The skin that separates water and air – Sandra Arnold

Vincent’s first tactic had been to say Bruce was a good man and didn’t deserve to go down when he’d already apologised. When that didn’t work he said the publicity would embarrass her kids.

“And your mum’s talkin’ crap when she says I’m only worried about the stuff on my camera comin’ out. There’s no jury in the world would think there’s anything wrong in controlled lovin’ situations.”

Melanie touches the small leather pouch on the chain around her neck and fingers the contents.  She slackens the reins on Bob’s neck and lets him go at his own pace. He picks his way carefully over the rough river stones, trampling crowds of Californian poppies thrusting their faces at the pale sun. Their stoicism amazes her. Every winter the river floods, wiping out all vegetation and turning the river bed into a bleak expanse of bare grey gravel. Then back comes the spring and back comes the flowers.

She slides off Bob’s back and opens the gate. As she leads him through she strokes the soft hairs around his nostrils. Until she’d seen Beth’s oil pastel sketch of him she’d never noticed the hairs that grow on horses’ nostrils.  He waits patiently while she closes the gate and hops on his back again. She pauses before leaning slightly forward to signal he can go, the way Beth had taught her, the conversation with  Beth still playing word-for-word in her head.

“Never dig your heels into a horse’s sides to get him to move off. Just think how you’d feel if someone poked you in the ribs instead of asking you politely to walk forward.”

She’d told Beth she did know how that felt and that’s why she wanted to leave Vincent.

“But you’ve just got married!” 

“Yeah.”

“So …?”

“Hard to figure out eh? He said he could help me detox.”

“And did he?”

“Yeah. He let me stay in the camping ground in the old gypsy caravan he was renovating. Put rose petals in the bush bath he’d rigged up. Let me sleep as long as I wanted. Encouraged me to help him paint the caravan. Red and gold.  I loved doing that. Then he let me do the bookings and look after his old Clydesdale. He couldn’t believe I’d grown up in the country and never had my own horse.” 

She’d known about all the women and tried not to feel jealous when she saw the photographs in the caravan, but it was hard not to mind when they rang him at all hours of the day and night. He’d had trespass orders put on three of them. The last one was because the ex had broken in and hidden in a cupboard when he brought another woman home and had sprung out like a demented cat and ripped into the pair of them with her fingernails. At the wedding some of the camp residents whispered that they hoped for a bit of peace and quiet now. “We were getting sick of the Police coming round all the time,” they said. 

“What a thing to say at my wedding, eh?”

Beth laughed so hard she nearly fell off the horse.

She’d tried to stay up late when he threw the first party, but four o’clock in the morning was way later than she was used to. Vincent woke her up blazing at her “rudeness”. That was the first time he’d locked her out of the caravan.

“So that’s why you were walking down the street at 7am?”

 “Yeah. He’d taken the keys of the car and I thought I could walk to the bus stop and get a bus into town.”

“You could’ve got in the car with Mum and me.” 

She was too embarrassed. How can you say you’re leaving when you’ve only been married a week? “Anyway he caught up with me and I got in his car. He was pretty good about it really. All I had to do was apologise and he was okay.”

Beth had stared at her. “YOU had to apologise?”

That was all very well for her to say. Back then Beth’s life had been full of horses and  Art School. She’d inhabited a perfect world until tests showed what the pain in her belly was. Even then Beth shrugged it off saying she was treating it like flu. “I just can’t stand the way that doctor puts his head in his hands every time he sees me.”

 Vincent didn’t mind her going to see Beth, as long as she didn’t stay away too long.  He’d even encouraged her to go riding with Beth. “It’ll do you good, Melanie,” he’d said. “Good for both of you.” He sometimes came with her to visit Beth and to bring her incense and candles, and sometimes special oils she could put in her bath. When he found Beth’s mum, Alexa, crying in the paddock one day he wrapped her up in a green cashmere shawl that had belonged to his own mother. 

A few weeks after Beth died Melanie took her mum over to have a cup of tea with Alexa and Alexa showed them the shawl. She said it was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for her. Mum responded that she was just waiting for the opportunity to push Vincent down the stairs. Or into the bush bath. Alexa’s eyes went like saucers so then Mum had to try and set her straight and tell her about the knicker fetish. 

  Vincent had already explained it was just a guy thing, but she saw Alexa’s eyebrows shoot into her hairline and then Mum goes and tells her  about  the pile of mags she’d found and hidden in one of the sheds so the children wouldn’t see them. Even though all guys, as Vincent explained, read that stuff, you didn’t have to go telling people, but once Mum got going it would’ve been easier to stop a train. So then out comes the story about when she wandered into the camp kitchen to make a cup of tea and saw what he was watching on the computer and how Vincent laughed and said she was lucky she hadn’t caught him playing with his crown jewels. Melanie cringed and shrank as each story came out, but Alexa didn’t say a word. 

A few days later they were sitting on the paddock gate watching the horses graze and Alexa started talking about the first time they’d met Vincent when he’d helped them catch Beth’s horse that had run off and ended up in the camping ground.

“I thought he was a bit eccentric,” she said, “butterflies tattooed all over his head. But harmless and kind. And that gypsy caravan! A work of art! He told me his dream was to get it to a state where he could lease it out to people for holidays so they could slow down and appreciate the landscape, instead of seeing it speed by from inside a goldfish bowl. And those paintings he did of wildflowers!”

All Melanie could do was nod.

  When Vincent saw the remains of the sleeping pills at the bottom of his Milo, he just stared at her. Melanie told him they were to help her sleep and she must have mixed up the cups.  His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. The doctor advised her to have some counselling, but when she made the appointment Vincent insisted on going too, and she couldn’t describe how dirty she felt inside. When they left he told her all counsellors were wankers.

Bob spots the waterhole at the end of the track and lets out a long sigh. Melanie slides off his back, loosens his bridle and saddle and pulls her juice bottle from the saddle bag. 

“I’m never going to get married,” Beth had said when they stopped at the waterhole. “Guys just slow you down. I’ve got too much stuff to do.”

“So what about Darryn and Nathan then? They’re around often enough.”

“Nah!” Beth laughed. “They’re my best mates. They bought an old car and keep it in one of our paddocks. We spray-painted it red and yellow and orange!”  

“Yeah, I saw you all hooning along the river bed one day. Looked like fun.”

Beth glanced at her.

“Reckon you don’t get much of that, eh? Does your mum help out with the kids?” 

“She spoils them rotten. Especially Lisa because she looks like my brother Peri who died soon after I was born.”

“How’d he die?”

“Leukaemia.”

Beth picked up a pine cone and threw it into the river, breaking up the reflected sky. “How’d your mum cope with that?”

“Her milk dried up. She said she’d asked God to take me instead.”

Beth lay down on her stomach and looked into the river. Melanie flopped down beside her. Two faces stared back, as if they were under water, looking up.

“Must’ve made you feel real wanted, eh?” said Beth.

Melanie didn’t answer.

Beth flicked at the water with her fingers. 

Two weeks after Beth died Melanie was in the paddock with Vincent talking to Beth’s parents. Beth’s dad climbed onto Molly’s bare back, the way Beth used to, even though he didn’t know the first thing about horses. Just as Melanie was thinking she’d better fetch a bridle, Molly ran off. Rob slipped over her neck and fell to the ground. Alexa stood like a statue. Rob’s eyeballs rolled up into his head and he passed out. Vincent pushed him over on his side then ran into the house to call the ambulance. Melanie went with them to the hospital to give the ambos the information they needed because they couldn’t get any sense out of Alexa. Every time Rob came to he said, “She’s dead, isn’t she? She’s dead!” then passed out again. And Alexa just rocked back and forth, clawing at her face.  

It turned out Rob only had concussion. By the time they got back home late that night Vincent had cooked a meal and left it in their oven, and lit a fire. So how in the world did it get from there to where he threatened to put broken glass in the horses’ feed?

  It wasn’t that Vincent was violent. It was just the way he kept waking her up to explain what she  needed to do to get her act together and make the marriage work that did her head in. He always had heaps more words than she could cope with. She used to make Beth laugh telling her some of the things he said and saying them out loud made them feel not so bad.

She’d liked bringing over little things for Beth each day –  a picture she’d made with a four-leafed clover,  a lavender pillow to help her sleep, stuff like that. After Beth died Vincent wasn’t so tolerant if she stayed with Alexa too long. One day he showed her the log he’d been keeping of all the times she’d gone over there and how many hours and minutes she’d spent. It was true, it did all add up to quite a bit of time, though as she’d tried explaining, it wasn’t as if she had any other friends, but Vincent said it ate into their quality time. 

Quality time. Yeah, well. Still, to be fair, it was true when he said she’d had no right to go and tell Alexa about him filming the business with that hitchhiker. But with Beth gone, and no one to tell, things kind of built up. And she shouldn’t have told him what Alexa said about the hitchhiker thing. He forbade her to see Alexa after that, but she managed to sneak out one day when he was up at the pub.

They’d sat in Alexa’s sunroom and the rain was streaking past the windows in solid diagonal stripes. Thunder rattled the sky and lightning shredded it to zigzags of green, pink and blue. If it hadn’t been so scary it would have been beautiful. And on the wall there was that photo of Beth with her arm around Leonardo, the boy she’d met in Brazil when she was seventeen. He’d come over to New Zealand three times, to see her. The first time for a month’s holiday, and a couple of years later to work. That was when she’d heard him crying behind the old grey poplar in Alexa’s garden.  Beth told her they’d split up. It was real sad because she’d also heard him singing Italian opera behind that tree, with nobody to appreciate it but the sheep.

She told Beth most girls would kill to have someone as hot as that and Beth said well probably, but she wasn’t most girls. Even so she painted a picture of the tree and had it printed on a T-shirt to send him for his birthday and told him it was so he could wear the tree next to his heart. The third time he came back was a month before Beth died. When Alexa had finally stopped taking her to that weird light therapy clinic in Auckland. When Beth refused to take any more homeopathy, acupuncture and carrot juice. When her best friend came back from Australia. When Beth asked her brother and sister to sleep a couple of nights in the garden with her, like when they were kids. Leonardo came back. He baked some special cheese bread and they played music in the garden all night with Beth wrapped up in quilts, and Vincent fed wood into the brazier, and Rob lit sparklers to add a bit of magic.

And there she was in the photo. Her long tanned legs, blonde hair and wide grin. As if all her plans for the future were going to happen. As if she had all the time in the world. And maybe it was the rain or the photo, but something in Melanie’s heart broke. Like when the stop bank disintegrated in last winter’s flood, laying bare years of buried rubbish that got tossed about in the river, forcing new routes through the sludge for the snow-melt off the mountains in spring.

Alexa listened. And gave Melanie the name of a lawyer. And a book to read. “Hide it where Vincent won’t find it.”  

But Vincent did find it. And that’s when he said the thing about feeding glass to the horses.  And to Alexa he wrote a note. In the morning when he went to pick up his mail he found his mother’s green shawl wrapped up in tissue paper in the mailbox. “She didn’t have to do that,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.

That night Melanie swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, and that’s why, when Vincent sent Bruce up to their bedroom, to “talk some sense into her” she was too dozy to push him out the door. 

She almost fell down the stairs on her flight to the phone, but she was able to dial the police before Bruce burst through the doorway calling her a liar and Vincent said when the police found out she’d worked on Manchester Street they’d just laugh at her. But the police didn’t laugh. They did, however, search the house, and take away Vincent’s camera.

She told the policewoman she couldn’t understand why it had got to her so much because, as Vincent kept saying, the first time would surely have been the worst  considering she’d only been nine, but she’d handled it real well back then and just blotted it out of her mind so why couldn’t she now? 

And the policewoman raised one eyebrow and said, “Real well Melanie, eh?” 

Last week the policeman brought the camera back. He warned Vincent it didn’t look good and the Prosecution would make a meal of it. And Vincent said that was crap because it was a controlled loving situation, not like Angelo’s Angels eh? And by the way what did Melanie think Alexa would say if she knew about Angelo’s Angels? And she didn’t bother telling him Alexa already knew.

It was so peaceful here by the river, the sky and clouds and trees mirrored on its glassy surface. 

“A perfect upside-down world,” she’d said to Beth.

“Nah!” Beth threw a stone into the middle of the river and broke the reflection. “It’s not real.”  

“Well, what IS real?”

Bob snorted, munched and farted. 

“That’s real,” grinned Beth. 

And they’d laughed till their stomachs hurt. Till the tears rained down their cheeks. As if it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

Last night she’d dreamed of Beth. They were floating under water, here in the river, with their faces turned to the sky. When she woke up her face was wet. And this morning she went to the butcher’s and on the back wall there was a wooden panel she couldn’t remember seeing before with words burned into it and she started to read them aloud. “The air is torn and thundering, skimming the earth …”

 She stopped and stared and the butcher finished the line for her, thinking she couldn’t see it properly, “Everything turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.”

 He slapped her packet of mince on the counter. “The bloke that made it said it comes from a joker called Gogol. Whoever he is he musta been here in a nor’wester, eh?” 

And the only thing that made any sense was that she needed to go down to the river.

And now here she is. And she’s taking the pouch off the chain around her neck and shaking her wedding ring onto her palm. She’s drawing back her arm. And the ring is flying through the air in a perfect arc, glistening in the sun. As it lands in the river the thin skin on the surface of the water splits into shards like shattered glass. Like a broken reflection. Like a fragment of something real.

About the contributor

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her work appears in Spelk, JMWW, Fictive Dream, New Flash Fiction Review, Bending Genres and Ellipis among others. www.sandraarnold.co.nz

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