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* Set in a small east coast community in New Zealand’s Far North.
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 Ankara travesti 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 Antalya travesti 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 İstanbul travesti 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.”
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