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Authors: Meg McKinlay

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BOOK: Surface Tension
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All you could see for certain were the tops of trees, the very tips of things. It was weird, but the water was in the way somehow, stopping me from seeing what I knew was there.

It’s funny how water curves. How when you have a still surface and the right kind of angle it becomes a kind of skin over itself, a bubble reaching and reaching but never quite bursting.

Surface tension
, our teacher Mr Chadwick called it last year. He showed us how we could pile coin after coin into an already-full glass without it overflowing. How we could thread a needle into the surface so it would float rather than sink.

There were other things as well. The way water makes light bend, the way it can make something as straight as a rod look twisted and broken. I had stared at my two-step arm, half in and half out of the fish tank.

I didn’t know this about water, that it had all these tricks. When I said that, Mr Chadwick laughed. He said they weren’t exactly tricks. They were experiments. Science.

It seemed tricky to me, though. And it made me feel strange about water, wary. As if your uncle had suddenly pulled a rabbit out of a hat at a party one day and now you couldn’t help watching him out of the corner of your eye, wondering what else he might have lurking up his sleeve.

I blinked in the sunlight and turned my head to make the surface flat again. It was as simple as that.

Then I dragged myself from the mud and headed up the bank towards my towel.


On the way back into town, I rode past the pool, past the yelling and the squealing and the loudspeaker blaring: “No running! No diving! Watch your children at all times! Hot chips now available at the canteen!”

The chlorine hit my nostrils like a slap. I put my head down and pumped the pedals furiously.

When I came to Country Crafts, halfway up the main street, I slowed. What day was it? No, Dad wouldn’t be there today. His slots were Monday and Saturday, sometimes Thursday during peak season, when the town’s population doubled for a month over summer and the streets filled with people you’d never seen before and would never see again. Those were the days he came in and worked on the wheel, demonstrating and chatting to customers, quietly selling them things without them even realising.

The people who ran the shop liked to keep things organised. It wasn’t like the old days. I’d seen photos of Dad back then – straggly beard, rolled-up sleeves, hands plunged deep into the clay, part of the messy gaggle of artists who came and went as they pleased in the sprawling wooden building.

I wheeled my bike across the street. Some of Dad’s work was featured in the window, and there were a couple of small pots sitting just outside on a display shelf. I picked one up. It might be a vase or a potpourri holder. Or maybe just something that would sit on a shelf somewhere and look arty. Dad said sometimes he just let the clay do what it wanted, let it run through his fingers and find its own shape. Then he let the tourists decide, smiling as they turned his work over in their hands and said
What an interesting cup
I love the design of this paperweight.

I remembered this piece. I remembered the glaze Dad had used. I had been on my way down the hall to hang my towel when he called out to me. The afternoon sun was streaming through the window behind him, making him look like a man on fire.

“What do you think, Cass?” he said. “Blue? Or maybe green?”

I shook my head. “Red.”

“Hmm, okay.” He smiled, nodded. Like I knew what I was talking about. Like I had a good reason for choosing it, rather than just liking the warm glow the day had set around him.

And now here it was. A red something – on a shelf outside the shop. Waiting for someone to come along and tell it what to be.

I leaned my bike against the wall and stared at the piece. I had never quite got used to this. It was weird seeing something that had started out as a lump of shapeless clay turn bit by bit – under his hands and on the wheel and in the kiln – into something else completely, something that would make people stop in their tracks in the main street. It made me look differently at everything around me. It made me wonder about the invisible hands that were behind it all, out of sight.

Footsteps slowed behind me and I half turned towards the street. It was probably someone wanting to check out the display. I should put this back, get out of the way.

But as I leaned towards the shelf, an arm came around from behind me. A hand gripped my wrist. Firmly.

I looked up. It was a man, shaking his head. A man I knew. A man everyone knew – in the way everyone knows everyone in this kind of town, but in another way as well. From photos and headlines and whispers behind hands.

That poor man. What a terrible thing. And that boy … oh.

That poor man? It was his fault! He was lucky they didn’t lock him up.

Surely he’s suffered enough? A terrible mistake. He’ll regret it for the rest of his life.

Well, he should! That poor woman. Those poor boys.

What a thing. What a terrible thing.

“It’s okay,” I began. “I was just–”

He shook his head again. Or rather, kept shaking it. He had been bobbing it back and forth the whole time, almost rhythmically, as if he’d got caught in a loop and had forgotten how to stop.

And all the while his eyes were locked on Dad’s pot and his fingers clenched tighter around my wrist. Something in it was beginning to throb, like a bruise, and I felt my grip slipping.

If anyone else had grabbed me like that, I would have yelled, or pushed back. Maybe taken their hand and peeled the fingers off me one by one.

But it wasn’t just anyone. It was
man and his head was shaking and his face was flushed and I didn’t know how to make it better without making it worse, so I did nothing. I stood there in the street, out the front of Country Crafts, and watched Dad’s pottery slip from my fingers and shatter on the footpath.

“Dad!” There were more footsteps, running this time. “It’s all right. Let go!”

I turned towards the sound of the voice. Wet hair, long shorts, one hand holding them up, the other reaching towards us.


“It’s all right,” he repeated. But he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were locked on his father’s face.

I felt the fingers loosen their grip, watched the tension drain from his body.

“Sorry,” Liam began. “I–”

A bell jangled as the shop door burst open.

“Cassie?” It was Ellen, who worked the till. She stared down at the ground, at the pieces.

Liam’s face flushed and he put a steadying hand on his father’s arm. “It wasn’t …” he began. “He–”

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I was just looking. It slipped.”

I bent down to pick up the jagged fragments. Some were almost smooth, whole in themselves, like they were pieces of a puzzle that could be snapped back together at any moment. But others were shattered, crushed.

Ellen frowned. “Is that one of your dad’s?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

She gestured to a sign on the door. “Well, you know the rules. You break it, you’ve bought it.”


Ellen looked across at Liam and his dad. “Did you guys want something?”

“I have a package!” Liam’s father said suddenly, a smile breaking across his face. He reached into the bag that was slung over his shoulder and pulled out a thick envelope. “Here.”

Ellen brightened. “Oh, good. I’ve been waiting for that.” She took the envelope from his hands. On the front it said “Country Crafts. Centenary Brochures” in black marker. The handwriting was familiar and so was the logo in the corner of the envelope: a cluster of tall trees around a lake, ringed by the words “New Lower Grange, Growing the Future”.

It was Hannah’s writing, a package from the council.

Ellen turned to take it inside. “Well, I’d better get on with it.” She waved a hand at me, at the broken pieces in my palm. “Don’t worry about it this time, Cass. Just be careful, okay?”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

She smiled and gestured at my wet hair. “Do your six?”

“Um, yeah.” I flushed.

She was only being friendly but sometimes I got tired of everyone knowing my business. Sometimes I wished the town was bigger. I found myself looking forward to summer, when the tourists arrived and you could slip unnoticed through streets full of strangers.

As the door jangled behind Ellen, Liam exhaled next to me, a long shaft of air that made me realise he must have been holding his breath.

“Thanks,” he said. “My dad … you know, he–”

“It’s okay,” I said.

It felt wrong, talking about his dad like that when he was right there. He was a bit slow sometimes. He got confused. But he understood stuff. And he was Liam’s dad.

Liam turned to him. “Have you got anything else to deliver?”

His father shook his head. “Weeding the gardens now.” His speech was blurry, slow, like he’d just been woken from a deep sleep.

“You want me to walk you back?” Liam pointed up the street to where the council building sat at the top of the hill, overlooking the town. His father didn’t exactly work there. They just gave him odd jobs, the kind of things he could do when he was having a good day. The kind of jobs where it wouldn’t matter if he got distracted along the way and sat in the town square for half an hour watching the hands on the clocktower turn.

“Yes. Good.” His father nodded.

Liam turned to me. “Thanks for not telling. He needs the job.”

“That’s okay.” I tipped the broken pieces into the front pocket of my bag, listening to them clatter dully down on top of each other. “He really didn’t like that pot.”

“It’s not that,” Liam began. “It’s just–”

“I was kidding,” I said quickly. I pulled one pigtail around to the front and squeezed droplets of water out onto the footpath.

Liam stared down at the dark patches on the path, then up at me. “You told Ellen you did your six.”

I shrugged. “Yeah.”

“I just came from there. I didn’t see you.”

“Oh?” I fiddled absently with the zipper on my backpack. “You must have missed me. I’m always there.”

“I know. That’s why …” He trailed off. “Never mind.” He nodded towards his father, who had begun shuffling slowly up the street. “I’d better get going.”

“Yeah, me too. Hang my towel and stuff.”

“Okay, so … see you at school then.” He paused. “Maybe I’ll catch you at the pool after?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

As Liam hurried to catch up with his father, I went over and retrieved my bike. Then I jumped on the pedals and headed away down the hill, glad to be going in the opposite direction so he couldn’t see my face.


“Hang your towel?”


Mum and Hannah were at the kitchen table, staring at the screen of Hannah’s laptop.

Dad was in the studio with the door closed, which meant one of two things – either he was doing fine-detail work on his plates and didn’t want to be interrupted, or he was working on one of his wacky heads and didn’t want Mum to see.

“It’s coming together,” Hannah said. “See?”

I leaned between them and watched as she scrolled slowly through the pages she had laid out on the screen.

On the Move.

A Town Reborn.

New Beginnings.

Out With the Old, In With the New.

Lower Grange says Yes! to Progress.

“It looks good,” I said. And it did. It was slick and professional. There were clean, crisp borders around the scanned photos and newspaper clippings. The text Hannah had added wrapped over and between them in a way that looked right, as if the pages hadn’t been put together by someone but had always been there. There was something strange, though. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but as Hannah scrolled further and further, past smiling faces and tall, leafy trees, I realised.

All the headlines were happy and shiny, all about progress and improvement and sparkling new swimming pools.

“Where’s the rest?” I asked.

Hannah frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You know,” I said. “About the protests and everything.”

I had read about it, back when I was
Mum’s little historian
. About the arguments and the angry town meetings.

It hadn’t all been happy and shiny, the way it was on the screen.

Some people had been furious about it. They had fought to keep the town, at least at first.

There were groups formed to protect historical buildings and the old trees in the surrounding forest and the numbat and the not-very-common orchid that someone might possibly have seen once in the bush just west, or maybe east, of town.

Protestors parked themselves on the platform at the top of the old fire lookout tree. For a few weeks, Elijah made extra pocket money climbing up and down the spiral peg ladder, carrying food and water on the way up and foul-smelling buckets on the way down.

It didn’t last. Because in the end the engineers and the politicians all agreed. Lower Grange had to go.

The settlers hadn’t thought it through, you see. Eighty-eight years earlier, they had thought it was the perfect spot for a town. They hadn’t realised it was actually the perfect spot for a dam which would irrigate the whole region, the whole bustling network of towns and farms that would come along years later and grow bigger and busier and more water-hungry than Lower Grange itself would ever be. It was progress and you couldn’t stand in the way of it. If you did, you’d get swallowed by a giant wall of water.

Hannah shot me a look. “I know about all that stuff, Cass. I was
, remember? It’s a matter of choosing what’s most important.” She scrolled idly back and forth with the mouse. “I think we’re pretty much set now. We’ve narrowed it down to what we need.”

I nodded. Not because I agreed but because I knew what she was talking about. Someone getting to choose. Somebody narrowing things down. It was like Mum was always telling her classes. I had seen her scrawling it across their essays in her wild, looping handwriting:
Dig deeper. Remember – history is written by the winners!

BOOK: Surface Tension
7.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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