23. Omen Away
After their walk on the path that led along the top of Cottesloe Beach, Matthew and Elspeth had returned to the hotel and sunk into a deep jet-lagged sleep that lasted for over two hours. When they awoke, it was almost six in the evening, and the fiery Western Australian sun had been drained from the evening sky, leaving it a strange, washed-out colour, almost a soft mauve.
What awoke them was not the change in the light, but the sound of a flock of parrots returning to one of the trees that towered over the hotel’s back garden. It was a sharp chattering, an excited flurry of sound that seemed to fill the air completely, echoing off the walls of the hotel courtyard in a profusion of high-pitched squeaks. “Our little friends,” said Matthew, raising himself on an elbow to peer out of the window at the small green birds. “Hundreds and hundreds of them.”
He shook his head and let it flop back onto the pillow. The air was still warm, and a light film of perspiration was making him feel sticky. He would shower, he thought, or have a swim.
“If you want a swim,” said Elspeth drowsily, “then remember to shower before you get in. In this hot weather…”
“I know that,” said Matthew. Did she think that he would jump into the water all sticky with sweat? He felt slightly irritated by her remark; he was not one of those children of hers, and he did not need to be told what to do. But then he thought: she must be used to telling people to wash their hands, to do this and that; teachers couldn’t help themselves, but it would pass now that she had stopped being a teacher.
And then he thought: what will that funny little boy be doing now? Bertie. With that dreadful mother of his and that ineffective father, Stuart. Why did Stuart not face up to that woman and tell her to leave Bertie alone? Of course, he would be scared of her, Matthew decided, as some men are terrified of their wives, and wives of their husbands.
He gazed at Elspeth, whose eyes were still closed in the appearance of sleep, but who had moved her arms and who was awake behind the shut eyelids. Matthew had been told that in every marriage there was a dominant partner – Angus Lordie had said that to him – and that if you looked closely enough you could always work out who this was. It was a subtle matter, Angus had said, but it was always there. But what did Angus know of marriage? If ever there was a bachelor by temperament, then it was Angus. At least he – Matthew – had some experience of marriage now, wore the ring Elspeth had given him, could write “married” the next time an official form asked for his status.
They got up together and went outside for a swim in the hotel pool. Then, refreshed, they walked the short distance to the beachside restaurant that had been recommended to them. The woman in the hotel had been as good as her word and had insisted on a table near the window, and now they sat looking down over the beach and the sea, a glass each of chilled West Australian wine at their side.
Matthew raised his glass to Elspeth. “The beginning,” he said.
She reached for her own glass. “To the beginning.”
“Shall we swim tomorrow?” he asked. “I don’t mean in the hotel pool. Shall we swim down there, off the beach?”
They had seen people swimming when they went for their walk earlier that day and also one or two people surfing, catching the waves quite far out and riding in until the waves collapsed in a maelstrom of sand and water.
“I’ve hardly ever swum in the sea,” said Elspeth. “I swam in Portugal once and then a few times when I went to Greece with a couple of girlfriends. We went to the islands. Corfu. Places like that.”
“But you’d like to swim here?”
“Of course I would. It looks very inviting.”
Matthew smiled, reaching out to take her hand on top of the table. “Don’t you think that we could just stay here? I could run a gallery. You could… well, you could do whatever you wanted to.”
She looked out of the window. “You can’t just go somewhere and not come back. Not these days.”
“Yes, you can,” said Matthew. “What about those football fans who went off to watch Scotland play in Argentina and never came back? They married local girls and stayed.”
Elspeth sighed. “That’s different,” she said. “People like that are very uncomplicated. They don’t think things through. They see that alcohol is cheap and they decide to stay.”
She paused. “It would be very nice to be that uncomplicated. To live for the day – not to think about what lies ahead.”
Matthew thought about this for a moment. “Goethe deals with that in Werther,” he said. “He was interested in the question of whether we could ever be happy if we worried about things.” He looked at her gently. “But of course there’s a world of difference between Goethe and the average Scottish football fan.”
It was an observation that nobody could deny. Now the waitress appeared. As she handed them the menu, she looked out of the window, out towards the beach. The waves, whipped up by a storm somewhere far out at sea, were pounding heavily on the beach, producing a low rumbling sound.
“Surf’s up,” said the waitress.
“I can’t wait to go swimming in that,” said Matthew.
“Be careful,” said the waitress. “You can get rips when it’s like this. Carry you right out.”
She opened her notebook, fiddling briefly with the tip of her pencil. “And then there’s the Great Whites.”
“Great White whats?” asked Elspeth.
The waitress looked at her pityingly; poor uninformed Pom. “Great White sharks,” she said. “They’re out there, and sometimes they come in a bit too close for comfort. People get taken, you know. Right off the beach. Sometimes in water that’s no deeper than this.” She held a hand at the level of her waist, watching the effect of her words. “My brother’s friend was taken a year or two ago. He was a surfer and the shark took a great bite out of his board. He almost made it back in on a wave, but the shark came for him again and that was it. It’s their element, you see. We’re the ones who shouldn’t be there.”
Matthew gazed out over the water, over the darkness. The tumbling lines of surf were white, laced with phosphorescence against the inky sea beneath. Their element.