Looking Glass was a finalist in the inaugaural Newcastle Herald ‘Summer Stories’ competition. The theme was “From the Valley to the Sea.’
It was first published in the Newcastle Herald on the 27th December 2012.
Austin loves the lake. He never says it, but I can see it in his gaze. He looks long over the water with eyes that rarely make connection with others. When they do, it is only fleeting. He stares out to the water past sails that wave a lazy greeting.
“Wait here for a moment while I sign you in. Don’t move.”
I touch his shoulder. There is no response.
Tiny waves lap pebbles and slurp like a dog drinking from a water bowl. Austin picks up a stone, turns it over, and then hurls it into the water. A seagull swoops low. A tide of excitement splashes him. He lifts his arms in the air and jumps. Both arms pulse at the shoulder. His movements tense. A little at first. Up and down. The momentum builds until he is pumping an invisible bilge pump for his very life. His hands, lax at the wrist, flap like two wind-whipped signal flags. The seagull joins with other gulls. Flapping and screeching, they tear apart the carcass of a chip bag. Austin continues to jump and flap, as if in mockery of the birds, but he is disconnected. His attention is elsewhere.
Boats bob up and down at the end of the metallic bump-and-scrape pontoon. Austin’s sailing companion greets us.
“Austin! How are you today? Ready for a big adventure.”
Austin, head bowed, stares at his feet. I slip a life jacket over his shoulders.
“Here’s a boat coat.” He shrugs it off with a grunt.
“Hi Sue,” I reply. Austin remains silent. Transfixed.
“C’mon mate you need a super shield to protect you out on the water. Here, let me help.”
A winch clacks behind her. The rope strains as it takes the weight of its precious cargo. A careful hand swivels a sling into position above a waiting wheelchair. The winch lowers as Sue helps Austin aboard. They sail away in the embrace of the boat.
I sit in the car with a take-away coffee for company. The sun sends shards though the windscreen that warm my thighs. I look across the water. The lake is green today. The water’s colour reflects its ever changing mood. A cat-walk-model polymorph, its appearance altered when dressed by the weather. To match its outfit, it selects a different coloured contact lens. Blue or green or hazel and all hues in between, it stares without sight at the sky.
My reverie is punctuated by radio chit-chat. A momentary mind meander. I scan the water with binoculars and catch sight of the boat. It glides across the surface, engaged in a waltz with the wind. A gust grabs the mast with a firm grasp and dips a crisp sail towards a watery dance floor. The wind makes a fine suitor and the two pirouette through a jibe. A tack steps out a zig-zag foxtrot and they draw close. A mating ritual complete, the aqua sail is left pregnant with a gestating breeze.
I see the two figures on board. I am glad Austin has Sue. Selfless and understanding. Her time, gifted without cost, gives him value beyond price. He will sail with no one else. Her generosity transforms challenge into ability. And the boat; it must always be the one with the aqua sail. We all know. It is unspoken. Anything else would create a meltdown tantrum that would rival the eruption of Vesuvius.
Austin peers over the edge of the boat. He engages with the staring game of the lake. Mesmerised by the one eye with which he makes unflinching contact. I wonder what he sees. The froth from the bow. The eddies as they twist and swirl. I float on my thoughts. Dissolved in the water. I wonder at this place. How it has looked upon Awabakal tribes. Consumed the toxic poison of industry poured forcefully down its gullet. The clouds; smoke from a long vanished coal steamer making its way from Green Point. Sometimes the lake is a mirror. It reflects all around it. The looking-glass stillness calms me. I adjust the rear vision mirror to look at my face. I imagine my eyes are Austin’s. I can now stare without breaking contact.
I wait again at the end of the pontoon. Boats are tied up. The puns written across their bows are Scout-badges of honour. ‘Seas the day’, ‘Prawnto’, ‘Naughti bouy’, ‘Lake Sighed.’ Austin’s boat is named ‘Kinship.’ It pulls up beside the pier. Images come to mind. Birthdays. Christmas. Holidays. Family. Sharing. Love. We look into the same eye. It is through the lake’s gaze we connect. I help Austin ashore and mouth a ‘Thankyou’ to Sue.
“C’mon mate. Let’s get some lunch.” He doesn’t reply. I place my arm around his shoulder as we walk away.
The lake still looks. Hilly shores fold to green-brown skin that wraps its vision. And forever it squints down the periscope of Swansea channel, past the heads and out to the sea.