First Prize Story Winner
2022 Short Story Competition
By Joseph Williams
The roof of the dockside shed was rusted through, a patchwork of holes skirted by iron with the wooden slats covered in so much fossilized bird crap that the heads of nails still poking through were as good as camouflaged. Their parents had taken them all for a tetanus jab three months back when Jerry’s cousin from Wellington stapled his leg to a length of two by four, but even still, Nicola was careful not to tear a hole in her foot.
“Are you gonna jump or what?” came a voice from inside the shed, strangely baffled from the inside out.
Nicola spread her weight across both feet and peered through the hole between the overlapping iron sheets. Jerry’s gap-toothed grin shone up at her, his skinny chest gleaming white and wet.
“Yeah I’m gonna jump,” said Nicola. “Just give me a minute.”
“Bet you won’t!”
“Come on then,” said Pat, clambering up the side of the shed behind her. “I wanna go after you.”
“I just need a minute.”
Nicola stood up and peered over the edge of the shed, past the wharf, to the emerald green below. The waves moved strangely on this side of the wharf, sucked in by a cove made between the rocks at the road’s edge and the boating marina across the water. Swells rose with the wind from across the harbour and slapped against the wall with a sound like a sweaty high-five, and as the water rushed back it encountered the next wave with a sucking motion that flattened the wave until the moment of impact. The result was a patch of water that, while calm on top, gave the sense of something moving below. A sweeping, heaving motion like a breathing belly.
“I just need a minute, okay?”
Pat stalked carefully from plank to plank across the roof, sitting herself down a metre away.
“You know there’s sharks in there, right?” she said.
“It’s true. My sister told me.”
“Your sister told you there’s another Harry Potter book, but she has the only copy.”
“This is different.”
Jerry clambered up behind them. His hair and shorts were still wet, smelling of damp and salt. There was something about the water at this beach that always made Nicola think of olives – something about the salty spray that flavoured the air and the little strings of seaweed that washed up all over the shore; little pods that burst open like a gasp of the ocean’s breath. She didn’t particularly like olives, but there was something pleasant in the association that she couldn’t explain.
“It’s true,” he said. “I saw sharks here once. That’s why nobody fishes around here anymore. They eat the bait right off the line.”
“We saw someone fishing here yesterday.”
Jerry shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t know.”
“I think you’re trying to scare me,” said Nicola. “You just don’t want me to jump.”
“I don’t really care,” said Pat. “But if you’re not gonna go, I want to.”
Nicola sighed and shuffled back from the edge of the shed, letting Pat take her place. A certain amount of care was required to clear the edge of the wharf, but this was the only place you could make it and get the benefit of those few extra metres into the shady side of the water. To jump from the other side was impossible without descending a flight of stairs until only just a metre above the water, and that was for little kids.
Pat crouched at the edge of the shed and stood slowly, rising tall and defiant against the deep blue sky. Her hair was tied back and revealed the extent of her summer burn, the white skin below her hairline contrasting with the freckled tan along her shoulders. Somewhere in the docks beyond the wire fence at the other side of the water, two seagulls took turns screaming and fluttering up in the air.
“Good luck!” laughed Jerry.
With one final gulp of air she leapt, holding her nose. Her hair and the strings of her swimsuit trailed behind as she described an imperfect parabola from the top of the shed, past the wharf, into the water below, splashing through the vivid green with an eruption of white foam that shimmered like an oil slick on the surface.
“I really did see sharks,” said Jerry. “But I don’t think it really matters. My brother says they only bite if you look like a dying seal.”
Nicola’s head hurt. The cloudless sky seemed all alight as if the sun wasn’t just a single point, but a brightness that radiated from the horizon upwards. She tried to focus on the water.
“She’s been under for a long time,” she said.
Jerry didn’t seem bothered. They stood there another half a minute, listening to the waves sloshing against the beach, the seagulls screaming, and the chorus of cicadas screaming in cascading waves. It felt as if they were frozen.
“She might have been pulled under,” he said.
“Not the sharks again, Jerry.”
“Maybe, maybe not. She might need help.”
“Should we go down the stairs?”
“Nah, too slow.”
In two great bounds he cleared the rooftop, leaving the frame of the shed bouncing in his wake. Nicola fell on her hands trying to keep her balance, scoring her right palm on the rusted edge of a steel sheet. She saw him suspended in the air, both legs tucked in a bomb, a black spot carved in the deep blue sky.
It only took seconds to reach the edge of the roof again but in that time the foam had already faded. He might have never even landed in the water, she thought, then wondered where the idea had even come from. She was alone, the cicadas mocking and seagulls laughing, dazed by the depthless green. She waited.
In years to come she’d revisit the beach. The olive smell faded, replaced with a bitter odour like salt in the back of the mouth, burning in the sinuses. In time the shed was demolished and replaced with a simple shelter of glass and timber. The sea was never green again, the sky never the same shade of blue. Grey sky, grey water, grey the colour of their lips when the sea saw fit to vomit their bodies up against the rocks, nibbled by the fish, stomachs distended and white.
And all along the questions. Answerless. If she had been the first to jump, would they have come after? Had he even gone under? What lay under that depthless green, water churned solid by backwash and silt? And if he had hadn’t gone under, like she thought, what then? Where? And what had the water returned that wore their faces?
She approaches the wharf from the road. It doesn’t seem so big as it did back then. From across the harbour a ship belts out a long and mournful moan across the water, sliding from the city to the shore. She feels the water lapping against the frame beneath, can see the splash and froth of playful waves in the gaps between the boards but doesn’t feel the cold spray against her feet. Kids still jump here, she thinks. She’s seen them, from the road. They run to the far end and clear the rail, launching way out into the deepest waters, past where the steps used to be. She wonders if they know – and if they do know, whether it’s in the same way she knew about the sharks.
She closes her eyes and touches the shelter. Expecting the glass and timber, her hand meets roughened, rusted iron; hot and sticky beneath her palm. It stings. Her palm is still bleeding.
When she opens her eyes the sun is blinding. She is in the moment between dreaming and waking. The sea is green, the city a haze across the water. The shrill song of the cicadas susurrates from the trees in time with her breath, exhale and inhale. The smell of the water, and the salt drying on the baking timber and iron is rich and heady. It puts her in mind of olives.
She stands, looks down, and jumps. It seems that she must hang suspended there for ages, but gravity swiftly pulls her down past the edge of the wharf. To leap, to grasp at the crisp, clean blue, before the green waters rush towards her.
Just before she hits the water, nose held, eyes shut, she hears Pat and Jerry laughing from their hiding place: safe and sound, hiding in the dark beneath the shed.