SCHOOL WAS FINISHED for the year, and only two days into the holidays we had the makings of a raft. Tin drums rolled like thunder down the street as we chased after them. They sounded like giants laughing, so happy they could burst. Like us. Summer sun scorched the back of our T-shirts and we all had sweat and dirt necklaces and black creases in our elbows as we tumbled the drums the rest of the way back to the cubby.
Weeks earlier we'd found a huge old door at the dump and balanced it on our heads all the way home. We tried floating it by itself but ended up scrambling in mud up to our shorts trying to save the door from getting sucked under. Jacko said, ‘I told ya so,' but I swear it was his idea in the first place. He was in grade nine then and already the coolest kid around. He had a leather jacket his Dad gave him that made him look like he could ride a Harley or something. He was the leader of our gang. I was the next boss, then Russ – my mate from down the road – then Douggie and his friend Steve. The Oxley Creek Boys.
It was harder than we thought to put the drums and door together in a way that worked. The ropes kept slipping and we didn't want to use nails in case it leaked. We smoked half a pack of ciggies trying to figure it out. Smoking helps you think straighter – everyone knows that. It was my idea to flog some wire from the fence at the horse paddock down the road to tie the barrels on. In the end it looked great, especially after we scabbed some paint from the shed and wrote ‘Thrill Seekers' on the top in red.
It took all five of us to drag the raft over the mud to the water's edge. Half the kids in the neighbourhood had turned up to watch the launch. Beck, Russ's little sister, stood on the bank with the others, sniffling because she wanted to come too; but Jacko wouldn't let her. She was real cute in those days, her red hair in piggy-tails and all those freckles. Reckon I had a bit of a crush on her even then. But I wouldn't have said anything to Jacko to save my life. He hated girls. Funny how things turn out.
As we hauled the raft down to the muddy bank I felt like I was some sort of hero, or one of those native guys in Tarzan movies who went down the Amazon. We all held our breath and I said a silent prayer as we slid the raft into the water. It floated! We danced like clowns on the bank and I tackled Jacko into the mud just for the hell of it.
‘Unreal!' I yelled. ‘Let's go.'
‘Hang on, hang on,' said Jacko running back to the cubby, coming back waving a dark-brown bottle in the air. ‘Can't set off without christening the thing properly. It'd be bad luck. I've been saving this for something special – pinched it from the cupboard.'
He was holding a bottle of rum with a polar bear on the label, but when the sun shone through the glass you could tell there wasn't much left, maybe a third.
‘Here we go then,' he said, tapping it on the side of the raft near the writing, but the bottle didn't smash like it was supposed to.
‘Use your muscles,' said Douggie. ‘Go on, break it!'
‘What, and waste all this great booze?' Jacko said as he sat back up and unscrewed the cap, taking a big swig. Then he passed it to me.
It tasted pretty bad and burned like acid in my guts, but then I got that feeling that's all sort of golden. I love that feeling. I took another sip and let the gold spread all over my body. ‘Great stuff,' I said and passed the bottle to Russ. We shared it down the line till it was all gone. We laughed and showed off, acting like the toughest kids ever.
Jacko smashed the empty bottle on the raft and chucked the end into the creek, yelling, ‘Get on!' He bum-slid onto the raft and sat at the front, the captain's position.
Warm with rum and sunshine we clambered aboard, sitting so deep in the water my undies were soaked. Russ and I were crammed next to each other behind Jacko, with Douggie and Steve behind us, their arses hanging off the back.
Russ and I heaved the oars we'd made from orange crates and broomsticks into the water, dragging them backwards, feeling the pull of the creek. Our arms stung with the effort. But once we'd turned towards the dump it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Soon we were fairly racing along down the middle of the creek towards the Pamphlet Bridge and the river.
‘Yee-hah!' I called out, like in one of those old cowboy movies.
‘Cool!' yelled Douggie. ‘I wonder if this is how the explorers did it? Like us, just them and the boat and maybe wild Aborigines on the bank throwing spears.' He was like that in those days, always inventing crazy games.
‘Unreal,' said Steve.
We all grinned like monkeys and laughed out loud. This was our best creek adventure ever, beat mud-walking any day. We were right in the middle, just us fellas, no Dad, no dinghy. Just us, on the raft we made with our own hands.
We were going pretty fast, too. Felt like I was a champion Olympic rower. It was so easy, the mangroves slipping by. When we rushed under the sewerage pipe down past Russ's place, the shade was only a second of coolness. In my head I saw myself on a podium, bending down for one of those gold medals.
‘Can I have a turn at rowing?' begged Douggie from behind.
‘No way,' I said. ‘It'd be too hard for a kid like you.'
‘Would not! Jacko, tell Brian to let me have a go.'
To my surprise Jacko said, ‘Okay mate.' He must've been in a real good mood. ‘Hand it over.'
‘He won't be able to do it.'
‘Just give the kid the oar. Give Steve a turn too, hey?'
So Douggie and Steve got their turn and even with them rowing we were flying along.
‘See,' said Douggie, rowing like a madman. ‘See how fast we're making it go?'
In no time at all we rounded the bend of the creek, where rusty washing machines and piles of old tyres and car doors from the dump were sliding down the banks into the mangroves, sinking into the mud. The dump's a long way from our house. We'd never been that far down the creek before.
‘Maybe we'd better go back now,' I said. ‘Dad always says not to go past the dump.'
‘You're such a girl,' said Jacko.
‘We don't have to go back if you don't want to,' I said, my face burning. ‘That's okay. We can go right out onto the river if you want.'
‘Yeah!' squealed Douggie and Steve from the back, their arms still turning like windmills. ‘We'll row – let's do it.'
‘I don't know if it's such a good idea,' said Russ sounding like a full-on wimp.
‘You wouldn't, would you, you big sook,' Jacko said. ‘I reckon it's a bloody good idea. It's a great raft. What's the problem?'
Russ shook his head a bit but didn't say anything.
Douggie and Steve shouted, ‘Yeah!' and rowed so fast their arms looked blurry.
Russ stared down at the water sloshing onto the raft but I didn't let him spoil my fun. We were used to him being sulky. Ever since his mum and dad split up he was moody. Most of the time he was all right but, sometimes, you know. Not like me. Even then I knew we had to put all that sissy shit behind us, be strong like men and just have a good time. Sure would've liked another swig of that rum. Russ should've been like Jacko. His dad beat the crap out of him all the time but I never heard him complain, or cry about it. If you're a boy you just don't, that's all there is to it.
The midday sun was beating down hard on my hair like a fire beanie and my stomach was starting to feel like I'd swallowed creek water. ‘Maybe we should turn around. I'm not feeling too good.'
‘Whatever.' Jacko shrugged. The back of his neck was a brighter pink than Beck's favourite skirt.
‘Aw!' Douggie and Steve groaned. I turned around to glare at them and saw that they weren't even rowing anymore; the oars were resting on their laps and they were trailing their fingertips in the wash as we continued to speed towards the bridge.
‘Hey, give us back the oars you two – you're not even doing anything. We've got to go home now.'
They picked up the oars and tried to back-paddle to turn us around. Water sprayed all over me, so I used my hand to send a sheet of water back at them. We splashed at each other till we were all soaked and laughing.
‘Is anyone rowing this bloody thing?' asked Jacko, like he was a grown-up bored with our games.
‘Yeah, we are,' said Russ, grabbing the oar from Steve. After a bit of a tussle I wrenched the other one back from Douggie. Then Russ and I tried to turn the raft.
IT WASN'T AS easy as we thought. Rowing only on the right side tilted us too far and water sloshed over the door. So I back-paddled while Russ rowed on the right, full bore. We puffed for breath, our faces screwed, arms quivering. Finally we were heading in the direction of home but even though we rowed as hard as we could, harder than we'd ever rowed the dinghy, we were still drifting backwards towards the bridge. And the river.
‘Row!' yelled Jacko, like we weren't trying. ‘Give me a bloody turn. You're all useless.' But even his fourteen-year-old muscles didn't make any difference against the current. The raft was too heavy. Bloody door.
Douggie and Steve were pissing themselves laughing, like it was all a crazy joke. I jabbed Douggie hard with my elbow.
They covered their mouths but I still heard them smirking and giggling.
Jacko gave his oar back to Russ. We counted together and timed our strokes so the oars went in at the same time, which worked better, but the water was pulling us backwards faster than we could drag ourselves forwards. The muscles in my arms were shuddering and my heart was beating out of my chest, but the best we could do was get the raft to stay still. Water churned on either side of door, splashing onto us, but we weren't going anywhere.
‘Bloody hell!' shouted Jacko. ‘Can't you do anything? Give me another go.'
‘We have to get over to the side,' I grunted as I passed my oar forward. ‘Then we can pull ourselves along on the mangroves, like when we get stuck mud-walking.'
‘Since when are you the boss?' asked Jacko, but he started back-paddling so we turned around facing the bank.
That didn't make any difference either. We just floated down the creek sideways.
‘We're going to get sucked into the river,' Russ said, panting. ‘We'd better ditch the raft and swim for it.' I glanced sideways at him. He was splattered in mud, soaked with water, face red from busting a gut rowing; and he looked worried.
He might have been right.
‘No way!' yelled Jacko. ‘There's no bloody way we're ditching this raft.'
I took Russ's oar and tried my hardest to work in time with Jacko so we moved in the right direction. Behind me I heard Douggie whispering to Steve, ‘What if we go right out into the ocean and go all the way to Tahiti or Hawaii? That'd be so great.'
‘We'll get hit by a barge or drown before that happens,' said Russ, shutting them up.
The bridge was in sight and getting closer fast, the river a wide and rushing sea beyond it. If we were lucky we'd get close enough to a pylon to hang on till the tide changed.
‘What's that?' asked Steve, squinting into the glare and pointing to the shade under the bridge.
I put up my hand to cut down the glare and could just make out something. ‘I see it...it's a boat. A speedboat.' Then as we got closer I saw the writing down one side. ‘It's the police.'
‘Wow,' said Douggie. ‘Like on telly.'
‘Bloody pigs,' said Jacko, but I knew he was breathing a sigh of relief, just like I was.
As we drifted closer, still paddling furiously to get to the bank, I saw a couple of black heads popping up from the water near the boat. On the deck a policeman in a uniform with shiny silver badges spied us and yelled, ‘What the hell are you boys doing out here? Go home!'
‘We're trying,' shouted Russ. ‘But we can't do it, the tide's too...' His voice cracked, like he was about to cry.
‘Don't sook out on us now,' I hissed at him.
‘Pull over to the mangroves,' ordered the policeman.
We paddled as hard as we could but we still weren't getting anywhere.
‘Jesus Christ! What sort of a fool raft have you got there?' yelled the cop, throwing us a rope. Jacko caught it on the full like he did it all the time, rescuing a scrap of our pride.
‘Thank God,' whispered Russ.
I rolled my eyes but inside I was saying the same. Douggie was the only one who was disappointed our trip to the river had been cancelled.
The policeman reeled us in and tied us to the back of his boat. ‘That's the river, boys,' he said. ‘You kids have got no business out there. What on earth did you think you were playing at?'
‘Explorers,' Douggie called with a grin.
Jacko shouted over him, ‘Nothing – we weren't doing nothing wrong.'
‘Do your parents know you're out here all by yourselves?'
‘Sure,' Jacko lied.
‘Hmph,' grunted the policeman. ‘They should know better. The river's no place for kids. You fellas stay put till the tide changes. There's a serious dive going on here, police work. I don't want to be wasting time looking for you. Now, or ever.'
Then he left us alone and went back into the boat's cabin. We could hear the static of the police radio.
Jacko laughed and pretended it was a great joke to be tied up to a police boat, and I reckoned it was pretty tough too. Something to show off about to the other kids in the street when we got back. Russ went quiet and sat staring at the spot where the divers came up every now and then.
‘What do you reckon they're looking for?' he asked.
‘A body, probably,' said Jacko, like it was nothing.
Then Douggie started singing the theme from that old TV show we watched on cable sometimes, Gilligan's Island – ‘Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip' – which made us all laugh and sing along. We sang that one, then the Neighbours song, and the one from Home and Away, then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and some ads from TV till we ran out of songs we all knew except for hymns and that was way too daggy. So we talked about all the best motorbike stunts we'd ever seen, and how we were going to try them on our pushies. We talked about how we couldn't wait to be old enough to drive, how school sucked and how our footy team just had to play better next year. Till we couldn't think of anything else to say.
I felt like I hadn't eaten in days and I was so thirsty I would have drunk creek water if it wasn't salty and full of cholera, but still the policeman didn't let us go. The tide was really low. Black mud covered in an oily slick of rainbow colours stretched out on each side of the creek.
‘We could swim in and mud-walk home,' Russ suggested. ‘We could always come back and get the raft later.'
‘Forget it,' said Jacko.
So I did, but I thought it was a pretty good idea myself. It was boring sitting there and I was getting that hungry I considered eating a catfish raw. I just wanted to be at home with a vegemite sandwich and an enormous cup of green cordial. Russ's head disappeared between his knees and Jacko was gritting his teeth, the way he always did when he was angry.
Douggie and Steve were lying on their bellies, paddling their bare legs in the water behind, dunking their hands and checking how long they could see their fingers before they disappeared in the brown. The water finally started flowing towards home again, sloshing back over the mud.
Then one of the divers came up and shouted something I couldn't quite make out. Something like, ‘We've got her.' The guy with the badges on board got all excited and threw over a net attached to a pulley by a long rope. The diver in the water took off his mask and swiped at the red marks on his forehead, rubbed his eyes. He looked over at us and called out, ‘Get those bloody kids out of here.' Then he wriggled his mask back on and dived under again.
We all sat up and watched. ‘They've found something,' whispered Jacko. The rope on the net stretched taut and the diver resurfaced. He waved his arm to the policeman on the boat and yelled, ‘Right to go.'
Jacko was practically jumping off the raft he was that excited. ‘We're going to see it, fellas. We're going to see a real live body. Make that dead.' He laughed.
I didn't feel like laughing, though – my guts were twisting right up to my throat. Russ had gone whiter than bread and Douggie looked like he'd had his eyelids removed his eyes were so wide.
The man on the boat started grinding a winch. It looked like it was heavy.
I realised I was holding my breath and had to force myself to take in some air.
‘Get those kids away!' the diver yelled as he swam to the boat's ladder.
The other one bobbed up too. ‘For God's sake, Mal, what are you thinking? Let the boys go.'
‘Might do them good,' he said. But he shrugged and stopped winching. He shouted at Jacko to untie the rope, and reeled it in.
‘Go straight back, you fellas. No mucking around. You hear? And tell your father he should have more sense. It could be one of you I'm bringing in. You got that! Get home!' He sounded angrier than he needed to be – we didn't do anything wrong.
The divers scrambled onto the boat, flapping awkwardly in their flippers. They stood with their hands on their hips, watching me and Russ row around in clumsy circles until we finally got the raft pointing in the direction of home. Then they retreated to the cabin.
Once we were going straight the rowing was easy. Looking behind over my shoulder I saw the man with the badges working hard, winding fast. I saw the top of the net rising from the water. It looked empty.
‘There's nothing in it after all,' said Jacko. He sounded disappointed.
But it wasn't empty; it's just that what was in it wasn't very big. The net lifted out of the water like a deflated balloon. In the bottom was a small shape, black and pinky-blue, curled in the muddy ropes that held it. A small arm, no bigger than Beck's, fell through a gap and hung down towards the water. As if it was waving us goodbye.
ONCE WE'D ROUNDED the bend Jacko made jokes about the police and how stupid they were and boasted about how great and cool it was to have seen a body. How it made us heaps tougher than anyone. But to tell you the truth, I was never so happy to see my backyard and the cubby.
After dragging the raft up through the mud onto the grass, we lay panting and dirty beside it. Douggie rested his head on my belly and I was too buggered to shove him off.
I propped myself up on my elbows and stared at the murky brown ripples of the creek rushing in with the tide. It flooded over the mud and lapped at the mangroves, washing away the oil slicks and covering the black. The current sure was strong. Soon I couldn't see any mud at all, just water racing past like it was going somewhere and needed to get there in a hurry. Like it wanted to take us all on that raft and make us ride with it, faster and faster, wherever it wanted to take us.