Listen to the surf. I could lie here, lie here with you forever.
But you can’t. She buries her face in the pillow. Oh, I know. Things change. Yet the surf. Harry stretches his body along Aster’s bare back. Yet the surf. The surf will always. Always. Aster? Aster?
Aster lies there listening. The waves crash on the beach in a dull roar, like distant thunder. Darling? She shivers, pulls up the sheet, her knuckles pressed against her chin. Darling? A curtain flaps. The breeze whistles through the weatherboard cladding.
In the darkness Harry feels his way across the room. He touches her hand stretched out from the sheet, whispers I’m here. He falls into the bed and takes some of the sheet for himself. He jostles Aster, seeking the softness of her naked body. And after a moment he lies still, breathing lightly.
I saw a ghost.
Seemed like one. He feigns a laugh.
Oh, the neon, that white neon, Aster says, her voice muffled in the pillow. If it bothers you so much we can get it changed. Darling, you can’t expect everything to be perfect from the start.
Harry tugs at the sheet again. Why do they put a neon over the mirror anyway? Listen to the surf.
I could lie here like this listening to the surf, lie here with you forever, Aster.
But you can’t. She buries her face in the pillow.
Oh, I know. Things change. Yet the surf.
Harry stretches his body along Aster’s bare back. Yet the surf. The surf will always. Always. Aster? Aster?
The breeze blows the curtains flap, flap, flap. You coming?
Harry reaches across and switches on the bed lamp.
Oh shit, Aster says. Look at the time.
A wave hisses up the beach and soaks into the sand at their feet.
Any moment now, Harry says.
Suddenly the full moon fills the sky and rushes towards them across the water.
Aster’s eyes glint in the light. Race you to the top of the sandhill, she yells.
At the top Aster sinks down. Oh I’m out of breath.
Harry leans close, tastes the salt on her ear. I’ve never felt so close to anyone before, he says. With you.
Aster slips off her T-shirt and shimmies out of her shorts. She lays out on the sand, her body etched hard by the moonlight. The sand is still hot. Cover me over with it.
He scoops the sand over her body. Aster, do you think we could do things together always? I mean, like we could be these archaeologists sifting the sand for the remains of ancient civilisations, and together all the time, sharing everything.
The sand is freezing when you dig deep.
Aster lies in the sand watching the moon going around the earth. Harry stretches out with his head against hers. On the other side of the bay a long ragged string of flames burns through the bushland, and in the still night air across the water they can hear the fire crackling.
We could run a corner store together, Harry says.
The moonlight flashes on the water. The glowing foam surges across the sand and fills their footprints. Like when we first met. When we had that coffee in the hotel and instead of going back to the conference we walked along the beach, and the moon came up over the water just like this.
Aster picks up a silvery shell. I had never walked on the beach in the moonlight.
Not before you.
We walked on the beach and I was thinking I can say anything to you.
And you said everything.
Then Aster sees the dolphin shadows hanging in the waves and she stops still. Do you see them?
She takes the phone from her ear and presses stop. The sun burns her forehead. The cicadas shriek their static. She goes back inside the weatherboard house.
Who was that?
The cicadas break into the stillness of the house. A hot humid breath of wind stirs the curtains. Aster grabs the coffee pot and pours some coffee. She sits down on the couch.
Harry sits down on the couch next to her.
What about the conference?
Oh, just the arrangements. The coffee’s gone cold.
Harry gets up. I’ll make some fresh.
So what’s up?
Aster smears the small beads of moisture across her forehead. Nothing. Flight numbers, hotel bookings, and so on.
You were talking for half an hour.
Harry? I don’t think it’s interesting.
Well I do.
You’re more interested than I am, and I’m the one who’s going to the conference.
I heard you laughing.
Frank said something funny.
She goes to the kitchen bench and gets out a cutting board and a knife. She starts chopping an onion.
The cicadas get on my nerves, she says.
What was it? Harry asks. What was it that was so funny?
I don’t know.
Aster goes to the fridge and picks out a red pepper. She goes back for eggs, ham, and cheese.
Harry comes over and leans on the kitchen bench. I thought you only laughed like that with me. Supposing you meet someone at this conference? We met at a conference.
Well, supposing you meet someone else, like we did then.
If I did, it would be someone like you. Aster turns on the hotplate and gets out a skillet. Can you fetch some parsley?
Aster grabs Harry by the hair and presses her tits against his neck. He twists his head. Aster winces. Oh you didn’t shave yet.
She leans forward to look at Harry’s laptop screen, pushing his head forward.
What’re you doing?
Aster lays out on the lounge flung back, a hand between her legs. We never watch movies.
For when you’re away.
You can’t watch movies all the week. Why don’t you look up friends?
You’re my only friend, anyway my friends don’t live around here.
Make some new friends.
You mean I should take a cookery class?
What about Max?
Max married Natalie and he never returned my calls after that.
Well, Aster says.
Harry shuts the laptop.
I’ll go for walks along the beach.
That’ll be nice, walking.
It won’t be the same as our walks. I’ll miss you.
And I’ll miss you too.
She drapes her arms over him, laying her head on his shoulder. Harry stares at the bathroom mirror. Why go?
Aster lifts her head. They are looking at themselves together, white-faced in a flickering neon light.
You know I have to go. She turns away. And I’ll be coming back.
But do you have to go for the whole week?
I’ll still be loving you.
How can you be loving me when you’re not with me?
It makes no difference.
Aster puts on a top and pants. She is trailing back past the lounge, Harry following her. I want to be with you all the time, Harry says.
I want to be with you, Aster says, and I want to do other things as well.
Harry picks up the remote and sits down on the lounge. It’s bad luck you have to go away when we’ve just moved in. We’ve hardly settled in.
Hello May, Harry says. Another perfect day in paradise.
Getting hot, May says.
What can we do about it?
As long as it doesn’t get too hot.
Anyway this is the coolest spot, in the aircon.
Did you want anything, Mr Sullivan?
The Rolling Stone.
What’s it like out? Aster asks. Looks like another perfect day.
Harry slaps the magazine down on the coffee table. What do you mean another perfect day?
There’s no need to talk weather with me.
I think it’s a perfect day.
Harry stares out at the blue sky. When you’re saying it’s a perfect day you’re thinking something else.
I’m not thinking anything else.
Aster, I’m not interested in the weather. It’s always the same here anyway, blue sky. I want to know what you’re really thinking.
That’s what I’m really thinking.
Perfect day, Harry says. He pulls out a Rolling Stone second down in the stack and drops it at the cash register.
May says, There’s a card from your wife.
She sent it from the airport.
Harry takes the card and reads, I love you darling.
May rings up the magazine. Missing you already? she asks.
Well, you know, May, we hardly settled in the house yet.
May counts out the change. When Fred goes out I miss him. But I look at it like this. Fred’s got his life. He’s got his life with me and that’s good. And he’s got other things as well.
That’s what Aster says, Harry says.
The phone rings. Just a moment, dear. Yes? Hello Mrs Smith. Yes we got them in the other day and they’re on special too. All right dear, I’ll put some aside for you. When did you say? On Wednesday. All right, dear. Yes, bye for now.
Harry is standing there flipping the magazine.
We did everything together, you know? May says. She comes out from behind the counter and starts pulling down the window blinds. Sometimes he’s off doing something and I am wishing he was around, so I could talk with him, you know?
She goes to the door. I’m shutting up shop, she says.
I’m off to the beach.
You’ll see Fred. He’s down there every evening.
Harry pauses on the kerb while May locks up the shop. The last sunlight is almost horizontal, glowing against the trees. The leaves hanging still.
They look brittle, Harry says. As if touching would shatter them.
May turns the key and joins Harry. You’re a poet, she says.
I wrote a poem once.
Well I always thought poems were a waste of time.
That’s what I thought too.
The surf spray moves in like a thick cloud of fog, drenching the beach. Harry walks along the edge of the water towards a solitary figure.
May says to make sure you catch something for dinner.
Fred laughs. Yeah, pasta for dinner as likely as not. Here you are, I’ve got a spare rod.
No thanks Fred, I just came to catch the sunset.
Yeah, fishing is only the half of it for me too.
Harry and Fred stand in the surf watching the sunset. The colours get darker. A sudden loneliness envelops the beach.
There’s a loneliness, Harry says.
Can’t be bothered feeling lonely, Fred says.
Black shadows flash across the deep green face of the waves. Fred watches the dolphins intently, following the faint fluorescent trail they leave when they break water.
May said you talk to them.
Did May tell you that?
Aster takes a sip of Peruvian coffee, relishes the flavour. Sets the cup back down. She exchanges a glance with a man in a linen jacket.
You’re not listening are you? Marcia says.
Oh? Aster is checking the phone.
I’ve been trying to call Harry but he’s not answering. I’ve tried twice already. It’s not like him. He usually picks up.
Aster gazes at the Hemingway couple, a woman in a large sunhat and the young man with blond-streaked hair. He didn’t want me to come to this conference. We’ve just moved into a new house.
Marcia looks at her watch and says next session is starting.
You go ahead, I’ll give him another call.
Aster drinks the last of the coffee. She watches a Qantas jet flying across a ripple of clouds. The call rings out again.
You’re at the conference, the man in the linen jacket says.
That’s right, are you at the conference too?
Do you mind if I join you?
Not at all.
He orders a Peruvian coffee.
Why are you smiling? he asks Aster.
You ordered the same coffee.
Did I? I’m sorry, did you want another one?
Aster shakes her head.
Did I startle you back then?
You seemed startled when I spoke.
Well, I thought I was alone.
The waiter brings the coffee. The man drinks some. He puts the cup back down and looks at her.
You see, Aster says. You look a bit like my husband. I had just been trying to call him and when you touched me and I turned round, for a moment it seemed as if he was right here. I couldn’t believe it.
She stands up abruptly. The session is starting.
The conference, you remember?
But I don’t even know your name.
Aster, what’s yours?
Aster is standing there and Tom is squinting into a reflection of sunlight from an office building window. I didn’t need the coffee, he says.
It was an excuse to talk to you. Tom smiles suddenly and stands up facing Aster.
What’s the smile?
I look like your husband?
Yes, is that amusing?
Well, you see, you look much like my wife, my ex-wife.
Aster’s phone chimes. Excuse me.
Harry is on the phone. Aster? Hello darling, how’s it going? Have you been trying to call me? Sorry, I was out. Walking on the beach. There’s someone at the door. All right, call me tonight. Bye darling.
Harry touches stop and opens the door to a woman.
Harry and Lisa stand in the doorway looking at each other.
You wanted a light changed, she says.
Harry just looks.
I’m the electrician, Lisa says.
Oh yes, the neon in the bathroom.
Can I come in?
Yes, of course.
You were expecting a man, right?
They walk into the bathroom.
There’s nothing wrong with it, Harry says. It works all right. But I just don’t like the neon.
Yes, I know.
I just want an ordinary light, the neon is too white.
Okay, no problem.
Well then, I’ll leave you to it.
Before you go.
Harry. I’m Harry.
Harry, can you just sign this.
Okay, that’s it. I’ll change the light.
At the door Harry asks: Did you turn off the power?
Harry and Fred stand watching the waves.
Pasta again tonight?
Do you really talk to the dolphins? Harry asks.
Not exactly talk, more like a feeling.
Fred reels in his line. It makes tiny ripples in the wash as a wave slips back across the sand.
The dolphins like to play when I’m around. It’s odd, it sounds odd I know, but in a way we like being together.
A dark green wave rises above the horizon and a few black shapes flash across its face. Fred is packing his tackle.
Millions of years ago we lived in the water with the dolphins you know, we swam together. The dolphins crawled out onto dry land when we did—but then they went back.
He picks up his rod and fishing basket and stares out to sea.
As the night closes in Harry walks alone along the beach. The moon rises and makes a path across the water.
Aster stares at the phone. No answer again.
He doesn’t hang around then waiting for your call, Tom says. He looks past Aster at the couple in the sidewalk cafe across the street. The woman has a phone to her ear.
A tears slips down Aster’s cheek.
What’s the matter? Tom asks.
On the television there are grainy pictures of a Qantas jet standing on the airport runway. The news presenter says the airport has been closed for hours.
Harry presses the remote button.
He wanders around the living room from one point to another, criss-crossing the room, hands in his pockets. He bumps against a table and ricochets off in another direction.
At last he slumps onto the couch and stares at the bright blue screen.
As the sun is setting he joins Fred at the water’s edge. Fred nods a welcome and yanks the line.
After you left last night I went for a swim, Harry says.
Fred looks at him. You shouldn’t swim at dusk because of the sharks, you know that.
Yes, at first I panicked. The dolphins swam all around me.
I’ll give this next session a miss, Aster says.
We could listen to music, whatever you like.
No, I need time out.
Can I drop in after?
I’m packing and going home.
But the conference isn’t over.
I know. But I want to go home.
Aster zips a bag. I miss Harry. He doesn’t answer the phone.
I thought he was supposed to be the one who was missing you.
Tom sits on the edge of the bed. Well, I’ll miss you, he says.
She walks to the window and looks down in the street. She puts her forehead on the glass. It’s the conference, she says. So we have similar interests. That’s all.
But if we had met before, before the conference.
Aster turns from the window and says: Well we didn’t meet before. I married someone else and so did you.
Tom goes to the bar fridge and gets out a couple of mini-bottles of champagne. He opens them and gives one to Aster.
You forgot the crystal, Aster says.
When I spoke to you at the coffee shop I startled you because I looked like your husband. And I was attracted to you because you looked like my ex. We didn’t meet before but if we had we could have easily loved each other.
Okay, Aster says, I’ll drink to that. And she does. She throws down a mouthful of champagne.
Just think, Tom. How many other people are walking the streets looking for other people. Falling in love with other people. She giggles.
Tom says seriously: Can we spend this last night together?
She tosses the empty champagne bottle in the waste bin. I want to get some sleep, she says.
At least let me see you to the airport.
Can’t you hear me? I don’t want to see you again.
Disappear won’t you? Aster screams. Fucking disappear!
Tom slaps Aster on the face. He stares at the sudden red bruise on her face.
Are you going to slap me again?
My wife told me to disappear. She said it was over and that I should just disappear.
For a moment then, for a moment it seemed like old times?
May picks up the phone. Post office store. Oh hello love. How’s the conference? Just a moment, I’ll ask Fred.
She puts down the phone and goes into the kitchen where Fred is having a coffee. It’s Aster. She can’t raise her husband.
I wonder if he’s down the beach?
It’s getting late.
He was telling me he goes swimming, he swims with the dolphins.
Swimming at dusk? What about sharks? I don’t like this, Fred.
I’ll go down the beach to have a look. Lucky it’s a full moon.
Fred is putting on a jacket and May says: I’ll go with you Fred.
There’s no need May.
Love, I want to go with you.
The cab pulls up at the airport. Aster gives the driver her credit card.
What’s the time, driver?
Half past, but don’t worry, you’ve got all the time in the world.
Haven’t you seen the news? They’ve still got that Qantas jet stuck on the runway. They reckon terrorists.
Why didn’t you say before we left the hotel? Aster asks.
I thought you knew. Everyone knows.
What am I going to do?
Wait, like everyone else.
Aster gets out of the cab and stands on the kerb with her bag. Dusk fills the empty sky. The cars on the freeway stop. A streetlight crackles. A siren dies. Aster stares at the phone and shakes it.