Miss Imogen Harcourt walks to the beach with her camera equipment on a nice day in October. She puts her gear in the sand and sits down, not planning on doing any actual work—she only brings the equipment out of a force of habit. Gazing out at the Pacific Ocean, she asks herself, “What am I doing here?” She has asked herself this question time and again since moving to Australia, but now she finally answers it: “I am doing,” she tells herself, “what those gulls are doing. Those oystercatchers. Those terns.” She has already heard of Jim’s death and has even run into Jim’s father, who said, “I lost my boy” in a somewhat accusatory tone, though he had never before spoken to her.
When Jim lived in Australia and befriended Miss Harcourt, the middle-aged woman suddenly had something to focus on: her interest in birds. For a brief while, Jim helped her feel as if she was in Australia for a reason. Now that he’s gone, though, she’s unsure why she has stayed. However, she resolves to allow herself the pleasure of simply existing in the world in the same way that seagulls go about their lives without posing existential questions to themselves. On another note, when Jim’s father says that he “lost” his “boy,” he confirms Jim’s previous suspicion that he merely wanted to be able to participate in this current event. For him, losing Jim is more of a badge of honor and a way of tapping into the changing world than it is a sorrowful loss.
After watching the waves’ rhythmic patterns, Miss Harcourt is about to leave when she sees somebody surfing in the wake. She has never seen anybody do this, and she’s captivated by the sport, finding it breathtaking. The surfer rides “rapidly towards her” before falling off his board and paddling to it again. She savors the image of the surfer’s body poised “against the sky” as he rides the waves, “an image she would hold in her mind.” Then, suddenly, she thinks of Jim and hugs herself. She begins to walk away, starting up the beach’s dune. At the top, though, she stops and looks once more, unable to resist. Everything appears changed and new. “The past would not hold and could not be held,” she thinks, though one day, “she might make a photograph of this new thing.”
Miss Harcourt feels two things at once when she sees the surfer. On the one hand, she marvels at this new sport, feeling excited and surprised by its unfamiliarity. On the other hand, this newness reminds her that time is marching on and, as a result, leaving Jim in the past. As everything changes, the past slips farther and farther away, until nothing can “hold” it anymore, not even memory. Recognizing this, Miss Harcourt resolves to embrace the future by taking a picture of “this new thing” whenever she finds herself ready to do so.