips his head to the side. ‘Why?’
‘Cause of Dad,’ I tell him.
Robin nods but doesn’t ask me anything else.
When we finish our ice creams we walk back to the beach. Down on the sand you can smell the storm and you can see it. It flies in, filling up the whole sky and steals all the light. At the track Robin takes my hand and we feel our way along with bare feet. His skin is warm and I close my eyes and let him lead me. I think about his neck. I imagine what it would be like to have Tassie under my fingertips.
When we get to the top we see his mum waiting. She pushes her hand through his hair and tells him she’s been worried.
Robin ducks away and gives her a look. ‘Sorry, Mum.’
Mrs Davidson smiles at me. ‘You’re Craig O’Reilly’s daughter?’ I nod and she asks if I want a lift.
I shake my head. I don’t even want to imagine what Dad would do if I turned up home in Mrs Davidson’s car. I bet it’s warm and dry inside and smells like those air fresheners people dangle from their rear view mirrors. ‘I’ll see you later,’ I tell Robin and spin around to run—before Mrs Davidson can try and change my mind.
I hear voices coming from the lounge room and I know that Warwick’s over and Dad’s drinking with him. I sneak round the back and climb onto the old drum then pull myself through my bedroom window. Tiptoeing to the door I creak it open real slow, the wedge of light getting wider. Dad and Warwick are talking. I step back and I’m just about to shut the door when Dad calls my name. I edge into the hall and down to the lounge room. He’s standing at the window holding a drink. Warwick’s sitting in the armchair but gets to his feet when he sees me.
‘Where’ve you been?’ Dad asks.
‘In my room.’
Dad moves toward me and he’s unsteady on his feet. I press myself into the wall and wish that I could disappear. He speaks through his teeth. ‘Where have you been?’
I turn my face and I can see Warwick behind Dad. He’s smiling and it makes me feel sick because I’ve seen that smile before—that time he was in my room standing over me in bed. I look back to Dad. ‘I was at the beach.’
‘With the Davidson kid?’
I shake my head.
‘You little liar,’ he says. And I run. I hear his glass drop on the carpet and his footsteps pounding up the hall behind me. When I get to my room I push the door closed but he catches it. He shoves it open and it hits me in the lip. The taste of metal fills my mouth as he grabs the collar of my jumper and drags me toward him. ‘What did you tell him?’ He growls it into my face.
‘Nothing,’ I say, and I’m trying really hard not to cry.
Dad leans close, so close he goes all blurry. He stares at me for a while then throws me away from him. ‘We’re going to check the nets,’ he says.
Everything is water.
The rain comes down and I tuck my hands inside my parka. I can hear it splashing against my hood. I can see my breath in the cold air and think about going back to the house, but I don’t.
Dad never came home last night and standing on the beach alone, with the birds all around, it feels like he never will. It feels like the end of the world.
I hold the shell he gave me tight in my hand, let it dig into my skin. I close my eyes and wonder what it would be like to live with Nan in her house on the other side of town. I imagine her filling the potbelly stove with driftwood, watching it spark blue and purple. I sit in front of it eating Iced VoVos while she brushes out my wet hair and I can smell shampoo in the flick of it against my face. Robin is there and so are the mutton birds. They’re all around us, their feathers fluffing and drying in the warmth. They’re resting at Nan’s so one day they can fly away. All the way to the Arctic.
I open my eyes.
I wonder if Dad’s still out there.
More birds are falling from the sky. I can see them way out through the binoculars, struggling in the tangled water. But I can’t do anything except wait. Wait till they wash up around me and by then they’ll be dead.
Krystina is a writer, reader and lawn flamingo enthusiast. She would love to fall headfirst into a book and live there. Or down the rabbit hole.