Halfway through the ironing, Connie stopped and listened to the river. Just over a click from her door, the water was never still. In the dark she heard it throbbing against the sandbank, blackened foam rolling and tumbling with the current. The seasonal floods always made for summer debris, and the occasional snapping of dead trees and branches carried far into the warm night. The crunch of old wood made for a welcome companion to Connie's toil, beating a steady rhythm as she smoothed and pressed her son's shirts.
The ironing board was positioned in the doorframe between the kitchen and the lounge, the only place in the house where Connie could reach the plug for both the iron and the radio. She had ironed like this for years. When Stan was alive, she had to give him plenty of notice, so he could get enough tinnies from the fridge whilst listening to the Test. He hated squeezing his over-sized gut around the ironing board; as his belly scuffed the fabric on the frame, Connie used to turn her head away for fear she should laugh.
She hadn't much listened to the radio these past six months. Jamie had let her watch movies on his laptop when he came home for Stan's funeral, and that had been a bit of a revelation. She hadn't realised just how much she missed the TV. Stan had never wanted one, not even when Jamie was growing up. But after she waved her son farewell at Darwin Airport, she stopped off at Retravision in town, and picked up a set. She had counted her dollar bills onto the counter slowly, her stomach churning in that gulping way between child-like glee and wife-like guilt.
But tonight Connie had the radio on. The last Test of the Ashes, at the Oval. Stan used to pulse when the Ashes came round, striding about their small house at the back of the store with crackling, sweaty energy. The last series, the whitewash completed in Sydney, had sent him into a near-frenzy; he'd gone charging up the bitumen road in the Ute, whooping like a mad-man. It had also been the last time they'd made love, Connie remembered. He had big shoulders, like hairy clumps of meat. She held them tightly, never convinced he wouldn't smother her. Stan's leukaemia was diagnosed the following month.
She wasn't really interested in cricket. Apparently it was an important match, and would determine bragging rights for the next two years. Stan would have been worked up into a fizz over it, of that she was sure. She had it on for him really, in case he was still around to listen. It made him seem close to her again, and sometimes she need that - but it also made him seem far away.
The iron hissed and she looked out at the camping ground on the riverbank. Crocs rarely strayed up as far as the house, but sometimes disturbed the guests sleeping out. Visitors, however, had dwindled off in recent months. The old-timers stayed away now Stan was gone. He had run the site like it was a den for his over-grown Boy Scout mates, spending nights out under the stars with his pals. But only three tourists had made it to Grossmann's Point in the last six months, all amateur fishermen grasping shiny rods purchased in Katherine. They spoke fatuously in Sydney accents of paring back their life to the basics, and of catching the barramundi. Connie felt like telling them that her life was pretty much pared back to nothing now that Stan was gone and Jamie was in Adelaide, and it wasn't all it was cracked up to be - but she took their money and smiled instead. None of them caught the barramundi.
Tonight, though, in the balmy hours friendly to the insomniac, two people who had caught barramundi listened to the radio. Connie had caught hers during the first summer of her marriage. The baby girl who had died before Jamie was born was already pressing against the fabric of her dress as Stan showed her how to hook a cherabin and cast it near the snags in the water. The fish she caught was young and ugly, and Stan laughed himself into a cough as Connie shrieked and threw it back. But it had been a barramundi, and he was proud of her.
The man listening to his radio in his tent out on the campsite had also caught one. They'd fished together today, he and Connie, sitting either side of a chiselled rock out by the Point. He had turned up in a dusty car showing the wear of the bitumen road and pitched his tent. His name was Martyn and was some sort of scientist. He had told her exactly what kind of scientist but Connie had been too fascinated by the black hair at his throat to listen properly. Her fingers ached to touch it, to press on the soft down and feel the pulse throbbing steadily at his neck. He must have been about ten years younger than her. He had the beginnings of grey at his temples but underneath his shirt she sensed he would be tanned and dark. Stan would have rather died than work outdoors shirtless, and only his neck and forearms were brown, the rest painfully white. A chess-board man. His memory hung around in the background like a sweaty, heavy coat as Connie smiled and nodded at Martyn. This man was different from the impotent, watery tourists and Stan's flabby, beery mates. In a pink heat, she had accepted his offer to fish together.
They had driven out to the Point, some thirty clicks from the store where Martyn chose a spot. The river was darker and saltier at this point, and full of debris. Connie didn't like it. The water by the store was bluer, calmer. She knew that part of her river, knew the timeless way it swayed and swelled over the bank during the torrents. The river felt safe, respectable even, back home. Here, with Martyn, the river had a strange smell and tasted wild.
And Martyn caught a barramundi, a large one. The fish had thrashed and strained as he wrestled it into his grip. Connie turned away as he hooked his fingers into the barramundi's eyes to subdue it. His strong slender hands were moist with fish slime up to the knuckle and he wiped them casually on his shorts. Connie felt a flush of heat, almost at the bottom of her spine.
"This one's a female," Martyn said, smoothing the fish out onto his knee. It had submitted, and was opening and closing its mouth rapidly.
"How do you know?" Connie asked.
"The size. It's a big one, probably five or six years old. Barramundi are protoandrous hermaphrodites." He laughed at Connie's face.
"You've lived here how long, and you didn't know that?" Martyn grinned widely and Connie saw the flash of a gold tooth. She felt foolish, girl-like. Heat now crackled through her whole body.
"Barramundi start off as males," Martyn explained. "Then when they mature and reach about five years, they change gender and become female."
"What?" Connie gaped. She stared down at the dying fish lying helplessly on Martyn's lap, and suddenly felt a great sorrow. "They change sex?"
"That's right." He took a small knife from his shirt pocket and tapped the blade gently on the barramundi's head. "They aren't always this easy to catch. Sometimes I've had to use a lure, something metallic or coloured gold. They go for that, snap it up. Once they do -" and, without warning, he stabbed the fish in the head. He then quickly sliced open its stomach. "This one was about to spawn. See the black roe?"
The river slid by ominously and Connie looked out. The river, the fish, the life there had been a shift. She seemed to appreciate the rough vitality of the water as if for the first time; it churned out towards the Gulf in a relentless fashion whilst she - she had chosen to stay put, where the life she knew was effectively over. Connie rubbed the wedding ring on her finger. The barramundi made one last jerking flap and she was drawn back to it, that strange man-woman fish now spilling its guts on Martyn's legs. She felt she might cry.
Martyn had hummed as he packaged the fish in ice, the shadow of muscle flowing under his shirt. He was pleased with his catch. "Can I cook it for you later?" he'd asked as they got back into the Ute.
Connie nodded, not sure of what to say. But heat still bloomed in the small of her back and she couldn't stop watching him move. He had grace beneath his purpose and she imagined him lifting her up. There'd only ever been Stan. Yet as they drove back to the store, listening to the radio, she thought of the easy flow of fish guts across Martyn's knees and the hair at his throat.
Martyn had cooked on her stove, using Stan's old skillet. Connie sat in a chair by the fridge and watched weakly. He opened the fridge and rummaged around, producing eggs and milk with a flourish she found alarming, and made her want to draw her knees up. But the barramundi was tasty and he had seasoned it well. They ate at the small kitchen table, drinking beer. Connie talked a little about Jamie.
"He's in Adelaide, working as a hospital porter. He comes home every now and then. But not so much now he has a girlfriend." Connie looked up at the photos collaged together on the wall.
"Must be lonely," Martyn said, wiping his mouth.
"Not really," but Connie's voice carried the lilt of uncertainty. She hadn't felt the isolation before, not even when her baby died and Stan had buried it in their scratchy garden. Since Stan had slipped a gold wedding band over her finger and brought her to this place from Darwin, she had felt purposeful. She was a wife and then a mother, with cooking, cleaning. With the store to run. And with ironing. She thought of Jamie's shirts that would remain unworn and be washed again, and ironed, a week later. And she thought of the barramundi, slit open and half-eaten on her plate. The grit of loneliness blew in - but Connie, a little desperate, tried to close the door against it. Brightly she said, "I expect I'll have the Ashes on later. I don't follow cricket much, but if I'm not able to sleep I'll probably listen."
Martyn nodded slowly. "Yes, I might too. I have a little radio with me. I hope we can hold out and do some damage with the bat. But it would be a tall order." His face suddenly became animated and he leaned forward. "But imagine if we did. Ah - an unexpected sporting victory does strange things to a man."
Indeed. Connie had crackled when he said that. He'd left after dinner, lingering perhaps a little longer than necessary - but it had been another life since Connie knew about those sort of things, so couldn't be sure. The iron had come out soon after, Connie knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep. Strange things were happening to her insides. She felt pulled in two directions, as though her spirit had decided to push against the steady flow of a previously content life.
Martyn was listening to his radio, she was sure. A light was on in his tent. Connie switched off the iron and drifted into the lounge to get a better look. Books lined the walls and she touched their spines. They felt cool; this shaded room was always more comfortable than the rest of the house. Jamie's Dr Seuss, yellowing and worn from grubby hands, occupied the top shelf of the case. She had sent boxes of books to the Salvation Army when Jamie left home, but kept his much-loved Cat in the Hat and The Lorax. The memories piled up around her like a sediment: Jamie crouched on the rug, almost on top of a book, mumbling about "Thing One and Thing Two" before he could even read; Stan drying their son's hair after his bath and teasing him about his Truffula mop.
The crowd cheered on the radio - it was all over. A flat voice informed the listeners that the English had won and regained the Ashes. Connie sighed. Stan would have been furious and then mutinous. She looked again at Martyn's tent. The match had been lost, but what about this other game they had played throughout the day? She breathed deeply, feeling the summer heat touch her skin. She waited, watching his light intensely as the iron hissed behind her.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Rebecca Burns. All rights reserved.