‘I love Ewan McGregor!’ Hannah cried as the Elephant Love Medley from Moulin Rouge began. ‘I wish he’d leave his wife and marry me!’
No-one spoke. No-one had said anything much for days. Hannah turned up the volume.
Evelyn sat in the back, staring at Rick’s neck as he drove. She concentrated on her breathing and on not feeling anything.
It was windy when they pulled up in the carpark at Suicides Beach. Behind the open boot of the station wagon, they pulled on their wetsuits. The cold air snapped at their bare skin.
Hannah was chatty with tension. ‘My God, check out those waves! I hope they don’t cancel it.’
Rick nodded, scarcely looking at her.
Evelyn waited for him to zip up her suit, facing the wind so it blew her hair away from her face. She wiped sunscreen over her cheeks, reading the numberplates of the cars around them. Most were from Western Australia, but there were a few from New South Wales. She figured most interstate competitors would have flown instead of driving a beaten up Ford across the country.
‘How’re you feeling, Ev?’ Hannah asked. ‘Nervous?’
Evelyn ignored her.
‘For God’s sake, Evelyn!’
She picked up her board and strode down to the sand.
It was the end of their three-week drive from the Indian to the Pacific, a holiday to celebrate the end of uni. In the few days left before the competition, they drove around the south-west, surfing and sightseeing. At Elephant Rocks near Denmark, Hannah clambered down to the rocks surging from the sea. She sat on a formation shaped like an elephant, so that she seemed to be riding on its neck. She slapped her backside, bouncing up and down, and Rick snorted with laughter. Evelyn wandered away. There was a pungent smell wafting about; she traced it to a white, star-shaped flower.
‘What is it?’ she asked Rick as he came to stand beside her. His parents owned a nursery in Byron Bay and he worked there during the holidays, on long weekends, and while studying for his exams. He stepped closer, breathing in Evelyn’s scent of sandalwood and sweat. The wind had parted her chestnut hair at the neck, exposing her skin. He wanted to touch the vulnerable spot, but stopped himself.
‘It’s a sticky tailflower. See, the leaves are sticky.’
Hannah bounded up behind them, her blue eyes sharp and alert. ‘What’s going on?’
‘We’re having a look at this flower.’
‘Pong! It smells like my twat!’
Rick and Evelyn walked along the sandy trail back to the car, Hannah following. It was the formation they used when they swam out to the waves: an inverted isosceles triangle with Rick and Evelyn in front, Hannah behind.
In Busselton they checked into a youth hostel, then drove to Wonnerup House where some Europeans, the Laymans, had settled in the 1830s. It was a sunny day, the lawns surrounding the buildings smooth and glossy. They read the laminated information brochure. There had been a massacre of Aborigines, it said, in retaliation for the landowner’s murder.
‘Poachers,’ Evelyn said absently.
‘Who? The Aborigines or the whites?’ asked Hannah.
‘The Laymans, of course.’ Irritated, Evelyn headed across the paddock to the stables.
At lunch they sat on the soft green lawn and unpacked baguettes. Rick joked and laughed with Hannah. Evelyn felt unsettled and wondered if she was getting her period.
When they'd eaten the baguettes, they climbed back into the car. They drove past stands of big, gnarled eucalypts.
‘They’re called tuarts,’ Rick said. ‘Aren’t they grand?’
‘Oh, they are grand,’ Hannah mimicked with a posh accent. Rick smiled and Evelyn noticed the tension at the sides of his mouth. She wasn’t surprised; it wasn’t his kind of humour.
‘What’s with all the lilies?’ Evelyn asked. The white flowers dotted the grass beneath the trees, stretching for kilometres.
‘They’re arum lilies, and they’re impossible to get rid of. If you pull them out of the ground, it disturbs the mother bulb and they proliferate. It’s a weird mechanism, all this activity in response to stress.’
He stopped the car and they clambered out. A breeze stroked the long grass and the lilies nodded heavily. Evelyn felt chilly in the tuarts’ shadows. She wanted to leave immediately, but Hannah was posing for Nick’s camera, a lily stem between her teeth. Evelyn sought the small patches of sunlight, trying to remember if she’d packed tampons.
The waves were high and savage, like mouths opening and closing. Hannah and Evelyn were among the first competitors. Evelyn watched as Hannah twisted her board up and down the waves, outwitting them for a long time, until one gracefully closed over her.
Rick stood further back on the shore, when ordinarily he would have been at Evelyn's side. She resisted the urge to turn and seek him among the crowd. She was sick of loving throbbing inside her like a clot.
They drove to Margaret River and found a café in the main street. Evelyn ordered the coffee while Rick and Hannah found a seat.
The stocky man behind the counter had laughter lines around his eyes. As he took her money, Evelyn asked, ‘That place Wonnerup, that’s near here – what’s the name mean?’
Wonnerup?’ He punched the keys of the cash register. ‘It’s Aboriginal. Means "place of the wonna", I think.'
‘What’s a wonna?’
‘An Aboriginal woman’s digging stick. They found a whole lot of skulls there once. The ladies must’ve had it in for each other.’ He smiled, tipping change into her hand.
She turned back to the table, wondering if it had been ghosts in the grass that caused her discomfort. Rick was by the window, watching people pass by in the street; she loved his distant, crumpled look. Hannah had opened a newspaper, but her eyes were on Rick. She was wired again. Evelyn saw it in the tautness of her body and in her thin-lipped smile.
‘Look at this,’ Hannah said as Evelyn slid into the seat beside Rick. For emphasis, she shook the paper, a week-old copy of The Sydney Morning Herald with the crumbling World Trade Centre spread across the front. ‘The American President can’t understand why anyone would want to attack America. What a dope.’
Hannah hadn’t noticed that her voice was too loud for the small café. At any other time, Evelyn would have told Hannah to shut up, but she didn’t feel like a fight. Their coffees arrived. She stirred sugar into her latté and drank it too quickly. It made her nauseous. She laid her head on the table and closed her eyes. Rick reached across and stroked her hair. She sighed, feeling better immediately.
Rick and Hannah stood on the shore, their arms touching. They watched Evelyn watching the wave.
‘Christ, she can't manage that, can she?’ Hannah asked.
Rick didn’t answer. The wave was huge, gathering handfuls of water to itself. His stomach turned. Of the three of them, Evelyn was the most skilful, the most daring.
Hannah felt Rick’s muscles flex as he folded his arms. She'd met him through their mathematics course at uni. They always seemed to end up sitting next to one another in the lecture hall, so Rick invited her to lunch. For an hour, Hannah had delighted in his humour, intelligence and large brown eyes. She was starting to think she'd found the other half of her life’s equation, when Evelyn arrived. The same height as Rick, Evelyn was tanned, her body hard and lean. She held herself with a composure that came, Hannah was to find, in her effortless confidence.
‘Hannah, this is my girlfriend, Evelyn. She’s studying Arts.’
‘The degree’s for mum and dad,’ Evelyn said. ‘I only want to surf.’
Hannah couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. She shook Evelyn’s hand and found her grip firm, her gaze steady.
Then Rick’s arm circled Evelyn’s waist and the numbers jumbled. Ever since that day, Hannah had been figuring out how to make them work.
Evelyn kicked towards the wave. The wind was ferocious, but she beat against it steadily and strongly. Her head was no longer crammed with thoughts of Rick; there was only the coldness of her bare feet, her hands slicing through the water, the salt stinging her bitten lip. She pushed herself up, her toes gripping the board, her body poised. She tipped the board down the throat of the wave.
Rick watched sunlight hit the arc of water. It was turquoise, magnificent, glinting with fish. Despite his fear, he was envious. He knew that she’d win and want to go to America, just as he knew she wouldn’t want to leave him behind.
There had been long summer evenings on her verandah smoking dope, giggling, and holding hands lightly while their parents played tennis on the town courts. Often, he’d pluck a passionfruit flower from the vine hanging over the railing and push it behind her ear, then kiss her delicately on the lips. In the morning her bedroom reeked of marijuana and mint air freshener. They made love slowly and sleepily, until Evelyn woke up properly and bit him sharply on the shoulder. He was saturated with love with her; he always had been.
They’d grown up a street apart in Byron Bay. Their parents were friends and, whenever they met for barbeques, he and Evelyn would kick a football, the air laden with heat and scents of frying meat and frangipani. They’d begun surfing seriously when they were ten. First it was every weekend with the Surf Club, then every afternoon in summer and, zippered into wetsuits, in winter.
Their first kiss had been in the dunes. The wind was frisky, whipping up the sand and making the wiregrass bristle. They were clumsy, sand and hair getting into their mouths. It made them laugh until Evelyn, suddenly serious, pulled Rick down. Her hands searched and explored him with an intensity that was surprising, but which, later, he always keenly anticipated.
They hadn’t intended to go to the same university in Sydney, but when they found their offers in the newspaper, they laughed. It wasn’t unexpected; they’d started finishing each other’s sentences.
In Sydney they rented a flat in Maroubra. Mornings came to mean the smell of salt, the slap of cold water and Evelyn floating on a board beside him, smiling.
Evelyn's pulse rushed as she felt the strength of the wave in the sliding, pulling water. The sea clawed, longing to get her under, but she resisted. Evelyn liked this kind of anger — it was something to contend with — unlike Hannah’s, which you had to learn to bear.
‘You’ll win, alright,’ Rick said as they walked out of the sea at Maroubra, the morning before they left to drive across the country. ‘You’ll make it to the States soon.’
‘I’m that good, am I?’ she replied cheekily, turning to him.
‘Yeah.’ He dropped his board, cupped her cheeks with his wet hands, and kissed her.
Evelyn pushed away the memory of his tongue touching the inside of her mouth. She crouched lower on the board, the wind thrusting her through the tunnel of water.
There were cheers when she waded into the shore. She smiled, expecting Rick to rush from the crowd to embrace her, as he always did. When he didn't appear, she remembered Hannah, and her shoulders sagged.
Hannah, who had a thing for lighthouses, had wanted to visit the model at Cape Naturaliste. By the time they’d climbed to the top of the lighthouse and down again, Evelyn was too tired to move. She collapsed on a piece of grass by the entrance while Rick and Hannah set off on a walk around the Cape.
‘We won’t be long,’ Rick said. ‘Maybe an hour or so.’
‘We might see whales!’ Hannah cried.
Evelyn smiled and lay back in the sun. She slept for a while, then sat up, waiting for them. The sun dropped towards the sea and it became cold. When they appeared from the bushes smothering the track, they were holding hands.
They saw her face and their fingers untangled. Hannah looked embarrassed. Rick’s expression was blank.
Evelyn realised her restlessness hadn’t been premenstrual at all. She pushed herself up, brushed grass from her palms and walked back to the car. She sensed Rick and Hannah draw together as she walked away, like water closing in the wake of a ship.
The sea was furious as Rick paddled out. Ordinarily, he relished the vagaries of its tricks and temper, but today it irritated him. Even as he listened to the sloshing and sucking around him and watched the waves arching ahead, Hannah and Evelyn intruded.
Hannah, small and compact, with her short tufty hair and quick movements, had a sharp wit, but a terrible temper. She got angry about a lot of things and went off like a firecracker.
He’d never known Evelyn to ignite. Hannah had once half-jokingly referred to her as an integer, so whole and self-contained that she never needed anyone else, but Rick disagreed. It was more that she was so deep she was impossible to define, even though separate elements of her personality were clear to him.
Her endurance impressed him most. She’d always lasted longer in the water, so that when he waded out to the shore, his limbs aching, he’d turn to watch her. It was then that he imagined tidying up at the end of the day at the nursery in Byron, watering the palms, wheeling the display pots back inside, misting the orchids and picking dead leaves from the ferns, then driving to the beach to join her in the surf. When the light faded they would rinse their boards and head home, languid with exhaustion and contentment.
He never mentioned these reveries to her; he sensed they would be received with a tender, but bemused, smile. All she could think of was America. Yet he knew that if he followed her, he’d lose himself. He wanted to go back to his family’s nursery, not serve in an American burger joint while she surfed.
He blinked, realising he'd been on autopilot. A wave was rearing before him. His mouth dried as he struggled to turn his board, but it was too late.
Evelyn glanced at the officials behind her. The wind brought snatches of their conversation. 'Cancel ... getting too dangerous,' she heard.
She watched Rick swimming out to meet the waves. There was too much force whirling about him. She dug her feet into the sand, sensing he wasn't strong enough to master it.
When the sea pulled the board out from under his feet, Evelyn stared so hard her eyes dried. After a few minutes, she saw the leaf shape of his board, but he didn't come up with it.
'Get the ambos!' she screamed, sprinting into the water.
Evelyn had woken from this dream on thousands of nights. She fought with the sea as she swam, terror pouring adrenalin into her muscles. She dived beneath white, snarling foam, waiting for bleary light to shine through the surface and signal an all-clear.
She’d forgotten the sea could be malicious; it had been a lover for so long. She'd always relished the shock of water against her shins, the way it made her nipples erect, the crackle of foam rushing out of her ears and the surprise of rough kelp wrapping about her ankles.
At last she saw the sea rolling his limp figure. She propelled through the water, her heart about to burst.
The board was still attached to his wrist. She tried to pull it closer so she could manoeuvre him onto it, but the sea was too rough, slapping about them. A wave slammed into the back of her head. She held onto Rick's arm, but sea's grip was tighter. It squeezed the air from her lungs and forced her down to the sea floor. The sides of her vision grew dark; she couldn’t see where the surface was.
She’d had a dream, once, that Rick was Jesus. It was true: no one could get enough of him, least of all her, even though she was with him all the time. Perhaps she should have done more, said more, been more passionate, but there hadn’t seemed to be any need.
The sea pushed another fistful of water down her throat. It was time to let go.
'What the hell do you think you were doing?'
Evelyn spluttered into consciousness. She rubbed her stinging eyes, her chest a cavity of pain. They were on a lifeboat, the sea chucking itself at them in fury.
'We could've had two dead bodies!' A bald man in a lifejacket glared at her.
'Shut up, Tom!' shouted a woman at the rudder.
Evelyn sat up, sparks shooting along her spine. She saw Rick next to her, another man in a lifejacket pumping at his lungs.
'Is he alright?'
'Not yet, he isn't.'
Evelyn struggled towards him, but the bald man held her back. His face softened with concern.
'Lie down, love, you've gone green.'
'Rick!' Evelyn called, and vomited.
After a few days, the doctor moved Rick from intensive care to the general ward. It was the first time Evelyn was allowed to be close to him after they'd been taken from the ambulance. The ward was dark but for the lamps above each bed, glowing like tiny halos. One patient, at the far end of the ward, was reading through her insomnia.
Rick slept with his back turned to her. Evelyn watched his shoulders rising and falling. She'd loved walking behind him, admiring the wedge shape made by those shoulders and his torso. Apparently this was to be Hannah's privilege now.
Evelyn had done nothing but think, for these past few days and nights as she waited for Rick to mend, about why he had pulled away from her. No satisfactory answer had presented itself, other than the appeal of Hannah's mediocrity.
Rick rolled onto his back, flinging out his hand. Evelyn took it and stroked his arm, her thumb brushing against the grain of his hairs. There was no point in asking him, she thought sadly. She had not been enough, and that was all there was to it. She touched his strong fingers with their neat, clipped nails. Or perhaps she had been too much.
Evelyn gazed at Rick's face, noticing tears seeping from beneath his lids. She brought his hand to her lips, and kissed it.
Rick leaned against the bonnet of the car, waiting for Hannah to come in from the surf so they could begin the drive back to Sydney. She was a nimble thing — not as strong as himself or Evelyn, they'd always agreed — but quick to find the right waves and ride them. Rick banged the heel of his hand against the worn, dented bonnet. He had to stop thinking of the word ‘they’.
Hannah floated on her board, watching the waves form. It was the mathematics of surfing that she liked most; the shapes made by the breakers, the speed at which she was travelling, the point at which a wave crested. The sea was full of algorithms.
She twisted around to see Rick. He stared at the ground, his head lowered. Evelyn had left a week ago, refusing to travel back across the country with them. Rick called her a taxi for the airport and walked her to the road. When he came back his face was white, and he didn’t respond when Hannah kissed his cheek.
‘Have we got time for one last surf?’ she asked as they packed their things at the hostel.
He nodded distantly.
When they rolled into the empty carpark and Hannah skipped down to the shore, he gazed steadfastly at the horizon.
Hannah flattened herself on her board; a fine wave was curving out of the sea. She began paddling towards it.
Rick had told her, as they walked around the rocky headland of Cape Naturaliste, that things were finished with Evelyn. ‘She loves surfing more than she loves me,’ he’d said.
Hannah studied him, calculating. She adored his brown eyes, his dirty blonde hair, the way he often stared into the distance, thinking. She had thought that you couldn’t interrupt a relationship that had started in childhood, but perhaps all it took was rearrangement. Like shifting the sides of a triangle.
The wave was almost perfect. Hannah stood up and caught it, delighting in the equations of velocity that whirled about her.
A fortnight later, Evelyn, who'd been staying with a friend, met Rick in a Thai restaurant in Kingsford. They sat silently, without appetite, picking at their tofu and noodles.
‘I’m moving my stuff out. I've found somewhere to live.’
‘Don’t be dumb.’ She twisted noodles around her chopsticks, sucked them up and wiped sauce from her lips. ‘Hannah will move in.’
‘Have you asked her?’
‘No, but I’m sure she’d like to.’ Evelyn stabbed at her tofu.
‘Where’s your place?’
‘Not in Maroubra. A different beach.’
‘Will we still surf together?’
‘No. Hannah can do that with you.’
He sighed. ‘Why don’t you ever get angry?’
‘I do. I just don’t show it.’
‘Are you angry now?’
He stared at her. Even Hannah’s little explosions, which scattered words like shrapnel, were easier to understand than this.
‘I thought I knew everything about you,’ he said. He poked at his food, frowning. The white paper tablecloth was stained with florets of sauce. It occurred to him that Evelyn’s fury, like the lilies under the trees at Wonnerup, would help her thrive and flourish for years. He glanced up and found her regarding him.
‘Likewise,’ she replied softly. ‘I thought you loved me.’
Rick grabbed his wallet, a flush breaking across his collarbones. He left too much money for the bill.
A gust of evening air brushed Evelyn’s face as he stepped out the door. She watched him cross the street and turn the corner, leaving her sight. For a moment she felt bereft, but then her anger resurged, as steady and persistent as an incoming tide.