Becca has built her life in, on and around the Hawkesbury – the river has the power to give and take, but leaves more questions than answers.
My brother, Nate, stood on the bank of the Hawkesbury and threw the stick to our dog, Milo. I sat further back, in the deep shade of the gum trees, watching Nate switch from boy to man and back again. The hot, mid-morning sun gilded his skin silver and gold. Milo jumped around madly, snatching the stick before it hit the water.
Josh’s tinny started as a glint at the bend of the river.
‘Becca!’ Nate yelled.
‘I saw it,’ I called and stood, brushing the wet sand off my shorts.
Nate stopped with the stick in his hand and Milo waited, jittery. I pushed my phone into my back pocket and walked over to Nate. The blood-warm water circled my ankles and feet, dark silt burying my toes. I touched Nate’s shoulder, the muscle starting right there under my hand. He was thirteen and I was eighteen. I kissed his boy-soft cheek.
‘You’ll be back later, yeah?’ Nate said.
‘Course I will.’
He looked at me like he didn’t believe me.
‘Do you see a bag?’ I said. ‘Would I go anywhere without my hairdryer?’
He smiled, a dimple showing in one cheek.
Josh cut the motor to an idle when he got closer.
‘See you soon,’ I whispered to Nate and walked towards the boat. I felt Nate’s gaze on my back and Josh’s eyes all over me, hidden behind his sunglasses.
‘Hey, buddy,’ Josh called.
Nate called back, ‘Hey, Josh,’ his voice thin, unbroken, behind me.
Josh reached down to help me step up into the boat. His hand was hot.
Nate yelled, ‘Can I come too, Josh?’
‘Ah, not today, mate. Another time, yeah?’
The air smelled of two-stroke as we pulled away.
‘Shouldn’t Nate be in school?’ Josh said to me.
‘Mental health day.’
The bow of the tinny lifted as we flew across the blue-green river. My hair streamed behind me. The sun sparkled on the water, dazzling, at thousands of points.
The sun sparkled on the water, dazzling, at thousands of points.
‘Thought we’d go to the spillway,’ Josh said.
I turned. He sat beside the outboard motor, hand on the tiller, steering the boat. At his feet was a plastic bag holding Tim’s cap. I only saw it in that instant. Flat, in plastic that could have been an evidence bag.
‘I brought the nail gun,’ Josh said.
‘We can put his cap at the spillway. Nail it down.’
‘I thought we were just going out on the water for a bit.’
‘It’ll only take a minute,’ he said.
‘It takes twenty minutes to get there.’
‘Becca. You got things to do?’
I turned my back to him and tilted my face to the sun. It was searing now.
The wooden bridge over the spillway linked one bank to the other. Josh switched off the motor close to the bridge and tied the boat to a post. Without the motor, the quiet was immense. Josh swung himself up onto the bridge and bent to help me climb up beside him. He had not touched me, other than to help me in and out of the boat.
Josh carried the bag holding Tim’s cap and the nail gun. There were a couple of stubbies in there too.
‘Isn’t the nail gun overkill?’ I said.
‘Quicker than the hammer.’
He walked straight to the little shrine of photos wrapped in plastic. I didn’t look at them, but they were in my peripheral: Tim as a baby, a boy, a teenager, with his mates at the river, eighteen. He was smiling, squinting, blowing out candles when he was a kid wearing summer pyjamas. It made me want to throw up.
The nail gun sounded like a gunshot, three gunshots. Nearby, a family of ducks startled and rushed into the air and away. Birds cried out in the scrub.
Josh pushed his hand over the cap. ‘There you go, mate,’ he said. He held the nail gun like a starter pistol and smiled at me. ‘You wanna turn?’
‘No, thanks. I don’t think the cap is going anywhere.’
I held onto the wooden railing. There were Josh’s words: But I got a bag of weed and a sunset. There were mine: R.I.P. Tim. The boy with the bluest eyes. Becca xx
Two hundred and ninety-seven days together and I didn’t know what to write. I knew it didn’t matter. The night before we scattered Tim’s ashes there, I pulled out a poetry textbook from year twelve, but the words were big, overblown, Romantic – it was that bright star and dreams spread under my feet and tender-taken breath and a swelling heart – Keats, Yeats, Coleridge. They were, all of them, dead men.
Two hundred and ninety-seven days together and I didn’t know what to write.
Lying down on my bed, I thought of Tim, his face, his body, his smile that took its time, his warm neck. I pushed my hand inside my underpants and I dwelled in him, touching him – a spot that was too hot, and kept my hand there, making it burn. I came, biting the inside of my upper arm and bruising the skin so that it ached, purple-green, for days.
Josh held a cold VB stubby against my arm. He had opened it and I smelled the beer.
‘It’s twelve o’clock somewhere,’ he said.
I took a long drink.
‘Good we did that,’ Josh said, his voice soft.
I looked over at him.
He smiled. ‘Tim’s cap. Putting it here. Good we did that,’ he said. ‘You thought I was talking about last Thursday night?’
‘No.’ I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Any time, Becca. Okay? We can do that any time you want.’
His thumbnail scratched at the label of his VB. My brain rotated, rusted and worn out, words appearing and disappearing before me.
‘We shouldn’t have done it,’ I said, finally. ‘You’ve got a girlfriend, remember? Yvette? Remember her?’
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Josh. She’s in love with you.’
He turned to me. His eyes unknowable behind his sunglasses, but from the red tip of his nose and his taut, waxy skin, he’d been crying. I remembered the little amethyst pendant Josh bought Yvette for her seventeenth birthday. It hung low on a gold chain, sometimes falling between her breasts.
Last Thursday night, Mum was taking Nate to the shops to get his uniform and books before school started back.
‘He needs new everything. I’m going to put bricks on his head,’ Mum said, watching Nate in front of the open fridge, eating every bit of food in sight. He was almost her height now. ‘Goddamn it, Nate. Not the ham. That’s for your lunches. You wanna come with us, Bec? We’ll get dinner at Dynasty after?’
She said it like she was taunting me. I couldn’t look at her with that hope in her voice.
Nate hooted, finishing his mouthful. ‘Come on, Becca. Dynasty! Honey chicken!’
‘No. I’m good,’ I said.
Mum pushed my fringe out of my eyes. ‘You know Baker’s Delight are hiring?’
I moved my head away from her. ‘I don’t want to sell fucking finger buns.’
‘Excuse me. Language,’ she said, low. ‘And they sell more than finger buns. It’s only for nine months. Just until you can sit your exams again. You’ve got to do something.’
Mum stared at me and I waited for her to say it. She had said it before – Tim dying the night of the first finals exam was impeccable timing.
‘Bec. You can’t walk around here in a coma,’ Mum said. ‘I won’t have it. Get a full time job. Pay board.’
I began to smile.
‘You can wipe that expression off your face, Miss,’ she said. ‘How do you think this whole circus works? Money.’
Mum had said it before – Tim dying the night of the first finals exam was impeccable timing.
I went to my room and texted Josh: R u busy tonight?
He texted back: Nope.
After Mum and Nate left for the shops, Josh collected me in his tinny. The sky was crimson, yellow and pink. Josh smiled and kissed my cheek, close to the corner of my mouth.
‘You look different,’ he said.
‘I slept last night,’ I said. ‘Do you reckon we can go to the spillway?’
His smile fell away, but his voice was warm. ‘Course we can.’
I hadn’t been back to the spillway since we scattered Tim’s ashes there and my heart was clattering and banging by the time we reached it. We sat on the bridge, our legs dangling. I pressed my cheek against the lower railing. Josh ran his hand down the length of my ponytail and waggled it side to side. I knew he wanted it to be casual. It wasn’t.
‘Tim used to come here by himself. A lot,’ Josh said. ‘You know that, right?’
‘It was just an accident,’ he said. ‘Got himself tangled in the weeds, the stupid fucker. No way was it deliberate.’
Josh swallowed and his jaw shifted, over and over. I recognised it, the same ache that came into my jaw making me grind my teeth until it passed or until I gave in.
‘It only takes one inhalation of water to drown,’ Josh said. ‘That’s what the police rescue guys told me.’
The river before us was vast and in this dying light it was rippling and shining as red as the sky.
‘It happened at night,’ I said. ‘Tim didn’t tell us, he didn’t tell anyone he was coming here. Not his folks or his brothers.’
‘He was happy. With a girl like you, Becca, he was very fucking happy.’
He yanked my ponytail with each word: ‘Yes. Becca. Really.’
It was dark when we left and the Dolphin torch sent a narrow beam of light across the black water. The river smelled different at night – the mud, the swampy trees and reeds – it smelt of decay. Frogs, crickets and every other nocturnal creature made noises, creaking, clicking and gurgling. It was a racket.
The river smelled different at night – the mud, the swampy trees and reeds – it smelt of decay.
A bird flew low over us, its wingspan massive. I heard its wings beat.
‘Was that a fucking eagle?’ I said.
‘Come back to mine for a bit?’ Josh said. ‘A drink?’
‘Nah. I don’t wanna chit-chat with your folks.’
‘They’re away. Brisbane. My auntie’s funeral.’
I stared at him, sitting at the stern. ‘Your auntie? Shouldn’t you be there?’
There was a beat. ‘I didn’t feel like it. Got to work anyway.’
I nodded like I was considering it when my mind was already made up. ‘Sure then,’ I said. ‘A drink.’
I texted Mum to say I was out with Holly and would be late. I texted Holly. Nate and Mum were probably still at Dynasty – Nate eating fried ice-cream and Mum finishing her wine.
We drew close to Josh’s place. The torchlight showed my limbs ghost-white when I stepped onto the jetty. Josh tied up the boat and leapt onto the jetty beside me in two steps. His hand hung behind me for a moment, before he touched the back of my head, his hand moving down my hair, my spine, sending an electrical current through me.
‘What was that?’ I said.
Josh’s expression wavered, as if he didn’t know whether to smile or play it cool and pretend it meant nothing. He bent his knees to look into my eyes.
He pushed my hair behind my ear, and said, ‘You gonna help me out here?’
‘I’m right here, aren’t I?’
He nodded slowly, as if he was thinking that over. We walked beside each other through the yard to the back door of his house and he glanced over at me, smiled like he was trying to hide it.
Today, Josh and I finished our beers sitting on the bridge over the spillway. The shrill of cicadas was not enough to stop the nail gun replaying, banging, in my head. The gum trees were statues under the white-hot, late morning sky. Below us, the water was shadowed, depthless. I shivered.
Josh said, ‘You okay?’
‘Have you got a cigarette?’ I said.
He took the pack from his pocket, put one between my teeth and leaned in close to light it. He had one too. The cigarette shook in my hand and my pink, chipped nails looked tragic. I used to remove the polish as soon as it started to chip. When I took another drag it was no better, my mouth shaking away too.
‘Yvette’s my friend,’ I said. ‘Some bloody friend I am. Some boyfriend you are.’
‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ he said.
A boat went roaring past, towing a water skier, a girl shrieking, excited. They played loud music, but it was lost by the time it reached us and I couldn’t tell what it was.
‘“Jailbreak”, AC/DC,’ Josh said, under his breath.
He raised one hand in response to their full arm waves, solemn, like an old timer.
Below us was the last place Tim was alive. In my mind, he lay face down, face up, his arms open in a big welcome. His T-shirt, jeans and lungs filled with water, sinking him deeper and deeper to the bottom of the river. The surface of the water became still again. His dad’s tinny tied to the post of the bridge marked the place for Josh, for the police divers.
‘You should leave here, Josh,’ I said. ‘This river. Sydney. Australia. You should go somewhere else. I don’t know how you can stand it.’
Josh shook his head. ‘No fucking way. I’m not going anywhere.’
I heard it in his voice, the defiance, and the hurt.
‘You should leave here, Josh,’ I said. ‘This river. Sydney. Australia. I don’t know how you can stand it.’
His mobile rang but he didn’t answer it. There were so many questions I had not asked him: what did Tim look like when they brought him up from the water? Were they careful with him when they lifted him out? Were his eyes open or closed? Did you touch his skin? Was he ice cold?
Josh’s hand encircled the back of my neck. I closed my eyes.
‘Not here,’ I whispered.
We walked down the bridge to the other bank. Josh’s hands shoved into his pockets, his head bent, as if we were two friends going for a walk. On this bank, the pine trees towered above us, their needles baking in the sun, smelling sweet and timeless. We walked into the depths of the forest.
Josh stopped. ‘Is this far enough?’
He lay down on the ground and for a second, a six-foot man lying beneath me, any such man, was Tim. The sheer length of him was Tim, the fall of his limbs. I couldn’t move.
He sat up, took my hand and drew me down onto the earth beside him. I climbed on top of him and he groaned low in the back of his throat. He peeled my clothes from me like he had done it many times before, when it had only been the once. He kissed me, sucked me.
I pushed my face into his neck, felt his pulse going double speed, and licked his skin.
‘You taste like the river,’ I said, into his ear.
Shadow-cut shapes fell on our bare skin. I stretched above him. He pushed himself so deeply into me it should have taken my head off. It was not deep enough. I made a sound and he probably thought I came, because he said my name against my skin, as if he was bringing me back to him. It wasn’t that – it was frustration. I could not even come. I wanted it and I wanted the empty moment immediately after.
We walked back to the boat and Josh collected the nail gun and stubbies into a bag and we left. I sat in my usual seat in the boat, in front of him. I swung my hand back.
‘What do you want?’ Josh said. ‘A cigarette?’
He seized mine, squeezed it, held on like he wouldn’t ever let go.
I arrived home and Nate was in the kitchen making several Vegemite sandwiches.
‘Why are you back already?’ he said.
I took a sandwich. ‘Josh’s shift starts at two.’
Nate laughed. ‘The Country Club. Posh. He’s got to wear a collared shirt?’
Nate almost choked on his sandwich. His sun-bleached hair fell in his eyes. He chewed solidly. He ate sandwiches in four bites now.
Bruce Springsteen played on the stereo in the living room, ‘I’m on Fire’, and I felt every beat in my blood. I wanted the pure solidness, the muscle and heat of that man, above me and underneath me. He could sing and sing while I ate him alive.
I danced, my arms in the air, as if I was in a bar having a good night, while all of those men sitting firmly on bar stools, refusing to dance, watched me. Come on. Come on.
I wanted the pure solidness, the muscle and heat of that man, above me and underneath me.
Nate’s eyebrows were furrowed.
‘Don’t look at me like I’m a weirdo,’ I said.
‘Josh has the hots for you,’ Nate said, and took another bite.
I stopped moving, dropped my arms. ‘What?’ I said, and I hated the fake indignation. ‘It’s only been three months since Tim–’
‘I know,’ Nate said, reddening.
‘Yeah, so I don’t give a shit if Josh has the hots for me.’
‘Alright,’ Nate said, sounding twenty years older – calm, placating, kind. ‘I was warning you, that’s all.’
I kissed his cheek. ‘Thanks, yeah?’ I said.
I took the sandwich to my bedroom and flopped down on the bed. My breathing was hard and I tried to slow it. I sang under my breath about that freight train running through my head, although Springsteen was now singing a different song. I ate my childhood sandwich. Still it came, the freight train, the nail gun, the racket, this whole, fucking circus.
Nate leaned in the doorway, his hands deep in the pockets of his shorts. He came over and lay down beside me, both of us staring at the ceiling. I rolled towards him and laid my head on his bone-thin chest, feeling it rise and fall under my cheek. He smoothed my hair and kissed my forehead. His T-shirt smelt of river water and sun and dog and boy.