The deck slides sickeningly sideways and I cling to the railing as we slip down a lump in the ocean. My fingers feel corrosion.

The graveyard where we’d watched the sun slip down is in front of me as Bill brings the boat up into the wind. I stand above the suddenly silent propeller, hearing the anchor rattle loose up front.

I imagine us there under the trees, Paula reading the inscriptions out loud. I’d have been content to lie on the grass that soporific summer, watching the sunset and dreaming of a cold-dewed bottle, the beer sliding down in one long sigh.

But for Paula the cemetery was a book to be shared, bleak chapters etched on headstones in simple words. There were heroic stories in those lichen-stained blocks of concrete cement-dredged from the bay’s coral floor. Stories of smallpox and quarantine; of dreams slow-dying across a thousand kilometres of ocean to end in open-sored awareness a bay’s width short of the promised land; stories too of lives sacrificed to the hopeless cause of healing.

The sea had been shimmering silver shot with blue as squint-eyed we’d watched boats thread the inshore channel, wakes sucking at the sand as the sun spun out of control towards the horizon. Messages passed softly through our sweat-linked fingers; tiny currents, gentle pressures.

Today the sea is sick-green streaked grey with rain-wash, my face crusted from our brutal passage. I look without seeing as the clouds dump their burden and flee across the sky to where the manes of white horses blend with the horizon.

Bill hands me the urn with its screw-on top. “It’s time,” he says.

“Thanks mate.” He knows it means a whole lot more. He turns away, leaving me to what must be done.

I’ve come this far, to the channel where the sun silently extinguished itself as we watched from the graveyard. But can I do as she asked? There should be ceremony, wise words from somebody who understands. But there’s just me on the stern and Bill up front, not intruding. And there’s the wind which plucks at my sleeve as if trying to take her from my hands. “Not now,” I want to yell at the wind. “I’m not ready.”

But I am as ready as I’ll ever be and I watch from outside myself as my white, cold hands screw the top from the brass bottle and expose her to the air.

There is no miracle, no magical rising to heaven of a spirit set free.

I step to the rail and in one movement upend the bottle over the stern, consigning her to the sea, imagining it blue and calm, and her spreading gently across its surface, morphing to its summer warmth.

A freak of wind plucks her from the jar, swirls and she’s in my face, my hair.

“Fuck!” She is grit in my eyes, dirty spit in my mouth. Her powdery touch becomes grey mud as she mixes with my skin.

“Get her off me!” My tight-shut eyes hear Bill pound across the deck. “Get some water. Get her the fuck off me.” 

He flounders about, the sound of the plastic piss bucket going over the side on its length of rope, coming up, spilling on the deck. Then the water’s in my face, icy cold over my head, and I can feel her running down my arms, dripping from my fingers and away.

“More,” I gasp, still not daring to open my eyes. And this time when I hear the bucket I reach for it, scooping its coolness, feeling the bite of the salt as I open myself to it. Everything is blurred, burning and blurred with the grittiness of her and of the salt and of my shock as I pound the water upwards, cupped palms smashing it against my eyes.

“Shit but that was stupid.” I look at Bill and there’s a half-smile on the blur of his face. Then we’re both laughing, laughing hysterically as I cough and spit her from my mouth and, filling the bucket again, systematically wash her from my wet clothing; from inside my ears; from the back of my neck, just in case she’s lodged there too. Then I wash the deck, as if the rain won’t do it soon enough, wash every trace of her over the side, into the water where she wanted to be.

I’m losing it big time and the laughs have turned to sobs before I’ve finished. Bill watches in silence as I run my course.

“I need a beer,” I manage at last.

A longer extract from this book is available free at



Sample from the story Mates’ Rates

Short fiction with a bite.