NSW Writers' Centre and Society of Women Writers
Charlie and her little sister Pippa squat at the water’s edge. Pippa, ever-anxious, sucks her thumb. Charlie feels sorry for her. Barely five, even she knows something’s up.
‘Let’s build a sandcastle. I’ll get shells, to decorate.’
Pippa nods, happy to be occupied. Scanning the sand, Charlie drifts away.
She sighs. It’s the same every year. Grudgingly, Dad hitches the ancient caravan to the Land Cruiser to drive here. Mum says for ‘a family holiday.’
Within hours away from the farm the arguing between her parents begins. Cross looks, hints scattered with prickly silences, grow, until they are at each other’s throats. Charlie picks up a shell, glances over her shoulder. She can hear them. They’re lying back there on dry sand.
‘Quarrelling,’ as Gran might say, ‘the pair of them, worse than hens with fleas.’
Charlie feels a familiar heaviness in her chest. Spotting another shell, she grabs it. She’s seen this one coming. Knows that’s why she must steer Pippa out of earshot.
‘Go and play.’
Mum, smiling bravely, tying her and Pippa’s curls into matching ponytails, smearing cheeks with sunscreen.
‘Here Charlie, take this. Try catching crabs.’
Charlie reluctantly takes the crab scoop Dad has made. A wire plant-basket fixed to a sawn-off broom handle.
She’s seen the scooping in action, locals walking the shallows, spotting crabs and swooping. Out of the water the crabs look magical, a brilliant blue, beautiful in sunlight. Charlie feels sad, watching them trapped. It reminds her of Dad finding Tabby. Those new kittens, all so tiny, eyes still closed. How, picking them up one by one, he dropped them into a sack, marched off towards the creek. Looking at people catching crabs, Charlie wishes she could rescue them all. Return them all to the water.
She doesn’t understand this beach business. Not like the farm. That’s somewhere she wants to be, a place where she knows every animal by name. Dad’s happier there. Always busy, something to do. Mum too. Whereas all they do here is fight.
Charlie hears Dad’s voice hardening. She checks Pippa. Her sister remains engrossed. She’s built a small peak, is protecting it with a moat. Finding a feather Charlie’s focus returns to her parents. Dad’s standing, talking down at Mum. Mum’s sitting up, arms folded tight around her knees.
Charlie thinks: the calf born just before we left, I could be bottle-feeding it, or tossing grain to the chooks before searching their nest boxes for eggs.
She sees Dad stride off along the beach; his fists snapped shut, eyes hard ahead. Watches how Mum slumps, burying her face in her hands.
Pippa’s smile welcomes Charlie back. Crouching, Charlie passes shells across, lets her place them. The slim feather stabs in, marking the top of the castle.
Charlie takes up the crab scoop. Half-heartedly the girls paddle forward. A pleat of water parts ahead. A ripple of reflection shimmers behind. The sisters stop. Charlie speaks.
‘Catch a crab?’
Charlie shrugs. ‘Me neither.’