Tess received a curious phone call last week. When she answered, a man's voice came through the static, asking if we'd ever been to Australia. Then he asked if she was alone. Tess is a confident, assertive woman, yet she was afraid. This was the middle of the day, Spring, the street alive with colour. She put the phone down and it rang again. When she came to the door of my study her distress was clear. We went inside. I picked up the receiver and asked who was speaking. Raymond, are you alone? I could feel the pulse in my neck. I said, Yes, we're alone. Are you sure? the man asked. I swore at him. We need you down here, he said, and hung up.
That night was terrible. We held each other and listened. I went through into daylight watching the door.
When I went to the mailbox later that morning there was a small padded bag with Australian stamps on it - different species of birds and fish. I tore it open and found a cassette tape, no card or letter. I went to my study and put the tape into the player.
"The weather and tide were turning. In the gathering dark the jetty looked as though it were about to fold itself away. He could see them arriving through the fog. A watercolour bleed. An ominous, red wash.
She joined him on the stone wall. They’re here, she said.
They did not speak as their old wooden boat knocked into the jetty wood. One remained at the prow, a figurehead peering from under its oilskin hood. The others were standing, hands at their sides, as if awaiting directions. They are here, yes, he said. Then he went to them.
Inside he tended the fire. She made coffee. The others sat around on the floor, legs crossed. He put Miles Davis on. She replaced him with Chet Baker. He looked at her. It doesn’t have to be this way, he said.
The others retired early. They slept on single mattresses he’d dragged in from the shed. When it got too late for talk and music, when all they had to say had been said, he made up the couch. He could hear her in the bathroom. Running water will always remind me of you, he thought. Then he slept.
They had been offered the use of a friend's house on an island. They saw it as a chance to make a last stand against atrophy and pain. They had come to be quiet and still. He hoped to find time for fishing. She’d brought her easel and paints. And then others announced they were coming. They were poets. He knew some of them, others he knew by reputation only. He resented their flamboyant, self-indulgent conversation. Their endless drinking. She hated him for not changing their plans. You could have stopped this, she said. You could have been big enough to say something, or we could have gone somewhere else. He wanted to say that sometimes you just have to let things take their course, but he didn’t. He swallowed his words. And then the others came.
In the morning he found her on the shore, kicking lightly through the tideline - a dark red stain with small bones and broken shells, items of clothing, smooth glass. He walked beside her. Are your friends happy? she asked. He stopped and looked back towards the house. They are out in the yard, making cages from chicken wire, he said. She picked up a cuttlefish husk and snapped it in half. I always thought I’d be there for you, she said. Now I feel so distant. I hate the way I feel. Yes, he said.
By late afternoon, in driving rain, many more arrived. They set up tents in the yard. They made shelters from brushwood and animal skins behind the house. He sat at the kitchen window, staring out at the river. The shallow-water marker bouy bobbed and dragged its chain, its red light pulsing in the gloom. A tap came on and water flowed in the bathroom. Outside someone shouted his name."