Fiction

An internal sea

We had been dating for five months – going out for five months, as we innocently say in Australia – when I suggested that we take a holiday together.

Holidays with men I knew intimately had never gone well. We were never right for each other and so the holiday wouldn’t be right either, and we would end shortly afterwards, with bad tastes in our mouths and sunburn or windburn on our faces, depending on the destination. This time I hoped that we would enjoy ourselves, and that the geographical change would bring us closer.

I loved the smell of his skin, at his neck, his inner wrists, his dank, spicy crotch, but I felt as if I couldn’t sniff as long as I wanted, in case he realised. I wondered if he felt the same way.

His name was Edward, and he liked to be called Edward, not Eddie or Ed or some other diminutive that would make him more familiar. I had always thought the name Edward was rather beautiful, and it suited him. He had full, curly hair – dark brown, flamed with orange. His eyelashes were long, his eyes big. They sat wet in their sockets, betraying him.

 

We drove to Mallacoota. We were idealistic: we wanted to support a town that had been ravaged by fire. It took us all day, with stops for lunch and scones and the bathroom, and the sky was purple and yellow when we arrived, with a slight chill in the air. The locals peered at us – or at least I imagined they did – when we took a table at the local pub for a counter meal. I felt grubby, and Edward looked as he always did. He was wearing a neckerchief and it made me swoon, deep down inside.

The next morning, after a fitful sleep in our hired campervan on a mattress that seemed to be made of clay, we wanted to go swimming. I had never been to Mallacoota before, but Edward had when he was younger, and he said he knew of a secret beach where we could swim in the nude.

Edward’s body was unblemished, except for a small scar below his full lips. He wouldn’t tell me how he got the scar and seemed quietly appalled that I would ask.

We had breakfast near the camping ground at a cafe cluttered with art, run by a small woman with big hair who asked questions. Edward ordered an espresso and eggs Benedict. He didn’t spill a single drop of hollandaise.

I was nervous about standing naked on a beach with Edward in the daytime. I had a body that liked the shadows, shaped like a beurre bosc pear, though Edward seemed to think it was acceptable. I had hips you might see in a museum, he said. This made my Renaissance cheeks turn pink.

 

The drive to the secret beach took us through dead forest. The fire had been everywhere, it seemed, without compassion. We found the start of the steep path that led to the water, but the steps at the top had been fenced off. Edward read the water-damaged sign, and told me that we weren’t allowed to walk down there, but that we could climb down if we were careful.

I wasn’t adventurous, but I was interested in impressing Edward, and I sensed that he wanted to do this, perhaps as a form of rebellion. I nodded, and he kissed me, and we made our way together, him helping me jump over the parts of the wooden-stepped path that had rotted away.

The beach was empty and the sea was wild. Edward took off his shorts and shirt as soon as our feet met the sand. He looked at me while he was undressing, raising his eyebrows, as if to say, Well? I giggled, and dallied, then pulled my dress up over my head and unhooked my best bra. My breasts were so pale in the sun when I glanced down, but I did think they looked beautiful.

Edward took my hand, so I shimmied off my undies and we ran towards the water. It was cold, but not as cold as the ocean in Melbourne. We were swimming in the Tasman Sea, Edward reminded me, and that was special. Afterwards, our wet bodies shining, we explored the caves at one side of the cove and I pushed Edward up against a dripping wall to kiss him.

The secret beach was certainly a secret, we concluded, as we lay naked on the sand. We were the first ones to know it like this.

 

After the secret beach, Edward was quiet. We slept one more night on the clay mattress, had one more breakfast at the cafe full of art, and when the small woman with big hair asked us questions, I had to do all the answering.

I wondered if Edward agreed now about my body, if he too thought it belonged in a bedroom, under the covers. I wondered whether he was so in love with me that words had become irrelevant, or whether inside him was a secret sea on which he floated, lost and sick.

 

Two weeks after the secret beach, Edward broke up with me. He was better on his own, he said over the telephone, his voice tinny and distant. I was doubled over with worthless pain for months.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "An internal sea".

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Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, and the author of the novel Cherry Beach.