Tales from Shelley Beach – To the floods

Short chapters inspired by my coming of age novel, Sandbanker, available at no bookstores near you

I shuffled up and down the carpet until my feet were dry then sat on my bed and looked out the window, out at the fat drops smashing against the grass.

It had been raining ribbons for three weeks, and everything we knew had been turned to wet – gutters overflowed, sopped birds cowered in trees, coursing rivulets fanned across the streets and lawns.

Outside, I heard the scuff of rubber on gravel, and a bike fall hard to the ground. Seconds later a glistening, yellow stackhat danced at my window, and Bo Ashford’s scrawny arm knocked on the glass.

I slid the window open and lifted the torn fly screen. “Hey.”

“Fuckin’ rain,” Bo remarked. His tennis ball knees were painted with red dirt and clover leaves.

“Yeah.”

“Came by before but you weren’t in.” Only people we don’t know try the front door. It’s been bolted shut for ages.

“I was down the back. Going through some stuff.”

“Dean reckons the creek’s flooded again and the rapids are up. Him and the others’ve gone down with their boogie boards.” Bo’s stackhat wobbled on his head when he spoke. “Wanna go?”

“I don’t have a board.”

“You can use my sister’s. It’s got some Hawaiian shit on it, but it’s still decent.”

“I dunno,” I said, but I did know. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the creek. The creek came somewhere from the from the tablelands and tapewormed through Shelley Beach, and was full of roots and algae and secrets from the west. Most of the time it was dry, but when the rains came it bulged and bellowed and demanded that children throw themselves into its rotten foam.

“Just come down then, you don’t have to go in. It’s not like it’s the ocean or anything, Al.”

My name is Alex. Alex Miller. Or to everyone at Shelly Beach who was under twenty: Shitmill. Or Millhole. Or Millfart. Or Mill Bottom. Any word you could pin ‘mill’ to the beginning or end of – and there were many – I was called it. I could’ve written a dictionary. Kids, although they’re mostly morons, have good imaginations.

“Okay,” I said, and crawled out the window. Feet, wet again. I picked up my bike from around the front and we were off. From my house we rode to the back of our block and followed the snaky line into the bush. A few trenches and mud pits later, we popped out just across the road from Bo’s house.

Bo charged into the house. I heard his dad call out something and then a door slam. Bo came racing from behind the house, two boogie boards under his stick arms.

“Everything all right?” I asked.

“Yeah, dad’s just chucking a wobbly.”

“Oh.” That’s all I could say about that. My dad and Bo’s used to be good mates. They’d go fishing in the mornings, sometimes in a tinny. Bo and I’d always wanna go but Mr Ashford said that ‘Man’s time is man’s time”. Dad agreed with him.

Bo tossed me a pick slab of foam covered in hibiscus flowers. “Let’s do it.”

“Who’s at the creek?”

He coughed out a few names. Dean, Sally, Monkey, Lucky, Craigo.

“Craigo?”

“Yeah.”

“He hates my guts.”

“Nah he doesn’t. Craigo’s just like that.”

“Like what? He hates everyone?”

Bo laughed like he was under water.

“What’s so funny?”

“No one listens to his shit. His dad’s a total wastoid, beats the shit out of him. So he has to take it out on everyone else. It doesn’t help that you go to St Pisstifer’s.”

We got back on our bikes and took the back trails around the headland to the beach, up the main street (the only tarred road in all of Shelley) and then took a right past the shop towards the caravan park.

The rained had eased back and there were people in yellow raincoats walking barefoot along the dammed roads. The road had disappeared. Water streamed in branches down driveways, through gravel and mud. Our bikes turned into jet skis.

The caravan park was for tourists and other strangers, and another town altogether. They had their own shop, a games room with a two arcade games, the biggest trampoline I’d ever seen, and a swimming pool. Once we were thrown out by Briggs, the owner, five times in one weekend for swimming and hogging Galaga. He used to call us the ‘local idiots’ and threaten to call our parents and then once, when Bo mooned him, he called the police. Or so he said.

We left our bikes on the pile behind the faded caravan park sign – four star accommodation – and walked up to the bridge. It was partly submerged by brown water and underneath it the rapids rushed over logs and stone as if they couldn’t wait to get out to sea.  There was a grass clearing at the edge of the creek where people would pitch their tents but it was now a pond. Three ducks floated around a dripping tap attached to a cement post.

Some kids stood in a line along the banks – I recognised the Strange twins, Dean, Lucky and Monkey. There was no sign of Craig so I didn’t feel so bad about having Bo’s sister’s board under my arm. A couple of adults were watching on as the kids leapt from the railing, boogie board pressed against their bellies, and were sucked around the bend.

“You goin’ in, Bo?” Kelly whined. Kelly and Tiffany Strange were a level down from pure albino, which meant that their teeth were the same colour as their skin.

“Does a Chiko roll? Even conned Al into it.”

I looked down to avoid potential eye contact but everyone’s attention was on Hellman Dean, who was standing on the railing about to jump. Dean thrust his foam board outwards, pretending to launch himself into the water and then pulling back at the last second. The Strange twins took turns calling out “Go!”, urging him off.

“How much will ya give me if I jump in backwards?” Dean called out and turned shakily around.

“Half a Mars Bar!” Bo yelled.

Some old guy wearing sunglasses walked up behind Dean and grabbed his board. “Do you kids want to break your necks or something?”

“Nah, we wanna break yours!” Lucky called out. Lucky’s real name was Andrew but everyone called him lucky because his legs were so thin he was lucky they didn’t snap off and go up his arse.

Bo started to jeer and we all joined in. Even the Stranges were booing. Just about everyone liked Bo. That’s probably why they put up with me.

Dean told the man to eff off and then yanked his board away but pulled too fast and he lost balance and fell backwards into the water. The water didn’t splash upwards but flexed and absorbed him. All we could see were green shorts and blue foam for a second or two, then we saw a flick of blond hair, then a head, followed by an arm. Dean stuck his middle finger up and kept it up as he bounced with the water around the bend and out of sight.  The man in the sunglasses gave us a mean look and left.

“Come on,” Bo said. We strapped the boogie boards to our wrists. The velcro on mine wouldn’t stick probably so Bo tied a knot in the plastic cord and looped it around my arm. “This is gonna be sick.”

My stomach plunged to my ankles, like when I had to say something in front of the class, but worse, ‘cause you can’t drown while doing a speech.

“Where do’ya get out?” Bo asked Lucky.

“Just before the walk bridge,” Lucky said and demonstrated the curve with his arm. “There’s a shallow bit just before the drop.”

“The drop?” I asked and turned to Bo. I’d forgotten that. Before the creek reached the beach, it flowed through half a concrete rectangle about twenty metres long. After rain it usually filled with plastic bags and laundry water and looked so foul that even the seagulls stayed away from it.

“You’ll be right. Follow me in,” Bo said.

“Don’t shit your pants,” Lucky offered and then spat over the side of the bridge into the water where I was to throw myself. The Strange girls laughed and their wet faces turn pinker.

Bo spidered through the railing so that he was standing on the outside edge.

Frowning, I approached the edge. Peer pressure is one of those phrases you hear and then repeat without really knowing what it means. When you’re fifteen there are tons of words like that: gratuitous violence, coronary, business class. The difference was, I had looked peer pressure up in the dictionary and I knew now both what it meant and what it felt like.

“Come on,” Bo urged.

There was no sign of Dean. If he’d fallen into the concrete drain and drowned no one seemed to care. I had just threaded my body under the railing when I heard a familiar bellow.

“What’s going on here, weeds?”

“Hey, Craigo,” Bo said and the others mumbled their own greeting.

“You two faggots going in or what? Go on Boner, jump.” Craig lived somewhere over the other side of Shelley Beach. His favourite pastime was harassing children and burning old crates in the public toilets.

Bo didn’t stick around long enough to reply. He let out a soft yelp and launched himself from the bridge, bounced off the lip of a crest of water and shot down the creek. Craig approached me in his monkey gait. “Want me to push you, Millknob?” he asked and stamped his foot, pretending to jump at me. I flinched at the sound of his, admittedly novel, taunt. Between the water and Craig Cleary, I wasn’t sure which I was more afraid of. The boogie board fell out from under my arm and it dangled at my feet. The Stranges cackled. I imagined melting their warty faces with a heat ray gun.

“No,” I said trying to haul up the board while holding onto the splintery rail.

“Don’t worry, you won’t get sucked out to sea like your old man did. The grate’ll catch you first and your arse’ll munched up by the eels.”

“That’s if the rats don’t get him first,” Lucky said and laughed stupidly.

“There are no rats in the creek, you turd,” Craig said.

The longer I waited the further away Bo would be. This made me uncomfortable and I regretted hesitating. If I’d got caught on a root or was sucked under by some feral rapid, Bo would’ve known what to do. There was no way that Craig or any of the others would’ve jumped in to save drowning Alex. They would’ve pissed themselves at my bloated body bobbing down the rapids, attached to that pink rectangle. Like an Iced VoVo sinking in a cold mug of tea. Below me, the water rushed by like it was being chased by something mad and violent. A plastic bottle, trapped behind a broken log, bounced on the surface of the creek trying to escape the current.

From the corner of my eye I saw Dean haul himself onto the grass. He cheered and kicked at the air. His board was not with him.

“You see?” Lucky shouted over his shoulder, without really looking at me. “Deano’s out already.”

“Where’s Bo?” I asked.

“He’ll be alright.”

“Milldick’s gonna chicken out,” Craig said through his tiny teeth. The muscles of his cubed jaw flexed and I half–expected him to come rushing at me and push me off. That was the sort of thing he did. He didn’t really need a reason to be mean, he’d always find something, or just come down on you for looking at him, even if you weren’t.

But as much as I thought Craig Cleary was a complete tool, on this occasion, he was right: my legs began shaking and refused to follow the course of action my brain was suggesting. I shifted my weight backwards and felt myself latching harder to the railing. My brain was already rehearsing the movements required to coil back through and onto the bridge to safety. Perhaps there’s more smart in us than we realise: that our toes and wrists and ear lobes also know what’s going on and our heads aren’t the only ones looking out for us. Whatever it was, I crept back under the bridge rail and chucked up nearly litre of watery spit onto the bridge’s wooden beams.

“You wuss,” Craig said and the other cackled. Lucky threw a twig in my direction, it hit me in the ear.

I was going to cry, I could feel it tugging at the skin under my eyes. Cry in front of everyone, again. I just stood there, pathetic. My yellow t-shirt stuck to my skin, spit running down my lip. But it didn’t matter ‘cause right then, I heard a horn, and a scratched up half-orange half-white kombi van chugged around the corner sending streamers of flood water in wake. It was the owner of the park. The kombi flashed it lights and everyone scattered. I tried to get out of the way, but an awful bile was dripping from my mouth and the pink boogie board was still dangling uselessly on the other side of the railing. The kombi stopped in front of me, its windscreen was fogged up and all I could see was a brown arm wave at me, and the white teeth of Briggs, the caravan park owner, gnashing curses in my direction.

“Show’s over,” said Bo, who was suddenly standing behind me, his chest heaving. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

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