It is the quiet that wakes me. I rise with the sense that something unplaceable has changed. Unsure of the time, I peek under the curtains. Morning sun glints white off pre-Federation chimneys and corrugated iron roofs.
The rain is gone. For weeks, the entire sky was liquid and glassy. During the perpetual downpour, sheets of water had whipped my eyes raw, shuddered window-panes and hacked at trees and flower gardens. As a series of cold fronts, it was dubbed by the papers as the ‘Antarctic Vortex’. Even if you could stand the rain, the cold would prowl the streets like a hooded stranger, and knife-blade you through the ribs.
Walking to work, I would always stare along the Moyne River, stretching away inland to some indefinite place. It would push up and north, passing the camping ground, golf course, the airstrip, and curve into the unknown. I open the window and find the town has vanished. It has been replaced by a lake from which cars and buildings rise like islands. Up and down the street, the town and streets are gone under a smooth sheet of brown water, hazy in the morning sun. Houses stick up through the surface like half-sunk gravestones.
Small waves lap against the front door, spilling muddy water inside. The river has come for me, I think. Eating up all the houses. I find an old ruler in the attic and dip it in the water outside. When it touches the bottom step, my arm is wet past the elbow. I dry my arm on a tea towel and check my phone. My shift starts at 10. Would the flood cancel it? Chris would have known what to do.
Since I can’t exactly walk to work, I revisit the attic to find an inflatable dinghy or something, but there’s nothing except three old beanbags, once belonging to Chris, mum, and me. We sat on them to watch television when we replaced the old couch. I can’t think what year in high school that was. Mine looks like an 8-ball. I run my hand across the vinyl, pushing up rolled slugs of dust. In the attic corner stands the box for the LED flat screen Chris bought mum for Christmas, packed with polystyrene. Okay, I think. Okay. With a gaffer tape, I cover the box in green garbags. And I tape the box on top of the three beanbags. Of course, there’s no oar. I grasp Chris’s cricket bat from behind the door. Bat under my arm, I lug the pastiche sea craft to the door and set it to rest on the water.
I ease myself on. The raft groans, squeaks and wobbles. I feel the bean bags pull against their gaffer tape bonds as they bulge alongside the box. I sit, knees-up, like on a paddleboard.
In all the chaos, today I could go anywhere. Anywhere that isn’t the cigarette counter of the IGA. Any of the places I forgot to go following graduation.
I think of what Shannon said when she called last night. Shannon is Chris’ ex. She became my ex not long after. I didn’t ask right out what she wanted. She said she was going to be in town soon, her voice thin over the sound of rain.
“How’s Chris?” she said.
“Okay. Teaches political theory at a university in Tokyo.”
“Wow. Good for him. And so what do you do now?”
“Read about him on Facebook. Sometimes the news.”
“He enjoying it out there?”
“Dunno. We spoke a couple of Christmases ago. He sent me a book of Japanese poetry. I didn’t open it for months.”
This is all ground we covered last time she called.
“You end up traveling?”
“Not exactly. Still planning on it.”
“It’s weird,” she said after a pause, “people dream about a tree change. Moving to a town like this. They just can’t imagine once you’re there, where to go afterwards.” She was quiet for a moment. “So what do you do, really.” A statement, not a question.
“Sell smokes to guys who can’t afford them.”
Out here all difference between road and sidewalk has dissolved. All paths have disappeared. Instead, the streets and avenues form a single giant waterway that stretches out to infinity. I imagine I’m in a different city, one of great canals and complex watercourses.
The town is a white mirror of cloud. I paddle quietly past submerged cars, whose tops push up from the water like glistening mushrooms. I take a breath. There is a salty stink to the water, of beach decay and human rot.
Locals lean out windows, staring at the inverted images of themselves, their lives in water. Some with car keys in their hands, or nuzzling a phone. Some old guy in a dressing gown attempts to clamber on his roof.
I find myself still paddling to Sackville Street, like any other day. My raft bobs to rest outside the IGA. Inside, the water must be shin-level. The store is open, a small kayak tied to a support beam. I hitch my own beanbag raft next to it with tape.
Inside, I see Andrew, black trousers tucked into gumboots, his blue manager shirt ironed and his hair finely clipped. Ever since primary school, he was always Andrew. We tried to call him Andy and Ando a few times but it never stuck. Said it sounded too unprofessional. He’d study a lot, but we’d often catch him scouring online catalogues, sending off for things like Omega wristwatches that cost $600 plus. Andrew was always aspirational, probably quietly saving to make his grand exit, like so many of our upwardly mobile former comrades.
This morning, he doesn’t ask me to tuck my shirt in. “Help me with these sandbags,” he says without making eye contact. I take a wad of canvas sacks.
“Crazy out there huh?” I say. “Never seen anything like it.”
He pretends not to hear, like he’s in a foul mood. You never know.
“What’s going to happen to all the food?” I say.
“Look. All this stock is spoiled. I dunno. I briefly spoke to the owner.” His voice sounds like a commercial voiceover, grave, yet insincere. “I hear there’s talk of a fund already for victims. Disaster relief. All that. Anyway. You’re late.” I know I am letting him push me around.
I see big old Phil Young swishing his mop through aisle five, his gumboots ankle-deep in water the colour of weak coffee. Floating price tags make small flotillas with wrappers and old receipts.
At Griffiths Island at the other end of town, we used to swim in the lagoon there during summers: me, Chris, Sarge, and Rich and the rest of our friends. The lagoon is the most beautiful part of the most beautiful town in the state, and I think of all the people I know who left it. On warm nights, there’d still be a comforting sea breeze. We’d cook tins of beans over the fire. We’d share cigarettes and drink goon, squirted straight from the box. On those nights, each of us talked about how we’d get out, what we’d all achieve. I guess I assumed it was the drink talking. It was there, waist-deep, where Shannon and I first kissed. Same place where I found Shannon with Andrew two weeks later.
I splash behind the cigarette counter. The bench timbers are already warping. Unlocking the doors, I see the cigarettes are fine in their cellophane. You have to hand it to Big Tobacco: cigarettes are products packaged to last. And the only people who’d appreciate the fact are my gap-toothed regulars. No one buys cigarettes anymore. With the packs stored behind plain wooden cupboards, I always felt like a peddler of secret goods. You’d never know what was behind those doors unless you remembered how things used to be.
I flap a garbag and peel open the mouth.
Andrew looks over. “The fuck are you doing?”
I nod to the cigarettes. “Packing these up.”
“Forget that. I need you on sandbags.”
“Okay. The supermarket will be compensated, right?”
“They’ll be fine. It’s not the first flood, believe it or not. Probably won’t be the last. Insurance covers things like this.”
I hear helicopters. “Right. Do you know, did anyone die?”
“How should I know?”
I learn to fill sandbags with white sand from the hardware store and stack them into compact little walls.
A white boat passes, a tinny voice on a loudspeaker calling for evacuees to remain calm. I hear a chopper somewhere far away. I see men in waterproof trousers and hi-viz on an aluminium tinnie with a two-stroke. Soon they will arrive at the glass doors. They’ll continue the sandbagging and in no time the place will look like a post-apocalyptic movie set. We’ll get some press, and then the waters will recede as suddenly as they arrived. After a clean up, all will return to normal.
I notice Andrew is talking on the phone. Laughing. I wonder if it’s Shannon. I wonder, what would Chris do? After a minute, he covers the mouthpiece. “How are we going? Much more to do?”
I turn, grasp a garbag, conscious of Andrew’s gaze. “Where you think you’re going?” he says, frowning.
I would need a lot for my journey, or until the floodwaters receded enough for me to hitch a ride somewhere. I start stuffing cigarette packs inside the bag, wading through the aisles, snatching up protein bars, chips, and a sixer of Carlton. Andrew’s eyes follow me. “Hey – hey what do you think you’re doing? You little prick! You can’t just take all that!” Maybe I’ll settle my bill from somewhere down the road. Hauling my load, I splash out the door and no one says a thing. Except Andrew who yells: “Asshole!”
Outside, I unhitch my raft and hoist my sack on board. It seems easier to balance, negotiating the added weight.
I could go anywhere, I think. I pass a soaking dog shivering on the roof of a burgundy sedan like a plum-coloured deserted island. Poor thing whimpers to see me and I would help him but there’s no room on the ark. I wish he had one of those little dog jackets. No dog should be out here without a jacket.
There’s a poem I memorised from the book Chris gave me. It goes:
Cold winter rain . . .
You too could use
A little woven cape.
I always liked that.
Troy is one of my more regular customers. See him every second day. For a DSP, I have no idea how he afford smokes. The sullen type, he only ever says a couple of words. And never seemed too bright, wearing his room key around his neck like a middle-schooler. Sometimes I’d see him fish in the Moyne but not much else.
I face in the direction where I imagine the old path river used to stretch, then twist and paddle my irregular craft around. This is the best thing, I think. This is best. Hauling my Santa-sack of contraband, I know my work is not yet done.
I paddle by the group home. It’s red brick and owned by the government. Usually there are clusters of men in beards and beanies sitting out front on plastic chairs. But today the chairs are gone. By an open window, I see Troy sitting on the roof, his Yankees cap covered in lines of salt like a topographical map. He clutches an old fishing rod, line sparkling taut in the water. As I paddle over, he doesn’t look surprised, acknowledging me with a nod. I wave and toss him a carton of Marlboros, which lands on the roof.
Troy gives me the thumbs up, twisting off the plastic. He lights up a smoke with a clear blue lighter from the pocket of his tracksuit pants. And he just sits on that roof, smoking and fishing, looking as happy as I ever saw him.
In that poem, I like that the writer noticed the cold monkeys in the first place. So I paddle around to the homes of the rest of my regulars and rain dogs who, in all the mayhem, won’t let themselves be evacuated anywhere. The council houses, community houses, hospices, government-owned apartments. I toss packets of chips and cigarettes into their open windows like a Philip Morris Father Christmas. I keep at it until my bag is near empty.
Rainbow light presses through the cloud and the helicopters sound far away. I think about using the empty bag for a sail. Instead, I cross my feet and twist open a Draught, and watch the colours. The Norfolk pines all stand in rows and watch me float past. I lay back on my raft, forming a whole with it, and float there like a water lily with the floodwaters lapping at my shoulders.
A writer and educator with a Masters in writing, editing and publishing, David P Halliday has had fiction and non-fiction appear in print and online publications including GQ, Huffington Post and short fiction anthologies. He is author of non-fiction book The Bloody History of the Croissant and contributing author to forthcoming book The Music that Maton Made.