Mum said she has a guardian angel, but when Dad said angels are figments of our imagination invented to help us through tough times, she shut up about it. I don’t think my imagination is good enough to have invented Steve. Especially not the blue shorts.
It began at the Rite Gorge River. The gravel carpark was empty when we arrived. I’d wagged school and Rory didn’t have a class. As we parked I said, ‘Privacy – great.’ Later, I didn’t think so.
From the boot of his dad’s Commodore, Rory took out a lilo and backpack full of sealed plastic bags of salad sandwiches, chicken drumsticks, and frozen Cherry Ripes. We wound our way down the dirt path, catching glimpses of the river cutting through the gorge. On a flat rock at the river’s edge we stripped off our sticky clothes.
Rory whistled when he saw my hot-pink one-piece bathers. He reached for the inch-long tab at the top of the zip, saying, ‘Easy access.’
I slapped his hand away. He didn’t notice my matching pink fingernails and toenails. Probably too busy looking at my boobs. I put my arms around his neck, stood on tip-toe, and we kissed.
We hid our clothes behind a bush. Rory jumped in the river with a whoop, making me squeal as the spray hit. I sat over the rock’s edge, the water up to my knees, crossed my arms, and tried to ignore my churning stomach.
The plan was for Rory to tow me on the lilo across the river to an island for what he called ‘an uninterrupted snogfest.’ Now that I was looking at the river, though, the plan seemed dumb. And the lilo looked thin.
Swimming used to be easy. When I was twelve I slipped at the edge of our in-ground pool and my head and thigh hit the side. Going dizzy, and not knowing which way was up, I had thrashed around and swallowed heaps of water. Mum pulled me out. That was it for me and swimming.
The river stretched wide – maybe further across than I could throw a stone. Below my feet, the water was dark. That meant it was deep. The skin on my lower legs tightened, cringing away from the iciness of the water.
Rory swam to me and raised an arm. ‘Pass the backpack.’
I handed down the bag and watched him wriggle his arms into its straps while his legs madly tread water. For an instant, as his second arm thread through a strap, his closed mouth went under. The churning in my stomach turned into backflips. Rory hung onto the rock’s edge, panting, then dragged the lilo into the river.
‘I can’t see the island.’ My scaredy-cat voice echoed in the gorge.
‘It’s just round the bend.’ Rory tugged at my leg. ‘Come on. I’ll be here, all the way.’
Squatting on the rock, I took a deep breath, urging myself to get on the lilo, but my body didn’t want to move.
‘I’ll pull you in,” Rory warned.
‘No you won’t!’ Before I could stop myself, I pressed my hands and knee on the lilo. It buckled and wobbled, splashes flying everywhere. I screamed and flattened, gripping the canvas sides for all I was worth. Slowly, the lilo calmed.
‘See – no probs!’ Rory smiled.
If looks could kill, Rory would have exploded into flames.
He towed me down and across the river, under overhanging willow and gum trees. Around the bend, he pointed to where the river split into two. ‘There it is – the place of the snogfest!’
Mud led the way to stumpy bushes and fallen trees. ‘Is that an island?’’ It was no Club Med.
‘The river joins up on the other side.’ He veered us toward it.
‘It’s so muddy.’
‘That’s what happens when water meets dirt,’ he said with an edge in his voice.
Great. Lots of things I just loved – river water and mud. Probably insects, too. Mossies always went for me.
His shoulders rose out of the water as he reached the bank. ‘How about I carry you?’
Who was I to argue? In his warm arms, I dragged the lilo along behind us as we went up the bank. Water dripped off his hair and he breathed hard – kind of sexy. I couldn’t resist licking his neck. He let me down in a three metre clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. He took a towel from the backpack and spread it in the shade of a two metre tree fern while I whirled around saying, ‘All ours,’ then fished through the bag for a chocolate bar. Ass my fingers touched a cold Cherry Ripe, Rory – crouched over the towel – went still.
He didn’t answer. Then, like a skyscraper toppling over in slow motion, he fell into a loose foetal position.
Two strides and I was there, bent over him. ‘Rory? This isn’t funny.’
He looked asleep. One of his muddy feet twitched. Then the other foot. Within a few seconds, his whole body was twitching, and then shuddering.
‘Rory – it’s me.’
His hand hit one of my shins as his body convulsed onto its back.
Stepping away, I cupped my hands over my mouth.
His arms and legs flailed in all directions; his mouth opened, his head thrashed, like an invisible giant was pushing and pulling him around.
What was it – an epileptic fit? As far as I knew, Rory didn’t have epilepsy, or anything else.
Bits of dirt stuck to his skin. A convulsion threw him a few centimetres away from a rock. I pulled him by his board shorts to get him away from it. His hand whacked me in the nose and I flinched, letting go. I fell and put my hands up to the pain. Blue dots swirled then disappeared.
He stopped moving. With one hand over my nose, I went to him, spotting that his head was over the rock. I knelt and felt all over his damp head, warm and sticky with blood. The heat seemed to have taken away the oxygen. I sucked and sucked at the air, holding up my bloodied fingers.
Was he dead?
I put my slippery fingertips to his neck, fumbling for a pulse. I found it: a tiny rhythm sending out an SOS. My ear went to his mouth, to his wispy breathing.
‘Rory?’ Saliva bubbled from a corner of his mouth. His eyes stayed closed. His face went blurry and I choked back a sob. Crying wasn’t going to help Rory. I folded the towel three times and put it between his head and the rock.
Sweating all over, I alternated between staring at him and the distant sky. We could be on this island for days, with no blankets. Was the river water drinkable? Surely someone would come. I pictured two men in red overalls arriving in a dinghy. One bent to take Rory’s pulse then looked at me, shaking his head.
No. Rory couldn’t die.
At the bank Rory had just carried me over, I screamed, ‘Help!’ I turned around. ‘Please, someone!’
A scared girl’s voice repeated back, ‘Please, someone!’
The river sped by, separating Rory and I from the rest of the world. The walls of the gorge seemed to rise.
The lilo rested against a gum tree, its dirty underside exposed. I could use it to paddle to where we had started. I threw a grimy stick into the water. The current whipped it away, in the wrong direction.
There was no choice: I had to swim and get help.
I studied the river. The water got dark quickly and the walls of the gorge offered few rest stops. The dark river looked like it was waiting for me to wade in so it could pull me away and make me thrash in panic. Then both Rory and I would die.
I put my face in my hands. They were slimy with sweat and sprinkled with grit. There was no way I could do it
From behind, a male voice said, ‘Yes you can.’
I whirled around, but even before I saw him I knew who he was. It was like in a dream, when a really weird thing makes sense. Still, the look of him gave me a shock, and I laughed. He was small, blonde, wearing short blue shorts, and as he slowly walked towards me the sunlight shone straight through him.
He spoke fast, like he was nervous, and put out his hand. ‘You asked for help. I’m Steve.’
His hand felt dry and hot, and he smelled nice – like the time when I buried my nose in sheets Mum had just taken off the line.
‘Are you a figment of my imagination?’
He gave a shy smile. ‘No.’
‘Did I just imagine you saying no?’
Steve just smiled.
‘Can you help me swim back?’ I asked.
He ducked his head. ‘Yes.’
We went to Rory, who lay with his arms by his sides with one leg turned in. I straightened the leg, brushed back hair from his forehead, and kissed his warm cheek.
Steve pointed to the backpack. ‘Get the car keys.’
My stomach lurched. ‘You don’t think—’
His hand flicked out. ‘You might have to.’
I shook my head. I’d only practised in the driveway with Mum’s car. I didn’t even have my learner’s. But I grabbed the keys.
At the riverbank, mud oozed over my pink toenails. I screwed up my face. ‘Ugh!’
Steve held my hand. ‘It’s just mud.’ His lips were a deep red, like a baby’s, and I couldn’t see any teeth.
As I stepped, mud sucked at my feet. Suddenly I was knee-deep in water. My heart thumped. In the water ahead I couldn’t see the bottom.
‘You can swim.’ Steve said.
‘I know, I know.’
The water flowed to the right, hypnotising me. A chill rose up my legs. I remembered opening my mouth for air and swallowing water and not knowing which way was up. I held my stomach and bent over. My feet sank deeper into the mud.
A huge shove in the middle of my back had me in the river. I flapped my arms, and then I was treading water, my feet unable to touch the bottom. I stroked and frog-legged in jerks that would be the closest to breastroke I was going to get.
‘See…you’re doing it.’ Smiling beside me, Steve swam breastroke without making a ripple. His hair was even dry.
We headed the way Rory and I had come.
Steve watched me swim. ‘Your breastroke is swift. You should pace yourself or you will tire.’
If I got too tired, I might drown. I slowed.
Around the bend, the rock where Rory and I had stripped was deserted. My heart sank. This meant I’d have to drive the car. When Steve and I got there, I put the leather strip hanging from the car keys into my mouth and heaved my tired body up, almost falling back before I could flop over.
As I went to the bush for my clothes, movement along the rise to the carpark caught my eye. Two people were coming down the path. Clutching my dress, I ran towards them. Where the path began, I looked up and saw they were men. Old: at least forty, wearing shorts and singlets. The one behind – almost short enough to be a dwarf, — carried an eski.
Struggling for breath I dropped my dress and waved. ‘Hello!’
The man in front gave me a head-to-toe look. ‘Whoa, what do we have here?’ He kept walking down.
I backed up, my bathers suddenly feeling too pink, too tight, and cut too high at the hips. ‘I need help.’
‘Don’t we all darling.’ His ocker accent was heavy.
‘It’s my boyfriend.’
‘Yeah?’ The man looked around. He had the thick neck and sagging chest of a bull. The short man behind him put down his eski in some shade and sat on it, crossing his arm and watching as if we were a show.
Bull-neck stepped closer, a foot landing on my dress. ‘Where is he?’
‘No,’ Steve said. But I’d already begun to point and say, “Over there, on an island. Hit his head. Unconscious.’
‘Unconscious?’ The man looked behind him, through Steve, at his smirking friend.
‘You’re in danger,’ Steve said.
Bull-neck leaned toward me, whiffing of hot BO. ‘And you think you can get him help, all on your lonesome? Well, I like helping pretty girls.’
The friend squeaked a laugh.
Droplets of riverwater trickled down my legs and I shivered. If only Rory were here.
As the bull-necked man reached out, Steve waved me back. ‘Move.’
I did, but the man side-stepped and picked up my dress. A clink sounded on the ground. The keys. I must have dropped them with the dress. So stupid. I bent for the keys but the man scooped them up and dangled them in front of me.
‘Please.’ I held out my hand.
‘Please,’ he mimicked.
A scream stuck in my throat, but I had to act fast. Rory was on the island, maybe slowly dying. I grabbed the keys, pulling them out of his hand, but he clutched my arm tight
Steve stood behind the man. ‘Help me,’ I said to him.
The man looked back, at his friend.
The friend shrugged. ‘She wasn’t talking to me.’
Steve said, ‘Don’t pull away, fall onto him. It will get him off balance.’
As the man grinned and said to me, ‘I’ll look after ya, sweetie,’ Steve said, ‘Then put your knee into him when the two of you fall.’ He lifted his knee to demonstrate.
Arms trembling under the man’s dusty, calloused hands, I summoned everything I had and twisted sideways, butting the man with my shoulder and pushing with all my might. He lost his balance and started to fall, still gripping my arms. My knee went up, connecting with his groin as I fell on top of him.
‘Oooff!’ The man let go and cupped his crotch as my elbow hit rock.
I got up fast. The little friend stood, blinked, and clasped his hands. I grabbed my dress, not bothering with my sandals still hidden in the bush, and ran up the path to the carpark.
At the Commodore, I looked back. No one was following. An empty station wagon stood a few spaces away. I put on my dress beside the passenger door and rubbed at my sore elbow, trying to think of another alternative to driving.
‘Stop stalling.’ Steve took my hand and pulled me towards the driver’s door. ‘You can’t just hide from those men. What about Rory?’
Rory. Maybe the shade of the treefern had moved, leaving him face up in the sun. Dehydrating. Dying.
On the drive to the river, there had been a service station a few miles before the turn off to the car park.
I fumbled with the keys. The second one opened the driver’s door and the first key turned on the ignition. Panting, I looked back at the entrance to the path. Empty.
Sitting in the passenger seat, Steve said, “It’s an automatic.’
I looked at the lever on my left and tried to get some air into my lungs.
‘Put on the seatbelt,’ Steve said.
I pulled at the seatbelt, but it stuck. I looked at the path’s entrance. Still empty. The seatbelt stuck again.
‘Stop yanking it. Slow. Do it slowly.’
Slowly, I pulled at the seatbelt. It gave way.
‘Push the lever into the D slot. Right foot on the right pedal.’
I did as instructed. The car hopped forward and I yelped.
The car made a wide arc. I steered it through the exit and crawled up the one-lane road. I turned left into the main road so slowly we almost stopped.
Speeding up, I looked for the service station. A car whizzed past, making me jump. In seconds the Commodore veered left onto gravel.
‘Brake,’ Steve yelled.
My foot slipped over pedals as the car jounced into a ditch.
Steve pressed his hands on the dash. ‘Brake!’
I pushed what I hoped was the brake, and we stopped with a jolt, the seatbelt squeezing my chest. I turned off the ignition and breathed. A cloud of dust settled around the car. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel.
‘You’ll have to flag someone down…they’ll see you’re in trouble,’ Steve said.
Paddocks of yellow grass stretched around us. What if I flagged down men like the ones back at the river? Maybe I could walk to the service station.
…in my bare feet, in the heat, to a place that might be a lot further than I remembered.
Steve was so faint I could barely see him anymore. He pointed. ‘A car. Quick.’
I hurried to the side of the road and waved. The car was a jeep. I lowered my arms. Men drove jeeps.
‘’It’s okay,’ Steve said beside me.
I put my arms up again. The car stopped a few metres away. The driver’s door opened. A round woman stepped toward me as I ran to her. She glanced at my feet, caked in mud. ‘What is it, luv?’
‘I….’ I looked around. Steve was gone. ‘It’s Rory.’
Many smile-lines framed the corners of the woman’s mouth. ‘Start from the start,’ she said.
“My boyfriend knocked his head,’ I began.
In the end, Rory was fine. Though he does have epilepsy.
I should ask Mum about her angel.
Steve never came back. Not yet, anyway.
The Australian Literature Review