As kids we’d dare each other to go further and further into the dunes each day. You couldn’t come back until you found something, some proof you were there: A cigarette butt, a page from a book, a shoe, a ribbon. We always found something. I cheated often, tucking things into my swimming costume so I wouldn’t have to travel too far. I didn’t want to stumble on a dead boy, but I didn’t want anyone saying I couldn’t do it because I was a girl.
We’d been going to this beach every year since I was seven. There were four houses lined up, with pathways of sand between each one. The houses were raised, enough so we could squeeze under there on really hot days and drink lemonade and eat the ice creams our dad bought for us from the van.
We were called House 1.
All four houses were identical; painted blue, full of glass, open and airy. It was like a second home to us, and the families in the other houses our second neighbours.
Good and bad.
Four houses, four boat houses, four families, lined up.
From the beach you’d think isn’t that nice. You’d think lovely families getting along.
That’s what you’d think.
Some years there were dozens of us there. Other years there were just a few. It was always a mix of fun, boredom, fear, and fast food. Sun and sea. Just the smell of suntan lotion can evoke those early years, when things were simple and your only responsibility was to wash the sand off your feet before you went inside.
We got ours cheap because those two boys were murdered in the dunes and no one wanted their kids nearby. Dad was a cop and taught caution and self-defence; no one would get hold of us. But the dunes still terrified us. The way you were blocked off, alone. No one could hear you.
We’d tell stories of murderers and lost boys, of ghosts that made you blind, or made you so sad you wanted to go to sleep forever. Jason thought he knew more than the rest of us because his dad found the bodies, but we’d all heard the story. His dad would tell us if he was drunk on the beach and none of the mums were there to stop him. I first heard the story when I was 8.
Jason and his dad were House 2. He always told it the same way but each time, as I grew older and more worldly, I understood more.
At eight, all that made sense were the boys and their bodies and the dunes.
The Vietnam War was on, but he didn’t go, even though he was twenty, nearly twenty-one. He’d dropped out of Uni, finding himself, he said. His eyesight was poor and he was woefully overweight, like Jason. Cruel children (me, my brothers Bernard and Gerard) called them The Beach Balls. I loved my brothers and did everything they did. Bernard, the oldest, known for acting without thinking, which wasn’t fair because really he thought too much. And Gerard, only eighteen months older than me, was funny as fuck from the moment he realised sticking his toes in his mouth made people laugh.
Jason’s dad didn’t care who listened. He told the story word for word, every time. “There were three of us that day. Me, my best mate Nick, and Kate.” Kate was House 3. “I wouldn’t normally have got a girl like Kate. She thought of me as a brother. A nuisance. But so many of them were shipped out. We had what? Three mates die over there. Two of her brothers were there. They were fit. Not shit like me. Shitness runs in our family, sorry, Jason. So I was twenty, she was seventeen, and she’d barely have a bar of me. She was hanging out though because my mate Nick was heading over and that made him a hero. I tried to get him to do the conscientious objector thing, keep him home. But he wouldn’t. And he was fit, strong. Kate liked him but she was too girl-next-door for him. Too boring. We’d been smoking, but not much, and we’d had a few beers. The beach was crowded and Nick and I were getting ‘the look’. People gave it to you when they saw you having fun. Because we had mates. They had sons over there fighting, and we were having fun. So you got the look.
“We piled a few more beers and a ton of ice in an esky (even at the beach you gotta have cold beer) and Kate chucked in some leftover sausages and we headed out into the dunes where no one went.
“There were ghosts in there or kiddy-fiddlers, depending on who warned you, so people kept away.
“We went in. We walked until we couldn’t hear voices anymore then plunked ourselves down. Kate had a towel and Nick sat on it with her, so I sat on the esky, facing the direction of the water.
“At first I thought it was a pink crab. Four legs poking out of the sand. A pretty big crab. Nick and Kate were sitting close and that shat me, so I thought I’d dig out the crab, drop it in between them.
“I scrabbled in the sand, but realised quickly it wasn’t a crab.
“It was a hand.
“A boy’s hand.
“I swore and Kate and Nick noticed at last. I’m scrabbling in the sand and they’re just laughing at me, cacking themselves at my fat arse in the air, and I’m sweaty and gross.
“They stopped laughing when I dug the boy’s body out.
“Nick was the one who fell apart, chucking up all over the place, crying like a little baby.
“He ran off, left us there, scared of ghosts or that the killer was still around. I guarded the bodies while Kate went for help. We knew they’d believe her over me and we didn’t want the birds to get at the bodies. They were already squawking overhead.
“You’ve never heard silence like it, once the birds took off. Not just silence but the negative of noise. The sea, I could hear that, like a heavy-breathing giant, and another breath, I thought behind me, someone watching me, but there wasn’t anyone.
“We found out later the boys swallowed weed killer. Stole it from the hardware store, hid in the dunes and swallowed it.”
And he said, “That night me and Kate gave each other what comfort we could.”
I didn’t figure out what he meant by that until years later.
He always ended with, “So don’t go into the dunes, kids. You never know who’s lurking in there.”
Then one of the other adults would bring him a beer (men) or try to get him to go inside (women) and we’d be left to scare each other stupid with stories of murder and our parents would read us Winnie the Pooh to help us sleep without nightmares.
His friend Nick survived the war but drowned on our beach a few years later. Suicide, some people reckoned, so all our parents were terrified of it, “are you all right?” if you spent five minutes of solitude. The thought never crossed my mind. “I was too busy stuffing my face,” Jason’s dad liked to say. “Sitting there. Eating spag bol. I didn’t even notice he was gone. All they found of him was his shoes on the beach. His dog tags tucked into them.”
Jason’s house was always overgrown. The other men would be out the front, round the side, keeping on top of things, but Jason’s dad let his weeds grow. No one cared except Mr. White, the old man in House 4.
He was a man of habit and routine. He wore the same clothes every day; dark brown thigh-length shorts, a pale green stripy polo shirt. A panama hat he never took off.
The beach almost killed him, with its relaxation of time.
The other adults loosened up when we were there, some of them too much. Jason’s mum Kate was always in swimmers, tiny bikinis that made us all feel uncomfortable, although I had fantasies for years about her pubic hair peeking out.
The dads joked and played and rarely shouted at us.
Mr. White started coming a couple of years after we did. He didn’t have a wife. Rumour had it she’d died in childbirth. His son only came once, I think, and had no interest in any of us. He was about my age but far more independent, heading out for hours up the beach, into the water. Mum said it was because he had no mother and his father wasn’t much. We called the old man Grandpa Sheet because he was pretty old to be a dad and he was white as a sheet. White as a ghost. He was the one who taught us the dune game. “Go further in,” he’d say. “See what you find. There might be treasure in there, washed up. A reward for the one who goes the furtherest.” But he never gave out any rewards, and we never found treasure. Once (and the parents deny this, but it did happen) he put a sheet over his head and appeared around our boatshed, where we were hanging out, smoking. The boys from House 3 had jobs before the rest of us and were generous with their money.
Grandpa Sheet appeared, pretending to be a ghost and nearly died laughing as we scattered like cockroaches.
• • • •
I was the one who found the first memorial, when I was sixteen, there with friends. My parents still owned the place. Mum and Dad didn’t mind me and my friends using it; I guess they thought I was safer there than the streets of Sydney.
We were there most weekends and it probably did save my life. Not because of the damage I could do myself, but because of the damage others could do to me.
It was off season so mostly no one else was there except Jason’s dad, who was always there, and bloody Jason, who wasn’t as fat as he used to be but annoyingly clingy and boastful.
Jason’s parents were long since split up. His mum was on TV, presenting a beauty segment on afternoon TV. She never came any more. His dad spent most of his time on the beach, making shell necklaces and researching the great Australian novel, he reckoned, a crime novel. Jason looked more like his dad that his mum which was a shame for him because his mum was gorgeous.
House 3 only ever came in the holidays. They took it in turns; it seemed like there were hundreds of them. They were the most normal people you’d ever meet. The worst thing that ever happened to them was Jason’s mum Kate having him when she was a teenager. All the kids my age were doing well, so normal. Married, kids, and you see them here, running around like we used to. Generation after generation, rolling in like waves. Venturing towards the dunes but lacking our bravery so mostly hovering on the edges. “It’s like going back in the past,” Mum said. “Like no time has passed at all.”
And Grandad Sheet in House 4 was always there. No one liked him much. He was one of those too-friendly old men, always carrying coins and shit, handing things out. You’d watch him carefully. Dad taught us to watch everyone carefully and be polite. We warned each other not to go into Grandad Sheet’s boathouse. It was full of ghosts, we told each other. You could see the shine of them through the window some mornings and light where it shouldn’t be some evenings.
• • • •
One morning, after we’d taken a quick dip in the chill water to wash away hangovers, Grandad Sheet stood waiting for us on the beach, wearing his usual uniform; brown shorts, stripy polo, panama hat. I almost felt sorry for him but not so much I would talk to him.
He waved to us. “You’re old enough to help me finish this wine,” he called out, but we’d rather stay sober than that. Anyway, Jason’s dad bought us whatever we wanted. It didn’t make us like Jason any more, but it meant we let him hang out with us whenever he showed up. We had to listen to Jason’s dad’s stories, though. The dead boys one, and the when Nick died one, and the why I lost my job one, and the why I left Jason’s mother one.
“A case of beer for the one who goes furtherest,” Grandad Sheet said, nodding his head at the dunes.
The boys went off, because we were all out of money and this was beer without obligation or story. I followed, calling for them to wait. Part of the fun of the dunes was you had to be scared going in, so I reminded them about the murders, the bodies, the maybe ghosts.
“That’s all bullshit,” one of my friends said. I don’t remember his name; I don’t remember any of them.
We went further (‘furtherer,’ Grandad Sheet would say) than I’d been before. I felt safe with these friends; they lacked the imagination to be really scared, and were funny whenever they could be. Jason hung back. He hated the dunes (maybe because of times my brothers had threatened to bury him out here) but wasn’t going to miss out on anything.
Then we saw it.
We knew it was a memorial rather than a grave, but that didn’t stop any of us from imagining a body there. We could see the effect the weather had had on the cross, the flowers, and we imagined bleached bones buried beneath the sand, looking more like driftwood each day.
The wooden cross must have been bright purple, once. It was very straight; buried deep in the sand to keep it upright. The paint had all peeled off, leaving just the stain of its colour on the wood, which was peeling splinters. There had been decals, once, on the three outward reaching edges of the cross. Only the glue was left, petrified against the wood; the shape of a flower, perhaps, and a ball-shaped thing which could have been the world, and something which may have been a bird.
Remnants of the name were there, but like Piglet’s “Trespasser’s Will,” the original meaning was obscured.
“Got Her,” Jason read. “Got who?” which was the funniest joke he was capable of making.
A plastic basket of mottled, ugly flowers sat crookedly in the sand. Smooth stones surrounded the cross, and these confused us; were these being replaced when they washed away or covered with sand? They looked dirty somehow, sticky.
There was a jar of some thick, yellow, viscous liquid. We couldn’t think what it was.
“I told you,” I said, and no one said it was all bullshit this time.
We left it there; no one wanted to touch it. It felt bad to leave the memorial as it was, disrespectful somehow, as if death was dirty but we couldn’t be bothered to spend a few minutes to clean it up.
A shadow fell over us, strange on a cloudless day, and I shivered. Someone spying on us? Standing over us, wishing they were part of our group?
There was no one there, and the shadow lifted. Something had passed between me and the sun, that’s all.
One of the guys picked up a stone.
He held it in his palm, then tucked it in his pocket. He wasn’t bothered by gross things. He’d been known to throw dog poo, bare-handed. He took the stone over to Grandpa Sheet who examined it and nodded. He handed over a six pack of beer.
“He asked what we saw. That’s all he wanted. And he said something about the poor boys.”
“Someone must have set it up for the boys I told you about,” I said. “The one’s Jason’s dad found.”
Grandpa Sheet seemed full of life, hopping up and down the stairs like a puppy dog wanting to play.
“You see?” he called out. “Reward for the ones who go the furtherest.”
• • • •
That night I dreamt my pubic hair was matted and massive, like seaweed. I woke to find Jason down there, trying to get a fingerhold, his hair balled against my stomach, greasy and damp.
I pushed him off and he whined, “I thought we could give each other what comfort we could.”
“Yeah, well,” I said. I left him on the corner of my bed and went to have a shower, to wash the nightmare and him away.
• • • •
We all sat on the verandah, eating the last of the cereal. Dry, because there was no milk and no one wanted to go buy some. Money was tight and we’d lost track of who’d spent what. I’d lost track, anyway, because I never had any money to spend.
Grandad Sheet sat in the shadows on his verandah. I heard clinking, like glass, and he stood up and walked towards us.
“You hungry?” he said. He carried four jam jars, clink clink. “Teenagers are always hungry. It’s jam,” he said, lifting it to the light. “Blackberry jam.”
“Thanks,” one of my friends said, because Jason and I wouldn’t.
He set the jars on the verandah railing, nodded, walked away.
“Must have been a sale on jars,” one of my friends said. Because they were the same.
The same as the jar we’d seen at the memorial.
The surf was high and the day bright, so the beach filled up quickly. The others went for a swim even though the jellyfish warning flags were out, but I didn’t have the energy.
Instead I went to the memorial. It was tucked away in the dunes where hardly anyone went, is why it lasted so long.
Someone had been there. I could see drag marks in the sand, and there were six sets of weirdly perfect footprints pressed deep next to the jar of sticky yellow liquid.
• • • •
But I didn’t see a ghost until Grandad Sheet died.
• • • •
I didn’t go back for a long time after that. My life progressed, sort of, or at least I didn’t fuck it up, and there never seemed to be time to go to the beach just for the sake of it.
• • • •
It was fifteen years later before I went again, with Mum, Dad, my two brothers. None of us wanted to be there much but Bernard was depressed. Gerard had found him in the shed, with a glass and a bottle of weed killer. Seriously. Weed killer. We gave him shit about that, non-stop, because weed-killer? Could you be more obvious? But Gerard found him, anyway, sitting there trying to write a suicide note but not really knowing WHY, thus proving me right and every one else wrong; he thought too much.
So Gerard saved him and now we were all there to pretend we were kids again and the worst thing that could happen was Dad cooked dinner and made raw hamburgers.
We arrived in two cars. I’d packed wine, cheese, fancy snacks from my local gourmet store. Mum and Dad had a carload of food, stuff we’d lived on as kids. White bread, sausages, sweet cereal. Custard in cartons. They’d brought cricket gear and new table tennis bats, because there was a table in the boatshed. It was surely ruined but that wouldn’t matter.
Dad got the key from under the front mat and opened the front door. The place was stuffy but open windows would let the sea breeze in and we’d soon feel relaxed and healthy. That was the plan.
• • • •
Dinner first night was Fancy Chicken Salty Bucko. Mum called it that, trying to pretend she wasn’t showing off. Dad was getting pissed with Jason’s Dad, so Mum banned him from the barbie.
It was delicious. Mum always was a great cook.
“I picked the sage myself. There’s a gorgeous batch behind Jason’s house. I don’t think they even know it’s there.”
“Sage is good,” I said. She was making a point but I wasn’t sure what it was yet.
“If you pick twelve leaves at midnight you’ll see the ghost of your future husband,” she said. She knows I’m gay and doesn’t ban me from the house, but secretly, it seems, she thinks I just haven’t met the right man.
“Doesn’t that mean he’d be dead? You can’t have the ghost of a living person,” Bernard said, and we all got stuck into our Salty Bucko and bottles of wine and it felt okay. Mum kept squeezing Bernard, watching him, as if she couldn’t believe he was real. He’s been missing a long time, gone from us, and she’d say, it’s like we have no son, as if he didn’t exist when not in our presences.
• • • •
Dad made us pull out the table tennis table and set it up. It wasn’t too bad. Buckled and mottled but reasonably sturdy when you shoved the legs in the sand.
Then he knocked on Jason’s dad’s door. Gerard and I exchanged looks of relief; now he’d stop trying to make conversation with us. Bernard was already on the beach, heading for the dunes. We’d spoken of little else but the memorial, because they’d seen it but we hadn’t been into the dunes together for years. And the dead boys. We talked about the dead boys and gave Bernard shit about the weed killer. He planned to ask Jason’s dad for the story again, because you have different ears as an adult. I don’t know what he was hoping to hear.
Gerard and I followed him, leaving Mum to fuss with the windows and the beds and to put a cuppa on.
We always left someone at the foot of the dunes, just in case. They could run for help.
This time, though. My brothers and I wanted to go in together, find the memorial that was periodically covered up.
Bernard had a hip flask of Bundy Rum and we drank that as we plodded on.
“We used to run in this sand, don’t you remember?” Gerard said. “As if it was a footpath.”
“We were a lot lighter then. Didn’t sink to our ankles.” Bernard was skinny as a stick, far too thin. Our brief hugs made me cringe, because I could feel his bones.
“I’m as svelte as ever,” I said, “Like a blade of grass,” and that set them off mocking me for a while, which was good.
“Is this thing actually here?” Gerard said. “It was, but I haven’t seen it in years.”
“Let’s give it another five minutes, then we’ll head back,” Bernard said. We weren’t going to argue.
At the moment, he was living in these small increments of time. Five minutes. Half an hour. One afternoon. The more increments of time that passed, the further he was from that moment when he was prepared to drink the weed-killer.
What we didn’t know.
What we should have known.
Was that time goes forward to a thing as well as away from another.
We finished the rum, and I made them sing stupid songs, and then Bernard said, “There it is.”
Only it wasn’t. It was a different one. White-painted wood hammered into a cross and imbedded with sea-softened glass pieces.
We stared at it for a while, chilled even though the sun burned down.
Gerard bent over, digging in the sand. He revealed a small glass jar, filled with the viscous yellow liquid I remembered so well from the other memorial.
“Did someone make a new one?” Gerard said, but Bernard had already walked on, and called out, “Here’s another one.”
The one Bernard found could have been the original but wasn’t. It was a wooden cross but not as aged; some weather-damage but it seemed to have been made of that “outdoor” wood, paint thick, with chains dangling off it, held in places by notches in the wood. One fine chain with a butterfly pendant, one thicker one with fake dog tags.
“We should take these back and hang them over the verandah at House 2. Freak out Jason’s dad.”
Even now he still got shit for not going to Vietnam. Every now and then, especially on Anzac Day.
We found the original memorial next, collapsed now, with few stones remaining. And we found two more, looking even older, that we thought must have been there all along, but we never walked that far.
The next memorial was built of rusted metal, with words scratched in. We couldn’t read beyond a few letters. F and H and T.
Bernard kept on walking. “There might be more,” he said. I hoped not each one meant that someone had died.
We wouldn’t have recognised the next one if we hadn’t seen the others. This one was a mound of stones, perfectly placed, with a surround of large rocks to keep them in place. Each letter on a different stone.
We pulled them out carefully and laid them on the sand, shifting them around until we found a word.
• • • •
All of the memorials hosted a jar, filled with that yellow stuff.
We stayed until the sun started to dip then headed back. Bernard didn’t want to come but we dragged him. Night fell dark and fast at the beach and we didn’t have torches or food or anything but an empty hip flask.
Dad had the BBQ out when we got back. The boys stopped with him, drank beer, and I went inside for a shower.
Mum and Dad are getting on, now, but they’re sticking to the plan. Eggs for breakfast, leftovers for lunch, BBQ for dinner, cooked by Dad even though he can’t see in the dark well anymore and insisted on BBQing out there on the beach.
We told them what we’d seen, all those memorials.
“No names on them?”
“Nothing but the word ‘furtherest.’”
“Like Grandad Sheet always says,” Mum said. I didn’t think she knew about all that. “Maybe he made the memorials for his wife and son. And his parents. Who knows?”
As we talked I could hear children laughing, and someone squealing as they dipped into the water, and the pop of a champagne cork.
We all looked over at House 4. It was dark; no squatters tonight. Grandad Sheet had died five or six months earlier. No one went to the funeral. I don’t even know if there was one. His son was long dead and there was only one grandson who wanted nothing to do with him or the house. He’d never even been.
No one shut the house up, or put it on the market. The dads looked after the outside, weeding when they did their own, clearing off dead birds that periodically made it to the verandah.
No one touched the inside.
You could easily imagine him there, watching as he always did.
“There’s usually a party of some kind going on in the house. They’re always at it. Leave a great pile of shit behind,” Jason’s dad said. He still walked for hours and actually looked better than he had in years. He made shell necklaces to guard against the evil eye and handed them out to anyone he saw. Even now, he sat with his beer, threading.
“Maybe I could move into his place for a while,” Bernard said. “Keep the squatters out.”
“Yes! You could!” Mum realised straight away she’d been too excited but couldn’t rein it in.
“We’d have to get in and clear it out. He was house-proud, you could say that for him. He’d be turning in his grave to see the state it’s in.”
We’d gone off track. “What about the crosses? The stones?” I said, and my brothers said yeah, agreeing with me. The grownups (yeah, we were grown up now, but not like they were. Not like kid-producing, home-owning, holiday house-owning adults) nodded.
“We’ll call the police tomorrow,” Mum said, and she did it, too. They never did come, though.
Not about that.
“I should get Jason to come back, give us a hand to clear the place out.” Jason’s dad said.
We rolled our eyes (yeah, adults).
“He’s overseas, isn’t he?” Mum said. “For his job?”
“He’s doing bloody well. They love him on the TV over there.”
He was actually a bit of a spunk now, but he was still gropy-fingered Jason to me.
“He thinks of you all as cousins. He’d love to be here.”
The verandah at House 4 sat in shadows, darker than anywhere else, I thought.
• • • •
The dads were up early to start the big clear out.
They wanted us to help but I wasn’t going in that place. It always gave me the creeps. Grandpa Sheet wasn’t someone you wanted to go near. He was so desperately lonely, so needy, it felt like he’d grab on and wouldn’t let you go.
He had been married; they said it lasted a week. Long enough to make a baby (the son who died) and we never saw the wife. Someone said she was a geologist and one of Gerald’s jokes was, “She must have had rocks in her head to marry him.”
Jason’s dad said, “I’m glad you’re all here. You anchor me. Not long before Grandpa Sheet died, I wasn’t feeling the best. I shouldn’t tell you this. But Jason says it helps to talk. I was pretty low. I was hearing voices or something, telling me what I should do. End it all.”
“I don’t know if that’s the best topic,” Mum whispered to me.
“You can’t say anything. It’ll be really awkward and embarrassing and obvious if you do and Bernard will hate it,” I whispered back.
“I almost did it. I’d gathered rocks and rope and I was going to swim out and let the rocks drop like an anchor, you know. I was so close.”
“So what stopped you?”
“It’s stupid. But the smell of something BBQing wafted over. Sausage and onions. And I was suddenly starving and I thought, I can’t die on an empty stomach. I went home and ate, then Jason rang and I went to bed and just . . . forgot about it.
“The next morning I found Grandad Sheet hanging in his boathouse. The door was banging in the wind so I went to shut it and there he was, hanging. I wondered if he’d taken my place. That someone had to die that night and it turned out to be him.
“It wasn’t as bad as finding the boys. Nothing could be as bad as that. But it was still a shock. So you have to ignore the voices. If they’re telling you what to do. Shut them out whatever way you can.”
“Come on you lot, help,” Dad said. Bernard had been hard at it, carrying out loads of rubbish, whistling, running into the surf for a dip every now and then.
Not even his family went near the place, so why should we? We did take drinks and snacks over to them, though.
• • • •
Dad and Jason’s dad stayed over there for hours with Bernard, making a big pile of rubbish, getting drunker by the minute. They chucked out any wrecked furniture, shouting out, “Executive Decision” each time. It was actually pretty funny, and we all set up beach chairs to watch the show. Even Mum, who angled her chair so she could watch all of us, too. I couldn’t be a mother. I couldn’t cope with that level of love. Too painful. I can’t even cope with a dog, too needy, too easily saddened.
They found mostly crap, like the embroidered wallhanging that said, “The furtherest you go, the better the place.”
The dads finished in the house. “What about the boatshed?” Gerard called out, then whispered, as Dad called back, “I’ll boatshed you!”
But they did go in there, torches out because all the boatsheds were filled with years of crap that blocked the windows.
They were in there for a bit so we turned our chairs around to watch the sea instead, and a group of teenagers down there making a bonfire, swearing as loud as they could, throwing bottles.
“Don’t throw the fucken bottles,” Bernard roared. You’d have to call it a roar. That stopped them. He walked down there and pointed; stack ’em there, he said, and we’ll clear them up in the morning. Don’t leave broken glass on the beach.
He bent to pick up some of it and the kids helped, and he was back soon, smiling to himself. I nearly cried to see it, that pure, happy smile.
I was thinking of going inside when I heard a dragging sound. I turned to see the dads coming towards us, both dragging shop mannequins.
We gathered around as they set the mannequins back on their feet. They were taller than me, dressed in clothing from, what the sixties? Mum said so; you had a shirt like that, she said to Dad.
“There are four more,” Jason’s dad said. “All standing there in his shed behind a stack of corrugated iron.”
The boys helped drag them all out and we stood them up on our verandah. It gave me the creeps, as if six strange men stood there, staring at us, watching us too closely.
Each was dressed differently. One had black pants and a white singlet. One had black shirt, white singlet, open orange shirt. One had brown shorts, green polo, panama hat. One had grey pants, blue shirt. One had faded pink shorts, towel around neck, hat. One had white pants, white hat, light jacket, blue singlet, towel under arm.
The clothes were moth-eaten, dusty, stained.
The mannequins were made of pink plastic that made me think of silly putty. They were all damaged; dents and cuts. Cracks and fissures. And they leaked, oozing thick yellow sticky stuff that was too slow to be fluid.
“That’s the stuff in jars in the dunes,” I said.
And I thought of the jars of jam Grandad Sheet gave us years ago, and of the jars at the memorial, and of this yellow sticky stuff.
“This is too weird,” Gerard said. “Was he a tailor or something?”
“Fashion designer, darling,” I said, modelling for them.
“I think they must be the police dolls. Don’t you remember?” Jason’s dad said. “After I found the boys?”
“We weren’t here then,” Dad said.
“There were six men who didn’t come forward. Others saw them at the time they thought boys disappeared, but they never spoke up. So the police dressed these doll things up in the gear people remembered them wearing and paraded them all over the state, hoping to get a clue, did you see something? Is this you? But no one ever did. No idea how Grandpa Sheet got them. Maybe they were left on the beach.”
Bernard stood up, looked at them from different angles. Then he said, “That’s Grandad Sheet,” and jeezus he was right. Brown shorts, stripy shirt. Panama hat. Why had no one ever seen it? He’d moved into the area after the murders, maybe? So no one knew him?
Sand coated the feet of the mannequins. I walked down to where the dads had first stood them up and saw the weird, perfect footprints they’d left behind.
I’d seen these at the first memorial we found. Someone had dragged the mannequins to the memorial and let them stand there, casting shadows.
I shuddered at the thought.
• • • •
The Grandad Sheet one leaked the worst of all. I was tempted to collect it. In the end I set up a bucket and listened to the slow, solid, regular drip in the night.
• • • •
We set the six of them up in front of the houses. They all cast a shadow, but one cast a shadow longer than the others. I couldn’t figure out why; I shifted it from place to place and still the shadow was long, dark, and cold. It was cold in the shadow, colder than it should be, and darker than the middle of the night.
• • • •
We went for a walk, all of us, heading away from the dunes.
Birds circled overhead, squawking so loudly we could hardly hear each other. I covered my head, worried they’d let loose a sea of shit and I did feel a spatter of something, but it was the first drop of rain. The sky blackened and we tried to make it home but were caught in a great downpour.
The house lay ahead so we laughed, because soon we’d be warm and dry.
Running from the rain, laughing, but it fell so hard it actually hurt and when I made it inside there were red marks across my arms, face, chest, legs; any exposed skin was striped. I stopped laughing but someone still did, I could hear the echo of it. Or not the echo but an actual laugh, one of those men’s laughs when they think the women aren’t listening.
The Grandad Sheet dummy stood in front of the door. We’d set him at the end of the verandah, a sentinel, but here he was blocking the way.
Bernard stripped his own clothes off, dressed in the dummy’s clothing, leaving the dummy anonymous, sexless.
I said, “It’s bad luck to wear the clothes of a man who died at sea.”
“He didn’t drown.”
“He drowned in his own blood. That’s what happens after you hang yourself.”
He gave me a chuff on the shoulder, then a harder one on the chin. “Help me shift my stuff,” he said. He hardly had anything; just a couple of duffle bags, a guitar he never played, his surfboard.
I carried the board to the front of House 4 but I wasn’t going in.
“There’s no one here,” Bernard said, but I could hear footsteps inside, for sure. “I think this is a better place,” he said, and he sat himself down in the shadowy verandah to look out.
• • • •
Later, I sat on our verandah and watched Dad cooking the BBQ. He stooped over the hot plate, looking so very old. Tired. It was dark out there, darker than usual. In the shadows I thought I saw a figure. Did Dad have a buddy out there? A beach friend? He always made friends, loved to chat.
He looked up suddenly, as if just noticing the person there, then he pulled back, raising his arms to his face.
Then he fell.
“Dad!” I’m saying as I’m running down the steps, calling to the boys because I wanted them there to get the person who’d hit our dad.
They were slow to respond as ever. Bernard hated to move fast, even though as a kid you could never stop him. On the rare times Dad tried to whack his bum for some wrongdoing, he’d scoot out of the way so fast, hand never laid on bum cheek and we’d all end up laughing.
Now his feet fell flat and sluggish.
We made it to Dad who was on his knees, moaning. Bleeding from the nose, but he said he’d bumped that, falling. There’d been no one standing over him, he said.
But I knew there had.
Bernard and I helped him up and inside while Gerard finished the cooking (everything was burnt anyway; Dad’s idea of BBQ perfection) and Mum panicked. Dad said, “I’m fine. Stop fussing. I fell,” but he had a look in his eye, a slight shiftiness. I’d seen it in older people who were starting to lose their memory, or bodily control, and didn’t want anyone to know. Their minds race, wanting to cover up a lapse. That’s what he was doing.
“I thought I saw someone out there with you,” I said, close to his ear.
He shook his head. “There was no one.”
• • • •
We settled Dad in bed, against his will, and made Mum cups of tea because she was freaking out.
“I can’t be on my own,” she whispered to me. “I just can’t.”
“You can come and live with me,” I said, although no way. I couldn’t do it. Better she goes into a home, she’d be fine. Never alone, at least.
That night was the first time I thought I heard someone outside, carrying a metal bucket; clank, clank. I heard weird things all night. The bucket being dragged or something, and a deep male laugh, a single laugh, a man alone.
I got up to check on Dad and Mum twice in the night; they both happily snored away.
• • • •
Next morning, Bernard’s eyes were bright, set deep in dark bags that made him look older.
“Waffles for breakfast?” Mum said, bright and desperate, so “let’s pretend,” I had to go along with it. So I started a fight with Gerald and the two of us ran hollering bloody murder around the house, with the others inside laughing their arses off at us.
A thin layer of yellow ooze lay at the bottom of the bucket. I set jars out to collect from the rest of the mannequins as well.
• • • •
That night Bernard asked us all “for drinks” at his house. At Grandad Sheet’s house. He’d set up chairs on the verandah, and found glasses, and he had wine. It was nice. I stayed there longer than the others, not wanting it to end. It was peaceful, Bernard calmly smoking, pouring wine, neither of us talking. The mannequins stood forward over there in front of our house, casting shadows by moonlight. I thought I saw one man walk to the water, keep walking until he disappeared. And another vanish into the dunes, then there he was, back on the verandah, then into the dunes again. It was tiredness, my eyes aching from sun-on-sand reflection.
Bernard didn’t want to go inside. He liked it on the verandah, No man’s land, he called it, neither in nor out. I had a last glass of wine out there with him then left him to it. He was snoring gently, and I thought that anyone who slept so easily must be feeling okay.
When I looked back, I saw him lift his arm to wave at someone.
I went inside.
I went inside.
The only thing I feel okay about is that I didn’t do it because I was tired, or cold, or bored. I did it because I thought he wanted to be alone. He seemed peaceful, barely affected by the things I saw.
So, I went inside.
Sometime in the night, Bernard walked into the dunes. He went past the last memorial, using a big old torch to guide him.
We knew where he was because of the note he left. It said, “He says it will be all right. That he’ll take me the furtherest I can go.”
Gerard and I went to look for him, and Jason’s dad came with us. That shat me, later, as if he thought he had a monopoly on finding dead people.
Bernard had cut his wrists with broken glass, sliced his arms carefully long ways from wrist to inner elbow.
The sun was well up and he looked so pale, as pale as Grandad Sheet. His arms were flat beside him, legs stretched out, and the sand dark and damp all around him.
Gerard said, “You fucking idiot,” and took my hand so we could go close together, look into his face, looking for a beat in his eyelids, touch his throat hoping for a beat there.
“I’m sorry.” Jason’s dad. A lot of people would say that over the coming weeks, but I thought he really meant it.
Bernard wore a dozen of those damn shell necklaces and I wasn’t sure what made me the saddest; the fact he thought they’d help, or the fact they didn’t.
• • • •
We built a memorial for Bernard. Jason’s dad wanted to use the shell necklaces; I thought Gerard was going to kill him. Instead we laid Bernard’s surfboard down, anchored it with rocks, and every time we went back, we took something for him. A bottle of wine, or a new piece of music, or a book.
We didn’t give him a jar of the yellow stuff because we’d burnt all the dummies and their clothes. The smell of them. They left a terrible pink mess, a sludge that set into a hard rock, so we left that on the surfboard, too.
The memory of them. Me, Gerard, and Jason, with the adults, those alive and those who were ghosts, all watching from their verandahs, The families from House 3 would arrive in the next holiday, in whatever variation, blissfully unaware.
• • • •
Mum and Dad wanted to sell up the house or just abandon it, but Gerard and I wouldn’t let them.
“I need this place,” I told them. Although it wasn’t a safe place. There were too many voices. But it made me feel strong to resist them, and that was worth a lot.
Some days it was just me and Jason’s dad on the beach, and he talked. He told me his stories; the meanderings of a broken mind. The dead boys one, the when Nick died one, the how I lost my job one, the why my wife left me one, the when I nearly killed myself one.
And the Granddad Sheet one. He reckoned Sheet thought of those dead strangers memorialized in the dunes as his family. His friends. That’s how alone he was. He always felt excluded. “We never let him into our perfect world,” Jason’s dad said, and that’s how deluded he was.
“I think he did it,” he said. “He wore those same clothes every single day. The police doll clothes. Maybe he wanted someone to identify him and no one ever did. Maybe he had something to feel guilty about. That why he wanted us to go into the dunes. To find the memorials. To do something about it. To stop him. We never did. I reckon he blamed us for that. Blamed us for all the memorials, all the . . . things he has to feel guilty about. He still blames us.”
Because we always felt him over there. In his house. And I could hear him whispering in my ear as I walked along the beach, the feel of it somehow driving my mood down, making me need a drink. Grandad Sheet could get through walls. Maybe that’s why he killed himself; so he could get to us in more ways than one. There was no privacy. He was always there, and I saw him down on the beach, amongst the families down there. Trying to lead them into the dunes. He wasn’t always alone; sometimes there were the shadows of others around him.
He chilled me cold.
“We should have stopped him,” Jason’s dad said.
You should have, I thought. And something else.
Jason’s dad should have died two, three, four times over. Each time, someone had stepped in for him; his best friend. Grandad Sheet. My brother.
They all died in his place.
Jason’s dad shakes his head as if he was trying to clear water out of his ear, but he rarely goes swimming. “The call of the deep is stronger when I hit the surf,” he always says. He’s shaking his head to stop the voices, looking at me sidelong as if sizing me up.
Some nights the ghosts come scrabbling at my door, they crawl up the hallway, they hover over me.
And I’m starting to think thoughts that aren’t my own. There is a better place. It’s like a whisper. I’m starting to think, this is shit, life is shit, and I haven’t thought that before.
I never had that feeling before.
I sniff a bottle of sunscreen, to get that feeling back, that memory of childhood when we were all safe and happy. Trying to get rid of the bad thoughts. The thoughts of dying. I could leave. I should leave. But I have to stay until I’ve done one thing.
I’m keeping Jason’s dad well fed. I make sure he’s never hungry.
There’s only the two of us here now, and it isn’t going to be me, so when the ghosts come knocking again, I point to him at House 2. I say, his turn.
At last, it’s his turn.
Spread the word!