The Australian Women’s Weekly (Runner’s up, AWW Short Story Competition)
Best Australian Stories
When I catch up to the others and bounce through the wave at the bottom of the rapid, the pool is already jostling with kayaks, giant plastic jellybeans. My own is black and I have never liked it. Andy chose it not long after we started going out, for its sturdy lines and boxy shape; but to me it looks like a coffin. There is even a white cross emblazoned on the front deck, a Japanese symbol meaning something or other. It is late afternoon and Andy is already at the bottom of the next rapid, running safety. This means he is standing on a rock beside the river with a throwbag in his hand, waiting to toss a line to anyone who may need hauling out of the river.
Heidi is sitting in the right hand eddy, crowded with three other boats, but she beckons me over. “You have your kayaking face on,” she informs me. This means that my facial expression is an unfriendly mask of concentration, which she probably suspects is a scanty cover for pure terror. Once the look is there it will remain until I climb out of my boat at the take-out and know that I have lived through another river trip.
You can drown in an inch of water. My mother knows of several people who have. When I was five years old she shouted at me as I lifted up the lid of the washing machine, which was on. “Don’t you realise you could break your arm in an instant?”
She lifted me gently away and apologised for raising her voice. I hadn’t known that washing machines were unsafe. I backed away in a hurry, for I thought if you broke your arm you died.
We are at the top of a rapid called Devil’s Cauldron Two. We have just paddled through Devil’s Cauldron One and it is responsible for the appearance of my kayaking face. The first person to navigate their way successfully through a rapid gets to name it. Rapids the world over are called things like Lucifer’s Leap, Big Mother, Sinkhole, Tombstone, and Trouble. They tend to be named by men.
It’s very noisy. A man in a dark blue life-jacket, his helmet off for the time being, is standing confidently on a wedge of rock hanging out over the waterfall that leads into Devil’s Two, as it is affectionately called. From up there he can see the top and the bottom of the rapid, and his job is traffic control. When the previous kayaker has successfully negotiated the rapid and swung safely into the eddy below, he raises his hand to the next kayaker and blows on a whistle. The interval between turns is about thirty seconds if all goes well. If there is a particularly long wait between whistle blows, it usually means that someone has “swum”, that is, flipped over mid-rapid and ejected out of their kayak to swim the rest of the way down. This is cold, painful and scary.
For my ninth birthday my parents took me to Legassi’s, the best restaurant in Rockwell, population 3400. I wore my velvet dress. When the time came to order, I asked for Steak Diane without consulting my family members or the menu. The waitress was impressed. When my brothers had gone outside to run around the restaurant grounds and my parents were dawdling over coffee, the waitress came back and asked if I wanted to see the kitchens. I followed her through the swinging doors and met the other waitresses, who were as young and beautiful as film stars. One of them gave me a chocolate frog. The chef was old, with a long droopy moustache and a small white hat. He was jointing a chicken and he demonstrated the order: legs, wings, breast, back. In some triumph I returned to our table. My parents listened to my tale in silence, and then my mother said, “That’s good, and it was okay because we knew where you were going. But just remember, Sweetheart, that some bad people might ask you to go somewhere with them and then cut you up with an axe or a knife.”
The crowd in the pool is thinning as people in boats disappear one by one over the horizon line into Devil’s Two. I have seen this rapid from the river bank, when I scouted it on the last trip. That day I made the decision to portage, and lugged my boat over the granite boulders and through the tea-trees all the way around the rapid to the pool at the bottom. Andy, sitting in the bottom eddy in his red kayak, had smiled up at me and said confidently, “Next time you’ll be ready.”
Heidi, ahead of me in the eddy, lets go of the tea-tree stump she has been clutching and paddles forwards and sideways, to ferryglide effortlessly over the eddyline and turn to face the rapid’s entrance. From here she will paddle to a point slightly left of centre to avoid the large boulder at the top onto which half the river is rushing, forming the pillow of whitewater that is making all the noise. Then she will, all going to plan, race down the chute into the cauldron, the huge circulating hole that spills up the sides of a bowl of rock, before spurting out in a violent wash into the calm pool below. If the angle of a kayak entering the cauldron is just right, the boat will glide over the boils and whirlpools like magic and hurtle out the other side unscathed and still manned. If the angle is wrong the kayak will get caught in the cauldron and recirculate ad infinitum.
There is a man at the campsite next to ours called Brian who is a legend in the kayaking world. He is nearly fifty, Andy tells me, and has paddled rapids that no one even dreamed were navigable. Last year he flipped over in Devil’s Two and disappeared. After a while his paddle emerged out of the whitewash, then his boat, an upside down streak of purple; then after one minute, his life jacket and shoes appeared in the eddy downstream and the people running safety on the banks, their throw-bags ready, stopped laughing and shaking their heads and started to look worried and professional. When Brian emerged after ninety seconds, his nose and left leg were broken.
We were never allowed to dive into water, not even swimming pools, because you never knew if something was beneath the surface that could break your neck. Instead we had to perform a manoeuvre called a Honey Pot. We would huddle crouched beside the town pool, while kids all around us ran on slippery cement and leapt spine-first into the water, and then topple in sideways, falling all of ten centimetres through space. When we were older we graduated to the Safety Dive, and could plunge into water of any depth with our legs apart and our arms outstretched. My brothers and I were left unattended at a pool party when I was fourteen. I sat on the steps of the pool and watched as, after a brief hesitation, my brothers threw themselves into the water with our friends. They did bombdives, mickey-flips, pencil dives, and backflips. I was so jealous I couldn’t speak to anyone. My older brother clipped the back of his head on the side of the pool and it bled a little, but his hair hid the cut and none of us said a word to my mother.
Heidi has been gone maybe ten seconds when the whistle blows and that means it’s my turn. There is a young man in a kayak behind me and our boats keep bumping into each other as the water in the eddy circulates. I can sense his impatience so I turn and say, “I have to bail out my boat, you can go.”
He pushes off without a word and heads towards the lip, but his arms are travelling too high and his boat swings with each paddle stroke and I know he is going to swim. I pull my sprayskirt off the boat and crawl out into the tea-trees. I flip my boat over and watch the water, warm from my body and yellow with urine, drain into the river. It is a full five minutes before the whistle blows again, but by then more paddlers have arrived from upstream, and I wave them ahead.
When I turned seventeen and finished high school my mother encouraged me to go overseas. She suggested Scotland or Canada. “Go wherever you like,” she said, but then added hastily, “Just don’t go to South America. Don’t go to Peru. The Shining Path are killing tourists there.”
When I had been in Chile for three weeks and it hadn’t stopped raining the whole time I caught the train up to Cuzco. Nothing happened. The Peruvians were friendly and helpful, although I was nervous whenever I had to catch a taxi by myself.
I met Andy at a bridge-jump two years ago. I had my harness on and the rope in my hand and was about to jump when he walked up with Heidi. He wore a torn t-shirt and pink towelling pants, bare feet and a blue woollen beanie. I don’t remember what Heidi wore, just that she was loud and energetic and hugged all my friends although I’d never heard of her. Andy grinned at me and called, “Any last bequests?”
I smiled and shook my head and jumped. I could not have given him a more perfect first impression. Or a more misleading one.
I take my time in putting my sprayskirt back onto my boat, and spend some moments readjusting my chinstrap and lifejacket. My hands are wrinkled and white with cold, and clasped around my paddle shaft they look small and helpless. I move up the eddy as paddlers peel off and disappear one by one. Finally I am at the front of the queue again, having dawdled for maybe twenty-five minutes altogether. I know that downstream Andy will have figured out what has happened. “You can’t think at the top of a rapid. If you’re going to do it, just do it. If you’re not, don’t. Walk.”
His world is simple like that and he doesn’t understand the morbid lingering that precedes all of my more daring acts. Soon he will appear amongst the tea-trees from down below and meet my eyes across the river, shrugging his shoulders exaggeratedly and frowning as though perplexed.
Unless he is talking to Heidi.
I can see the picture they would make, her in her yellow kayak laughing up at him standing on a rock above her. It is this picture that brings about the epiphany. The whistle blows. I have had enough. I am going to run the rapid.
“Take care” is what my mother says instead of “goodbye”. All my life she has bid me farewell thus; at school gates, bus stops, train stations, even at my friends’ houses. “Take care, Darling,” she says, as though anything could happen, anywhere.
As I reach the lip of the rapid, with Devil’s Cauldron Two laid out below me, it is the people I notice, not the water. The traffic controller at the top yells “Left! Left!” at me, his face frantic, but I know that I am on just the right line. Surrounding the cauldron itself are five or six people, poised with throwbags and expectant faces. Far away at the bottom of the rapid Andy stands with his arms folded talking to a man I don’t know. With their helmets and sprayskirts on they look like Roman sentries, but not at all ridiculous.
Once, in a rare moment of intimacy, Heidi said to me, “Some women get turned on by men in uniforms, but give me wet hair, bare feet and a lifejacket. Anytime.” We were standing on the banks of Ellie Creek watching a group of men turning cartwheels in their boats in the smooth pour-over of Jackson’s Rapid. Andy was amongst them and by far the best looking.
I slide down the chute and am in the cauldron. My boat is thrown about and almost tips over at every paddlestroke, but I am beautifully confident now that I am mid-rapid. I slightly exaggerate the casualness of my paddlestrokes, and move my hips fluidly to ride the jostling water. My boat is propelled towards the exit point through which all the river is rushing and I smile because I have practically made it.
When I had been going out with Andy for three months I said it for the first time. “Take care,” I said, as he heaved his river-bag into his ute and climbed into the driver’s seat. He turned to look at me and something like reproach flickered in his eyes. “You mean, ‘Have fun, Andy’,” he corrected me and then started the engine and drove off.
At the last moment I am spun in a whirlpool and I broach. There is a crunch and grind as the boat pins itself sideways between two rocks and almost immediately I am under water, the whole river pounding onto my head. Then I am out of my boat and being sucked down. The light and air and the mysterious way a plastic boat glides over thousands of tonnes of moving water are a distant memory, a joke. We name rapids to tame them, to personify them, but the truth is that a river is just water moving over rocks and has no capacity for compassion.
Here is my most vivid recurring nightmare: I have been placed in a 44 gallon drum and someone has clanged the lid on and sealed it shut. There is a ray of light coming into the drum through a hole near the top. After a long wait, this hole is blocked by a hose being inserted into it. Water starts to pour into the drum. When the water is up to my neck, I wake up and the dream ends, but of course each time I don’t know this is going to happen until it does.
I am far below the surface of the river and where I am is dark and cold and very quiet. My shoes are gently plucked off my feet, first one, then the other. My shorts are being tugged down past my knees. I think of Brian-the-river-legend and tuck myself into a ball. I know that somewhere downstream my boat will be surfacing like a small dark whale, and that my shoes, shorts and paddle may never be seen again. My hands make desperate dogpaddling motions near my neck and I wonder if ninety seconds is nearly up. I can’t remember when my last breath was, or if it was a good one but my lungs are taking over my body and I can hear Andy’s voice in my head. He was drunk when he said it, and not talking to me. “When you’re just about to drown, you have a decision to make. You can hold your breath as long as you can and pass out, when your body will automatically take a breath and you will drown. Or you can take a huge breath of water and end it sooner.”
I can hear him saying it and I know that that time is now, but I can’t decide what to do.
One of my earliest memories is of lying in our small blue above-ground pool supported only by my mother’s hand under my head. There is a rain-tree shading us, and its leaves make a paisley pattern against the blue sky. We are alone in the pool, my older brother at school, my younger brother not yet born. I am only two or three, so my sister is still around somewhere, safe at school, or safely on her way home. I don’t remember her, not at all.
“See?” my mother is saying, although her voice is muffled because I have water in my ears. “Floating is easy. Bodies float all by themselves.”
The water around me is becoming less black and more tea-coloured. I see bubbles moving around me, then green and blue lights and realise that I have been flushed back to the surface. Before I can make sense of anything, someone barks my name and a yellow rope appears in the froth in front of me. The river is already changing its mind, and is propelling me back towards the base of the waterfall. I take the rope in both hands and am dragged down again. This is not right, and I remember that I am supposed to lie on my back. Flipping over is difficult but slowly I am pulled out of the maelstrom to where Andy stands on a rock shelf hauling me in hand over hand. I slide onto the rock, my bare legs still in the river. My throat has jammed shut and I lie choking for awhile, but then I roll over and vomit and can breathe again. I am still inside the circle of rock that contains the cauldron, and Andy is beside me, a trickle of blood running down his shin.
When I can talk I look up at him and say with some passion, “I hate being cold and wet.”
He is panting, leaning against the rock wall. There is a long graze down his right arm and bloodless scratches on his knees.
“And I am afraid of water.”
He nods and looks at the sky.
“I have never liked kayaking,” I explain.
He nods some more. He knows this, I realise.
“I want to break up with you,” I say. “I was coming down to tell you. I think you should go out with Heidi.”
People have gathered at the edge of the rock above us but it is so noisy in the cauldron that they can’t hear us. I wonder how we’ll get out. Andy has begun to coil the rope, the end of which I still clutch, and his hands shake just a little. He smiles down at me with sad blue eyes and says, “It’s going to be okay. There’s nothing to worry about.”