While searching the mangroves for crocodiles, an unexpected reunion; by Bruce Costello.
“I see it! Ugly brute!” exclaimed the woman next to me, gripping the railing.
“Mean-looking beast,” I answered.
“Just a baby, about one and a half metres,” continued the voice overhead, chuckling.
“Ugh! Look at those teeth,” said the woman.
“Like a sawn-off picket fence.”
She turned to me. I was struck by the lavender blue of her eyes and the way her face lit up as she laughed.
The skipper manoeuvred the boat to within a few metres of the impenetrable tangle of arching mangrove roots, overshadowing the muddy bank.
“Crocs have to be over two metres to be dangerous, but the local crocs are used to this boat and shouldn’t be too worried.”
“Did you hear the word shouldn’t,” whispered the woman, leaning into me, smiling. She brushed a wisp of auburn hair from her brow with long pink fingernails.
Older than she seems, I thought, probably sixty, but still attractive.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Perth. And you?”
“Dunedin,” I replied, trying to think why her eyes seemed so oddly familiar.
“If you come around to the right side, folks, you’ll see a croc in the water, a rare sight up close.”
“Catch you shortly,” said the woman, hurrying away.
I waited as the other passengers, younger and healthier, pushed past me.
The crocodile slithered down the mudslide into the river. Ripples spread as its eyes sank into the murky water.
I shuddered, ran a hand across my aching head, left the deck and went into the passenger cabin, where two old ladies were chatting, oblivious to the excitement on deck.
I sat and leaned back. Those lavender eyes... not Stella? Stella with the cheeky grin, and the blonde pony tail that swung to and fro when we were kids playing chasing in the back yard?
I didn't understand then, and I cared even less, why adults joked about Stella being my aunty. How could a girl a week younger than me be my aunty when aunties were grown-up people? Stella and I were just best mates. Best friends for ever.
It was a tangled family thing. Stella was my father’s much younger half-sister. Stella and I were raised together by my father and mother until we were six, when Stella vanished from my life.
I remember we’d stroll to school hand-in-hand, swinging our arms, and other kids had to hop out of our way. One day after school there were strangers at home, yelling and shouting, and the Police came. Two days later Stella was taken away.
Mum and Dad said she’d had gone to live with her mother in Australia.
The heat was oppressive in the cabin. My head was throbbing worse than ever. I stood with difficulty, barely keeping my balance as the boat suddenly turned. Clambering up the steps to the deck, I could see the other passengers were gathered at the stern, so I struggled along the railing to the bow.
“We’ll take this channel to the left, folks, where there’s likely to be a full size crocodile.”
The channel narrowed. The engine powered down and the boat moved sluggishly. The water seemed to thicken in the shadow of the mangroves, now overhanging the boat from both banks. I gaped at the massive stilt system, and the algae-covered snorkel roots, waving in the sultry air, close enough to touch as the boat drifted by.
“We won’t go too far or we won’t be able to turn... the voice dropped a note... if we go much further we’ll reach the point of no return.”
“I’ve been looking for you,” someone behind me whispered.
It was her.
“Looking for me?” I said, in a surprised voice.
“Yes, I think we’ve met before.”
“When you said you were from Dunedin, something went click... then I thought, no, it couldn’t be... I should ask...”
“Are you Mark Dobson?”
Gazing into her lavender eyes, I was back there... in that magic age of love and laughter, fun and frolic, where every day starts with a smiling sun... knowing once more the hope and joy that only a child can feel.
A suffocating sensation of overwhelming loss and sadness suddenly enveloped me. A voice in my head was saying ‘Tell her you’re someone else, save her from the grief of knowing...’
I looked around wildly. Stella was staring at me, then reaching out to save me from falling. I grasped at her, and crashed forward onto the deck to lie unmoving, barely conscious, only vaguely aware of the changed motion as the boat went into reverse. Then Stella turned me over and I felt the sun in my face as we emerged from the forest tunnel into the midday heat.
Her beautiful eyes were close to mine and her lips were moving.
A crowd gathered and somebody came running with a glass of water, talking about heatstroke.
“Truth is, Aunty Stella,” I said, attempting a smile, as we sat side by side later on my hotel bed, “it wasn’t just the heat.”
“I could sense that,” she murmured, leaning into me, taking my hand. “You’re ill, aren’t you?”
“I can’t get my head around this,” I said, seizing her other hand and raising it to my lips, “being here... with you... at this time in my life.”
“The oncologist reckons a 50% chance of recovery, otherwise I’ve got about a year.”
Stella fell silent and turned away.
A couple of minutes passed before she looked round and smiled at me with moist eyes.
Then she blinked rapidly, punched me playfully, fell back on the bed and pulled me to her.
“Let’s get started with your therapy then,” she whispered.