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, 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 that 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 thought I should do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I’d never seen a dead person before so I stood motionless with the sound of the crashing ocean echoing inside my head, oblivious to the man approaching from behind. His voice startled me.
“Well, well, he was always going to come to a sticky end wasn’t he?” I stared at him and said nothing. “I’ll call the police then will I?”
It was more a statement than a question. Everything happened very fast after that and 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 had gone to work everyday 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.
Belington was perfect. 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 if I dropped a ball at one end of the living room it rolled to the other, stopping at the old piano against the wall. It was utilitarian but the northern sun streamed in the windows and I could look out from the writing desk at the ocean, and the bush turkeys foraging 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 wrote bits and pieces I hated and saved 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 drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. I made the mistake on my first visit of telling the owner Tom with great confidence why I was there. After that strangers would introduce themselves to me in the street saying, 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 realised 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 had no television, as it would be a distraction from creativity. What I actually did was scour Facebook for hours feeling envious of the exciting lives my friends were leading. Some nights I cried myself to sleep from the utter frustration of my growing sense of failure. Toward the end of my 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 abandoned my normal routine of staring at a computer screen for three hours doing nothing and 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 would turn off the waterfront path into the main street of Belington to Tom’s Cafe. I was contemplating whether breaking my routine might help 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 bushy beard was bouncing 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, though I did notice they were the most beautiful emerald green, similar to the color of the velvet jacket he wore.
“You’re the writer lady writer lady aren’t you? Tell me a story,” he said, his excited leathery hands waving in front of his face.
“Hello, I’m in a bit of a hurry today.”
I kept walking and picked up my pace, hoping he’d lose interest in me but he trotted along behind me repeating 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 drowned out the emerald dervish who stayed outside.
“You’re in early today, and I see you’ve met Ricky,” said Tom gesturing 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.”
A nod was all I could muster as I sat down some distance from the window where Ricky was peering through, hands placed like a visor above his eyebrows. I had composed myself again when Tom approached with a coffee.
“What’s Ricky’s story then?” I nodded toward the window.
“Well,” said Tom lowering himself into the seat opposite me and gazing out the window at Ricky. “He grew up around here, though his parents died about ten years ago. Something went wrong in his twenties and he hasn’t been right since.” Tom shrugged. “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 and gave him a thumbs up then a gesture that he should be on his way. Ricky jumped into a star formation, feet wide with hands up in the air as he looked at the sky. 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, opened the paper and feigned 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 relieved there was no sign of Ricky. I wandered around town filling 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 so 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 and slither of chocolate. Finally words started to flow and I entertained the hope that my period of frustrated procrastination had come to an end. I wanted to write a crimance set in the inner north of Melbourne around Fitzroy. They call it flow when you get into a rhythm. It feels like time is suspended and a force greater than yourself is guiding your hand. I was very 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 and experienced the kind of adrenaline rush you get when you narrowly miss having a car crash. Ricky screamed and disappeared then popped into view again arms waving in the air.
“Writer lady, sorry, sorry, tell me a story?” he shouted then stood still fixing me with his emerald green eyes and a big grin on his face.
Shit, I thought, what do I do now? I started running through what I had learnt in mental health first aid as I moved toward the open door. Speak calmly, simply and clearly. I stopped in the doorway remembering that Tom had said Ricky never went inside.
“Hello Ricky, what brings you here?”
He patted his chest.
“This is my place writer lady, you’re welcome, tell me a story.”
I wanted to send him on his way so I could get back to writing.
“I’m supposed to be writing now Ricky, how about another time?”
He tilted his head to one side.
“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, clasped his hands in his lap and fixed me unblinking in his sights. I stayed in the doorway contemplating which story to tell. I settled on Cinderella as it was simple, non-threatening and had a happy ending. Ricky sat transfixed as 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 writing. I locked the door and sat down with my guitar. I had taken up lessons a year earlier and was hopeless but enthusiastic about playing. Music soothes and the repetitive action of scales is hypnotic.
From then on 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. The constable pulled the car up outside.
“Oh, you are staying here. This is where Ricky grew up.”
Her comment made me realise why Ricky had kept coming around, the place was familiar to him. 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’d hear his wild cackle in the moments between sleep and wakefulness in the middle of the night. He’d loom up out of my subconscious every time I sat down and tried to write, quashing 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, they were uncomfortable with death and 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. Tom fidgeted and mumbled something about how Ricky wouldn’t live in it but the rent provided him with money for food, medication and other needs that might arise.
When the coroners report found it inconclusive whether Ricky’s death was an accident or the result of 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. When 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 to discover Ricky had been visiting me every day for months for story time.
Something was not right. I thought again about packing up and returning to Melbourne, but pride, the odd affection I had developed for Ricky and a lingering suspicion made me stay. I started pocking around and spent hours scouring the bushland looking for signs of Ricky.
I came across his camp in a small cave, hidden at the end of a goat track through a stand of tea tree and it had been ransacked. If he was harmless, why would anyone have done that? I spent several hours picking through the remains which included a camp 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 for extra padding, or perhaps to lift it off the cold ground. Most of the magazines 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 I found made me realize how much of a bond Ricky and I had made. Dog-eared copies of some of the stories I had read him, a broken mandolin and my missing guitar pick and an old exercise book contained a series of child like sketches and misspelt descriptions. Inside 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 who was being threatened by another figure with a purple shirt, the words ‘bad man’ were scrawled underneath it. There was also a drawing of a beach lined with tall buildings dripping blood. Were these the hallucinatory drawings 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 and I gathered up the exercise book, the mandolin and my guitar pick and scurried 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. Next I went to visit the agent whose sign had appeared out the front. As it dawned on the agent who I was, she started rearranging items on her desk. She stood up and took a step back and with arms crossed she looked out the window as she explained. She gave a kind of apology for not notifying me about the for sale sign given I was as the tenant of the shack, but said the executor of the estate had insisted the house be placed on the market as soon as possible. She expected there would be some interest in the property, but that I should not worry, it may take some time to sell. No, she could not provide me with the details of the executor of the estate, though 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. Barefoot in blue shorts and a white short-sleeved open necked shirt, he was fit with well-muscled calves. He welcomed me in for a cup of tea when I explained who I was and chatted as he fussed around the kitchen boiling water and tipping too many tea leaves 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 fathers’ death. An accident and dying at sea might have been the best thing for him.”
I turned a worried face toward him.
“Do you think it was an accident, or suicide?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“That’s what the police seem to think.”
So I told Ron the whole story of 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. He continued but with less certainty in his voice.
“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.” He shook his head. “It was remiss of them. and 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 breaching 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. The real estate agent, Tom’s Cafe and the general store from which I bought the papers were all getting painted. Must be a drive to refresh the town I thought. When I got down to the pier Frank had his back to me and was unloading equipment from a new boat.
“Hi Frank, lovely new boat”
He hadn’t heard me coming and spun around in fright.
“Oh, Jane, 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?”
He started gesticulating at the fish in boxes on the pier.
“Well, Ron suggested I try the Spanish mackerel if you have any, says its one of the best fish.”
Frank’s eyebrows shot up.
“Ron? I didn’t know you knew Ron.”
“I went to see him about Ricky.”
His face rearranged itself into an expression of sorrow.
“Oh, terrible tragedy that, no point disturbing the dead though.”
He turned away to forage in his ice bins for the fish and I gazed out to sea.
“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.”
When I arrived back at the shack I sat down and tried to write, but it was no good. Ricky’s presence most disturbed me at these times. Then I thought I heard his voice saying be careful Miss Jane, but it must have been the wind.
All my instincts told me what had happened to Ricky wasn’t an accident, despite that fact that there was little evidence, and most of the oddities could as soon be interpreted as the inclinations of a mad man. I settled down to read the paper. The news of the world is rarely good, even in small towns, and today 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, naked in his stables. 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, it was the 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 woke to the sound of loud banging on the walls of the house and what sounded like nearby gunfire and 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.
Seeing my distress he invited me in and when I told him what happened he suggested we go to the police after a cup of tea to calm me down. Whilst he was making 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.”
As I looked at Ron I started to make some random connections and 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?”
So, I took Ron out there on a hunch. When we arrived I lifted up the mattress, pulled out the Australian Property Investor Magazine and flicked through its 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.”
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 and then became decisive.
“We’d better visit the police as I suggested earlier today. 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 skeptical, 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 hadn’t realised Ron controlled Ricky’s affairs. The property developer and the Mayor were in cahoots and had pressured Ricky to sell the shack for a development on the foreshore and their tactic had gone wrong resulting 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 Belington. 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 because Ron had agreed to sell me the property at a reasonable price, it was what Ricky would have wanted he said, and it would protect the land from development if I owned it. Ricky stopped appearing once the case concluded and a part of me missed my emerald green apparition, but the removal of constant interruptions did mean that I finally started writing in earnest.