Our skins charred that summer. We came for just over a week, as we did most summers, the year before I became a teenager. Three hours in a hot car from our small town to the big smoke, my grandmother’s house waiting all the way down a long, narrow drive, past mansions and pools and tennis courts. Her house, at the very end, felt too near the edge, but came with a view, and its own path down to the beach.
Freed of the car, my brother Lincoln and I dumped our stuff in the bottom room. A ranch slider opened onto lawn, and in a few short strides, we hit the path. Shells turned into dirt and then wooden steps. We took two at a time, ducking the grabbing, grey arms of pōhutukawa and beech, and mimicking the jarring song of tui, piercing and insistent, like a broken alarm. Down, down, down the steps we ran, until we hit the rocks below. But even their jagged, moss-covered teeth couldn’t stop, snag, slip, or slow us, and soon we spied it. Our oasis.
Stripped of t-shirts and towels, we belted to the small, sandy curve. A smear, a brushstroke, of gritty, biscuit-coloured paradise we mostly had to ourselves. It was an interesting beach, more cove, complete with an ancient, burgundy boatshed on one end, and the bare backsides of nudists the next beach over.
We loved the boatshed, an elderly insect overseeing the proceedings. Its bejewelled, oyster-shelled arms that once winched vessels—ghost-boats and dead-ships I could see with a squint stretched way out, into the depths.
I challenge anyone to find a better beach. A miniature offering. The slight curl of waves, not too choppy, no undertow to spoil our fun. I was Grandma’s ‘little water baby,’ though I was tired of the ‘baby' part. The briny world, laced with satiny kelp and sugared at the seabed with smooth pebbles that massaged underfoot, was somewhere I could stay all day.
Mum, Dad, Grandma, and a bacon and egg pie, lay picture-perfect on the blue and green tartan blanket. We emerged, dripping and ravenous, for slivers of pie and snippets of chat, before sprinting back into the sea. They left us then, traipsing back up the track to sink into the shade of the house.
That was the best thing about that summer. As long as we went together, Lincoln and I were allowed to go down to the beach by ourselves.
Later, at the house, where Grandma lived since her husband died, we read comics, watched TV, played poker. My mother, though she never made it at home, whipped up my favourite of Grandma’s dishes: a chicken bake, rich and garlicky with tarragon and breadcrumbs. A major treat.
My grandmother, who was an amazing cook, was even better at cards. She shuffled a deck in the corner as we did the dishes and Lincoln flicked me with the wet end of the tea towel. We could get away with things like that at Grandma’s. Never growled or shouted at. There was never any fighting on holiday.
After we sat down, as Mum and Dad drank a cup of tea, I looked around the living room. It had interesting things to look at—a bowl of fake red grapes, photos of the grandchildren in descending order, a brass belt my grandmother’s mother was fabled to have worn.
‘She had a sixteen-inch waist!’ Grandma exclaimed. The belt, which hung, shiny and snake-like, beside the photos, was made up of engraved brass squares. The detail of which I forget now, because all I remember was how small the belt was, how tiny my great-grandmother must’ve been.
I thought about this later, in the bathroom, when I stood in front of the three-panelled mirror. It was a special mirror, I discovered, one I found I could use for thinning. If I stood exactly where the mirrors met, side-on, like magic, it shrunk the fabric that was me. Soon I thinned myself every time I went in there, imagining the tiny brass belt, cinching my newly non-existent waist. My new disappearing frame.
‘You certainly like your food,’ my grandmother said, when I returned for a sneaky second helping of the bake. That dish was delicious, and I was starving from the swimming and the running up and down the track. The next few days, between the family in-jokes and the swimming and Grandma’s commentary, the week progressed as normal.
It was in the middle of the week when I first noticed the black cabin. In the bush, sunk into the corner of the first turn, before the shelly path turned into wooden steps. Had it always been there? I wasn’t sure, but it gave me the feeling that somehow it had.
The birds threw everything at me that morning, and then fell dead quiet as I took the turn. The word, ‘clubhouse,’ in small, wooden letters, clung nailed to the door. It was all a blur, something peripheral that flashed in my brain as I barrelled down the steps, around the rocks, and to the shore. To the waves. To the arms of the abandoned boatshed.
It was on that day, from the boatshed, that my brother caught his biggest fish yet. A snapper. It flapped at our feet, then just at my feet alone, when he ran off to get something important. He told me to look after it, ‘or else,’ while he pelted back up to the house. For what reason, I didn’t know, but I knew I’d be filleted, along with the fish, if it flapped its way back to its family.
At first it was stressful, watching it die. The wild bucking, the blaming black eyes, the pleading, gasping mouth. I was eyeballing it, willing it to give up, and that’s when I first heard his voice.
A boy of about my age. The sun had got to him. His skin bright, raging red, already peeling. He had red shorts, an old-fashioned hat that looked like it’d been forced onto his head.
‘My brother’s,’ I said, with uncharacteristic pride.
‘Where do you live?’
‘Up the track.’
He glanced at the fish at my feet, and then me. I was wearing togs. My towel I’d abandoned somewhere on the hot sand. My feet, gnarled and littered in tiny cuts from the path, seemed unsightly. The area between my thighs, chafed and raw from the salt and the running and the rubbing together, was something I’d not thought about until then.
‘Is that your cabin? Your clubhouse?’ I corrected myself.
‘The black one. Up the path.’
He half-smiled in answer. ‘Do you own that big house, at the top?’
‘That’s my grandma’s. We’re on holiday.’
‘On holiday,’ he repeated, like it was the biggest extravagance in the world. My face flushed, but I wasn’t sure why. There was a silence. I wasn’t experienced at conversation at that age, but I realised later I’d given too much away. Over the years, I’d learn not to give the coordinates of my living arrangements to a stranger, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew at the time was that I had a dying fish at my feet, and under his gaze, I wished I could thin myself, just as I’d done in the mirror.
‘Sure. That’s my clubhouse. You can’t tell anyone though. It’s a secret.’
Just then my brother burst onto the scene, lugging a mallet and a scruffy .
‘Is it still there? Is it still there? You didn’t let it go, did you?’
In the melee that followed, including bashing the fish on the head to ensure its deadness and securing its no-longer-flapping body in the bucket in case of some last-minute revival, the boy disappeared.
We played cards the next night after dinner. This always included a dessert, which, in all the years I stayed at Grandma’s, she never consumed. I looked at her thin arms and tried to refuse too.
‘Go on, you love your food,’ my mother said, scooping a small helping into my bowl. I nibbled it, because I didn’t want to be rude, because I was still hungry after dinner, but I avoided catching her eye.
‘You got some sun today,’ Mum said, motioning to my neck. My upper half, she was right, was on fire, a crimson glow in the bathroom mirror. Maybe it was the sun or the second helping, but I threw up the dessert, closing the lid of the toilet to hide my shame, and the sound of the flush.
That night in bed, the room smelled of snapper, and the Aftersun I’d applied on my burn.
‘It’s going to peel,’ Grandma whispered when she’d kissed me goodnight. I had a restless sleep, plagued as I was by the boy’s glassy, blue eyes, the sting of pebbles right near my head, the nudists, trudging like sunburnt zombies, up the track, wanting to feast on our plump flesh. When I woke the next morning, thinning seemed more important than ever.
That day we went to the beach together. Mum and Dad carried the chilly bin, the tartan blanket from Grandma’s linen cupboard, the stuff for the picnic: mince pie, chocolate brownie, L&P, and grapes, not the fake kind. I swam in the shallows with strands of seaweed, playing the Wilberforces, before coming in for lunch. Up on the blanket, I stared at the food. Mum was never going to be in the club. Not the thin club with Grandma and my great-grandmother. I thought about the brass belt and the chocolate brownie, half-melted and gooey from the sun.
‘No thanks,’ I said, before returning to the arms of the sea, welcoming me with a watery hug. I was weightless in the water, where I ducked and dived for another hour. I wasn’t hungry. I’d never eat again. Not if the sea didn’t want me to. I’d fit the brass belt, my grandmother’s tiny clothes.
After dinner, Grandma sat in her rocking chair and talked about the death of her husband, about how long it took to make the path that could only be accessed from their house.
‘It was our path. Our own private access! From our house down to the beach,’ she said, as she rocked and rocked. That night, after dinner, after cards, after dessert I didn’t eat, Mum came downstairs to tuck me in.
‘Are you okay?’ I had my back turned, pretending to be half-asleep. My sunburn was peeling. I tried to hide under the covers, embarrassed of my skin, my bathroom antics. But my mother had an uncanny ability to smell worries out.
‘Has that hut always been there, at the bend, down the path?’ I asked her in the dark, by way of diversion.
‘What hut?’ she said, and though I couldn’t see her, I sensed that her face was concerned.
’There’s a cabin. A hut. And … it doesn’t matter.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I didn’t want to tell you, in case everyone laughed at me.’
’No one’s laughing at you.’
My father arrived then to say goodnight, catching the end of our conversation.
‘Who’s laughing at you?’
’No one,’ my mother and I said in unison, neither of us wanting it to become a thing. We were on holiday. Where we didn’t argue, and there was no shouting. They stooped and said goodnight and kissed my cheek.
That night, there were no zombies, but more pebbles were thrown at the glass, which again, no one else heard. I made my brother sleep by the ranch slider from then on, and checked it was locked three times before lights out.
It was our last day of the holiday. One more sleep, before the long drive home in a hot car. The boy wasn’t in the black cabin, but something stank. Of seaweed, of ocean, something rotten. I stopped and dared to look in. I couldn’t see him, but the smell was rancid. I gagged, glad of the air of the dank path, and the sea.
I couldn’t find my brother when I got down there. He wasn’t in the boatshed. Not in the water. I wondered if he was spying on the nudists, or if he’d just had enough of the water and somehow he’d snuck by. I was in the water when I turned and saw him standing on the beach.
‘I’m going up,’ he called out. ‘You should come too. You’re not meant to be here by yourself.’ I gestured to him, a wave from the ocean: Go on, it said, I’ll be fine. He waved back and started off around the rocks.
I lay on my back, letting the gentle sway rock me, weightless, back, and forth. I could be a part of Grandma’s club, I decided. Easy. I was already a member, I figured. I remembered the strange way the boy looked at me, in a way I didn’t know how to interpret. I ignored the rumble from my stomach. I imagined myself tiny, like a stick, like driftwood, light and floating, like nothing on the ocean.
I was thinking about this, lying, alone on my back, alone on the ocean, when I felt it: an arm of thick kelp around my throat. I assumed it was just my brother playing the Wilberforces. He was prone to pranking and scaring, always somehow without sound.
‘Lincoln!’ I screamed, but the ocean smothered me, the kelp throttling, so it only came out as a gargle. ‘Lincoln!’
I tried to rip the seaweed, but it was firm around my windpipe. I thrashed, but I couldn’t free myself of the kelp, tight now like rope. Was it pulling me under? I panicked, scratching for purchase, gulping in waves. With one last lunge, I yanked the weed from my neck and swam, as best I could, to the shore. After kneeling, and coughing, I packed up my things and headed for the track, for the house, which had never seemed so far away.
I was tired by the time I got to the cabin. I wondered if he’d seen me, the boy. Seen what happened. I lingered near the entrance to the hut.
‘Shhh...‘ A sound came, the boy’s finger in front of his lips. In the dark, his eyes were electric, and he winked at me, beckoning me in.
‘Oi! Lunch.’ My brother yelled from the top of the path.
‘I’m not hungry,’ I called back, and took a step towards the boy and the hut.
‘Oi!’ my brother repeated, and I could tell he had his hands on his hips. ‘Come on!’ he shouted, somehow suddenly at my earhole. Lincoln grasped my elbow, pulling me away just as I was about to step into the black cabin, into the outstretched arms of the boy.
‘Are you okay? Are you sad about Grandma?’ my mother asked after we ate. It was our last lunch. We had snapper and boiled potatoes and buttery baby, mint peas. I picked at my food and stared at the brass belt, pretty and tiny on the wall. I nodded.
‘She would’ve been happy we came for one last holiday. The house will go on the market soon.’
I could see now that Mum didn’t see Grandma and would never be in the club. Not the thin club. Grandma was standing on the deck, arms folded, looking out over the Gulf, to the Point.
‘Does it have to be sold?’ I asked.
‘We can’t afford it,’ Mum said, ‘Besides, Grandma wouldn’t be sad. She’d be glad we’ve had so many happy summers here. Don’t you think?’
I looked at Grandma staring out over the ocean and ran to the bathroom to cry. I didn’t want to tell them what had happened at the beach with the Wilberforces, and the seaweed, and the clubhouse.
I tried to thin myself in the mirror, one last time. But it was broken, my reflection fractured and fluid, like the slip of a fish in the waves. I was still standing there when the door creaked.
‘Let’s get going,’ Mum said, from the doorway.
‘What happened to the mirror?’ I asked, feeling caught, my heart hammering.
‘I always hated that mirror. Let’s go. We’ll stop for a scone on the way back.’
‘Okay,’ I said. My stomach groaned in agreement. I went over and gave Mum a very long hug, and we closed the door and left.
On the drive home I mentioned the house again.
‘I wouldn’t want to buy it, even if we could afford it,’ Mum repeated.
I thought about Grandma, her thin silhouette on the deck, how sad she seemed, all the memories like ribbons lost to the wind.
‘Why not? It’s got its own private access down to the beach!’ I exclaimed.
‘Exactly,’ Mum said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Having things that other people don’t isn’t always a good thing.’
I dropped it because I could hear the wobble in Mum’s voice. I felt guilty I’d upset her, assuming it was because I’d not let it go. Dad put his hand on Mum’s thigh while Lincoln sighed accusingly.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked Mum. ‘Are you sad about Grandma?’
‘Not Grandma, but yes, of course, I’m sad about Grandma. I’ll miss Grandma, but she lived a long, and mostly, happy life.’
We kept driving, the word ‘mostly’ circling the car, until we forgot about it. We were another half an hour or so in, not far from the turn-off, when out of the sky hurtled a hunk of black sand. It smashed onto the windscreen. Mum screamed. After Dad whooshed it off with the wipers, he said it reminded him of a story. ‘Did I tell you about that time a seagull dropped a fish on our windscreen? When I was young. My father almost drove off the road.’
We all laughed. ‘That’s the only way I’m going to catch a fish today, my father said.’ And then it was Mum’s turn to put her a hand on Dad’s thigh. Telling stories about his father always made my dad teary, and he’d only been trying to lighten the mood. Mum smiled, but I knew deep-down she was upset about the house, about Grandma dying, no matter what she said.
Then suddenly Mum started crying, and for once, I felt like I was right about something.
‘I was thinking about that boy,’ she said, before turning to me, her eyes shiny and wet. ‘There was a boy. We were friends. I’ve been thinking about what you said, about the cabin. We built a hut once in the bush and called it a clubhouse. We were about your age. He lived next door, an only child. He drowned.’
The story came out in a rush, like she’d been bottling it up all her life, and now uncorked, it flowed out of her and away downstream. She turned back to look out the window.
‘Was he nice. Your friend?’
‘He was,’ she murmured, as a hawk took off from a fencepost with something wriggling in its talons. We were all uncomfortable then, even Dad, who did a big focus on the road.
Everyone except for the boy with blue eyes, who, when I turned to my right, was staring straight at me. He winked, excited to be driving to his new home.