Em Readman


I pull up the pots and watch the silt sediment bloom around my ankles, then settle. The crabs have wedged between the netting, grasping the chunks of baitfish Jean cut up yesterday morning. The pot is teeming with them. 

I release the jennies and have my pick of the boys, then let the others go. I throw my winners into the cooler with a towel and salt water. 

Jean is standing calf-deep in water, looking out across the estuary. I call their name, waving them in to help me carry the cooler to the car. They barely make a ripple as they come in to meet me on the sand. We haven’t been back at this beach together since we were kids.

“How’s the penthouse?” I ask.

“Sweaty,” they say. “I keep thinking I’ll fall out in the night.”

“Do you keep it zipped?”

“I do, but Pat sometimes leaves it open when he gets up for a leak.” Their grip on the handle falters, and we set the cooler down so Jean can flip their wrist the other way. 

Jean and Pat have been travelling for a while, sleeping in the rooftop tent attached to their ancient Land Cruiser. They’re staying in our driveway for a few days on their northern pilgrimage. 

We haul along the leaf littered path towards the carpark, choosing the prong to the right, forged over decades of beachgoers’ shortcuts. Jean once told me these are called desire paths.

“Will the kid be up when we get back?” Jean asks. 

“He was up when we left, little terror.” I fiddle with the latch of the ute tray. “He can open his door—and ours, so he’s in our bed smacking the shit out of us before the sun comes up.”

Jean laughs. “You’re selling parenthood real well.”

“You’re a hard sell.”

“Not wrong.”

We pile in and start driving. The house is alive when we get back. Pat is chasing Leo in an attempt to wrangle a rashie on him. I hear peals of laughter, tiny thuds on the deck as he whirlwinds from one end to the other. I wave up to the verandah, and Leo stops long enough for Pat to scoop him up. Pat waves Leo’s doughy palm back down at us.

“Look, Leo—there’s Dad!” Pat says. “And there’s my girl!” 

Jean watches them for a few seconds, jaw clenched, then wordlessly opens the cab door to start pulling the cooler in. I go to help them, but they’ve already got the tray open and at this point, I’m more hindrance than help. I climb the stairs up to the boys. 

“How’s my little man?” I ask as Pat hands Leo to me. Leo latches his arms around my neck; we’ve been calling it the vice grip. 

“He’s a slippery sucker,” Pat says. “You can’t catch him.”

Maude’s voice carries out from the sunroom as she comes to join us. “Now imagine what it’s like when he pulls that shit at the markets.”

I press my lips to her forehead as she detaches Leo from around my neck. She starts slathering sunscreen on him, giving him a small squeeze into his palm that he gently pats across her face. We’ll head down to the beach soon. 

“Where’s Jeanie?” Pat asks, handing me a coffee cup. 

“Down getting the crabs sorted,” I say. 

“Good pots?” 

“As good as you can ask for,” I tell him. 

We head down to the shoreline, leaving Jean to process the crabs. Maude and I linger behind Leo, who is on Pat’s shoulders, holding onto his hair. The two of them run along, ricocheting across the dunes towards the water. It’s a side of Pat I haven’t seen before. He’s been with Jean for a few years and since Leo was born, they connect at the hip whenever he visits. Jean loves Leo too, but with less vigour. Jean is not flash-hot around kids—nothing like Pat. 

“Under, under!” I hear him yell as the two of them tumble into the break and submerge. 

Leo surfaces, dutifully holding his nose. “Again!” he demands, as he takes a breath that expands through his tiny chest and shoulders. They dive under and come up laughing. 

Maude and I peel off our clothes, already sweat-soaked, and walk in to join them. 

Pat holds Leo around the belly and Leo gnaws at his shoulder, sucking the salt crystals off as they form. 

I spot Jean coming out of the house to the dunes. They’re standing at the crest, scraping their hair under a faded green cap. I listen to the sand squeaking under their feet as they approach the shoreline. Jean doesn’t undress to get in the water, just to their shins like earlier this morning. They’re wearing one of Dad’s old shirts, tired fabric billowing around their frame in the breeze.

“Jean!” Pat calls, motioning for Jean to get in the water. 

“I’m good here.”

Pat carries Leo to meet them at the shoreline. Maude starts to float on the water’s surface and I guide my hands to the small of her neck. She closes her eyes and relaxes onto me, as I take on her weight and steady her over the soft waves.

I look back to the shore; Jean stands tense as Pat leans into them. I cannot hear their exchange. Pat places Leo down and he clings to his leg in the shallows. Lifting up Jean’s shirt, I watch as Pat places a hand on their stomach, making a circular motion as he looks from Leo to Jean. Jean swats his hand away and sets off, back up the dunes, running. 

I lower Maude down so she can stand, and make my way over to Pat. 

“What happened?” I ask as I reach him.

“Don’t know what’s gotten into her. I was just talking about how it’s nice to have the little guy around, how I want—”

“Want what?” 

Pat sighs. “She’ll come around, surely. We could be just like you and Maude and Leo. Look at him.” He picks up Leo, who’s holding fistfuls of sand. 

Leaving the three of them, I head back to the house. Pat doesn’t follow me. What I could have said to him swills around my mouth, thought of too late.

When I get to the garage, Jean is plunging their hands into the ice slurry, fishing around for the stupored mud crabs. Their face is red hot, jaw clamped. 


“I’m okay, Pat,” they say, swallowing hard when they look up and see me instead. “Oh. I’m fine.”

I stand there, waiting for the words to come. “Um, I think Pat just gets excited around Leo. I don’t think he’s realised he’s upset you.”

Their hand lingers above their stomach where Pat touched it. Their chin wobbles as they close the cooler to sit on it, placing their chilled hands over their face. I sit across from Jean.

“I saw him put his hand on your stomach,” I say, and they nod. 

“I told him at the start,” Jean tells me. “I told him the day I met him I didn’t want that for myself.”

“I know.”

“He adores Leo; every time we see him, Pat lights up,” Jean says. “It’s not—I love Leo too, but I love that he’s yours. Not mine.”

“Well, whenever Pat wants to pop one out, he can.”

Jean exhales, amused. I ask them if the conversation about children happens often, and they nod. 

“Every highway drive, every bush walk. More and more. He keeps thinking I’ll change my mind.”

“Well, it’s obvious you’re not going to.”

They pause. “I want to want it. I do. I just can’t.” 

Jean stands and pulls the first mud crab from the ice, gently placing it into the pot of simmering water. I help them with the others.  We watch the crabs in the pot. Jean leans on my shoulder, letting out a jagged breath. 

“This isn’t going to go away,” I say.

“I know,” they tell me.

They straighten, brushing my arm as they turn. I watch Jean start the walk back down the beach path, shoulders unclenching as they go.

Em Readman is a writer from Boorloo (Perth). For a day job, they work in the equity communications team of a university. They have been published in The Suburban Review, Aniko Press, Bowen Street Press, with the Hunter Writers Centre, and others. 

Published by swim meet lit mag

swim meet lit mag is a young online publication based in Brisbane, Australia. Swim meets bring people together; swim meet lit mag seeks to offer an accessible space to read and publish all kinds of creative work from around the world, with a particular focus on local emerging writers. Now in its third year of operation, swim meet lit mag plans to continue expanding its catalogue, which is, and will always be, free to access. Each issue is framed by a swimming-related theme, to which the responses are always wonderfully surprising and diverse. 

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