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Edition 36

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Fiction

The Basin

JESS STOOD AT the edge of the dam holding her daughter's hand. She had said they were going to the beach, but it wasn't a beach, just a flat bit of gravel that fell away to the water. The water didn't even lap. Around them, bathers were spread out on towels. One woman's feet and ankles swelled. Her toenails were painted sapphire green, jewels in the fat. Jess felt queasy at so much flesh.

Frankie squeezed her hand. Jess looked down at her in her bubblegum-pink one-piece. Go on then, she said and squeezed her hand back. Don't go deep, though, only up to here. She made a line across her stomach.

Frankie nodded and walked to the edge. Then she ran in quickly, with a squeal, the only sound she'd made in hours. She stopped when the water was at waist height, arms hovering beside her, and looked back at Jess. A flock of pink galahs screeched and wheeled overhead.

Nobody was supposed to swim in it, the town water supply, but the air was forty degrees and the dam shimmered with promise. She'd read in a brochure – the rental agent had left it on the kitchen bench in the house – that after the flooding the town had been renamed Burrngburrng-nga, an Indigenous name. Every time she heard someone say it they pronounced it differently and quietly, unsure.

It's beautiful in there, a woman said, emerging from the dam. Her bikini was lost in folds of wet skin, the tropical print only displaying grandly over her buttocks and breasts. Every bit of her wobbled.

Jess shifted in her own bikini: it felt tight. Her toes broke the water's skin. It was much warmer than she expected, and the dam floor was soft and silty. The water wasn't brown like the dams she remembered from down south, copper coin-shaped dams that were dug into dry earth to water cattle. This water was a luminous green, but she couldn't see any bit of herself that was submerged. She tried to catch a little of it, some of the colour, but in the cup of her hand it was clear.

Her daughter doggy-paddled towards her. Mum, she said, grinning, looking like Max.

Hallelujah, Jess thought, she speaks. Hello, she said and scooped her up. Together they went deeper. Frankie clung on, legs rubber-band tight around her waist. The galahs screamed. She could now see the tops of drowned trees, green algae draped over the dead branches. They stretched solemnly towards the blue sky. She didn't let Frankie put her head under.

AT THE SUPERMARKET, dam water dripped from her ponytail down the back of her shirt. Produce was piled in gorgeous pyramids. The apples gleamed. She smelt a mango and it made her mouth water. It was bigger than her hand and heavy, its skin a blushing orange. All the fruit and vegetables had signs that said 'Grown in the Basin' or 'The Basin Feeding the Nation'. She laughed: every rural town she'd known subsisted on frozen white bread and canned goods. She put the mango in her basket.

The checkout woman's arm fat jiggled as she moved each item from conveyor belt to bag.

Hello there, the woman said to Frankie. Hello, sweetie.

Frankie, swinging off the edge of the bench, didn't reply. The checkout woman's cheeks were shiny red as the apples.

Good fruit, Jess said.

The woman laughed. Isn't it?

How do they do it all the way out here?

The dam, honey. I can't even remember what it was like before. She laughed again – her eyes were the prettiest blue. She sang the price, One hundred and thirty-two fifty, and smiled. Her hair was a natural flaxen. If she weren't obese, she'd turn heads, Jess thought as she put her credit card back in her purse. She gave Frankie a light plastic bag to carry, shifted her shoulders and lifted the rest. They walked out through the yawning electric doors.

The car park was blinding hot. She couldn't see her old Holden for the trucks. They were new, even under the dust, the kind of trucks small towns sprout after they've had a good year, a bumper crop.

Mum, Frankie said and pulled her towards their car. Parked next to the Holden, as if drawn together by a shared history of rust, was a white ute. An old man was loading boxes of bottles into the tray. Jess could tell a farmer when she saw one – thin as a stalk of wheat and skin the colour of exposed dirt. Kind of how her dad looked after ten years of drought.

She opened the door and dumped the shopping in the back. An apple rolled out and under the seat. She motioned for Frankie to get in too. In you pop, she said. But Frankie was staring at the man. Frankie, she said loudly.

He looked up at them from beneath the brim of his hat. They took my land, he said, squeezing words between fly-bitten lips.

The water bottles thumping into the back of his truck made a loud gong that vibrated through her.

Don't drink the water, he said.

What water? Jess said.

He motioned with his head to the dam at their backs.

Oh yeah? What about swimming in it? she said and pulled her ponytail to the front, squeezing water onto the dusty cement. The man forced out a brittle laugh, and hid his face back under the brim of his hat, muttering. He didn't look at them again.

O-kaay, Jess said to herself.

She clipped Frankie into the seat, and got in to the front. Sitting there Jess felt fatter, much bigger in the seat – her legs, softer and wider, seemed squished under the steering wheel. She could see Frankie strapped into the back, seatbelt pulling tight against her front, a trussed Christmas ham.

I'LL SEE YOU tonight, Max said and kissed her forehead, as he did every morning before work. His stubble against her skin. His breath, smelling of Nescafé. She wasn't asleep – she couldn't sleep.

Wait, she said. But he was already out the bedroom door. She got up to follow him down the hallway. Her thighs rubbed together, hurt with each step: a heat rash bloomed rose-red there. He shut the front door behind him, without looking back.

Max, she said. Her voice, echoing in the hallway, sounded like her own but her body was distorted and blown out. Her skin hurt and broke into stretch marks, shiny pink lines that tiger-striped her. She leaned against the wall, holding herself up, huffing. She couldn't remember why she'd run after him.

JESS DROVE TO the dam lookout. It was the highest point in town and to get there she had to drive up the guts of verdant fields. Giant wheeled sprinklers rolled in slow motion, spraying a fine mist over the green expanse. She wound her window up.

Up, up, up, she said to Frankie, who took her thumb out of her mouth to fumble with the handle. The mist blew into and over the car. Jess put the window wipers on. Bug splatters and dust smudged across the glass, making everything blur. She couldn't tell what was growing in the fields: potatoes, tomatoes? Just rows of plants and damp black dirt.

At the lookout there was a tall chain-link fence, probably designed to discourage suicide. It was cemented into rock that shimmered in the heat, sharp grass growing from its cracks. Rubbish had blown up against the fence. She got out and hooked her fingers through the wire. Frankie mimicked her, poking her chubby fingers through too.

The flat expanse of water reflected the sky and the purple red of the hills shrugged up around it. It took her breath away. The pamphlet said it was the biggest inland body of water in Australia. They called it a lake. Beyond that she could see green fields into the distance. The town rose up out of the earth, as if it too had grown there. Squeezed in between two hills was the facility where Max worked. There was no smoke, no sign of activity.

A diagram etched into a metal plaque showed how the land lay underneath the water. It showed how the river once ran, with drawings of grass and wallabies on the river flats. She imagined the seam of the river under the water and that seam ripping open. She wondered if the wallabies were stranded on islands in the beginning, whether they tried to swim to the edges. There were also distances etched into the plaque: to Sydney, to Indonesia, to the Cape of Good Hope, as if this place was somewhere too. A sadness welled inside her. The chain link pressed into the fat on her arms.

The galahs flew up behind her so close she could hear their wings. She whipped around to face them, tearing her hands from the fence. The wings were pink as an open mouth.

Get! she yelled. She crouched down to shield Frankie and the birds flew up and away, pretty pink and white against the sky. She saw them circle, then land way down in the dam on the exposed limbs of the dead trees. Frankie was crying, tears falling silently down her ruddy cheeks.

I'm sorry, she said and pulled her in. Their fat squeezed out and over with the force of the hug.

WHAT'S WITH ALL this water? Max said. She'd been buying it for weeks now.

We're not drinking town water.

Don't be silly, baby.

He went to the tap and got himself a glass of water. It bubbled and then settled in his glass. He drank it in one long gulp.

It's totally fine.

I'm not stupid, she said. My jeans don't fit. They don't even fit over my thighs.

So buy some new jeans, then.

That's not what I mean. I mean, this is scary. Everyone in this town is morbidly obese. I'm morbidly obese.

You're being hysterical.

I want to leave.

Baby, don't be crazy – he leaned over the table, knocking the salt over with his arm – we've never done so well.

She looked at his sausage fingers grabbing at her own.

What do you do, anyway, in that factory?

It's not a factory – it's a facility.

But what do you do?

Baby, I'm a carpenter.

She pulled his hands from hers and faced their palms to the ceiling. They were soft and pink as a baby's. She scraped her chair back.

SHE WAS SITTING in the lounge, her body moulded to the chair. He looked at her from the doorway.

Come to the pub with me, he said.

Is that an apology?

Yep, he said and threw her the grin that had made her walk across the pub and say, Hey, when she was only sixteen and really too young to be hey-ing anyone.

She couldn't help but smile. Okay, she said.

We'll drop Frankie at the sitter's – come on.

He walked over and placed a kiss on her forehead.

Kiss me so it counts, she said. He turned her chin up to him and kissed her lips. She closed her eyes.

They waddled down the steps, out onto the dewy grass, gone cold with the night, to the car.

Jess grabbed Max's hand as they pushed through the pub doors. The noise reached out and engulfed her. Max pulled her in through the squeeze of people.

It wasn't so bad at the edge of the room. Max wrapped her hand around a cold beer and grinned.

You look pretty tonight, he said.

Don't lie.

I like it, he said and pulled on the edge of her shirt. It was his shirt, the only thing that would fit her. His teenage footy team's mascot growled over her breasts.

You're crazy, she said. She sipped at her beer. It was delicious. They make this in the basin too? she asked.

He laughed. They drank their beers.

Another?

Sure, she said and smiled.

He left her at the edge of the room. Her glass was empty and warm in her hand now. She felt someone stumble against her. She dropped her glass and it landed with a dull thud on the carpet.

Sorry, love.

It was the old farmer. He steadied himself on her arm. She could see the veins beneath his skin, the sinew in his arms. Men like him didn't stop working – they just dropped dead.

Drunk, he said.

It's okay.

He looked naked without his hat. His grey hair was stained nicotine yellow at the front. His wrinkles were like cracks in dry mud.

You look different, he said.

Have we met before?

His bony fingers dug deep into the flesh of her arm. You were skinny before, he said.

She felt the sting of tears.

The most beautiful country you ever seen, gone. Them gums, they're drowned under there. Ever heard a gum drown? They creak. All the animals. It's not like fire – them animals can't sense it coming – they was drowned, sure enough. The surface of the water was just insects. Snakes curled and died. They washed up at the sides. It didn't look like it does now. It was putrid.

His face looked hollow, eyes too big in their sockets.

Stop it, she said.

All that water – this is dry country.

You got your payout?

With what little saliva he could muster, he spat on the carpet beside him. I ain't spent it, he said.

Hey, said Max. He had two beers, one in each hand.

The old man let go of her arm. Even in the dull light she could see the red marks of his fingers and thumb. He stood up straight. She saw the fighter in his stance, muscles wound tight and dry as jerky.

He was just telling me about the flood, about the animals, she said. How they drowned.

She patted the old man on the back, and he took one more look at Max before collapsing into his bones. He shuffled off into the crowd.

Are you okay? Max said.

Yeah. Let's go.

Max put her beer on the counter and downed the other in one long gulp. Sure, he said. Whatever you want, baby.

IN THE PINK dark of early morning the road was a long slow line of headlights as workers arrived at the facility. Frankie was asleep in the backseat, her head lolling like a limp balloon with the movement of the car. When they got close to the gate, lit bright as a border crossing, Jess pulled the car off the road. She watched the trucks stream past. By 7.30 they were all through, and the day was empty and hot.

The next time she looked her daughter's eyes were open, shiny as Christmas baubles.

Where are we? Frankie said.

Just following Dad.

Where is he?

In there.

She looked at the gate. A man in a tan uniform was walking towards the car. She tried to turn the engine over but it coughed at her, shuddered. She tried again.

The man banged his palm on the hood. He was tall and his gut hung out over his belt like a full pouch.

Ma'am, he said. He bent down to look at her through her open window. How are you today?

Sir?

Call me Gary, he said. He put his hand through the window to shake. She took his thick fingers in her own. He stepped back and surveyed them. When's Max going to buy you a new car? About time, I reckon, he said with a smile. What are you doing all the way out here, anyway? It's going to be a scorcher. You should be home, in the shade, with a lemonade. He cracked a bigger grin.

You know Max?

See him twice a day, he said. At the gate, you get to know people.

I just wanted to see where he worked, you know?

You want to see it? We got visiting on the second Saturday of every second month. You can even stand atop the wall. Best view in Australia. Second Saturday of every second month, you hear? He banged the hood of her car again and walked away.

She felt sick.

I'm hungry, Frankie said.

I know, possum.

The car started first go.

JESS HELD THE little pill in her hand. Max had got them for her, so she could sleep. She felt as big as a wedding marquee in her nightie. She filled her glass from a bottle beside the basin she left there to clean her teeth. Taking a sip, she spilled water over her mouth and down her front. She moved with her old body – it was inside her, like a second skeleton. She attempted another sip, sighed and laughed at herself, poured the water down the sink, refilled the glass from the tap. She swallowed the pill and washed it down with the town water. It tasted metallic, like licking a playground monkey bar. She gulped it down, looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were deep in the puff of her face. She tapped at the glass, leaving an oily smudge on her reflected forehead.

In the morning she woke up crying, her pillow soaked. She couldn't remember her dream, only that it was of dark and that the dark had rushed at her. She felt exhausted. Max had left for work and the sun was already pouring in sharp, hot lines through the blinds.

She got up, made Frankie toast and herself tea from bottled water. She sat at the kitchen table and began the wait for Max to come home. Frankie crunched her toast until there was a pile of neat nibbled crusts, then asked for more.

FRANKIE WAS CROUCHED over dirt. The car ticked in the heat. It was hot enough to fry an egg on the bonnet.

Look, Mum, Frankie said.

There was a line of big ants slipping into a crack in the riverbank. The dry bed was like a scar. Above, gum leaves shivered in the heat. Jess picked up a leaf, slim and long. It curled at the edges, with a bug's scribble across it, beautiful as cursive.

A magpie warbled nearby. Jess couldn't see the bird, but its song hung around her. She closed her eyes and felt dizzy, disoriented. She needed a drink, but she should save some water in case the engine overheated. There was dust on the road behind them, in the distance.

Quick sticks, she said to Frankie, ushering her into the back of the car and clipping the seatbelt. She checked Max was breathing, kissed him on the forehead. He was in a deep sleep. She figured he'd wake in an hour or so. She jumped in the front and accelerated away from the rest stop.

We're just going to drive, she said to Max. It was like talking to herself.

We're going to drive south until we hit the ocean.

The ocean would be so cold it would strip them right down to their bones.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review