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Authors: Meg McKinlay

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BOOK: Surface Tension
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I peered down at the photo. There were some notes scribbled along the edge in black texta – “Left side best” and “Not really that wrinkly”. The face itself was crisscrossed by a grid of lines which divided it up into tiny squares.

Dad snorted. “He seems to think I can just copy the photo, one square at a time.”

He ran a finger across the crosshatched Finkle-face. It was like those drawings I used to do when I was little, where you copy a picture square by square onto a new grid. No matter how careful I was, they always came out slightly wonky.

“That’s not how it works,” Dad said. “You can’t just break something down into parts like that. This is art, not construction.” He tossed the photo onto the table and leaned back in his chair. “I tried to explain to him – what I like to do is look at the photos, capture the essence of the thing, then put them away and just work from the mind’s eye, from the hands.”

“That explains a lot, actually,” Elijah said. When Dad first started doing heads, he had done one of him, which ended up looking disturbingly like a cross-eyed ferret.

Dad whacked him lightly on the shoulder then sighed. “I just don’t think Finkle really understands the artistic process.”

Hannah’s jaw clenched a little. “I’m sure he doesn’t, Dad. But he means well. Just do your best, would you? We’re all working hard on this.”

She pointed at the centenary book. Elijah had been working his way through it slowly and had just reached my page.

“Ah,” he said. “Welcome to New Lower Grange!”

“Yeah.” I flushed.

He flicked back and forth quickly. “Bit surprised I don’t get a mention. Defenders of the forest, heroes of the tree – carrier of the poo.”

“Elijah!” Mum frowned. “Yuck.”

“Yeah, it was.” He grinned. “I made sixty bucks, though.”

“No one needs to remember that,” Hannah said. “They weren’t heroes. They were feral weirdos.”

“Typical Finkle-spin!” Elijah countered. “They were cool. And they were right. That tree was a landmark.”

“Trees grow,” Hannah said. “Besides, they have better ways of spotting fires now.”

“Yeah, well, I liked the fire tree,” Elijah said.

“Me too,” I said.

“Come off it, Cassie,” Hannah said. “You never even saw it. That tree was dangerous. You could fall right through the pegs if you weren’t careful. I can’t believe they let anyone climb that thing.”

“And I can’t believe you were too chicken to climb it.” Elijah gave her a scornful look. Then he turned to Mum. “Remember when she got about halfway up and was too scared to move?”

Mum nodded. “Oh, yes. Because I was at the bottom, being told off by a family of Japanese tourists. They asked me if Australian mothers normally let their kids do such risky things.” She smiled. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Elijah went over to the bench and filled the kettle with water. “Yeah, and I couldn’t get down because I was already up and she was so hysterical she wouldn’t let anyone past.”

Hannah folded her arms. “I was ten, Elijah.”

“Yeah, and I was eight. I couldn’t believe it. But that wasn’t the best bit, was it, Mum? Remember how that guy went up to his car …”

I tuned out the rest of what Elijah was saying. I knew the story. I’d heard it a hundred times. About how an English tourist got a rock-climbing harness from his car and went up after Hannah. He put her into the harness and told her she was safe now and she climbed all the way down like a monkey even though he hadn’t clipped her to anything at all.

It was supposed to be a lesson on the power of the mind but when Mum told Hannah later, she just started crying all over again.

“It was so funny.” Elijah reached up into the cupboard for the jar of coffee.

“Well,” countered Hannah, “what about the time you were coming down the tree and that bucket of … stuff … tipped all over you?”

Dad laughed. “Yeah, and remember when …”

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. That was my cue to switch off –
remember when?
Once they started telling stories there was no stopping them. They would bounce back and forth across the table for hours. Serve and volley. Volley and return.

And there was never anything for me to do, nothing for me to add, because all of them had happened before I was born, in a place I’d never been.

The only family story about me was from the day I was born, the day I threw the marking and the sculptures and everything else you could possibly imagine into disarray by arriving not only accidentally but also way too early.

It was a good story and Dad told it well.

About how he piled everyone into the Valiant, spinning the tyres as they took off and taking a big wounded chunk out of the instant lawn.

How when he saw the petrol light flashing he pulled in to the shiny new service station. And when he realised it had lots of two-for-the-price-of-one Mars Bars, super-sized hot dog deals and ice-cold slushies but no actual petrol yet, he put his head down on the steering wheel, making the horn blare.

How for a brief, crazy moment, he contemplated driving six kilometres west, back to Old Lower Grange, because – who knows? – there might still be petrol there and if he really floored it, we might be able to make it out before the mayor flipped the lever and drowned us all.

“It was quite the drama,” he always said. “Eh, Cass?”

And what was I supposed to say to that?

Because even though it was a good story, even though it was a story about me, it was also a story I had no way of remembering and really, technically, wasn’t even there for.

So I didn’t say anything. I sat at the table and let the stories wash over me – all the
remember when?
oh, that was so …!
and I couldn’t believe it when you …!

And when Hannah burst out with
ohmygod remember when you threw that potato at me, Elijah, you were such a little brat
, and everyone turned to stare at the wall behind my head, I lowered my face over my hot chocolate and blew down onto the surface, hiding myself in the billowing clouds of steam.


The next morning everyone went to work – Hannah at the council, Elijah and Dad in the studio, and Mum back to school to clean up for the year.

And I went for a swim. With Liam.

When I got to the lake, he was already there. He had hauled the raft out from behind the tree and was leaning over it, pulling the broken bits off and tying fresh branches on with new string.

“I thought I could take it out,” he said. “Stop you from drowning and all that. We could go out to the tree.” He motioned to a paddle lying on the ground nearby. “See, I came prepared.”

I knelt down next to him. “Do you reckon this’ll hold both of us?”

He shrugged. “Only one way to find out. Remember, if we start sinking, just float and wave.”

I couldn’t bring myself to return his smile. Kneeling down like this, I could feel a knot in my leg – not pain, exactly, but a lingering tightness – and when I looked out at the water, my throat felt suddenly dry.

I wasn’t quite ready to laugh about it yet.

Liam tied off a length of string in a complicated knot. “So what do you reckon?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Right. You take that end.”

Together, we pushed and pulled the raft down the bank into the water. Liam climbed on then shook his head when I tried to do the same.

“Swim first.”


“Your six, right?”

“Yeah, but that’s much further than–”

“You made it yesterday. And I’ll stay close. If you want to stop, you can climb on.” He dug the paddle in and pushed off the bottom, then with a few quick strokes was out and away.

There was nothing I could do but kick off and follow.

Liam did stay close, so close he whacked me with the paddle twice and almost ran me over once. Which may have been deliberate, although he denied it. But even with the bruises, it was better with someone there. In a strange way, knowing I could stop and get a lift made me feel less like I needed one.

When we got there, Liam climbed off onto the platform and tethered the raft to the tree with some extra string.

He was grinning. “Wow! It
the fire tree.”

“Didn’t I say that?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just … it really is.” He knelt down and peered through the gap in the platform. “You can see the pegs! Five, six, seven … cool!” He looked up at me. “Hey, do you reckon we could go down?”

“I don’t know,” I began, then stopped.

I had been thinking about it last night. About how silly it was, really. It was the fire tree. It was huge. It used to take Elijah ten minutes to get down with the bucket. Holding our breath, we’d never get anywhere near the town. And even if we did, it was dark down there. It wasn’t like we’d be able to see anything. A lookout underwater wasn’t a lookout any more. It was … just an old, dead tree, I guess.


Liam was staring at me. It was funny when you realised that none of the thoughts running through your head had made it into the outside world, that they were yours and yours alone.

Sometimes, given the kind of thoughts that ran through my head, it was a relief.

“It’s high,” I said finally. “I mean deep. It’s–”

“Seventy-two metres. I know. I made it, remember.” He made a snipping movement with his hands. “I didn’t mean the whole way. Hang on.”

Before I could stop him, he had stepped through the opening. Then he grinned, ducked his head under the water, and was gone.

I pulled myself past the raft and up onto the platform, then peered down into the opening. I could see his feet kicking and the edges of his shorts flapping around in the water. A steady stream of bubbles rose after him towards the surface.

Then his shorts were gone, and his feet. The water healed over him and the stream of bubbles grew thinner and thinner until there was just dark and the surface was still and quiet, as if he had never been there.

It couldn’t have been long. I knew because I’ve timed myself and thirty-two seconds is my absolute limit before I get to the edge of my breath and lift my head, spluttering and wheezing.

I should probably have timed Liam. At least then I would have known when to start worrying. I would have known when to start tapping my fingers and rocking on my heels and scanning for bubbles. And maybe I wouldn’t have finally freaked out and stuck my face in the water at the exact moment he was rocketing up through it like he’d been shot out of a cannon.

I reeled backwards. “I think you’ve broken my nose.”

He didn’t reply. He was too busy spluttering and wheezing.

But he was also grinning.

“I think I went too far,” he said finally. “You have to remember about getting back.”


“The pegs are good,” he said. “You can pull yourself down. Can’t see much, though.” He squinted out across the water. “So, the town square would be that way.”

I thought back to my mosaic map from the day before. “I think so. And then the Old Lenton Road goes up around there.” I pointed around the lake to where Elijah and I had stood all those years ago.

“I know,” Liam replied. “Dad showed me.”

“What, when you used to come up here? Could you see something?”

Liam climbed up onto the platform and sat down on the edge, dangling his feet over the side. “No, just in photos and stuff. He used to talk about it all the time. He had maps and everything. He used to go over them, like this.” He made a scanning motion with one finger. “Mum made him get rid of it all. She said it wasn’t good for him.”

“How come?”

He shrugged. “There was this doctor in the city. He said Dad was trying to go back to the accident, to work something out. He said our brains do that – try to fix things, even when there’s nothing to be fixed. He said Dad had to move on, do new things.”

“Like the stuff he does at the council?”

Liam nodded. “That’s been good. Mum wasn’t sure at first. But Finkle said to give it a go, see how things went.”


“Yeah, it was his idea. He said the community should take care of people.” Liam trailed one foot down into the water. “It’s hard for Dad. One minute he can be fine and then …”

“Yeah.” It wasn’t a reply, but it was all I could think of to say.

“That thing the other day …” he began. He stopped, hesitated, as if making up his mind about something.


“It wasn’t your dad’s pot.” He looked up at me. “I mean it was, just not … it was the colour.”

“The colour?” I frowned.

His eyes met mine briefly, then he spoke again, as if, having decided to talk, it was easier just to keep going. “Dad doesn’t like red. Sometimes he’s okay and sometimes he flips out, starts shaking and stuff.” He glanced up at me. “Why do you think I’m not in Marri?”

It took me a minute to work out what he was talking about.

“Price,” I said. “You should be …”

He nodded. Our school houses. They worked alphabetically by surname. J-R was Marri but Liam was in Hakea. I’d never questioned it before. I guess I’d just thought there must be some reason. And there was.

“We don’t wear red,” he said. “Mum and me. Just in case. There was this one time …” He trailed off and made circles with his toe in the water’s surface.

“Maybe … do you think it was the fire?” I said.

He stared at me.

“Sorry,” I began. “If you don’t want to–”

“Nah, it’s not that.” He shrugged. “It’s not as if I remember it.” He reached down and pulled a long splinter of wood from the side of the platform. “I don’t think it was that. Fire isn’t really red, anyway. It’s orange and yellow and a whole mix of things.”

I nodded. He was right. Things can trick you like that. People tell you fire is red so that’s what you see. But when you really look with your own eyes, it’s completely different.

“The doctor reckoned it could have been anything,” Liam went on. “Just some detail his brain got stuck on. He said it probably doesn’t mean anything, even if it feels like it should.”

As he spoke, I noticed he was rubbing the side of his leg, along the scar line.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“What, this?” He pulled the edge of his shorts up a little to reveal the edge of the knobbly scar. “I dunno. They said it can’t. The nerves are dead or disconnected or something.” He pressed the centre of the scar with his finger, making it turn ghostly white. “But it’s not their leg, is it?” He stood up suddenly. “You going to go down?”

BOOK: Surface Tension
4.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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