Short story: The Shark Bell - Part 2

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Petra's story concludes in Part 2 of The Shark Bell by R.L. Stedman.

‘‘Hello?’’ said a voice. Petra opened her eyes. Beside her stood a fit-looking man, about her age with a concerned expression and a large, curly-haired dog on a leash.

The house was different. It was older. I’m sorry, do I sound like an idiot?

‘‘Are you all right? Can I help you?’’

‘‘I think. It’s just . . . ’’ She put her hand to her forehead. Yesterday things had been so great, yet now it seemed she’d made up a fantasy.

The dog barked and pulled toward the gate. ‘‘Tiny!’’ said the man. ‘‘Stop that!’’

‘‘Tiny?’’ she asked, for Tiny stood as high as her waist.

‘‘I know, makes no sense, right? Look, I have to go before she goes mental. But you don’t look well. Sorry, that sounds rude. Can I call someone for you?’’ He resisted the dog’s tugging. ‘‘Get you something? A glass of water, perhaps?’’

Petra smiled shakily. ‘‘I don’t know . . .’’

‘‘Tiny!’’ he said, as the dog jumped at the gate. He pushed it open. ‘‘You really look like you need to sit down. Come in, won’t you?’’ The lead jerked from his hand as Tiny raced down the path to the back of the house. ‘‘I’m Martin.’’

She smiled briefly. ‘‘Petra. I was here yesterday, but I . . .’’

‘‘You were? When?’’

‘‘The house was different. It was older. I’m sorry, do I sound like an idiot? He loaned me some clothes. I’m returning them.’’ She lifted the shopping bag.

‘‘He?’’

Martin ushered her along the concrete path to the back door. There stood an old boot. Numbly unsurprised, Petra watched Martin pick it up and tip a key into his hand.

Inside, the kitchen had shiny stone benchtops, grey-green cupboard doors and a high springy faucet. Only the espresso machine was familiar.

Martin pulled out a stool from the kitchen bar. ‘‘Sit down. Please.’’

Petra perched on the bar stool. This all felt unreal.

‘‘Water?’’

She nodded and swallowed. Hoped she wouldn’t be sick.

Martin poured her a water from the fridge and another one for himself, then sat beside her. His eyes seemed kind. ‘‘Clothes,’’ he said. ‘‘You said something about returning clothes.’’

‘‘Yes. Damien —’’

Martin’s eyes widened. ‘‘Damien?’’

‘‘ — loaned me some. Mine were a mess. I spilled coffee all over —’’ She indicated her top.

‘‘He was kind. He had a machine just like this.’’ She gestured to the espresso machine.

Martin had a strange expression on his face. ‘‘What did this Damien look like?’’

‘‘Um, he had blond hair. Blue eyes. Tall. He’s a surfer. You know him?’’

Martin’s stool tumbled sideways.

‘‘What is it? Did I say something?’’

‘‘I’ll be right back.’’ A second later he returned, carrying a photo frame. ‘‘Is this him?’’

There in the photo stood Damien, smiling, with his arm around the shoulder of a boy, aged about 6.

‘‘Yes. That’s him. May I?’’

She examined the photo closely. It was definitely Damien, but something about the clothes of the boy, the faded light suggested the image was years old. ‘‘Who is the boy? His son?’’

Martin shook his head. ‘‘It’s me.’’

‘‘I don’t understand.’’

‘‘Damien was my cousin.’’

She blinked. Was?

‘‘This photo was taken, oh, about 40 years ago.’’

‘‘I don’t . . .’’ She pressed the cold glass of water to her face. Couldn’t process — it was too much.

Martin was still talking. ‘‘My aunt and uncle lived here, in the old house, and I was always visiting. Damien was so cool . . . I wanted to be just like him’’ He shook his head. ‘‘His parents, though were strict. Old-fashioned. And well, Damien was always bringing girls home. They used to have awful fights. The last one . . .’’ He shook his head.

‘‘If you don’t want to talk about it.’’

‘‘No, no. It’s OK. Damien was showing me how to wax a surfboard and Uncle Brian stormed out of the house.’’ He laughed, looking away, back into the past. ‘‘Old Uncle Brian was waving lace knickers that he’d found in Damien’s room, and yelling. He called Damien a hell-bound sinner; told him he had to leave. Then Damien stabbed a finger into Uncle Brian’s chest. ‘Hell-bound am I? Good. Because if your God is anything like you, I want nothing to do with him.’ He picked up his board and walked off to the beach.’’ Martin stopped, his eyes far away.

‘‘What happened?’’

‘‘That was in the morning. About lunchtime the shark bell rang. I ran up to the Esplanade, saw a bunch of people shouting, and a bunch of surfers, hanging about on the sand. Someone shouted something about a shark.’’

‘‘For real?’’

He nodded. ‘‘Yeah. A Great White had been spotted off the point. The beach was pretty chaotic, you can imagine. About then, I realised Damien wasn’t on the sand with the others. And he’d been surfing around the point, near where the shark had been seen.’’ Martin sighed. ‘‘Later, we found his board. Broken in half.’’

Petra put a hand over her mouth, heaved back nausea.

‘‘Hey! Are you OK?’’

‘‘Your bathroom! I’m going to be — ’’ Petra staggered to her feet, stool toppling behind her.

‘‘Here,’’ he said, opening the door.

She just made it to the toilet in time. Afterward she rested; porcelain cold under her skin.

‘‘You OK?’’ Martin squatted beside her. ‘‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.’’

‘‘Petra,’’ she said wanly. ‘‘It’s Petra.’’

‘‘Nice to meet you.’’

‘‘Is it? Really?’’

‘‘Well,’’ he said, eyeing the toilet, ‘‘it could be in better circumstances. Come on.’’ He helped her to her feet.

He poured another glass of water for her and she sipped it, welcoming its coldness. Surely this couldn’t have been the Damien she met. No, that was stupid. Crazy talk.

Martin was still telling her about his cousin. ‘‘Uncle Brian went first — a heart attack. After Aunt Marge passed away, I bought the property.’’

‘‘And Damien?’’

‘‘No-one, not his friends or his girlfriends, ever saw him again.’’

‘‘That’s so sad.’’

‘‘I’m not an imaginative type,’’ Martin said, after a pause. ‘‘I’m an engineer. I deal in numbers, right? But something happened to me once. It was about a year after Damien disappeared: I was out swimming with my dog and got caught in a rip. I tried not to panic. I knew the best way is to swim sideways to the beach. Well, I swam, but it was so damn hard. You ever have that feeling that you’re powerless?’’

Petra nodded, thinking of her marriage.

‘‘I knew I’d never make it back. The beach was so far away. I was coughing, swallowing water. My lungs were burning. Then, as I was going under, I felt a board and heard Damien’s voice. It’s OK, mate. I’ve got you. When I looked up . . .’’ He raised his hand, as though to shield his gaze from the sun. ‘‘I couldn’t see his face; he was so bright, dazzling. Perhaps I was hallucinating. Anyway, someone heaved me on to a surfboard and paddled me into the shallows . . . I’ve never told anyone this.’’
Petra swallowed.

‘‘I’m going to have a drink. Something strong.’’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘‘You?’’

‘‘Yes, please.’’

‘‘In here,’’ he said, leading her into a sitting room furnished with antique tables, gold and white sofas and a large gilt-framed mirror. A Christmas tree stood in one corner, a lop-sided and dusty angel at its tip. Despite the decorations, the room had an air of emptiness.

Martin straightened the angel. In the mirror, his eyes were sad. ‘‘Since Francie, my wife passed away, I hardly bother about Christmas. I try to make an effort, but . . .’’
‘‘I’m sorry about your wife.’’

Martin went to the drink cabinet. ‘‘Rum?’’

She stopped. Had she truly made out with a ghost? Damien hadn’t felt like a ghost; he’d felt alive and warm and lovely. The angel on the tree . . . its wings. So white. She touched them gently.

‘‘Petra? What are you thinking?’’

‘‘I think I’ll have that drink.’’

The brown liquid burned all the way down. She plucked the angel from the tree, stared closely at its tiny face. Was it winking at her?

‘‘Damien had scars,’’ she said slowly. ‘‘On his back. As though someone had cut something from him.’’ As Martin came up beside her, she set the angel down on the sideboard. Yes, it was definitely winking. ‘‘He came to your rescue. He rescued me, too. He was kind. I think he was an angel. I think his scars were from his wings.’’
She expected Martin to laugh at her, but he just nodded, as though she made perfect sense.

‘‘When we made out, Damien and I . . .’’

Martin looked surprised, and then he grinned. ‘‘What!? You actually made out?’’

Suddenly Petra felt the same frisson that she’d felt with Damien. She put her hand on his chest. ‘‘Actually, you remind me of him.’’

What had Damien said? You’ll find happiness. I guarantee it.

Martin took her hand and held it tight. ‘‘I’m not him.’’

‘‘You don’t have to be.’’ Petra kissed Martin hard, on his open mouth. He tasted of rum and coffee, he felt good; felt right.

On the sideboard, the winking Christmas angel shimmered; its robes glowed white. Petra and Martin stared at it, at each other.

And then the angel was gone.

- Rachel Stedman is an award-­winning author of fantasy fiction. Her website is www.rlstedman.com. The Shark Bell features in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology presenting short stories with a Dunedin setting.

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