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Authors: Meg McKinlay

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BOOK: Surface Tension
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And every now and then I pulled the box out from under my bed. Every now and then I snipped something from the paper and added it to the pile, just because it seemed important not to let things go.

I didn’t tell Mum. I wasn’t sure it would be considered healthy. But whatever it was, I wanted to keep it.

I reached into the box and rifled through some old newspaper articles. They were mostly photocopies Mum had made for her class, the paper shiny and smooth in a way that seemed at odds with the stories they told. But there were a few that weren’t copies. They were older, brown and brittle with age and bearing traces of the clay they’d once been packed around and between.

When I came to one of these, I stopped. It was an article about the lake, almost as old as I was. There was a photograph of the wide, calm surface. Trees and bushy scrub hugging the water’s edge, the dam wall in the distance. A family picnicking on the bank up at the Point. A couple of kids mucking around in a canoe.

And off to the right, a shadow. Something that could have been a glitch on the film or the blurred border of the photo.

It wasn’t either of those things. I knew that because I’d been there with Dad in a canoe once, all the way out in the middle, where the sounds of people yelling and calling on the shore faded so far into the background they sounded like the edges of a dream.

I remember Dad stopping the canoe. He brought it around in a flurry of backpaddling into an urgent, swooping arc, as if there was an invisible line there in the water, as if crossing it would mean something to someone.

It was just a metal pole. Just a sign, bobbing lazily out there on a floating buoy.

No Swimming Beyond This Point
, it said.

“We’re not swimming,” I pointed out, but Dad shook his head.

“It doesn’t just mean swimming,” he said. “It means no recreation area. Off limits.”

“But why?”

He shook his head again. There was no point asking.It was just one of those rules.

He backpaddled. We headed for shore. And we didn’t go out that far again.

It was silly anyway, according to Dad. It was reckless. What if something had happened when we were out there, such a long way from anywhere and anyone?

I ran a finger along the shadow on the photo.

I probably wouldn’t see the pole tomorrow, not from where I planned to be. I wasn’t going to take the road all the way around to the Point where everyone else swam. Even though that would be quieter than the pool, there could still be other people there – yelling and splashing and churning up the surface with jet skis. And it was too far on a bike. To get there, you needed a car, a plan, a family outing.

Tomorrow, I’d be taking a short cut. It had been years since I’d been that way and I’d never done it alone. The track had been tricky enough to spot back then. Now it would probably be completely invisible.

But I wasn’t worried about that.

I was sure I could remember.

four

On the way the signs were so weathered I could hardly read them. Rust had eaten tiny holes in the metal so it looked like someone had shot them over and over with a pellet gun.

That didn’t matter. I knew what they said.

No Entry. Trespassers Prosecuted.

That one was on the barrier just off the main road, the barrier I could easily lift my bike up and over onto the overgrown track that led up the hill.

Authorised Persons Only. Access Prohibited.

That one was right up the top, hanging loosely from the padlocked gate of the wire mesh fence.

The gate sat at the end of an old 4WD track, a dirt road that wound its way round and round the hill, occasionally crossing the steep track I had taken. I supposed authorised persons needed to come up here sometimes, although I wasn’t sure what for. Maybe just to check if there were any trespassers who needed prosecuting. The 4WD track was completely overgrown too. Elijah and I had never seen anyone up here and it didn’t look like that had changed.

I pushed my bike through the undergrowth, hunting for the break in the fence, the panel of loose wire you could peel back and slip quietly inside. Elijah and I found it together years ago, by accident. We were walking around the lake from the swimming area, talking and skipping stones and letting our feet carry us along the shoreline. At some point we looked back at the tiny figures swimming and jumping and picnicking on the grass, and realised that without meaning to, we had come almost halfway round. Halfway from the Point, halfway to … where? And we realised, then, that there
was
a somewhere else, that you could just keep going through the trees and the scrub and past the invisible line of the
No Swimming
pole and find yourself somewhere that might even be worth going to.

That’s how we found this place, on the other side of where we were supposed to be, a secret shore all our own.

I was worried about being here at first, worried that we would get into trouble. I pointed out that we had crossed the invisible line.

But Elijah just shrugged and said, “So what?” Even when we found the fence through the trees, the concealed track leading down the hill, the signs that yelled at you to stay away.

“People shouldn’t worry about fences and signs,” he said. If you let a see-through fence stop you, you mustn’t have cared much in the first place.

After that day, whenever he jumped on his bike, his towel stuffed away in his backpack, and asked if I wanted to come “for a ride” with him, I always said yes.

It was nicer around this side. It was still and quiet. You didn’t have to watch out for jet skis or speedboats. There was no one to tell you to wait thirty minutes before going in the water because you had eaten a single slice of apple.

But there was something else too.

There was Old Lower Grange.

The swimming area was over the outskirts of the old town, over paddocks and bush and the occasional shed. But here you were closer to the town itself, to the buildings and the roads and the houses where people had lived, where they had got married and pushed children on swings and tormented each other with gobs of flying mashed potato.

It was all out there somewhere. I watched the way the ground sloped down to the water’s edge and beyond, and thought about it all there, underwater.

We swam along the shoreline, Elijah setting the pace, his long, measured strokes between me and the deep.

We floated on our backs, looking up at the cloudless sky, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were things down below, things I shouldn’t turn my back on.

Sometimes we stood in the shallows, skipping stones out across the water, seeing how many skips we could get until they sank out of sight. Then we’d guess where they’d landed – the town square, the school, our very own drowned tree house?

Sometimes we found things that might have washed up from the old town – a plank of wood from a fence, an old biscuit tin, the wheel from a bike – but there was no way to be sure. For all we knew they could have just been bits of junk people dumped there later.

Once I saw a road. The weathered edge of a sheet of dark stones, tightly packed, leading down and away.

The maps I had drawn in Mum’s class clicked into place inside my head. We were west, and on high ground, so it could be the Old Lenton Road, where it ran up and away into the hills. That would make the school over there and the supermarket over there and our place would be …

I turned and scanned the water, the old streets laying themselves out like a jigsaw before my eyes, every piece perfectly formed to fit only and exactly in one rightful place.

It made me feel strange, shivery. I couldn’t help imagining myself following it, putting one foot in front of the other, all the way down into the dark underwater town.

But Elijah shook his head. “That’s not a road,” he said. “See?”

He scrambled down the bank and kicked at the stones. They came away easily under his shoe and I saw that they weren’t black, not tightly packed, but loose and irregular, a patchwork of colours. Just a random assortment of stones masquerading as a way to somewhere.

“But there could be roads,” I said.

Elijah shrugged. “I guess.”

“We could find one,” I said. Now that the idea was in my head it was difficult to shake. “We could follow it.”

Elijah laughed. “It’s not Atlantis, you know.”

I knew he wasn’t laughing
at
me, though. He had one of my old drawings stuck to the inside of his wardrobe where he thought I couldn’t see it.

“Anyway,” he said. “It wouldn’t work. You’d just keep bobbing to the surface.”

He was right. But I didn’t want him to be. I wanted to believe that somehow my feet would stay suctioned to the ground, that if I found a road, it would lead me down.

Maybe, I thought, I could make myself heavy. I could put stones in my pockets and bundle them up in my T-shirt.

“You want to weigh yourself down with stones and walk into a lake in the middle of the bush?” This time Elijah
was
laughing at me. “Idiot. This is why Mum doesn’t let you swim on your own.”

That night, I dreamed about Old Lower Grange. I saw the streetlights hung with lake weed, dark fists of mud punched into the holes in the road. Crabs and yabbies made their homes in the hollowed-out buildings and fish cruised the streets, pausing at intersections to wave each other through politely with their fins. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of life was going on down there, without us.

I never walked into town, though.

We never found a road. I kept half an eye out for sheets of stones but never saw anything. Then the rain came and the water level crept up, and even the pile of stones I kept going back to have a closer look at disappeared under the surface.

I stopped going up to the lake.

Elijah moved to the city for uni and Hannah started working at the council. And she wasn’t the kind of person who would walk past signs and slip through a hole in the fence. She was more likely to redo the lettering, tighten the wire.

Soon after, Mum started letting me go to the pool on my own. As long as I was sensible, she said. I was old enough now and the pool was safe. It was much better than a lake. It had lifeguards and clear water. There were no shifting depths or hidden dangers, unless you counted people randomly jumping on you or slamming you with tennis balls. And it was clean as well, unless you counted the bandaids.

So I didn’t go back to the lake. Not to look. Not to float or skip stones or wonder about fish.

Not until today.

five

Dry sticks crackled underfoot as I came out of the trees into the open near the lake’s edge. The water stretched out in front of me, a shifting expanse of colour, sparkling in the light.

In spite of myself, I glanced along the shoreline in the direction I’d seen the stones.

The water would be low; I knew that. It had been a dry year. A dry couple of years.

But I wasn’t going to go over there – not this time.

Things were different now. I was older, for one thing, and smarter. I was only here to swim – to do my six without bandaids and stealth attacks. I wasn’t about to fill my pockets full of stones and head off down a drowned road to who knows where.

I peeled my shirt off over my head and hung it on a low branch. Shoes, socks, shorts. I shook my orange towel out like a bird showing off its bright feathers and laid it down on the bank.

Then I took a deep breath, a handful of steps, and kicked off, out and away from the shore.

The water was cold and warm and clear and dark. It was so many things all at once.

Dragonflies hung in the air nearby, ghosting their shadows on the water around me. Tiny stick insects skimmed their way across the surface, following their own invisible roads.

There was nothing in my way and no one to bother me.

There was only the lake, open and empty – the swimming area somewhere on the far opposite shore, the
No Swimming
sign stuck out there somewhere in the middle, obscured by the sunlight that dappled the water’s flat surface. And in the distance on the right, the dam wall curving high above the lake. There was a viewing platform up there we visited on a school excursion. You could push a button and listen to Finkle’s voice explaining about hydro-electricity and irrigation and the future of the region. About the catchment up in the mountains that fed the water through giant pipes all the way down to the power station up the river, where the engineers and the computers decided how much water had to go where, and when it had to go there. You could
ooh
and
aah
about the grandeur of his vision and the invisible weight of history.

Or you could turn around, towards the lake, and think about the weight of water on top of your town.

Part of me wanted to swim out towards it, out into the centre, to put my head down and just keep going and going, and see where I ended up.

Instead, I hugged the shoreline, swimming parallel with the bank.

I did my six and probably another six as well.

Maybe more. It was hard to tell.

There were no ladders or flags up here, no big black numbers reminding me how far I’d come, how far I still had to go. There was no wall to slap and turn around and rinse-repeat, again and again. There were no bombies or tennis balls or sudden waves of water slapping me in the face.

It made me want to go further. It made me feel like I could.

I swam until my arms hummed, until my legs began to ache and drag through the water behind me, until I could no longer ignore the ragged rise and fall of my chest in its rattling cage.

Then I sat in the shallows, willing my breathing to slow, to smooth itself out. I let my legs sink heavily into the warm mud, and looked out across the lake.

You couldn’t see the other side, not really. You could pretend you did – tell yourself that a quick flash over there in the distance was a jet ski or a speedboat. But the truth was it might just as easily have been a bird swooping low along the water, or a speck swimming haphazardly across the surface of your eyeball.

BOOK: Surface Tension
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