‘Wetskins’, by Ellen van Neerven


Photo by Hernán Piñera. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Brothers on their backs, side by side at the end of the spit, feet over ocean, sun everywhere else. No one but them – no fishers for the moment and no other kids.

“We going in?”’ Joshua said.

Pat stared at a far-off sailing boat, a gentle floating leaf in the havoc of zipping speedboats. Joshua scratched his hair, didn’t know the point of running from home if they weren’t going to be out there in it. He’d been in by himself but it was less than it could be. Joshua was an athlete, with an athlete’s mind. Nothing called to him more than a pack of boys running rhythmically in the dawn fog, dew-juicy grass, or kicking cold water in the school’s thirty metre. He was on the football team too, the engine. All of the world he saw as sport. If there was no competition, no Pat to measure against in smooth cutting backstroke, there was nothing. He licked his full lips, not knowing they were beauties – long, brown and shirtless, wearing similar shorts. Dark as bunya nuts, but sun-blonde in hair. Joshua’s chest and stomach had the rippled beginnings of an older, teenage body. Two stomach hairs sat around his belly button like dark lace.

“It was nuts of Mum, eh?” he continued.

Pat didn’t do much more than nod.

“Stupid. But you should try and to forget it. Don’t think she would have done it if she knew you still were going to use it. You know her.” He pinched his brother’s arm until he got a response. Pat moaned his name and pushed him away.

To Philippa, their mother, he was Joshua Tree, her favourite LP. She had been with their father to it, and now it gave her impetus for late night cleaning.

The end of the school holidays was close and that morning Pat had woken up to a displacement, his mother’s efforts on his room. He and Joshua had fallen asleep in the sitting room over the obsessive combination of a puzzle of King Kong and build-from-parts skateboard. Not only was his patterning and harmony disrupted, she had gotten rid of things of his she’d thought he’d outgrown, and the absence of his wetsuit was the most upsetting. He hurried to the bins, they’d been emptied hours ago. He marched to his mother’s room in a huff, begging her to bring back the suit. He got closer to the bed.

She thought she had done him a favour. “You’re too big for it.”

“No!” he’d caught the belly of a wave for the first time in that suit. And Joshua had nicked some kids longboards and they’d sweetened every day of the summer holidays at Alex, the in-between beach that was a lucky charm for them. Snorkelled too, with Dad. Had the best times he remembered. He sunk down on the bed, looking down at his legs. He had a skinned knee that hadn’t closed over, still oozing serous fluid, sorer than he’d admit. Protesting even from the short dash to the bin.

“From the way you’re reacting, I think there’s something else you’re mad at me for.”

“No! You can’t just mess up my stuff and get rid of things without telling me.”

“Your room’s lovely now. You’ll be able to do your homework on your desk and it doesn’t reek anymore.”

“I liked it how it was.”

She rubbed her neck, “I’ll make that puzzle disappear too if you boys don’t clean it up. Can’t get to the dinnerware.”

Pat wanted to howl at the lack of understanding. Instead he walked out and continued out the front door and she didn’t say what was needed to make him stay. Joshua ran after him and quickly caught the edge of his shorts, but wasn’t going to pull him back. The boys walked to the sea in silence. They peeled off their newish shirts and left them on the rocks, other kids would take them, and it would upset their mother. Joshua flopped in like a second chance fish.

Pat wouldn’t go in for reasons other than sulkiness, the knee. He’d heard at school a boy got a flesh-eating bug in the same waters, a little way down. Pat hung to information like his mother. April light crystallised the coast. Pat didn’t like it much cooler than this. In a few weeks he’ll have to pull on the holey jumper hand-me-down from Joshua, musky under the arms and neck. Joshua had fouled him on the school oval, flattened him from behind just to get a reaction from the crowd so curious of brothers. Every time he moved his knee he felt the flap of skin tense and he felt weight on him.

He flexed his limbs, stretched out on his side like spooning the sea. Maybe they couldn’t appreciate this view, so familiar. Mountains straight ahead they had climbed after meeting Uncle Prue. Skyscrapers to the left. Pat knew a childhood before the development. Eyes closer to rocks and scraped knees weren’t remembered.

He had mumbled something.

“What?” Joshua said.

“Where were the dolphins?”

“Over there,” Joshua thumbed.

You wouldn’t know he was a boy comfortable with being alone.

Pat turned, propped up on his elbows and gazed into the space.

Joshua did too. He’d seen the pod of dolphins when he was out there alone, in the late afternoon after training. Before everyone left, he looked at the people of all ages fishing. Girls he might have known walked up and down the sandspit, but he didn’t go up to them. He was addicted to the smell of his own sweat carried in the salt air – it was satisfaction. If you’d observed him on the pitch or in and out of the classroom, you wouldn’t know he was a boy comfortable with being alone. He needed reflection too, and he found it in the scan of the water for a fin. It had been a secret until he’d told his brother over the puzzle.

He felt his spine tingle sighting the pod, and watched them feed until the dark quickened. Uncle Prue said the old people would tag-team with the dolphins, rallying the fish together to corner in tricky flaps like these. The dolphins were an impenetrable moving wall, and there’d had been easy pickings for both.

Joshua would not be too keen on going home to another peas and pie in front of a talent show that made him self-conscious; he wasn’t too young in his athletic career to know disappointment. Here he worried what it might mean to be older and be expected to do things like girls and jobs, things that would affect sport and who he was. He would do it and then Pat would do it and he would have to help Pat, and he didn’t have a father.

“Joshua Tree,” Philippa would start. “Your father liked me and he liked you and Pat alright, but he didn’t like being treated differently. Five years ago we were the only darkies on the spit. Look now.”

The adrenaline of the escape had worn off and the day was ahead of them now like a big block they didn’t know what to do with. Pat was thirsty and couldn’t think of staying here any longer. But every time he thought of Philippa he felt betrayal and shame. It was like the time she had the new boyfriend after their dad. It was just like Hans. The first time Hans stayed over he woke up early and made his brother and Pat melted cheese over eggs and ham before they went to school. Philippa got up just before they went out the door and said, “Did you use the cheese at the bottom of the fridge? Was off, I reckon.”

“Blue eggs and ham!” Hans said cheerfully. “Tastes alright, boys?”

He said he thought blue eggs and ham were the best.

Afterwards Pat had written to Hans. He said he thought blue eggs and ham were the best and he’d like Hans to do dad stuff with him and Joshua but some things just with him. Of course he didn’t give it to Hans, he had no intention to. Too shy to tell people how he felt, he wrote. His mother had found the note while tidying his room.

“Don’t show Hans!”

“I won’t,” Philippa said laughing.

He snatched it out of her hands. “Don’t tell him.”

The next morning she came home hungover but smiling about the previous night where Hans had taken her to see Icehouse at the Caloundra pub. “Hans thought you were cute,” she said, ruffling Pat’s hair.


A few weeks later he saw Hans along the waterfront with the blonde twenty-year-old barista. She doesn’t need you as much as we do, he wrote to Hans in another letter. Mum’s a big fat liar.

Joshua had stood up and walked down the spit and Pat thought he was going to jump into the water but he just stood there. “Haven’t seen those dolphins for a while.”

“I want to see them,” Pat rushed out his sigh.

“Yeah, well.”

Pat got to his feet.

“No chance when you’re around.” Joshua’s expression was firm.

He held him above the water and Pat struggled.

Their eyes were locked together for a second or two and then Pat launched himself, trying to get Joshua down and they hit the deck, Joshua writhing underneath. Pat tried to hold him, but they were soon tussling, and Pat felt the muscle memory – they’d done this before and here he was young again, before controlled by their mother. At the thought of their mother he slapped Joshua on the back of the head, and the stronger boy reacted, picking him up by his ankles. He held him above the water and Pat struggled.

Pat felt the spit of the sea. “Don’t.”

“What?” Joshua said with no aggression. “You deserve it.” He dropped his brother in.

As he went under, he felt his knee first, attacked by the salt. He shook and kicked frantically until he could find his feet on the bottom. He hugged his knee and spat and shivered again and faced away from his brother.

Joshua saw the old man on the beach. He must have been looking at them the whole time. He had been fly-fishing but had stopped and was just looking, squinting. Could have been a glare screening the beach from the spit.

Joshua stepped off the spit, an eye on Pat still sulking in the surf, and one on the old man.

“Hey!” the man shouted.

“Hello!” Joshua walked closer.

“There’s a woman looking for her boys. Youse those boys?”

“Maybe those boys,” Joshua said. “You caught anything?”

“Nothing for dinner,” the man said.

“For your wife?”

“Just for me.”

The water touched his feet.

I shouldn’t have got him in the water, but he was being a real baby.

“Your brother alright?” The man picked up his fishing pole.

“Should be. I shouldn’t have got him in the water, but he was being a real baby.”

“He hit you good I saw.”

“He hit me, but I still was too hard on him.” Joshua said.

“Your mother’s a lot darker than youse.”

“Yeah, so,” Joshua swept his hair back, almost dried. He concentrated through the glare. “I’ll get him out.”

“Water’s as flat as a model,” the man said behind him as he waded in.

Glasses of cold water down throats a reprieve. Sand and blood wiped on the furniture on the way. They were marched into showers, and into new skins. Dolphins moved on the tiled walls. Steam everywhere. They let the tap drip until they didn’t hear it.

They were coaxed to come out and sit on the carpet in the warm living room. Philippa put oil on Pat’s knee, a raw white circle. The puzzle was half done in front of them. Joshua yawned when Philippa wasn’t watching, the end of the holidays seemed a breath away, and the nights needed to be long. Pat had his face scrunched up, though he had smiled a little at Philippa noticing the sunburn on his feet, the week-deep line of his thongs.

“Should get you to the doc’s tomorrow with that knee,” Philippa said.

“Nah,” Pat said.

“What if it’s still bad when you go back to school on Monday?”

Pat shrugged. He reached over and put a dark piece in the gorilla’s nose.

“Alright,” Philippa put the lid back on the oil.

“Alright?” Joshua said.

Pat nodded. He touched a mark on his shoulder caused by their tussle. The soon-to-be bruises hadn’t been noticed. Philippa got up to put on U2, pop open a packet of chips. The brothers shared a look.

‘Wetskins’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 8, Issue 2: The Emerging Writing Edition.

Ellen van Neerven is the 2013 winner of the David Unaipon Award, and the author of Heat and Light (UQP, 2014).