Waves lap the shore at Pebbly Beach. Oddly named, it’s one of the sandiest beaches I know. Not a pebble in sight. The early morning tide sucks in its breath, dragging baby waves out to sea, holding them captive until …
They are inevitably released and the excited surf rushes back to shore like it has forgotten something important.
The rhythmic cadence of the tide is calming. I feel heavy; sleepy.
My breathing slows.
Steady, soothing, breaths.
I hate how sand sticks to my skin. Finding its gritty way into my swimmers and under my nails. But I love to scrunch my toes into it, damp and not too soggy. It feels somehow liberating. The beach is always crowded despite the white heat of the Aussie summer.
My favourite time to swim is the early morning. Before the heat of the sun reaches its full intensity, and crowds of day-trippers smother the beach. I surrender to the chilly embrace of the early-morning waves, letting them pull me towards oblivion.
I bodysurf back to shore.
The beach fills with eager tourists stuffed into designer wetsuits, looking the part, yet stupefied by the cold, salty sea. Every day the surf-rescue team watch and wait for that inevitably predictable tourist who underestimates nature.
Which one will need rescuing later?
I relax as the undercurrent tows me out to wait for the next swell.
The mournful wail of an ambulance pierces my reverie. No doubt another tourist, naïve to the unforgiving rips that can drag even the strongest swimmer under.
I hear a strange beeping, in the distance. A jarring counterpoint to the dull murmur of familiar-sounding voices.
It’s so cold I can’t feel my nose.
The beeping is still there. Persistent. Even as we approach the Santa Claus Village, just north of Rovaniemi. It’s magical. Picturesque. Layers of powdery white snow blanket the Lappish landscape as far as the eye can see, like fondant icing. The arctic circle cuts right through the village centre. Families with young children covered from head to toe in fluffy, puffy outer layers, only their wide eyes visible, bright with wonder and cold, pose for photos. Proof that they were sixty-eight degrees north of the equator.
Delicate, icy-white fractals lightly dust exposed eyebrows and the tips of naked noses. In the distance I hear the impatient howls of Lappish huskies. Desperate. Aching to stretch their legs and run. Oh, the exhilaration as they set off! Swirling snow wraps itself in icy flurries around my bare face; a bracing reminder that I am alive.
Again, I hear the muffled murmuring of voices. An undertone to the beeping that won’t leave my ears. Another beep now. Slightly higher pitched than the first, asynchronous then harmonising with the other, like two car indicators flashing at an intersection. Beep-Beep. Be-beep. B-beep. Is this tinnitus? The second beep sounding closer and closer. Is tinnitus stereophonic?
The sound of children singing and laughing in a field on Resarö island, in the Stockholm archipelago, resonates with musical innocence. The midsommarstång will soon be raised.
This year it’s the women and girls’ turn to elevate it. A little local girl – no older than six or so and dressed in the national colours of yellow and blue – tugs at my hand, gesturing for me to join her around the pole.
It’s our opportunity to dance and forget our worries. Grateful that the rain has held off, we gather around the leafy totem as the men and boys simultaneously encourage us and good-naturedly tease that it is too heavy. My sister doesn’t join in, standing instead in the bristly shadows of a copse of spruce trees on the outskirts of the field.
Squeezing my hand with one playfully determined gesture, the little girl boldly runs towards the pole, pushing it upright with her friends. I join the mothers to support the pole as high as our statures will allow. Up it goes and up it stays. All the children gather brightly coloured ribbons attached to the pole and dance around it, singing as they go. A kaleidoscope of colour swirling in harmony to a chorus of familiar Nursery tunes sung in unfamiliar Swedish.
My body feels heavy.
Toompea hill, at the top of Tallinn’s Old Town, is steep and paved with ancient, uneven cobblestones. I wonder what secrets those old cobbles have collected over the years. Of those past and present, traversing their way to and from the timeworn lookout. A mural with the words ‘these were the best of times’ painted in black ink over a whitewashed background can be seen on one of the lookout’s old stone walls.
Tall, gothic rooftops cast medieval shadows.
The Old Town’s story-book buildings smother the afternoon sun as it descends towards the horizon.
The delicious aroma of cinnamon and brown sugar wafts up from a cart down by Viru Gate. Sweet, delicious, hot, roasted almonds. My nose reminds my body that it’s hungry.
Floating from the main square comes an ethereal sound of children singing. It’s a beautiful, familiar auditory kaleidoscope. What is that song? Its heavenly melody tickles my mind. Teasing out fragments of a childhood memory.
‘The wind laughs in the corn, Laughs and laughs and laughs, Laughs up a whole day and half a night. Dona Dona Dona Do-on-naa…’
Such a mournful tune.
About a calf being led to slaughter.
Stop singing! It’s too sad.
Propped up against the bar of the trendy Ramsgate Hotel, Charlotte was deeply engaged in her conversation with Ben, a smoking-hot guy she’d met on the pub crawl earlier. Just her type. She loved his carefully landscaped beard, messy man-bun, skinny tan chinos, boater shoes with no socks, and a pale pink cashmere-blend jumper. She smiled inwardly at the thought of going home with him later.
The delicious thrill of the evening evaporated when Charlotte saw her older sister wend her way towards them. As she approached, Heloise could hear Ben’s attempts to charm Charlotte.
‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’
Is he quoting Nabokov?
‘That’s deep,’ Charlotte cooed.
Heloise knew from the way Charlotte looked down at her hands then back up to meet Ben’s eyes that she was smitten.
‘Time to go Lotti’ Heloise said, reaching for Charlotte.
‘You know you’re not supposed to be here.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Charlotte folded her arms over her chest resisting Heloise’s pull.
‘Hey, chill. Let her stay—’
‘Save it. She’s fifteen,’ Heloise’s vibrant green eyes held Ben’s gaze until he looked away. His sockless feet squelched salty sweat in his airless shoes.
Charlotte stormed through the throng of revellers; past the oversized bouncer, too distracted by a group of giggling, scantily clad women, to notice the sisters. Heloise relaxed her grip on her sister as they stepped out into the cool, night air. She messaged their mother to say she’d found Charlotte.
‘Damnit Heloise, what are you doing here?’ Charlotte wrested her arm back as they walked along the footpath.
‘Mum sent me. When she found out you were on the pub crawl.’
‘And how did she find out?’
‘That guy’s a sleaze. Do you really want to get caught again? After last time?’ Heloise went to give her sister a hug, but Charlotte deflected the motion, pushing her as hard as she could.
Just at that moment a bus rounded the corner, a little too close to the kerb where the sisters stood arguing. Charlotte and Heloise were shocked into momentary silence as the bus whizzed past.
‘I’m not going home,’ screamed Charlotte, running across the road towards the beach. Heloise gave chase. Slightly quicker, she caught up with Charlotte at the top of the rickety, wooden stairs leading to the familiar shore where the sisters had spent their childhood.
‘Wait, Lotti,’ Heloise reached for her sister.
‘I said don’t touch me!’ shrieked Charlotte, yanking her arm from Heloise’s grip.
Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits blared out from the Pub. Turning towards the music, Charlotte didn’t see her sister lose her balance, and fall down the worn, wooden stairs. Nor did she hear the dull thud of her sister’s head connecting with the last step.
She waited several moments for Heloise to return, to bound up the stairs yelling her usual her sisterly reproaches.
Ed Sheeran’s refrains made way for Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do.
‘Eli?’ Charlotte eventually called. ‘Stop messing around.’
Charlotte picked at her splintered fingernails as the minutes ticked by.
‘Fine. I’ll be in the pub,’ she said.
Back at the bar there was no sign of Ben. Charlotte gulped down another apple cider, annoyed that its effervescence reminded her of Heloise. Her foot tapped subconsciously to the philosophical beat of Avicii’s Wake Me Up. Looking at her empty glass, she ordered another cider and settled in for the evening. Maybe she might meet another ‘Ben.’
Charlotte’s phone buzzed. Her mother.
‘Mum, I’ll be home soon.’
‘It’s your sister.’
Sucking in her breath, Charlotte’s shoulders tensed, ‘What about her?’
‘There’s been an accident.’
Charlotte swallowed the saliva pooling in her mouth, ‘where?’
‘Come to the Royal Adelaide,’ the phone went silent. Charlotte sipped her cider. Its appley-ness reminded her of last Christmas. Heloise had given her a Soda Stream then used it to mix fresh apple juice with the soda water. Typical Heloise.
Wonder how much Cash Converters would pay for it?
She took another swig and booked an Uber on her phone.
Charlotte hesitated just outside her older sister’s hospital room. Through the glass-windowed door, life-sustaining machines, beeping in synchronised dissonance, reverberated into the corridor. Charlotte shivered. Just inside sat her parents. Disoriented. Untethered. Unable to face them, she chewed her splintered fingernails until they bled. Sucking a bloodied finger, she slid into the room and sat in a vacant plastic chair. Her mother’s shoulders slumped, like they had given up trying to support her grieving body.
When did Mum get old?
As if reading Charlotte’s thoughts, her mother lifted exhausted, icy-blue eyes at Charlotte, who looked down at the floor as the doctor entered.
Dr Rutherford sat next to the anxious parents. Her feet ached. It had been a long night and she was only part-way into her shift. The Heloise Parker case was, she thought, worse than death. Death would have allowed her distraught family to mourn, then get on with the remnants of their lives. But Heloise lingered, and where there’s life, there’s hope. She mentally rehearsed the words she intended to say to Heloise’s expectant parents.
‘We think the accident caused a lesion to a region of the brainstem called the pons. Her consciousness appears active, but we can’t detect any other movement,’ Dr Rutherford began.
‘Will she be alright?’ asked Charlotte’s father.
‘It’s too early to determine anything.’
‘She can’t move?’ Charlotte’s mother asked.
‘We’re still trying to pinpoint the exact location of the paralysis.’
‘Will she recover?’
Charlotte stood, hovering closer to her sister. Even unconscious she makes everything about her.
‘Heloise has some horizontal eye movement. This can sometimes be associated with a good neurological prognosis,’ Dr Rutherford replied. ‘I don’t want to mislead you. There’s a chance that Heloise may be lucky, but …’
Charlotte’s face felt hot.
‘Only time will tell,’ finished the doctor.
‘My daughter has to recover,’ her mother said, fixing her eyes on Charlotte. ‘You were with her?’ Without waiting for a reply, she turned her back on her younger daughter and moved closer to Heloise.
‘Is that a tear?’ Heloise’s mother wiped her oldest daughter’s face with a bare finger.
Charlotte shivered as apple flavoured reflux made its way into her throat. Shame wrapped tendrils of humiliation around her fragile, fifteen-year-old heart.
‘We should talk outside,’ Dr Rutherford ushered Heloise’s parents out into the hallway.
Cidery-effervescence escaped Charlotte’s throat with a loud gurgle.
I blink my eyes several times, trying to focus.
Where am I?
Murmuring shadows hover nearby. Their blurry darkness moves around me. I try to sit, but my body feels weighed down. An invisible force clenches me in its grasp.
Why can’t I move?
A shadowy spectre floats above me.
Who are you?
I try to breathe.
Why does my chest feel tight?
What’s that beeping?
The wraithlike shadow inches closer.
Stay away. Don’t touch me.
I move my eyes as fast as I can. I can hear a voice.
‘She has horizontal eye movement …’
The shadow is close. Its hot breath reaching into my nostrils.
Do I smell apples?
Author: Melanie is an emerging writer who recently completed a Master of Literature and Creative Writing with Deakin University (July 2022). Melanie has a short story ‘Firetrap’ published in Busybird Publishing’s ninth anthology, ‘Untitled’. When not writing, she is a violinist masquerading as a technology lawyer.
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.
Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey