Instalment 8: pages 32-36 [Elliot arrives at Danielle's coast house, hoping to find Marina]
The place had a warmth about it: constructed by a carpenter-grandfather during Danielle’s childhood, it was all unfinished timber, and home-made furniture assembled from heavy planks. The wood shone smooth from three generations’ use. Every second-best, slightly ratty, novel, board game, jigsaw or comfy chair from four branches of the family had been retired to the place, along with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of serviceable bedding. The house itself on one side was level with the road, while stilts prevented it falling down the steep slope on the other.
“Hello, anyone here?” I asked, knocking on the door. I stood on Danielle’s folks’ veranda, amidst the eucalypt litter and hoped I’d recognised the car up the road. The vehicle wasn’t Marina’s and it was going to be embarrassing if some unknown burly uncle answered the door.
“Bloody hell,” said Danielle. “What are you doing here Elliot?”
Even in daggy old tracksuit pants and an outsized flannelette shirt probably inherited from a boyfriend, Danielle was a knockout. Mid height, lithe, lightly freckled across the nose, a pleasantly tapering face governed by cobalt eyes and capped with curling sandy hair. I wondered if I’d ever spoken to her alone before.
“Hi,” I answered. “I had yesterday off and came down to Bateman’s with a mate, thought I’d drop in on Marina before I trundled home. I knew I couldn’t call ahead, so - ”
She cut off my unconvincing spiel before I dug myself in too deep.
“Marina?” she said, frowning. “She hasn’t come down since New Year’s.”
“Oh, well that’s not what her mother told me,” I answered truthfully. “Daphne must have got the wrong end of the stick.”
“Well, it’s funny you’re here,” she answered. “I’d put an e-mail round asking if anyone wanted to come for a bit of an extended weekend break with me, but no-one could. Sorry I didn’t include you.”
“But you decided to come down anyway, though, obviously,” I said, trailing off into awkward silence.
“Yeah, for some quiet time.”
“Sorry to be intruding.”
“Not at all,” she laughed. “Your mate headed back to Canberra?”
“Separate cars. He didn’t feel comfortable about tagging along while I dropped in on an ex - ”
“Who he didn’t know anyway,” she finished, nodding. “Not that Marina’s here, anyway. Well, if you don’t have plans you’re welcome to keep me company – I’m going back late tomorrow.”
“Umm, sure. I still have my overnight bits and pieces.”
“Great. I was just about to take a walk along the beach before dinner. Join me?”
Walking down the hill from the house, through a path knotty and tangled with tree roots, we reached the muddy goat’s track leading down to the beach. The beach steps were shallow things, hacked into the cliff. Guerrilla Bay itself was as good as I remembered: a simple crescent of melon with a rind of eucalyptus scrub. Sheltering arms of headland embraced a millpond-still bay where the sea flopped meekly on the shore. In summer, you could float indefinitely on its surface, the sun glaring down. Now, in winter the sea was slatey, and a firm wind tousled our collars and the distant whitecaps past the headland, but the slowly lowering western sun was serenely warm.
“Any reason to be down here for quiet time?” I asked.
“Not really, just a break. Thinking a few things through.”
“Uh huh. Work, friends or a boy?”
She laughed: “The answer is ‘D’, I’m afraid, all of the above!”
“Wow. Sounds like I really have been out of the gossip loop.”
“Not so much,“ she answered, “we’ve just been keeping different company lately.”
“Have you been hanging out with the Hamilton Row crowd?” I asked.
“I’ve been to a fair few TNDs I guess, yeah.”
“I’ve been told Jenny from Marina’s office is worth getting to know.”
“Sure, ” said Danielle, “She’s really friendly.”
“Gorgeous. Red hair, oval face, fantastic colouring. Gets away with tartan leggings and a burgundy coat as business wear.”
“Sounds a bit over the top,” I said.
“Not the way she does it,” answered Danielle. “Earthy, wine coloured, not clownish.”
I knew her now, the girl hugging Marina in the photograph, all smiles and red curls. The same girl in the Minister’s press conference photo.
“Who told you she was cute?” asked Danielle.
“Ah, just so long as you don’t think she’s trying to set you up.”
“So Jenny’s taken?”
“More of a lady’s lady,” Danielle replied.
We wandered back to dinner. Danielle, over my protestations, made a miracle little dish from packet ravioli, peas and tuna tinned in oil. It looked like left-overs as she threw it together but tasted fantastic. She found some tinned soup for a starter and poured red wine against the evening chill stealing into the air. I was soon making a beer-run to the nearest township, where I also picked up some bits and pieces for dessert.
We played some scrabble and started on the beer. Part of me suspected I should be doing more to justify Carmichael’s money, but I was feeling too comfortable just hanging out with Danielle to talk business. Evening rolled in and we took our remaining beers down onto an outcrop of rocks just visible from the lounge room. You don’t realise living in a city, even one as leafy and sprawling as Canberra, how dirty the night sky is with light pollution. Looking up from the beach, the night’s canopy was shot-through with stars. We talked of irrelevancies and huddled together on the rock like penguins. I felt something turn over in my gut, followed by the strong urge to reach out and tip her face around to meet mine. Instead I nursed my beer between my feet and sat on my hands, forlornly trying to stave off the cold.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“My hands,” I answered. “They get cold easily, even swimming in summer. They turn blue under the nails really fast.”
She reached out and plucked one hand from under my thigh, drawing it out by the wrist. She examined my fingers, but it was hard to see their colour in the dark.
“I hadn’t really noticed,” she said. “But you’ve got long fingers for a heavy guy.”
“Careful on the heavy,” I said, thinking about the beer and my waistline.
“Don’t get prickly on me,” she said, slapping my leg reprovingly. She glanced at my fingers again. “You used to play piano, didn’t you?”
“For a while.”
“Who’s your favourite pianist?”
“Oscar Peterson,” I answered, and looked at her blank expression. “Jazz.”
“Ah,” she answered. “I only really know a bit of Duke Ellington.”
“A bit different,” I said. “Ellington loved a jazz orchestra: gave all his players a chance to show their strengths. Peterson liked small group stuff, and he had more technique than most pianists would know what to do with. He threw out enough sound for a dozen guys. He’ll avalanche you with notes, but every one’s in place, distinct as cut glass. It’s pointillism in sound: up close there’s too many little bits, but once you relax and step back – ”
“You get the picture,” finished Danielle, leaning in close and brushing back some of my hair.
We stayed that way a moment, as frozen as awkward teenagers. Then she shuddered.
“Now I’m cold. Come on,” she said.
The tide had crept in around us, we had to dance back to shore with black water sucking at our ankles – eating up into the legs of our jeans. Danielle squealed and laughed, I roared as the freezing water bit into me. We dashed back to the house, scraping and banging nerveless feet against rocks, twigs, roots and everything else the night can conceal.