Heidi stopped at the caravan door, looked at the pile of showering paraphernalia in her arms and sighed. Why bother? Solace wouldn’t be found in a caravan park shower block, the first week in January, with a whinging five-year-old in tow. It had taken the first real sleep-in for six months to see the stupidity of forcing her home routine here. Besides, it was after 10.00am. If they hurried they might still beat JayDee and the girls to the beach.
“How about we skip a shower?” she said, heading back into the caravan and dumping everything on their unmade bed.
“No shower. Woo hoo!” Joel hooted, breaking into an impromptu victory dance.
“Yeah love, no shower. Reckon you could handle going straight to the beach?”
She laughed at his exaggerated air punch and “Yesssss!”
“How ‘bout you get our swimmers off the line and I’ll pack some lunch.”
“Sure Mum.” He whistled, bouncing down the stairs of the caravan, the semi-musical hiss stopping as he negotiated the plastic strips hanging in the door, moving from happy bard to stealth operative in a heartbeat.
Not for the first time, she wished she could be more like Joel, less like herself: go from one thing to another with little thought to what was left behind. Baggage made you look back and it came with responsibility, with being an adult. And now there was just her. She didn’t know how to balance responsibility with fun the way JayDee did it. But she was trying.
“Mu-um. JayDee’s here.”
“Crap!” She grabbed a robe and tied it over her pjs. “Hi,” she said, poking her head into the annex, affecting nonchalance she didn’t feel. He stood in the annex door, sunglasses pushed up above a faded cap, a smile on his tanned face. So at ease in the world—so different to Elliot.
“You left this last night,” JayDee said, holding up her cake plate. “The girls ate the rest before we got up. Best breakfast ever they said.”
“Wish I could eat mud cake for breakfast,” she said, her face relaxing into the smile she’d come to associate with JayDee.
“Hey JayDee, we’re going to the beach without a shower,” Joel said, his eyes full of excitement, and Heidi didn’t know if it was missing a shower or the unexpected appearance of JayDee.
“You have a shower before going to the beach?”
“Not anymore,” Heidi said, reaching down for the swimmers and towels in Joel’s arms. “Where are the girls?”
“My parents took them to Lorne for a picnic. I thought, perhaps I could take you and Joel out for brunch?”
“Brunch?” She couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked them out for a meal. Now two in the space of 24 hours.
“If you’re busy—”
“No. No we’re not busy. It’s just—”
“Why don’t I take Joel up to the bouncing cushion and let you have a shower in peace?”
Heidi laughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair. “You don’t know just how good? that sounds.”
“Maybe while you’re gone, you’ll think about coming with me to the surf club? They’ve got a live band tonight.”
“My folks offered to have Joel. The old man would love to have him over again. I’m a bit of a disappointment, you know, producing three daughters.”
“Can I Mum? Pah-lease. I wanna go. Pah-lease? Granddad Keith rocks.”
“I don’t know if I can ask them to do that.”
“Mum can I?”
“You didn’t ask—they offered.”
“Joel, please, just give me a moment.”
“Hey Junior—what do you think? Would you like to hang with Granddad Keith while I take your Mum out?”
“Sure. You should go Mum. Just no… kissing.”
Heidi blushed and looked away.
“Only dancing,” JayDee said, “scouts honour, mate.”
Heidi caught a new spark in JayDee’s eye, and the guilt demons stirred. They could stir all they wanted. For one night she’d do what she wanted.
* * *
A mild breeze blew across the river, tangling the bits of hair Heidi had strategically left loose around her face. They walked past the surf shop, the general store, the Melaleuca Gallery and on to a strip of new holiday apartments.
“This used to be old Californian bungalows and vacant paddocks,” Heidi said. “You ever get the feeling of dislocation… when somewhere you used to know really well is all changed when you go back? And you feel lost.”
“It felt like that when Ruth died,” JayDee said. “That’s why I sold the house. Every time she didn’t walk out to meet me when I got home, I lost her all over again.”
Heidi nodded silently looking up the path to a strip of fancy shops and more holiday apartments. “That used to be The Three Kings milk-bar and takeaway. I remember being tiny and bouncing on the trampolines next to it. Twenty cents a go. Then it was a hardware store and now it’s more holiday apartments.” Heidi sighed. “I’m talking too much. I’m sorry. I’m so starved of uninterrupted adult conversation.”
“I know the feeling.” JayDee took her hand and squeezed it.
Heidi waited for him to let go. Instead his fingers snaked through hers, the sensation of being the smaller hand in the grasp foreign. But good. Right. He smiled at her and for the first time since leaving she gave herself permission to fall into the moment and forget everything else. She squeezed his hand back.
They walked on in silence until they came to the bend in the Great Ocean Road and the music from the Surf Club filtered down from the dunes.
“You know what. I don’t even care if the band’s shit and I don’t know the songs,” Heidi said. “For a few hours I can just pretend this is all there is. Not that I wish… oh shit. I mean, excuse my language. I—”
“It’s okay Heidi. I know what you mean. C’mon.”
* * *
The band worked its way through the usual 80’s hits: “I Ran”, “Karma Chameleon”, “Modern Love” and “You Spin me Round”. Heidi grinned as she drank her beer, dancing on the spot until the opening bars of “Footloose” spurred her into action.
“We’re dancing. Let’s go.”
She took the stubby from his hand and half-danced half-dragged him onto the dance-floor. Heidi lost herself, becoming one with the music and the bouncing, sweating mass surrounding her. JayDee danced closer with each inward press as more people jammed onto the dance-floor. Closer and closer, his body shadowing hers.
When the lead singer screamed, “Everybody cut loose,” JayDee grabbed her hand, spinning her around and around. At the end of the song he deftly dipped her backward, the two of them breathing hard. The band broke into their final song of the set and JayDee pulled her back to her feet, holding her close.
The band crooned a pared back “Hold Me Now” and Heidi put a hand on JayDee’s muscular shoulder, letting him take her other hand in his. They danced slowly, the strict dancing position collapsing until Heidi lay her head against his shoulder, eyes closed.
Her lips mimed the lyrics, “Hold me now. Warm my heart. Stay with me. Let loving start.” Her body moved in tune with his, until the speakers filled with music she didn’t recognise, the live set over.
JayDee relaxed his embrace and slid his arm around her waist. “Another beer?”
Heidi nodded. “I’ll meet you on the balcony.”
She looked into the pitted mirror over the basins in the washroom, splashing water on her face and scraping the damp hair back from her face. The guilt demons stirred in the pit of her stomach.
Not tonight. I give you 364 nights. This one is mine. All mine.
The guilt demons temporarily immobilised, she smiled at her reflection and went to find JayDee.
He sat at a table nearest the railing, two beers in the centre of the table frosted with condensation. Heidi took the chair sitting opposite and pulled it around, sitting close to him.
“I haven’t had this much fun in… I don’t know how long,” she said, taking a long drink from the stubby, drowning the last hisses of the guilt demons. “I knew you’d be good for me. I knew the first day I saw you on the beach, how you managed to be both parent and friend to your girls. You seemed to have it all together. Made me realise how fucked up I am. But…” she put her hand up to stop him interrupting her. “You gave me hope, when I thought it was all gone.”
“You’re not fucked up Heidi. You’re beautiful and brave and you’re doing an incredible job with Joel, just how he needs you to be.”
He caressed her cheek. “When I saw you on the beach that day, for the first time in years I felt… something. Something I thought died with Ruth.” He leaned closer. “And every time I see you, every day we spend together, when we say goodbye I fear you’ll walk away and I won’t see you again.”
Her heart thumped. “I see you and it’s like…” she paused, her heart thumping. “You’re so full of life. I just want to…”
She leaned in and kissed him before she lost her nerve. His lips yielded to hers, the feeling of his hand rested on the back of her neck, so natural. As they pulled apart, guilt tore free—a whiplash of competing emotions.
“I’m sorry,” she said, regret sucking the oxygen from the air.
Heidi pitched her seat backward and ran off the balcony, fighting her way through the crowd at the bar. Panic, the guilt’s hellhound, seized her. She stumbled through the crowd, looking for the exit. Lost. Decimated by panic and guilt, a freak show of hysterical laughter and leering faces pressing in on her, she sought the nearest corner and folded herself into it.
You’ll just ruin him like you did Elliot.
“Heidi?” His hand rested on her arm and she recoiled.
“No.” She fought against his touch
“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” she sobbed. “It’s me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I lied to you.”
“About what? Hey, sweetheart.” He tried to push the hair out of her face. “Stop crying.”
Heidi caught sight of the exit through her tears and pushing past JayDee she ran, only stopping when she reached the footpath.
“Heidi, stop! Talk to me! HEIDI!” He caught her arm and stopped her from crossing the road. “I’m sorry if I came on too fast.”
“I thought I could do this. I wanted to so badly, but I can’t.” She couldn’t even look at him, staring instead at the initials drawn in the concrete. “I need to go get Joel.” She shook his hand free. “Alone.”
“You need to forget me, JayDee. Don’t come to the van. Don’t come to us at the beach.”
“Heidi! ” He ran across the road after her. “Stop, please!”
She turned. “I lied to you JayDee. I’m still married.”
“But I thought—”
“I know. And I let you.”
She walked away, tears blurring the way ahead, wishing someone other than JayDee’s parents were caring for Joel.
* * *
Heidi dropped the bags beside the annex door and went back inside for her keys and the esky.
“Why do you need keys?”
“We’re going to a different beach today,” she said. “Point Roadknight. Awesome boats and rock pools. It’s Poppy’s favourite beach.”
“Will JayDee be there too?”
She passed him the keys. “How about you pop the boot and put the bags in?”
“Sure, Mum.” It felt like a stab, the way he said ‘sure’. So like JayDee.
Heidi heard voices at the car and went out.
“Look Mum, it’s JayDee and Granddad Keith,” Joel said, his face bright and excited.
“He’s not your Granddad,” Heidi said, walking between Joel and JayDee, keeping her back to Joel and lowering her voice. “I thought I made it pretty clear last night I didn’t want to see you again.”
Joel looked up at her, confused. “Mum?”
“C’mon sport. JayDee tells me you’re pretty good on the bouncing cushion,” said Keith. “Wanna show me?”
Joel looked to her and she looked to Keith and nodded. She’d do anything to save Joel from a bitter scene.
JayDee waited until they walked out of earshot before he spoke. “Joel told the old man his Dad was sad and got sick and had to live in a hospital.” His eyes bored into hers. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Heidi swallowed hard, wanting to keep her composure. There was no recrimination in JayDee’s voice, but the idea of talking about Elliot undid her. She’d already cried an ocean of tears for Elliot, for Joel, for everything lost.
“Elliot’s been in a coma for six months. He couldn’t even get killing himself right.” The venom in the words surprised her. More chow for the guilt demons.
“I’m sorry Heidi. So sorry.”
“So am I.”
She walked back into the annex and sat in the doorway of the caravan.
“The Doctors have given me until the end of January. Then they’re turning off his life support. But they can’t do it without my signature. My parents suggested Joel and I come away, have a break before we had to go through… what’s next.” She put her head in her hands. “I just want to be released. But I don’t want to kill him.”
JayDee knelt on the ground in front of her and she looked up.
“I kissed him goodbye that morning, so relieved he looked focused and together for the first time in months. So bloody happy he’d finally got his act together.”
Heidi started crying. “A security guard found him unconscious in the carpark of the local shopping centre. He’d diverted the exhaust inside. I told him once, when I wasn’t coping, if he was going to kill himself, not to do it at home. Oh God…”
She cried until her chest seized and the air caught at the base her throat, and she thought asphyxiation would take her too.
“Breathe,” JayDee said, holding her tight, rubbing her back. “You’re not going to choke. Breathe.”
When Heidi calmed, JayDee boiled the jug and they sat at the tiny table staring at an open packet of Mint Slices and the floral mugs. He reached across and took her trembling hand.
“I don’t want anything from you Heidi, that you’re not willing to give. And I’ve got your back for however long you need me there.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been going nowhere since Ruth died,” he cleared his throat. “And if you decide, that you don’t want us to be friends, well, we’ll always have Anglesea. And I’ll always be grateful for that.”– – –
Thirty-Eight Degrees South was written for the Form and Genre Challenge’s Contemporary Romance category and won the Readers’ Choice in that section. Many thanks to Adam Byatt, Laura Meyer and Stacey Larner for their assistance in the writing of this story.