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Memoir

Walking underwater

THEY WERE THERE for months, small shapes embedded in the mud at first, and then, as the mud was washed away, small shapes embedded in the grass. A few plastic toys; the shiny white squares of slide frames – some full, most empty; triangular shards of broken crockery with pretty patterns in blues, greens, yellows. Pressed into the verge like a crazy mosaic, they transformed our corner into an archaeological site. They were all that was left of the piles and piles of muddy detritus stripped from inside this house, every possession, every belonging of the woman who had lived there, who had come back, seen its inundated state, and walked away from it all. After seven months of walking past them, over them, around them, I bent down and picked out four of the prettiest fragments of the china. I brought them home and carefully washed every speck and grain of dirt from their surfaces. I studied them; I traced their colours and their patterns. And I put them on my windowsill, like a tiny memorial. I wasn't sure what else to do, but it seemed important to do this.

The totems left in the wake of Brisbane's 2011 flood are many and various – although none is yet as official as the wooden arrows installed across the city after those great big floods in 1974.

In some places they've been drawn with texta onto the eaves of a house, the side of a parking meter. Their format is almost always the same: '2011 flood was here,' and an arrow to a wobbly line drawn across a few centimetres. In others, they're the line of dusty mud still visible across windows and doors, fences and walls. When our suburb's shops reopened, in late May, their new glass doors were decorated with a blue line and a transfer that read 'Flood Waters Peaked Here January 13, 2011.'

For weeks it took my breath away to walk through this sentence that reached somewhere near the middle of me – around the height that messy, muddy water would have reached. And then one day, the words were gone, the letters peeled away, the glass doors bare. Which was as shocking, as breathtaking, as the marker had been in the first place.

But there are other remnants here and there – tomato plants have sprung up along footpaths and in people's usually manicured lawns; coriander is thriving among our park's prickly couch; a line of self-sown lettuces comes marching across the yard of a house I walk past, on through the gate and across the median strip to the gutter.

 

ON THE OTHER side of town, in a park that's still closed, the standard Brisbane grass is now intertwined with other species thought to have washed all the way down from the Lockyer Valley. Their different textures tuft and clump, changing the topography of the usually smooth surface. The park's play area is still closed; it bore traces of human remains. More than eight months after all that water came and went, this space is still being sifted for some last missing piece of the flood's story.

So many houses still empty; so many people gone. 'No, no one's come back to that place yet,' an elderly man says of his neighbours who we used to see in the park. 'Still working out what to do – fix it, raise it, sell it. They don't know which way to jump.'

'Fifty years I've watched that river go past my kitchen window,' his friend says. 'Every so often it asks to come in.'

'I ended up in hospital, you know,' a neighbour from across the way says, 'and they told me I'd been stressed – me!'

The sort of stoic woman who'd stare down any hardship.

'And then I thought about it, and I thought, well, I suppose it was stressful watching that water come across the park and up the street. I suppose it was stressful watching it rise. I suppose it was stressful not knowing where it would stop – if your house would be dry, or ours.'

The bad stories begin to leach out, eddying in the current of goodness, of generosity, of unlooked-for kindnesses. Party-makers who arrived along the encroaching waterline, cheering and calling through one, two, three o'clock in the morning while residents, exhausted by the moving, by the waiting, by the wondering what would happen next, tried to sleep above in their stripped-out houses. People who loaded their possessions into trucks they thought had come through the agency of friends of friends – only to have them drive off and never be seen again.

 

WE DROVE OUT to Wivenhoe around Easter, as if the dam and its great lake might offer some account of itself as the year's dry days stretched on. It was a wide, smooth lozenge of water, all calm, all quiet, although its edges still looked crushed and damaged by the rush of inundation, and the land beneath the spillway was gouged and riven. But the body of the water itself was back to normal: that great big quantifiable reservoir that had been held in balance against the unknown reservoir of the skies, the unknown of how much water would fall, and for how long, and where. By Easter it accommodated nothing more disruptive than waterbirds who pierced its silver surface, clouds reflected in its sheen.

Now, in mid-spring 2011, the Bureau of Meteorology says predictions of another La Niña year are firming, although it won't be as strong as last year's, they stress. Brisbane is getting those short, sharp showers that dump out of nowhere, and are gone, bookended by too-blue skies before and after. And this spring, so far, there are no floods, but Queensland is burning, with more than fifty fires alight across the state's vast reach.

Now, when the rains fall, the act of listening to the cacophony on a tin roof has been drained of its comfort, its sense of dry, close safety. The sound brings a queasy feeling that swells and roils – How much water? Falling where? And for how long? Waking up from Brisbane's first night of heavy rain, at the end of winter, people muttered about broken sleep and bad dreams.

The memory of the flood settles over the city, heavy and deep. Walking the streets I am underwater at this bus stop, underwater as I go through these traffic lights, underwater as I climb my back stairs.

As spring comes I swing on the swings in the park behind our place and I know I am swinging through that thick, murky water, no matter how high I can push my feet. This was under water; this was under water: the mantra of moving along the river's edge and through all the busyness we've built across its floodplains. But I try to swing higher, pulling my legs back and pushing them out fast. I try to push up and up and up again, to emerge from the dense liquid of impressions – the sights, the sounds, the smells and tastes, the dripping freight of memory.

I swing down as the last of the life-scraps and leftovers dislodge from among the grass on our verge. I swing up as the alien march of new turf and salad vegetables is slowly excised from our safely suburban lawns. I swing down as grey clouds gather; I swing up as the last of our neighbours comes home.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review