A Wish Away – Lyndall McAuley

The sisters duck beneath the boom to the opposite side of the sailing boat, the high side, where they slip their legs beneath the rails. They sit hanging on, thighs touching, heartbeats thumping as the sailing boat tacks across the ocean, sailing faster, and again they go about. The water is up to their thighs, and they hit wave after wave. It splashes high above their heads, making them squeal with laughter, salt crystals in their hair and eyes.

They are sailing into the cove, and both girls stand on the bow admiring the view, the golden sand and the wooden wharf which brings back childhood memories. Saoirse squeezes water from her clothes and hair. Her eyes brighten when she sees the lighthouse has a new coat of paint. The building peeks out from behind tall jacarandas and their purple petals falling to the ground like snow.

Darcy pulls down the mainsail, their mum tidies the sheet ropes, and their dad shouts for Saoirse to lower the anchor. Saoirse stands with salt crystals glistening between her toes and the sunlight warming her bare shoulders. She adjusts her bikini top beneath her t-shirt and lowers the heavy anchor. It drops into the water with a splash, its chain rattles from her hands and the rope disappears and tightens, leaving her satisfied.

She hears Darcy behind her.

‘Do you think our stick fort is still there?’

‘I doubt it,’ Saoirse answers, taking in the overgrown scrub.

Saoirse lies face up on her sun-warmed beach towel. Seagulls and shags quarrel over sunny spots amidst the rock pools while a wallaby jumps across sand dunes, but she does not see – her freckled arm is hooked over her nose, blocking out the sun. Her charm bracelet falls to the end of her wrist with a clink and there is the squeal of the kettle – her parents making tea below deck.

Darcy shakes her shoulder; bangles jingling.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead. Mangoes! Just like old times.’

Darcy begins to eat her half like a ravenous dingo. Saoirse rolls her eyes and bends her mango’s splotchy orange skin, then rolls her tongue over the vibrant squares, first digging at one with the tip of her tongue so it dislodges, leaving roots she will get to later. The soft flesh against her parched tongue spreads joy. She pushes it against the bridge of her mouth where it separates, squirting sweet juice into the pouches of her cheeks. She swallows, slopping some juice from her mouth with a giggle.

‘There’s a man fishing on the wharf.’ Darcy says, shifting closer to the bow and sticking her legs beneath the ropes. She scrunches the soft mango skin between her fingers, letting the droplets dribble into her open mouth.

Saoirse ignores her sister’s deliberate slurping noises and refocuses her attention on the view. Her annoyance at Darcy seeps away when she sees the man sitting in his green picnic chair, fishing rod in hand. He tugs his grey cap down over his eyes and Saoirse smiles to herself, thinking this could be her dad in a few years. Their dad often compares them to the family in Swiss Family Robinson and their mum interjects, ‘without violence, and better written heroines’.

A pool of sweet juice congregates in Saoirse’s mango’s centre, too good to waste, and soon there is only a wrinkled casing which Darcy takes from her.

‘Do you think he lives in the lighthouse?’ Darcy muses.

‘People don’t live in lighthouses anymore. They’re automated,’ Saoirse says, noticing Darcy’s disappointment. ‘Many of these places are part of the Historical Houses Trust, protected and needing repairs. Maybe he does that sort of thing.’

Darcy decides to go back to the cabin to bin the mango skins and Saoirse stares at the house beyond the lighthouse. Its white timber panels and blue tiles stand out above the gum trees. There is a tyre swing hanging from a tree now, and she wonders who it belongs to. She sighs, imagining them collecting sticks, and building forts out of gum tree branches, like she and Darcy had done when they were small.

‘Dad said to raise the anchor. They’ve finished their tea. Unless you want to go exploring?’ Darcy is hopeful, and Saoirse straightens her charm bracelet.

‘Don’t you remember searching for sea shells? Sword fighting on the rock pools? Rolling down the sand dunes? Playing hide and seek in the bush?’ Darcy’s voice is gentle, soothing like the melody in Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

‘I remember,’ Saoirse whispers. Her voice sounds so distant.

On thermals, a cloud of dandelion seeds fly like round, fluffy pods tumbling through the sky. Darcy sees them seconds after Saoirse and elbows her big sister in the side, only stopping when Saoirse tells her she sees them. Some are lost to the waves – provoking Darcy to shout:

‘Quick, make a wish!’ she captures one in her outstretched hands. Saoirse nods, feeling silly, and grasps one, leaning her weight against the bow. For a moment she closes her eyes, wanting that house on the hill, and good grades, but now both seem trivial. She stares at the lighthouse, taking in its flowering jacarandas, petals like a layer of purple snow on top of the cottage’s roof. She sees lorikeets in the grevilleas, feels the sun and sea spray against her face and hears the deafening chirps of cicadas that dwell in the long grassy path down to the beachfront.

‘Did you make a wish?’ Darcy asks.

‘Not yet.’

Saoirse inhales. She uncurls her fingers, touches the hairs and blows her wish into the air, wishing the seed a safe journey. It rides the thermals for a while, hesitates, then drops onto a yellow buoy bobbing to and fro against the incoming waves. Darcy tugs her shirt, scrutinising her older sister. She does not let go.

‘What did you wish?’

‘I can’t tell you or it won’t come true. You know the rules.’

‘You never tell me,’ Darcy huffs, folding her arms with a frown.

Saoirse watches half a dozen kangaroos laze about in the sand dunes near the shore while the caretaker shifts into a more comfortable position. The waves are choppy, thumping against True Blue’s hull and overcast skies alert her to a change in weather.

‘Southerly’s coming,’ Darcy changes the subject, looking over her shoulder. ‘It’s raining out to sea.’

‘I feel like a swim. Come on, Darcy, race you to the wharf!’ Saoirse grins, diving into the ocean, and flipping her hair from her face as she resurfaces. It is not as cold as she expects, or as luxurious as she remembers. She kicks away what she hopes is a clingy piece of seaweed, and treads water to keep herself afloat while waiting to see if Darcy will follow. If she listens closely she can hear Darcy’s anxiety about sharks and prays they are not interested in porcelain-skinned Irish pixies. When she reaches the rock pools, disrupts the kangaroos, and wakes the old man, she salutes to Darcy, who pokes out her tongue in response.

Saoirse runs over the heated sand dunes to the tiered garden above.

‘I’m just going to be a sec,’ she whispers to herself.

The pebbles are hot underfoot, some stick between her toes. She has sailor’s feet like her dad. Darcy does too – they often try to prove whose feet were best by seeing who could pick up a rope between their toes the fastest.

She hears the snap of a picnic chair and looks down the hill to see the man packing up. He adjusts his cap, leaning the rod against his shoulder. His shoes crunch over the sandy wharf and then up the gritty dirt path behind her. She wonders if she is trespassing and hurries onwards, thinking of excuses to tell him.

Saoirse flits across the pebbled path, hardly stopping to collect the jacaranda petals, let alone read the inscription on the lighthouse. She opens a dilapidated wire gate, her eyes still on the old man whistling merrily, and collides with a boy. Shaken, she rubs her stomach, unsure of who to blame. He is rubbing his nose, and checking his hand alternately.

‘It’s not bleeding, if that’s what you want to know.’

‘That’s good. Mum will kill me if I’ve broken it again.’

‘How did you break it the first time?’ Saoirse squeezes through the gate.

‘I did a back flip off the wharf and banged my nose on the way down.’

Saoirse grabs her own nose, as if to check it hadn’t run away from her at his news.

The boy holds out his hand. ‘Jim,’ he says.

‘Saoirse. Can I take a look around?’

‘Serrr-shhha…’ he struggles over her name, and stares at her like she is the goddess Demeter.

They stand together, Jim rolling on the balls of his toes and Saoirse craving to get a closer look at the house on the hill. Jim is silent, except for his incessant sniffing. She hears the caretaker enter the cottage and pots and pans rattle about. Darcy was right. He does live there.

When she returns to Jim he is sitting on a stone step, pulling loose threads from his t-shirt and releasing them into the breeze. She hears a distant motor and half wonders if her family have left her behind.

‘Oh!’

Jim catches a fluffy dandelion seed, careful not to let it escape and brings it close to his face, shutting his eyes tight. She thinks he might sneeze but then he holds up his arm, loosens his fingers and lets the seed fly. It catches on yellow grevillea flowers nearby while rumbles of thunder threaten from a distance.

‘I love those things,’ Jim finally admits with a sigh.

‘Do you think the wishes will ever come true?’ Saoirse asks.

‘Sure. Why, don’t you?’ His hopeful blue eyes remind her of Darcy’s and she doesn’t want to crush his dreams, but there’s a sinking feeling inside her, like somebody needs to tell him that not all wishes come true.

The cottage door opens, and the man sets up a ladder against the gutter. He is wearing green overalls, and there is a lingering scent of honey and damper…and tea.

‘I like him. He fixes things, you know. Sometimes even whistles a tune.’

‘What kind of tune?’ Saoirse watches the man lift leaf-litter out of his gutters.

‘I don’t know.’ Jim seems lost, then perks up. ‘See that roo over there? It’s his friend.’

Saoirse looks up, enchanted by the newcomer – an albino kangaroo, ears twitching in the dwindling sun. The animal sees them, and flops down under a shady gum. Another gust of wind sweeps the seed from the grevillea, taunting the handsome kangaroo.

‘There’s another summer snowflake,’ Jim tugs her arm.

‘Snowflake?’ Saoirse brushes her wet hair from her face.

The man descends the ladder, carrying a garbage bag, and wipes his brow with a sigh. He drops the heavy bag at his feet, then scratches his stubble. Jim points to the dandelion seed, yelling out to the man, and Saoirse steps backwards, uncertain.

‘It wants you to make a wish.’

The man looks up, his forehead is wrinkled, eyes a dull grey. The seed swirls around him, trying to get his attention. Others, just like it, are returning and they stick to the man’s face, although he is undeterred.

Saoirse and Jim watch in wonder as the man’s appearance changes.

‘How-?’ Saoirse begins, but her question fades away.

Darcy will not believe her.

Jim smiles. ‘They’re not always called summer snowflakes, you know, sometimes they have another name.’

Saoirse furrows her eyebrows as the caretaker laughs a jolly laugh, and the kangaroo cleans its whiskers. Jim squeezes her hand and Saoirse watches in disbelief as the man smoothes the hairs down, taking each child’s wish one at a time.

‘Aha,’ he murmurs, hearing their wishes echo in his ears.

He looks straight at her.

‘Saoirse,’ he smiles, hastening to meet her.

She nods, frozen to the spot. ‘I have something for you.’ She watches him reach into his rubbish bag, puzzled because she had seen him stuff it with leaf litter. He opens his hand, and drops an iron key into her palm. It is cold and heavy, and she turns to Jim with a thousand questions, but he is gone and so is the caretaker, and the kangaroo, and the bag of leaves.

Darcy is calling her. Saoirse stumbles forward, curiosity and excitement and possibilities building inside her. She explores the key’s intricate patterns with her thumb before inserting it into the lighthouse’s red door. It clicks.

Heart racing, Saoirse pulls herself back, thinking of Darcy. A flash of gold glints in the corner of her eye, and she reads the inscription on the lighthouse with bated breath.

Everything you can imagine is real – Pablo Picasso

Darcy bursts through the scrub, meeting Saoirse at the opening of the bush trail. Her face is flushed and she’s holding a stitch in her side. She furrows her brow.

‘Didn’t you hear me calling?’

‘I must be going deaf,’ Saoirse answers, keeping her secret to herself.

‘It’s the storm, but maybe you’re also losing your marbles,’ Darcy says, putting her hands on her hips to gather her breath.

‘Maybe,’ Saoirse mutters, looking over her shoulder at the pot plant on the window ledge. ‘Last one to the boat is a rotten egg!’ she says, as the first droplets of rain begin to fall.

Lyndall McAuley

Lyndall McAuley is a self-published author of the crime-fiction novel Detective Kids, released in 2009. She is studying Creative Writing at Macquarie University, with a keen interest in Literature, Australian History and Indigenous studies. She loves to read Agatha Christie mysteries and is currently working on a historical fiction novel set in Australia.

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