Short story: Tunnel Beach, by Rebecca Styles

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“People are walking up the hill, as we walk down, with their hands on their hips, their faces red, or looking directly at the path, not game enough to look up to see how far they’ve got to go”: a portrait of a relationship set in a Dunedin landmark, by Wellington writer Rebecca Styles

I have the metal bar of a collapsible beach chair slung over one shoulder, and a tote bag stuffed with togs, towels, a bottle of water and sunscreen over the other. There are lots of cars parked on the grass verge behind the stile. Windows wound against the stifling heat. It must be 30 degrees at least. Zac’s school backpack is filled with things I make him carry and which he has no intention of using, including a hat and water. He wraps his thumbs around the straps and pulls the bag close to his back as he looks towards the stile. His gangly arms jut out. His prepubescent body seems too thin, despite all the peanut butter sandwiches and litres of milk he gets through. I go to grab another chair out of the boot.

“I don’t think we’ll need them,” Toby says. His hand rests on the lid of the open boot.

“No?”

“The beach isn’t that big.” He turns and looks at the tourist bus parked on the other side of the road and shakes his head.

I take the chair off my shoulder and put it back in the boot. Toby slams it shut, and we make our way to the stile.

It’s a long way down. So steep that if you tripped, you’d roll all the way down the hill, off the cliff and into the ocean.

“Well, I guess going down will be the easy bit,” I say to Zac who looks at me, and then away without saying anything. The skin on his shoulders already looks a little pink, despite the sunscreen I rubbed on them.

“Why are there so many people?” Toby asks.

They’re all wearing sensible shoes. We’re all wearing jandals. No tote bags filled with towels either, but backpacks with side pockets for water bottles.

“You’ve been here before?” Compared to the other visitors I seem prepared for a different kind of beach trip.

“Years ago.”

He must’ve completely forgotten how steep the path is that zig-zags down. Either that or he thought we wouldn’t come had we known. He thinks not knowing makes it easier.

“Make sure you drink lots of water, eh Zac?”

He nods but doesn’t drink anything.

There are groups of tourists with selfie sticks who wear wide-brimmed hats and beige trousers. Couples in skimpy shorts and skimpier tops with tanned muscular legs, while I wear a dress to cover the cellulite wobbling on my upper thighs. Toby’s legs are thin. His shin bone sticks out and his thighs are covered in long shorts.

People are walking up the hill, as we walk down, with their hands on their hips, their faces red, or looking directly at the path, not game enough to look up to see how far they’ve got to go.

“I heard some guy made the tunnel. Chipped it out of sandstone rock for his girlfriend,” Toby says. “He asked her to marry him, once they’d gone through the tunnel to the beach.”

“Romantic.”

He walks on ahead not acknowledging my comment. When we started going out, one of the first gifts he bought me was merino socks. It seemed endearing at the time. I can see he doesn’t connect the romance of the tunnel to us being here, to our relationship, he doesn’t imagine it has any bearing on us. This is no foreshadowing for a proposal.

We were sitting in the kitchen of our flat, not long after we moved in together. It was a Sunday. The sun shone on the white wooden walls. He’d made a chickpea salad and curried eggs. After we’d ate, he said he didn’t believe in marriage. He often uses statements rather than asking questions. These statements have the appearance of opening a discussion, but it manages to close it at the same time. I just looked at him. I didn’t say anything. There didn’t seem any point. It was still early days, I told myself. After Zac was born, I thought he may’ve changed his mind. Now it seems too late to even bring it up. My silence has been taken as acquiescence.

It’s hot. Not even a sea breeze. Completely still – a rare thing for the east coast. But then it’s February. Yesterday, we’d gone swimming in the tidal mud flats of the peninsula – the sea up to our waists and warm. I can’t remember the last time I felt warm in the sea. We’d thrown a Frisbee to each other and Zac had loved lunging to his side to catch it and falling in the water.

“How are we going to get back up?” Zac asks.

“The same way we came down,” Toby says.

“We’ll just take our time,” I say as I pull him close – his arm warm and clammy. “We’ll have plenty of stops on the way.”

People are clambering up on the huge rocks of sandstone and looking out to sea. They’re too close to the edge. I turn away. And then I see the tunnel.

It’s as high as me, and I’m medium height, and only wide enough for one-way foot traffic. It makes my chest clench.

“We have to go through there?”

“Yes, the beach’s through there.”

Toby guides Zac to line up with the other people. At least Zac’s small, he won’t have to crouch. He won’t think of earthquakes rattling when you’re halfway through, or tidal surges. They’re just things anxious mothers’ think of.

I take my place in the queue. The people coming out of the tunnel smile, like going through a narrow cavity chipped through rock is a perfectly normal thing to do. Cameras slung around necks swing, and then it’s my turn.

The walls are tinged with green and run with moisture. The stairs are concrete, an added modern necessity, I gather, given the numbers of people visiting. It’s not that long, I tell myself, just five metres or so, but still, I’m holding my breath as I step in, slowly. No one is rushing, everyone’s step is measured. I can’t see Zac, he’s in front of his father whose frame shelters him from view. Toby has one arm outstretched on Zac’s shoulder, while his other drags across the tunnel’s wall as he crouches being too tall to stand upright. The light coming into the tunnel catches the hair on his legs and make him look hairier than usual.

And then we’re through. Once out in the heat again I think I should’ve enjoyed the cool of the tunnel. It’s not so much beach, but smaller sand stones that Zac jumps across easily. He’s smiling. I don’t jump as quickly. Not quickly at all, not in my sweaty jandals. I look out for Toby to help me, but he’s scampering up a bigger sandstone, at least five metres tall, that looks out to the ocean.

“Christ,” I mutter to myself, trying to hold my balance with the bloody tote bag slung over my shoulder. I want to take my jandals off, but don’t think I’d do any better with bare feet. I lurch from one stone to another, closer to the cliff so at least I can hang onto something. Oh, for Christ’s …

“Got you.”

He’s tall and sturdy so I grab his arm.

“Oh, thank you, sorry.”

“You right luv, I’m going to let go now, alright?”

“Yes, yes, thanks.” I stand still, unable to move. I flick my eyes to the sea and there’s Zac up on the large rock with Toby. People are coming towards me, but I can’t move.

“I’m sorry, can you go around?”

I manage to get out of the way and sit down on a rock. The sea rushes in between the sandstones and is then sucked away. I’m in the way, people come towards me and change their direction at the last moment, but I can’t move from here, and Toby is still prancing around the rocks with Zac.

It’s not somewhere we could stay all day — no one else has sat down. There’s no room for sunbathers, no one is swimming. I’m glad I didn’t put my togs on underneath my dress. It’s just people jumping around on rocks. Whatever romance this place had has been trampled on by the leaping tourists.

Toby doesn’t even look for me or wonder where I am. Zac looks back and waves, then stays still while I take his photo. Toby stands and looks out to the Pacific and down to the beach.

I take my jandals off and dry them on the towel, hoping I’ll have some grip when I get up. The entrance to the tunnel seems too far away, and I’m in the middle now, not along the cliff face that I could use to guide me in.

I watch Toby come down from the sandstone. He looks for Zac and guides him down. Once they’re on the beach Toby looks for me. I wave out. He gives no recognition that he’s seen me.

“For God’s sake,” I mutter under my breath. Evidently not quiet enough as a tanned woman gives me a sideways glance before leaping onto a rock away from me.

Toby looks at me for a bit. I mouth ‘come here’ and wave them over. Finally, they both head in my direction.

“Why are you sitting here?”

“I slipped. You know I can’t walk over stones. And jandals are bloody useless for down here. Why didn’t you say we’d need proper shoes?”

“It’s been years since I’ve been here, I didn’t remember.” He turns away and back again, “We can’t stay here.” He starts to move away.

“Well, I need your help to get out,” I say, and he comes back, reaches out his hand, and helps me navigate the stones.

“Who said romance is dead.”

“What,” Toby looks back at me.

“Nothing.”

Zac jumps from stone to stone with ease.

We go back through the tunnel. I find myself holding my breath, just focusing on one step after another until we’re out. And then I look up at the path that zig zags up the hill.

“It’s terrible with all these tourists,” says Toby.

“We’re tourists, aren’t we?”

We both lived in Dunedin at different times, and I can see that Toby still counts himself as a local, even though he hasn’t lived here for over a decade.

“Not like these people.” He looks at the groups with selfie sticks and labelled backpacks from outdoor clothing stores. They are chatting animatedly amongst themselves.

“At least they’re wearing appropriate shoes.”

We start walking up. Slowly.

“Have you had some water, Zac?” I put my hand on his shoulder, and he looks up at me. He nods and looks away, which means he hasn’t.

The sun is concentrated on our foreheads and scalps. I hang onto the strap of the bag with my left hand like it’s the only thing keeping me on the side of the hill.

Toby has an even and measured pace. Zac walks, then does a few running steps to keep up with his father, while I lag a little behind. A meandering heifer at the back of the herd.

I bring my arm to my face and wipe it with the sleeve of my dress and get a whiff of BO and sunscreen. I feel as slippery as a fish who needs to be thrown back into the ocean. The moisture gives me an uncomfortable awareness of my body. Everything seems to be jiggling. My dress clings to my stomach rather than draping properly.

A young couple walking down are wearing jandals. I want to stop them, tell them they need better shoes, but I don’t. They’re likely more agile than me. They’re holding hands, looking into each others eyes, loved-up and full of vitality. Enough to chip a tunnel through rock.

Toby and Zac stand in an elbow of the path, hands on hips, puffing slightly. Zac looks a little pink.

“Have you had some water Zac?”

He reluctantly opens his backpack to get the bottle and takes a brief swig.

“You doing okay? Not far now.”

He nods.

“How about you?” I ask Toby.

“Yeah, fine. Just need to get out of this heat.”

So, we trod on. Getting redder, hotter, more slippery with sweat. Zig and zagging slowly up the hill, while more people come down.

I stop and turn back out to the sea. It’s like I’m on top of a diving board stilling myself, trying to decide whether to jump.

Next week’s short story is “Double Dose” by Leanne Radojkovich

* The short story series every Saturday at ReadingRoom appears with the support of Creative New Zealand*

Short story: Tunnel Beach, by Rebecca Styles

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