A Race into a Rising Storm - (a short story by Rob Swales (c))

I carefully steer a path along The Corso; a beehive diverting all types into coffee shops and restaurants for breakfast. Tables are draped with bodies swimming their way through reams of newsprint, slowly choking on nicotine they can no longer swallow or wash down with a long black.

Table thirty-five. The table near the Raphis Palm is always reserved for me. My name is Jennifer. I keep myself alive with a special blend of denial and mourning, coffee and cigarettes. My suit is black and tailor made, my sunglasses reflect only ink and I wear my hair long to hide the vulnerability of my neck. If you look closely at my fingernails you will catch the sadness dripping onto my plate. Despite my ‘condition’, my mind remains so sharp it can cut glass.

I have denied myself the need to grieve in the traditional sense. I have a successful career to fill my days, nights and weekends. Success will always counteract longing. I’m so successful I spend most nights alone in my penthouse watching the wind blow my memories out to sea.
Before leaving the table I still any emotion that may creep into my voice. With a head movement I tip the waitress more than the value of the bill.

“Thank you, Miss. Have a beautiful day.” The waitress’s green eyes shine and I rejoin The Corso crowd heading for the seven-o- five ferry to the city.

The morning sky holds that dullness which would mean rain anywhere else in this country. Here it could be a sign of rain. Usually it is the blanket of excess from a city endeavouring over compensating in hard economic times; a shroud for its sin. The weather does not concern me. My sunglasses filter the way the outside world comes in.

What the hell is that? My routine is challenged by the vision of a woman standing naked at the pedestrian crossing ahead of me. I watch building site workers gathered at the corner cake shop force whistles through pie-stained teeth. Every man within the vicinity of the intersection unashamedly stares at the woman. If the woman has no shame than neither does the man, the men rationalise. It is a biological fault only castration can cure. Women notice the woman also, but their eyes can take in the contents of the scene without blinking. When I reach the traffic lights I am directly behind her.

The woman is cellulite free. Her ‘nakedness’ is flesh coloured bike pants and a bra top outfit so sheer it looks like skin. The perspiration rolls casually down her back to the dimples at the base of her spine. Bloody power walkers! They’re nothing but attention seekers with little better to do with their time.

Out of an old memory I respond to a wolf-whistle by looking across my left shoulder. There I see four men propping up the window of the bakery.

“Goin’ to a funeral love?” Says the one with the demeanour of a moron. His mates repeat his wisdom, as the light turns green.

I follow the power-walker’s bouncing bum to the ferry terminal then lose her in the din of people looking for last minute tickets and food. The terminal is busy even for a Friday. One minute to departure. Forty bodies crush into the queue ahead of me.

Come on! What’s the hold-up? My thoughts almost spill out of my mouth. At the moment where it is necessary for me to physically restrain my tongue from dressing down the world in front of me, the line lurches forward as if responding to the weight of my mind.
Overhead the departure siren pitches its two-octave tone as my ticket slips into the slot. My composure returns and the walk down the boarding plank is almost leisurely. Evacuating Manly on the seven-o- five is a good way to forget about time for a while or make some last minute notes for the day ahead. Today I choose forgetting.

The ferry’s personality takes over with the grunt of the engines orchestrating a cry from the seagulls. I can feel the solid wash of the harbour water deep beneath my feet. Behind the prescription sunglasses I hide in a soothing stream where the balance sheets switch off and the water sounds click in. The sound takes me back to where my life is warm and sunny and alive.

I watch the three white sails of Jack’s yacht catch the freedom of the wind above us as we sweep wide of the North Head on a tack into another blissful day on the Tasman Sea.

“I love it out here Jack. I am so pleased you invited me. How did you know I would enjoy sailing so much?” My shoulders began unwinding like the rope around the cleats.

Jack’s reply is interrupted by the invasion of the American national anthem blaring out of a mobile phone. That moment of tranquillity vanishes.

I watch as the small, self-absorbed man with an expensive suit and strong accent bleats into the phone. Aggressively he flicks the phone back into his coat pocket; his anger is putrid; putrid like the Old Spice my father used to wear on Friday nights after he had had a bad week at work. He would come home in scowling silence, have a shower, splash on the Old Spice and go to the pub.
Jack smelt nothing like my father. He was scented so sweet I could taste him throughout any part of the day or night. He was the ocean, the wind and the sky and although he could sometimes be aloof he was never angry. He was as gentle as the sand that lay beneath us the first time we freed our longing to be close together. It was on that day trip... up to the Hawkesbury... in his yacht...

I was away in daydreams again, so real I can feel my body temperature change. He was such an amazing man, nothing like I had planned my life partner to be. I had met Jack on this very ferry. I was on my way to work and it was a Friday. He sat down beside me, introduced himself and proceeded to tell me his life story. I thought tomyself at first ‘who in the hell does this guy think he is.’ By the time the ferry had pulled into the Quay, I was in love with the possibilities of loving this man.

As the ferry canters past the naval docks I picture our Prime Minister. He was right there yesterday. I saw him on the late night news sending our men and women off to the war.

“The thoughts and best wishes of Australia and its people go with you all. We trust that you will protect and serve our country well. On behalf of our government and our nation I wish you a safe and speedy return to these shores and your loved ones.”

His words vibrate on the glass window and distress me. All I can see of these men and women now are the fingerprints of tears and a pattern of Frangipani flowers caught up in the ferry’s wash.

The Manly ferry sways its way into the edge of wharf six at Circular Quay. For once I feel so content that the need to even continue this morning’s journey has left me, somewhere out there on the water. Maybe it was the Frangipani petals? They looked so peaceful, drifting on the tide out towards the heads. They reminded me of the trail Hansel and Gretel had left in the forest to help them find their way home.
The ropes smoke as they take hold and hug the ferry to the piers.

I put on my imaginary black veil to steel myself and follow the noisy American with the mobile phone attached to his ear, up the gangplank. Within a few steps I am back into the Friday flow.

Into the centre of the city I am ushered, into its lost soul, where people hide their sensibilities in the managed documentation of corporate law and market share. I wonder where the future history of this great city lies right now and who will be her ghosts.

The trawl up Pitt Street is slow. Too many obstacles to overtake and I am relegated to the throng. A strong surge that I have too much to do today attacks me from all sides. I feel resentment swallowing me up; or is it anger, or denial or plain ordinary tiredness? I’ve so much to do I’m getting tired. Where are you when I need you Jack?

As usual my mother’s voice steps in to save me from falling. “If you want to make it in a man’s world Jennifer, never show a weak emotion. It’s not necessary to join a men’s club, just act like you have balls.”

My mother’s voice is cold and right and takes away my ability to love.

As I enter Martin Place, for some odd reason, everything appears to stand still. The Place begs me to sit on one of its timber benches. I feel that I am no longer a part of this environment. Maybe I need to rest a moment to get my drive back? That’s it! I’m tired and sentimentality is trying to sneak in.

The Armani building takes up a dominant space opposite where I sit. The long windows herald a sale but the signs are not sending messages out to me. Not today.

A cigarette? I need a cigarette! The flame is silent and the cure is instant, soothing the uneasiness sheltering in my hands. For a moment I sit emotionless and let the world work around me. It won’t hurt to stop just for a moment.

Between where I sit and the Armani building, a traveller interrupts his journey in the centre of Martin Place. I assume he is a traveller, or he could be a misplaced person. Maybe he is on his way to the airport or a train, or looking for another night in a downtown men’s hostel? Amidst the desert of inner city clones hiding behind ipods and mobile phones, the traveller lets the handle of his suitcase slide to the pavement. He crouches down in a playful manner, draws his hands to his chest and commences with zest to hop up and down on the spot with the freedom of a rural kangaroo. Here he is, right in the middle of Martin Place, ready to hop over tall buildings and no one even gives him a side ways glance.

After a minute he stops. He looks satisfied with his efforts. First he tells himself what a great job he has done then pats himself on the right shoulder. The happy traveller readjusts his suit, retrieves the handle of his suitcase and heads west, looking as happy and content as any human being can.

I have seen the whole show and want to clap. I have a strong urge to go over and join him, to form a duet, but don’t want to steal his thunder. It would have been a major breakthrough for me, the instant when I could be free of the charade. My counsellor would have been overjoyed. As usual I do nothing except watch as the smoke chains my wrists to the bench and my dreams drift up into the clouds.
Remaining in this observer state of mind I notice there are no birds left in the centre of this city. Maybe they have been discouraged away, out in to the far flung western suburbs, where noisy things that shit everywhere belong? It appears to me the birds’ jobs in Martin Place have been taken over by mobile phones. Did you know you can select a new phone tune everyday by dialling a website? So much cleaner than a magpie or butcherbird don’t you think? You can become immune to the phone tunes after a while though, even if you change the tune they all end up sounding like they were made by the same bird.

I sit so silent on the bench consenting to my own random thought, I almost fail to recognise the tone of my own phone.
One click and my Jennifer persona is back in place.

“Jennifer, its Jerry here, where are you? It’s almost nine-thirty! Are you alright?”

“Jerry how are you. Yes I’m fine I’m working from home today. It will be easier to finish that report to the Minister. You know how it can get in the office on Fridays.”

“Are you sure you are okay?”

 “Never been better.”

“Well don’t burn out and don’t forget to stop for lunch.”

“Thank you. I’m okay. Thank you for caring. I’ll email the completed document to you by Sunday.”

“And not all work this weekend, take some time out to play again, eh?” “I will Jerry. I’ll talk to you soon. ‘Bye.” I switch my mobile onto message bank.

The voices in my head continue to talk but I can no longer make sense of them. My memories keep taking me to where the soft fragrance of sea-spray touches my face, to where life is warm and phones never ring.

The kangaroo man’s image stays with me. I wonder if he ever listened to the voices in his head until one day he thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ and joined them. Now he is free to do whatever the voices suggest, I imagine, and nobody says a word.

It was the heat of the sun jabbing through my jacket that brought me out of the soft, pink cloud of cigarette smoke. The cloud carries me back towards the Quay, the noise of Friday now a city designer backdrop. It could have been Friday, or any other day for that matter.
Circular Quay has lost its sense of history for me. The view of the Opera House now blotted out by the cages of cement and steel created by commercialism, money replacing the paradigm for beauty. The pedestrian boardwalks around this part of the harbour are a mass of living crop circles, created by artists and junkies, all trying to do deals with the tourists and desperados. Talented people, forced to parade their gifts for food money and rent, and junkies financing their own deaths. If only they could play cricket or football.

The sails of the Opera House open and flap lightly in the breeze. This inspirational vessel still fascinates me. I can remember watching it grow out of the water as a child. I loved how it’s shape even though I had no idea what opera was.

“It’s for people who are unable to sing in English!” My father had told me in one of his mocking voices, as we both leant out over the rails of the Luna Park ferry.

I can hear my father’s words like he is here now and I can still see the rib cage of red, steel bones hulking up out of the water.
Jack had changed my relationship with the Opera House. He told me it was nothing to do with opera. He said it was primarily a sacred site; the place where Bennelong the Aborigine had originally entertained Governor Phillip and his cronies back in the seventeen hundreds. He told me that Utzon, the architect who designed the Opera House, came from a long line of Danish sailors and he knew what impact the sails of the British fleet had had on Bennelong’s tribe. His design was not only a tribute to sailors of the world but also an everlasting shrine to Bennelong and his people. Jack said the Opera House was full of photos, statues and stories of great men and women who sought the freedom of the wind, water and the endless opportunities that lie waiting beneath the sky and the sun. Jack said he knew all this, although he would never set foot inside it, out of his respect for Bennelong.

It was Boxing Day 1997 when Jack and I first caught a ferry together to the Opera House. We had left Manly while the rest of Sydney was still recovering from Christmas. The morning sun painted the sky like a horizontal rainbow as we walked along the boards that join the sails to the water. We found a café dwarfed beneath the shadows that became our café. I remember how insignificant I felt sitting there, mesmerised by the magnificence of this amazing building and the stories that flowed from Jack’s beautiful mouth. He told me there were one million, fifty six thousand and fifty six tiles in the roof construction and seven thousand panes of French glass. The building weighed a total of one hundred and sixty one thousand tonnes, held up from the harbour floor by five hundred and eighty concrete piers. It was Jack’s stories that fascinated me. Stories from his world; a world that sounded so dangerous I wanted to go there with him, and be out of control.

Jack had inherited his Grandfather’s love of the sea. He’d also inherited his Grandfather’s wealth and a twenty-eight foot yacht his Grandfather had built inside a houseboat on The Spit, back in the thirties. For the non-believers of this feat he carried the original newspaper clipping around in his wallet showing the yacht being lifted out through a sidewall of the houseboat. It was a classic sailing boat and our adventures on it opened me up to the possibilities that love could help me explore. Eventually Jack let me see how the sound of the slap-lapping of the harbour and the ocean against the side of the boat could take the hard edge off my calculating mind and let me enjoy the benefits of idle fun. There were still moments back in the early days with Jack when I would catch myself trying to work out how I could capture this whole experience and get it out into the market place. But with time I understood that you couldn’t seel love and the joy that resides in it.

On that first morning beneath the Opera House sails we had become so lost in talking and getting to know each other we forgot all about the start of the ‘Sydney to Hobart’ yacht race, the reason for our whole day out, and we missed it. Jack wasn’t bothered. He already had a crew position booked on the ‘Winston Churchill’ for next year’s race.

I look up into the remaining soft shadow of this morning, as it slides down the wall of white. I can trace a mosaic of Jack’s face; the lines of his stories linking him into my life, right here, right now.

God that man could make me laugh. Out of respect for him I take off my shoes and force them into my briefcase. Somehow I also manage to slide my coat through the handle. Even that little bit of down-dressing makes me feel much more attached to the day as I head east on foot. I follow my intuition and the pathways that sweep me along the harbour’s southern shore.

It is mid-afternoon before I realise where I am. I find myself at the intersection of Cross and Bay Streets in Double Bay. Opposite is the Chinese Pie Shop; a place Jack would bring me to when we sailed into this part of the country. It is another experience I would never have had without a man like Jack to stretch my realms ofsuccess. Still barefoot I turn left into Bay Street and walk towards the forest of mastheads that rattle and shine in the afternoon south-easterly. The wire ropes clatter against the aluminium masts, sending out an SOS. The air is full of itinerant seagulls and promise.

“Afternoon ma’am. Haven’t seen you in these parts for a while.”

Old Jim the boatman is sitting in his usual spot on the retaining wall. He almost looks like he is a part of it, his skin the texture of weathered stone and his eyes as still as faded pearls. A stranger might describe him as crusty.

“Haven’t been in these parts for a while Jim. Not since Jack left at least.”

Jim doesn’t come back with any quick reply to ease the conversation. He looks up to the hurried sky that is gathering towards the ocean.
“Do you think I could get our Laser out of the rack? I’d like to sail her across to Manly this afternoon.”

“Sure can ma’am. You might need to watch out for a bit of a storm turning up south of the heads. It might get a bit dusty out in the middle there.”
“I think I can handle the conditions. It will probably do me good to blow a few of the cobwebs off don’t you think?” For the first time that day I feel my lips smile and pleasure the outside of my face. I feel sensations I’ve forgotten and that old thrill of cutting through the water is tingling me once again, touching me, like Jack’s fingers.

“I’m sure you can. It’ll take me about half an hour to trolley her out and fit up.” “That would be great. Do you want me to help rig her? ”

“Love you to. I might be able find some wet weather gear to cover that city uniform of yours too. ” And with the formalities out of the way Jim flicks himself off the wall. Within a couple of steps he has his bowed legs into a steady stride towards the shed.”

While Jim is finishing off the sail I put on a life jacket and use another to wrap around my briefcase and mobile phone, taking great care to ensure it is secure.

I look up to the sky. It isn’t dictating chaos but it is beginning to look like it is changing its mind. Still staring skyward I realise my head is quiet and another part of me is doing all the talking. I think about Jack, how they never found his body when he was swept away in the storm and how he had wanted me to join him in that race of a lifetime. It is at this moment I realise that his death is no longer my nightmare.
“I’ve reefed the sail in a bit just in case that storm comes in early. Probably still best if you hang in close to this side of the harbour right along to South Head then shoot straight across. It’ll be a pretty fast run with that wind picking up. If you get into strife there are flares stowed up front...but you know all about that.”

“I’ll be fine. Besides, I’ve got my mobile phone. I’ll phone you if I go in the drink.” I knew that would make Jim laugh. Flares were about as modern a communication method as Jim ever used.

I watch him shake his head and smile back up at me.

“Well you have a good sail home. It has been good seeing you again. I miss bumping into you and Jack. He was a good man.”
By the time I can wave back my eyes are a mess. The boat clears the jetty and moves sweetly to the centre of the bay. Despite the increasing wind and colour of the sky it is fairly smooth close to the shoreline. The city is now hiding in the shadows of the approaching storm. The lighthouse on South Head is busy sending out its electric message from the gloom, as I penetrate the open harbour to head home. The full thrust of the wind lifts the wings of the boat and within seconds I am flying.

‘Thank God it’s Friday’. The old catch-cry from when I first started work falls into my mind from nowhere and squeezes another smile onto my face. Just thinking of those days again with the, ‘I am woman, invincible behaviour’ makes me shiver. Andto think my invincibility usually saw me drunk and disgusting in some inner city wine bar at midnight with some lecher from middle management giving me the inside clues on career fast tracking. Bloody hell Jennifer, you can thank God those Fridays are long gone.

At the midpoint of the North and South Head I realise what it is in my life I need to change and make a decision to do it. I listen intently to the words on the wind and I can hear Jack’s voice, clear and deep. “Take a chance.” he says. I look out into the open sea and the approaching storm and I can see his eyes. I take off my life jacket with one hand and then pull hard left on the rudder. There is no risk left in this day for me, only intention. The white horses dance loudly and the ocean spray cheers me on as I open up my heart and sail headlong into the ether.


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