Still here

ENORMOUS THINGS ARE in the water now. Bull sharks roll below the surface and carp with whiskers like whips slip under the house. A great swatch of brown cloth, the water won't break – it just bulges and inhales as if it were a single living creature. Peter and I make promises, like when the water gets this high – and we mark it on the stilts with blue Texta – we'll leave. But we've made eight blue marks, first from the ground in our gumboots, and the last three Peter hung upside down from the veranda to draw them. Each blue mark disappears overnight, regular enough to make us paranoid that someone is floating past to rub them out, rather than the waters actually rising. And so, on account of our suspicion, we're still here.

On his haunches, feet wrinkled and blue from the cold, Peter spits at the water from the veranda. His phlegm clings to the stumps. The air rings with the tinnitus of mosquitoes. The lichen that grew on the shower curtain is spreading all over the walls like a pale green flocking. The carpet squelches under my gumboots. In Beth's old bedroom, the pink paint is lifting off the walls, bubbling like a rash. Her single bed, neatly made with a colourful crocheted rug, stands solid in the water. The stilts at the back of the house have sunk lower than the front, so the rear of the house is filling with water and collecting in the belly of her old wardrobe. Tadpoles dart through the ground-floor rooms of her flooded dolls' house.

Each morning I get dressed in town clothes, as if the water might suddenly recede and I'll be able to do the errands. Peter doesn't bother. He's been wearing the same shorts and T-shirt since the sky broke down. If Beth was here – not as the nineteen-year old university student she is now, whose shoulders stiffen whenever we talk to her, but if she were eight again – she'd have insisted on staying in her room despite the water, and listened to the lap of tiny waves against the skirting boards. She'd have enjoyed the adventure of her bed slowly lifting and floating like a raft. She and the boys could make boats from paddle-pop sticks, and the sample perfume bottles I used to bring home from the chemist would wash up in the corridor with tiny notes inside them.

But we haven't heard from Beth for months. Not since Peter pulled out the internet cord in a rage and told her she wasn't welcome home until she took everything – her photos, her poems, everything – off the web. I didn't mind it so much. Some things she wrote were hurtful – but we don't know for sure that she was writing about us. I tried to tell Peter that, remind him that she always did have a good imagination. But Peter was furious. ‘I am a goddamn English teacher,' he said.

Without telling him, I used the computer at the library to look her up after he disconnected our internet. The photos aren't as slutty as he thinks they are. She looks like she is having fun. And she has hundreds of friends. I study all the boys in the pictures with her and wonder which one is her boyfriend. I opened a Hotmail account and emailed her a few times. I thought we were getting along, but her last email was too much. Susan told me what happened. Tell Dad he is a hypocrite. No, actually, he's worse than that. He's disgusting. And you're an idiot for staying with him. It was a cruel email to receive. I deleted it and shut down my account. As for the boys, I don't know if they know. They haven't said anything. I called them and asked them to help after the sandbags we laid out around the stumps kept getting nicked. But they were too busy and couldn't get time off work. I tried to speak to Beth but her housemate said he'd get her and then left me on the line. I don't know if he forgot about me or if she was home and refused to come to the phone, but I sat there for some time, listening to the sounds of our daughter's life. Eventually someone must have seen the phone off the hook and hung it up.

The rescue boats pass us everyday. Once we even saw our cat on it, sitting proudly on the bow. But we can't call out. Peter says what's the point; they're just staying at the community centre, eating and shitting together. We may as well stay put and be civilised about it, he reckons. But it's more than that. No one on the boat even looks at us, let alone checks to see if we're okay. I'm surprised they let our cat aboard.

We can tell who's left. The hovering orange glows of cigarettes and drifts of smoke give them away. Eddie Rollins is in his place behind us; the Bertie sisters across the road; and further down the way Joe Feltham is still there. During the day the boat checks on all three households, trying to persuade them to leave. But so far they've stuck to their guns, probably convinced that if they go they'll never return. A couple days back, Eddie's wife went with the boat. She has emphysema. The poor woman never smoked a cigarette in her life but got it from Eddie's smoking. Their cockatoo, Frankie, got it too but died pretty quick. For the past three years, Narelle sat at the window with a plastic oxygen mask attached to her face. Eddie had a lit cigarette in his mouth as he helped her down to the boat.

The Bertie sisters must have a stockpile of cigarettes. They light their smokes off each other's, as if to keep some vigil going. A single orange glow leans in, blossoms and then after the brief flare separates into two pulsing lights. My grandpa used to always talk about cigarettes as the perk of serving in Papua New Guinea instead of Europe during the war. ‘You could smoke at night because of the fireflies,' he'd say. ‘The damn things were everywhere. They made us right jumpy at the start but after a while we stopped shooting at them. We didn't have enough ammunition to shoot at a million specks of orange just in case one of them was a Jap having a smoko.' He laughed as if he were the luckiest bastard in the world because he and his mates could smoke while knee-deep in mud and leeches. Even coming back with one arm couldn't dampen it for him. ‘I can still smoke,' he'd say when we pointed this out, holding up a cigarette in his sole hand.

At night we can hear a canoe cutting the water near us, wooden paddles stirring the night. The whirr of fishing line is followed by the plonk of a sinker. Peter and I hold our breath, staring hard at the black, trying to make out the shape of the boat. I rub my calves, using the last of the eucalyptus oil on my shin splints from netball. My muscles are locking up from the wet. Like the worms that showed up at the beginning of the storms, wriggling red all over the footpaths, the veins on my legs are swelling. Some join up like purple bloated streets. The lumpy feel of them makes me sick. Eventually, in the black, a fish is jerked out and slaps against the surface of the flood, trying to get back under its wet covers but it is as if the river has hardened, leaving the fish to the metric clicking of a spinning reel.

The storms began a week and a half ago. Peter kept saying, ‘What's everyone complaining about? We needthe rain.' But anyone who knows anything about farming knows that a flood after a drought is just as bad as no rain. Peter is a typical city man like that. Thinks he knows everything. Or at least, that everything that can be seen can be known. There's something about how a flood can change all that. It has cloaked this town like a sheet over the dead. The spill of water as it coagulated around the cattle, muting the bleats of drowning sheep; the branches of tea-tree rubbing against each other sounding like rusty swings until their roots loosen, let go and tip over. And then silence. That's obvious, I suppose, but it's a different kind of silence to the one we had been getting used to.

Peter emptied out the supermarket a month after it happened. He did the shopping anyway, all five aisles, including the toiletry aisle – which is a first for him – but at the checkout no one would serve him. They had turned off the lights above their registers and put the folded closed signs on their conveyor belts. Then, so they wouldn't have to look him in the eye, they stood outside on the street smoking. Not even Susan, Beth's best friend, served him. After that, Peter didn't bother going back to the high school to clear out his desk. Said he didn't need to be told he was fired. When his graduating class got their marks back – the best final year results in the history of the school – the local newspaper rewrote history by stating the Year 12s were taught by Mr Robbs. Which they are now.

To begin with, people were nice to me. I run – ran – the chemist, so I guess they had to be. It was Peter who was the outsider, after all; I was born in this town. Fourth generation. Girls I'd babysat, braided their hair and coached at netball came into the chemist with their own children and mentioned in loud voices that their husbands had invested in the new units out next to the fake lake with black swans brought in from Adelaide. ‘We're looking for tenants,' they said, eyebrows raised at me before enquiring if the costs of goods had gone up recently or had my prices gotten a little bold? When I took the week's takings to the bank Sally widened her eyes at my numbers, even though I'd been banking with her for fifteen years. She said a few times, loud enough so everyone could hear, ‘It's not as if you're stuck for choices, Margaret,' banging the notes crisply against her desk, making neat stacks. People call me Margaret now. Sometimes it's Mrs Cedar, for real emphasis.


I'D ALWAYS WONDERED about the wives of men in court over some sex scandal, how they dealt with the newspapers and the television cameras, everyone knowing. I studied their expressions on the six o'clock news. Pointy chins jutted forward as they held their husband's hand. I always thought these women were weak, even when it was all over the news – they still believed their husbands. How could they have not known what these men really were?

When Peter and I first met, before the children came along, he had wanted to have sex with me there. He tried a few times but I wouldn't let him. I thought – I think – it's unhygienic. Why didn't I know then? It's like Janice used to say: if you don't let them do what they want with you, they'll do it with someone else. But Peter was different. He wasn't from here. He didn't force things like the boys we had grown up with.

It's almost like a religion I think now, when I see images of women supporting their husbands. You can't just stop believing in them – especially after twenty-two years and three children. Soon the chain chemist the town had been so against for the past three years opened up in the arcade opposite me and I closed up that same month, arranging a deal with the chain to buy my stock at a loss.


IN THE EVENINGS, when the rescue boats have left, I paddle out on the kids' old boogie board. I touch the marble heads of angels peering above the water line, the tips of their wings poking up like fins, trying to guess which granite curve is my parents' gravestone. I float under the houses of all the people I knew, their pocked dartboards half-submerged like sinking suns, the basketball hoops where the kids mucked around after dinner when it was daylight savings. In the main street I pull myself along by the parking meters until I reach the chemist. There is graffiti on the shop sign hanging over the footpath. Red paint scribbled over the mortar and pestle my father painted when I was a girl. Faded signs for hay-fever tablets and acne cures are still in the window. Peter asks me what I do out here on these night paddles; he says it with fear, like I'm meeting with the rest of the town and conspiring against him. I don't say anything; let him think he's going to get tarred and hung from a tree. Dipping my arms into the water, I feel the odd flank of fish.

I used to tell the kids a great big carp lived in the river and it was his whiskers, not reeds, that lassoed their legs when they went swimming. This carp lived on children whose siblings had not kept an eye on them, because that was all it took, I told the boys, reminding them that Beth was the youngest. A glance at the sky or the small study of an insect, and the carp would rise up, gills full of mud, smacking its Botox lips, wet and hungry. All of our children managed to avoid the carp. They managed to avoid this small town altogether, escaping to the city as soon as they got their P-plates, except for Beth, who was so impatient she left on her learner's licence. The Feltham's little girl wasn't so lucky. Or Mrs Shaw's husband, who got drunk on a forty-degree day and drowned. There was Lucy Stone, who went to school with me. And now Jason. I never thought to tell Peter about the river and its silent takings. It was just a silly story I told the kids to make sure they looked after each other. ‘We had been drinking rum and coke but we weren't drunk,' Peter had first insisted to me. ‘The others had gone on to the pub to keep celebrating but I didn't join them. I was coming home. You know that – I texted you.'

He had texted me. At the station Peter made me show the police the message, demanding they read it. Even the woman at the front desk had to read it. Still celebrating w students be home in half hour, it said. When the main sergeant shrugged and handed the phone back to me, Peter went crazy. ‘This is evidence – shouldn't this be filed somewhere?' In the end one of the policemen put it in a plastic bag and dropped it in a filing cabinet to shut him up. I hated Peter for that. It was my phone. ‘What if the kids are trying to call me?' I asked Peter after we left the station. ‘The kids don't call you. You call them,' he spat back at me.

The night it happened Geoff phoned me, telling me to bring some of Peter's clothes down to Townsend Road, at the bridge. Geoff had been an outsider like Peter – they bonded over it, Geoff the policeman and Peter the teacher from the city. But this evening Geoff sounded different: not cold, but distant. I know now that, like everybody else, he was probably weighing up his loyalties. When I asked him what happened, if Peter was okay, he said, ‘He's okay...Look, you better get down here,' and hung up. The whole road was lit up when I got there, with searchlights and dogs, and I forgot to slow down, still doing eighty kilometres until a man I'd never seen before waved me down furiously. ‘Can't you see we've a situation here?' he yelled when I wound down the window. ‘If I had any time I'd fine you on the spot. Jesus.' He stormed off and I pulled the car over slowly onto the gravel. There were small groups of police I didn't recognise. The Townsends' house in the far corner of the paddock was lit up, and I could see the kids' faces pressed up against their windows. John was out the front, talking to a policewoman – I started to walk over but then he saw me and scowled. He said something to the woman and disappeared inside.


THE POLICEMAN CAME over to me, holding her hand out formally. ‘Mrs Cedar?'

I was holding Peter's clothes and by the time I had swapped hands to return the handshake, her arm was back by her side, hitched on her holster. ‘What's happened?' I asked her. ‘I've Peter's clothes. Where is he?'

The policewoman gently tried to take the clothes from me. ‘I'll make sure he gets them. We need to take him back to the station.'

I wouldn't let go. We both held on to the bundle until a T-shirt fell out of the pile and on to the ground. I let go and picked it up, handing it over. ‘What's happened? Where's Peter? Can I see him?'

‘We're not at a stage to know. A young man has disappeared and we need to talk to your husband about it.'

‘Who – which young man? One of his students?' I looked around. ‘Who?'

Torchlight was panning the gum trees; the trunks were like white spindly ghosts. Men in black wetsuits slipped in and out of the river, their headlights glowing under the water. Police wearing rubber gloves were picking things up with tongs and putting them into plastic bags, clothes I recognised as Peter's. ‘I'm sorry, we can't say who...' the policewoman started – but then I saw Marie Strand kneeling on the muddy banks, her mouth gulping silently. Two policemen were hovering around her, their hands splayed out as if spotting her.

‘Jason? Is it Jason?'

Marie's head jerked up and stared at us. The policewoman noticed and tried to pull me away. ‘Like I said, I can't say anything at this point.'

‘But maybe he's at the pub? Has anyone checked the pub?' I was getting panicky. ‘Didn't they all go to the pub?'

A slow howl rose up out of Marie, a guttural sound as she sprung from her haunches towards me. The police grabbed her, held her down. I stared at them. She was screaming. Quiet, meek Marie, who worked every day at the canning factory, was screaming and swearing at me. The policewoman took my elbow and pulled me away. ‘A police car will drop him home,' she was saying. ‘Go home – get some rest. Things will be clearer in the morning.'

She left me at my car, satisfied after I pulled the car keys out of my handbag and put them in the door. It was then that I saw Peter. He was in the back of the ambulance, the doors wide open – he was wrapped in brown blanket. He looked up and caught my eye. Without thinking my arm shot up and I waved. He stared at me and then looked away. I stood there for a long time, hand in the air.

Two weeks later Marie Strand went through Jason's English essays and photocopied Peter's comments. Phrases like ‘you have such a beautiful way with words' and ‘this is penetrating stuff, Jason' and ‘Jason, I think you have real talent – I think if we work together we can get some of your writing published.' It all sounded so predatory. She ran off about fifty copies of his comments and did a letter drop around town. In thick black Texta she wrote at the top of each page Peter Cedar hunted my son. He is a Killer.

Things got worse when Jason's VCE external examination results came in, a fortnight after he disappeared. He just scraped a pass in the English exam. Mr Robbs wrote a piece for the local paper after Marie asked him to read Jason's short stories and essays. ‘Nothing within these stories indicated to me that Jason had been an exceptional student, let alone a talented writer,' he stated. ‘How Peter Cedar had become so enthused over Jason's writing is a mystery to me. It would seem, to me, that he held no genuine literary aspirations for this young man, on the cusp of his adult life.'

The evening that was published a rock came through our window. The article was wrapped around the rock. It knocked over a clay vase Beth made in primary school when she was learning how to join coils. Peter was furious. He went outside onto the veranda and yelled that everything this town did was a cliché, that throwing a goddamn rock through the window was a cliché and no one in this town could think of anything original and a goddamn rock through the window was a cliché. I collected the broken pieces of Beth's vase and carried them to her bedroom as he paced and yelled. I lay on her bed and cried. The next night someone threw a garden gnome through the kitchen window. Miraculously, nothing broke except the window, sending shattered glass all over my clean dishes. The gnome lay on the cork floor, nose chipped, staring at us. Peter laughed. ‘Well, at least they worked out what a cliché is,' he said proudly, as if he had educated the rock-thrower. After that I slept in Beth's old room and Peter in the boys' bunk bed. Neither of us wanted to sleep in our bed.


ON THE FIFTH night of the flooding I tied the boogie board to our stairs. I tested how many steps were underwater, counting four before clambering back up, my legs dripping and muddy. I'd paddled to the edge of town this time, looked up at the green highway sign pointing towards Adelaide. The roadhouse was ruined; through the windows I could see the tables and bar stools covered in a mould, the fridges and food counter ankle-deep. This was where we used to sit, us girls, and watch people leave town. Especially at graduation time, the place would be feverish with plans of escape, dreams of getting a job and a flat in the city. I'd met Peter there. He was just a boy then. A writer, he said. Hitching his way around Australia. He stayed for a week, camping by the river at a spot I showed him. I went home only once, to pack a bag and leave a note. It was the wildest thing I'd ever done. I honestly thought I was never coming back.

I missed him then, under the highway sign and drowned roadhouse. I turned the board homewards and paddled. I crawled into the bottom bunk and saw his eyes were woven shut with salt. He'd been crying. He looked so young. I saw our two sons in his face. I put my face in his neck and kissed his skin. ‘I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' I said, over and over, prying my arms around him. I lifted him off the mattress and held him. Tears, his and mine, ran down my neck and onto my breasts. ‘I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' I kept saying. ‘I love you.' And it's true. I still love him. We sunk into each other like we had been starved by the silence. Butting our heads hard. Like horses. For a moment I thought I felt the bunk beds lift, bobbing in the flood, until I cried out, a spasm going through me and into the empty town.

We lay together, on the bottom bunk, for the rest of the wet. Our bodies shifted into their habitual curve around one another, as if in sleep we knew no grudge.

Things will be different when the water recedes, as though sucked away with a straw. The crows will be the first to return. Picking at the bloated flesh of drowned dogs and sheep stuck in the mud, river shrimp and crabs coming out of their mouths. Pecking at the eyes of stranded fish, the silver gills fanned open. The hovering powerlines will return to the ground, and puddles will remain, like a great big mirror has been broken over the town, each reflecting pieces of the sky and passing clouds. They'll find him. Jason Strand. Blue like a swimming pool. Toes and fingers nibbled. Peter's thumbprints all over him. And when the rain stops the streets will fill up with new cars, tyres spinning in the bog. And our house will probably collapse, its knees rotten. 

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