Authors: Helen Blackhurst
Swimming on Dry Land
The whole town is out looking for Georgie. She's been missing two days now. She is two rulers smaller than me, with curly mouse-brown hair and a crooked thumb on her left hand. Last seen, she was wearing my orange cardigan. When I say the whole town, I mean the women. It's a mining town. Most of the men are five miles away at the central site. Except Dad and Uncle Eddie. They're helping the detectives work out what to do next. Mum is in charge. She and her best friend, Maddie, are leading a group of women out the Wattle Creek road. She told me to stay in bed. The reason I am not in bed is because I don't feel ill. We should have stayed in England. Things like this only happen in Australia.
We moved here a year ago because Uncle Eddie said he'd help us out. Uncle Eddie is pretty good that way. I clean his house and he gives me pocket money, although there isn't much to spend it on. If we were at home, I'd be able to get books from Wogan's Bookshop â three for a pound. Mrs Wogan used to give me the really dirty ripped-around-the-edges ones for free. I miss Wogan's. There are nine books in my suitcase, but I've read them all at least ten times. I've read Dad's books too. When we go home, the first thing I'm going to do is bike down to Wogan's. Mrs Wogan probably won't recognise me. My skin is freckly brown now, and my hair is twice as long. Did you know that Georgie can't read? She only looks at the pictures.
The way it works in Akarula is that Dad helps Uncle Eddie, when he's feeling up to it, and Mum does just about everything else. I'm in charge of Georgie. That's why, whichever way you look at it, this is all my fault.
We are playing hide and seek the day Georgie disappears. It's the kind of game she likes. She is only four. I'm nearly twelve. She goes off to hide and I sit on the caravan steps and watch Dad feed the birds. He's like a statue, standing there behind Uncle Eddie's house, his stretched-out hand full of birdseed. Those Galahs must love him. They're beautiful: pink and grey, like old ladies' coats. I do a sketch of him and the birds in my notebook. Mum thinks Dad shouldn't feed the birds. She doesn't realise they would die without him. Dad is mad about wildlife. He likes birds and insects the most.
When I'm done, I shove my notebook in the back pocket of my pedal-pushers and head off to look for Georgie. The sun is scorching. I use my cap to shade my eyes. I'm getting used to the heat. In the first few weeks I could hardly move, but once you slow down and keep your head covered, it's not so bad. I look between the cars, the trucks and road trains parked up behind the pumps; most of them have Lansdowne Mining Corporation stamped on the side in green lettering. You'd want to see these road trains, great huge things. I wouldn't mind driving one some day.
Georgie usually hides in between the wheels. But I can't see her. She's not behind the oil barrels either, or the pile of old tyres thrown in the scrub on the edge of the tarmac. I search around the outside of Uncle Eddie's shed, which is padlocked, so she can't be inside. I'll kill her if she ruins my cardigan. It doesn't even fit her properly; the sleeves are way too long.
I climb Red Rock Mountain. It's not really a mountain, more like a big rock that sticks up behind the caravan. Dad calls it a mountain. Compared with the flat bush around, I suppose it is. It's quite steep; halfway up you have to crawl and grab hold of the jutting ledges. Uncle Eddie has warned us to watch out for snakes. I keep my eyes peeled. Not been lucky yet though. I love snakes. I've got a book of snakes with all the Latin names and what they do and whether they are poisonous or not. There are seven families of snakes in Australia, about 140 species. The most deadly ones are brown snakes, copperheads, death adders, red-bellied black snakes, taipans, and tiger snakes. Those clumps of scrub grass dotted over the rock are good places for them to hide.
The last stretch is the hardest. It's really steep. You have to watch where you're putting your hands. Once I'm at the top, I make my way over to the highest rock. From up here you can see the whole town. The mine is pretty far off but the machines stick out in the cleared scrub. Then there's the water tank, and nearer still, Akarula town. It's not much of a town: a long red dirt road with one-storey houses on either side, a general store that sells everything â except books â and the bar. The road bends just after the tree at the end and loops round to our service station. You can't go farther than us. The road just stops. If you drive the other way, you'll eventually get to Adelaide, I think. Or somewhere. You have to pass through Wattle Creek, which is why everyone calls it the Wattle Creek road. Behind the street are the mobile homes and trailers; beyond them, hundreds of termite mounds sticking up like gravestones, spreading out into the bush. No sign of Georgie. Nothing moves, except the road trains and mining trucks, and the odd beaten-up car. There is no wind either. Sometimes when I'm walking, I feel as if I'm standing still.
I can see Mr M sitting underneath the white-barked tree. He can't see me though, which is a good thing. He doesn't like people climbing Red Rock Mountain in case they wake the Rainbow Snake. I've never seen that snake and I've stamped and shouted really loud on this rock. Imagine a snake the size of this rock! Mr M always sits under that tree, must be his favourite place. I don't really have a favourite place here. At home I had the den behind the rhododendron bushes. Me and my best friend Janice used to stack our worm jars along the entrance so no one would come in. Georgie sometimes moved them though, just to annoy us. That's another thing about Akarula: there aren't any children. Maddie told me they all left before we came. Me and Georgie play with Mr M instead â not all the time, but sometimes. He knows lots of magic tricks, and stories, really good ones. Georgie thinks he's BLAST. There aren't many people Georgie thinks are BLAST. BLAST means brilliant, in case you didn't know. I'll bet he knows where she's hiding. Mr M knows things that no one else knows, secret things, things you won't find written in a book. I know a few things too. For example, his real name isn't Mr M, it is Mr Markarrwala.
The street is empty. All the women must be indoors. It's too hot to walk around. The roar of engines pulling in and out of the service station sounds like music from up here, underwater music, mixed in with the chatter of cicadas; after a while it's hard to tell which is which. I've only ever seen dead cicadas â empty dry wing shells. I think something sucks out their insides for food. Uncle Eddie says their bodies float up to heaven. Dad says they change their skins. No one really knows. I've often wondered what it must be like to know the answer to everything. Dad knows most things, but not everything. Maybe you'd just be bored because you wouldn't bother reading books, and there'd be no point talking to anyone because you'd already know whatever it was they were going to say. God must be bored, or else he makes himself forget what he knows and then goes about trying to remember things. I don't really believe in God. But I don't not believe in him either. For all I know, God is sitting up there in the sky counting all those sucked-out cicadas.
I scan the whole place looking for Georgie, trying to get the dead cicadas out of my head. Sometimes I start to think about things, and then I can't stop. I see all these fleshy insides floating around, leaking. Hundreds of them. Thousands. I try not to breathe too much in case I suck one in by mistake. I turn around to look out the other side, the side with the service station and the last stretch of road. While I'm half-breathing, I spot my orange cardigan, way out in the bush. The cicadas disappear as I squint, trying to pick out Georgie in amongst the scrub grass. I loop a thumb and fingers around each eye, making my hands into binoculars to cut out the glare. Those cicadas still ring in my ears â they haven't gone away â I just don't see them any more. I can't see Georgie either, only my cardigan. I told her it was too hot to wear a cardigan. She doesn't listen; that's why Mum calls her Cloth Ears. I take my time climbing down. Mum told us not to cross the road because it's dangerous. Half the time I think Georgie just doesn't understand plain English.
When I get to the bottom of Red Rock Mountain I need a drink. You have to drink regularly in this heat, otherwise you'll dry out and your body will shrivel up like the cicadas. That's why we carry these water bottles. Dad's idea. We wear them over our shoulders. My strap has mice on it and my bottle is dark green. Georgie's is purple with a rabbit strap â they don't look much like rabbits if you ask me. I wanted the purple one, but Georgie made a big fuss so I said I'd have the green one instead.
The caravan door is open, and there's Dad sitting at the table reading an old
magazine, wearing his pyjamas and the cowboy hat Uncle Eddie gave him.
âAlright, love?' he says, putting the magazine down to scoop an ant off the table. He throws it out of the window. âWhere's Georgie?'
âHiding.' I take a swig of water before putting my bottle under the tap. Dad nods and half-opens and closes his mouth and makes a clicking sound. âWhere's Mum?'
âIn the shop.'
Dad doesn't talk much since he started taking the pink pills.
âSee you later,' I tell him, screwing the top onto my bottle.
He raises his hand to the side of his head and salutes me like a sergeant major. That's Dad for you.
Once I've crossed the tarmac, I walk round behind the shop where Uncle Eddie lives. The shop is connected to Uncle Eddie's bungalow. It's got sweets and drinks, stuff for the car, that sort of thing. The bungalow behind has three rooms, not counting the bathroom: a sitting-room and two other rooms, one he uses as an office. He's not in his office; the blinds are down. I haul one of the beer crates underneath the sitting-room window and stand on it; see if I can give him a fright. He is humped on the settee in his collared t-shirt and socks. Mum is underneath him, naked, except for her neck scarf. They're doing it. One of them has knocked the water tank off Uncle Eddie's miniature model of Akarula town. They should have moved the model farther away before they started. The sight of them makes me feel sick. Mum made me promise. She said Uncle Eddie has been very good to us. She said if I go telling Dad, he'll get ill again. And then she said: you wouldn't want to be the one to make him ill, would you? I said I wouldn't, but she doesn't have to go doing it in the daytime when everyone can see. I don't bother banging on the window. All I know is that I'd never let a man do that to me.
I climb down off the crate and chuck it in a pile with the rest of them. Then I cross the road and pick my way through the scrub, swallowing to try and get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth. Spitting doesn't help. Each time I breathe, the heat burns the inside of my nose.
You've got to pay attention. Some of these rocks and dry grasses can slice right through you. If Georgie has gone and cut herself, I'll be in trouble. I can hear Mum already.
I told you not to take your eyes off her. What were you doing? You know she can't be left alone.
Then she'll make such a swanny about Georgie, with the plasters and the bandages, me and Dad will have to run around doing whatever Georgie wants. That's how it works. Some days I wish Georgie had never been born.
I keep walking and walking and walking. At first it's hard to remember exactly where I spotted my cardigan. It doesn't take me long though. That cardigan is like a radar. She has flung it on a rock, which means she can't be far away. If I was Georgie, I wouldn't go flinging someone else's good cardigan on a rock just because I got too hot and couldn't be bothered carrying it. Dad always says you've got to do the right thing, no matter what. I once asked him, what if you don't know which thing is the right thing? He didn't answer. He's right though. Georgie is like Mum; she doesn't care.