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Fiction

Damming

PATRICK SWIMS THROUGH the mountains. The eddies waver them. They're the colour of oil slick. The light blushes his cheeks. He's swimming breaststroke. It's so cold he can't feel his body. There are clouds in the water too. They pass across the surface quickly. Like a pop-up book the other mountains look unreal, folded up from the lake. He knows there's a white beach far behind him, made of pale rocks. He's swimming towards sheer cliffs. He won't reach them. He will wake up with both shores an equal measure away. With the waking up, the realisation that he has sunk and drowned.

'Sharks attack from below, Dad.'

'So?' says Patrick.

'So nothing.'

The breakers foam against their calves. He always swims on the outside of her, both ways across the bay. Today the waves are a whole lot of fluff, big but with no force to them. They step deeper and she positions her goggles. He doesn't wear goggles, says he doesn't want to see what's down there. Sand, she said once, sand and fish the colour of sand. He just scrunches his eyes against the salt.

'I think your mother is going to leave me.'

'Pardon?' She snaps her goggled face towards him. Bulbous fish eyes.

'She's going to leave me.'

'Don't be silly.'

'When did you become like this?'

'Dad, I didn't become like this.'

'Well, I'm not being silly.' They don't look alike but both of them, standing there in their wet-shirts and swimmers, look undeniably related. They hold their bodies in the same manner. She takes her goggles off and a little wave slaps them in the chest.

'Why?' she says.

'Because I can see it in her face when she looks at me.'

'No, why would she want to leave you?'

'I don't know. You're a woman. You tell me.'

'Dad,' she puts her goggles back on. 'You are being stupid,' she says, before diving under a wave and swimming away. She stops and waits for him past the breakers. She bobs on the surface.

Eventually he dives in. He feels better as soon as he's swimming. When he reaches her they swim together. He knows he's right though. It's the only thing he knows. He breathes, forcing his arms through the water over and over. He remembers taking her for her first real swim. She was so small he could throw her like a wave throws flotsam. He carried her into the water until the sea was up to his waist. Her legs clung like molluscs. He pulled her off, just holding one hand, so she had to swim. She had a face full of tears. When the next wave came they dove under it together, hung there in the safe place by the sand as the foam rolled over the top of them. When they broke the surface she was laughing. Eleanor was standing on the beach. From beneath her sun hat, he had felt her willing them to come back in.

When she wasn't such a baby string of spaghetti he made her swim the length of the bay with him before school every morning. They swam the bay until she was a teenager, screaming he was a tyrant. He was a tyrant. For two decades he swam alone. Now, they go every Saturday morning, before the wind takes the beach. They head towards the tip of the headland. Each breath guts him.

 

THE LAKE WAS his first job, straight out of university. He kept his engineering degree, a tight tube tied with a ribbon, in his sock drawer. He lived in a run-down terrace house in Sydney, near the Cross. It was always 10 degrees colder in the terrace and so dark he couldn't see the dust. He smoked on a little balcony that sagged like old skin. He didn't know why they picked him, out of all the applicants. But he caught two planes, one to Melbourne and another over the ditch.

The 'chook shed', they called the airport. There was a man like his father waiting for him. He had a cigarette clamped between his teeth. He was unshaven and wearing a jumper with holes in it, a waterproof parka flung over his shoulder.

The man ran his fingers through his salt and pepper stubble and looked him up and down. Patrick felt like opening his mouth, offering his teeth for inspection.

'You'll do,' he said. They shook hands and Patrick didn't feel so bad. 'Name's Barry.' Barry took him straight to the pub. Patrick's steak was the colour of old man and the chips just as limp.

The next day they flew up over the mountains, into the high country. The light made a purple blue of the slopes. The lake shimmered, the beach a pale cuticle.

'Every colour of the rainbow,' his boss yelled above the sound of the engine. Patrick felt the air lurching and shifting beneath them. And the lake, it was the most beautiful vision he'd ever seen. He found it hard to link the papers that covered his desk, the contour lines – complex and unique as a fingerprint – with the lake that shone in the afternoon light.

They landed and the helicopter blew a clearing around them; the immense sound only noticeable once the engine was off.

From the sky the water had looked the colour of a two-cent piece, but up close it was so clear he could only tell where the surface was by reaching down to touch it. The pebbles a luminous pale pink. He laughed. The water was cold. The cold went from the water right to his marrow and stayed there, crouching inside him.

 

'ARE YOU SCARED of being lost at sea?' Patrick says. They are still dripping water. He digs his toes into the sand.

'Like what? Those people who were left behind on the Great Barrier Reef? The British couple?'

'Yeah, I guess so.'

'I'd just swim sidestroke.'

'And then what?'

'Someone would rescue me.' He raises one eyebrow at her how she hates. 'It was suicide anyway, those two,' she says.

'Oh yeah?'

She's picking at her nail polish. 'Stop being such a weirdo.' She leans over and dries her hair with the towel. When she comes back up it's haywire.

'Come on,' he says, 'let's get breakfast.'

Over his bacon and eggs he thinks about how one day he will be too old to swim. He looks at the skin on his arms, wrinkled, sunspots, his father's arms. 'Not that far off,' he says under his breath.

'Pardon?' she says, spoonful of granola halfway to her mouth.

'Nothing.'

 

THE GIRL, ELEANOR, had long hair, a fine gold chain around her neck, a medallion shining in her cleavage. Both of them leant against the bar. She was wearing a man's shirt, open at the neck, a worn puffy vest over the top. He hid behind his empty beer glass. She looked up at him. He was too tall. He could see right down to the edge of the lace of her bra. His face flushed.

'I know you,' she said. She grasped the money in her hand like a kid would. 'You're one of them.' She nodded to his table, the huddle of men, their backs to the rest of the pub. He didn't know what to say. She didn't give him time. 'How can you do it? How can you live with yourself?' She spat the words at him. Words formed in his mouth, but they couldn't get past his lips. He coughed.

She ordered a whisky. Downed it and grimaced, looking up at him. But she was so angry she began to cry. 'Fuck,' she said, 'fuck it.' Swung away and stalked away from him, and at the pub door a howling southerly took her as she stepped outside. His arm was resting on a sodden beer mat on the bar top.

'You gunna order something?' the barman said, his own face red from drink. An alcoholic nose with its map of red veins taking centre place.

'Whisky.'

He saw her at the lake, same girl. It took days to hike up there. He'd stepped out of the helicopter, ironed shirt. He'd bought a parka but it was new as green wood.

She took a photo of him, standing there by the edge. Camera slung back over her shoulder, she approached. She came so close her eyes were shiny with lake. He couldn't decide if they were blue or brown, or what.

'Hello,' she said.

'Hi.'

They both looked out at the water. Her friends were on the beach now too. Men in hand-knitted jumpers, long hair that framed rakish faces. They were better looking than him.

'Barry,' she said. His boss was there beside him.

'Eleanor.'

She smiled at him. Her teeth were uneven at the front; it pulled her face off centre then back again. She took a photo of the both of them.

'You're not supposed to be up here,' said Barry.

'The rules change so quickly, I can't keep track,' she said. Barry coughed. Patrick decided her eyes were blue. 'We're going to have some tea, you boys want to join?'

'No thanks love,' Barry said. 'You can keep your tea.'

'Suit yourself,' and she gave them another smile. He thought it just for him. Wide and open as summer sky. He felt breathless. She walked away from them, her hiking boots making a soft shushing sound on the pebbles.

'Little witch,' said Barry, 'don't let her get under your skin.' Patrick looked at Barry's worn face. His eyebrow hairs were long and curled up and away. It gave him the look of a possum.

The men had out a little stove and were boiling water. 'She'll get you in your gut, that one.'

Barry was right. He was sick with it.

'Come on, we got work to do.' Barry slapped him so hard on the back he stumbled forward and his right boot dipped into the water. The ripple of it crept out and eventually what was left of it broke against the cliffs on the other side.

 

'TO BE RUINED so young, so early in your career,' Eleanor said. She was naked. She had her legs around him, her hands firmly on his chest, her breasts pushed together and nipples pointing. When he didn't respond she pulled on his chest hair, teasing. 'Ruined,' she said again, tasting the word in her mouth. He tried to fling her off, but she clung to him. She grabbed his arms, feeling his muscles tense under her palms.

'I'll show you ruination.' He flipped her under him and kissed her mouth, their teeth clanging together.

Afterwards he hurt. Sitting on the edge of the bed he surveyed his wounds. She was curled around his back. Where their skin touched it was hot, sweated. He shifted a little and she pulled him closer.

From the bed he could see the mountain; it changed colour throughout the day, sometimes golden, sometimes emerging from the cloud a brooding blue.

'Isn't it beautiful?' she said.

'Yeah.'

'You know, you're not the only thing that's going to be ruined.'

'Shush, I know.'

She stood up, leant against the window and the afternoon light lit her up. He could see all the fine hairs on her face. When she walked to the bathroom she left two handprints and a circle of breath on the glass.

'I don't know why you're fucking me,' he called after her.

'Because I want to ruin you,' she called back. He heard her turn the shower on and felt cold. Out the window, the mountain was black.

 

OF COURSE EVERYONE knew. If you took a piss in that town, half the town knew what colour it was and the other half were already on to predicting what time the next piss'd be.

Barry said, 'We need to have a word.' He leant over Patrick's desk, fat fingers planted on the paperwork. A little thatch of hairs between each knuckle.

'It has been brought to my attention that you have been fraternising with the enemy.'

'Sir?' like he was back at high school.

Patrick looked around their office. It was thickly carpeted in dust, despite being a new getup. The large contour map on his desk just served to remind him of her skin.

Barry sighed and slumped into the chair opposite. 'Don't get me wrong. She's a lovely piece of arse.' He shook his head, 'She's just using you, son.'

'We're having father–son talks now?' Patrick said, but his voice shook. He pushed his chair back. A pencil he'd been sharpening over and over again, just a stub, tumbled to the floor. He snapped it underfoot.

'You realise I've got to let you go.'

'Yes, sir. I do.'

'I don't want to let you go. If you'd just –' Barry sighed and paced around the room. 'This whole thing's a nightmare,' he said to himself, 'a bloody nightmare.'

Patrick pulled his green parka from the coat stand and walked out, leaving Barry pacing the room and talking to himself. He let gravity take him down the hill to the wharf. It stank of fish. The water was rainbow slicked with oil. The southerly with its hands inside his parka.

For a long time he just looked out, then he ordered hot chips from a hole in the wall, and let the vinegar seep through the paper to his pants and turn cold and rancid. Gulls arched their feathered necks at him. He turned his back on the sea, began his walk up the steep streets, the mountain watching him with its changing face. He hugged the parcel of chips under his arm and the gulls hopped after him.

At her house, rainbow chard in the place of flowers in the front garden, he was still carrying his oil-damp package. He hid it among the stiff leaves. As he knocked, she swung the door open. She could watch the steep road from her desk in the lounge. He coughed, words choking bone sharp in his throat.

'I guess you'll do,' she said with a smile. Let him in.

 

'MUM LEFT YOU yet?'

'Don't joke.'

They are bobbing in the shallows. The ocean flat and glassy, without a wave to throw at them.

'How do you know she's going to leave you anyway?'

'She's started sleeping with me again.'

'Dad.'

'You asked.'

'Geez, make something up.' She has red rings around her eyes from the goggles.

'You make no sense,' she says and lies back. Her ears underneath the surface, just her face above the water, a skin mask. 'I can't hear you,' she says and shakes her head.

'I didn't say anything.'

'Oh.'

'I've been having trouble sleeping.'

They look at one another.

'Chamomile tea?' she says.

'Tried it. It's just the same dream over and over again.'

He lumbers out of the sea, his feet sinking into the sand. Little fish, invisible from the surface, nibble the dead skin on his calves.

When he opens the kitchen door – they never use the front door – he knows she is gone. He drops his towel and stumbles in. The house is quiet. He scrapes a chair out from the table and sits down. A great sob makes such a loud guttural noise he surprises himself. There aren't even any tears, just that horrible sound.

Their cat, Fluff, winds her way between his legs, purring. Leans a whiskered face between table and his knees. Jumps to his lap. He pats her absent-mindedly, as she turns circles on his thighs.

Eleanor's keys aren't on the little wooden Australia-map hook. The Tasmania hangs by a little chain. He jumps up, dropping Fluff to the ground. He puts the kettle on. He sits down. Fluff stares at him from her empty bowl. The kettle boils. He can hear the windchimes on the balcony, the sea breeze picking up.

Eleanor comes to the kitchen door, lugging bags of shopping.

'Eleanor?' he chokes.

'A hand, perhaps?' she says.

He jumps up, opens the door for her and takes the bags, pulls her into a tight, awkward hug, spring onions poking him in the face.

'Patrick?' she says. He lets go of her. 'Are you okay?'

 

HE WAKES, GASPING for breath. Such a peaceful dream until the drowning. Every colour of the fucking rainbow. A currawong calls the dawn. Fucking mournful sound. This is ruination. He swings his legs to the side of the bed. Eleanor, still asleep, curls over next to him, hot skin against his back. He gets up. Gently opens a drawer and retrieves some dry swimmers. Unsteady on his feet, he manages to get his chicken legs through. The towel he grabs from the verandah railing on his way out. His bare feet are cold on the gravel drive.

At the beach he drops his towel at the dry sand and walks into the water. It is inky and his feet seem to disappear. The sky is a pale musky pink. He dives under a wave and begins to swim. The cold water seems to strip him, leaves a new, tingling skin. Beyond the breakers he pauses to slip off his swimmers. He watches them fall through the clear water, a curl of weed. The water reflects the sky and it's like he's swimming through the air. He swims straight out, until the water is so deep it loses its light.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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