ODT Summer Times Short story: The Shark Bell by R.L. Stedman
By R.L. Stedman - ODT | Posted: Monday January 20, 2020
A fortnight after her husband left her for his personal trainer, Petra took up running. She told herself it was nothing to do with Carter or his parting words.
‘‘Just look at you! Can you blame me? If you hadn’t let yourself get so . . .’’ he’d said. ‘‘Forget it. I’m going.’’
Petra began slowly, jogging along the sand at St Clair Beach, until by the time December rolled around, beach-running had become part of her life. At the end of her run she’d treat herself to a takeout coffee from the cafe beside the shark bell and watch the surfers dancing with death on the tops of the waves as she drank it. She watched for sharks, too, but never saw any.
This morning, Christmas music played from the cafe. On the beach, a young couple ran through the waves with their Labrador. Perhaps she should get a dog? A dog would be company. Still carrying her coffee, Petra stepped off the sidewalk.
Whack! Something hit her hard, smashing her sideways. She tumbled into an undignified heap, landing hard on her tailbone. Hot coffee sloshed over her T-shirt and stung her eyes.
‘‘What the — !’
A beach-blond surfer, board under his arm, stared down at her. ‘‘You OK?’’
She nodded shakily. ‘‘I . . . think so.’’
‘‘I didn’t see you,’’ he said, helping her to her feet. ‘‘I just turned around and . . .’’
He demonstrated with his board. ‘‘I side-swiped you, I guess. I’m sorry.’’ He supported her back to the sidewalk. ‘‘Here. You’d better sit.’’
He helped her to a bench, and she plonked down gratefully, feeling dizzy. Her coffee cup lay in the gutter, its contents running into the drain.
‘‘I’m really sorry,’’ he said again.
‘‘It’s my fault,’’ she said, ‘‘I wasn’t looking.’’ Her T-shirt, once white, was streaked brown with coffee. She crossed her arms about her breasts.
‘‘My house, it’s just across the road, see?’’ The surfer nodded at the ageing villa on the opposite corner. ‘‘Please, let me make you a replacement coffee.’’
‘‘I’m OK. Just shaken, that’s all.’’
‘‘No wonder. You hit the ground pretty hard.’’ He put out a hand. ‘‘I’m Damien.’’
‘‘Petra,’’ she said, and they shook.
‘‘Come on,’’ he said briskly, helping her to her feet. ‘‘You need something hot. And sweet.’’ His eyes seemed as blue as the sky; as the sea. She nodded. ‘‘OK.’’
Damien tucked Petra’s arm into his elbow, and, holding his board under the other arm, walked her across the street to his villa. It would have been lovely once, she thought, with those wide bow windows, but now the place had an air of decay; the wooden frames of the windows were cracked, and some of the boards were rotten.
Damien pushed the old gate open with his foot. ‘‘It’s a work in progress. I’m going to do it up. Down here.’’ He nodded at a concrete path that led down the side of the house.
In the shaded path his sun-bleached hair seemed to glow. It was long, almost to his shoulders, and thick with salt. Fighting a ridiculous urge to touch it, Petra followed him.
At the rear of the house, Damien propped the surfboard against the wall and picked up an old boot beside the doormat. Upending it, he shook a key on to his palm.
‘‘I know,’’ he said, catching her expression. ‘‘It’s not very secure, right.’’
‘‘You don’t have anything you’d miss?’’
‘‘My espresso machine, perhaps.’’
Petra laughed. ‘‘How big is your machine?’’ She bit her lip. That sounded bad.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘‘My espresso machine, you mean?’’ He unlocked the door and waved her inside. ‘‘See for yourself.’’
A gleaming chrome and red monster took up an entire benchtop. ‘‘Commercial grade,’’ he said proudly. ‘‘Plumbed in and everything. Have a seat. Let me rinse off my board and I’ll be right with you.’’
She sat on a stool in a square of sunlight. The kitchen was well-loved, almost retro, with cupboards of real wood and a countertop of battered metal. It smelt invitingly of coffee and cinnamon and there was a line of Christmas cards above the stove.
Outside, Damien had peeled his wetsuit to his waist. She knew she shouldn’t stare but she hadn’t seen a shirtless man for ages and Damien was definitely worth watching. Then he turned around. Oh my Lord! What is that? Petra put a hand over her mouth, staring at the crescent shape scars over each shoulder blade.
Picking up a hose, he moved around the edge of the house and out of sight. When he returned to the kitchen he’d removed his wetsuit, and wrapped a white towel around his waist and another around his neck.
‘‘Water?’’ he asked.
He poured them each a glass, handed one to her. Solemnly, he clinked the tip of his glass to hers. ‘‘So, Petra. Your accent — you’re American?
She nodded. ‘‘New York. I followed a man. What can I say? I was young and stupid.’’
‘‘No man now?’’
She shook her head, touched the pale line on her finger where her wedding band had been.
‘‘Ah. Right,’’ he said. ‘‘Hey, do you mind if I take a quick shower? Before making your coffee.’’
‘‘No, of course not.’’
He hesitated, ‘‘Um, hey, you want to shower with me?’’
She spat the water on to the floor.
She was coughing too hard to answer him, so he began pounding her on the back.
She waved him away. ‘‘I’m fine. I’m fine. Ow! Stop!’’
‘‘I’m only thinking of the environment,’’ he said gravely. ‘‘Saving water and so on.’’
Petra set the glass down. Was this gorgeous guy actually hitting on her? Surely he was joking. Laughing at her expense.
Damien extended a hand in invitation. ‘‘You want to?’’
She shook her head. ‘‘I can’t.’’
He looked disappointed. ‘‘No problem. Just thought it might be fun. Look, do you mind if I wash?’’
She shook her head. ‘‘No. Please.’’ She wanted to curl up in a ball of embarrassment.
‘‘Would you like to shower after me?’’ he asked. ‘‘Not with me. I’ve worked that out. I can give you a change of clothes, if you like.’’
She plucked at the T-shirt marked with coffee and sweat. ‘‘Actually, do you have a top? Something you don’t mind losing for a few days. I can drop it off next time I’m passing.’’
‘‘Sure. I’ll just get you a towel,’’ Damien said, and hesitated. ‘‘I hope you didn’t mind me asking, back then. You just looked so . . .’’
‘‘. . . gorgeous. And I thought, why not ask? Didn’t mean to offend.’’
‘‘Gorgeous? Me? You’re talking about me?’’
He laughed. ‘‘Of course. Who else?’’ He left the room, returned with a towel, and tossed it to her. ‘‘I’ll get you clothes once I’ve showered,’’ he said, running a hand through his thick hair. ‘‘Really got to get this salt out.’’ He disappeared and a second later she heard the water running.
Petra pleated the bath towel. Here was this gorgeous guy basically offering himself to her and she’d turned him down. Carter had stolen her self-confidence; now she had to take it back.
Seizing the towel, Petra followed the sound of rushing water into the bathroom. Damien stood in the tiled shower, eyes closed, head tipped to let the water wash over his face. She took a moment to admire his lean tanned body, wreathed in steam. Apart from the scars on his back, his long muscled torso was flawless.
Before she could lose her confidence, she knocked on the doorframe. ‘‘Hey?’’
He glanced over his shoulder. Smiled. ‘‘Change your mind?’’
‘‘Just thinking of the environment.’’
‘‘I’m glad,’’ he said, extending a hand, and helped her in beside him. As Petra stood beside him in the rushing water, she didn’t even care that her clothes were getting wet.
Much later, seated in the sunlit kitchen, they drank coffee. Petra wore a stained yellow shirt and a pair of baggy board shorts and didn’t care at all. She felt happy and hazy and relaxed.
‘‘Thank you,’’ she said softly. ‘‘It’s been a long time.’’ She had told Damien about Carter — not what he’d said; just what he’d done.
Damien squeezed her hand. ‘‘You’ll find happiness. I guarantee it.’’
Petra glanced at the clock and sighed. ‘‘I have to go. Will I see you again?’’
He grinned. ‘‘You able to drop those clothes off tomorrow?’’
Early next morning, Petra went running, ending at the Esplanade where strong winds fountained ocean spray across the road. She stretched down, letting her pulse calm, but didn’t bother with her usual espresso. Instead, she returned to her car to retrieve Damien’s neatly laundered clothes.
Outside Damien’s house she stopped. Where the run-down villa had stood was a modern building of glass and concrete, surrounded by a high block fence.
Petra stared at it, frowning. No other nearby houses resembled Damien’s run-down property. Yes, this was definitely the right place: the outlook from the front gate was the same.
Petra closed her eyes, feeling dizzy. Had she imagined yesterday? Had she made it all up? ‘‘Crazy lady,’’ she whispered. ‘‘Oh my God. I’m delusional.’’
‘‘Hello?’’ said a voice. Petra opened her eyes. Beside her stood a fit-looking man, about her age with a concerned expression and a large, curly-haired dog on a leash.
The house was different. It was older. I’m sorry, do I sound like an idiot?
‘‘Are you all right? Can I help you?’’
‘‘I think. It’s just . . . ’’ She put her hand to her forehead. Yesterday things had been so great, yet now it seemed she’d made up a fantasy.
The dog barked and pulled toward the gate. ‘‘Tiny!’’ said the man. ‘‘Stop that!’’
‘‘Tiny?’’ she asked, for Tiny stood as high as her waist.
‘‘I know, makes no sense, right? Look, I have to go before she goes mental. But you don’t look well. Sorry, that sounds rude. Can I call someone for you?’’ He resisted the dog’s tugging. ‘‘Get you something? A glass of water, perhaps?’’
Petra smiled shakily. ‘‘I don’t know . . .’’
‘‘Tiny!’’ he said, as the dog jumped at the gate. He pushed it open. ‘‘You really look like you need to sit down. Come in, won’t you?’’ The lead jerked from his hand as Tiny raced down the path to the back of the house. ‘‘I’m Martin.’’
She smiled briefly. ‘‘Petra. I was here yesterday, but I . . .’’
‘‘You were? When?’’
‘‘The house was different. It was older. I’m sorry, do I sound like an idiot? He loaned me some clothes. I’m returning them.’’ She lifted the shopping bag.
Martin ushered her along the concrete path to the back door. There stood an old boot. Numbly unsurprised, Petra watched Martin pick it up and tip a key into his hand.
Inside, the kitchen had shiny stone benchtops, grey-green cupboard doors and a high springy faucet. Only the espresso machine was familiar.
Martin pulled out a stool from the kitchen bar. ‘‘Sit down. Please.’’
Petra perched on the bar stool. This all felt unreal.
She nodded and swallowed. Hoped she wouldn’t be sick.
Martin poured her a water from the fridge and another one for himself, then sat beside her. His eyes seemed kind. ‘‘Clothes,’’ he said. ‘‘You said something about returning clothes.’’
‘‘Yes. Damien —’’
Martin’s eyes widened. ‘‘Damien?’’
‘‘ — loaned me some. Mine were a mess. I spilled coffee all over —’’ She indicated her top.
‘‘He was kind. He had a machine just like this.’’ She gestured to the espresso machine.
Martin had a strange expression on his face. ‘‘What did this Damien look like?’’
‘‘Um, he had blond hair. Blue eyes. Tall. He’s a surfer. You know him?’’
Martin’s stool tumbled sideways.
‘‘What is it? Did I say something?’’
‘‘I’ll be right back.’’ A second later he returned, carrying a photo frame. ‘‘Is this him?’’
There in the photo stood Damien, smiling, with his arm around the shoulder of a boy, aged about 6.
‘‘Yes. That’s him. May I?’’
She examined the photo closely. It was definitely Damien, but something about the clothes of the boy, the faded light suggested the image was years old. ‘‘Who is the boy? His son?’’
Martin shook his head. ‘‘It’s me.’’
‘‘I don’t understand.’’
‘‘Damien was my cousin.’’
She blinked. Was?
‘‘This photo was taken, oh, about 40 years ago.’’
‘‘I don’t . . .’’ She pressed the cold glass of water to her face. Couldn’t process — it was too much.
Martin was still talking. ‘‘My aunt and uncle lived here, in the old house, and I was always visiting. Damien was so cool . . . I wanted to be just like him’’ He shook his head. ‘‘His parents, though were strict. Old-fashioned. And well, Damien was always bringing girls home. They used to have awful fights. The last one . . .’’ He shook his head.
‘‘If you don’t want to talk about it.’’
‘‘No, no. It’s OK. Damien was showing me how to wax a surfboard and Uncle Brian stormed out of the house.’’ He laughed, looking away, back into the past. ‘‘Old Uncle Brian was waving lace knickers that he’d found in Damien’s room, and yelling. He called Damien a hell-bound sinner; told him he had to leave. Then Damien stabbed a finger into Uncle Brian’s chest. ‘Hell-bound am I? Good. Because if your God is anything like you, I want nothing to do with him.’ He picked up his board and walked off to the beach.’’ Martin stopped, his eyes far away.
‘‘That was in the morning. About lunchtime the shark bell rang. I ran up to the Esplanade, saw a bunch of people shouting, and a bunch of surfers, hanging about on the sand. Someone shouted something about a shark.’’
He nodded. ‘‘Yeah. A Great White had been spotted off the point. The beach was pretty chaotic, you can imagine. About then, I realised Damien wasn’t on the sand with the others. And he’d been surfing around the point, near where the shark had been seen.’’ Martin sighed. ‘‘Later, we found his board. Broken in half.’’
Petra put a hand over her mouth, heaved back nausea.
‘‘Hey! Are you OK?’’
‘‘Your bathroom! I’m going to be — ’’ Petra staggered to her feet, stool toppling behind her.
‘‘Here,’’ he said, opening the door.
She just made it to the toilet in time. Afterward she rested; porcelain cold under her skin.
‘‘You OK?’’ Martin squatted beside her. ‘‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.’’
‘‘Petra,’’ she said wanly. ‘‘It’s Petra.’’
‘‘Nice to meet you.’’
‘‘Is it? Really?’’
‘‘Well,’’ he said, eyeing the toilet, ‘‘it could be in better circumstances. Come on.’’ He helped her to her feet.
He poured another glass of water for her and she sipped it, welcoming its coldness. Surely this couldn’t have been the Damien she met. No, that was stupid. Crazy talk.
Martin was still telling her about his cousin. ‘‘Uncle Brian went first — a heart attack. After Aunt Marge passed away, I bought the property.’’
‘‘No-one, not his friends or his girlfriends, ever saw him again.’’
‘‘That’s so sad.’’
‘‘I’m not an imaginative type,’’ Martin said, after a pause. ‘‘I’m an engineer. I deal in numbers, right? But something happened to me once. It was about a year after Damien disappeared: I was out swimming with my dog and got caught in a rip. I tried not to panic. I knew the best way is to swim sideways to the beach. Well, I swam, but it was so damn hard. You ever have that feeling that you’re powerless?’’
Petra nodded, thinking of her marriage.
‘‘I knew I’d never make it back. The beach was so far away. I was coughing, swallowing water. My lungs were burning. Then, as I was going under, I felt a board and heard Damien’s voice. It’s OK, mate. I’ve got you. When I looked up . . .’’ He raised his hand, as though to shield his gaze from the sun. ‘‘I couldn’t see his face; he was so bright, dazzling. Perhaps I was hallucinating. Anyway, someone heaved me on to a surfboard and paddled me into the shallows . . . I’ve never told anyone this.’’
‘‘I’m going to have a drink. Something strong.’’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘‘You?’’
‘‘In here,’’ he said, leading her into a sitting room furnished with antique tables, gold and white sofas and a large gilt-framed mirror. A Christmas tree stood in one corner, a lop-sided and dusty angel at its tip. Despite the decorations, the room had an air of emptiness.
Martin straightened the angel. In the mirror, his eyes were sad. ‘‘Since Francie, my wife passed away, I hardly bother about Christmas. I try to make an effort, but . . .’’
‘‘I’m sorry about your wife.’’
Martin went to the drink cabinet. ‘‘Rum?’’
She stopped. Had she truly made out with a ghost? Damien hadn’t felt like a ghost; he’d felt alive and warm and lovely. The angel on the tree . . . its wings. So white. She touched them gently.
‘‘Petra? What are you thinking?’’
‘‘I think I’ll have that drink.’’
The brown liquid burned all the way down. She plucked the angel from the tree, stared closely at its tiny face. Was it winking at her?
‘‘Damien had scars,’’ she said slowly. ‘‘On his back. As though someone had cut something from him.’’ As Martin came up beside her, she set the angel down on the sideboard. Yes, it was definitely winking. ‘‘He came to your rescue. He rescued me, too. He was kind. I think he was an angel. I think his scars were from his wings.’’
She expected Martin to laugh at her, but he just nodded, as though she made perfect sense.
‘‘When we made out, Damien and I . . .’’
Martin looked surprised, and then he grinned. ‘‘What!? You actually made out?’’
Suddenly Petra felt the same frisson that she’d felt with Damien. She put her hand on his chest. ‘‘Actually, you remind me of him.’’
What had Damien said? You’ll find happiness. I guarantee it.
Martin took her hand and held it tight. ‘‘I’m not him.’’
‘‘You don’t have to be.’’ Petra kissed Martin hard, on his open mouth. He tasted of rum and coffee, he felt good; felt right.
On the sideboard, the winking Christmas angel shimmered; its robes glowed white. Petra and Martin stared at it, at each other.
And then the angel was gone.
Rachel Stedman is an award-winning author of fantasy fiction. Her website is www.rlstedman.com. The Sharkbell features in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology presenting short stories with a Dunedin setting.