Authors: Meg McKinlay
New Lower Grange south-east, to the right of the hill. The fire tree kind of north.
And me, swimming south. South-ish.
So that would put me somewhere near the bakery, Il Panino. If I turned right, I’d be heading towards school. Left, and I’d hit the old sawmill.
Straight ahead, and I’d pass through the playground and the second bakery whose name I always forgot and the barber’s.
I floated over the top of them all, heading for the town square, seeing it laid out below me in a thousand colourful pieces.
Long and slow and relaxed.
Just head for the orange.
Past the town square now, over the clocktower where I would not think about fiery crashes and tiny Liam in the backseat, all curled-up fingers and toes, not knowing that everything in his brand-new world was already about to change. On up to the rambling old house which would become Country Crafts, where his father would one day grip my wrist so tightly it hurt. Then down the main street to where bakery number three would soon make way for our sparkling, safe, and bandaid-filled pool.
How far was that now? Half the town? I looked out to the shore and then back at the tree. My heart lifted. More than halfway. Maybe three-quarters.
But it was so slow, this grandma breaststroke. I was getting cold, and tired.
I had to get there.
I nodded to myself. I would swim the rest. I would keep my head down and get it over and done with quickly. A few more minutes and I’d be there.
I kicked off and reached back for the first stroke.
Long and easy
, I began.
Suddenly, my breath caught in my throat. There was a sharp pain in my thigh, as if something had grabbed it. It stopped kicking, wouldn’t do what I told it. It hung there flapping, wooden and sluggish and strobing with pain.
I was so heavy all of a sudden, so useless. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get a breath. Which side was I turning? Which way?
I turned my head, flailing, and sucked in a deep gulp, but it was water I got instead of sky, instead of air.
I was going under, felt myself start to go, my leg dragging me down, and I waited, reaching for something, anything, with my good leg and my foot and the ends of my toes.
But there was nothing. It was too deep and my head was going under, the water closing, knitting itself back together above me. And I was an idiot because for a second I thought I saw someone running, waving, coming across the water, mouth open, shouting.
But there was no one and I knew that. People don’t run, don’t wave, don’t make their way to you across the water.
I was under and my mouth was open, taking in great gulps of lake like it was oxygen, and I thought O
h, a pool is good, it’s safe and convenient, it has lifeguards
. And then
work leg, work
but it wouldn’t and if Mr Henshall had been there it would have listened because everyone listens to him, even when he doesn’t make any kind of sense.
And it’s crazy the things you see, you think, when you’re going under, because there was someone and Mr Henshall and
work leg, work
but it wouldn’t. And as the water folded me down into itself, there were flashes of colour,
of blue or maybe green or maybe a kind of greeny-blue, and what do you call that in-between colour anyway? And mosaic with jagged edges, should have trimmed them, careless
. And I wondered if this is what you see, if this is what you think when you’re sinking, when you’re going under all the way down into the silty dark, and how I wish, I wish I had a sword that gave me dominion over the lands.
Or even just a stick.
Oh, a stick, up there in the light.
The good light.
Following me down.
My fingers, finding it.
That voice yelling, that mouth open, rushing towards me.
A platform up above me, something to grab onto, something to clamber onto, something to be safe.
So I tried, dragging my traitor leg behind me like a broken wing, and he leaned out towards me, held the stick, said,
Stay back, Cassie. I’m serious. Don’t make me break your nose.
That was from Mr Henshall as well.
“Don’t get too close,” he always said. “Don’t let a drowning person drag you down with them.”
It was most important
to secure your own safety at all times.
reach to rescue
break their nose if you have to (don’t quote me on this)
I held onto the stick, onto the branch, and I didn’t grab onto the platform, which was a raft, of sorts. I let myself be dragged through the water and then we were in the shallows and he was hauling me in, all the way to the good solid ground – the voice, the mouth, the someone.
I sat in the mud while he pulled the raft up onto the bank.
What are you doing here?
I wanted to ask, and
how did you get here
where did you get that raft thing?
But I couldn’t say anything just yet, could only focus on getting air in and out, in and out.
“Are you okay?” Liam sat down near me at the water’s edge.
I nodded. I didn’t feel okay – not yet – but I knew I would soon. Eventually. Because even though my leg was still wood and there was lake in my throat, I was out now and there wasn’t any further to sink.
“Thanks,” I said finally. “My leg – it …” I made claws of my hands, gritting my teeth.
“Cramp. I had that in the pool once. The wall was right there and I thought I wasn’t going to make it back. Pretty scary.”
“Yeah.” I ran one hand cautiously down my leg, probing for the pain.
Cramp? Was that it? Nothing to do with my lungs or digging in, but just a normal cramp, like anyone could get.
Any idiot who tried to swim out into the middle of the lake after a stick, that is.
“You probably just went too far,” Liam said. “What were you doing out there?” He peered out across the lake. “What’s that thing?”
“The fire tree,” I said. “That’s where I went.”
“The fire tree?” He turned back to me quickly. “Seriously? How far is that?”
“I don’t know. A long way.”
He gave a low whistle. “You’re crazy. I mean, I know you’re
and everything, but …”
I leaned back on my elbows. “I thought it was closer. I thought I could get there. I did get there. Then I had to get back.” I shot him a quick look. “How long have you been here, anyway?”
“I only saw you just there.” He pointed to a spot about halfway between the shore and the tree. “You were doing breaststroke. You looked okay. Lucky I had the raft, though.”
I stared up the bank. His so-called raft was a row of planks bound together with rotting string and tied to the top of some rusty metal drums.
“Where did you get that thing?” I said. “What are you even doing here?”
Liam pulled at his shorts. From one edge, a thick, raised scar tracked down his leg like a centipede.
“I knew you were swimming somewhere,” he said. “That day near the pool … your hair was wet.” He picked up a stone and skimmed it out across the water. It skipped once, twice, then sank.
“Dad made the raft,” he said after a while. “We used to come up here all the time.”
“Your dad made that?”
Liam’s face clouded. “He’s not stupid. He’s just–”
“I didn’t mean that,” I said quickly. “I meant I didn’t know you came up here. You and him.”
“Oh.” Liam picked up a leaf and tore down the centre along its knobbly spine. “Well, we don’t any more. Mum said it was better not to remind him. He gets … worked up.”
I followed his gaze out to the lake, to where the clocktower would be if the map in my head was right.
Liam crushed the leaf in his hand, releasing the sharp smell of eucalyptus, and stood up.
“I’d better go. Mum likes me to stop in, see how he’s doing.”
“Yeah. I should get back.” I rocked forward into a squat, then creaked slowly to my feet.
While I pulled my clothes on, Liam dragged the raft behind a tree a little further along the shoreline.
“I can’t believe this is still in one piece,” he said. “Sort of.” He grinned as a chunk of rotting wood broke off one side. “I forgot how much I like it here. The pool gets so crowded over summer.”
I nodded. “Tell me about it.”
He scratched at the ground with the rescue stick, dragging a long wavy line through the dirt. For a moment I thought he was going to say something, but then he shrugged. He gathered his shorts around him and I followed him up through the trees towards the fence, where his bike lay, resting against mine.
We rode down the hill in silence, apart from the cicadas and the magpies and the rattle of our bikes over the bumpy track.
As we passed the pool, we slowed, then accelerated.
When we reached the council building, we pulled up outside. I straddled my bike while Liam leaned his against the racks out the front.
“Well, I’d better go.” He jerked a thumb towards the door.
“Yeah, me too.” I scuffed one foot against a pedal. “So … thanks.”
“It’s okay. Um … see you tomorrow maybe?”
I kicked the pedals around and pushed down. “Hey, would you really have broken my nose?”
As I began to roll, I heard him laugh quietly. “I don’t know,” he said. Then more loudly, as I headed off the footpath and onto the road: “Probably. Maybe.”
When I looked back, he was grinning, watching me go.
I was pushing my way up the last big hill when I heard it behind me – the roar of an engine, tyres crunching on the dirt road.
Tourists. It had to be. Dad would be in the studio all day, working on Finkle, pretending to work on pots. And Mum and Hannah would be home by now, waiting in the kitchen to ask if I’d hung up my towel.
I moved across, crunching over the sticks and leaves at the side of the road, and waited for the car to pass.
Instead, I heard the engine slow as it pulled up alongside me.
It was a once-green ute. A now faded and rusted and falling apart old ute which none of us could believe kept surviving the trip all the way to the city and back.
“Hey, doofus!” He rolled down the window, grinning, then coughed as the dust cloud he’d stirred up hit him in the face.
I scooted my bike over awkwardly. “When did you get back?”
“Just now.” He nodded at the backseat, which was full of books and clothes and pillows.
“Haven’t you been home yet?”
He shook his head. “I went past the pool – thought I might give you a lift. Didn’t see you, though.”
“I was probably getting changed.”
“Except you’re not changed.”
I looked down. Stupid. My bathers were clearly visible under my shirt.
“I meant … I was in the toilet.”
“Oh, okay.” He frowned. “Must have just missed you.”
“You can give me a lift now.”
I climbed off the bike and wheeled it towards the back of the ute.
He raised his eyebrows. “We’re basically there, Cass.”
He was right. We were. But I suddenly felt like I couldn’t go any further, like all of it had caught up with me at once – the swimming, the sinking, the stick. Not to mention this long, dusty hill.
Elijah opened his door and climbed out. He lifted my bike into the back of the ute then turned to me. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just tired.”
“Do your six?”
“Hang your towel?”
I punched him in the arm. “She still says it, you know.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it.” He put the car into gear and took off up the hill. “Seriously, Cass. Don’t push yourself too hard. You look wrecked.”
When we eased into the driveway a minute later, the front door flew open immediately. Mum appeared first, followed by Hannah, then Dad.
“Elijah!” Mum put her hands on her hips. “You should have called ahead!” She was smiling, already moving to the window to drag him out for a hug.
“Does this mean my scones aren’t ready yet?” Elijah grinned as he climbed out of the car, unfolding his long frame and stretching his arms above his head while Mum tackled him around the waist.
“I’d make you some,” she said. “You know I would.”
“Yeah, but then I’d have to eat them.”
“Good thing you teach history, not cooking.”
“Cheeky!” Mum ducked her head, then caught sight of me in the passenger seat. “Cass?”
Elijah reached up to haul my bike out of the back. “Yeah, I gave her a lift. From the pool. Right, Cass?”
His lips were curved in the shadow of a smile. I hesitated a second before nodding. “Yeah.”
“Do your six?” Mum asked.
Elijah burst out laughing.
Mum stared at him. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” He grabbed an enormous duffle bag from the back of the ute and hoisted it over one shoulder. “Better hang your towel, mate.”
“Yeah.” I bit my lip to keep from smiling, and headed for the washing line.
Later, after lasagne and apple pie and nothing at all resembling a Devonshire tea, we sat around the table. Elijah told us about his exams and the share house he was living in with six other guys, and how he seriously doubted the ute was going to survive another trip. Hannah told him about the centenary celebrations and showed him the draft of the book she’d printed out to make notes on.
Dad told him about the Finkle-head and the pots, and Elijah agreed to help him finish things up and cart them into town. But when he asked Dad to show him Finkle, Dad shook his head.
“Not yet,” he said. “It’s still … developing.”
Hannah sighed. “That’s one word for it.”
Finkle was being difficult, apparently. Or Dad was, depending on how you looked at things.
“He wants me to work from this,” Dad said, pulling a folded photograph from his pocket.
Hannah rolled her eyes. “That old thing again?”
Dad nodded. “I know. It hardly even looks like him any more.”
“We keep telling him,” Hannah said. “He won’t listen. Says he hasn’t changed that much. He’s in denial or something.”