At precisely three-thirty a.m. Ruth Boggs stepped from the air-conditioned arrivals hall into the stifling Perth night. She wheeled her suitcase to the taxi rank and, as she waited in line for a cab, she watched a young man walking towards her. Broad-shouldered and lean, he reminded Ruth of the Kiwi guy who made her coffee at the Redchurch Street cafe back in East London, and she spent a moment imagining what he’d look like naked. When he came and stood behind her in line, Ruth turned to him and said:
‘Uh… Thank you,’ he answered.
‘I love the white swoosh on red,’ she said, pointing at the Nike tick emblazoned on the side of his cherry-red shoe.
'Yeah,' he said, looking nervously down the queue of people waiting.
'Would you like to share a cab? I mean, only if you want to. It's just that, well, it's expensive to get taxis in Perth.’
‘Yeah, I know. I live here.’
‘Really? Wow, me too. Well, sort of. I mean, I’m from here but I live in London. I still call Perth home, though.’
That last bit wasn’t quite true, Ruth thought. After four years away she wasn’t really sure where she belonged any more. Even growing up in Perth she’d felt unsettled, like she ought to have been somewhere else.
The taxis crawled towards them and the number of people waiting in line dwindled.
'How about it?' Ruth persisted, nodding towards the next cab.
‘I don’t usually get into cars with strange girls.’
She laughed and pulled out the elastic that held her long, brown hair in a knot on the top of her head. She tipped her head back and shook out her hair flirtatiously.
‘That’s what they all say,’ she said.
‘Is that so?’
‘Not really, but I’m not so strange, you know.’
‘Yeah? Well I’m not kidding. Enjoy your stay,’ he said, and took the next cab.
She wound down the taxi window and let the night comfort her as it slipped around her shoulders. The smell of the Swan River wafted in as the car cut along Riverside Drive between the brewery and the limestone cliff that balanced Kings Park on its head. Shags sat on pylons jutting out from the river in the murky pre-dawn light. Mortem Bay fig trees reached out over the water.
Her parents had cleared out the fridge before they left for Bali, but there were still a few cans of Indian tonic, familiar and yellow, and the stub of a lemon inside. An ice tray was buried under some frozen bread and she twisted out a couple of cubes into the waiting glass of gin. A block of cheese loitered in the fridge door and she chiselled some off to have with a water biscuit. She sipped the gin and tonic and noticed breadcrumbs floating in the drink.
The alcohol crawled up the back of her head and settled between her eyes like she’d been smacked in the nose. She felt sick, her hair greasy, her skin dry and her legs swollen from the flight. The clock in the hall ticked on towards five, echoing in the silence of the house, dark except for the glow of the kitchen light above the high bench where she sat. She crept down the hallway and shivered with cold despite the heat of the night. Opening her bedroom window, she breathed in the scent of Norfolk pines and frangipanis. Her mother hadn’t bothered making the bed but she’d left a pile of folded linen that smelled like the baked air underneath the lemon-scented gum, and Ruth lay down the bottom sheet and fitted a pillowslip. Outside the light was becoming grainy and the colours shifted as dawn approached.
‘Look away, look back and everything’s changed,’ the new day seemed to say. ‘Years of running away and here you are back again.’
As much as things change, they stay the same.
Children playing on the lawn next door woke her too early. The little girl was pretending to be famous, making her brothers pursue her like the paparazzi. Ruth lay in the heat of the room willing herself back to sleep in vain until she finally got up and made coffee. She sat on the steps leading down from the veranda flicking through old copies of The Australian, which her parents collected. They would dip into them over and again, finding something new to remark on every time. Ruth stretched out her white legs in the sun and listened to the families making their way down the hill to the beach where the waves shifted in gently. The drone of a plane came and went as it kept a lookout for the long, dark shadows of sharks among the swimmers.
A wooden fence separated her parents’ back yard from the neighbouring block. Through the slats in the fence, Ruth could see the old woman who lived there kneeling on a battered windcheater in the shade of the pistachio tree, pulling out weeds that grew up between the bricks in her courtyard. Crickets sat in the garden, rubbing their legs together and doves spoke to each other softly in the pines above. A Japanese wind chime turned in the breeze, stirring in Ruth a quiet panic as she thought the sea breeze might be on its way in already. As a child, she’d hated swimming when the ocean was roughed up by the relentless south-westerly – the Fremantle Doctor, as it was called – and now she’d always try and get down to the beach before the maddening wind arrived. Sometimes she wondered if this force of nature had gradually uprooted her, blowing her half way around the world to England – that small, unhappy island where she now lived and endured a whole other set of infuriating weather patterns. She fretted about never feeling settled.
'You just need to find a nice Perth boy and everything will fall into place,' her mother had told her.
Ruth thought her mother had a point.
She found an old straw hat of her father’s and a bath towel that might once have been white. Shady peppermint trees shuffled above her as she walked along the path towards the beach. They fell back as she reached the top of the hill and below her the Indian Ocean stretched right the way across her view, butting up against the sky where Rottnest Island balanced on the horizon. Swimmers crawled slowly along the edge of the sea from Cottesloe to Grant Street, staying close to the shore. Bathers stood up to their knees looking into the water. Sunbathers propped themselves up on their elbows so they too could see the sea. She walked down to the Grant Street entrance where a man was rinsing off sand and salt under the shower at the top of the steps. Beside him a little boy washed his feet under the tap. A round-bellied man wearing nothing but blue and white striped Speedos and a cricket hat came up the steps.
‘G’day,’ he acknowledged Ruth.
‘G’day,’ she answered.
The water was colder than she’d expected, the sensation of it amplified by fatigue, and she felt her skin prickle up, covered in goose bumps. She swam long strokes of freestyle, watching the beach as she breathed on that side, watching the horizon on the other. Every now and again she looked ahead to check she wasn’t just about to swim into someone. Sometimes she opened her eyes underwater and saw the sandy seabed below, panicking if she saw the dark shapes of rocks or seaweed. Once or twice, she felt the long, burning tentacles of a jellyfish stinger brush her arm or neck, making her stop suddenly, before she continued on.
She swam to where her feet could touch the sand. A young woman standing on the beach, holding a child by his hands so he might walk, looked towards her, and away again. Ruth made her way through the shallows and back up the beach.
In the cafes that looked over the ocean, the sound of cutlery on crockery and chairs scraping on polished concrete cut through the air. She lay in the warmth on the bath towel, which wasn’t long enough for her legs. Her skin was tight and tingling from the salt that felt like it was forming crystals on her surface in the sun. A stinger welt on her arm was lumpy and pink. Under her hat it was dark and not seeing made the Australian accents around her more pronounced. She lay there listening, wondering how much of her Australian accent she’d lost in the years she’d been away, and if she’d gained the affectation of an English one. After a while, the heat on her skin was all she could think of, so she rose and shook her towel free of sand and thought the sea breeze might be on its way.
She walked along the beach past the reef at North Cottesloe and the red and yellow lifesaving flags. A black Labrador, hair curled from the salt, puffed along behind its owner. Ruth walked on the firm sand where the waves pushed into the shore more determinedly now. She watched a group of girls with sleek limbs and brown skin, and looked down at her own milky legs that were turning pink on the tops.
At Cottesloe beach, tourists bobbed in the swell where the ocean got trapped up against the groin. The waves broke against the bell – a large, bottle-shaped structure cemented into the sea. Local boys grasped for the red rope that trailed off the side and scraped their feet on the barnacled wall to get a foothold, waiting for the next wave to push them onto the curve of its neck. Once up, they back-flipped off, flicking their hair out of their eyes as they burst out of the waves.
A few people had settled in for the day on the wide, grassy steps up off the sand where Ruth and her sister used to eat fish and chips and drink red wine as the sun slid into the sea. The last time was before Ruth had left for London: her sister had just become engaged and the dying sun grasped at her diamond ring and spun off again as she picked the batter off the fish carefully. The sea breeze had come in and was scattering sand on their food.
‘Why don’t you just eat the batter? Ruth had said. ‘It’s not like we have fish and chips every day.’
‘Looks like you do,’ her sister had replied.
The front bar of the Ocean Beach Hotel stretched its windows wide to air out its armpits and the stale smell that stuck to the floors. Guys in tank-tops and girls in bathers with towels wrapped around their waists lent their bare feet against the window frames to look out over the beach as they settled in for cold beers and an afternoon of ‘let’s see where it takes us’. A pair of red Nikes rested on a chair. Ruth climbed the hill to her parents’ house and looked back to the beach. The light shone fiercely off the sand and water as the ocean started its dance, twirling its dark skirts as the sea breeze slapped across it, making its way in.
Ocean Beach Hotel
Cottesloe, Western Australia 6011
+61 8 9384 2555