The third time the beach ball hit the roof, Kurt sprang from his deckchair and yelled at the culprits, shaking his fist like Popeye the sailor.
‘Well honestly,’ he muttered under his breath as he sank back into the low chair next to mine, under the nylon arc of the sun-shelter. He shook the sand off his newspaper and balanced it back on his leg, covering his ugly scar from where they had chopped out the tumor. I watched, jaws clenched, as the guys jeered and resumed their play, their oiled torsos gleaming in the midday sun. That was when I first saw her.
She was the whitest person on the beach. That was the first thing I noticed about her. She must have just arrived here, I thought. You can’t stay that white for long in Sydney. I lost sight of her amongst the hordes and turned back to my book.
I must have dozed off because when I awoke, Kurt was missing. Then I spotted him, beyond the waves, his long, sinewy arms slapping out that unmistakable backstroke.
‘Excuse me,’ I heard a woman say. It was her, even paler close up. ‘I’d like to go for a swim and I was wondering if you could mind my wallet? It’s just...’ She trailed off. ‘I’m here on my own. I won’t be long.’
American? I thought at first. No, Irish, I concluded from the lilt. She held the wallet like a nervous kid offering a carrot to a horse. I studied her appearance through the cover of my sunglasses. Classy one-piece swimsuit. Perfectly manicured toenails in a metallic hue. Peacock. That’s what it was. A pretty face but with something in her expression I couldn’t quite place. A delicate vein throbbed at her temple.
‘Of course! Enjoy your swim,’ I said, taking the wallet. There was more than gratitude in her smile. I sensed something like relief in the way her face opened up. As she walked away, I called after her, ‘Take your time. We’ll be here a while.’
Off she went, picking her way through the bright maze of towels and beach umbrellas. I turned my attention to the wallet. Patent leather. I could see my distorted reflection like in a funfair mirror— all garish mouth and sunglasses, no chin or forehead. It was heavy for its size. Probably has her phone in there too. I threw it on the other deckchair and retrieved my novel. It wasn’t the page- turner the jacket had promised. Suddenly I felt hot and longed for a dip but now I’d have to wait for her to come back.
‘You did what?’ he asked, as he flapped the towel around his body. ‘God knows when she’ll be back. We’re stuck here now.’
I bit my lip. As if that hadn’t crossed my mind.
‘It’s called being part of a community,’ I muttered, hoping he would lower his tone. ‘You ever heard of that, Kurt? A good deed for a fellow human being? We’ll be here for a while anyway,’ I sighed. ‘Sandwich?’
At least another hour passed before he finally spoke: ‘Now what?’ I hated that look. That trademark expression of disdain he reserved for me. I snatched up the wallet and unzipped it. Surely there would be something in here that would tell us who she was or where she was staying.
‘Sweet Jesus, Anna, who brings that kind of money to the beach?’ Kurt was gaping at the wallet. It took me a few seconds to register that it was packed with crisp green banknotes. Nothing useful, like a driver’s license or a hotel room key. I put it under my seat. I felt angry and I wasn’t even sure with whom. How bloody inconsiderate. Where the hell could she be?
I stared at the water for some time, hypnotised by the never-ending procession of waves—building, cresting, breaking. The surfers looked tiny against them. A scan of the beach yielded no sign of the woman. How bizarre that she hadn’t returned. Gasping for a cool dip, I left him there, propped inside the sun tent, safe from the ultra-violet rays that now frightened him.
Pretty rough today, I thought, as I bobbed in the safety of the enclosed rock pool. Floating on my back, I let go, feeling the water absolve me. That’s when I heard the helicopter droning overhead. Opening an eye to the salt and glare, I spotted it, mosquito-like, hovering above the beach. Faint alarm bells rang. A shark-sighting, perhaps? I had once heard of a reef shark being washed into a surf pool. I closed my eyes and floated a little longer, considering that scenario. Not the worst way to go. All over in a couple of minutes.
Kurt had dismantled the sun tent when I returned. What did you do that for? She’ll never find us now. He was standing, talking with a broad-shouldered guy in a pair of board shorts.
‘Looks like someone’s snuffed it,’ the guy was saying. ‘A woman. Chopper’s gonna bring her in.’ I glanced at my chair, untouched, the wallet still visible underneath. My stomach flipped. Oh God,
where was she? Just a quick swim, she’d said. But that was hours ago.
‘What are we going to do with this?’ Kurt asked, picking up the wallet.
‘We’ll drop it off at the police station,’ I said.
‘No we won’t,’ he said. ‘You know what they’ll do? A wad of cash like that—are you kidding me?’
‘What do you suggest?’ I said. ‘You want to stay here overnight in case she comes back in the morning? Why don’t you sleep in your bloody tent?’
‘Let’s leave a note for her,’ he said, indicating the information board that displayed water temperature, tides and stinger danger.
I snatched the wallet back and stomped off towards the notice board, leaving him staring after me. He was unused to such outbursts, my fury usually contained behind a veneer of compliance.
A crowd buzzed round the ambulance parked on the grassy strip overlooking the beach. Ghouls. Gossips. Seagulls around a chip. The helicopter had gone and the body now lay shrouded on a stretcher. I cringed at the idea of lurking, but I had to see her. All I could see as I edged through the mob was the soles of her feet protruding from the drape.
‘Overseas tourist,’ I could hear muttered. ‘Couldn’t handle the waves.’
‘Outside the flags. Surfer spotted her.’
Another victim of Australia’s less infamous killers. It always fascinated me how visitors would widen their eyes about funnel web spiders, great white sharks or saltwater crocs, when these accounted for so very few deaths each year. Fewer than deaths from dog attacks, I’d been told. Meanwhile they overlooked the real killers. The sun. The sea.
I was almost near enough to touch her when a policewoman planted a firm hand on my arm. ‘I’m sorry madam, no civilians past this point.’
‘But I must see her; I think I know who she is.’ I pushed past her just enough to glimpse one foot a little better. Bunions—worse than my own. And her toenails—ugly, unpolished. Relief was replaced by a strange sense of disappointment. ‘It’s not her,’ I said, as much to myself as the policewoman.
‘You’ll have to come with me, madam. If you have any information that can help us identify the body, you must tell us.’
‘I’m telling you, it’s not her,’ I pleaded, but it was too late.
Kurt drove to the station, his lips pressed together in a hard line. ‘It’s not my fault we got a parking ticket,’ I said as he floored it up the hill.
‘Whose fault then, hmm? Whose fault that we have to spend half the bloody day on the beach because you want to do something for a complete stranger?’
The police station smelled of piney disinfectant and instant coffee and was hotter than the beach. Imagine working here. I was still crusted with salt and sand and dressed only in a sarong over my swimsuit. Kurt returned with his second cup of dire coffee. ‘How can you drink that stuff?’ I asked him.
He stared at me. ‘You’re not going to tell them about the wallet, are you?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake Kurt, the wallet’s got nothing to do with the dead woman. That’s just going to cause more confusion. I’m no use to them. Why can’t they get that?’
As I lay between fresh bedsheets that night, after a long shower, I thought about how she’d looked, that Jane Doe, lying under the drape. Her body unclaimed. How small she had been at this critical point, the end of her tenure on earth. I didn’t fear death but I never wanted to die like her. Alone. Unrecognised.
‘Did you put the wallet somewhere safe, Anna?’ said Kurt, his voice muffled by the pillows.
‘Christ, Kurt. A woman drowned out there today and another woman is possibly missing and all you can think about is that fucking wallet. We can’t just keep it,’ I said, regretting that we hadn’t given it to the police when we had the chance.
‘We’re just minding it until she contacts us,’ he said. His voice had a zeal I recognised. He was spending it already, damn him.
Kurt shaved as I dressed for work the next morning, the steady schip, schip of the razor breaking the silence. He clipped his dark moustache and snipped at the hairs poking from his nostrils.
I surveyed the room reflected in the mirror as I fumbled with my earrings. How long had it been since this room had been a place to be held, to be nurtured? Halfway through strapping on my good watch, I stopped dead. I stared at the reflection of my arm. Now I remembered. The woman on the beach had worn the same one. The blue cabochon stone in the winder had glinted in the sun. This was not something you would wear into the sea. Ever. Where on earth had she gone? You can’t just disappear. Can you?
Kurt was sitting on the bottom of the stairs tying his shoelaces when I stepped past him. ‘I won’t be back tonight,’ he said. He was wearing his best tie and his shoes gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the hallway. I knew where he would be.
‘Where did you put that wallet?’ he asked, as I opened the front door.
‘I’ve put it away,’ I said. ‘I’ll get it for you later—when I get back from work.’ I knew then that he would never get his hands on that wallet, or what was in it. I felt strangely protective of it, almost as though it were more than just an object. It was my connection to her, and perhaps to more. I would never spend a single cent from it, but at that moment it was worth to me a thousand times more than what it contained.
I loved this beach. We used to come here when the kids were little because it was safer than the surf beaches in Sydney. It was worth the drive then and it was worth it this bright morning.
I scrunched along the shoreline, sinking ankle deep in the fine gravel of tiny shells, some no bigger than a baby’s fingernail. Millions of them.
Most people sat a little further back on the fine white sand that lured people from across the globe. The whitest sand in the world. I shielded my eyes from the blinding glare as I studied them. Stepping off the swathe of shells, I made for a nearby couple—tourists, judging by the depth and evenness of their tans. And their tattoos. Not many locals had tats around here.
I folded my sarong and placed it neatly on a rippled patch of sand and turned to them. I was hot from the walk and the patent leather felt slippery in my hand. ‘Excuse me, would you mind looking after my wallet? I’m just going for a swim. I won’t be long...’
They would later tell the police that I wore kingfisher nail polish on my toenails. But when they questioned the woman in the red suit at the car rental place, she’d get the colour right.