Empty car park, morning, sitting in Peter’s Hilux watching the river flow into my consciousness and out the other side. We swam here as kids, my sister and I, skipping stones, playing tag, duck-diving and opening our eyes to pick details in the morose slab of grey water. But it is winter now and nobody comes here. Frost clings to the grassy slope like dandruff.
I mocked Peter when he bought the Hilux. Twenty-four years in a country town and he’s never driven a dirt road. Better to be safe than sorry, he said as he kissed me, like a child kissing a scabbed knee. Jean loved the car, although she was still too small to climb into the back seat on her own. She loved looking down over the other cars as we coasted the main street for a car park. But then she’d always liked sitting on Peter’s shoulders.
She never liked to sit on my shoulders, so bony, slanted, like a shingled roof. Listen to me examine the phrenology of my own shoulders, how foolish. I lower my foot onto the accellerator to cencor my thoughts.
The car is excessive, everything now is excessive and nobody seems any happier, I’m not any happier. When I bought the gaffer tape the man behind the counter said it only came in packs of six, I only needed one. I used all six rolls anyway. Better to be safe than sorry.
It was I, not Peter, who gave Jean swinning lessons, here, where the willow threads fingerpaint ripples, always within reach of a panicked splash. Peter believed all children must learn to swim, when he said it I believed it too. But Jean never wanted to learn. She didn’t paddle, she sunk as still and determined as a stone, knowing I would always save her.
My final failing: I won’t be there to pick her up from creche. Mrs. Coplin will call home and no-one will answer, so she’ll call Peter at work. Peter will curse me. When I don’t come home he will call the police. They will find the car eventually, find me silently watching the water like the mind watches dreams.
The mortgage paid for this car, like it pays for Peter to lose the night in the blackness of the Guinnes glass as he complains about the mortgage to his mates. Everything is about appearances in small towns; these people live in pictures rather than words. If I had left a note it would be burnt.
I have thought about what he will tell her. Nothing feels right and I like this. He might lie, say it was an accident, but nobody can keep a secret in Yarrawonga, especially the dead. He might say that I wanted to run away but grown-ups have forgotton how. He will most likely say I was crazy. I hope one day she will realise that craziness is simply a different form of logic. Most likely he will say nothing, she will never ask.
Everything is spinning except me. Long lethargic ripples spread across the sky, clouds disappear into the folds. By the river I can see a girl, a pre-schooler, testing the water temperature with the furthest precepice of her finger. It’s Jean, I’m halluscinating. I am amazed at how well my subconcious has captured her likeness, each strand of platinum blonde hair (so like her father’s), her favourite yellow parker, her skipping shuffling gate, the way she locks her knees as she bends towards the water. She hasn’t noticed me, I rev the engine, she’s ignoring me.
Peter will get drunk tonight. Whether he feels my loss or not it will be as though nothing has happened. One of his mates will need to give him a lift home. Tomorrow he might sell the car. Knowing him he will buy another exactly the same. He couldn’t live without that extra foot of visibility.
I have thought about what she will think of me. If I have run away then maybe she will try to find me, like we’re playing tag. If she is sad then maybe she will escape with me. I know these are only fantasies, not worth translating to words.
In the blur of faded greens and blues, the girl on the riverbank stops spinning, the ground whips out from under her and she falls with an effortless splash into the concrete-coloured water. I jump in my seat but I don’t fall. I race my mind around the smooth walls of my skull trying to catch up with the spinning, trying to see what is happening in front of me. The river surface smooths over. She isn’t paddling, she is sinking, like she always has.
The car door swings open and I fall into the dust. The air burns my thoat and lungs like I am an infant, I lurch forward down the embankment, onto my feet, crunching footprints into the frost, until the grass becomes pebbles and the icy water rises around me. My hand’s scramble through the water but my fingers are numb. I can’t find her. I dive towards the bottom of the grey wash but I float to the surface like a cork beneath God’s thumb.