Fiction

The future from the bottom of a boat

THE HOUSES IN the estate are all the same. Low-slung brick with dry brown roofs and yards. The fences are thin fibro planks woven slackly between raw concrete uprights. Deb doesn't trust the fence. It's like someone tried too hard to make something out of nothing.

All is rust. It flows down the walls from gutters and window frames and vents. It streaks from fastening bolts down the fence planks and piles up on the earth. It makes holes in cars. It lives on the spokes of pushbike wheels and arrives overnight on the steel lock tabs of school cases. It is your point of difference. It is how you know where you live – what is yours. Here, decay is personal.

Deb stands in the middle of the cul-de-sac and licks salt air from her lips. Tomorrow she will start Year Three. Her sister drops a canvas bag at her feet and bends to knot the drawstring. Tomorrow, Tracey must choose between starting Year Eleven and taking a job at Collie 3 power station. Either way, she figures, she loses. She sees Deb's painted toes poking from her small plastic sandals. Yesterday she hit her little sister in the head for using her nail polish. She reminds herself not to be a bitch. Tells herself Deb is still a baby. She says, "Let's go."

They have the bus mostly to themselves as it works the interlocked points and bays of the southern backwater. A few workers get on and off at the power stations – the big coal burners slumped at the foreshore like dogs at a puddle, lapping water in cool and pissing it out steaming. The cooling inlets have red signs warning not to swim there. Some kid did once. He got sucked through the turbines while spearfishing for flounder and turned the outlet water crimson.

Tracey pushes her head against the glass and lets the vibration massage her temple. Her father has worked at the Collie 3 power station for thirty-two years. He opens and closes the valves that regulate the pressure on boiler number four. Her mother has worked there nineteen years. She cleans the administration buildings, the canteen and toilets. Tracey's job won't be like that. Her parents have called in their favours. "You can be someone," they tell her. "You can be in admin." As the bus passes the foaming outlet, Tracey scans the water for traces of her own blood.

Deb is watching the outlet, too. Nobody fishes there anymore, scared they might accidentally eat a fish that has eaten some of the turbine kid. Deb has a term for kids like him – Example. Example is a kid who has something terrible happen to them, and because of that terrible thing happening, causes a change. The turbine kid is Example because after he got chopped to burley, the power stations put mesh around their inlets. There is the kid who's the Example of why you have to wear a bike helmet. The kid who's the Example of why brake-fluid bottles have childproof caps. The kid who's the Example of why swing seats are made of plastic and not hardwood. The kid who's the Example of why pool filters have covers. There are lots of Examples, and as far as Deb can see, they are usually kids from cul-de-sacs.

At the approach to the northern waters, the driver parks the bus on the verge and changes the route indicator from 363 to 17. The sisters watch as he pulls up his socks, tucks in his shirt and checks his nostrils in the long side mirror. The 17 now travels the green, clear-water suburbs to the city. But it's the same bus, thinks Tracey. She thinks of how, on the worn brown vinyl seats, sweet-smelling office workers and dressed-up shoppers swap dead skin and sweat with the dirty bums of power-station workers and housing-estate kids. She thinks how every morning a little coaldust or algal bloom makes its way to the city and how every evening a little fine perfume or imported silk makes its way to the estate. Tracey knows it means something.

A small sheltered bay opens beside them. The water is soft and clear and buoyed with yachts. Deb presses her face on to the glass next to her sister and asks if this is the place. Tracey says "Yes." She lifts Deb high enough to pull the bell cord and the little girl smiles her first smile of the day. They stand on the roadside and watch the number 17 diminish in a veneer of diesel. But it's the same bus, thinks Deb.

 

INSIDE THE ROTUNDA of the Rotary Park the girls unpack their canvas bag. They eat tomato-sauce sandwiches. They drink lemon make-up cordial. They put together fishing rods, silently pulling soft green line through golden swivel eyes. Tracey tells Deb to remember that if anyone asks anything, to shut up and let her do the talking. Deb tells Tracey she doesn't have to keep on telling her.

The pair walk the park foreshore, flicking and retrieving their lines, lazy silhouettes before the sunset. At the park's edge they come to the first of the waterfront houses. Tracey remembers when there were fishing shacks and halfarsed weekenders shufffled on this shore. Now a vista of anal retention sits tight above the retaining wall. The narrow strip of leftover sand and seaweed between this wall and high tide forms the public right of way. The girls walk this strip, flicking and retrieving, pretending not to look. Deb has never been this close to the ocean inlet, never seen the water so clear. A baby flathead falls for her wobbler. She unhooks it lightly and gives it back to the lake.

Deb watches the flathead scoot into the blackening water and hopes it doesn't die. She hears her sister swear beside her and flinches, waiting for a smack in the head. Tracey has told her three times they aren't there to catch fish. When the blow doesn't come she looks up to see their way blocked by barbed wire cutting across the path and running out into the water. On the other side is a mansion of unlikely angles and windows that cannot be opened. It reminds Deb of their fence.

Tracey swears again. "This is why we are doing this," she says. She tells Deb the fences are meant to stop at the retaining wall. She tells her people are meant to be able to walk all the way around the lakefront if they want and how some woman did once and it took her eighteen days. She tells her how the council told the rich people it was illegal to put fences down into the waterline but the rich people did it anyway. She tells her how the council threatened to sue the rich people, so the rich people became the council and that was the end of that.

THE LAST OF the day falls into the water. Deb thinks about sunsets and how people are mostly inside when they happen. She thinks about the time her visiting aunty went mental photographing one – saying over and over how she couldn't wait to show her friends in Melbourne. When the photos came back and were just bits of paper a billionth the size and feeling of the real sky, Deb had to bite her hand to hide her happiness. Tracey thinks about boiler number four and urinal cakes. She is lost on the far side of the lake, where red aircraft-warning lights on the smokestacks of Collie 3 glow below the evening star. It is darker there. She thinks about the coaldust blanketing the cul-de-sac, tucking it in, putting it to sleep. She walks into the lake.

The water is cold already. It rushes Tracey's jeans and chucks shivers up the quick of her teeth. By the time she rounds the fence it is above her waist. She lets go of a long defiant piss. It spreads over her crutch and down her thighs, briefly warming her. Behind, Deb is up to her chest, struggling to keep the balance between walking and floating. She doesn't like being in the lake at night. Unlike creatures of wardrobes and under beds, the fangs and claws and stings of creatures of the lake are real.

Tracey takes the hacksaw from the canvas bag and starts work on the chain securing the punt. Deb thinks it is the shittiest boat she has ever seen. She is seething – on the brink of storming off. All summer she has watched other people having a better time than her. Watched as they caught fish that belonged to her. Watched as they dived into water that belonged to her. Watched as they motored across long slapping waves that belonged to her. Without a boat it seemed everything good lay beyond. When it became clear the annual promise had been gambled, drunk and smoked again, the girls spent the rest of Christmas Day sitting in the shallows with their backs to the shore and the warm water up to their top lips. They breathed through flared nostrils. They looked out silently from frowns drawn hard against the glare. The shore breeze blew the peeling skin from their necks but it couldn't cool them. The notion that a boat should be stolen was floated. Later, it bobbed back. Justified.

The punt is three metres long at the most and pocked with crusty wads of fibreglass repair that lift and hang like ripe school-day scabs. Deep cracks down its sides are packed with rivers of crumbling sealant. The length of garden hose meant to protect its gunnel is brittle and fractured. There is no motor, just marks where it should be. Tracey feels Deb's mood. She knows if they walk this shore they will probably find something decent: maybe a four-metre tinny with a six-horse outboard like they talked of. Something big enough to get the two of them up and planing but small enough not to need a licence or registration.

Tracey tells her little sister that the pricks and their illegal fence need to be taught a lesson. She tells her, this way, they don't have to feel bad about stealing because it is just making things fair. She tells her because the rich people break the law, it is OK for them to break the law as well. She tells her that in the morning when these pricks with their illegal fence want to get out to their big flash yacht, they will have to swim. She says they will repair the cracks and dents and sand it back and paint it. She says they could paint it white on the outside and green on the inside.

Deb is quiet. Then she says, "Maybe we can paint it yellow."

The girls pull the boat into the lake. With one leg in and one leg out, Tracey pushes them off in a series of long bouncing strides. When the bottom drops away she lifts her leg high behind her and shakes off the water and weed. Crouching at the back of the shitty little punt like a figure skater, the smell of her sister's hair flowing through her, she is caught off guard by happiness.

 

 WITHOUT OARS, THEY lay over the bow and dog paddle the punt out through the anchored yachts. They whisper the names and ports of origin of each as they pass. Deb says, "Ella Angel, Vancouver." She says they should name their boat "Freedom" because they got it for free. Tracey thinks about all the water that passed under the Ella Angel as she crossed the world to get to their lake. She pictures a wave gently passing underneath the long white hull. She pictures the wave continuing across the ocean, carrying whales and dolphins and fish and turtles. She watches it duck the hard steel of a black coal ship then gently caress the rotting wood of a refugee boat. She watches it enter through the clean inlet waters and travel across the lake towards the shallows behind the estate. She sees the wave relax, eyeing a gentle shore break, lining up a pudgy boy in an inner tube for one last fling. She watches the cooling inlet of Collie 3 reach out and grab it. Drag it through the turbines and spit it through the outlet. Devoured. Ragged. Drowned.

Tracey lines up the bow with the green and red flashing buoys that mark the channel. She knows the tide is running in. If she can get the punt into its flow it will carry them across the lake. Even though the bus trip along the spindles of the shore is fifty kilometres, in a straight line it is less than ten. They can drift that in the three or four hours before the tide turns. Once they bump ashore they can walk the boat along the edge, or maybe come back later with some oars. Tracey tells Deb to sit up the back. She leans long over the bow and digs her arms deep into the cold black water. With Deb holding her ankles, she pulls them forward with strong butterfly strokes. When she eventually feels the overwhelming pull of the channel she lines up the lights of the Collie 3 smokestacks and lets the lake take over.

 

THE GIRLS FIND the most comfortable position is lying on the floor with their heads at opposite ends and their legs resting on the middle seat. They take it in turns to sit up and check they are drifting toward the stacks – at first every few minutes but now, trusting the drift is good, only occasionally. Low down inside the boat, her promise to her sister kept, the lake bed safely rising and falling below, Tracey dares to think about tomorrow.

She doesn't want to go back to school. She doesn't care about the assassination of Francis Ferdinand or the volume of a cone. She doesn't want to sit all day on plastic chairs, rote memorising what teachers copy from books. She doesn't want the constant hard invitations of boys driven dog wild by puberty. She doesn't want to work at Collie 3. She doesn't want to be in admin. She doesn't want to walk between those filthy stacks each morning. She doesn't want to get off the bus while it is still the 363.

Tracey knows she is supposed to want something but doesn't know what. Her only inkling comes from a foreman at Collie 3. Yesterday, he had given her a lift in a new car with a light top and dark windows. He told her he had bought it for himself as a thirtieth birthday present. He told her that was because he was making thirty thousand dollars a year. He told her not many blokes did that – made thirty thousand a year by the time they were thirty. "I could buy and sell your father," he told her. "The Deville is the biggest car you can buy," he said.

He bet her five bucks that if she lay on the back seat and stretched out she wouldn't be able to touch the sides.

Tracey thinks about how she is halfway to thirty. She thinks about how rust from the gutter bleeds the word "ill" onto the bricks above her bedroom window. She thinks about her father's swollen hands turning valves and her mother's blue-vein legs hosing shit. She says, "By the time I am thirty I am going to be making thirty thousand dollars a year."

Deb tries to picture her sister in fifteen years. It will be the year 2000. It is further than she can imagine. Deb doesn't like to think about the future. As far as she can tell, it is already history. "Probably the world will end before then anyway," she says.

Tracey's small happiness falls from her. It sinks to the bottom of the lake and is pulled apart by crabs. Like her, Deb is smart – a dangerous thing in a place where being too clever will get you smashed in the face as routinely as being too dumb. Tracey has watched with sadness this summer as Deb has come to know the truth. It has fallen to the big sister to help the little sister make the transition from bliss. It has been Tracey who has nursed Deb through nightmares of skeleton babies starving to death – their mother cleaning by night when offices are abandoned and reeking toilets are vacant. It is Tracey who has soothed the harsh screams of atomic bomb blasts – their father asleep from television and beer by nine o'clock. It is Tracey who has cradled the eight-year-old and kissed her back to sleep after frantic questionings about black smoke from the Collie stacks and global warming and the lake rising to take them while they sleep.

Tracey tells Deb the world isn't going to end. She tells her that by the year 2000, society will be very highly advanced. So advanced babies will not starve to death. So advanced atomic bombs will be dismantled. So advanced there will be no black smoke. She tells her that in the year 2000 society will be so highly advanced little girls like her won't have heard of starvation , won't have nightmares about pollution, won't know the terror of thinking they can be blown apart. She tells her that in the year 2000 the estates will have fences you can trust.

Deb listens as her sister gently talks of the future. A world of peace and happiness and robot dogs. Soon there is only the sound of Tracey's breathing and the soft lapping of waves on the hull.

Deb is too excited to sleep. Tomorrow she will start Year Three. She sits up and checks the drift. Her red hair has turned wild from the salt air and sits huge and bouffant on her small freckled head. The drift is good. They are headed for the stacks. 

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