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Edition 34

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Fiction

Underwater

'WHAT DO YOU reckon it's about?' she says.

'Yeah,' he says, looking up from his mobile for a moment, then back to the screen.

'My dream,' she says, but he doesn't reply.

She looks out the train window. Futons are hung out over sunny balcony railings. It seems strange that futons are flung out for all to see when on the train everyone's books have privacy covers on them. She thinks about asking her brother about it, but he sits up suddenly.

'Change here,' he says. He's begun to speak like this, in simplified English, even to her. She follows him out the doors, which on this old train open as slowly as a yawn. The air is hot and stinky, like bad breath.

She is the eldest, but here she follows him a step behind. When they were kids she always made him hold her hand whenever they crossed the road to the beach. Her brother let her, but when they reached the curb he would throw her hand away from him, disgusted.

She follows at his heel along the platform, down into the underpass and then back up again into the light. They stand behind the line. They have a strange collection of bags, a little esky, beach towels.

The next train arrives and they step on. They sit down across from one another, him facing the way they are going, the esky an awkward square between their legs.

'Ohio goziamas,' she says, to practise, but also because she knows the mispronunciation will annoy him. Annoying him is a habit she finds impossible to break.

'It's mus,' he says, and she smiles to herself.

'Mus, mus, mus, mus, mus. Ohio goziamas.'

'Mus.'

'Mus.' She tastes the sound in her mouth. Their esses sounded like snakes hissing.

'Mus,' he says.

'I'm saying mus,' she says, and rolls her eyes. He takes out his mobile. 'How much longer to the beach?' she asks.

'A while.'

 

A GIANT BLUE blow-up slide makes a triangular silhouette against the horizon. Through it is the flat expanse of water, little waves lapping at the shoreline. They have settled on grass in the shade of the concrete underpass. There is a wide lick of sand between the grass and the water. Her brother has a hibachi out and lit. He lays four silver fish on the heat. Their skin sizzles and spits.

'I'm hot,' she says. He looks pointedly at her. She's still wearing all her clothes. He's stripped down to board shorts and is applying sunscreen. She looks down at her arms, at the marks on them – bruises in the shape of fingerprints, her boyfriend's hands. She licks her finger and tries to rub one off, but it stays there, persistent.

'What does it matter? They stare anyway,' her brother says.

She peels her shirt and pants off, and quickly lies down on her towel. She can feel each bruise, even with her eyes closed. On the top of her thigh, the corner of the kitchen table. Each place where his hands had grabbed and squeezed and pushed her away. A bright-blue bruise blooms out from under the top of her swimsuit. That one from pulling her back in. Some are an older, dirty-crayon yellow.

 

SHE HAD MEWLED kitten-like over the phone to her brother, curled up on the floor around her bruises. Her brother had said, 'You sound like sorrow,' in that strange way he'd begun to talk. 'Get on a plane. I've booked you tickets. You've just got to get on.' Then he'd hung up. She had felt quite clearly that this was the last time anyone would try to help her, and that if she didn't go she would stay on the floor forever.

 

SHE FEELS SOMEONE looking, and opens her eyes. A man with his goggles still on. He's dripping water.

'Where are you from?' he says in heavily accented English.

Her brother wipes sweat from his face, and looks up at him. He answers in a long string of Japanese, the syllables sounding to her like gunfire: bang, bang, bang, bang.

The man looks across to the blow-up slide and says, 'It's a nice day, isn't it.' Her brother answers in Japanese. The man in the goggles leans down to the BBQ and picks a sizzling fish off the grill with his fingertips, grabbing its burnt tail, silver-black in the sun. He crunches it in his mouth. With his goggles he looks reptilian. He walks away without saying goodbye.

'Was that rude?' she says.

'I said he could have a little fish.'

'I don't understand anything.' She sighs.

'There are so many men like him here,' her brother says, putting his hat over his face – from within the hat he says, muffled, 'lonely'.

She closes her eyes. She can only hear the sound of the cars on the overpass above. It's the same sound a waterfall makes, a booming hush. She can't hear the sound of the little waves on the beach at all.

'Let's go for a swim,' her brother says.

 

THE WATER IS a cloudy brown, though it had looked blue from the beach. It feels thick around her legs. Japanese float like flotsam, on rings and blow-up mattresses, inert, fingers trailing in the water. There's no current, just a dirty stretch of water right out to the tankers lining up to go into the port: on the horizon they look small as toys in bathwater.

'I don't know if I can do it,' she says, hovering, arms out, trying not to touch the water. A plastic bag floats towards her.

'Maybe it will be better a bit further out.' He has his hands in the water. His arms look brown and sinewy as beef jerky. She feels glowing white, straight from winter to this humidity, this air so wet that everyone carries a little white towel around with them to mop the sweat.

He walks out further until he loses his footing and is forced to swim. She follows, and because she's short she has to start swimming almost straight away. The water feels likes a hug from someone large and strange. She thinks she might cry.

'It's not better out here,' he says. 'Don't put your head under.'

She looks back at the shore. A girl bobs in front of her, a bubblegum-pink floaty ring around her waist. She is wearing perfect make-up.

'I've got to get out,' she says.

They swim back in. She unwinds a plastic bag from her foot at the shore: she holds it as it disgorges brown water but can't decide what to do with it. She looks at the beach, at the water. She gulps air and drops the bag to the ground. The water claims it back, and it looks like it belongs there.

'Why did we come here?' she says.

'I didn't know it would be like this.'

'It's awful.'

'It's not Australia,' he says, and starts to walk back up the beach, leaving her there alone.

She picks a strand of noodle-like weed off her arm and begins to cry. Swimming has always cured her of hangover, melancholy, tiredness. She's grown up making her decisions underwater, in the quiet there, or out the back past the breakers, with the water surging around her and the about-to-break waves lifting her way up high and back down again. This is the first time that swimming has made things worse.

A girl is smiling and walking towards her. She must be about fifteen but she wears a childish one-piece swimsuit. She stands out among the other teenage girls who walk across the sand, crippled in their heels, fingernails painted into bejewelled claws, triangles of cloth over their bits.

'I can't believe to find you here,' the girl says in an American accent.

'Pardon?'

'This is my grandmother,' the girl says, offering a wrinkled version of herself, a twin with the juice sucked out of her.

'Hello,' the grandmother says. They are both wet, dripping pools onto the sand.

'Do I know you?' she says and laughs, her tears gone.

'I can help you,' the girl replies and takes her hand, gently pulling her back towards the sea.

She looks behind her, but she can't see her brother or pick out their towels among the bright patchwork beneath the overpass. She follows the girl and the grandmother closes in behind.

They are nearing the slippery slide. She can hear people screaming as they careen down it. Plastic blue against the plastic blue sky. A very tall Japanese man turns to her: he's wearing Okanui shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and a large golden cross hangs on his hairless chest. He smiles.

'My father,' the girl says. As she speaks she squeezes her hand reassuringly.

'Come,' he says.

The girl releases her hand and the father puts his arms around her shoulders.

'We're baptising people,' the girl says, her face hiding nothing in the bright sunlight.

'Really?' She nearly says it in Japanese: honto ni.

'Yeah!' the girl says. 'It's so exciting.' She does a little jump in the sand.

The father's hands on her shoulders are hot and heavy. She tries to shrug them off. He squeezes her. She looks up at him and he's blocking out the sun.

'I'm sorry. My English very bad. God speak all languages,' he says, and switches to Japanese.

He is walking her to the water; she looks back, trying to catch sight of her brother. A semicircle of people holding hands surrounds her. The girl and the grandmother grip one another. They all have faces too bright with smiles. The water licks her toes. He walks her deeper until the bottom of his shorts are wet, and she is holding hands with the water. The people push in closer around them.

His hands on her shoulders, he leans down and deftly knocks her legs out from under her. He has her like a baby now. The water is cradled around her. She smells his aftershave and rotten weed.

'Come now,' he says, and pushes her under. She tries to protest, gets a mouthful of warm water. She holds her breath, blowing out her nose. His arms are unmoving as pylons, impervious to her struggles. It's dark. She waits for him to lift her back up out of there.

The water is warm, and she makes little circles with her hands. She feels something: a tendril of weed, she imagines, but then it feels like scales, slippery scales.

Breath starts to burn in her chest. Still he holds her down, cradling her body. She kicks up, tries to grab at him, to scream. She relaxes – and begins to breathe the water. Her brain buzzes with the hot hum of cicadas.

 

SUDDENLY SHE FEELS her brother's hand wrenching her out of the water. Everything is bright. Her feet find the ocean floor and she vomits brown liquid.

She looks around. Her brother is clutching her hand. The semi-circle is broken, and the priest's Hawaiian shirt is dark with water. No one is smiling. The priest is firing Japanese phrases at her brother, angry.

'Hey,' she says, 'you're hurting me.'

Her brother loosens his grip but doesn't let go, and she sees he is crying.

'It's okay,' she says.

She touches him gently on the back and they walk through the group, sand gripping their feet. He follows her.

They find themselves back at their towels, and she gathers up their belongings. They leave, the water drying crisp and salty new skins.


From Griffith Review Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review