Early morning sun cut through the mist as lean and white-haired Bill Soper rubbed under an armpit and once again thought will he or won’t he? On six consecutive mornings the fit-looking 70-year old had looked impassively at the boatshed on the edge of the estuary and returned inside his cottage that he no longer shared with his wife.
Betty lay buried in the cemetery outside the small town.
Watchful blue-eyed widow Copeland was out on her porch drinking coffee, a rather early appearance for her, being a late-riser. She called, “Good morning Bill.”
“Morning,” he muttered, glancing at her.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again Bill, people around here are glad you are back home. Now get out there and begin fishing.”
Bill turned and looked directly at Elizabeth, his face impassive. “Why do you say that?”
“Because life goes on. Over the years you have been out there fishing when the tide is suitable and so regularly you have become something of an institution.”
“I killed Betty,” he said dully.
“Bill, move your ass and get down to that boatshed.”
“Bill, I want you to take me fishing. Give me five minutes to fill a flask of coffee and put on my shirt and shorts. I’ll not bother with my face or hair.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I’m a bossy old bitch.”
“Old? You’re not much over sixty.”
Elizabeth snorted and asked what the hell did age have to do with fishing?
Fifteen minutes later the odd couple were anchored in the estuary over a mussel bed and an hour later they came they came ashore. Bill held out his hand and Elizabeth smiled and said, “How gallant.” Barefoot, she then stepped out of the boat into ankle deep water.
“How are you feeling Bill?”
“Surprisingly better than expected although I’m still chewed up inside.”
“Time cures that. I’ll come out again with you tomorrow.”
Bill scratched his butt. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s called rehabilitation, steering your life back to normal. Now take one snapper for your breakfast and give me the remainder. The Smithers are coming for dinner tonight. It’s time you faced Susan.”
“Now don’t be naughty. I’ll tell Susan you’ll be there for dinner.”
“Then she won’t come and you’ll only have Toby and me as guests.”
“You know Susan is not a gutless wonder. She’ll come and may think about kicking your ass or screaming at you like she did at the burial.”
“No but thank you for the invitation.”
“Bill please, don’t be a gutless wonder. Susan is scarcely half the size of you.”
He intoned, “Woman, are you deaf or were you so busy interfering you can’t understand the word no?”
“Talk to me like that Bill Soper and it won’t be Susan kicking your ass; it will be me in my hiking boots.”
Bill grinned. “You always were a toey bitch from the day you started at school.”
“Yes, and the kids picked on me and you being a senior pupil came over and protected me. Why did you do that?”
“You lived in my street.”
“Oh Bill I’d not thought of the reason being that simple, but should have guessed. We talked about that incident at the school reunion a couple of years ago. Why didn’t you tell them then?”
“You were being bullied on you first day at school. Jesus, what sort of experience would that had been if I hadn’t got it sorted. Your mum would have dragged you to school next day and you would have been terrorized.”
“God isn’t it amazing? I struggle to remember what I did last week and yet clear memory of my first day at school is back with me.”
Bill kicked sand and mumbled. “I remember when you married Eric Copeland. That day I thought you were the prettiest woman I’d even seen.”
“Well that’s gone behind the wrinkles. Make sure you eat all the fish. You have become skinny.”
“I’ll take the fish. Come over for breakfast in twenty minutes. I’ll have the rest of the fish filleted for you by then.”
“Oh Bill, thank you. I was so dreading that job.”
“It’s man’s work,” Bill said, clipping the steel cable to the dinghy and moving off to inside the boatshed to hand-winch into shelter.
* * *
Elizabeth smiled triumphantly. She’d half-pulled the tough-ass coot out of his paralysis. As she showered — the smell of oily fish bait was not a favourite perfume — she chided herself. Perhaps she was pushing it too fast bringing Bill face to face with his nemesis. At the cemetery Susan had lost it. Not only had she flung verbal abuse at Bill as the casket began to be lowered into the grave but she’d charged him, swinging her handbag. Bill faced her, offering no resistance, eyes downcast. A couple of mourners caught Susan and held her and Susan fainted and was carried away.
His much-loved wife Betty had spent most of her working life as a district nurse, visiting people in their homes requiring dressings to be changed or restricted medication to be administered or to bath them. She’d met Bill on a fishing trip and that interest developed into romantic interest. Decades later when Betty retired at fifty-five Bill took early retirement as chief engineer at the district council. They sold their house and bought the cottage with its licensed boatshed beside the property that Elizabeth and her late husband later purchased. Betty and Elizabeth became great friends but Betty’s best friend remained Susan; they’d gone through high school together.
On the morning of the tragedy Bill prepared to go out fishing and Betty said she didn’t like the look of the sky. She had no wish to be out in a thunderstorm. Elizabeth heard that conversation and had to repeat it in court.
“We can get in half and hour’s fishing. When the storm hits it could be too rough to get out for some days.”
Betty had said, “I question your judgment Bill” and so did the court judge who sentenced Bill to 30-days imprisonment for ‘careless disregard of life at sea’ and said it would have been jail for three to six months had Bill actually put to sea amid a storm. Bill was released after 16 days in jail on the grounds of showing remorse and exhibiting good behaviour.
Elizabeth sniffed, drying herself and bouncing her breasts in her hands, wondering if Bill would really be interest in them at his age. It had been bad luck really. She’d been forced to admit she’d not gone out into the estuary with the skies looking the fearsome but clearly the storm was still out to sea and being almost high tide in the estuary the water was quite calm.
But some fifteen minutes later she (and five other witnesses) looked on horrified at a water spout roared in, took out the port signal beacon at the head of the estuary, overturned the dinghy and demolished the clubhouse on the golf course on the other side of the estuary.
Elizabeth called emergency services and then ran to the water’s edge. She could see Bill diving repeatedly searching for Betty and then she heard the terrible cry, “Betty!” and the next thing she saw was Bill, who must have been absolutely exhausted, face down in the water.
A rubber inflatable zoomed down from the upper estuary and the two men pulled Bill aboard and one attempted to revive Bill while the other skimmed the boat to shore, having sighted police cars and an ambulance arriving.
Bill was revived but refused to go to hospital for checks, instead jumping on to the inflatable and yelling go, they must find his Betty.
Betty’s body surfaced a couple of hours later at the heads on the ebbing tide and was recovered.
“So sad, so sad, but at least I’ve got him out fishing again,” Elizabeth sighed, dressing in clean underwear, shorts and shirt and doing her hair and putting on lipstick before going next-door for breakfast.
* * *
Bill showered and changed into better clothes. He thought twice and grabbed a shave. “If it hadn’t been for that interfering woman I wouldn’t have to do this,” he moaned without malice. Actually having her company out on the water had been good. She’d kept him talking and that was a relief from gloomy thinking. But rethinking that terrible morning was no longer nightmarish. He should have been more prudent and not gone out, he accepted that. But for some time now he’d accepted the mitigating words of his defence lawyer, Alf Morgan’s pretty young daughter and mother of two, Beth. The words he particularly clung to were: “The actuality is, your honour, that a freak of nature was responsible for the unfortunate death of Mrs Betty Soper.”
Elizabeth the cheeky bitch came in without knocking and he scowled at her when she said, “Oooh, you’ve dressed up for me. I’d though those smelly fishing clothes were glued to your body.”
“You’ve put on lipstick. Do you fancy me?”
“Get away with you,” she laughed easily but Bill noticed she appeared to eye him keenly, perhaps half-keenly. Elizabeth and him? Why on earth would she be interested in him? He’d heard her say, “I enjoyed being out with your this morning” and felt his lips move as he mumbled, “Thanks for having to guts to go out on the water with me.”
“Oh Bill,” she said, frowning heavily and then said, “Courage is a better word that guts in that context.”
“Bill, I trust you don’t mind me saying this but isn’t it time you stopped apologizing so readily? You are not a monster ever if that shithouse of a judge gave you a month when we all were expecting a suspended sentence. But you know she was a bloody Aucklander although working in Whangarei so what else could we expect?”
“I hear what you say. You are a good fisher.”
“Oh Bill, a compliment. You’ve made my day.”
“I know what you are attempting to do Nurse Copeland.”
“Do you now,” Elizabeth said. “And is it working?”
“Could be. If it helps I don’t regard myself as a criminal. I did what that bloody Auckland judge didn’t do. I heeded the words of young Beth, “A freak of nature was responsible for the unfortunate death of Mrs Betty Soper.”
As Bill lightly dusted the snapper fillets in flour before putting them into the pan heated with a heavy smear of half butter and half sunflower oil, Elizabeth looked thoughtful, very thoughtful indeed.
“I’ll get the juice and bread,” she said.
“I don’t have juice or bread.”
“Oh have you run out?”
“I don’t buy then. I serve the fish with parsley and tomato.”
Elizabeth opened the fridge and saw it was almost bare. “There’s no parsley and tomato here. In fact there’s practically not food here. What the hell do you eat?”
“The tomatoes and parsley are on the shelf of the kitchen window just above me. Take them from the fridge and they’re tasteless.
“Bill. Listen. You don’t seem to have much food here. This is why you are losing weight.”
“Well what do you want me to do? Shop at the fucking supermarket where everyone stares at me.”
Elizabeth said gently. “Bill I’m going to the supermarket at 10:30 today. Please come with me.”
Bill turned the fillets and said, “Okay.”
As they walked around the supermarket, Elizabeth filling Bill’s trolley with things she insisted he required, he said, “We seem to be involved in a lot of duplication here.”
“Yes, I had the same thought. Perhaps we should live together?”
And then Bill stunned her. “That’s a thought.”
“That was a joke Bill.”
“Am I not allowed to have a thought riding on a joke?”
“What? Oh, of course you are Bill. Are you coming on to me?”
Bill said, “You won’t be interested at your age.”
“What living with someone else?”
He didn’t answer.
“Well we’ll see about that. Point out to me all these people who are staring at you,” Elizabeth said, waving at a woman who was waving at her.
“I haven’t seen any yet actually staring. I’ve noticed a couple of older guys staring at your breasts, the rotten sods.”
“Well I suppose they are there for that ancillary purpose.”
“Here are the oils. Just take the only bottle of sunflower oil.”
“Why not ten?”
“It’s best practice to take only a week’s supply and then when you return new stock will probably be on the shelf.”
“Who taught you that?”
“My mother. Betty’s mother would have taught her.”
“I don’t want to talk about Betty.”
“But I do.”
Elizabeth stopped walking. “Bill?”
“Okay, you’re allowed to talk to me about Betty.”
“It’s perfectly natural to talk about the dead Bill. Perhaps we should just slip into this. First I’ll talk to you about my mother who died eight years ago. No I won’t. Let’s finish up here and go for coffee.”
“Just make up your mind will you?”
“Oh where has polite Bill gone and don’t you dare say sorry.”
“You really are a cheeky bitch.”
Elizabeth cuffed Bill over the ear and he howled, “That hurt.”
She smiled and said bullshit and he grinned.
Elizabeth insisted on buying the coffee. She came to the table with a cream cake for her and put a plate down in front of Bill.
“You know what it is, two slices of bacon and egg pie.”
“I don’t eat till dinner time.”
“So that’s why your trousers are falling off you. I saw you hitching them up as we walked around the supermarket attempting to find those people who stare at you.”
“My trousers are growing wider.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Bill would you please stop being a naughty boy and eat your food. Mummy might give you a reward.”
“Are you back on to sex again?”
Elizabeth found a blush she didn’t know she had. “Bill,” she said weakly. “I’m only working on your rehabilitation with no other motive than your welfare. And don’t you dare say you’re sorry.”
“Sorry,” Bill eyed her defiantly. “That was a private thought about sex. I ought to have kept to myself. Actually it’s a mean-spirited thought and I shouldn’t have generated. It’s really your fault; you have resuscitated my teasing spirit, taking only a few hours to do it.”
“My fault?” Elizabeth spluttered. “How dare you.”
“Cool down lady unless you want a clip over the ear. You appear to be firing up my engine. Suddenly today I feel different and it’s because of you. Take credit instead of looking to kick my ass.”
“Oh Bill, I’m sorry.”
“There goes that word again. I’ll try not to tease you again.”
“No, I don’t mind you teasing. Betty used to say she hated you teasing her but we know she loved the attention and you made her laugh. Laughing keeps people young Bill.”
“Okay, I’ll drop in a tease now an again. I’ll try to avoid referring to sex.”
“Providing no one else is around you may tease me alluding to sex.”
Bill took a huge bite of pie to avoid having to talk and that gave Elizabeth the opportunity to tell him.
“Bill, now I just want you to say yes. I want to ask Beth if your case is still within the time limits for an appeal. I think it will be. If so, I’ll ask you to instruct her to lodge an appeal to have your conviction quashed. Please give me permission to approach Beth. An appeal will be expensive but I’ll pay half the costs; I have plenty of money.”
Bill chewed looking out the café window into the mall. He muttered something that sounded very much like ‘Damn interfering woman’ and then after a pause made Elizabeth feel as if her heart skipped a beat.”
“Yes, okay. Go ahead. I too consider an injustice was done.”
“Thank you Bill. Now let’s drop this. Talk about something to take our minds off it.”
“Will you come out fishing in the morning topless?”
“What? That’s the most preposterous thing anyone has ever said to me. I…” Elizabeth had seen the huge grin.
“Well that other thing we were talking about has gone almost clear out of my mind,” she grinned. “You are incorrigible Bill Soper.”
In the café restroom Elizabeth called Beth who said she could squeeze in an appointment in an hour’s time. Elizabeth drove Bill home. They unpacked the shopping, Bill’s three bags being on the back seat but he assisted Elizabeth with her ten bags first.
“I’m off back to town,” she said. “Do you wish to kiss me?”
“No, someone might be watching.”
“I thought as much. I know you are appreciating what I’m doing as your rehabilitation. Until this evening then.”
She jumped into the car feeling like sobbing and looked out to smile at him but he was already walking up the steps of his porch, not looking back.
That evening when Elizabeth was having pre-dinner drinks with Toby and Susan Smithers she kept glancing at the clock.
“Don’t worry darling, he’ll come.”
“He’s late. I told him we’d be eating at 7:15.”
“He’ll come, ” Susan insisted. “Bill Soper has never backed off anything threatening in his life. This will be strategy. He figures if I’m sitting eating when he arrives then chances of my kicking his balls flat are substantially reduced.”
“Susan,” her husband cautioned.
“It’s okay,” I’m in control. “The only thing I have for him is an apology.”
“Don’t apologize,” said Elizabeth and Toby agreed.
“Okay shall we eat?” Susan asked and ten minutes later Bill tapped on the side of the opened glass doors and entered.
“Oh hi Bill,” Susan said brightly and Toby said. “Hi mate” as Elizabeth jumped up and raced over to take the hand of her guest and held up her face.”
“It is polite to kiss the hostess.”
“Never heard of that,” Bill said, tapping her cheek with his lips. “I was taught it was mandatory.”
He glanced at Susan. “You ladies are looking stunning. Hi Susan. You have your summer tan already Toby. Rebuilding the clubhouse in this patch of great weather, eh. What took so long to get it started, the insurance company?”
“No the fucking bunglers associated with the Resource Management Act.”
Susan’s reprimand “Tony!” at used of the F-word was drowned in laughter.
“Please sit beside Susan.”
Bill, wearing a suit jacket done one, a white shirt and no tie and mis-match pants eyed Susan.
“It’s all right Bill. This dog has lost its bite. And I’ll have a kiss please and not that pathetic scrape you gave our lovely hostess.”
Dinner went well and during the pause before dessert was served Toby said, “Bill, as you know I’m club captain at the golf club. Insurance covers building the new clubhouse and that’s fine but the secondary cover for furniture and fittings is totally inadequate so we have begun fund-raising. I thought as Betty had been a ladies club captain at the time of her passing you might like to contribute something, say five hundred bucks towards the upgraded refurbishment that we estimate will cost $130,000.”
“For years Betty went over and played cards in the lounge every Thursday night,” Bill said.
Toby nodded. “Aye, and always helped set up the tables and return them and staying on to clean up.”
“She used to complain the room was drafty and the floor should be carpeted throughout.”
“Well that is being attended to this time,” Toby said. “When I say an internal upgrade, the biggest items are $36,000 for the new kitchen — most of the appliances will be donated — and the fitting out of the lounge comes to $53,700. We reviewed the estimates last night when architect Brenda Owens present her concepts and had priced everything out.”
“You’re wasting money on architect’s fees for the interior fit-out?”
“No Bill. Brenda and husband Stan are members. Brenda has put the plans through to completion and council approval and her concepts for the interior have been accepted. She will have someone from her office supervise the work for nix. No charge.”
“Christ, that’s generous and will save the club a packet. I go over now and write out a cheque while I’m thinking about it.”
Bill returned as coffee was being poured. “I don’t want a fuss made of this Toby. Just a small plaque at the entrance stating ‘Refurbished by the Estate of Betty Soper.’ That’s all.”
“Well I don’t know about that Bill… Jumping catfish. A cheque for the full $53,700!”
Both women looked astounded.
“Right you’ve said your piece and thanks. But that’s enough about that. Tell Elizabeth and me about the exterior colour scheme. We won’t want to look out on a ghastly yellow or orange clubhouse blotting the landscape.”
“Brenda has already attended to that. She has specified cedar, left to weather naturally and believes she can get that more expensive cladding donated; the two biggest suppliers locally are members as are their wives.”
“What do you think Elizabeth?”
Bill stayed on to help Elizabeth with the dishes. He’d noticed Elizabeth shut down Susan’s protest that she couldn’t leave without helping clear away and Susan being almost pushed out of the front door.
“Bill, I just want to say…”
“Can it Toby. Just buy me a beer sometime.”
After they waved off the visitors Elizabeth said, “That was exceedingly generous of you, all that money.”
“I have more money than I need.”
“Could you just say, “Yes Elizabeth. I was generous and proud I could help.”
“Yes Elizabeth. I was generous and proud I could help in memory of Betty.”
“Oh that’s so sweet. “I’ve been thinking of us living together.”
“What have you thought?”
“Aw Elizabeth, don’t push me.”
“All right. Will you stay the night?”
Bill sighed. “I’m not sleeping with you until I’m declared to be no longer a criminal.”
She groaned, “But that might be never.”
“Well Elizabeth, then that’s the way it has to be.”
“By God, if Beth fails to recruit a successful barrister to take your case to appeal, then I screw her neck.”
“God Elizabeth, steady on. Give the poor woman credit for doing her best.”
“Look I’m upset Bill, it’s best you go. Hug and kiss me. I want a decent kiss like you gave Susan.”
“Huh, call that a decent kiss. This is a decent kiss.”
After Bill finished and was heading for the door Elizabeth whined, “Bill, please stay. You can’t leave me in this state.”
But she was ignored.
The next morning Bill was pulling the dinghy down to the water on a light trolley with fat wheels when Elizabeth arrived.
“Room for a passenger?”
“No but room for a fellow fisher,” he grinned. “Thanks for last night. It was great to get onside with Susan again. I have only you to thank for that.”
“There is a small piece in this morning’s newspaper about the generous donation of the estate of Betty Soper to the golf club’s clubhouse appeal. The figure was announced but no mention was made of you.”
“Toby understood that and so would have left out my name when calling the newspaper last night.”
They caught four snapper, good size ones. “That’s enough for today and tomorrow unless you have special needs,” Bill said.
“No, let’s sit here for a while. You pour the coffee and I have something to show you. It won’t be a pretty sight but you did joke about me coming out topless.”
Bill’s eyes popped as Elizabeth pulled off her wind jacket and then her top. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Christ Elizabeth, put your clothes on. People on shore might have binoculars on us.”
“There is no crime in sunbathing. Anyway most people are not up yet. Don’t fuss.”
Bill ran his tongue over his lips. “They droop but you skin is almost perfect. I see no wrinkles.”
“Well don’t look closely. Oooh, my nipples are hardening.”
“Must be the cool air. It’s just on 6:00.”
“No, I don’t think it’s the air Bill Soper. I’ll put my top back on. I think of you every day and now know you know what you are missing.”
“If I get my prison sentence over-turned, you’ll get more than just me looking at your tits Elizabeth Copeland. They’re real beauties.”
Blushing, Elizabeth said, “No real beauties for someone of my age?”
“No. Just real beauties.”
* * *
On Wednesday Bill and Elizabeth were in Beth O’Brien’s law office for a video-conference with a barrister Paul Hamlin at his office in Auckland. Paul discussed the possibility of an appeal and said Bill could have a 50-50 chance. Bill said, “Not good enough.” Paul looked a little peeved and Beth waved to Bill as if to say shut up.
“Okay,” Paul said. “If you want someone with the ego who thinks she can give you better odds, then talk to my daughter Karen. She’s aware what we are up against out of interest and is only here to say hi to Beth. They went through law school together. Here she comes.”
Karen sat beside her father and greeted Bill and Elizabeth formally and Beth very informally, telling Beth they must catch up. The she said, “Mr Soper, we have to file to the High Court by Friday week to meet the deadline on this appeal against the decision of the District Court, pleading that your sentence was excessive and gave insufficient weight to the testimony of witness who established the storm was still some hours off and the water in the estuary when you put to sea was calm. It would appear the judge gave scant consideration to the most unusual nature of the waterspout phenomenon, there having been no record of the landing of a waterspout within at least 100 miles of your locality in eight-four years.”
“You know that information of waterspout landings is factual?”
“Yes Mr Soper. The information I gained in assisting my father in preparation for this video-conference is from the Met Office. Its records are accepted as hard evidence by the courts. This is just my gut feeling Mr Soper and not a legal opinion: do you want it?”
“As a gut feeling, yes I want your comment, knowing it’s not a legal opinion and your father probably is vexed at your talking to me in this manner.”
“You’re damn right Bill,” said Paul. “But for some reason judges seem to love Karen. She amuses them when sitting in a sea of boredom, I should think.”
“Well I think I’ll bring you home and dry on this one Mr Soper. Your conviction will remain but the penalty will be substantially reduced to little more than a reprimand with perhaps some community work but, I should think, taking you below a criminal offence.”
Bill perked up at that. “I don’t wish to upset you Paul but do you mind…”
“Karen may represent you. It’s your choice.”
“Thanks Paul, much appreciated.”
“I’ll get the papers completed Karen and…”
“I’ll come up to you this Friday afternoon Beth and we’ll complete. Please call in the prime witnesses for me to talk to each of them first. I will be with you by 3:00. Then may I stay with you overnight to see the children and James?”
“Yes and stay Saturday night as I have two interesting women coming for dinner — one is a novelist and the other a marine biologist. They do live together.”
“That’s no problem for me dear. Some women get their minds and preferences above men but not me. My current boyo Danny is playing representative cricket this weekend so I was heading to be on my own for much of the weekend anyway.”
* * *
The weeks drifted by. Bill and Elizabeth were far more relaxed together and Elizabeth no longer attempting to be sultry or teasing, knowing Bill had hammered his stake in the ground and that meant he’d not play around with her until his criminal conviction was overturned.
At least twice-weekly they went to the supermarket together and Bill couldn’t claim people were staring at him in disapproval or even worse disgust, because people came over to them and talked to them both. They began receiving invitations out as a couple and return-hosted, usually in Elizabeth’s house.
Bill’s barrister Karen called to advised the High Court proceedings would be limited to a straight review of the evidence and decision as filed and it could be a straight reassessment of penalty or the High Court judge could direct that the District Court re-hear the case.
“A number of appeals are being considered. I have no idea when I’ll be calling Karen.”
“Calling me, you mean?”
“No Karen. She has engaged me. She’ll call you. I suggest you keep handy to a phone tomorrow from mid afternoon.”
Bill called Karen to advise her.
“Relax Bill, worry won’t speed the process. Karen called me first. She only called you as a courtesy.”
“Do you have my mobile phone number?”
“Please check the number with me now.”
“You have called me; I have your number in my phone book.”
“Very well Bill. End the call now and I’ll make a test call.”
Bill’s phone went.
“Hello, it’s Karen. Bill my money is on you being given 40 hours’ community work.”
“I could work on the golf club restoration project.”
“I should be able to organize that. Just remember there’s a slim chance the appeal could be rejected.”
“Come on Bill, be brave. A slim chance I said. Why worry over a slim chance?”
Elizabeth and Bill went fishing next morning. “You and I are staying together all day today apart from toilet stops.”
“I’d like that.”
“For goodness sake, where’s the fight in you Bill?”
“Being passive is the answer. Karen says getting uptight awaiting a decision is senseless and I have to agree with her.”
“Well, I do too. Shall we go shopping?”
“And eat out.”
“And then go over and look at progress on the golf club.”
“And you won’t forget your phone.”
“God Bill, add a few more words. There’s no need to make this day boring for me.”
“Okay I will.”
Elizabeth’s rod bent over hugely and the line began to scream out.
“East the brake on your reel. It’s something big. Want me to cut the line?”
“No you fool. Pull up the anchor so the fish has the weight of the boat to pull.”
“Well we’re safe as the tide will take us inland.”
Elizabeth said, “Oh crap, it’s swimming against the tide, heading out to sea.”
“Well let it take us out. We have plenty of fuel in the outboard motor and the sea is only a light chop and the forecast was good.”
“Yeah, the light wind is actually meant to die out.”
They were towed out about half a mile.
Bill said they should see what it was. “It might be a giant conga eel.”
“Yuk. You won’t want that in the boat.”
“Exactly. Try reeling it in, take it slowly.”
“I think it’s turning. Coming back to us. Yes, I’m getting heaps of line back in.”
Bill looked over the side and half a minute later said, “Move slowly, don’t tip us out. Look over the port side.”
“Oh Jesus, not wonder we weren’t getting fish. It was eating them and scaring others away. What kind of ray is it?”
“A short-tail ray. Hard to estimate in the water but could be eight or nine feet long and weighing 250 to 300 pounds.”
“It’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught Bill… by a country mile.”
“We could attempt to bring it alongside and I’ll stick the gaff into it and you gun the motor to about 5 knots and run the boat up into the shallows.”
“And then what.”
“You can show it to people.”
“I don’t want to do that. I know I’ve caught a big fish. Cut the line.”
“No, tie the wrap the line around the anchor cleat and I’ll power off slowly. With a bit of luck the ray will resist coming in our direction. The line will break at the knot at the shank of the hook and so won’t be trailing a lot of line which could get it into trouble.”
The plan worked. All Elizabeth lost was her running sinker and the hook. The end of the line showed a wrinkled tip that was the remains of the knot.
“Thank for not wanting to land that ray ashore.”
“Nothing to it Bill. We both only take from the sea what we can eat over a couple of days and I sure wasn’t going to sink my teeth into a ray. I had my fun with it and now know what it’s like hooking a really huge fish. Go back in and I’ll serve baked beans on toast.”
“Good one Elizabeth.”
* * *
Bill and Elizabeth were driving to the golf club and were almost to the bridge across the upper estuary when his phone went. He pulled over and stopped.
“It’s Karen. All over Rover, your conviction stays, you must do 20 hour’s directed community work and that is the penalty for a minor offence. You are no longer a criminal.”
Elizabeth had climbed over on to Bill and had her ear against the phone.
“Congratulations Bill. I hope you’re taking that Elizabeth out to celebrate tonight. I’ve seen the way she looks at you. You’re on to a winner there if you decide to share your life again.”
“Thanks, a thousand thanks Karen. I feel a great weight has lifted. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Thanks for everything.”
Elizabeth kissed Bill heavily. “Oh this is so exciting. So your first thought was a great weight has lifted?”
“No, I thought hooray. I can now sleep with you.”
‘Sleeping with you’ turned out to be sex in the afternoons, and then not every afternoon by a long shot. After the first time they did it Bill had Elizabeth screaming with laughter when he said, “This is therapeutic. I think all neighbours should be into this. They had discussed living together and that’s when a few little persuaders to stay living unchanged began to emerge.
Little things mostly.
Bill liked to do his dishes at nights, last thing before he went to bed whereas Elizabeth preferred to wash a plate as soon as it had been used, even if it were only a single dish. She liked a very soft mattress and, oh yes, hard as boards was what Bill was used to. Her use of an electric toothbrush was an abomination to him and she bathed every evening whereas he bathed on Sundays although he showered most other days. Bill washed clothes on Monday and didn’t want Elizabeth ‘badgering’ him every day about what he wanted washed and he didn’t have an iron (his shorts and shirts were permanently wrinkled) but surprisingly their tastes in music were similar, there were no disputes over sound volume and neither had long conversations on the phone and they ate similarly. So there were grounds for a relationship and they decided to maintain it while living as neighbours next-door, harmoniously. So at nights when Elizabeth watched mostly trash on TV Bill would sit and think about solutions to the problems of the world… if he managed to keep awake.
Well, well. For an ageing couple they really were at it quite frequently but none of the ‘swinging from the rafters’ activity. To Elizabeth’s astonishment Bill was content to have it when and how she wanted it. As he’d told her when they first did it was, “I’m not as young as I was but I still like getting a shot away.”
Socially, they were happy. Bill’s former conviction being reduced to a minor offence had been reported in the media. The only apparent effect of that was more people began talking to them and the louts hanging around street corners stopped greeting him as “Hey Bill” (an alternative to hi Bill) as if he were one of them. Oh, the big thing was neighbour’s kids were once again allowed to hang around and go out fishing with Bill or just for a cruise up the estuary and receiving lessons about local history and flora and fauna that interested them ten times more than when the same ‘stuff’ was taught at school. They told Bill that. Women living on their little no exit street began dropping over with a cake or fresh-baked scones and then the guys began calling him over for a beer.
Normality hung over Bill again. Even his scattered family called and occasionally visited.
Bill kept on working at the golf club after being signed off as completing his twenty hours’ community work at the club. He’d helped to reconstruct two greens and plant trees during that period and now was cleaning up the building mess from around the almost completed new clubhouse. He’d returned to playing golf and persuaded Elizabeth to come out with him. She did, complaining she’d be useless. She was.
Patiently Bill worked on one thing at a time, gradually coaxing Elizabeth to think and move how she was supposed to do when swinging, rather that adhering to what felt ‘comfortable’. And the evening of that day when Elizabeth came screaming out of the women’s dressing room, not chased by a giant rat but to tell him her handicap had been posted, was the first time Bill had seen the young girl that still lurked in Elizabeth, or so it seemed. She got drunk that night. Not a pretty sight but good fun. She didn’t go out fishing next morning although conditions were perfect.
* * *
Proud of her 36-stroke handicap Elizabeth began watching the better women play, with their various faults. Her game turned to custard as she struggled to adopt the best features she saw in other players swing and approach to the game until one day the women’s captain Eileen Mitchell spoke to her.
“Liz, you game has turned to shit.”
“Yeah Skeeter. I don’t know what’s happened.”
“You were showing potential when you earned your handicap. You are still in reasonable shape Liz, not like some of the fat shapes of our generation.”
“It is so frustrating.”
“Is Bill Soper still shagging you?”
“It’s a waste using your graces and airs on me. Is he?”
“My best pal? Yes as a matter of fact.”
“They stop playing until he sorts you out.”
“Who Bill? He’s not teacher.”
“Oh yeah? He was particularly good as sorting out ladies with swing problems or staying down when putting. He plays on an eighteen because he’s become a lazy bugger. I remember when he was on single figures. The new honours boards were put up in the lounge this morning. When we get in I’ll take you up to see them. We shift into the new lounge on Saturday — you’ll be there for the opening and lunch to follow won’t you?”
“Yes, Bill invited me to accompany him. He received a special invitation.”
Elizabeth stood with Eileen in front of the honours board.
“Good gracious he’s had five holes in one.”
“Yes, Eileen said proudly. “That three more than the next best person.”
“Oh here’s a mistake, he was junior boys club champion for four years running. That can’t be right. They become junior men at seventeen.”
“It’s correct. Look at the dates.”
Elizabeth did the math. “God, he was boy champion at thirteen and then for the next three years. They looked at the honours boards for junior, intermediate and senior men champions and Bill’s name appeared in each listing and as men’s club captain and then club president 1990-1994.
“President’s serve for two years but Bill was so popular he was re-elected and re-elected.”
“But served only one year after re-elected in 1994. Why’s that.”
“He and Betty’s son Stephen was killed that year in a climbing accident on Mt Aspiring. Bill resigned and gave up playing golf until four months ago when he came back on to the course to do his court-directed community work.”
“I didn’t know he had a son.”
“Are you sure you’re sleeping with him? Everyone says you are.”
“Oh sorry. Stephen and his parents were estranged. He married a woman his father called a drug slut. She had tattoos and was often drunk or drugged. She had three pregnancies that Betty knew about, all stillborn.”
“Oh how terrible.”
“I suggest you don’t talk to Bill about it darling. He came back from the funeral looking sad but we thought at peace with himself. Betty wouldn’t go.
* * *
“Bill, I’ve lost my swing.”
He grinned and said he’d look for it.
“I’m not playing again until you sort it out for me. Then I promise I won’t try to copy better players.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Well that’s honest and tells me how to fix you. You and I are in the draw on Saturday morning to play the Stewarts.”
“But I won’t be ready,” Elizabeth wailed.
“Put in the effort Elizabeth and you will. I’ll drill you swing back into you. It will be boringly repetitive.”
“You think you can do that in three days?”
“Only this afternoon and tomorrow actually. On Friday you think nothing about golf. On Saturday you just play and your old swing will be back with you.”
“Oh Bill. You are so good for me.”
On Saturday Bill played as if he meant to return to former glory, coming in eight strokes under his handicap. Elizabeth play better than Lisa Stewart and that pleased her, knowing she wouldn’t get the booby prize awarded to the person playing ‘the most golf’.
They went up to the lounge and Bill said a little miffed, “They haven’t put up the plaque at the entrance in memory of Betty.”
“They will later darling,” Elizabeth said, squeezing his arm. “They would have had so much to do to get ready. Doesn’t the lounge look amazing? Oh look, we can see our houses.”
“Looks good in the estuary for fishing too,” Bill smiled. “Yes, these upgrades will attract new members. This club is poised for a big leap forward.”
The local Member of Parliament Isobel Manning was the speaker after the president’s welcome. She was entertaining, describing how clubs were the backbone of social activity in her Electorate and how she played her best golf watching TV tournaments.
She was then asked to pull down the covering from over the honours board.
What he saw made Bill stiffen and Elizabeth gasped. A simple sign in gold on varnished wood over the honours boards stated: The Betty Soper Memorial Lounge.
Isobel looked at the big plaque and said, “This is a fitting tribute to Betty Soper as the interior of this entire lounge was fitted-out by a donation made on behalf of Betty. Betty was a delightful person. I knew her from the time she visited our home to take piano lessons from my mother. Betty and I became great friends until we went out separate ways when we graduated from high school. Thank you every one for listening to me. This is a great day for this golf club that I feel is posed for a big leap forward.”
During the luncheon President Dan Watkins rang a bell.
“Ladies and gentlemen. You will be aware that our esteem patron Walter Gunson died early in the year. Please stand for a brief moment’s silence in respect of Walter Gunson, a stalwart to this club for sixty-eight years.”
“Thank you for that,” Dan said. “Shortly after Walter’s death your committee discussed approaching a successor as patron but we couldn’t agree on anyone. Our wise committee secretary Pam Loft advised us to leave it in abeyance, that someone would step forward, and so that has come to be. It is my greatest pleasure to ask Bill Soper to stand.
Bill rose to acclamation.
“Sorry to drop this on to you without prior consultation buddy but the committee decided unanimously last night that I invite you at this opening function to assume the honorary post as this club’s Patron.”
“Thank you Dan, I accept this great honour,” Bill said, and sat down to huge acclamation.
“Well, that satisfies me that I’m no longer a community reject,” Bill said, kissing Elizabeth. Please marry me.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
A month later the course was closed from 11;00 am and at noon Bill and Elizabeth stood on the 18th green in front of a celebrant and were married, Bill’s brother from Auckland being best man and Susan bridesmaid.
The lavish reception was held in the Betty Soper Memorial Lounge for the eight-two guests and the small wedding party.
* * *
Ahead of Elizabeth and Bill Soper lay eleven years of happy marriage despite living in their respective homes. It ended one morning after they caught the usual four snapper. Bill died in Betty’s arms after collapsing, just after he began winching the boat up from the water.