IT FEELS GOOD to have the sun on him. To press his body into the sand, the hot wind across his bare skin finally drying out the open sores across his back, and across the backs of his arms and his legs.
He stretches his arms out ahead of him and kneads lazy fistfuls of the sand. Breathes its baked salt smell through the damp shirt, which he'd taken off and folded to lay his head on, avoiding the constellations of dried blood. He lets out a low moan. Muffled by the shirt it sounds almost sexual, but there is no one close enough to hear. The tourist season has been over for a month, the nightclub closed and the long bronze girls gone, and he had not been embarrassed to peel the clothes away from his damaged skin.
THE SORES APPEARED a day or two after he got out of the tank, and were still weeping when he came back east. The medics didn't know what to tell him. A reaction to the chemicals and salts they used to keep the water clean, maybe. They'd never seen anything like it. He'd been told it was better not to dress them, and the fabric of the long-sleeve shirts that he wore to hide them stuck to the broken skin. Coming back, he had steeled himself for the questions. First there would be how? and then, almost certainly, why? Why would you put yourself through that? Are you fucking crazy?
The questions would come mostly from Ella's friends. They were all like that, her friends. Quick to slag off the ADF; quicker still to scrabble for any gory morsel he might throw them. They wanted water-boarding, starvation, dogs. They wanted to tell him how barbaric it all was.
Yeah, well, he'd tell them. They're not prepping us for a crafternoon.
He'd stopped trying to explain the how and the why; they would always twist it somehow, use it against him. Use it to turn Ella against him. Ella used to call them off, change the subject. Talk about the Rilke quotes that cluttered his letters from Afghanistan. Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror... But these days she just watched to see what he'd say. To see how long it took him to stand up, drain his beer and throw her the keys to his car. Might see you back at the ranch, El – and he'd barrel home through the night air, walking beside the rail lines with his hands balled up in his pockets and the sound of the freight trains humming through the tracks. He knew how they talked about him when he was out of the room. Thought he was violent; that he had to be, to have been where he'd been.
WHEN HE CAME back from selection she was waiting in the kitchen of his flat. He set his gear down on the floor and she stood up.
So that's it, then?
That's it for now.
But you said if you failed...
I didn't fail – I just didn't pass. Medical release, he said, unbuttoning his shirt to show her.
My god, Laith. You let them do that to you?
It just happened. It's no one's fault. I can apply again next year.
No. I mean, yes, you can, you can do whatever you want. But I'm not going to wait for you next time.
It was his turn to say something but there wasn't anything. A freight train screamed past, and the building shuddered as though it might shake apart. He counted the shipping containers. Thought about the stories friends had told him about riding them, not caring where they were headed, strapping themselves to the ladder rails so they didn't roll off while they slept.
AFTER ELLA WALKED out he drove seven hours down to Rosslyn Bay, and stood waiting at the pier until the first ferry arrived.
When he was seven or eight his father had brought him here. The most beautiful place in the country, he'd said. You catch a glass-bottomed boat across and you can ride in the boom nets. But the island wasn't the way his father remembered it. There was something pretend about the place, Laith knew, and they spent the day hiding their disappointment from each other as they moved among the throngs of sunburnt Brits. Lunch was fish and chips eaten wordlessly in the glare of white plastic furniture, the families around them squealing, scolding, his father's enthusiasm slipping into something tight-jawed and desperate. Another thing he'd planned for, saved up for, that had fallen on its face. Laith wanted to tell him it was okay, but he didn't know how. Later he'd sliced his foot open on an oyster rock while snorkelling. His father picked the pieces of shell out of the cut with a pair of borrowed tweezers, and somehow things had gotten easier after that. On the way back to the mainland the boat passed over a fever of stingrays, and the sight of them through the glass was enough to colour everything else, and outstrip it.
IT WAS ONE of the things he'd remembered while inside the tank. Remembered or dreamt it; after the first day or so there was less and less difference between the two. He knew he'd have time to think about a lot of things inside the tank, and he'd saved them up in the months prior to selection. Someone had said it would feel like weeks in there, that blokes who'd nailed all the physical stuff – the twenty clicker and the retraining sessions – were tapping out before the end of the second day, signing their Withdrawal at Own Request forms while their hands were still wet. Laith slipped into the blood-warm water and they closed the lid on him.
The door of the tank would not be locked: they had been emphatic about that. He could climb out whenever he wanted, though he knew that would mean going home early. If he climbed out to piss he'd be going home early. They would open the tank – this happened eight times, though he could not tell if there was any regularity to it – and when they did he would be overwhelmed by the smell of their skin and their breath. They checked his eyes and asked whether he'd had enough yet, before closing the lid on him again. They never told him how long it had been, though once they gave him water and he figured he must be halfway through.
IT WASN'T COLD in the tank. It wasn't anything. Just black and silent, and he was alone with the aching for rest he'd had since he got there. He'd kept a mental list of things that needed sorting out. But it was his son who kept returning; a recurrence that seemed measured, as though he were walking up and down a small rise, coming in and out of view. He would be five now, nearly six. She'd called him Oscar, and some nights Laith would stay up online and look through Angela's Facebook albums while Ella was sleeping. No birthday cards, Angela had told him, her arm across her swollen belly. No phone calls, nothing at all. But she hadn't hidden him away. Here were the birthday parties, the trips to the snow. The everyday snapshots with dogs and bicycles. Laith had watched him grow up from behind one-way glass.
I won't ask you for anything, ever, she said. And I won't make him hate you. But I don't want him to have what I had. What both of us had.
I didn't mind it. It didn't do me any harm.
You did. And it did.
What are you going to tell him?
I'll tell him the truth.
And the truth is?
That I thought it was for the best.
Ange...this is stupid. We can fix this.
She'd closed her eyes then. Other people are going to have to make up for all the wrong we've done to each other, she said, her voice steady and her palms flat against the table.
But no one had, at least not for him. No one had made up for any of it. When they finally let him out of the tank he stood naked on shaky legs and knew all of it for what it was.
THE BREEZE COMING off the ocean has cooled when he lifts himself out of the groove he has made in the sand. Every part of him still aching from the fourteen days out west. In the lodge he takes the towels from the bathroom and spreads them across the bed sheets before lying down. Just make the last thing right, his father had told him as they watched the stingrays through the glass floor of the boat. You get the last thing right, and the rest of it doesn't matter so much.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
Fax: +61 7 3735 327