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Short story: Watermarks


Kat had been eleven when the dyke breached at the height of a tropical storm and the surge had crashed through.


Kat pretended to sleep while her flatmates stampeded through the squat in their search for snorkels and crowbars. There would be no salvaging for her today. She’d got in after dawn, her skin pink and aching from being caught out without her sun cape. She hadn’t been able to sleep, her mind churning over her night with Jess, and what they’d talked about, and what they hadn’t.

‘This isn’t how I thought it’d be,’ Jess had said, mere hours ago, their legs dangling through the guard rail of the Gateway Bridge.

‘There’ll be other boys,’ Kat had said. ‘Or girls.’

A shake of the head, just enough to make Jess’s hair shiver, had prevented Kat from pushing any further, and they’d sat in silence as deadly brightness leached into the eastern sky.

With Ryan out of the picture, that had been her moment, and she’d blown it. But she still had time. Today: today she would take the plunge.

No more hedging, no more hinting. Sink or swim.

As soon as the shutter had slammed, twice, announcing the crew had left for the shallows, Kat scrambled out of her bunk. She shucked off the black dress from last night, the smell of cigarettes and home brew clinging to it like seaweed, and duck-bathed in lukewarm water from the bucket by the sink before pulling on a UV-treated jumpsuit and boots. She sprayed a fresh layer of sun block on her face, grabbed her satchel and fastened her sun cloak around her shoulders.

Kat fitted her sunnies before stepping out on to the makeshift landing. A warm breeze heavy with mangrove mud, brine and petroleum stench moaned in the ropes and wires of the walkways. A mushroom patch of towers clustered around, like theirs, festooned with makeshift fire escapes lashed to the walls and balconies as alternatives to dark, inundated stairwells. Waves lapped against the buildings like hungry tongues, and canoes and skiffs knocked rhythmically against their moorings, as though counting down the inevitable erosion. The scrapers, bleeding rust from their cracked and shattered skins, pierced the cloudless blue like defunct rocket ships on a trip to nowhere. They were patched with colour: the green of plants in window boxes, khaki water tanks, blue and silver tarps. Seagulls circled and crows watched from the shadows, the birds exchanging raucous complaints about the heat.

‘Oh it’s so romantic,’ Jess had said, the first time she’d stayed, sleeping in Kat’s bunk while Kat took the couch, just until Jess could find her own squat. ‘Just like in the book.’

‘You came because of a book?’

‘Closest thing to Venice, hey.’

‘If you say so.’

Hair the colour of freshly stripped copper wire, her face dotted with freckles, Jess could’ve been Venus stepping off a shell, rather than a girl from the north coming off the coastal lighter with a backpack and a guitar, happy to swap malaria tablets for a place to sleep.

Her skin was too fair for this country, but was marked with just the one melanoma scar, on her ankle. She’d had it tattooed into a carnival mask, the scar forming a tear on one cheek. Trust Jess to take something ugly and make it beautiful. Just her being here, in flooded Brisbane, made Kat think that maybe all was not lost, that beauty could somehow win out.

A shout wrenched Kat’s attention back. The little Tongan girl from upstairs, asking if she had any powdered milk to trade. ‘I’ll keep my eyes out,’ Kat told her, and scrambled down the motley zigzag of creaking, wobbling stairs and swaying rope ladders.

Kat hauled her kayak from the rack, picked her way across slick duckboards and slid it into the oil-stained water.

A CityCat chugged past, trailing a haze of greasy smoke, its bow wave bumping boats against their moorings like bamboo wind chimes. The ferry’s blue-and-white paintwork was faded and scratched, its fore and aft decks shaded by awnings. One low-UV day, Jess, flush from a good run of busking at one of the festivals, had shouted her a ride, island hopping the ferry from enclave to enclave; they’d stood at the bow, Jess’s hair streaming back like a banner.

How Kat would’ve loved to have buried her face in that hair, to have breathed it in, the apple scent of shampoo drowning out the brine and rot.

And how Kat had sulked when Jess had pointed out Ryan’s enclave, the wealthy high grounders clinging to their dry peak, secure behind seawalls and new docks.

Kat pushed through the ferry’s wake. It was a short paddle to Chinatown and Kat put her shoulders into it, the downstream current helping drive the kayak through the flotsam: plastic bags, rotten food, scraps of cloth, the occasional dead animal, turds. The surface was awash with litter waiting for the outgoing tide to flush it into the bay. Just how far it would get, though, she wasn’t so sure. Sandy had told her she and some friends had tagged a plastic bottle once and it had come straight back on the next tide.

Riverside buildings watched with glazed windows as she glided by, their ground floors knee deep in mud-stained brine, pelicans and seagulls staking them out like vultures. How could the birds stand this heat? This smell? Because you do. You persevere. Kat’s mother had taught her that; that, and to swim, and how to cook rice, and how to suffer in silence.

Kat slowed when she reached the Drowned Rat, a line of coloured bulbs dangling like wasp nests from the top veranda; dead trees poked from the water that covered the beer garden. The Doubters Garden, they called it, with a name plaque on each silvered trunk a memorial to the most infamous sceptics who had clung to their money while the sea warmed, the ice melted, the water rose.

There, last night, Jess had had a gig and they’d been drinking the rider of local brew from jam jars, and Ryan had come in with a bunch of his well-heeled mates, polos from the Heights slumming it with the swampies, and he’d had that tattooed dancer from the Atlantis Bar on his arm, and when he’d seen her and Jess in the corner, in between sets, he’d got this look on his face … They’d talked about that look, all the way to the Gateway, after they’d bustled out, Ryan’s stare following them, his mates laughing, tattooed floozy clinging with an uncertain smile. Ashamed, Jess had said. Mocking, Kat had thought. She’d tried to make Jess understand that the polos might like to dip a toe in the water, but they’d never put their head under.

Her kayak sliced through the wavelets. Her muscles burned with effort, the sun searing on her shoulders, sweat running down her spine, pooling under her thighs.

She ignored the elevator – the building might have had power, no doubt stolen

from the city grid, but the lift hadn’t worked since the breach.

She could have paddled all the way around the Valley cliffs, but it was quicker to take the tram. And now that she’d decided to act, speed was everything. So she tied up at Wharf Street, where Molly and Derek were loitering around the Breach Monument, waiting to steal bouquets and sell them down at the market, so they could come back here and steal them again to sell them again.

The statue had only been recently unveiled, for the fifth anniversary. Kat had been eleven when the dyke breached at the height of a tropical storm and the surge had crashed through. She and her mother had been huddled in the bath under a mattress as the storm raked the house, the first category three of the season, while her father patrolled the shutters. And then the wave had come, and it was some kind of miracle they’d survived. They’d never found her father, and her mother, already ill with melanoma, had lasted just two more years, fading painfully in a hospice, decent treatment far too expensive for the likes of them, business and home lost, insurance withdrawn faster than the tide. Kat made her living with snorkel and fins, swimming in the shallows, risking pollution, snags and disease for the sake of items of worth: metals for industry and artisans, souvenirs for the well-heeled tourists who came to shake their heads at the remains of the disaster.

Kat turned her back on the monument. She’d thought this was all there’d be, until Jess had arrived, just down there at the landing where the coastal lighters docked. If it wasn’t lust at first sight, it was definitely love at first note. Kat had seen her there on the wharf, just starting to sing, the tin at her feet. Before the cops or Sharkey’s men, Kat had got to her first.

‘You sing lovely,’ she’d said, ‘but you gotta have permission to busk here.’

‘I was singing for my supper,’ Jess had said.

‘Do you have somewhere to stay?’

‘I’ll find something.’ She’d waved at the boarding houses, sagging and peeling along the water’s edge, clothes and sheets hanging from the balcony rails and window frames like the shredded canvas of shipwrecks.

‘My place is nicer,’ Kat had lied. ‘What have you got?’

‘Got?’

‘To pay.’ Because business comes first, and the others would insist.

‘I spent most of my money on the boat fare but I have this.’ She’d produced a bundle of coffee beans from the north, and a plastic bottle of quinine tablets.

‘Can you paddle?’

She’d nodded.

‘You should stick with me,’ Kat had said. ‘Just till you find your feet.’

‘That sounds like a very good idea. You know, you have a pretty smile.’

Kat had blushed, to think someone could look past the chafed lips, sunburn and melanoma scarring.

Kat had given Jess her bunk – ‘but where will you sleep?', she’d asked; ‘the bunk isn’t big enough for two’. A fact disproved on more than occasion. But Kat didn’t push it; she wasn’t a predator like Sharkey. She’d let what would be, be. She’d taken the couch. And Jess had paid for her busking permits and bribes, and met Ryan, and moved in to a flat in Chinatown, but they’d stayed friends, good friends, because Ryan didn’t know the swamp like Kat did and Jess loved the swamp. It was ‘just like the book’. But last night, Ryan had been with another woman, and how long would Jess have in her flat in Chinatown now without Ryan propping up the rent?

The trolley to Chinatown Lake couldn’t move fast enough. The onboard sign warned of medium UV risk rising to dangerous. Smoke on the horizon showed the Newstead ghats were in use; at least the breeze had stilled, no stench of burning bodies and incense wafting across the swamp. Just the stale water and rot and salt, the pungent odour of mingling sunscreens and body odour in the car as it rattled along its tracks.

With a few hours yet before siesta, the lakeshore bustled with kaftans and burqas, sombreros and Akubras, rice paddy hats and parasols. Kat, weaving through the pedestrians, grasped the rope rails as sections of floating footpath tossed unevenly.

Finally, Kat passed under the lintel of a carved gateway, the mossy scalps of guardian lions at its base barely visible in the murky water. A stranded car park, its driveways choked with water, was festooned with ribbons and flags, the centrepiece of a bazaar sprawled across platforms and sampans and rowboats. A miasma of soy and satay, the ever-present brine and mud and charcoal, choked the air.

The foyer of Jess’s building was home to a stall that sold handcrafted jewellery specialising in shells and salvaged cutlery. A sun-browned hippie, nose and part of both cheeks lost to melanoma, looked up from where he was making yet more of the bracelets and necklaces under the dull yellow light of a desk lamp.

‘You’ve missed her,’ he said as Kat manoeuvred past.

She stopped. ‘What?’

‘That polo came got her.’

It took a moment for the words to come, the ground shifting, as though she were back on the floating boardwalk. ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’ve lost me nose, not me eyes.’

She nodded, a fearful jerk, and all but ran. She ignored the elevator – the building might have had power, no doubt stolen from the city grid, but the lift hadn’t worked since the breach. Stifling humidity drew fresh sweat as she entered the dank stairwell. Mould-covered walls were tagged with spray paint; food wrappers, empty beer bottles and used condoms littered the floor. The torpid air reeked of rot and Kat breathed through her mouth as she picked her way to the second storey.

Jess’s door, peeling and edged with grey-green mould, had an eye painted on it, the kind you’d find on the prow of a Greek sail boat, all slanted and heavy on the eyeliner. Kat had helped Jess paint a similar one on her canoe.

Kat knocked. No answer. She knocked again, fast and desperate, louder, and called Jess’s name, and when nothing happened she tried the handle. The door swung open.

Not good, Kat thought. No one left their door unlocked. Not if they were coming back.

Kat stepped in, a pace, two. She pushed the door closed, the click of it shutting like some kind of full stop. A signal that something had ended.

The room looked untouched, unchanged, and Kat allowed herself to release her breath, her pulse loud in her ears.

Ryan had come crawling back, wanting to have his cake and eat it too. A fancy breakfast of apology. But Jess wouldn’t fall for that. Take the food, as small a compensation as it was, then turn on her heel, wish him good luck with his dancer, or whoever came next. And when Jess came home, well, Kat would be here, waiting. They’d have a drink, perhaps. And a talk. And then …

Most of the space was taken up with a double bed, an old iron one with an ornate head board and high posts at each corner. White mosquito netting hung from the rails. The soft citrus of Jess’s perfume mixed uncomfortably with sandalwood incense and the earthy scent of mosquito coil, the remains of one of the pungent spirals lying blackened on a tile beside the bed. The poster of Venus still decorated the wall above the bed, the naked goddess coyly waiting for her sun cloak before stepping from her shell.

A half-dozen dresses hung from a rack, their simple lines marred by patches and frayed hems. Candles had melted across a set of drawers, one ajar, a holed sun stocking dangling from the gap like a long-dead tongue. A search of the kitchenette yielded a half jar of instant coffee, a tube of condensed milk and a container of biscuits. Kat hesitated, then took the milk. It made an uncomfortable lump in her satchel next to her sun block and UV scarf, lip balm and purse.

And the faded poster of Venice was still taped across a crack in the wall, two people in carnival costumes and masks at a wharf, gondolas in the background.

‘We should get a gondola,’ Jess had said once, when Kat remarked about the poster, trying to take her mind off the fact that Jess was sitting on the edge of the bed, her legs so perfect as she pulled on much-mended sun-proof tights. ‘We can ferry tourists around. I’ll sing and you’ll pole.’

‘Why do I get to pole?’ Kat had asked.

‘Because you can’t sing,’ Jess had said, and smiled at her, kindly not cruelly, and stood, legs vanishing behind tight black cloth.
Kat poked her head through the bead-curtained doorway of the tiny en suite. Toiletries were missing, except for a nail polish, broken like a splash of blood on the tiled floor. Jess’s guitar was missing, too, but her small collection of battered CDs lay scattered on a book shelf next to a little scratched-up stereo covered with stickers of yellow flowers.

She flicked the radio on. The music sounded tinny, tired, as though the day was too hot to make the effort, and she turned it off. A couple of Bible-thick fantasy novels lay jumbled on another shelf; more books lay piled on the floor.

Jess had loved her books about Dry Brisbane, set – even written – in those distant days before the sea rose and the Australian coastline went Dutch, its cities huddling behind protective sea walls. But her favourite of them all was Venice of the Pacific, a book set in Brisbane after the breach. Terribly romantic, she’d said; it, more than any travel brochure, had brought her down from the Atherton Coast. Even if she’d been able to afford the plane ticket, Venice was long gone; the islands of Brisbane would have to do. ‘Like Romeo and Juliet,’ Jess said of the story, ‘only they drown in the end.’

Kat hadn’t bothered to read Venice of the Pacific, not once Jess had spoiled the ending. She kneeled to retrieve the thin volume, wondering why Jess hadn’t taken it if she had really left. Left without so much as a goodbye.

Anxiety crowded her, the room closing in. She wrenched open the French doors and stepped on to the balcony. The Juliet balcony, Jess had called it, but as far as Kat knew, Ryan had always used the stairs.

The springs squeaked as Kat lay back, and a musty scent rose,

like stale sex and dust, and she thought of Jess’s hair and the way it smelled.

Only hours before, she and Jess had sat side-by-side on the Gateway Bridge, imagining they could see this flat as they looked across the broken hulks of buildings in the bay, the stark silhouettes of towers against the lightening sky, the glitter of the rich enclaves sprinkled like fallen stars over the heights.

‘But it’s not quite Venice, is it?’ Jess had said.

‘It’s close enough, though, eh?’ Kat had replied. ‘There’s enough water for a gondola.’

‘Do you think it’s true what they say about the Gateway?’ Jess had asked.

‘What’s that?’

‘That all the rubbish of Brisbane floats past it on its way out to sea.’

‘I don’t think so.’ She had told Jess about Sandy and the plastic bottle.

‘Oh.’

‘So for most of us, us swampies at least, we’re kind of stuck here. We have to make the most of what we’ve got. With who we’ve got.’

Kat had reached, then, to take Jess’s hand, but Jess had stood up and wiped the grit from her clothes. The sun was rising, and neither of them were dressed for daytime. ‘We should go,’ Jess had said, ‘unless we want to get burnt.’

The sounds of the market intruded – hawkers’ cries and hagglers’ banter, the cry of gulls and rhythmic slap of wavelets, a busker’s violin. The smell of korma and kebab teased; they hadn’t eaten last night, just chips and nuts at the club before Ryan had crashed their party with his new squeeze.

Kat flipped the age-browned pages of Venice of the Pacific. Maybe Jess has left something, a message, a clue. Her hopes leapt as a flash of colour caught her eye.

A photograph: Jess and a guy with short-cropped hair and an earring. Ryan.

Would Jess have gone back to Ryan? Maybe they’d eloped – the perfect wedding cake couple in a gondola in Venice on their honeymoon.

Why hadn’t Jess taken the stereo? Because Ryan had a better one?

What about their plan for gondolas on the bay?

Kat tore Ryan’s side of the picture away and let it fall; Jess’s side she tucked into her bra before she went back inside. She sat on the bed, head in her hands, letting the desk fan blow tepid air on to her face. Tears leaked, hot and sticky on her cheeks.

What could she do? Row over to Balmoral, knock on Ryan’s door begging to see Jess? She imagined Ryan laughing at the poor, pathetic swampy begging her girlfriend to come back. And Jess, all concern but solid determination, saying in a new, posh accent, ‘But Catherine, you know I never loved you like that.’

The springs squeaked as Kat lay back, and a musty scent rose, like stale sex and dust, and she thought of Jess’s hair and the way it smelled, and imagined her here, by the door, turned to go, and Kat pushing against her back, arms around her, face pressed into her hair, inhaling it as she begged Jess to stay.

Kat curled on the bed and hugged Jess’s pillow. She cried and she slept and she dreamed of Jess in a guitar-shaped gondola with her hair haloed around her, one hand dragging in the water.

Night fell and she ate biscuits and lay on the bed and listened to the bustle of the evening market, watched the shapes thrown by the orange glow of kerosene lamps and oily citronella torches flickering through the cracks in the curtains. She thumbed through Venice of the Pacific, but ended up dropping it on the floor. It wasn’t her kind of story.

Towards morning she was roused by boots on the stairs, the slamming of doors – not Jess.

From outside came the muted burble of outboards, the calls of shop owners, squawking gulls announced a new day beginning. Kat washed her face, the pipes rattling and shrieking, and took a coffee on to the balcony and drank it as the sky lightened from black to grey. The stark peaks of the Story Bridge reminded her of being on the Gateway with Jess; Jess, mourning her relationship with Ryan, politely denying one with Kat. It hadn’t seemed like goodbye.

She tossed the dregs of the coffee and went back inside, gathered a few things in a sheet, then let herself out.

Jess’s canoe was missing. Kat took a share kayak. With the bundle of books and food, the stereo too, packed into the bow, she headed downstream.

It was a long paddle. Wary of the reefs of sunken boats, the shoals of ruined buildings left by the breach, she followed the edge of the channel marked by flashing red and green buoys. One day, they might make the Kangaroo Point lock, and build more dykes, and drain the city. One day.

The stars had vanished, the east bright with the threat of daybreak when she reached the Gateway, the single arch soaring overhead, the protruding stubs of its ruined twin like massive headstones in its seaward shadow. ‘Like Ozymandias,’ Jess had said, and then had to tell Kat who Ozymandias was.

A sightseeing boat pulled in at the landing. Kat ignored the gawking tourists disembarking in the predawn, protective sun hoods pulled up. One lady had a parasol that wiggled overhead as she battled to hold it and use her camera at the same time.

Leaving her hood down, Kat started the long walk up the steep curve. The bridge was a popular place for making out, given the view of New Moreton Bay and the Islands of Brisbane. The water shone like mercury, torn by the dark holes of ruins. Lights dotted the powered scrapers, buoys flashed, enclaves and the dry city glittered in an electric glow. A gaggle of kids sat strung out like cormorants across the top of the span, mostly in couples, but a few solitaries. It was also a popular suicide spot.

Kat found a space to herself, back turned to the rising sun. Its rays would light up the city’s towers, reflect golden off the glass, strike sparks from solar panels. For a few moments, even the squats of the swamp would look beautiful. Not like Venice, mind you, but beautiful nonetheless.

Kat retrieved the picture of Jess and let it flutter over the side. She imagined she saw the rectangle of paper hit the surface, but it was probably just a wave’s white cap. Tomorrow she’d go out with her gang, diving for salvage in the shallows. But today she’d stay here, watching the water. They say everything that gets thrown out in Brisbane passes under the Gateway, sooner or later.

Contrib jasonnahrung.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Jason Nahrung is a Ballarat-based journalist and editor whose fiction often veers to the dark side.
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