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Illustration by Rosie Handley


Eleanor Limprecht
A short story.

Drew still had the needle in his arm when Mum and Dad found him on their bathroom floor.

‘You’re a massive idiot,’ Joe says. They are driving down the Princes Highway and have just gone through Nowra, over the bridge that spans the Shoalhaven.

Drew shrugs. His face is grey; little beads of sweat like pinpricks on his forehead. They are driving south, to Joe’s girlfriend Anna’s family beach shack on the coast. It is winter, no one is there, and no one knows what to do with Drew.

‘He needs proper rehab, he’s going to be withdrawing,’ Anna said, but she doesn’t know any more about heroin addicts than Joe does. Joe glances over again. Drew looks like he is going to spew. ‘Tell me if you want to pull over,’ Joe says.

Drew doesn’t speak; he has not said six words since they left Sydney. Joe reaches behind the passenger seat with one hand to grab the stash of shopping bags he keeps for when Juno takes a shit on someone else’s lawn and the neighbour is looking. Joe hands one to his brother, who holds it open in his lap, and just that pose reminds Joe of their childhood. Drew beside him in the car, long drives where his little brother always got carsick and Joe would carry on about the stench. Dad would pull over and Mum would stroke Drew’s back while he lost his guts in the bushes or on the gravel verge littered with crushed tinnies and chip packets  uttering in the gusts from passing trucks. It always made Joe’s jaw tight with fury, the tenderness their mum heaped on Drew when he spewed. Joe didn’t get carsick, he didn’t get sick and so he wasn’t treated with the same gentleness.

Drew rifles in his backpack and pulls out a smashed pack of cigarettes.

‘Mate. Not in the car.’
‘When did you get to be such a cunt?’
‘You can talk.’

Drew is tapping the pack on the flat, meaty part of his palm. The sound makes Joe crave a cigarette like he hasn’t in years.

‘Just trying to make the most of the time I have. You used to do the same but. Gave me my  first ciggie.’ There is a car riding up behind Joe, swerving, nearly touching his bumper. Once he would have taken it as a challenge. He would have gunned it, then braked suddenly. Now he just pulls onto the shoulder. Juno whines low in the backseat. ‘Outside,’ Joe says, turning off  the ignition. ‘Smoke that shit outside.’

Drew clambers out, untwisting the seatbelt, stretching his long legs. Joe has had girlfriends who flirted with his little brother from the time Drew was twelve. Drew’s Italian, dark-eyed looks come from their mum. Joe has his dad’s bulk and sandy hair. Now Drew’s frame is less slim than gaunt, and his skin is pockmarked and pale, but women are still drawn to him. The cashier at the petrol station smiled at him earlier when he asked for the toilet key. Even Anna, the  first time she met him said, ‘He’s a sweetheart. The way you talk he’s some kinda crim.’

Is that the thing to blame? Women always wanting to save him?

Joe smacks the steering wheel and gets out as well, grabbing Juno’s lead from the backseat and clicking it on her collar. He stands beside his brother on the edge of a eucalypt forest, a copse of trees that filter the late afternoon light and turn it golden. It smells like wood smoke and gum leaves. Juno squats and a rivulet of yellow flows downhill.

‘Got a smoke?’ Joe holds his hand out and Drew smiles for the first time that day. They smoke in silence. Joe savours the taste of tobacco and the sting of smoke at the back of his throat: that light, heady nicotine buzz. Their parents smoked when they were kids and they drank every night, brown and green glass bottles filling the bins on rubbish day. Was that the thing to blame?

One morning when Joe was eight or nine, he woke and saw his mum sprawled on the cork kitchen floor. Her dress was hitched up around her waist showing black knickers. She had one sandal on. He thought she was dead and started wailing. She woke with a start, shielding herself, bleary-eyed.

‘Joe-Joe,’ she said, sitting shakily. She had not been feeling well, she told him. She must’ve eaten something very bad. Her hand was on her stomach, her breath sour. But he knew that she had been drunk the night before: ‘pissed’, ‘paralytic’ — he’d heard the grownups call it. When she stood and pulled her dress down, steadying herself on the kitchen bench, he looked away.

The turnoff for Bendalong always takes Joe by surprise. It is the point in the drive where he settles in, where after being antsy for the first hour or two he could keep driving all night. Drew has fallen into a shallow rattly sleep. Earlier Joe tried to ask Drew about his memories of them as kids and stuff, the kind of thing he has heard Anna natter on about with her sister, but Drew shook his head. ‘Don’t remember being a kid,’ he said.

‘Your entire fucking childhood?’
‘There’s bits and pieces, but mostly I can’t. No lie.’

Now the headlights cut the night in beams of white. Joe looks out for the glint of eyes or the flash of a roo crossing the road. He rolls the windows down when he turns off the highway and the sound of frogs fills the darkness, waves of noise roiling the air. Juno can smell where they are and he feels her breath behind him in the backseat, how she pushes her nose towards his open window. He puts down hers as well. He feels tight like a string pulled to breaking. What is the point of a childhood you can’t remember? The whistle of wind on your first bike, the smell of freshly laid bitumen, the way you cried in front of the mirror after Nanna died, not as much out of grief as fascination in how you looked, face all twisted and ugly.

In Bendalong he drives through the little village, vacant for winter besides a few grey nomads and surfers. He turns past the shop, past the petrol bowser and the place he ate a burger that bled beetroot on his chin last time he was here with Anna. She kissed the red blotch on his skin and just the thought now arouses him and when he looks at the green glowing numbers of the clock it is too late to call her and tell her.

Does she want to hear that anyway? Joe still does not know.

Illustration by Rosie Handley
Illustration by Rosie Handley

He pulls up in front of the blue cottage with seashells glued to the post box and there are the ghostly shapes of three or four roos resting on the front lawn. In the middle of one he sees another set of eyes glinting. It gladdens him to see a joey. He knows that is something Anna will want to hear when they speak tomorrow. He shakes Drew into a semi-conscious state and clicks Juno on the lead so she doesn’t spook the roos.

He unlocks the splintered front door with the key hidden beneath a jade plant and walks through the shack, turning on lights, brushing sticky cobwebs out of doorways. There are oil heaters in each of the two bedrooms he switches on. Going to fetch the bags he sees the orange glow of a cigarette beside the car. It pisses him off that his brother is just smoking. Same old.

‘All good?’ Drew asks, and Joe hears a tightness in his voice. An old niggle of worry. New places are tough, he remembers.

‘Better than the fucking Hilton,’ Joe says. ‘Come in and I’ll show you the Presidential Suite.’

Joe hardly sleeps: the pounding surf is close enough to hear and the frogs get louder as the night goes on. Whoever said the bush was peaceful was full of shit. Juno keeps waking too, pawing Joe, whining in that low, needy way.

When he gets up to let her out, stepping onto the wet cold grass, she hovers in the doorway, uncertain. He drags her out by the collar, steps back inside and shuts the sliding glass, lying down on the sofa. It is dusty enough to make him sneeze. He senses his brother in the kitchen before he sees him, the movement of another person in a dark room and the sound of bare feet on sandy lino. ‘Can’t sleep either?’ Joe asks.

‘Fucking freezing,’ Drew says. ‘You should’ve said. I’ll find more blankets.’ Joe finds a stash of doonas in the linen closet, the kind with dizzy prints that ages them twenty years. He gives one to Drew and grabs one for himself.

‘You’d make a good wife,’ Drew says.
‘You’re a sick man,’ Joe says, then regrets it.

Walking back through the living room Joe gets a fright. Juno’s face is at the glass, he forgot he let her out. After letting her in, he is glad for her warmth in bed, the way her paws smell of damp grass. It reminds him of the days before Anna when it was just the two of them. When he wakes the sky is light, and he can see just how much the shack needs a clean. The carpet has muddy paw prints from Juno last night. He lets her out to bark at birds and boils the kettle to make coffee. He forgot things like groceries and milk in the rush to get Drew out of Sydney. But they can walk to the shop and grab something later, once Drew is up. Joe remembered the  shing rods but he needs bait as well, and hooks. He sits where the morning sun comes in through the glass doors, warming the sofa, and untangles lines, listening to music on his earbuds and waiting for his brother to wake.

At one point he calls Anna, but she doesn’t pick up, and he remembers she’s going to brunch with one of her friends who is just engaged. Anna says her friend never stops talking about wedding plans and bridesmaid dresses, but Anna spends as much time complaining about it. He wonders if some of it is envy. Is she waiting for him to ask? They have only been together two years, but there is an intensity that has not existed in his earlier relationships. Part of it is what surrounds them. Their friends are pairing off, settling down. It is never simple either: it seems like the blokes have to come up with increasingly elaborate engagement plans. Hot air balloons. Skywriting. The latest trend — according to his Instagram feed — is videographers and hiring a private yacht to propose on.

None of this applies to Drew’s friends, but he is younger, and hangs with a different crowd. His friends have stories — the kind that Drew used to tell Joe when they saw each other — complicated stories about parole officers, drink driving and credit card fraud. Once, Joe was a sounding board for Drew: his brother would tell him whatever tangle his latest friend was in to and Joe would give advice. Pro bono, Joe would say. But now he is in his final year of law school and Drew hasn’t asked in at least a year. Maybe if he is quiet, and waits, Drew will fill the silence.

Around 11 his brother finally wakes and they walk to the shop. Joe is dizzy with hunger. He thought sleep would do Drew good, but he seems even more withdrawn. They order burgers with the lot.

While the burgers cook, they buy pilchard for bait in drippy, soft see-through plastic bags and load them into a bucket. Joe picks out hooks and a new storm sinker for his casting reel.

‘What’re we hoping to catch?’ Drew asks, swigging from a bottle of Coke he hasn’t paid for yet.

‘Salmon, tailor, flatties, jew. Maybe nothing. We should have got there hours ago.’ Joe wishes he could pull the words back in.

‘When’s the last time you fished?’ Joe pulls a fluro-green pair of sunnies off the rack and passes them to Drew. ‘These’d look pretty on ya.’

Drew puts the sunnies on and pushes them down his nose, making a face. It just looks pained with his hollow cheeks. ‘Dunno, Joe. Fishing’s your thing.’

‘You never gave it a chance.’

Drew takes three bites of his burger, crumples it back in the wrapper, and chucks it in the bin. Joe devours his so it takes a minute for the fullness to hit. He could’ve eaten Drew’s too. The thought of pulling it out of the bin crosses his mind – he never would though.

Drew follows his gaze. ‘Can’t eat,’ he mutters.
‘Takes a while.’

They head back to the house to get the fishing gear before hitting the beach.

‘You look like shit, y’know.’

Joe can see Juno wants to come with them, but she’ll get into the bait and tangle herself in the line and there was that one time she ate a fishhook and he cried feeling around in her mouth for the sharp metal barb. It was still attached to a line and Anna pulled it, gently, out of her throat while Joe sat on the ground with his eyes shut. He could only look when he knew she was okay.

Illustration by Rosie Handley
Illustration by Rosie Handley

The beach is empty; a slate sky with a Northerly, high tide. Drew drops the bucket in the sand with a groan and sits on his haunches. Joe watches him spew, greenish foaming bile that is washed away by the surf in seconds.

‘You’ll scare off the fish.’

Drew groans again, standing. His pant legs are dark from the water. He will be cold in minutes, Joe realises, and they won’t catch a thing before they have to head back. He stands on the hard-packed sand and ties his rig: the running ball sinker, the knots Dad taught him. He threads the hook with half a pilchard, rolls up his trousers and walks into the foaming surf, casting the line out smoothly into the gutter, the waves breaking on a shallow sandbar though the wind ripples it. He passes the rod to Drew, who has rolled up his wet trousers.

‘Can you hold this? Let us know if something pulls.’

Drew doesn’t reply, just grabs the rod. Even though the day is overcast there is a squinty brightness. Drew shades his eyes and Joe threads the second line, casts and stands beside his brother. He reels in the slack, keeping the line tight, jigging it.

Brothers are not strangers to silence. He has spent more time silent in the company of Drew than speaking: their years of shared bedrooms, car rides and meals. A childhood of playing Lego and cricket and reading comics in bed before lights out. Mornings of soggy cereal before school and jamming jumpers into backpacks, often grabbing the wrong one. Wrestling and wedgies and a quick fist in the ribs when no one was looking. The look they shared when mum pulled up at the bottle-o after Saturday footy games, came out with paper bags clinking. A blanket over Drew’s head when they watched Charlotte’s Web that Joe yanked off because he knew his brother’s face would be streaked with tears.

They stand for a while as the waves wash over their bare feet, their legs stippling with cold. Joe feels a tug on his line and that old feeling comes over him, the adrenaline thrill, and he starts to reel the line in.

‘Got something.’ Drew stirs, edgy suddenly, letting his own line slacken and leaning over Joe. ‘D’ya need a hand?’ Drew asks. ‘What can I do?’ God his breath is something awful. Joe tries not to cringe.

‘Grab the net, hey?’ Joe says.

There is a bite. Something decent, it feels like a real catch. Joe is reeling and reeling and a mum who is walking her little boy along the sand stops to watch, both of them bundled in puffers against the wind.

It surfaces, the fish, silvery and flopping, fighting with all its strength to get back to the bottom of the sea. Drew passes him the net and Joe plops the fish in. Kneeling in the sand he grabs the hook and wrenches it out, the fish fighting against the net and his hands, gills opening and shutting. Joe looks up and Drew is sitting, tears running unchecked, his hands grabbing the damp sand. The mum is leading her little boy away, putting herself between her son and the crazy man.

‘What’s wrong?’ Joe says. It’s a sand snapper, big as his forearm, a great catch. It flops and struggles in the net.

‘Throw it back,’ Drew says.
‘I’m not fucking throwing it back. Look at the size.’
‘You going to kill it then?’
‘I haven’t got the gear.’

Some fishermen knock fish on the head with a mallet, some stab them in the head with a knife, but Joe has not brought those things. There isn’t even a rock nearby. He wants to stand up to his brother, say it is okay, it is just a fish, it doesn’t really feel pain.

This is how their dad taught them to fish, your catch just flops in a bucket until eventually it doesn’t. When Drew stopped coming on their fishing trips Joe did not ask why, he was just glad to have Dad to himself for a bit. With three of them in the tinny Drew was always seasick, or too cold. Joe made an effort to never complain.

He looks at Drew, head on his knees, his scalp pale against the dark hair where it is matted from sleep. His words are muffled.

‘Fucken throw it back.’

‘Okay.’ Joe heaves the flopping  fish in a wide arc as far out into the surf as he can. It flips and glints in the dull light, landing with a splash, disappearing beneath a spent wave.

‘Happy?’ Joe asks, but Drew doesn’t answer. He stands, brushing the sand off his rolled pants and walks away along the tideline, his bare footprints  lling with water.

Drew has dumped his rod in the sand, and the line is all tangled, wasted. Joe pulls the rest of it in and the pilchard has been nibbled to nothing, the hook neatly avoided. He cleans up and packs away the rods, the bait, grabbing the plastic bucket. Drew is nowhere in sight.

Illustration by Rosie Handley
Illustration by Rosie Handley

Joe takes his time going back to the shack. He isn’t ready to talk to his brother. He sits on a bench, scrolling through photographs Anna posted from the brunch, her face the way she holds it for cameras, expressions she never makes in real life. It is girlfriends and mimosas, plates of beautiful food which never taste as good as they look. It is the cold finally, which drives him back to the shack. He’ll apologise to Drew for getting angry. They can go to the Ulladulla Twin for a movie. Or Funland, play the arcades like they did as kids.

Juno is at the door, dying to be let out, her whole body wagging side to side as she licks his wrists and ankles. Joe feels sick, not seeing Drew. He should never have left him alone. He calls out, tripping over his feet to check the room where his brother slept. Drew isn’t there. He checks the bathroom. The bedrooms. The garage full of cobwebbed bodyboards and foam surf boards. His brother’s bag is gone. ‘Fuck,’ Joe says, dialling Drew’s mobile, which rings and rings and rings. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’

He drives the road to the highway, scanning for Drew’s hunched figure thumbing a ride. North and south to the bus stations in Nowra and Ulladulla. The sun is setting and he is refuelling in Wandandian when his phone beeps.

Hitching a ride to Melb. Thx for trying.

Joe stands there by the bowser, long after the tank is full. He could drive to Melbourne. He could track Drew down, gut punch him, beat some sense in to him. Bribe him with hundred dollar notes and promises to never fish again. Yank the blanket off his head. It is dark but his sunnies are on when he goes in to pay for the fuel. The man behind the register is white-haired, sun-weathered, red-eyed.

‘Got a Myer One card?’ he asks.
‘You get points for fuel,’ the old guy says.
Joe shakes his head.

Driving back to the Bendalong turnoff his mobile rings. He pulls to the shoulder, hoping it is Drew. It’s Anna. The car shakes as trucks whoosh past.

‘I fucked it up,’ he says.‘He’s gone.’
‘Oh, babe.’
‘He hitched to Melbourne. He’d rather be a junkie.’
‘I don’t think he’s well enough to make that choice.’
‘What do I do?’
‘You tried. Come back, okay? I miss you.’
‘Oh, fuck, Juno.’
‘Where’s Juno?’
‘I left her in the house. I’ve been driving for hours. She’s probably pissed the carpet.’
‘It’s okay. We can get it cleaned.’
‘I know.’

Joe takes a deep breath. He can still hear the splash of the sand snapper, can feel its relief at the seawater, how fast it must have swum. He will never know what it feels like, just to go where the tide or the next car takes you.

‘Hey, do you want to, not now, but when summer’s here. Do you want to go for a sail on the harbour? With me?’

Anna is quiet for a moment. So quiet he starts to worry. But when she speaks her voice is full of glad tears.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course I do.’

Eleanor Limprecht is the author of three novels: The Passengers (2018), Long Bay (2015) and What Was Left (2013, shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal). Her fourth novel, The Coast, will be published by Allen & Unwin in 2022.

This story appears in Openbook summer 2021.

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