By JOY REID
"I tell you, it's not far from here," Gail insisted, face thrust forward. Close up, her freckles appeared lurid and unlikely. If she keeps holding her breath like that, Jess decided, those funny red spots will explode like chewy bursts timed to annoy a teacher.
"Only round the corner."
"Wheeere?" Jess challenged, lengthening the word sarcastically, "There's no such place. You're making it up." Weren't many places she hadn't discovered in her romps.
"Is too! Craig found it."
"Just get your cosie and meet me at the end of the street. I'll prove I'm no liar."
"Waste of time," Jess muttered, flicking a skimpy pony tail. Still, curiosity and the possibility that she'd be able to prove the fat cow a liar were motivation enough.
"Where you going?"
Jess jumped. Cripes! She'd thought she'd managed to sneak out successfully; no mean feat when you're burdened with a nosy, bossy, tattle tale sister.
"Where you going?" Bernadette repeated, stressing each word. In the dappled light of the lemon tree, her smooth skin appeared strangely pitted.
"Yeah, sure. What's behind your back, then?"
"Funny kind of nothing." Bernadette wrenched the cosie away, holding it aloft. "Looks like a swimming costume to me," she observed in her prissiest voice.
"Give it back," Jess hissed, springing for the garment like an angry cat.
"Not till you tell."
"Can't, it's a secret."
"Is that right? You know what happened the last time you were caught swimming in the canal."
Jess remembered clearly. It wasn't the fact that she'd been thrashed, she was used to that; it was the torture of being made to fetch a switch. Nobody who hasn't been subjected to that kind of torment can fully understand what she had suffered making the decision. Too thin and the pain is razor blade keen. Too heavy and the welts remain to plague the sufferer for days afterwards.
"Not going to the canal," she replied sulkily, annoyed by her sister's unfeeling reference to the event.
"Told you. I don't know."
"Well, I'm coming with you."
A moment later, two stealthy shapes crept down the footpath. From an open window, canned laughter and a rhythmical, "Shwoo, shwoo, shwoo," floated out.
"We'll have to be back before she finishes," Bernadette whispered.
"Don't worry, she's got a mountain of ironing to get through." Scissoring over the low gate, they ran to meet their co-conspirator.
"We have to wait," Gail insisted.
"Cause Craig's coming."
"Why does he have to come?" Jess was in an argumentative mood. First her useless sister, now this.
"Because he says he found it."
"What's taking so long?" Bernadette inquired, implying she already regretted the impulse which had encouraged her to be part of a Jess-inspired escapade.
"Ohhh," Gail's lashless eyes became evasive, "He's getting a few things
"Like, how should I know? Look, I'm not forcing you to come or anything."
A few moments later, Craig appeared. Secure in his masculine superiority, he swept past them with neither a word nor a glance. In one hand he held a spear gun. Wild conjectures galloped through Jess' mind as the three girls followed, forming the rear guard, but her pride refused to question him.
"Why you bringing a spear gun, Craig," Bernadette queried sweetly.
"Might be eels," he returned. The older girl shuddered, sorry she'd asked.
Turning left down Morrison road, they trooped in single file. No footpath here, only a slippery clay track bordered on the left by the tangled neglect of land too gullied and swampy for suburban development. To the right, rumbled a busy highway and beyond that, rarely used playing fields lay either side of a storm water drain that led to the Parramatta River. This was the "canal," a sludgy, tidal, concrete-lined channel that held murky wonders.
"Let's go back," Bernadette wailed, unnerved by the constant stream of traffic.
"You go back," her sister suggested, equally rattled, but stubbornly determined to continue. Vanishing trucks created vortices which plucked at the travelers with greedy fingers. It took all of Jess's will to brace herself against the regular assaults.
Ahead, general-like, Craig had called a halt and was standing, the spear gun resting like a rifle across his shoulders. His mocking sneer infuriated Jess.
"Why have we stopped?" she snapped.
"Cause we're here."
Jess peered mistrustfully. Beyond Craig, the track disappeared before a domed clump of blackberry. To the right, clay-like footprints stepped out onto the asphalt, circumnavigating the wild tangle. There was nothing else.
"Where's the swimming hole?" Jess demanded.
With the spear gun, Craig lifted a few wayward strands and pointed. Looking more closely, Jess saw an opening of the kind a dog might make while exploring.
She swallowed. "In there?"
Conscious of eyes boring questions into her spine, Jess quickly got down on all fours and scrabbled through the unappealing entrance. Thorns like cats' claws tore at her clothing and clung to her hair, absorbing her attention. So it was, that when she'd conquered the prickly hazard, she was too taken up with assessing the damage to examine her surroundings.
"You right, Jess?" an anxious voice drifted into the enclosure.
"Yeah. Just bloody-well scratched to pieces."
"Oooohh, you shouldn't swear."
"Oh shut up," she growled to herself. A rustling, scraping sound told her that someone was following her example.
Jess decided to move quickly, Gail's brother was coming through. She looked up. Arching above her like an exotic cupola was a roof of intertwined blackberry brambles. Tiny wrens flitted about flicking closed fan tails from side to side. Beneath lay a clear pool of water bathed in a gentle green light.
"Pretty good, huh?" commented Craig. Leaning back, he shouted, "You girls
coming in or what?"
Further rustling proved that one of the girls at least, had taken up the challenge. Gail soon appeared, red faced and puffing, and plonked herself beside her brother. The three of them then wriggled further around; there was precious little sitting space.
"But it's so prickly," wailed Bernadette, from a long way off, "I'll be
shredded and... and there could be snakes!"
"Yeah and bunyips too. Look, get your bum in here if you want a swim or get back home, but don't stand out there whining, for Christ's sake."
No further wailing accompanied this ultimatum of Craig's but a few moments later, whimpering was heard as Jess's eldest sister wormed her way in. Absorbed in unhooking long brown strands from a bramble, she missed Jess' quick, modest change and a perfect chance to scold her self-appointed charge. Jess entered the water.
Turning on her back, the young girl used her hands like flippers. Overhead, the strained light wriggled its way through the matted ceiling, an occasional shard bursting sharply through. Jess took in a mouthful of water and shot a jet of slightly muddy-tasting liquid at the bronzy green leaves. She closed her eyes and propelled her body in lazy circles. Almost, she forgot her companions, almost. A sinister plop reminded her.
One, two were all she could spy on the bank. Craig was in the water! She had barely time to register this when a surge beneath lifted her up and out, then speared her beneath the surface. She arose spluttering, toes sinking in the squishy white clay that lined the water hole. "Don't!" she yelled, when she'd recovered, "Don't, Craig."
Grinning like a malevolent shark, he re-surfaced several feet away. "My place, my rules," he told her, his voice sounding subterranean. "And my rules say all girls get dunked." With another surge he advanced while the girls on the bank shrieked enthusiastically. Jess churned the water to escape him but he slipped beneath the surface as smoothly as an eel . Eyes wide, Jess scanned for eddies, anything to pinpoint his presence. Out of danger themselves, the two older girls giggled and hugged each other. Weren't they glad they hadn't ventured in?
With a roar, her tormentor burst from the water like a vengeful sea monster. Jess squealed and flung herself to the left, but too late, he had her by the foot. It is impossible to feign fearlessness when your adversary has your leg in the air and you need to thrash madly to stop drowning. "Bloody hell, Craig," Jess blasphemed, "let go." Grinning like an escaped lunatic he began to push her under, using her leg as a lever. Jess fought hard, "Craioooog," she gurgled, "leggooo."
"Say it," he snarled, allowing her to steal a few gasps of air, "say it."
"What? Say what?"
Leaning towards her, his eyes fiery, he whispered, "Say
it's my place.
"Only if you let me go."
For a moment, everything seemed to grow silent as he considered. Even the two girls on the bank were holding their breath. Then, unexpectedly, Craig obliged. Instantly, Jess splashed away to safety, hauling herself up between the protesting girls.
But the obstinate girl had no intention of saying it; especially
now that now that there was the protection of three.
"I won't say it. I'll never say it. You can't own a waterhole, Craig Mackenzie," she taunted, arms crossed, resolute. To either side, her accomplices remained silent, but silence is acquiescence - isn't it? Craig certainly thought so, for in a frenzied rage he began to splash all three, sending up great armfuls of water. Screaming like cockatoos, Bernadette and Gail immediately began to retreat down the tunnel, the former now oblivious to the blackberries.
"Then... then you can fuck off." The word hung between them like an obscene smell.
Suddenly Jess was uncomfortably aware that she had been abandoned by the other girls. Backing away, watching closely for signs of a fresh assault, she made her escape.
As she bent to enter the blackberry exit, her nerves came alive, tingling with expectation. Jess didn't know exactly what she expected, a kick in the rear perhaps, a hail of filthy curses, more splashing. Instead she heard a vaguely familiar sound -- the sound of trickling water. Glancing over her shoulder she saw the boy standing mid-pool, an impressive yellow stream arcing in front of him.
Head down, resolute as a wombat, Jess burrowed swiftly through what had become for her a circlet of thorns. Emerging blinking into punishing light, she ran, unable to control the scalding tears.