She was making lamingtons, knew the recipe by heart, like a proper Ozzie. They’d run out of chocolate, so she went onto the deck, climbed down into the lifeboat and drove it along the narrow passage between the yachts and monstrously big Great Barrier Reef catamarans.
It was on the way back from the shops, as she stepped from the lifeboat up onto their sailing boat that her foot slipped. Her sandaled foot was submerged in the water for a moment, but it was the wrong moment. A sharp jab, the shopping scattered across the deck. Barely a mark on her ankle, despite the burn. Maybe the arthritis flaring up? She tidied up her mess. The jam jar had survived her clumsiness, raspberry, Bill’s favourite. She got back to baking: melted the chocolate, dipped the squares of sponge in, one side, then the other. It was then, as she sprinkled coconut shavings into a bowl, daydreaming about DHL-ing a batch to the grandkids in England, that the sting took effect.
Bill heard the clatter of crockery, and swearing. He stuck his head through the door and made a quip about it. She tried to laugh, they’d been married 47 years, their sense of humour had long jelled, but her voice was muffled by the muscle cramps in her arms and legs. Then her kidneys and back rung with pain and her face burnt up. She looked at the stove, but it was off. The burning was inside her. Bill called mayday on the radio and for an ambulance on their shared mobile phone. She made it as far as the hospital, pain despite the morphine, and then her body looked at her across the other side of a table. She burnt and shivered in the hospital bed. Her body sat quietly, leaned in and said: ‘We’ve had a good life you and me.’ Bill, on the chair beside her, his terrified face. ‘He’ll understand,’ her body placed old, blue veined hands on the table. A click in her head and Bill melted into the walls.
Now. After. Bill sat at the back of their sailboat, the midday sun burning into his skin, the cat meowing for food. Skin cancer would take too long, he didn’t want to sit like this, stupefied, he wanted justice for Jenny. But how do you take revenge on a fish? And this wasn’t a Moby Dick sea monster, a thing with a brain, with intention or a sense of self-worth. Irukandjis are the world’s most poisonous box jelly fish. The creature that killed the love of his life, was the size and appearance of a contact lens.
Bill stared up at the estuary, trying to spot their translucent bodies being washed down the river into the sea. He’d have welcomed a sighting of old Devil, the crocodile who roamed these waters. Crocs ate jelly fish, right? Old devil could eat anything. He’d tried to eat the captain of the prawn fishery, but the captain had thrown in his dog and saved himself. Since then, all the sailboats moored up in the cheap mooring spots, where old Devil liked to hunt, had purchased a pet just in case.
Jenny and Bill’s cat hadn’t been bought for old Devil. Jenny had rescued the emaciated fur ball from a beach in Papa New Guinea. It now meowed and licked the lamington bowl that had long been licked clean. The cat gazed out across the water at the yachts. Those posh pets were a hop away from a world of discarded prawn heads and barramundi tails. That’s it, Bill thought, watching the cat watch the water. A jellyfish that firebombs your nervous system with your own hormones has no weapon of its own. The battleground is inside you. A fair fight, that’s all he wanted. And if he lost, he would be eating lamingtons in the sky with Jenny.
First he fashioned a harness for the cat, with a long rod so she could stay out of the water. That way, he could yank her in if old Devil came sniffing, buying himself enough time to climb back on board. A fair fight. Irukandji vs Bill. He stripped, maximum skin exposure, so the jelly fish had more chance of brushing him as they floated out to sea. Fired up by his plan, he felt a sense of elation. The cat tried to undo the harness with her claws, sensing things were not in her favour. Bill stood in waist height water for five minutes, then ten, where were they? A boat of tourists passed, they stared, the tour guide made up a story so as not to alarm them.
“That’s Bill, he is wearing a flesh-coloured stinger suit,” he lied.
“It’s very realistic,” a woman observed, “It even has chest hair!”
“But what about the crocs?” A kid asked pointing at the cat on the boat with a fishing rod attached. “And why is he fishing that cat?” The tour guide didn’t have a clue why old Bill had attached a fishing rod to his cat. He sensed there might be some logic to it, there had been a spotting of a four metre saltie nearby.
“Haven’t you seen Crocodile Dundee?” He improvised. “That movie was inspired by Bill.” Then he radioed the Port Douglas police and told them the truth. Old Bill was mad with grief. He was starkers in the estuary, freaking out tourists. Within a few minutes a sleek blue vessel approached.
“Come on,” three officers reasoned. They flexed their arms, the word POLICE on their ironed shirts. “Go swim up on the beach, inside the stinger nets. This is right where the young ones get washed out to sea after the first rains.”
Bill hated the reminder. He splashed at them with the hand that wasn’t holding onto the rod. The boat circled, trying to talk sense into the old fool. They couldn’t arrest someone for going for an ill advised swim, and yet, letting him get stung or eaten didn’t fill them with joy. The beaches might have to be closed, the lifeguards would be out of a job for the season, and there would be paperwork.
They tried to talk sense into him for 15 minutes. And then, finally, he felt it, the sting of the irukandji. He played compliant so they wouldn’t ship him off to A&E. He thanked them for their lecture, promised he’d invest in a stinger suit. He climbed back into his home, flashing his naked butt at them, fetched a can of consolatory tuna for the cat and waved the police boat away, all gritted smiles. Then he lay on their bed. The bed he’d shared with Jenny for all these years as they had sailed, slowly, around the world. And the venom slid through his nerves and into his adrenal gland, where it released his hormones. His body fireworked with pain. He thought of Jenny, the way the hospital ward had gone quiet around them as her sweat-drenched face looked up at him for the last time.
His laughter was heard by the diners at the yacht club, deranged laughter that reached the congregation at St Mary’s By The Sea. But the next day, Bill and the cat were gone.
Maybe he made it to England to cook Jenny’s lamingtons for the grandkids. Maybe old Devil got them. But whenever the rains come, you can hear laughter in the mangroves, as if he’s still there, naked in the water, winning, over and over at irukandji roulette.