Fiction

River cities

EASTWOOD HAD NEVER liked storms. Not the Brisbane ones anyway, which didn’t so much pour as drop.

He hadn’t liked the shatter of the rain, or the hail – hard and round as golf balls – or the wind that could strip just about anything dumb enough to step out into it. Those nights, Eastwood would peel his hulking body off the floor and lumber out into their overgrown yard, battling the leap of fat-necked toads and the maw of the black night. He’d stand there, old body thick, and bark at every growl of thunder and blink of white lightening that broke through.

Hazel would stand too, walk her sweat-sticky feet across the floorboards of their battered home to call him in, her voice swallowed by the rain in a way that Eastwood’s growl never was.

‘The gate will hold so leave him be,’ her father would tell her. ‘He’s talking to it.’

He’d tilt the long neck of his beer towards the rotting wooden fence that contained their yard, the gate held to its station by a single twisted cable. Hazel would huff out a snarl.

‘You’re both barking.’

Her father would laugh at that, the laugh that used to make her mental, his breaths damp and hoarse, and his eyes trained on Eastwood. Together, Hazel and her dad, they’d watch the muscles tighten beneath Eastwood’s fur, watch him leap, teeth bared, as he tried to catch each flash of lightning in the hard trap of his jaw and swallow it whole.

 

IT’S HARD TO understand. Josh doesn’t, because a dog is a dog and a storm is a storm, and Hazel says, ‘No, you don’t get it. This is Australia. Queensland. This is the tropics. Our storms aren’t a piss in a gutter; they’re something angry. Vitriolic.’

‘Piss can be angry,’ Josh says, his Portland accent curling in her ears. He has a wild beard and thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses, and he buttons his shirt to the neck like a preacher.

‘It’s not piss.’ Hazel says. ‘It’s, like, a deluge of piss.’

‘A deluge of piss.’ Josh nods amenably. He drinks his coffee half and half, thickened with cream, and it makes Hazel sick to think about. They’re sitting in a suburban coffee shop a few streets down from work. An oddball little place with water stains on the ceiling and amateur art lining the walls, hand-written prices with one too many zeroes stuck just below. Josh loves this place. It’s so Portland, with its mismatched chairs and its fuck-ugly paintings.

A waitress approaches, asks if they want anything else, and Hazel thinks of dumping Josh.

‘They’re claustrophobic, those storms. It’s so hot and then it’s so wet,’ Hazel says instead. ‘A friend of mine had a cousin over once from Christchurch during the storm season and they had to take her to hospital three times because she thought she was suffocating. The doctor’s kept sending her home and telling her she’d have to get used to it. That that’s just the way things are in Brisbane. I think the river doesn’t help. It’s just like the Mississippi. Big, loud, muddy. My dad fishes in it. The Brisbane one, not the Mississippi. Pulls out these salmon, biggest you’ve ever seen.’

Josh hums, only half listening. His gaze stays with the waitress, who is thinner than Hazel, with a much better arse. Hazel raps her fingers on the tabletop, smiling tightly at the waitress.

‘Or a refill?’ the girl drawls, holding up a steamy glass jug of bleak coffee, the grounds weighing down the bottom like river silt.

Josh orders for them both.

 

ODDLY, THESE ARE the two memories that swim to the surface of her head, sitting in the passenger seat of her aunt’s car. They’re not so out of the blue. It’s been years since Hazel was back in Brisbane, and the humidity somehow shocks her and feels familiar at the same time – like reaching out to hold a stranger’s hand.

Heading down the winding streets on the outskirts of the city, buildings hug the roadside: the large, square concrete ones built in the eighties, and the oddly delicate Queenslander’s from the thirties through fifties – pretty houses raised on stilts, designed in the hope of coaxing a breeze to disrupt the gathering heat. Beside her, Hazel’s aunt, Tracey, babbles earnestly from the driver’s seat, her peach coloured hair streaked white as if with mould. There are bags under her eyes, heavy as water bladders, her sallow skin parched from too long in this heat.

‘I thought you might have brought Joshua,’ Tracey says.

Hazel rubs at her bleary eyes. ‘He couldn’t get time off work.’

The afternoon humidity is stifling out here, air wet to the touch, and Hazel can feel the sweat starting to pool at her armpits and at the small of her back. Her T-shirt sticking. She sticks her arm out the open window enough to catch the whipping air, hold it thick in her cupped hand and remember how much she’s missed it. There are blue-cheeked lorikeets, squawking from the powerlines, banding together, fussing, calling back at sleek-bodied crows. Cicadas hum, a constant thrumming over slow traffic.

‘It would be a shame if he never got to meet your father,’ Tracey adds, and Hazel blinks back at her, throat closing, leg twitching.

‘Dad’s been sick before, Trace.’

Tracey titters, concedes, her fingers tightening at the steering wheel then quickly, deliberately, loosening.

 

THE HOSPITAL IS only a few kilometres south of the city, but it often feels a world away from the rest of Brisbane. It’s a mass of arched, shining balconies and climbing concrete. An overpass links the carpark to the hospital in a near-perfect glass cylinder that reminds Hazel of the cavities of submarines she’s seen in documentaries, a strange stasis at the heart of the sea. The overpass opens into the hospital, spits you from the echoing glass to the bleat of phones, the chatter of nurses, the soft moans of restless addicts wasting time in waiting rooms.
Tracey gropes for Hazel’s hand and leads her up a floor towards the ICU.

‘Doctor Stratting has been overseeing your father,’ she says, her thin lips curving around the word. ‘She’s a bit hard, you know. I think she could use a lesson in bedside manner.’

The ICU is quieter than the rest of the hospital and disconcertingly clean, with only the stagnant odour of every filmy-eyed loved one in days-old clothes to cut through. Hazel watches Tracey stride away from her towards the nurses’ station, a limp to her step that Hazel hasn’t seen before.

Then, a hand at her elbow.

Hazel turns to be met by a statuesque woman, noble with her flat, Grecian nose and thin blonde hair. Her bones look harsh, angular even below the soft cotton of her blue blouse, and Hazel casts her in her head. Robes. Trident. Webbed fingers. A fish army. Amphitrite or Ceto. Queen of the sea.

‘You the next of kin for Frank Foster?’

Hazel nods, says, ‘Daughter,’ and the woman pushes out a bony, unwebbed hand to shake Hazel’s.

‘Doctor Stratting. Your father’s had an acute stroke.’

Stratting drops her arms back to her sides, her face unmoving. Hazel is always uncertain around people who don’t gesture, and Stratting gives nothing away. ‘It was a blood clot in the brain that blocked flow through the arteries. Ideally, we would’ve gotten him here and treated him within three hours, but it was almost five before he arrived. If he survives, and that is an if, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to live independently. We won’t know what we’re looking at until he wakes up. Strokes can be, ah…’

For the first time, Stratting stumbles, gaze catching down the hall on a nurse pushing a trolley. The nurse calls, suddenly, to another, who laughs.

‘Unpredictable,’ Stratting finishes. ‘We’ll be doing more tests before then of course. Being able to detect how extensive the damage is to his brain is integral. We’ll keep him in the ICU the whole time, and you’ll be able to see him during visiting hours.’

Hazel nods. She clenches then unclenches her fingers.

‘Is there anyone else to call?’ Doctor Stratting asks.

There’s Monica, Hazel supposes, who had loved her father for the better part of two years back when Hazel was still in high school. Monica, with her grey smoker’s teeth and her summer skin pockmarked from acne and nicked out melanomas. She was a strange, kind woman who’d checked Hazel’s homework and gone to her clarinet recitals and collected small, green succulents in dusty coffee jars. She was never embarrassed by her frizzy, honeysuckle hair or tried to hide her rotting teeth like Hazel is sure her mother would have. Monica was loud and unselfconscious. She was brash, and had the sort of laugh that could make you angry but curl warm in your belly like the scotch Hazel drinks now. Monica had three children of her own, all with the same egg-crack smiles, and hair so brutally alive it could snap any hair tie Hazel tried to tame it with.

Monica had left Hazel with a hug, a minty kiss, and a scrunched up bit of a letter, wet with tears, that told her she was beautiful and smart and a star waiting to shine or some bullshit that might’ve been nice if it didn’t feel like such a consolation prize.

‘There’s no one else,’ Hazel says to Doctor Stratting, who nods.

‘I’ll take you to your father.’

 

‘I CAN’T STAY the night,’ Tracey says, her fingers clutched around the steering wheel of the car as they follow the curve of the river towards Hawthorne. ‘Husband misses me too much. Or my cooking, I guess. I’ve been staying to take care of Eastwood of course, and to make sure the place doesn’t fall apart. It’s… Well, I’m sure you remember.’

Hazel presses her forehead to the glass window of the car, watching the clouds overhead catch, hold, roll like dust bunnies through the sky.

‘A storm’s coming,’ Hazel says, but Tracey keeps talking, as if she hasn’t heard.

 

TRACEY WASN’T LYING. The place has barely changed, at least not in the years that Hazel’s been in Portland. The walls are still flaking paint and the dimpled floorboards still covered by the Middle Eastern-inspired rug her grandparents had bought in Byron Bay twenty years earlier. There’s the potent smell of the dripping pipe, made heavy enough to blanket the skin by the muggy air, leaden with the incoming rain. The bookshelves are small, dusty, littered with her father’s chunky airport thrillers and door-stopper classics – Moby Dick nestled beside The Bourne Identity. There are a few of the old poetry collections Hazel had self-published fresh out of university too: sloping, sad things about motherless women and old fishermen and the river cities in her head.

She drops her suitcase by the sofa and listens for the scramble of Eastwood’s paws against the timber floors, watches his old, shaggy body lumber to her side. Running a hand through his fur, she kneels beside him, letting her gaze travel to where she knows the photograph of her mother is, her eyes black as onyx and her lips a slit in her skin, red as a witch’s apple. She wasn’t a pretty woman, but she was striking to look at, and Hazel remembers the men whose gazes would linger as she hauled buckets of still-snapping crabs off Hazel’s father’s boat.

‘She was a good-looking woman, your mother,’ Tracey says from across the room, and Hazel blinks back at her, shrugging as best she can, scratching at Eastwood’s neck. He sighs contently, nestling his heavy head at her thigh.

Tracey opens her mouth again, but then thinks better of it. She airs out the curtains and disrupts the dust below, scurrying it back across the floorboards.

Hazel gets a beer.

 

THE FIRST CRACK of thunder is loud, cutting, and she waits for Eastwood’s bark, that deep, dark thing that rattles her bones, but it never comes. She shuffles up from her spot in the deep groove of the couch, head lumbering behind her, weighed down and light all at once, a lead balloon from too many drinks. She’d drunk her father’s last three beers, then moved onto his old scotch after Tracey had left, the stuff he kept shut up above the fridge in the trick shelf he thought she’d never be able to find.

The rain hasn’t started, but the lightning slams through the dusk, lighting up the counters and the walls and Hazel too. She pushes her way out into the front yard, eyes searching, the wind whipping through her, but the yard is empty except for a few magpies squatting against the weather on the furthest fence. The gate bangs ahead, the metal clanging quiet beneath the swell of the storm.

‘Eastwood!’ Hazel calls, but the dog is nowhere to be seen.

 

HER FATHER NEVER got rid of anything – not of her mother’s and certainly not of hers – and Hazel finds her red, shining gumboots left out the back of the house beside her father’s mottled black ones. And her raincoat, still hanging off a laundry hook beside the washer. In her head, she maps out the walk her father would take with Eastwood, down the park to the river, praying it’s the same too.

Her father has lived in this house his entire life. His own parents had moved out, leaving it to him as they turned grey nomad, taking their rusty campervan across the country’s wide, open middle. They’d died on the road, their campervan meeting the brilliant legs of a great red kangaroo and their own legs being too old, too broken to stumble for help. Hazel wonders if her father thought his fate was to be the same.

‘Eastwood!’ she calls, battling the rip of Brisbane’s wind, the way it rushes and tears at her raincoat, filling the air with debris. Across the river, ferries full of commuters lull momentarily, then pick up speed, trying to finish their circuits before the break. The storm clouds are thickening, clotting like cream. Like the blood in her father’s brain.

Hazel stumbles, catches her feet. The riverside is deserted, the mangroves and the eucalypts and the ferns sloping dangerously low to the ground, swaying wild enough that they look ready to be uprooted. She looks to the playground in the distance, and the slope of glassy, glossy riverside houses beyond it. The tall fences that guard them.

There’s a fisherman still on the jetty, struggling with a wild net of gasping salmon. Hazel rushes to meet him, grips the end of his net and helps lug it onto the jetty floor. The man reeks of swampy, stagnant water, his skin streaked with tears of sweat and grime. There’s the corpse of a mosquito on the no man’s land of his neck, its body contorted amid a bright fleck of red.

‘Clear out before the rain hits,’ he says, instead of hello, or thanks.

‘I’m looking for my dog. About this big,’ she gestures dumbly, feels sixteen again, and the fisherman looks at her like she’s that age too. ‘Grey fur. Floppy ears. He’s old. He can’t be out here in this.’

‘A dog will survive,’ the fisherman says, nodding to where the sky’s turning black. ‘You won’t.’

 

SHE MAKES IT down to the other side of the river walk, down to the ferry terminal and the string of lush cafés that have sprung up in the years of Hazel’s absence. There’s no trace of Eastwood, and she’s lost out here, still half drunk, stumbling, staggering in the almost light of the almost storm. A streetlight flickers above her and she stands below it as it firms again, it’s light steadying. Steady. With a clap of thunder, the rain starts, rushes like a breath held too long.

She leaves the streetlight, doubles back around, closer again to the river. Maybe he fell in. Maybe he’s fighting the current, the storm water. There’s no fence this far up the shore, nothing to warn people before the dip of the riverbank, and Hazel skids in the dirt, in the mud, her boots sinking down, far enough that water races around her calves and fills her boots.

‘Eastwood!’ she calls again, but she can’t see anything beyond the few feet in front of her. There’s a shape in the distance though, further down along the riverbank, something catapulting towards her and it’s the wrong shape to be Eastwood, but she tries to focus on it anyway, see beyond the haze of rain and the rabid bite of wind. She leans forward, and then she slips.

 

AS A CHILD, she once overheard a friend’s mother refer to Brisbane as ‘the river city’ and took it for fact. After all, if there could be worlds in wardrobes or through walls at train stations, why couldn’t there be one in a river? She’d imagined it, drawn pictures, written stories, leaned her body over jetty rails, all in the hope of catching a glimpse of the city below. But she had only caught shining, collapsed beer cans and the long, dull bodies of fish.

She had pulled her father up on this, and he had gruffly replied that she was looking in the wrong place. That everyone knew the river city was upstream towards the bay and not down here, in the snaking coils of these bends. ‘You’re looking at the wild plains out here. Do you think they’d let us fish in their city? We don’t let them hunt in ours.’

It had been her aunt, in the end, who’d corrected the untruth, and Hazel had felt the lie for years afterwards, foolish and loved at the same time.

 

SHE WAKES UP inside the plastic walls of the playground cubby house. The fisherman is slouched against the wall opposite, sitting on top of his esky. It’s dark outside, and the street light casts an eerie net across them. His arms are folded against his chest, head stooped downwards, the shadows of the night making graves of his sunken eyes, cheeks, the deep dip of his collarbone, visible beneath the wet neck of his shirt. Hazel finds herself turning closer, training her ears to determine the evenness of his breath. Whether or not he’s asleep.

The fisherman glances up when he sees her move, his head jerking at the sight of her, as if he’d forgotten she was even there at all. She aims for a grin and tastes pennies. Scraping a hand across her mouth, she’s rewarded with the grainy feel of dirt and the slick, sticky red of blood.

‘I found you like that,’ the fisherman says, voice gruff below the sharp shatter of rain against the cubby house roof, and Hazel lifts a hand from the cut at her mouth, further up her face, pressing cool fingertips against the lump at her forehead. Sharp, prickling pain swells at the touch, tugs a nerve that reaches down to her toes.

‘I must’ve fainted.’

The fisherman grunts in reply, and Hazel sits up straighter, the cool plastic below her puddled with enough water to soak through her jeans.

As a teenager, she’d come here with friends to smoke blunts and drink goon out of shiny, metallic bags. She’d lost her virginity below the slide, and had broken her arm swinging, wasted, on the monkey bars. Blood, tears, sweat. She wonders if she’s mothered these trees, if they’ve kept these pieces of her as they’ve grown old. If they’ve got a million bits of a million children scraped into their bark.

‘You’re Frank’s girl, aren’t you?’ the fisherman says, and Hazel blinks, only half surprised. Her father has always been well known among the fishers on the river, but she can’t place this wasted man, with his skin nicked and broken, the telltale scars of cancer. He has a mottled beard, trailing his collar bone, and one eye is a faded grey.

She nods.

‘Eastwood’s a good dog. Your father always told me how he looked like he was talking to someone bigger when these storms rolled around. The way he’d bark up there at it. Fishing for lightning.’

Outside the cubby house door, the rain is so dense it’s like looking through frosted glass.

‘He’s gone walkabout tonight.’

‘He’s a good dog,’ the fisherman says again. ‘You’re a good kid, trying to bring him back. Your father would do the same.’

They’re very quiet for a minute. Nothing but the shatter of rain, the split beats of thunder. The fisherman’s fingers twitch, and she wants to hold them suddenly, press her fingers against his strong arms and feel for his pulse. After a second, she does.

The fisherman doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look at her, his grappling hook of a body turned towards the storm, watching it gather and release, gather and release – a seamless, endless cycle. His pulse doesn’t pick up or slow.

‘Does my dad talk about me?’ she asks quietly, desperately, and the fisherman glances back, taking her in with his one good eye.

‘He does,’ is all he says, and then he’s on his feet, dragging on his esky and shaking off. He nods at her before walking out into the rain. Hazel loses sight of him in seconds, the rain like a blanket shielding his narrow body from view, and she does the only thing left for her to do. She sits back, presses her head against the wall of this pretend house, and cries.

 

IT’S LATE WHEN she hears it. The bark – blunt and deep and near swallowed by the sound of the rain. She blinks her aching eyes back open and glances out the door of the cubby house and it’s him. Of course it’s him. Eastwood, his hulking body long and tired, his brown eyes wide, wild, shattered.

Hazel scrambles to her feet, fumbles in the dark, reaching out through the rain towards him. The thunder and lightning have moved on, leaving the shadow of a storm.

‘Eastwood,’ she calls, and the dog stops. Lifts his neck. Tilts his big head.

‘You found me, boy,’ her voice is so hoarse, throat swollen, but Eastwood picks up speed, cutting through the rain with the soft pads of his feet and the big, black of his nose. His paws loud against the wet earth. He ducks into the play house before she can pause to look at him better, and she wraps her arms around him, lets him soak her clothes all over again, sinks into the heady, heavy smell of him. Of her father’s dog, out here, without him.

 

SHE DREAMS OF her father, slipping just below the surface of the water, his ankles caught by those citizens of the river city. He’d get his own room there, just like his one back home, with his fishing lines and his airport thrillers. With the pictures of his absent wife and maybe one of Monica too. It’d be him, alone, in a chair just like his favourite, and maybe one day she and Eastwood could swim down there to meet him.

 

THE RAIN STOPS sometime in the early morning and Hazel’s left with the dull heat of a Brisbane summer, wrapping its clammy hands around the backs of her knees and the throb of a headache, sprawling behind her eyes. She jerks at the neck of her shirt, peels it back, trying to gain any sort of traction, any sliver of air against the slick skin of her chest.

Beside her, Eastwood grumbles, shakes, drops of rain suddenly airborne again and stinking.

Hazel stands up, shakes herself out too, and clambers out of the cubby house, stretching in the yawn of the damp morning. A jogger moves past, her sneakers squelching on the wet grass, and she waves, like Hazel is anything to look at. Like she’s not soaked to the bone, a smear of blood at her mouth, her hair mangled up on her head, some leftover relic from a lost city.

Like it’s nothing at all, Hazel waves back.

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