When a body washes up on the beach it looks heavy and cold, even in warm climates. It was one of those days when the wind makes veils on the waves. There’s something about the way the surf tosses around lifelessness and make clothes cling like kelp that ties the dead forever to the ocean.
Ricky, who had been full of the heat of life the day before was no different swaying lifeless on the shoreline as if undecided whether he wanted to wash back out to sea or purge from it onto the sand. I couldn’t see his face, but it was him. Tattered sand shoes, grubby green and white striped hippie pants and grotesque emerald green velvet jacket. He’d be so upset about what the sea had done to his jacket. His wild mop of black curly hair was plastered to his head, sand scattered through it like confetti.
I stood motionless. I thought I should do something but I wasn’t sure what. I’d never seen a dead person before. The sound of the crashing ocean echoed inside my head and made me oblivious to the man approaching from behind. I startled at the sound of his voice.
“Well, he was always going to come to a sticky end wasn’t he?” When I stared at him and said nothing he continued.
“I’ll call the police then will I?” It was more a statement than a question.
Everything happened very fast after that. I found myself sitting on a bench at the police station wrapped in a blanket with a chipped mug of sickly sweet tea clutched in my hands. I had only come to this town to write.
I went to work every day to earn a large salary doing a job that bored me shitless whilst I dreamt of a different reality. So, when my long service leave date clicked over I made an escape plan. I had enough savings for seven months on half pay and another five without, if I rented out my apartment. I found an affordable shack on the beach in a sleepy fishing town on the New South Wales north coast and rented it for a year. It would provide me with the solitude, ambience and inspiration to write the novel that had been rattling around in my head.
Bellington was perfect and the shack was twenty meters through the trees from the surf beach, next to a nature reserve, and a five-minute drive to the well-stocked village. The floorboards creaked on subsiding stumps when I walked across them and when I dropped a ball at one end of the living room it rolled to the other and stopped at the old piano against the downside wall. It was utilitarian but the northern sun streamed in the windows. I could look out from the writing desk at the ocean and the bush turkeys that foraged around in the undergrowth.
Of course it takes more than beautiful scenery to be a writer. You have to write and I did very little in the first couple of months. Every time I sat down I became agitated or distracted. I would write bits and pieces I hated and save them in a folder on my laptop named ‘junk’. I told myself it was an adjustment period. When I couldn’t sit still I ran, swam, surfed and explored the endless tracks in the surrounding bushland.
I went into the village and sat in a cafe to drink coffee and read the paper. I made the mistake on my first visit of telling Tom the owner with great confidence why I was there. After that strangers would introduce themselves to me in the street and say you’re the writer lady aren’t you? I felt like a fraud. I made sure I didn’t spend too much time in town lest people realized there wasn’t much actual writing going on.
I bought fresh fish from Frank the fisherman on the pier who gave me tips on how to cook each purchase. I joined the regional library and borrowed the maximum number of books from the mobile van when it visited the village, hoping to find inspiration between the pages.
When friends from Melbourne called I waxed lyrical about my idyllic life by the sea and the joys of wiling away the hours in creative fantasy. I told them I had no television because it would be a distraction from creativity.
What I actually did was scour Facebook for hours feeling envious of the exciting lives my friends led. Some nights I cried myself to sleep from the utter frustration of my growing sense of failure. Toward the end of the second month I was ready to chuck it all in and go back to my boring Melbourne job, defeated. That was when I first met Ricky.
It was one of those perfect, still, sunny winter mornings that can lift even the most morose mood. I decided to abandon my normal routine of staring at a computer screen for three hours doing nothing. I put a bottle of water in my backpack and walked into town. The sound of warbling birds and the background song of the sea followed me.
There was a bus stop at the corner where I turned off the waterfront path into the main street of Bellington to Tom’s Cafe. I was in deep contemplation about whether a break from my routine might jolt my creative brain into action when an emerald green blur launched out of the bus stop into my path.
I froze in my tracks. A man with a mass of unkempt shoulder length black curly hair and a bushy beard bounced up and down on the footpath in front of me. He had the crazed eyes of someone whose connection with reality had fractured some time ago. I did notice they were the most beautiful emerald green and similar in colour to the velvet jacket he wore.
“You’re the writer lady writer lady aren’t you? Tell me a story.” His excited leathery hands waived in front of his face.
“Hello, I’m in a bit of a hurry today,” I said and I picked up my pace.
I hoped he’d lose interest in me but he trotted along behind me and repeated the request to tell him a story over and over. I turned in under the giant fiberglass shark head over the doorway of Tom’s Cafe with evident relief. The entry bell reverberated to let Tom know he had a customer and it drowned out the noise of the emerald dervish who stayed outside.
“You’re in early today, I see you’ve met Ricky,” said Tom. He gestured toward the window with a bemused look on his face at the sight of my discombobulation.
“Don’t worry, he’s harmless. He’ll be interested in you seeing as you’re new to town. I’ll get you a coffee shall I?”
A nod was all I could muster as I sat down some distance from the window. Ricky peered through the glass with his hands placed like a visor above his eyebrows.
I had composed myself again when Tom returned with my coffee. “What’s Ricky’s story then?”
“Well, he grew up around here, but his parents died about ten years ago.” I raised my eyebrows.
Tom lowered himself into the seat opposite me and gazed out the window at Ricky. “Something went wrong in his twenties and he hasn’t been right since. He comes and goes, not sure where from, but when he’s here he camps up in the bush past where you are staying. Refuses to go inside, seems to have a phobia about buildings or something. He’s part of the town, village idiot you might say. Poor fella. Give him a smile and a hello and ignore him. He’ll lose interest in you soon enough.”
Tom waved at Ricky, gave him a thumbs up then a gesture that he should be on his way. Ricky jumped into a star formation with feet wide and hands up in the air. He stayed like that and looked at the sky for a few seconds. Then he did a little dance, spun around and marched off down the street.
“Better get back to it and leave you to read the paper eh? Expect you’ve got some writing to get back to.”
I grimaced and opened the paper to hide my shame and feign interest in an article about alleged corruption in a town further up the coast. It involved a local council mayor and a property developer.
I lingered for an hour in the café and when I left there was no sign of Ricky. I wandered around town and filled my backpack with fresh vegetables, bread and a couple of blocks of Lindt mint intense chocolate for a treat with my cup of tea after dinner. Frank had a bumper catch and I bought some flathead and small eastern rock lobster tails then made my way back to the shack.
By the time I got home it was lunchtime. I boiled up the lobster in salt water and ate it with a salad, then sat down at my computer with a cup of tea. To my surprise words started to flow and I entertained the hope that my period of frustration and procrastination had come to an end. I wanted to write a crimance set in the inner north of Melbourne around Fitzroy.
It felt like time was suspended and a force greater than myself was guiding my hand. I was in flow and totally focused when there was a shout and an emerald green apparition burst into view at the window. It gave me such a fright that I almost fell off my chair. It was the kind of adrenaline rush you get when you narrowly miss having a car crash.
Ricky screamed and disappeared then popped into view again and waved his arms in the air “Writer lady, sorry, sorry, tell me a story?” Then he stood stock still and fixed me with his emerald green eyes. There was a big grin on his face.
Shit what do I do now I thought and started to run through what I had learnt in mental health first aid. Speak calmly, simply and clearly I said to myself as I moved toward the open door. I stopped in the doorway because I remembered Tom had told me Ricky never went inside.
“Hello Ricky, what brings you here?”
He grinned. “This is my place writer lady, you’re welcome, tell me a story.”
Please go away I thought. “I’m supposed to be writing now Ricky, how about another time?”
He nodded rapidly. “Tell me a story.”
The exchange went on for about ten minutes until I realised I had no hope of convincing him to leave and took another tack.
“Ok Ricky, how about you sit on that chair over there on the veranda and I’ll tell you a story. Then you have to go so I can write. Ok?”
Ricky did a little dance of excitement then went over to the chair and sat down. He clasped his hands in his lap and fixed me with unblinking eyes. I stayed in the doorway and contemplated which story to try. I settled on Cinderella as it was simple, non-threatening and had a happy ending.
Ricky sat transfixed while I told the tale. When I said the end he clapped his hands, stamped his feet then got up and left unceremoniously. By the time he’d gone so had most of the day and his presence had caused such anxiety there was no hope of returning to write. I locked the door and sat down with my guitar. I had taken up lessons a year earlier and was hopeless but enthusiastic. Music soothes and the repetitive action of scales was hypnotic.
From that day forward Ricky appeared at about two o’clock every afternoon for a story. Within a week I had stopped being nervous around him and fell into a routine. In the mornings I wrote and went into town when needed. I borrowed a load of children’s books from the mobile library to refresh my stories for Ricky. He started to call me Miss Jane. I began to think of him as my writing amulet.
Then one day after about three months of our story telling ritual and half way through Charlotte’s Web he didn’t show up. That was the day before I found him washed up on the beach.
The police took a routine statement from me then a constable dropped me back at the shack. “Oh, you are staying here. This is where Ricky grew up,” she said when she pulled up at the shack.
Sometimes the dead hang around and Ricky was more alarming dead than he was alive. I’d see an emerald green spectre out the corner of my eye in the garden. I could hear his wild cackle in the moments between sleep and wakefulness in the middle of the night. He loomed up out of my subconscious every time I sat down and tried to write and quashed any creative urges I had. It was like he was trying to tell me something.
The mood toward me in the village changed imperceptibly after Ricky’s death. Tom said it was because everyone knew I found Ricky after the accident and they were uncomfortable with death. They didn’t know what to say. I asked him about the constable’s comment that Ricky had grown up in the shack I was staying in. He fidgeted and mumbled something about how Ricky wouldn’t live in it. The rent provided him with money for food, medication and needs that might arise.
When the coroners report found it inconclusive whether Ricky’s death was an accident or foul play Tom shrugged and said getting a bash on the head from a rock looks the same whether the rock hits you or you hit it. Ricky was annoying at times, but no one would have gone to the trouble of killing him. Tom was sure he either slipped or jumped off the cliff in one of his psychotic states.
I mentioned that I thought Ricky had been pretty calm and happy the day before and didn’t think he would have jumped. Tom was a bit taken aback when he discovered Ricky had visited me every day for months for story time.
Something was not right. I thought again that perhaps I should pack up and return to Melbourne. For some reason, perhaps pride or the odd affection I had developed for Ricky and a lingering suspicion made me stay. I started to poke around. I scoured the bushland for hours trying to find signs of Ricky.
When I came across his camp in a small cave hidden at the end of a goat track through a stand of tea tree it had been ransacked. If he were harmless, why would anyone have done that? I picked through the remains for several hours. A camping mattress and blankets, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a broom fashioned from tea tree that he must have used to sweep the cave floor.
Under the mattress was a layer of magazines that must have been for extra padding. Most were dated in the last twelve months. The assortment included the Women’s Weekly, House and Garden, Cleo, New Idea, and the Australian Property Investor Magazine.
Some of the items made me realize how much of a bond Ricky and I had made. Dog-eared copies of some of the stories I had read to him, a broken mandolin and my missing guitar pick.
There was an old exercise book that contained a series of child-like sketches and misspelt descriptions. There was a picture of a spider with Charlot written underneath and a longhaired figure in a dress with miss Jane scrawled below.
There were also some more disturbing pictures. Two figures fighting. One looked like Ricky with a green coat and wild black hair was being threatened by another figure with a purple shirt. The words bad man were scrawled underneath it. There was a drawing of a beach lined with tall buildings that dripped blood.
I wondered whether the drawings were these the hallucinatory images of a disturbed mind or something more sinister. I felt a rush of adrenaline as a flash of emerald green caught the corner of my eye outside the cave. I gathered up the exercise book, the mandolin and my guitar pick and made my way back to the shack.
A week later a for sale sign appeared out the front of the shack and Ricky’s appearances intensified. A land title search told me that a Mr Ricky Jonson was the owner of the property. I was living in Ricky’s house which explained his familiarity with the place.
I went to visit the agent whose sign had appeared out the front. When it dawned on the agent who I was she started to rearrange items on her desk then she stood up and took a step back, arms crossed. She gazed out the window and gave a kind of apology for not notifying me as the tenant of the shack about the for sale sign.
She told me the executor of the estate had insisted the house be placed on the market as soon as possible and assured me I would receive a proper lawful notice before I had to move out. She expected there would be some interest in the property but that I should not worry it might take some time to sell. No, she could not provide me with the details of the executor of the estate. Though of course this was easy enough to find out by searching the probate notices.
Ron Walker was a retired accountant and I’d guess about seventy-five years old. He had the shoulder length unkempt grey wavy hair that was the standard look for older men who lived the beach life. He was barefoot in blue shorts and a white short-sleeved open necked shirt and fit with well-muscled calves. He welcomed me in for a cup of tea when I explained who I was. He chatted and fussed around the kitchen while he boiled water and tipped too many tealeaves into a red enamel teapot.
“Terrible tragedy. Still I was beginning to wonder what would happen to Ricky when I couldn’t look out for him anymore. Might have ended up in an institution, which would have killed him anyway. Never was a one for the indoors. I was a good friend of his parents and have been managing his affairs since his dad died. An accident and dying at sea might have been the best thing for him.” He shook his head with a sad expression.
“Do you think it was an accident or suicide?” I asked.
“The police seem to think it was suicide.” The corner of his mouth turned down.
I decided to tell Ron the whole story about my time with Ricky. That he seemed very happy and given his intimate knowledge of the area I didn’t think it likely he’d fallen off one of the cliff paths he knew so well.
“Who knows what goes on in a disturbed mind though, eh Jane? I can’t imagine anyone in this community wanting to hurt him and he was prone to being quite erratic.”
I conceded that he might be right. In any event I was certain Ron held a great affection for Ricky and would have done him no harm.
“I’m keen on getting his affairs settled as soon as possible. I’m an old man and should have retired. You say you’re staying in the shack? I’m sorry the agent didn’t tell you about the sale notice, remiss of them. It was a bit over zealous of her posting it so soon to be honest. The property can’t sell for a while. Have to wait for the official nod from the Supreme Court on the probate. I’ll need to talk to them about that in case it’s breached some rule.”
I left Ron’s and headed back through town towards the pier to buy some fish from Frank. The main street was a hive of activity. There was a crew of workmen putting fresh seaside coloured paint on storefronts. They worked intently on real estate agent, Tom’s Cafe and the general store from which I bought the papers. There must have been a drive to refresh the town I thought. Down at the pier Frank unloaded equipment from a new boat with his back to me.
“Hi Frank, lovely new boat” I said. He hadn’t heard me coming and spun around in fright.
“Frightened the life out of me lassie! I was in a world of me own. The old boat gave up the ghost. I had to mortgage my life and get a new girl. Man’s got to make a living. What would you like?”
I studied his catch. “Ron suggested I try the Spanish mackerel if you have any, says it’s one of the best fish.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Ron? I didn’t know you knew Ron.”
“I went to see him about Ricky.”
“Oh, terrible tragedy that, no point disturbing the dead though,” he turned away to forage in his ice bins for the fish.
“Trouble is it’s the dead disturbing me.”
Frank packaged up the fish and passed it to me along with a wary look. “Well, best I be getting on with it Jane, you take care of yourself.”
I arrived back at the shack and sat down to tried to write, but it was no good. Ricky’s presence most disturbed me at these times and I thought I heard him speak.
It was like a whisper on the wind. “Be careful Miss Jane.”
All my instincts told me what had happened to Ricky wasn’t an accident. There was little evidence and most oddities could to easily be dismissed as the inclinations of a mad man but I didn’t think Ricky was mad. I settled down to read the paper.
Even in small towns the news of the world was rarely good and that day was no exception. The local paper continued its series on corruption and shady deals in local council. All circumstantial and without evidence according to the council spokesperson. A local celebrity in a neighbouring town made headlines after being found dead from a heart attack and naked in his stables. It made me realise that Ricky’s death hadn’t caused a ripple for anyone but Ron and me. I cooked up the fish that Ron had recommended I buy. He was right, best seafood I’d eaten since being in Belington. I made a mental note to drop by and thank him.
In the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of a loud bang on the wall of the house and what sounded like nearby gunfire. I lay still, terrified. In the morning after a sleepless night, I tentatively went outside and found sprayed on the side of the house in large letters GO HOME!
I grabbed my backpack, jumped in the car and headed for town and somehow ended up at Ron’s. When he saw my distress he invited me in and I told him what happened. He suggested we go to the police after a cup of tea to calm me down. While he was made the tea I remembered the fish and told him about it. He was most curious about Frank.
“I’m surprised he has anything to mortgage given his gambling habits.” Ron’s comment prompted a whole lot of random connections in my brain and I asked him about the scandal in the paper.
“Developers always sniff around small seaside towns, like piranha’s they are, hunt in packs. There’s a few folk around here have found the offers too good to refuse, but most want to keep this town the way it is.”
“Ron, I found Ricky’s cave the other day, would you like to come and see it?” Ron nodded.
I took Ron out there on a hunch. Inside the cave I lifted up the mattress, pulled out the Australian Property Investor Magazine and flicked through the pages. I found in each one a few pages that had been defaced, with devil written in a childlike hand across them. One of the advertising pictures had a man dressed in a bright purple shirt.
I showed Ron the magazine and Ricky’s sketchbook. “This is the same developer mentioned in the local council scandal in the paper,” I said pointing at the magazine.
He studied it for a moment and then looked around the cave. “Poor old Ricky. Could be a coincidence?” he was starting to sound doubtful himself. “But I think we’d better visit the police. Bring those magazines with you.”
The same constable with the kind face who had dropped me home was on duty. She took Ron and I into an interview room and I relayed the entire story. I showed her the magazines and Ricky’s sketchbook and explained my theory that Ricky was murdered to force the sale of the shack. She looked sceptical but assured us the police would investigate further. She also said they would increase the police patrols near the shack.
A week later I was sitting with a cup of tea, in the sun outside the shack reading the local paper. The front-page story was headed Community Shame in Murder Case, Writer Lady Awarded Good Citizen.
The cards had fallen quickly after I provided the police with my suspicions. A more detailed search of the scrub and Ricky’s cave had turned up a blood-covered rock and some fingerprints. The owner of those fingers had done a deal to save his own skin.
The property developer and the Mayor were in cahoots and had pressured Ricky directly to sell the shack for a development on the foreshore. They hadn’t realized Ron controlled Ricky’s affairs. The tactic had gone wrong and resulted in Ricky’s death.
None of the locals were directly involved in the corruption or murder, but some of them had been given sweeteners to keep them quiet. The bribes were also to convince them development would be good for Bellington. It included Frank, and the owners of all the stores that had been freshly painted. The article named and shamed the community members and claimed their lack of integrity had contributed to the death of an innocent, vulnerable member of their community. It had taken an outsider to care enough to pursue justice.
The for sale sign was no longer out the front of the shack. Ron had agreed to sell me the property at a reasonable price. He thought it is what Ricky would have wanted and it would protect the land from development. Ricky’s appearances stopped once the case concluded. A part of me missed my emerald green apparition but the removal of constant interruptions did mean that I finally started writing in earnest.