Moreton Bay Figs reach over the concrete steps like old men stretching to the waves. The sand beneath their branches is full of leaves, twigs, and cigarette butts. I’m holding a little hand in mine; some kid I don’t know. She doesn’t know me. Her mother, with ‘hair that’s bright red’ and ‘a dress with flowers’, is up the other end of the beach, just in view from where we are.
‘You doing okay?’
She nods, free hand carrying blue Dora the Explorer shoes. We walk past the soldiers, who have set up sandbags by the wharves. They’re funnelling queues of mostly families – young, wealthy, good-looking parents and their bewildered children – onto the ferries and out to the evacuation carriers in the harbour.
Sydney looks beautiful: salt drying on skin, couples under beach umbrellas. Along the promenade the pubs are packed to bursting while people raid fish-and-chips shops and gelatarias in droves. My heart is beating hard and I don’t know why – I feel it in the back of my skull. So I reach for the lotto number in my jacket pocket, thinking ‘I’m fine, I’ve got mine,’ and it calms me down.
My ferry leaves in a few hours.
A soldier presses a ticket into my hand, looks me in the eye and claps my shoulder.
‘Good on you,’ he says. ‘You’ve just won the lotto.’
The soldiers formed syndicates as soon as the evacuations were announced. You could buy the winning numbers of the lotteries if you could afford it.
‘Keep it close,’ he says. ‘There are thieves about.’ His teeth are like biscuits, and there’s a nicotine-yellow jacket around his tongue. More of them are setting up by the wharves; teenagers in camouflage unloading sandbags.
I pocket my ticket while another soldier calls out. Something going on at the other wharf. I can see a man on his knees with a suitcase splayed open on the sand. He tears away clothes. Can’t hear what he’s saying, but I imagine his words – hollow cries for help, that it’s not fair. I look away from his misery as if it’s contagious.
‘Wouldn’t want to be left behind,’ the soldier says.
‘Unless you change your mind?’ He nudges my shoulder with his fist, a little too rough to be a joke. ‘Serve your country?’
He laughs, but in the tone of his laughter I hear something else. Disgust. It’s in his eyes as he turns away.
The kid and I have slogged up the beach. Almost there. Her mother is wandering through an improvised market – clusters of people flogging junk from makeshift stalls. A bearded man is selling The Big Issue under a Coral Oak, and there’s a barbeque going where you can get a sausage sandwich.
The kid stumbles along. Other children laugh from the branches of a Moreton Bay. I’m worried about her arms and shoulders; should’ve picked up some sunscreen, should’ve offered to carry her – given her a sandwich – but she’s not mine. I’d be crossing a line.
‘You all right?’
‘Are you a soldier?’ She sounds like a little adult.
‘No … I’m just …’
Suitcases are washing up. Chucked overboard to make room. That, or scammers are taking people’s money, taking them out into the bay, away from the soldiers, and chucking them over.
‘Where are you taking me?’ The question surprises me.
‘To your mum. Can’t you see?’ Hard to miss; dark red hair, a white dress with sunflowers. She’s haggling off a pair of heels at a stall by the sea-wall, closing a suitcase with a snap. How could she be worried about this?
‘What does your mum do?’
‘She’s a solicitor.’ A lawyer, bloodsucker.
‘Oh? What’s her name?’
‘Susie,’ I repeat. ‘Or Susan?’
We march the last few metres, feet sloughing through sand.
‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Sus-Susan?’
Her eyes sweep over me. And the kid. There’s no recognition. Shoulders shrugging, eyebrows raised.
‘Sorry, what?’ she says.
A tunnel forms at the edge of my vision, pulling, narrowing.
‘Are you … do you …?’ I give a hopeful nod towards the kid.
She mutters ‘fuck, fuck, fuck’ and walks on, sand squeaking under foot. The kid rubs her eyes.
‘That wasn’t your mother.’
‘No.’ She looks at me, as if saying: ‘You’re the adult. You should know.’
A teacher – back when I was stationed at a school – told me that children are like dogs: they smell fear. ‘Lead with body language,’ she said. ‘Or they’ll eat you alive.’
So I force myself to breathe in, deep. Keep my voice steady.
‘Your mother has red hair.’
‘Yes. But not like that.’ She’s scolding me. ‘Brighter!’
The crowds have thickened. There are plenty of red-heads lining up, a few more combing the market.
‘Anyone around with hair like your mum?’
She squints – the skin around her eyes is swollen and blotchy – and points to a cluster of hipsters standing by the sea wall. The red-head, the one the kid is pointing to, smiles when she notices us. I walk over. Don’t know why. Maybe I’ve had enough of drunk and desperate people throwing their money away like it doesn’t matter.
The soldier slinks off with his mates. I kill time. Nothing else matters now.
The pubs are spilling onto the promenade, where ad-hoc businesses catch the drunken overflow; a vendor is selling paella from a huge wok, next to a Gözleme King, a Squid Noodles, a pop-up burger bar. Everyone is pressing together and I need to get away.
The kid is standing under a Moreton Bay, away from the families. She’s nothing, the first time I look over her, just another kid. But then I notice the expression on her face, scanning the beach up and down as if she knows exactly what she’s doing. Kids are resilient like that; they’ll take charge of a situation. Stay put if they get lost.
She notices me walking towards her. She doesn’t look away, doesn’t look scared. I crouch down. Get to her level.
‘Hello mate,’ I say. ‘You all right?’
‘You look lost.’
‘Can’t find my mum,’ she says. ‘Told me to come here if we got split.’
She’s bored of explaining herself.
‘She said I should find some police, if I could, but there aren’t any police around. Only soldiers.’
I tell her my name. Offer to help. I can’t help wondering if I’m just trying to lock myself in before I get a chance to back out.
‘Can you tell me about your mother?’ I ask. ‘What does she look like?’
Bright red hair, a dress with flowers, a few other details that I immediately forget.
‘She’s tall. And she doesn’t like soldiers. And she told me to wait here, for her.’
I scan the beach myself.
There, all the way up the other end, a spark of red hidden in the penumbra of a crowd.
The red-head keeps smiling as we walk over. I like the way that feels. I even pick the kid up for the last few meters, earning sympathetic nods from the hipsters.
‘Cool shoes,’ one of them says, but the kid has had enough of strangers.
‘She’s lost her mother.’
‘Poor thing,’ they say. ‘Brave girl.’
‘I was wondering if I could get your help.’
Their eyes widen, just a slight hint of ‘fuck off,’ but they keep smiling.
‘Her mother has hair just like yours,’ I bounce the kid a bit in my arms. The red-head laughs, warmly, and it lights me right up. The other hipsters are backing off, but she gets up close. Something like pity flashes across her eyes.
‘What’s your name?’ I’m about to open my mouth when—
‘Eloise,’ the kid says.
She leans in, ‘Well El, why don’t you play around here while your dad and I look for your mum?’
‘He’s not my dad.’
‘I’m …’ I’m about to say a stranger. ‘Just nobody.’
‘Well, Nobody. Why don’t we go exploring?’ Her eyes flick towards the tree line at the head of the beach.
My heart jumps. A shot of adrenaline from that one skerrick of attention, of recognition. I’m such a creep. I’m such a creep. I put El down on the sand. Get to her level.
‘You must be hungry.’ Actually, she looks exhausted, starving. She blinks at me a few times.
‘When I was your age, the surf club used to trade shells for Nutella sandwiches. And red frogs!’
‘Let’s meet back here when you get fifteen shells.’
‘Okay,’ and she stumbles towards the gentle, lapping waves.
I turn to face the red-head, and say something embarrassing like: ‘I don’t have much money on me.’
She laughs that off, which is kind of her, and we start walking. God I’m sick of walking through sand.
‘Adorable,’ she nods towards the kid. ‘How old?’
‘I …’ I have no fucking clue. ‘Seven or eight. Found her waiting by the wharves. Must have been split up.’
‘Must have,’ she nods. ‘Everything’s fucked up. It’s good of you to stop.’
I mumble a thank you. Don’t want to seem arrogant. But this – this – is what I’ve been wanting. Recognition for something good among the horrible shit.
‘Most people wouldn’t. They’d take care of themselves. Get their ticket out. Get a gelato.’ She waves back at the markets, at the hordes trying to scrounge up a final bit of cash. The lotto prices must be skyrocketing. My chest tightens. I reach for my number and she watches my hand.
‘You got a ticket?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Got in early.’ I try to gauge her reaction, try to spot jealousy.
‘Lucky, mate,’ and she sighs. ‘Worst comes to worst, a few of us will head out to the country. Just here to see if a gig opens up.’
We talk for a while, meaningless things, as we head towards the tree line. We climb like kids playing hide-and-seek, where the roots of coastal trees entwine with rocks at the headland. We pass people – mostly gay guys – curled up with each other among the boulders.
She tells me her name, and I tell her mine.
I turn back to check on the kid, spot her picking up shells, waves lapping at her shins. The queue for lotto numbers stretches along the promenade. Abandoned cars sunbake in the streets, up to where big white houses dot the cliffs.
I tell myself there’s still time.
The kid is standing under a Moreton Bay. The pockets on her dress are bulging with shells – damp circles on her waist. She’s lost her Dora shoes, shivering despite the sunburn. She doesn’t recognise me for a moment. Just stares ahead.
‘Where were you?’ I ask, as if this were her fault.
‘This is where I’m meant to go in case we got split.’ She staggers on her feet, just a little bit.
‘We have to find someone to look after you. Your mum is … she, she’s busy right now.’ She stares at my face. Sees the scratches. My skin burns where fingernails raked me open.
‘An accident,’ I say, I lie. ‘It doesn’t matter. We have to go.’
‘What about my shells?’
‘I don’t think the shop will take them.’
‘Oh.’ A look, not quite disappointed. ‘Can I keep them?’
I look up through the branches of the tree, where they join the trunk, roots flowing out from the soil like the roiling of a great wave. I used to come here when I was a kid. I collected shells while my brother was doing Little League.
‘Tell you what. I’ll get you a gelato while we look.’ I get down, tell her to climb onto my back.
The pubs have gone quiet, broken bottles glitter in the street, and the only reason the gelataria is open is so the young, pimply dickhead behind the counter can scalp those desperate enough to stay. The kid asks how many flavours she can choose, I tell her ‘two’, and she goes with blood orange and mango. She reaches for the cup over my shoulder and a bit drips onto my jacket. There has to be someone who can help. Someone to keep her safe.
But people aren’t smiling at me anymore. I walk up to a few groups, to families, and they see my face. They see the scratches, the bloody lip. The mothers gather their kids. The fathers raise up their hands.
‘Can’t help you, mate.’
‘Please, she’s lost.’
‘Can’t help you.’
It might be contagious, my weakness; it might infect their families, take what they have. El is basically asleep over my shoulder; what energy she has is devoted to holding her cup. I reach for my number, but this time its touch gives me no comfort.
Nothing left. No more time.
A queue has started gathering at my wharf, so I walk over and line up with El – don’t know what else to do. The gelato has really started melting, splotching my shoulder in globules of sunset orange. I wait with the exhausted families, ignoring their side-eyes, the stares, the pity. That same soldier – Biscuit Teeth – is standing by the sandbags, processing the queue with two others. He sees me, and his grin gets wider when he sees El.
He walks over, right through the queue. People turn and look.
‘Who the fuck is this?’
‘She’s lost her mother.’
‘Fantastic! Fucking great, that’s not my …’ he notices my face, grabs it, twists my chin. ‘What happened to you?’
‘Someone tried to mug me.’
‘Yeah?’ He releases me.
‘She needs help.’
He looks at me as if I don’t know how pathetic this is, as if I can’t sense the families behind me, clutching their luggage, hands groping for their numbers. I lower El onto the ground and she’s so tired her hand doesn’t even hold onto mine. But she stands. Tall as she can. She takes a sip of her multi-coloured slop.
Biscuit Teeth pulls me towards him by my lapel. I breathe in his cigarettes, stale and acidic. He looks straight into my eyes, burning his message deep. One number. One passenger.
‘Went behind the figs with some rough trade?’ he asks.
Not in front of the kid.
‘Came out with a few bruises? The both of you?’
‘It wasn’t like that.’
He just keeps grinning and grinning and grinning.
She finds a spot off the bushwalk, an open cove with a huge Moreton Bay in the middle.
‘I remember going on a tour of a submarine, when I was a kid.’ The words are spilling from me, so nice to have someone to talk to. ‘At the Maritime Museum. The navy must have been putting on a fair, some kind of showcase. I keep thinking of the feeling, the sensation of climbing backwards down a steep metal ladder.’
She walks up to the fig.
‘I must’ve got this idea into my head, this certainty that the submarine would take off with me on board. They would forget I was there. Leave me inside.’
‘What happened?’ She puts her hand against a root, which slopes from the trunk and folds into the earth.
‘I threw up all over myself, and spent the next ten minutes with my shirt under a hand-dryer – safe on land.’
‘Must’ve been. But I was too young to know that.’
She stops, and then pulls me towards her. Time slips away and it feels so good not to worry. She kisses with tongue, and teeth, pushing me into the folds of the tree, sliding down into a nook in the trunk.
‘Is this okay?’ I ask, between breaths.
I laugh against her mouth when she pulls me in again. My head spins. This is what I needed. This.
I look up through the branches and a shadow passes over my eyes, blinking the sun for a split second – like a bird overhead. A strange fear leaks into my chest, a question forming inside me. My hand reaches for my number, safe in my jacket pocket, and I find her fingers.
She rakes her nails down my face. I scream. Her elbow smashes against my mouth. My head thunks against the tree and everything swims. Tooth-bits on my tongue. Taste blood.
She reels back for another strike, but I twist the hand I’ve caught, bend her thumb towards her elbow. I press down on her arm, standing up, forcing her onto her knees. Her tendons strain against my grip.
‘Shit,’ she says, through a grunt of pain. ‘You’re a soldier?’
‘Why did you—’ and the anger starts sinking in. My vision closes, a dark tunnel with blood at the other end.
She just breathes, heavy intakes through her nose and out through clenched teeth. I twist until her shoulder almost pops. ‘Why?’
‘I was saving you the choice,’ she hisses. ‘Same choice that woman made.’
My knees almost buckle.
‘Kids need a number, mate. Like everyone else.’
I could break her arm. I could. I could fucking do it. I could. I can’t breathe. I don’t know what to do. Oh, god. Oh my god.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she says.
I let her go and she stumbles away from me, cradling her wrist.
‘Fucking psychopath,’ she calls over her shoulder. ‘Fucking pathetic.’
I sink down into the roots of the tree, sink down onto the earth, breathing tight gasps. The sunlight is fragmented, dispersed by interlocking leaves. The tunnel closes around my vision, and I’m left with an impression of colour, red and white, the sound of my heart in my ears. The ragged, high-pitched wheezing of my lungs.
After a while – not sure how long – I make my way down to the beach. Feel like a monster. Blood drying on my skin. My fingers press against fresh welts along the ridge of my nose. The pain hasn’t kicked in yet. I go to the water, scoop it up from the shallows, let the salt cleanse the scratches.
I can’t find her. She’s gone.
I try not to feel relieved. Not my problem. Not my kid.
Glass smashing; men’s voices yelling over each other, harsh and raspy. A middle-aged businessman – bleeding from the forehead – staggers onto the street, a jug in each hand. He collapses to the ground, beer sloshing into the gutter. Two kids snatch his jacket and rummage through his trousers. Glass glitters on the concrete, down the steps and in the sand.
Drunks in the street. Blood and beer.
The ships are leaving. Clothes are washing up like sea-weed. The solider speaks right into my face, too quiet for the families to hear. My own, private hell.
‘You know, mate,’ he says. ‘There’s a quick fix.’
I wish the blood would get out of my ears.
‘Unless you think this girl can do a better job?’
And I think of her, swallowed up in what’s to come. Left here with the soldiers, in the flames. I turn to the railing of the wharf, press my fingers against the old, sodden wood.
‘She needs her mother.’
He sucks down air. A punch line! He laughs and laughs.
A scream comes from the shore – his laughter is cut short. There are shapes in the water, ragdolls floating limp and loose. The crowd creates a pocket of space, of emptiness and silence. I turn El away when I realise she’s just seen what I’ve seen.
One of them, hair splayed out in the foam, red and bright, has a floral dress – faded pink with blue flowers – lifted up around her skin. There’s blood on the sand. It coalesces, swirls like an oil spill. I’m not sure that it’s her, but …
I get down to El, take her face in my hands. She struggles against me but she’s so weak. My heartbeat fades from my skull.
I say ‘Don’t look. Just look at me, look at me, look at me …’ until the world ends.
Until I decide.
Moreton Bay Figs
Story by Harry Goddard
Graphic Design by George Gillies
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