Crescent Bay is about a group of women living in a south coast town. Anne first came to Crescent Bay to protest a nuclear reactor but since the tragic and mysterious end to that campaign she has lived a half life on the edge of town, until a chance encounter forces her back into the world. Efficient Joyce is grieving the death of her mother and caring for her secretive father, while also trying to find a life of her own amid overwhelming duty. Light-hearted Beth likes to solve everyone’s problems, whether welcome or not, but despite her bumbling bluster she may have stumbled across a darker mystery. This is a novel about proudly ‘difficult’ and ‘prickly’ women who form an unlikely friendship.
Joyce strode up the pebblecrete path to the cream metal screen door, yanked it open and unlocked the front door. Inside, the cool hiss of air-conditioned air reverberated off the large cream tile floors. Claws skittered, and a little apricot poodle rounded the bend and threw itself towards her, front and back legs working frantically, ears and tongue flapping. Kitten slammed into Joyce’s legs and she picked him up and brought him to her face, which he lapped ecstatically.
‘That you, Joyce?’ The thin voice carried, disembodied, from out of sight down the hall. ‘That little pest been out of control all day.’
Joyce walked in and stood in the doorway looking at her father, who was sitting neatly on the brown leather couch.
‘What are you even doing here, Dad? What happened to dinner at the club?’
‘Bruce’s leg is crook again.’
‘You could still go, some of the other guys might be there.’
Joyce looked at him a moment, then moved in and planted a kiss on his forehead. ‘Hi, Dad.’
She lowered Kitten to the ground then straightened her back. ‘Righto then, I’ll cook something for us here.’ She started opening and closing kitchen cupboard doors. ‘Looks like we’ve got some pasta?’
He was staring out the back screen doors.
‘Dad? Dad, you have to eat something.’
‘I’m just not too hungry.’ He continued to stare. The light was disappearing fast outside. Joyce watched him.
‘Dad, let’s you and I go. To the club.’
Piotr looked at her.
‘Dad? What do you say?’
‘Well, if you want to?’
Joyce suppressed a sigh. ‘Come on, we’re going. Let’s go.’
She gathered up the handbag, car keys and phone she had dumped on the kitchen counter, and jerked her head at the front door. ‘Come on, Dad, hustle!’
The RSL club was just on other side of the small town of Crescent Bay, but Piotr never walked anywhere. They drove with their windows up, but in the RSL carpark the warm evening air was all plant oil and salt and exhaust. A headlight beam swept over them as they neared the automatic glass door entrance. The air glowed, an electric blue sunless sky.
Inside, they made their way to the bistro.
‘You sit, Dad—I’ll order. The usual?’
Piotr nodded and shuffled away to sit down as Joyce joined the queue. Waiting, she looked around the room. Her dad was huddled near the window. A child shrieked a few tables away. A young mother shushed the child wearily, proferring a dummy with one hand and broccoli floret with the other. Across from her, a man jogged a toddler on his knee.
When Joyce had placed their order, she turned back to see Kevin standing over her father. Kevin’s back was to Joyce, but she recognised her father’s oldest friend from the days working at the plant. Kevin’s hands were planted on the table and he leant over, shoulders drooping between the upright props his arms made, head bent down to Piotr. Joyce was relieved but her smile slackened when she saw Piotr’s face around Kevin’s bony body. It was set, taut, his gaze on the table and now up at his friend, unblinking, for longer than was friendly. As Joyce reached the table the two men were silent.
‘You’re looking lovely, as always, Joyce,’ Kevin said. Joyce maintained her smile. ‘I was just trying to get Piotr to come sit with his old mates but I see he has lovelier company tonight. I won’t compete, nah, nah!’ he said, grinning, lifting his hands in surrender. Piotr watched, still silent, as Kevin walked off with a cheery wave over his shoulder.
‘What the hell, Dad? You and Kev having a fight about something?
‘He want me to come to the meeting but I won’t and that’s it.’
‘Alright, alright. What meeting?’
‘I not want to talk about it.’
Joyce breathed out and sat back. The RSL never changed. The same blue and red patterned carpet that a middle manager had thought pretty stylish for five minutes fifteen years ago and now just masked the food stains moderately well. Custard-coloured walls, formica tables and vinyl chairs. No window that would open. Joyce glanced at her father, who was stolidly staring out the window. The bistro timer went off, squawking and chattering.
They ate in silence. Joyce had wanted to come here to lighten her father’s mood but he seemed unreachable. As always he was methodically slicing his steak into small pieces and chewing and swallowing them, resting his cutlery on his plate between bites.
He had always been neat. Even before old age had started to shrink him, he had been a slight man and he dressed carefully in greys and browns, poly-blend slacks and short-sleeve shirts. He seemed elderly for Joyce’s whole life; she had been a surprise change-of-life baby for Joyce’s mum. He spoke infrequently and briefly and hugged infrequently and briefly, clasping Joyce’s shoulders so that he could gently move her away after a momentary embrace. Joyce’s mother had told her that Piotr had screamed in his sleep when they were first married.
They continued to sit in a silence that seemed rebuked by every lively group near them. It was six months now since Joyce’s mother had died. Six months since she had moved to Crescent Bay to care for her dad. Because that’s what childless, unmarried daughters in their forties did, Joyce maundered, in a rare moment of self-pity. No-one had told her to do this. Her father sure as hell hadn’t asked her. But Joyce liked to help.
As they drove home, the evening had the eerie still and silence usually reserved for the early hours of the morning. Houses and streets were lit by sodium streetlights that robbed everything of its colour and shadow and returned it all orange.
The round cypress topiary on Piotr’s impeccable front lawn glowed, casting irregular shadows onto the severely trimmed lawn. Joyce heard trucks downshifting, air braking, on the bypass in the distance. The motion sensor light should have clicked on, but didn’t.
Piotr stopped and looked up at the roofline of the house where the sensor sat. ‘Bah, that bloody light. They said they bloody fixed it.’ Head down again, he resumed his slow shuffle up the path, but now even more warily.
‘Who did? You know what, let’s just get inside and I’ll sort it out tomorrow.’
Piotr didn’t respond; he was fussing with keys at the door. She would have liked to move in, take the keys, open the door, have this miserable evening be over, but she forced herself to be patient. The sheer effort it took robbed her of any virtuous feeling.
Piotr finally pushed the door open gingerly. But the hall light didn’t turn on either. Joyce reached over her father’s shoulder, impatiently flipping the light switch a few times, brusque to mask the sudden chill she had felt when the darkness still wasn’t dispersed.
‘The power must be off. I’ll check the fuses. Come on, Dad.’
She set off down the hall, more boldly than she felt, chiding herself for feeling spooked, sending her hands out into space to find the kitchen bench. It was truly dark here; this well-built brick and tile number didn’t tolerate any moonlight to penetrate inside.
Her mother’s ghost lingered in every well-organised cupboard in this house: she felt her way to the end kitchen cupboard, and there, as always, was the Dolphin torch, probably not touched since she had placed it there after the last six-monthly check of the battery. The sigh and squeak of air escaping from the leather couch told Joyce that Piotr had, improbably, found it and sat down. But then he’d always been good in the dark. Maybe due to his rural childhood.
Maybe from his time in the camps.
Only now, as they were both still, did the true silence of the house become clear. The still night had only collected and intensified inside, a quiet that deepened and folded. Joyce realised the house wasn’t humming: it was just sitting there passively, in the dark. The fridge wasn’t on, or the air-con.
She switched on the torch, sending a sickly beam onto the cream tiled kitchen floor. The neat click of the torch button was now, to Joyce, the sound of a pill hitting a hard pill organiser, from another time when she had stood in silence with her father, in another kitchen, in a far city, long ago. Then it had been a quiet but bright morning. Her dad had been trying to open pill bottles, which had shook in his mildly arthritic hands. She had left her cold damp Weetbix and stood beside him at the kitchen counter. ‘Here, let me, Dad?’ she had said, finally.
He had wrestled with the bottle a moment longer before wordlessly putting it on the kitchen bench and withdrawing to sit on a low chair pushed against the kitchen wall by the door.
For long minutes only the click of a pill dropping into place had sounded in their small kitchen in a quiet suburb.
After a while, her father had spoken. ‘So, how’s school, girly?’
‘Oh, s’alright.’ She had been intent on dropping one pill into each small slot, wanting to do well. ‘The teachers are nice.’ As she said this, she wondered if it were true. Did they like her? But she had to say something, to fill up this talk with words, as pills fill a pill organiser.
This seemed a rare chance to ask her dad something, but she was reluctant to stall the slow trickle of words between them.
‘Are there any nice boys?’ he said.
‘Nah, boys stink.’ The rote answer had made her dad chuckle, as she’d known it would.
One pill dropped into each slot. Not too high, it’d bounce.
‘Dad, can I ask you something?’
‘What happens when you die if you don’t believe in heaven?’
Three taps of pills on plastic. Tap, tap, tap. Joyce’s head was bent to her task.
‘Why do you want to know, girly?’
‘Oh, no reason,’ she said, aiming for a light tone, hands and pills and pill organiser now moving slowly, surely.
‘Well, it’s a scientific principle, see, it’s called the conservation of energy. No energy can ever be lost. So when someone very old dies, their soul or spirit, if you will, transforms into energy and becomes part of the universe. ’Cos no energy can ever be lost. It’s science. So, you see, no one really ever dies, their spirit goes on. You see?’
But what about heat, she wanted to say. Heat just leaves our body, that’s energy, and our bodies just get cold. It’s just heat, and then it’s just cold, she wanted to say.
‘That makes sense, thanks, Dad.’ She paused. ‘Do you want this one in there too?’ She held up a vitamin bottle.
‘Nah, poppet, she’ll be right. Is everything okay? What’s brought this on?’
‘Nothing, nothing, it’s all good, Dad.’ She had snapped the lid down on the organiser, not trusting herself to speak, angry that she had given in to such childishness, when she had known the answer, and had just wanted to be told that everything was alright, and be able to believe it, when she had already known that that couldn’t happen ever again. She hadn’t wanted to embarrass her dad. ‘That sounds good, thanks.’
Now, in the dark, she roused herself. ‘Righto, I’ll check the fuse-box, I’ll be right back.’
She picked her way to the fuse-box. The metal lid screeched as she pulled it up: the main house switch had been switched off. She stared a moment, considering that. She flipped it back, and the house sprang into light. She rejoined her dad. He asked, ‘Where’s that bloody dog?’ And she could now see that the back sliding glass doors were ajar.
Her mother’s dog was gone.
I’ve worked as a copyeditor for the best part of a decade, mainly at Allen & Unwin. Before that I wrote a masters thesis at the University of Sydney about an eighteenth-century novelist. This is my first novel.
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