Emerging author award: Lynne Cook for Change of Plan

Change of Plan.

By Lynne Cook

‘Des?’ She poked his name tentatively through the open tent flap.

‘Des?’

Nothing. The bush outside hummed softly in the patchy twilight. He’d gone down the track a bit, to answer the call of nature. But that was twenty minutes ago.

What to do? Look for him? Was it some sort of game?

Night was dropping fast. Maybe it was the gumtrees, the scrub. It caught the light somehow, strained it into shadows. It was hard to imagine the ocean was so close. If they hadn’t walked to the cliff edge before pitching the tent she would’ve thought they were in the middle of nowhere. Veiled by the dense scrub, the low rhythmic rumble of the sea was barely thirty metres away.

She hadn’t felt happy about camping so close. Des took her hand as they perched together on the uneven cliff top, the ocean churning through the rocks below. He turned her palm upwards and stroked it slowly, absently. His eyes out to sea, he saw the bird first, cruising southwards across the blue sweep of sky.

‘Magnificent! White bellied sea eagle.’

Pammy pointed an eager finger towards a distant blurred wing. ‘Its mate?’

‘Could be.’

Pammy rested her head on his shoulder.

‘Just think,’ Des’d said. ‘We’ll see the sunrise from here tomorrow.’

Her knees under her chin, arms wrapped around them, Pammy sat in the open triangle of tent flap. She was starting to feel hungry. What if Des’d slipped somewhere?  Had he twisted an ankle? Maybe she should go and have a look.

She hadn’t heard anything. Give him a few minutes more.

Maybe he was expecting her to follow him? He might be waiting on that little rock seat on the cliff watching the last of the sun. What if he was planning something romantic while she squatted in the tent, ignorant as mud? She could have brought the picnic basket.

But it was getting too dark for her. Where was he? Why was he doing this?

Grandy tiptoed into her room. ‘Asleep yet, petal?’

Pammy felt tears slide through her five-year-old eyelashes. Her grandfather gently unfurled her bed clothes and slid his old hand into her pyjama pants.

‘Haven’t wet the bed, have you, petal?’ His raspy voice repeated the question as his fingers felt around. ‘Can’t have you wetting the bed now.’

And finally. ‘Good girl.’

Pammy couldn’t shift a muscle. Her bladder filled until it was a tight balloon in her belly. It pressed so hard and high she panicked she’d bring up her dinner. But that would bring him in again.

One lamb chop and boiled vegetables, every Saturday night when her mum went to the club. She bit down until her tongue leaked.

‘Des?’

She’d given up thinking he’d answer. This was some sort of test. She was sure of it.

‘I’m a survival specialist, Pam.’ Des announced the day they’d met. ‘I’d find you water anywhere. Find you something to eat. The great outdoors, there’s nothing like it.’

Pammy didn’t have the heart to tell him she preferred her recreation on a banana lounge. But Des seemed so keen on her.

‘I’m ex-army’ he’d said proudly. She could imagine him in camouflage in a jungle somewhere, saving people. He was a spare, upright sort of guy. She loved the close cropped stubble of his scalp, his clear grey eyes. Maybe she could finally have the life she’d imagined with the man she’d always dreamt of.

When she first told Jan about Des, her girlfriend was dismissive.

‘Proof of the pudding, Pam. Let’s see how long he hangs around. For God sake, don’t tell him about the money.’

With friends like Jan, Pammy wasn’t sure if she knew what self-esteem was any more. Alright, she did manage to pick them. Every relationship left her with missing parts. But Des was different. If she had to change a tyre on a lonely road at night and Des was the one who stopped to help, she’d thank her lucky stars.

She hadn’t told him about the money at first. But then, what the hell. If it helped him decide to stick around, why not?

And Jan had had to eat her words. After a month Des’d asked, ‘What shall it be, Pam? The coast or the bush? Where do you want to go? I could take you scuba diving. Bushwalking? My shout.’ He was so willing to please.

She had been happy to please him too.

‘A thousand? Are you sure, love? It’s a lot of money. I’ll have it for you next week when the cheque’s cleared.’

And he had, one thousand in fifties. He’d counted them out for her with a chaste, charming kiss on each wrist.

By the time his Subaru broke down she paid for the repairs and they got the Land Rover he’d always wanted. It was for the outback trips they planned. She was starting to feel alive again. Two months and things were great.

Jan was her usual cynical self. ‘I told you not to mention the money, Pam. You’ll never get rid of him now.’

‘Maybe I don’t want to.’ Pam sipped her Friday evening chardonnay.

‘You can’t mean you’re thinking of making him permanent?’

‘Maybe.’

‘For god sake, woman. The man’s got anti-freeze in his veins. Get him into the sack quickly, Pammy. Then you’ll see if he’s for real.’

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been trying. It’d never been this hard with anyone else. She’d be happy to be playing the one hard to get. But when she’d reached for his fly after cursory first kisses on her sofa, Des had pushed her hands away.

 ‘We’ll do this properly, Pam. If you want it, that is. I want to know if you’re serious about me.’

Talk about tables turning.

But to tell the truth it was a relief not to be nibbled or poked at.

When she married The Piranha, she was twenty years old and silly with love. She thought it was romantic when, her legs draped over the pool’s edge at Hamilton Island on their honeymoon, he’d tongued her toes like a sucker fish.

How to explain the sudden rush of panic in her belly?

The Piranha had fancied himself as a lover. A few months after they were married they’d gone to the pictures. On the screen, an American holiday camp, everyone was splashing about on rubber tubes, canoes on the river. One by one, adults and kids screamed and disappeared underwater. Piranha attack! The cinema exploded in waves of laughter.

‘Jeez, it’s not that funny.’ Pammy was almost hysterical until her new husband, steadily chewing gum, bent her fingers back.

The Piranha was born. When he left snail trails of saliva behind her ears, down her neck and belly, Pammy had seen herself in that river with the other campers, surrendering herself to tiny, greedy mouths underwater. She let herself be eaten, lying back, muscles passive, dissolving in the acid of love.

It hadn’t been a surprise really when the Piranha started feeding elsewhere.

‘Pammy, you’re frigid,’ he’d said. ‘I know how to please a woman. And you are one great boring log in the sack.’

After that Pam felt there wasn’t much left of her to be nibbled on. The bit that was left was jubilant when the Piranha left and moved in with the girl from the corner drycleaners.

But skin can grow back. Cell by cell, Pammy had found her shape again. She moved interstate, but not far enough to elude Jan who decided she’d come and help her in the new florist and card shop. After the florist’s came the solarium, the pet shop, the cafe. Pam worked her way along the street, shop by shop, managing customers and staff, her fingers magic with money, Jan one step behind.

Pam fantasised about running into The Piranha and waving a huge cheque in his face. Rub his nose in it. She was no half woman, good only for regular invasions of body parts. If Grandy had still been alive, she would have marched him to the police station and blown his drooling cover once and for all.

So why was she sitting scared and alone in the bush?

On her honeymoon, for godsake.

‘This is just for us, not anyone else.’ Des said when they talked through their wedding plans. ‘Let’s keep it short and simple. Take off straight after the ceremony.’

Their honeymoon would be short and simple too, a weekend in a special spot Des had found years back. ‘It’s off the beaten track. No one can disturb us there.’

Morning seemed so long ago. Des had just one mate, Troy, at their wedding in the park. Old mates from the army, he’d said. He didn’t like Pam to call Troy Des’s best man. Because he wasn’t. Des was shirty, pre-wedding jitters, she guessed. Troy was pretty monosyllabic too. Maybe that’s what military life did to a man.

Jan was her only bridesmaid in a tizzy cinnamon confection. She had her landlord in tow. Pam’s mum had come down from Cairns with an air kiss and a new perm. The bulk of the wedding party were the girls from the cafe and florist’s.

The celebrant, with a subdued sprig of baby’s breath on her lapel, was waiting to begin the ceremony. Des steered Pammy under the simple white arch she’d arranged and they exchanged their vows. Jan had suggested releasing three white doves to mark the number of months Des and Pam’d known one another but Pammy had had enough.

‘Jan, I know what I’m doing. Be happy for me.’

She deserved it. And she knew that to be happy you needed to ignore certain things. For one, Des was dealing with an old girlfriend who’d suddenly turned up in Australia. He’d told Pam straight out. There’d been a few phone calls. Des was open about it all. He said he was getting some old financial stuff sorted too. She offered to help but he didn’t want a bar of it. She’d told Jan.

Des was the type to get things sorted. He seemed quietly happy at settling down – again. That had been a bit of a shock. That he’d been married before. He’d only mentioned it a week ago.

‘It was never going to be an issue, Pam. I was with her for about five minutes. It was never going to work. She took off. Never saw her again. Good riddance.’

There were a couple of phone calls at work, a woman warning her off Des. A jilted lover probably. She decided she wouldn’t mention it. Des had a way of going silent.

The ceremony over, the guests were a little surprised at missing a wedding luncheon. Pam and Des loaded the Land Rover and Pam gave Jan one last hug.

‘Going to be home tonight?’ she’d asked.

Jan knew her well enough. She just gave her a look. ‘Ring any time.’

Since they’d driven off Des had been perfect. Lunch en route, a balcony restaurant overlooking the beach with flutes of champagne. Then they had a long slow walk along the sand. Des talked of North Queensland. How they could head up there for an extended break whenever she wanted to go. They paddled bare-footed and watched the seagulls. This was going to work out. She knew it.

The drive into the National Park had been long and lazy too. At last they parked and Des shrugged on a backpack, neatly parcelled with their tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats. He hefted the gourmet picnic basket. Pam slung her canvas bag over her shoulder. She’d only packed an extra sarong and sandals, mozzie repellent, torch, mobile.

‘Can you manage this, sweetheart?’ Des passed her the two-bottle wine cooler. Not much for a weekend, Pammy thought.

It had been a half-hour walk in. Des led them along half-hidden paths of sandstone, up into the bush. They didn’t speak until Des slowed and looked around. The clearing was small but flat. He unpacked the tent and camping gear. Pammy watched.

‘Very civilised, don’t you think?’ Des said. He reached out his hand. ‘Come on, I’ll show you the best bit. I can put the tent up when we get back.’

As they sat on the cliff top, Pammy remembered something the woman had said, the one who’d rung the shop.

They watched the eagle soar, his mate drifting on the horizon.

Des turned her towards him. ‘I am so lucky,’ he said.

They walked back to the clearing hand in hand. ‘Watch your step, Pammy. That sandstone can crumble under your feet. I told Troy how clumsy you were.’

She was clumsy? 

Des had opened the second bottle of champagne and sat Pammy on a collapsible campstool before he put up the tent. The bubbles rushed up Pam’s nose. For a moment she felt like choking. Des took a several long mouthfuls from his glass then finished knocking in the tent pegs. They spread out the sleeping bags together.

Pam moved closer and nuzzled his neck. He lowered his head like a sacrifice.

‘Turn around,’ she whispered.

He knelt in front of her. She opened her shirt and held his head to her breasts. He took delicate mouthfuls of flesh and moved upwards to her throat. She reached between his legs.

‘Wait,’ Des said. ‘Call of nature.’ He backed out of the tent.

When he made his way up the path Pam waited at the tent flap. Then she followed.

She stood in the shadows and watched him as dusk deepened. Des worked quickly, loosening a jigsaw of stone at the edge of the drop. Then he sat on the rocky seat and rehearsed a final embrace. Soon he would wait for his bride to come up the path, looking for him. If not, he’d call to her; suggest they watch the moon rise.

He didn’t expect her to leap out of the dusk.

He didn’t expect her to be calling out his old name.

‘Eddie!’

Des span around, rolling his right foot on the mismatched stones. He dropped to his knees as his left shoe slipped over the edge. The sandstone shifted under his weight.

In the last of the light Pammy turned and walked down the track to the tent. She reached past the canvas flap, pulled out her canvas bag, found her mobile and the torch. No reception. Des’s new lightweight satellite phone was in his back pack.

‘Jan? Yes, yes, it’s me. No. Look. I think something’s happened to Des. No, wait. Listen. Jan. Jan, wait. He went off for a walk. It’s dark and he hasn’t come back. I’m too scared to go out and look for him.’

Pammy stared out into the night.

‘Yes, of course, I’ll stay where I am.’

And she would. Long ago she’d learnt to lie back and tell herself stories. She knew how to wait for morning.