Fiction

Passcode

Matt complains all the way down to the beach. “It’s too cold,” he says.

“Too bad,” Di calls over her shoulder and plunges ahead, following the sound of the waves until she pushes through a tunnel of scrub and finds the water.

She’s naked by the time he catches up.

The sight of her standing in the moonlight, square and strong and smooth, makes him forget the fight.

After the wine glass missed her, she’d glanced at the Rorschach test of shiraz on the wall and whatever she saw made her bolt. She banged through the back door and he ran after her, calling.

She stopped at the bottom of the yard at the edge of the dunes and glared. “What?”

“Where’re you going?”

 

The lights of the rental were behind him, silhouetting his face. He sounded angry. She’d never seen him like this before.

“Swimming,” she said. The thought hadn’t occurred to her until she said it.

That surprised him. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“Why not?” she said, as if she needed to convince herself.

 

And now she’s gooseflesh on the beach and he’s beside her with his hand on the small of her back, fingering one of the dimples above her arse.

“Let’s fuck,” he says, as if all is forgiven.

Di doesn’t answer. Convinced now, she pushes him away and runs toward the white water, throwing herself headlong into the surf as soon as the waves hit her thighs. She ploughs through the break with a ragged, violent stroke, wishing she’d never agreed to come.

 

Faithful faithlessness. That was their arrangement. That was their agreement. They could lie to the world but not to each other. Whenever they stole time together nothing would be hidden or forbidden, everything would be forgiven. But as they drove out of the city and Matt swore at the traffic and talked about his work, Di decided the promises they’d made to each other were more about convenience than truth. She didn’t know this man – not really – and he’d never wanted to know anything other than her body.

She scrolled open the window and lit a cigarette, let the cold night feather her cropped hair. Matt tugged an earlobe and played with the central locking, clicking and unclicking the doors as he drove, then pushed a button in the console, illuminating an orange light.

“What’s that?”

“Seat warmers.”

She shifted in her cream leather seat. “I like the cold.”

“I hate it,” he said.

The SUV beeped as they passed beneath a tollgate, punctuating their conversation.

 

The shock of the water unsettles Di until she finds a slow, strong rhythm and churns past the waves into clean, dark water. Cold, she thinks, then puts her head down and kicks harder. Keeps going until her body warms to the task.

 

When she moved to Melbourne they went ocean swimming together, using the weekend races as cover for the affair. But that stopped after the last race – the one when the old man drowned. He’d barrel-rolled with a heart attack a hundred metres from shore and Di was the one who dragged him to the rescue boat.

After the race, Matt found Di huddled on the beach as paramedics hauled away the bagged body. Seeing her crying surprised him, angered him. He yelled at her. Told her she should have let the old man sink and finished the race.

“You gave up for nothing,” he said.

 

Di isn’t giving up now. She’s past the breakers, almost out of sight.

Sitting on the beach, Matt tracks her progress by the splash of her kick against the black water. Now she’s treading water, head bobbing, staring at the starry sky. Now she’s swimming again with the same steady rhythm. Now she’s moving further away from him.

Matt wishes they were back in the cottage. What’s wrong with her? Why is she trying to antagonise him? It started on the drive down when she didn’t wear a seatbelt and opened the window and leaned into the breeze like a kelpie and lit up without asking, filling the cabin with smoke. Doesn’t she realise he’d have to air out the car before he went home – or lie and say he’d smoked a cigar? Doesn’t she understand?

Di’s clothes are piled beside Matt on the sand. He picks up her pullover and presses it to his face. It’s warm and smells of her. He checks the pockets of her jeans and finds her phone. It’s locked but he thumbs in the six digits of her birthday – 080888 – and the screen flowers open, illuminating his face.

He smiles and scrolls through Di’s emails and text messages, call history and social media feeds. He tells himself he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but that’s a lie. He’s looking for evidence that she needs him more than he needs her and that he is not what she said he was when he threw the wine glass. That’s why he can’t stop. That’s why he keeps scrolling until the cold makes his teeth chatter.

 

How long did Matt stare blindly into the white light of Di’s phone? He couldn’t say. All he knew for sure was that, when he finally looked up again, she was gone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Passcode".

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Joel Deane is a poet, novelist and speechwriter. His third novel, Judas Boys, will be published this year.

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