Through the window, the couch, the pull-out bed, where they'd sat with vodka martinis, so much at home, so hand in hand, watching spindrift fly off the surf, the black-backed gulls riding the wind and the sun's reluctant fall from the sky.
Reflected in the high glass, Ninety Mile Beach curved south to Ahipara then west, around the bay, to Reef Point. To the north, a distant Motupia Island and, beyond that, Cape Reinga, at the top of New Zealand. He remembered her saying, "We've become a part of the seascape, Barney." And in celebration of that, hadn't they made love on that couch in broad view of ocean and sunset and gulls . . . without a goddamn care?
But the pleasure he had taken in the place had gone with her, and protecting the house from the elements—washing salt off the windows, treating the inevitable rust—had become mechanical, so that he cleaned and scraped and painted like a man paid to do it, which he wasn't.
Climbing the ladder with hose and brush, the weight of his fifty years hung like dead flesh from his bones. Resting a moment, he looked down onto Della's garden, her domain: the long green rectangle of kikuyu she had laboured over was now ragged, uneven, and needed a cut. Three seedling pohutakawas boxed in shade-cloth to shield them from the wind, the Norfolk Pine, a few succulents, were all asking for water. "Not much to look at yet," she'd said. But outside the fence, a wilderness, new sand dunes rising through the marram grass like a pod of humpback whales.
A beautiful place whose reflection created within him a well of melancholy. The sand on which they built their house seemed determined to change its shape. The patterns on its surface altered with every breath of wind. Go away, turn your back—as she had a month ago—and return to a transformation. He didn't want that to happen to Della.
And, while stretching up to reach one corner of the window, he heard the telephone ring inside the house.
It would be the land agent, he thought, and did he really need to climb down from the ladder to take a call from Corin Smith? He knew already what she would tell him: that the people she'd brought to view the house that morning decided not to buy; the husband certainly, whom he had taken aside to the garage workshop while Corin showed the bedrooms and the stunning view. It had been a comment cleverly dropped, he thought, into their manly conversation on water supplies and septic tanks, about the wind that regularly came off the ocean at one hundred miles an hour. He smiled, remembering the man's expression, how quickly it shriveled, becoming indifferent, all interest suspended in the face of a hurricane.
He continued washing the glass and allowed the telephone to ring. It was more important to keep the place tidy for Della's return, if only he could persuade her, if only he knew where she was. The letter he had from her lawyer mentioned divorce but hadn't told him where she was living, only that she wanted her half of the property's value, as was her right, and that they were looking forward to hearing if he would pay her off in cash or whether he needed to sell the house.
But the bloody thing rang and rang as if it was never going to stop and, in the end, he knew it would not unless he answered it. He climbed down the ladder, turned off the hose and went inside. When he picked up the telephone, a familiar voice said, "Hello Barney," and his heart did a jig.
"Della?" he said.
"Who did you think?"
"I thought it might be Corin Smith."
"Isn't Corin a girl's name?"
"The land agent. She brought people here this morning."
"Has she got nice tits, Barney? Don't tell me you didn't notice."
"She's trying to sell our house."
"I heard they'll do anything to persuade you to lower the price. You were giving her one on the couch, weren't you? Is that why it took you so long to answer the phone?"
"Don't say that, Della. She's not even here. If you want to know, I was up the ladder washing the windows. You know how they get this time of year."
"Our million dollar view?"
He didn't answer her, but made a sound like a sigh into the phone.
"And how are things down at the pub, Barney? How's the girlfriend? Pippa Subritsky? Now there's a name to have tattooed on your arse. Have you had that done yet, Barney? Has she moved in yet?"
"I don't go to the pub anymore. If you want to know, I haven't had a drink since you left. I haven't seen Pippa Subritsky, or any of them."
"Why is it I can't believe a word you tell me?"
"I've never told you a lie, Della."
"That's a lie, for a start."
A feeling of helplessness came over him. She was drinking; it was in her voice. She wasn't drunk, but she was drinking; she needed a drink to pick up the phone and talk to him. And there wasn't anything in the house for him, not even a can of beer. That would be hard for her to believe. Booze had been on the top of their shopping list, mostly for him of course, he couldn't deny that, but she always swallowed her share and it somehow bound them together. Now she was somewhere else, drinking, and he was here with nothing to oil his argument—he had poured all of it down the drain the day he came home from work and found the note that told him she was gone.
"Where are you, Della?"
"I'm stopping with Maggie until I get sorted." She giggled—a sure sign she'd had a drink or two. "I'm getting a lot of told-you-so's. My daughter's giving me a hard time. What was I thinking marrying a wanker like you? Stuff like that. She has a new flat she shares with two other girls, they're nice enough but I'm out of place, too old to fit in, if you know what I mean. I think I embarrass them. I'm sharing a bed with her, with Maggie. I think she'd rather I was somewhere else so she can share the bed with someone else."
"What's your number there?"
"I'm not going to tell you that, Barney. These kids don't need a drunk calling up in the middle of the night."
"I'm not drinking, Della. I told you, I'm finished with it."
She didn't answer. He heard glass against glass. Someone talking in the background, a female voice, a door closing.
"Why don't you come back?" he said.
"And what? Share you with the Subritski bitch? I don't share, Barney."
"But nothing happened, nothing at all, and never would. We were drunk, that's all there was to it."
"How do you know nothing happened then?" The hard edge on her voice came down the line like a slap. "What do you take me for? I saw you, the both of you, together, in bed."
"Della, please. I'm no good without you. The place doesn't mean anything."
"Then hurry up and sell it."
Barney sat down. This wasn't going the way he'd hoped it might. He could sense the wall she had built around herself: Della's bricks, her daughter's cement. He had imagined, when the opportunity came, he would be able to talk her 'round. They'd had arguments before, not as serious as this, although he did have a scar on his forehead from a two-litre tub of ice cream she'd thrown at him one night when he came home drunk. Even then, with blood on his face, he managed to open the bottle, make her a drink, and put in an olive on a stick. She loved an olive in her gin. He preferred a slice of lemon and drank two to her one. After a couple, they ended up on the couch: friends again, lovers, sharing the same glass. But how could he do that on the phone? She was there and he was here. She had a drink and he didn't. He couldn't remember this ever happening. How could he climb that wall?
"Did you get the letter from my lawyer, Barney?"
"It was the saddest letter I ever received."
"Sad? You think so? We've had them before, both of us, letters like that."
"You don't ever get used to them, Della."
"I remember reading somewhere once, that second marriages are more likely to work because people don't make the same mistake twice." She laughed. "What a load of old bollocks. Are you going to answer the letter, Barney?"
"The house is on the market. I told you, there were people here this morning. They seemed interested."
"Why don't you take out a loan and pay me off?"
"You know I can't do that. You know exactly how much I've got. I don't earn enough to pay off another loan."
"I don't much like living with Maggie."
"Then come back. We'll work it out. You could walk back into your old job as if you'd never been away."
"I can't live with you, Barney. When you're drunk, you fall into bed with anyone. Every time you touch me, I'll be thinking that's what you did to Pippa Subritsky."
"Fuck Pippa Subritsky. You're not listening, are you?"
She didn't respond and he imagined her taking a sip from her drink. "What are you drinking, Della? What is it you've got there?"
"I bought a bottle of Chardonnay. I'm working my way through it."
He imagined her lifting the glass, the sharp bite of the wine.
Then she said, "That's what you did, though. Isn't it?"
"You fucked Pippa Subritski."
"I didn't touch her."
"Barney, those are the same words that came out of your mouth when I caught you in bed with her."
"People can change."
"I'm not interested in that, Barney. All you have to do is sell the house. Get rid of it so we can both get on with our lives. How come it's taking so long? I don't believe you're trying. You're not trying are you, Barney?"
"I don't know what else I can do."
How to go down on his knees on the telephone? He thought about becoming tearful but didn't think he could carry it off without at least a couple of gins inside him. There was a fluttering in his chest, the beginnings of panic; he wondered what she might say if he told her he wasn't well. "I've got pains in my chest, Della."
"Don't bullshit me, Barney. I'll tell you what I want you to do."
"I want you to tell me what really happened. It's important to me. What went on between you and her? I want the details. How was it for her? How was it for you? And for once in your life tell me the truth."
"I told you the truth already, Della."
The truth was he couldn't remember what happened. But it was no good telling Della that. It was as if he wasn't allowed even one mistake and he couldn't make up his mind if that was a fault in her or in him. Nothing could change it now; nothing like this had ever happened before. Della had found them in bed together. He couldn't deny that.
There had been a party in the pub: Jimmy Dane's birthday, or Pippa's, he wasn't sure which, but Della hadn't wanted to go. "It'll be the same old chit chat." He remembered her saying that. "You go," she'd said. "Have fun. Have one for me. Give me a call, I'll pick you up." She drove him down and dropped him at the door. All his friends said she was one in a million.
And there they had been, the same faces he saw most every day: Jacko, Toddy, Beverly, Harris Pokai, arms open to welcome him as if they hadn't seen him in a year—lovely people, warm and generous. And portly O'Hagen had pulled him a handle paid for by Jimmy who was down at the back end of the bar by the pool tables, he and Pippa a part of the furniture. He remembered giving them a thank-you wave and receiving one in return: Jimmy, long-legged and skinny with a pointy beard, and Pippa with more shape to her and always too much eye shadow, both in denim with high-heeled boots and cowboy hats and yellow hair that hung to their shoulders. Twins almost. And all night long they'd be back and forth to the jukebox, playing Waylon Jennings or Patsy Cline, then up to the bar and back to the table to drink some more and sing along, with Pippa strumming air guitar, pretending she was in the band—fall-down drunks, the both of them.
O'Hagen told Della where to look; how, after closing up, he had seen the three of them weaving up the road towards Pippa and Jimmy's house, where Della found the front door open, the stink of dissolution and Jimmy Dane unconscious in the lavatory.
The single memory he did have of the latter part of that night was being woken in a strange bedroom, a strange bed, by Della's hot breath, her snarling indignation, the crash of her fist on the side of his head. And there was Pippa beside him, still asleep under a paisley duvet: eye shadow ravaged, the sulphurous hair like a nest of snakes on her pillow.
"I don't want to talk about it," Barney said.
Della blew her nose. "You broke my heart that night, you bastard."
And what could he say in answer to that? Could he say he hadn't? No, he could not. When someone tells you her heart is broken and you're the cause of it, you must be accountable.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I want you back, Della. What more can I say?"
"For a start you could take responsibility for what you did, and shut the fuck up telling me lies."
He moved the phone from one ear to the other. Whatever the distance, he could hear the wine flow out of the bottle into the glass. He wanted a drink. He needed a drink.
When she spoke again, it was softly. "As soon as you get off your arse and sell the house, I'm buying a one-way ticket to Melbourne. I'm going to start living again, while I still have some energy."
"Yes. Melbourne, Australia."
"I know where Melbourne is." He held out his free hand, watched it shake while she began telling him her plans.
It became clear very quickly she had given this move across the Tasman considerable thought. She described how wonderful it was over there and then she told him how she had been reacquainted with an old friend. "Quite by chance," she said, and laughed. "Someone from years ago. Long before we met." An old friend, name of Bruce, who lives in Melbourne—a man she never mentioned in the entire ten years they had lived together. But she and Bruce were corresponding now. He was going to help her get onto her feet in Australia . . . her old friend Bruce was.
He listened while she set out everything she planned to do in her wonderful future without him. From time to time, she paused to take an audible sip from her glass. And here he was with nothing drinkable in the house. He didn't want to hear about Bruce and Melbourne any more than he wanted to talk about Pippa Subritski. He didn't want anything to do with the conversation Della was drawing him into. He stood up and dropped the phone, left it swinging on its chord. He walked away from the stream of words and went outside.
It didn't seem to count for anything that he hadn't had a drink since she'd left. She had always been the one suggesting they cut it out or down and here she was soaking up a bottle of wine on her own. He wondered, was it only the drinking that had kept them together? Were they only any good together when they were drunk? They were drunk when they met, tipsy at least, easing themselves out of previous relationships, consoling each other with gin after gin until friends poured them into a taxi and sent them away to a quiet motel where they fucked until they were sober. How was it he could remember that? All the details. Every little thing they'd said and done.
He felt angry now, but not with her and not because of her new-found friend. Barney had an idea she may have invented Bruce, just to get back at him. If anything, he was mad at himself for allowing this to happen and not knowing how to fix it.
He looked up at the house; he could burn it and who would know he had done it? She would, of course. They built it together. She would know, and all their work would have been for nothing, their life here wasted. She would not return to a cinder. Was this how they differed? Was this what it all came down to? He would happily live with her in a cardboard box. He looked at the ladder, propped against the window, the window she had wanted, and wondered why he was bothering to clean it when she wasn't there to look through it. For a moment, he hated her, but the moment passed.
He thought he might go into town, buy some booze, get smashed. Why not? Who would care? He was heading for the garage and the car, and then, the way things happen, Corin Smith arrived for the second time that day and there was nowhere to hide.
She came in a crimson Fairmont—skinny tyres and fancy hubs, an explosion of dust, a red dress. The trim body emerged from the car with a flourish, on her face the wide-eyed look of someone on speed.
"Gidday, Barney," she said. "People are going to start talking if we keep on meeting like this."
She did a stretching exercise with her arms as if she was stiff from driving half way around the world to see him. He stared at her and she winked at him.
"I've brought some folk to look at the house. Mr and Mrs . . .." She paused, shut her eyes, and touched her forehead with a crimson fingernail. "Achener."
She opened the car doors and broadened her smile while the Acheners alighted, dragging themselves slowly onto their feet. They were pear-shaped people, foreign-looking. Mr Achener squinted at the house as if he'd been led to believe it was larger than it was. Mrs Achener wrapped her arms around herself. "Is it always this windy here?"
"It's not for sale," Barney said.
The visitors looked at each other in turn, then directly at him. All three of them frowned. They looked at the real estate sign attached to the fence. Mr Achener squinted at the house again. "How come?"
"Because I don't like you," Barney said.
"But you signed an agreement," Corin said.
"You can put the agreement where it hurts," Barney said. He leaned over the fence and ripped away the sign, tore it in half and threw it on the ground. "You'd hate living here," he said to Mrs Achener.
He turned and strode back inside the house. Through the kitchen window he watched them form a closed group, like triplets joined at the head, no doubt discussing his insanity. Moments later they climbed back in the car. He heard the engine roar, heard the wheels spin and the rattle of gravel against the fence.
The phone was as he'd left it, except it wasn't swinging now. He picked it up, held it against his ear. For a moment, he listened to her breathing, and then he said, "Are you still there?"
"I'm here," she said. "Where'd you go?"
"I went outside. I was thinking. I was trying to remember."
"What?" she said. She sounded drunk now. She never could handle wine.
"I remembered something, something about that night."
"I don't know if I should."
"First you do and then you don't. I think you need a drink."
"I remembered something about Pippa Subritski."
He paused, waiting for a reply. For a moment the phone was silent, then she suddenly said, "You're pathetic, Barney. Are you going to tell me or not?"
"Pippa's not a woman, Della. She's a man." He looked out the window. The pall of dust from Corin Smith's leaving hung in the air between house and sea.
And Della laughed. She laughed like the mad woman she became when she was drunk—long and loud and shrill—and, after a time, he smiled, caught up in the laughter himself, then joined in with her until tears were running down his cheeks the way he knew they'd be running down hers.
Copyright © Terry Thomas 2004. Title graphic: "Beached" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.