When the Boat Comes In


She walks the empty house. Paint peels below the watermark in commas, a scaly flick of fish. She checks cupboards, counting, dividing provisions into days.

Close the cupboards, lock them.

A curtain lifts in a limp breeze and she sees the floodwaters have fallen further.

Mist.

It will lift, she tells herself. This blindness will lift.

She pauses in a listing doorway, laying her hand on the jamb as though it might speak a reassuring name. A little shoe in the corner says Edie, Edie before she was a bundle in a blanket.

There was a boat—too small, too full.

‘Take the baby,’ she’d said, ‘come for us later.’

There had been no later.

She emerges onto the veranda with Gilbert’s rifle. She’s aware that the man is moving soundlessly beyond the garden, a flicker in a sudden patch of light. Perhaps he lets her see him. Like herself, he patrols alone. Perhaps he waits for when she won’t come out, assume she’s dead. Perhaps he won’t wait.

No matter, first person comes near, she’ll shoot.

She hasn’t checked the outbuildings, nor the washhouse where snakes might have fled. She wonders if the limping man has looked into the barn.

She will not enter the nursery. A little red shoe begs to be paired with its mate but she cannot do it.

There is no order in mud and loss, and no pity.

‘Well, girls,’ Gilbert says lifting his glass, left arm clasping Ellie’s waist. ‘This is it!’

Ellie sees Flo’s face crinkle, her eyes brim.

She shoots Flo a look, not now.

Nell chinks her glass, ‘Good luck, Ellie darling,’ her voice flat.

Gilbert notices.

‘Come on mopokes! We’re celebrating! Last night in the city.’

‘We’re celebrating Gilly,’ Ellie says quickly, ‘see?’

She touches glasses across the table.

Flo’s eyes are on the cloth, her fingertip mashing crumbs.

‘We’re going to miss you, is all,’ she says without looking up.

Says it to Ellie.

‘Of course you are,’ Gilbert says, jigging up. ‘You girls, I know what you’re like.’

A few beers and he’s a card. He clamps a hand on Ellie’s shoulder.

She flinches.

‘Now it’s you and me,’ he says to her.

‘And Edie,’ Ellie says.