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Authors: Helen Blackhurst

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BOOK: Swimming on Dry Land
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When I open my eyes, Uncle Eddie is taking off my boots and socks. ‘What were you doing on the floor? I've got enough to worry about without you playing dead. That's a charmer of a bruise on your cheek.' He lays me on the settee and tucks a jumper underneath my head for a pillow.

Georgie! I point to the model of Akarula on the coffee table. Uncle Eddie can't see her. She is walking in between the buildings, so small she fits through the tiny doors of the cinema Uncle Eddie will build for Dad in a year or two.

The doctor examines me. Her hair is cut close and she is dressed in the dry browns of the bush. Not pretty, though her eyes sparkle behind her gold-rimmed glasses and she smiles all the time.

She tells Uncle Eddie that I'm out of the worst. ‘A bad dose of sunstroke. Keep her hydrated. Plenty of rest, plenty of fluids. If her temperature goes up again, give her a cold bath, and if you're still worried, have her flown out to the hospital.' When she's put everything back in her bag, she pulls a boiled sweet from her trouser pocket and presses it into my hand. ‘A bit of sugar to perk you up.' She winks at me. I like this doctor better than our English doctor. Doctor Sutton's breath used to smell of cheese mould and his hands were always cold.

I tell the doctor about Georgie being stuck in the cinema until Uncle Eddie butts in. ‘I don't think Susan's got time to hear about that now.'

The doctor is about to speak when Uncle Eddie steers her out of the room, stepping into the hall after her.

As he closes the door, she says ‘I didn't know you had a niece.'

Uncle Eddie's voice isn't so clear. He says something about being
full of surprises
and
if only
. I get up and accidentally lean on the door handle and it clicks open a little. Although they are whispering, I hear every word. Uncle Eddie tells the doctor about Georgie. She says she already knows. She says, ‘What did they say about the others?'

‘I haven't told them yet.'

‘You haven't told them? What are you waiting for?'

‘It's bad enough already.'

The doctor coughs before she says, ‘We both know it's going to get a lot worse. They have to understand what they're up against. You have to tell them before someone else does.'

‘What are they up against?'

‘Eddie…'

They go into the shop and once that door closes their voices cut out. I try to understand what's been said, only whichever way I play it back, it makes no sense. The doctor must be Uncle Eddie's friend. That's all I know.

I roll onto my side and concentrate on the model town. When Uncle Eddie gets back, I tell him right away: ‘There are too many houses on your model.'

‘In Australia, people move houses around. We'll get them back again one day,' he says, and then he tests me. ‘What does that stand for?' He points to the sign on the model by the pylon.

‘Electricity.'

‘Blue?'

‘Water supply.'

‘Green?'

Each building is colour-coded. Uncle Eddie must think I've got a short memory because he tests me all the time.

‘Do you want to help me with something?' he asks.

He goes into his office, coming back with a wad of envelopes, and sits down next to me. Then he starts writing cheques. I have to put them in the envelopes for him and seal them. When he has written the last cheque, he kisses the back of it and passes it to me. I wipe his kiss off on my t-shirt before I put the cheque inside the envelope and lick the seal.

Uncle Eddie's eyes are alight, like a motorway, with hundreds of speeding thoughts racing through them. He gets up and goes over to the mini fridge where he keeps the beer, flipping the top off one of the stubby bottles. After taking a long gulp, he slams the bottle down on the counter and his eyes grow even bigger, as if he's been hit by a giant brain wave.

‘I'll deliver these today, before anyone starts getting ideas.' Uncle Eddie carries on mumbling to himself, thinking aloud. I can't make out half of what he's saying. Eventually I interrupt.

‘She can't get out.' I point at the cinema.

‘Who can't get out?'

‘Georgie. They've locked the doors.'

Uncle Eddie screws up his eyes and smiles a small smile. ‘Your mum and dad should be back soon.'

‘She's in the cinema. I saw her.'

He stares at me for a moment, and then kneels down beside the model. ‘What is she watching?'

‘
The Wizard of Oz
.'

He rests back on his heels and lets his eyes skip about the room. ‘At least someone's having fun.' Fixing his eyes on the model, he starts mumbling again, something about the town, I can't make it out; I don't even want to. When Uncle Eddie goes on like this, his voice settles into a thin grey line. I imagine walking that line, like a tightrope, just for fun.

I tug at his arm to get his attention back before I say: ‘She's afraid of the witch.'

‘We're all afraid of that witch. Why don't you ask Georgie where she's hiding?'

‘She's in there.' I point at the cinema again.

‘Alright then, we'd best get her out.' He reaches down and pretends to open the cinema doors, which are about the size of his thumb.

‘They're locked,' I tell him. He doesn't believe me. I hardly believe myself, but I saw her; she went straight through the doors.

‘Well then, let's find the key.' He rummages around in his pocket and pulls out the key to the shop and hands it to me.

‘That's the shop key.' I can't breathe fast enough. Georgie is trying to breathe too. ‘You'll be alright. Don't worry,' I tell her. The inside of my body changes colour from green to black to freezing blue. Uncle Eddie jumps up and goes over to the window.

‘I'll sort it out,' he says, spinning round and shooting out through the door. I can hear him in the shop, talking to the woman who works on Saturdays. She is asking about Georgie.

‘The women went out early. At least they know what to do,' the woman says.

Uncle Eddie doesn't tell her that Georgie is in the cinema. When he comes back again, he's got another key.

‘This should do it,' he says, hunching down beside the model, placing the key in front of the cinema doors as if I'm stupid. ‘We need to make sure Georgie knows the way back. There are things in this model that haven't materialised yet. She might get confused.' He glances sideways at me, suddenly serious. ‘Look. She'll come out of these doors, once we've opened them, and walk around here, past the train station.' He traces the route with the tip of his finger. ‘She takes a left onto the main street.'

‘What if the witch follows her?'

‘She'll have to run – down by these houses and out onto the mine track, then turn off for the water tank. When she gets to the tank, there'll be a hot-air balloon waiting to bring her home.'

‘What about the witch?'

‘Well, the balloon is by the water tank, right? So say the witch follows her. When Georgie gets to the tank, she'll wait until the witch is right beside her and then, quick as a wink, she'll push her in, jump into the balloon, and off she goes.'

‘The witch drowns?'

‘Shrivels up. Witches don't like water, remember?'

I start telling Georgie the plan. I sketch the whole thing out in my notebook, like a sort of map, to show her the way. She gets easily lost. And as you know, she can't read. I haven't told anyone about her leg. How can she run with a twisted leg? When I think of this, it makes me feel as if my skin has been turned inside out.

‘She'll have plenty of stories to tell when she gets back, won't she?' Uncle Eddie says. ‘You need some sleep.' When I lie back down on the settee, he adds, ‘I ought to check what's going on. Will you be alright for a while?' He makes me drink some more water.

Then I think of something. ‘Uncle Eddie, Georgie wants me to tell you that Dorothy doesn't get home in the hot-air balloon. The balloon takes off without her. She has to click her ruby slippers.'

‘Does Georgie have any ruby slippers?'

‘She has her red clogs but she's not wearing them.'

‘Then she'll just have to catch the balloon.'

He taps me on the top of my head with his bunch of envelopes. ‘I won't be long,' he says, waving the envelopes in the air as he leaves. ‘Karlin's in the shop, if you need anything.' I can tell Uncle Eddie is frightened too. He doesn't say so, but I can tell. I keep my eye on the model of the cinema, waiting for Georgie to come out. Every so often she appears, and then she disappears. I don't get a chance to say goodbye.

EDDIE

On the way out, I ask Karlin to help herself to an ice-cream. She's leafing through the petrol coupons. Her blondish curls hide her eyes until she flicks her head back, rearranging her hair with a sweep of her hand. I watch her for a second. You couldn't call her beautiful, but she's strong, firm, and her skin is softer than it looks. I reckon she's about the same age as her predecessor – Shena Walker couldn't have been more than thirty, thirty-two perhaps. Shena was the second one to disappear.

‘Moni's inside,' I say to Karlin, who nods, her face hardening as she turns away. At one time, I would have kissed her, before Caroline. I would have washed that hardness away.

The door judders behind me before the latch clicks in. I consider turning back. Maybe this isn't such a good idea. People might think I'm trying to hide something; they might ask questions.
Where is the money coming from?
Still, on balance, all things considered, what else can I do? A few hundred might be incentive enough for them to stay, buy me some time.
Sugar the old girl
, as my father used to say. The old man used to say a lot of things.

I slip my sunglasses on and tilt my hat forwards to stop the glare. It took me a while to get used to this climate, to the run of empty land. But one day I just knew. The whole country had climbed inside me overnight and there was no going back. Still, on days like this, you'd rather be anywhere else.

I don't take the truck, despite the heat. With all that's going on, I need to clear my head. Walking helps; it slows me down. So, the facts are, Georgie fell through a shaft and must have crawled her way along the tunnels. Once we scour the place properly – the detectives will bring dogs, they always do – we'll find her. She's underground, protected from the sun. It is possible she'll have nothing more than a few cuts and bruises. Why drag up the other two? Georgie hasn't disappeared.

I round the bend and approach the ghost gum tree, the one solitary tree in this town. Whatever else there was must have got knocked when they set up the first mine. The land was clear when we brought in the houses – twenty-six of them. Now of course there are only twenty-one, nine on the left and twelve on the right, including the bar and the general store. Still, it could be worse; I could have lost them all.

The white walls of the houses give off a glare. It's not hot, the day is only getting started, but this kind of light cuts right through you. Mr M's shadow stretches out under the tangle of branches, lying flat against the red dirt like a stain. Outback sun can play tricks on you, make you think you've lost your senses. I was up early one morning, months ago. Admittedly, I had a bit of drink inside me from the night before, but I could swear I saw that tree doing some kind of dance. The branches were moving. Don't get me wrong; I'm not into all this superstitious hoohaa some folk round here subscribe to. Cursed my arse. You'd want to hear the stories they cook up: snatching spirits or demons or God knows what.

In some ways, I blame Mr M. He sits under that tree all day, doing nothing – it makes people uneasy. I've tried to get him on his feet, offered him one of the mobile homes in exchange for a few hours manning the pumps. You'd think I'd asked him to paint the sky, the way he gawked at me. Mind you, he helped us out when Ted Hanson went missing. He knows this land backwards; every rock, every inch of arid bush. It's hard to imagine Akarula without him.

I stop just short of the tree and flick the brim of my hat. ‘No doubt you've heard?' Mr M looks past me, and nods and breathes a little. I'm less put out by his silence than I used to be. ‘They'll fish her out in no time.' I laugh, though it sounds more like a stutter.

‘Them holes is what's causing all the trouble,' he says, stating the obvious. His face tightens as he thinks. I wait for more. There is no way of knowing whether the old man – not old so much as weathered – is done. Eventually I shake a finger at him and move on. He offers me his own finger flick. A man of few words, and yet the air is buzzing with him. He seems to stretch out beyond himself. I don't know what happened to the rest of his clan.

On reaching the first house, I post one of the envelopes through the door. A healthy cheque should do the job. Whatever people say, money can buy a man's mind, if not his soul. You don't choose to be an opal miner for the lifestyle. No, it's all about winning the jackpot, finding that magic stone. I understand the need for risk, for something more, something beyond the ordinary. I wrote the bloody book on it!

BOOK: Swimming on Dry Land
13.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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