5. A Strange Way to Catch Barramundi
We never expected the phones to go down. Even when swatches of inner suburban streets were succumbing to the water, great wet swathes drawn across the aerial photographs, I’m sure we thought of telephone signals as something that existed above that, vaulting from the top of tall towers to the next receiver, and from there into our pockets. For a long time that illusion persisted, tying us all together. But when without a whimper one morning it was gone, those invisible threads abruptly snapped, and we remembered what it was like to be humans in a world without certainty.
Not that it started there. But when things begin to get strange, we have a great tendency to imagine that each new level is as strange as it’s going to get. For all the talk about the depressive nature of the human condition, we are eternal fucking optimists, building cities on flood plains or chipping housing lots into newly hardened lava. While the phones were up, no-one thought things were impossible. But as the mobile carriers dropped one by one, and my brother couldn't find his wife, and people lost their husbands and their friends and their kids, we watched things boost up to another level again. Of course it didn’t start with the phones, and it didn’t start with the floods. It started with the sands. The phones were just the point when everyone knew that shit was getting real.
When we first started hearing about the sands, the story was a curiosity. I got a call from our news bureau. For the past year and a half I had been circulating country towns, two nine-month contracts back to back. Apparently my articles demonstrated our paper’s 'ongoing commitment to and engagement with rural and regional Queenslanders', fetishised for city readers as somehow more real than anyone with an urban postcode could ever be. The entire scope of that deep relationship consisted of one guy, born in Adelaide, raised in Sydney, traipsing around anywhere north and west of Brisbane, and filing twice a week for a floating spot on the innermost of pages.
The second contract had run out three weeks ago. I had heard nothing about an extension, aside from a couple of stalling emails from my editor. Even we had taken to running stories about newspapers going down the shitter, so the eternal stinginess was hardly a surprise. Bar the handful of Twitter stars preening from Parliament, every journalist in the country was being made to feel that their continued existence was at the pleasure of some eccentric, clement royal.
But then Chris was on the line, a little too early in the morning, as the sun cracked through the plastic venetians of the pre-fab miner’s accommodation that I hadn’t had sufficient reason to vacate.
'Martin. How are you, mate?' he said, sounding unnaturally chipper. 'Got a job for you if you’re keen.'
'Funny,' I said. 'I thought you’d lost my number. Now you need something and you’ve suddenly found it again.'
'Don’t be like that,' he said tolerantly. 'It’s been mayhem down here. You know how it gets.'
'What do you need?'
'I need you in Rathdowney.'
'Hundred k south of Ipswich. Down near the border.'
'What’s the story?'
'Some weird stuff going on. I don’t know how much is real and what’s alien abduction shit from yokels huffing too much sheep dip. Destroyed crops and who knows what else. We can’t really get much sense out of any of the reports, so I want someone on the ground.'
'Well, I’d love to go, but I’m pretty sure I’m out of contract,' I said, angling. I wasn’t sure I wanted a new contract, but if there was turning down to be done, I wanted to be the one doing it.
'I’ve been talking about your contract, but it’s not through yet. I can do you a day rate until then.'
'Then I’m freelancing. I want freelance rates. And I want expenses for the period since my last invoice.'
'Come off it, Martin.'
'I’ve been cooling my heels waiting on word from you, and accommodation out this way doesn’t come cheap.'
'Ok. Freelance rates on this job, and I’ll take care of your last five days. That’s the best I can do.'
'Deal. I’ll see about a rental car.'
Of course, there was barely a story left in Rathdowney by the time I got there. Trails of grit and empty chook pens. A hundred people in the town, and fewer still who’d been home at the time. A sandstorm had come through, they said. At first it had been hot wind and dirt, not out of the ordinary. But the sand had piled up until it was everywhere, knee high and rising, and the locals had left, wheels spinning in the grit until they got out of range.
It cleared in a few hours. The only thing of note was that all the animals left behind were gone. A lot of the houses stood dark and empty too, but that had been the case for years now. Had some people stayed when the storm hit? Well, perhaps, it was hardly an organised evacuation. When I pressed the question I was told there were some current residents, a couple of dozen, whose houses were still empty, but surely they had gone to stay with relatives. The last part was posed to me almost as a question, as though I could provide assurance. People showed me hallways they said had been filled with sand. Now there was only a crunching underfoot, though the wooden edges of doorframes and stairs were smoothed and rounded, sometimes shoulder high.
The story, of course, was written off: some hicks spooked by a storm. At the pub where I stayed that night in Beaudesert, the front bar’s most durable denizen flashed his tooth gap at me and said, 'They’re practically New South Wales,' as though that explained it all. The report was nothing special: missing livestock, probably taken by opportunistic thieves or scared away by the wind. A trail of ruined crops. From higher ground, you could see the trail led in an unmistakeably narrow front toward the town, but I didn’t stress it. It doesn’t pay to give your colleagues the impression that superstitious country folk are turning you into one of them.
Nonetheless, high winds continued in gusts, and started to spread across the south-east of the state. Dust storms came up out of nowhere, growing into heavier sandstorms. Windblown dunes cut the highway between Veresdale and Jimboomba. When I went to inspect, the sand was gone, the tar polished down to shiny snakeskin. Then more reports of sand inundations began to come in, in nearby Boonah and Christmas Creek, then in anti-intuitively disparate towns like Moombra, Hampton, and Allora.
The first good photo came out of Glengallan, a shot from a nineteen year old who’d planned to wait out the storm, then lost his nerve. Just before he rode out, he snapped the ancient mansion, sand reaching two metres up the walls, front windows breaking under the weight to let the dunes swamp in. The famous homestead half submerged. He rode his dirtbike through the storm with a scarf wrapped round his face, and somehow made it to clear air, vomiting sand. In Kearney’s Creek, we had the first verified reports of people who had stayed behind, boarding up their houses against the wind. Those houses were found empty, doors broken, sand swirled around the skirting boards. Cars that had been overtaken on the way out of town were empty too, windows smashed in or doors ajar. Never a sign of anyone. Some turned up later, having simply fled in the other direction with no means of contact. The rest, anxious relatives were assured, would do the same any day now.
It was only then that we began to get the impression of dunes. From up on Mount Glorious, I spent six hours watching one heave its way down the valley, humping like a caterpillar on the time lapse tape taken by the videographer I’d picked up in Brisbane on my way through. The same day, an amateur shot rooftop footage of a dune crashing in slow motion through the Deception Bay Bowls Club, down Bayview Terrace, and into the sea. The tapes went bananas on prime-time news. Chris was on the phone the next morning. 'We’ve got sand in Wacol,' he said. 'We need you based in Brisbane. That contract should be through in the morning.'
'Keep me on freelance,' I said. 'Paid weekly. And expenses through that three weeks I had off.'
It was hot in Brisbane then. No shit, Sherlock, the masses might say, but a different kind of hot. Normally Brisbane is rotten hot, wet hot, the fermented kind of stinking hot that makes you feel like everything is about to explode in a bloom of fungus. Your skin rupturing outward in an alien profusion of spores. A whiffy mix of licentiousness and pheromones and rot. It’s an over-ripe mango, swelling against its skin, barely clinging to the branch, about to hit the ground and split open in a gush of fermentation and sweetness. My first time in Brisbane was for a work posting, playing stenographer to a senior reporter, when I was twenty-two. Mick Fuller was his name. As we left the airport the visceral slap of the heat fetched me somewhere between the nostrils. 'Hot,' I mumbled, dredged into inarticulateness by hours of air-con and fluorescent lighting.
'Mate,' said Mick, turning to me, 'it’s like a whore’s cunt on the equator.'
No matter how many analogies I come up with, when I think of Brisbane, Mick Fuller’s voice plays first in my head.
But it wasn’t that heat as I drove in ten days after Rathdowney. For the past couple of weeks it had been dry hot, blazing hot, the kind of heat I remembered from childhood in Adelaide, when the desert winds would come baking down the plains, and stepping outside was like opening an oven door. When the state turned into a kiln, the city lay flat on its back, the heat breathing on us like an open mouth. Air warm as blood, dry as sandpaper. The scrape and catch of bushfire season whispering in the leaves, the creak of gum tree fibres desiccating till they splinter. The sense of portent. At night it pulsed at you, a dull red in the darkness.
I got a mate who worked at a city hotel to print me a receipt for a three-week booking, then went to stay with my brother in Tarragindi. Expense accounts have to work for you. It didn’t matter where I was staying anyway. The sands kept shifting. They were showing up in the suburbs consistently now, but erratically, appearing then withdrawing. The winds hadn’t let up in an age. There was no panic. The government was talking about levees and diversionary pathways, but the sands didn’t move fast enough to catch anyone more than half alert. They came, submerging whole streets and scouring through buildings, then blew away. They broke through shopping centres, down the middle of pedestrian malls, sometimes turning back the way they’d come, sometimes charging through to the river to sink. There was no pattern, nothing that defensive lines could have done.
But they were thorough. Never any bodies, no horrors to be cleaned up. Just the occasional name to add to the slow-growing list of the missing. Mostly old people, or loners, the odd stubborn recluse. Only one person had been rescued from the sand, or even seen taken. A helicopter doing low passes over Springfield ('Outskirts?' said Chris to my copy. 'Mate, that’s a fucking Versailles ballgown!') had seen a figure gesticulating for help, as the dunes snaked through labyrinthine housing development streets. Despite a near-suicidal drop by the pilot, and a rope-burning rappel from the emergency rescue officer, by the time they got to the target he wasn’t much more than a head and a frantically waving arm. The officer got a chain round the man’s chest, under one armpit, and signalled to the pilot to take them up. I introduced the world to a rescue-story dream, a humble electrician born in Mt Isa. Where the sand had been, a diagonal line was scored across his chest. Above it, he was dark with outback sun. Below, his skin was baby-white and hairless, almost translucent, a jumbo rice-paper roll.
At night, if I wasn’t driving to an incident, Bernie and I would sit up on the balcony of his house, high on the hill, and watch the lights unroll across the evening. Bernie and I are twins: not identical, and not close in terms of spending time together, but close instinctively. We’re comfortable in silence because we understand each other. Heather was doing nights on the emergency ward, so it was only ever us. It wasn’t that they needed doctors for injuries—everyone was either healthy or missing. But a higher than normal number of paranoiacs were showing up, worrying about sand inhalation or some other invention. So she would pacify them, and Bernie and I would sit in the dark, heat dragging condensation across the glass of our longnecks, watching the lights. We knew that out there, somewhere, the sands were swirling and forming and building and collapsing, dragging their way through some street or gully. Everyone knew it. But aside from the few emergency ward addicts, there was no panic. The enemy moved slowly, and everyone knew what needed to be done.
When the rains started, they were welcome. First, they took the edge off the heat, a layer of gauze across the sun. Second, while they didn’t start heavy, their insistence meant we thought they might help to wash the sands away. But just as cane toads went from being the potential saviour to a grimly insistent wave, the rain kept on coming, one day bleeding into another, days bleeding into weeks. The ground became sodden, sheeting water off its own back. The streams and rivers began to swell, and gradually the lowest towns and houses began to think about going under.
The high winds had stopped, but the dunes didn’t seem to have noticed. Now they shifted their lumpen shapes through the water instead. The one benefit of the water was that it apparently reduced the sand’s potency. Wet, people could almost walk on it, clump through it with gumboots. The toll of missing from the dunes stopped climbing, leaving a new toll from floods to rise as slowly as the tide markings. But the dunes were still players. Where they moved, the floodwaters were redirected. There was as little pattern as there had been before. Whole suburbs were flirted with, left dry, then taken again, the topography of the city ever shifting. Towns well above the water line would abruptly be submerged. I hiked into parts of Chapel Hill that were inexplicably waist deep. We sloshed down the supermarket aisles with my photographer quoting lines from Deep Blue Sea. But still no-one panicked. The rise was slow and easy, and we felt the same, even as the spread increased and more streets fell.
Everywhere there were stories to be told. I was filing four times daily, and as many radio calls morning and night. By virtue of having been a fortnight early on the case, I was now some sort of authority on the sands, on dunes, on unpredictability. I bought a tin dinghy and an outboard motor, now vastly expensive, on the paper’s account. In most of the outer suburbs it was the only feasible way to get around. I wasn’t the only one. Every kayak that had lain untouched in a shed for the past ten years suddenly carried the most smug of pilots, slicing through the streets with the stern grimace of a nautical commander.
Heather arrived home one night, her fair hair damp and tousled. It was the first time I’d seen her in a week.
'Not on ER tonight?' I asked.
'I haven’t been for days,' she said shortly. 'I’ve been heading up the emergency relief centre down on Southbank.'
I’m not sure how I was supposed to know. Bernie hadn't been around much since the water rose either, working as a stand-in engineer on emergency levee projects. Ironically, our main defence against the floods came in the form of sandbags. But Heather and I have always been a little uneasy, due to some history from before she met Bernie. We were young, both backpacking up in Cairns. She was working at a hostel bar and I was hitching with a fried-headed dude who called himself Dogweed. She was fair, and pretty, and we spent a week of scenes so idyllic they should have given us diarrhoea: swimming in bath-warm blue water, drinking on beaches, and-the scene I remember most-fucking in the rainforest near a waterfall (I shit you not), her back against the wet rock, her body damp with spray.
I was young and enamoured with notions of not being tied down, so I kept moving. But she had my number, and when she called me in Sydney a few months later, to say she was in town, I panicked and invited her to stay. I arranged to meet her in a bar, but I took Bernie and some other friends as insurance. During the night I tried to be as distant as I could, and drank heavily, and insisted that Bernie talk to her, having introduced her simply as someone I met while travelling. I made a point of chasing a dark-haired girl who walked in and sat upstairs. By the end of the night, Heather said Bernie had offered her a place to sleep, and I said that was cool, and they went off together. I didn't expect them to still be together twenty years later.
The strange part was that Bernie never knew. I mean, he took her home, so I didn’t mention it. Then she showed up with him somewhere else, and I didn’t mention it. She was going to disappear any minute, she was supposed to be travelling to Melbourne and crossing the Nullarbor. But when she was still around a month later, and I still hadn’t mentioned it, and clearly neither had she, how was either of us going to suddenly mention it? When was a good time? Before they went travelling together? The one-year anniversary? When I was handing over a ring at his wedding? All these years on, that slight grain of awkwardness was still there, something neither of us ever acknowledged. In the end it didn’t matter, and if I told Bernie now it would seem an insult, an attempt to detract from whatever happiness he had made for himself. It didn’t matter, yet it was always there, that kick of lust in memory, the self-recrimination for allowing it.
The day the phones went down, things got different. Bizarre as it seems, we had been settling into a kind of ease, where the abnormal happened with comforting certainty. Swarms of spiders floated in on the tides and climbed the highest trees, wrapping their tops in fairy floss. Mud twisters spouted up for an hour in Forest Lake. Ants swarmed into houses, spilled into the boat when it bumped against a tree. Eighty-six cats were rescued from the roof of a house in Fig Tree Pocket. I know because, as the fearless reporter, I was there to count every one. From a storm cloud over Mount Coot-tha, thousands of North Queensland barramundi rained down like silver Stukas. A hardy chap trying to have a barbeque said that half a dozen of them landed on his grill, just like that. He put the sausages back in the esky. There was something cheery about the mayhem. But the day the phones went down was something else.
We knew it when the sky started changing, the thick grey pelt darkening with each quarter hour. By midday the sky was almost black. From my position, north of what was now euphemistically called the river, it looked like the sky over the city centre was splitting open. The clouds certainly were, with a violence that took away the ability to do anything but watch. The streets became torrents, hypnotising my gaze like a campfire. The rain over the city looked solid. Later I learned it was; sand was falling in columns with the rain from the sky. Eventually the deluge eased, leaving only the sound of the sluicing streets.
I’m not sure how much time had passed when my phone rang. I only just heard it. It was Bernie.
'Thank fuck you’re answering,' he said. 'I can’t get onto Heather.'
'She’s probably under the pump at work right now.' The shit pun was an accident that made me wince.
'No, didn’t you hear? A boat smashed into the dock where the relief centre is. The whole place is fucked up.'
'Shit. And her phone’s dead? Is it the network?'
'Probably. She’s on fucking Vodaphone, of course. Piece of shit. Look, are you anywhere nearby? I’m stuck out in Carole Park, I don’t know how soon I can get there.'
'Ok. Sit tight. I’ll meet you at home later.'
It was chaos getting down there. Some of the mobile towers were indeed down, and the panic of people who'd lost contact with their loved ones was driving them into the streets. Those streets were screaming with water. Even less than knee high I saw it take people off their feet. I chose the smallest, quietest paths, stuck to the edges, and even so nearly burned out the little motor running against the current. When I knew I was within land range, I dragged the boat to higher ground, concealed it, and stole a bike to make the last push to Southbank.
The place was a trash-heap. The boardwalk had gone well under, and debris was everywhere. (Just like the explosion in the cheese factory, said a cheery voice in my head.) I walked across the sodden concrete pavers by the gallery, looking for any sign of life. Surely amongst so many august institutions there had to be someone with some official knowledge. Outside the door of the State Libarary was a huge and colourful mandala, the sands smeared into one another by the relentless water. Inside, the building was dark and cavernous. The glass panes of the atrium had shattered inward, and piles of sand lay heaped beneath. Looking up, there seemed to be a haze spreading out above me. For a few moments I wondered at the unlikeliness of anything catching fire in such conditions, then I realised what it was. Spiderwebs, strung from wall to wall to ceiling. The refugees had taken this as their own.
If anything, what I saw next was even less expected. Emerging from the gloom came a light, then a figure, and for a moment I thought I’d gone delusional from adrenaline and too little sleep. Then the figure resolved into form: a young woman, wearing some sort of goggles, and a chain mail vest.
'The more I think about it, the more it makes sense,' I said at last, glancing between her outfit and the spiders—much larger than they had any right to be—crawling up the walls.
'Yes,' she said. 'It’s an OH&S requirement.'
I smiled, thinking that any joke made in these circumstances deserved a more enthusiastic response.
'Are you in charge around here?'
'Sure,' she said. 'I’m the head librarian. Sammi Bernhoff.'
'They told you, “One day all this could be yours"? Uh, my name’s Martin Polney. I’m looking for my sister in law.'
'I think there are a lot of people looking for someone.'
'She’s a doctor, she was running the emergency relief station down here.'
'You mean Heather? Of course, I didn’t put the last names together. Well, the station got badly damaged, but she wasn’t there. They had troubles elsewhere this morning, before the storm hit. The creek near Boondall was crazy. She took a few staff out there before things went batshit here. Oh, excuse me.'
'It’s ok. I don’t think you need to worry about professional propriety at this stage. I’d better get going. What about you-do you have a way out of here?'
'I think there might be a few more stragglers,' she said. 'I’ll round them up first.'
I thanked her and walked out of the library, dialling Bernie. No signal. The rest of the phone towers must have gone down. I looked at the telephone, now a useless brick of circuitry, then stared at the river, ugly as your new Texan cellmate. The dawning moment you realise life's about to get a whole lot harder.
I put the phone away, and pulled out a notepad to scrawl a few lines. 'Nice work, journalist!' came a loud voice down the footpath.
'Thanks, pedestrian,' I said. It was all I could think of, given the man’s only defining characteristic was that he was walking towards me.
'I know you,' he said. There was a Teutonic tilt to his vowels. 'You are that journalist. You write all those words and try to fool us of what is happening. What is your newspaper?'
I told him.
'That,' he said, with the pride of one mastering the vernacular, 'is a bloody rag.'
'Some days I might agree. So you know who I am, who are you?'
'My name is Pos Djüring,' he said, and spelt it for me, emphasising the umlaut.
'And what are you doing here?'
'I am watching. Noticing. Like you, but I owe nothing to no-one.'
'And your opinion?'
'This is the beginning. All this will not be better.'
Up close, he clearly had the look of one of the ragged city prophets, the dirt and slight odour robust enough to resist even rain like this. His words sounded like theirs as well. I made my excuses and started to head away. His voice came after me over the wet pavers.
"You remember! It gets worse from the beginning.'
It was some hours before the river had come down enough to attempt the trip home. When I got there I found Bernie, wide-eyed and worried. I told him the news, trying to sound reassuring. We knew where she was. She could be trapped out there for a while yet.
In bed that night, the rain fell like Noah was right. Not with force, but as if it had forever, the drumming came down on the tin sheets above, a thousand percussion enthusiasts practising their snare rolls while camped on the roof and waiting for me to come out. Occasionally it slowed to a patter, but it was like that game where you try to drive across town without stopping, so you creep up to red lights at four kilometres an hour till you’re almost kissing the bumper ahead of you, anything to avoid that little backward jolt that signifies a complete halt. Just before you hit, the lights turn green and the engine’s thrum takes charge again. So, the rain fell.
It would never stop. It wouldn’t destroy the world with violence, but it would fall pathetic and persistent until the paint stripped off, until the walls were worn to grey. It would fall until bricks and cinder blocks swelled, softened to sponge-cake and surrendered to the stream. Roads and footpaths would become colanders, straining water through their gaps and weak points as fleck by fragment was prised free. Trees would rupture outward, fibres unable to contain the saturation. Fish would drown from too much possibility. Our skins would not be able to hold to us. They would be sluiced away until we were covered only in slime, two inches thick, soft enough to be poked through with a determined finger. We would become amorphous, shapes in melted candlewax, each leaving our own oil slick on the waters as they passed through the sad remains of basements, shopfronts, tennis courts, piece by piece carrying this city away and out to sea.
The next day we went looking. At first we both phrased it as going to pick Heather up, but as we reached the area the librarian had mentioned, it became clear this was a two-man rescue mission in a tin dinghy. The place was a bomb site. The wetlands nearby had burst like an overdone sausage, disgorging their messy insides. No-one we hailed knew anything about an emergency medical team. We drove up and down byways and waterways, new culverts and dead ends. On its side in a park was a luxury boat, washed up and abandoned by falling water.
The afternoon found us as far south as the airport, watching three kayaks sheeting across the submerged runways, slaloming through the stork-like legs of the single 737 left stranded on the tarmac. Everywhere in the water were snakes, surprising us with how strongly they swam. When we were children, on a bush holiday, Bernie and I refused to swim in the river for fear of snakes. Our mother told us snakes couldn’t bite you in the water, because if they opened their mouths they would fill up and drown. So we swam, at ease. I didn’t think to question this until far later than I should have, in my first year of university, when someone told a drunken story about river snakes and I opened my mouth, only to bite down on the first word of the sentence. Somehow that belief had sat there all those years, seemingly solid, only needing to be held up to the light for the holes to show.
We searched until well after dark, when I had to insist it was no good, that we needed to rest, and resume in daylight. Finally Bernie agreed. The memory of her twitched, and I felt worse. Although it happened and you can’t change the past, it was wrong and shameful to even remember fucking your brother’s wife, when her skin was taut and young, her eyes unlined.
The next day we combed the wetlands again, monotonously and mostly in silence. It was afternoon when I saw it, a tow-headed glimmer in the stream. The closing scenes of Submarine flashed up, where the Welsh kid runs after the girl on the beach, and of course it isn’t her, but of course it is. Bernie was in the water before I’d finished this thought, and it took another second before I gathered my thoughts enough to realise I couldn’t go after him, for the sake of the gesture. Someone had to stay with the boat. Of course it wasn’t Heather, and of course it was. She was tangled in a dense mat of branches, and Bernie prised her out before swimming her to what passed for the shore.
All I could think was that I didn’t want to be there while my brother held his dead wife in his arms, and then a second-tier thought that said I should feel bad for thinking this, and a tinier third level that still felt bad because I’d fucked her once, before they met, long ago. The fourth level, the one aghast at how self-obsessed level three was, was too distant even to register.
But she wasn’t dead. She was silent. There was sand in her hair, and in her pockets, sand lined the insoles of her shoes. She was breathing, shallowly, and her freezing skin moved, and after Bernie nestled with her in blankets in the bow (the only useful thing I could remember from a bush survival course in Year Nine, on how best to avert hypothermia) I looked ahead from the tiller to see her eyes open. She didn’t speak though, or seem to even see Bernie, but just stared blankly at a spot around cumulonimbus level, her head shaking slightly as we juddered through the byways and new creeks of Brisbane.
She didn’t speak. For three days, she would sit on the couch wrapped in blankets, even walk when Bernie coaxed her to her feet, and eat peaceably enough if he held soft food to her on a spoon. But her face would not respond, nor her voice. She was there and not there, the light before morning.
Three nights later, through the dark, we could see flames over at Nudgee, an oily gleam against the night sky hinting at how it would look on the water beneath. Later the story came through in fragments from other journos: an arranged marriage, a girl who was already in love. The father pressing ahead with the deal despite the inclement situation; or perhaps because of it. The proposed suitor had a sizeable boat, and in this new world, the mariner was king. He arrived at the family home, now an easy walk from the waterline, to be presented to the bride and entertained by the family.
On the second night, though, the bride’s lover arrived under cover of darkness. When photos of him trickled through, he looked unlikely—an accountancy student, seemingly soft and gentle, straight hair falling forward over a quiet face. But he’d had the courage to creep through a night not made for stealth, rich with splashing water and creaking timbers, to claim her. They'd rifled the suitor’s possessions, claiming the wads of money and the clutch of family silver he'd brought for dowry. Then they'd taken to the boat and cast off, drifting away into darkness before firing the engine well downstream, and ploughing on down the distended maw of what had once been the Brisbane River.
Whether they thought this a clever plan or a last piece of desperate resistance, it’s hard to say. They were twenty: young enough to be that naïve, but old enough to have despaired, to have grown tired of hoping for something to get better. Whatever they expected, they had made their move, and done their best. But a boat like theirs was a scarce commodity; it would never escape attention. They'd moved on several times, following the floodwaters into new patches of city, hiding out where they could. They should have abandoned the boat, but it was probably the only place they’d ever felt safe. They weren’t. The suitor had connections, and after two weeks they were tracked down. The raptor was not easily pacified. His attempts to take them by force were met with resistance, and the end result was this: the reflection of flames against Brisbane’s black sky, a boat burned to the waterline, two lovers gone the way of the fables.
I’m not sure if that’s what tipped Bernie. But I suppose it was. When I left the next morning, he was sitting on the couch, still speaking to Heather with a determined cheerfulness, looking into her blank eyes. There was no response. I said goodbye and he sprang up to walk outside with me, and hugged me tersely. I’d never seen him look so sad.
'You know . . .' I said impulsively, and stopped.
'What?' he said.
'Oh. Nothing.' He didn’t insist on an answer. We never played that game.
'I’m going to run a bath,' he said, and I left.
I don’t know what happened that day, but I do, because he was my brother, and I know what I would have done. I'd told him what Pos Djüring said: that the waters would not stop. I know he ran a bath. But first he visited the half-submerged hardware shop on Fairfield Road, carried away what he needed from those shelves above the water line. Planks, tar, sacks of barbeque coal. He caulked the gaps under the doors with hot pitch, boarded the windows and sealed them too. Plugged every hole, blocked the showers and the sinks. Then he opened all the taps on the ground floor, opened all but two upstairs, carried his unprotesting wife for the last time, and having undressed them both, settled into the bath.
Lying behind her, one arm across her chest, he turned on those two taps, finding just the right balance of warm water. It rose over them, taking first his toes, then her knees, the curve of her hip bone, the head of his cock pulsing dully against her spine, the ticklish expanse of his belly, the back of her right arm. Over their chests, the small hairs, the nipples, before reaching the lip of the bath and tipping onto the floor.
There it mixed with water flowing from the bathroom sink and the shower, covering the tiles, washing out through the door, along the hall, finally cascading down the timber staircase. Below, the floor was already sodden with water from kitchen, laundry, the second bathroom. Lapping the doors and turning back, it soaked the carpets until they could take no more, then climbed the furniture, the creep of moisture reaching ahead of the water level. The couches drank thirstily, but not enough: the water took them, mounted the half step to the kitchen, began inspecting the contents of the cupboards. The appliances were unplugged, the mains switch off. My brother, a practical man, had thought of this. His hot water service in the ceiling ran on gas, so the water in the bath stayed warm.
Downstairs, it rose. Each shelf a minor victory, the tabletop a major one. A swimming pool’s worth of water now sat heavily inside the house. The television slipping under. Packets of spices and kitchenware lifted from benches, bobbed on the surface. The water climbed the stairs, a long slow advance past the pictures on the wall, one by one, until the rising tide met and mixed with the upper floor.
Water flowed down the hallway, into the bedrooms, and climbed there too. Mounting the bedspreads, taking each drawer. Hair dryers, electric clocks, telephones, all becoming useless. It rose in the bathroom evenly with the rest, climbing the side of the tub in pursuit of the level inside. Water will always seek its level, and that’s what my brother knew. As he waited he read Heather stories. I know this too. By now the afternoon had become late, slouching into evening. The light was dying from the air, turning grey. There was a sudden cooling as the edge of the tub was reached, the warm water mixing with the rest. The house fat with volume. But he closed off his cold tap, and opened the hot all the way, and they stayed quite comfortable sitting in its stream, as the levels rose around the bathroom walls.
He read until, by the end of a story, the room became too dim. Then he reached out and floated the book across the flood, and sat back in silence. I know this because I know my brother. Down the hall, her clothes were swelling with water, sanitary napkins bloating one by one and popping out of their disintegrating cardboard box. Things floated that would float: expired condoms, tubes of lipstick. Things sank that would sink: glassware, ashtrays, loose change. The water climbed their chests now, took his clavicle, her throat. It covered her mouth as it reached his chin. When her nostrils dipped below the surface she didn’t murmur, or struggle. The water played with her hair as gently as he ever had. As his own lips submerged, then his cheeks, and his nose, he stayed as quiet. Whether it was the flood, or the sandbars, something had already taken her. To find her, he would have to go there too.
By the time I arrived, people were gathering in the street. The water must have reached the ceiling. It came through the roof tiles and over the gutters. My brother’s house was on high ground: there'd been no real flooding here. But the locals heard the creaks and groans, saw the trickles winding through my brother’s lawn and tracing the edge of his driveway. They watched, and they wondered, no-one ever thinking to shut off the water at the mains. I watched too, knowing that what was done was done. And after an hour, or a day, or another lifetime, when the front door finally exploded outward with a cannon-bang, a flood descended on Tarragindi from the top of the hill, not fugitively upward from the bottom. Water spewed out in a rage, a flood coming out from inside, not in from out.
While it seems crazy, I know that was the moment it turned. With that flood inverted, the other floods turned back, and the waters dropped. Not forever—I knew as well as the madman at the river that the sands and the waters would return. But that was the moment it lulled, and breathed easy for a time. And we could too.