'Looking for Lunch' By Judith Turner Nancy put down her coffee and opened the letter. Electricity account, twice the amount of the previous one. She did a mental re-jig of her budget, wondering how her single pension could stretch to pay the mounting bills.
Last week after Bill’s funeral, she’d trudged along the beach to the rocks below the headland. An incoming tide, a dangerous time at that spot, but something drew her there. She watched the swell of the sea; the waves crashing on the black rocks. Sucking back, exploding in once again. Pounding, eroding. The seagulls wheeling behind, screaming. She lifted her arms and screamed with them. Screamed for all the years life had thrashed her with one storm surge after another. But the rocks endured. Wrinkled and scarred, but they endured. And, so would she.
A car pulled up in front of the house. Battered door, plastic taped over one window. A tall thin figure emerged from the driver’s side and a small girl from the back. Nancy remembered the events leading up to her son’s departure twelve years ago. Wave after wave of tension between stepson and stepfather building and ebbing, until it finally exploded in an eruption of violence, shouting, and blows. Bill lying on the floor, bleeding, yelling, ‘get out of my house, you no-hoper. Get out and never come back.’
Nancy walked down the path to meet her visitors. They stopped a foot or so apart, mother and son. And the child, staring, clinging to Ben’s leg.
‘The prodigal son returns,’ he said. ‘This is Skye, your granddaughter.’ He gave the girl a gentle shove, and she moved forward and threw her thin arms around her grandmother’s thighs.
Nancy placed her hand on the brown head. ‘Well,’ she said with a long outward breath. ‘Well! I don’t have a fatted calf, but there is some soup. Want to come in for lunch?’
But she realized he was there looking for more than just lunch after twelve years. Ben cleared his throat. ‘Mum, a mate has found me a job in Western Australia. Good money. I only need a few months to earn enough to get back on my feet. I can’t take a four-year-old with me. Skye’s mother pissed off a year ago. I don’t have a clue where she is. Skye’s a good kid, Mum. She’ll be no trouble. I’ll send you money as soon as I get settled.’
Nancy heard the desperation in her son’s voice, saw the tremor of his hands, the undernourished body and pallid skin. She shook her head. ‘The poor child has only just met me. How can you leave her with a complete stranger?’
‘Time for you both to get to know each.’
‘How did you know to come now?’
‘Uncle Stan found me in Sydney and told me Bill died. A mate lent me his car to drive down. Can we stay a couple of days please, Mum? You and Skye can see if you get along. Then you decide.’
But he was gone the next morning, along with $50 from her purse, and he left no contact number.
Skye cried for her father that night. Nancy went to her and discovered the wet sheets.
Things settled down over the following weeks. Nancy and the child established a routine of sorts in the small coastal town, although the nights sometimes betrayed Skye’s insecurity with wet beds and nightmares.
No money arrived from Ben. A friend suggested Nancy should go to Centrelink for some kind of carer’s assistance.
‘And have child welfare nosing around? No thanks!’
‘They may be able to help you, Nancy,’ Joan insisted.
‘Those bastards didn’t help me last time I asked for help. No thanks!’
Months passed with still no word from Ben. Most days Nancy and Skye walked to the beach, roamed along the shore and explored the rock pools. Soon the water would be warm enough and she could teach the child to swim.
The morning sunshine warmed Nancy as she lay back on the sand, her body weary from the nights of broken sleep. She closed her eyes, listening to the girl chatting away to her seaweed friends in an imaginary game.
Nancy woke to find Skye gone. Her eyes swept up and down the beach and then spotted the tiny figure amongst the rocks under the headland. She puffed her way along the sand. ‘Skye, Skye,’ she cried when she reached the child beside the rock pool. ‘You must never come here without me. I told you that!’ She was still breathless from the run from the beach. Her voice shook with anger at herself for falling asleep and anxiety for the child’s safety.
Skye backed away. She threw one arm up in front of her face, panic in her voice. ‘I just came to see the crab.’
The instinctive defence reflex from the girl shocked Nancy. She had done it herself so many times. With a soft moan, she bent and wrapped her arms around the trembling, thin little body. ‘It’s okay, Bub. It’s okay. But next time you must wake me. You know how the waves can break over the rocks. They could come in and sweep you away.’
‘I knew not to go near the edge,’ Skye sniffed.
Nancy looked at the child’s wide brown eyes and remembered Mark’s eyes at that age as they snatched him from her. How many nights had he cried out for her? All her past mistakes, all those poor decisions…
It must not happen again.
The ocean swelled and ebbed, benign and peaceful for now. Waves splashed against the glistening black rocks, a solitary gull whirled above the sea, graceful, silent.
Nancy took Skye’s hand. ‘Come on, let’s go home, and see what we can find for lunch.’
*********************************** The Beagle COVID-19 LOCKDOWN WRITING COMPETITION RULES: 18 + (anyone younger can enter the Mayor's contest - this one is for adults ) Max of 1000 words.
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