By Liam Konemann
When October creeps up, it brings summer with it. It gets too hot to sleep and we strip ourselves naked, kick the covers all the way down to the end of the bed as late night crosses over into early morning. Our bodies glisten with sweat and it plasters us to the fitted sheet’s blue cotton, leaving damp stains wherever we lay a palm or ankle. The air-conditioner is broken and even the coldest setting gives us nothing but hot air churning above our heads and that low, mechanical death rattle. We spend hours caught adrift in that place between wakefulness and sleep, until finally in the heat-sodden delirium she reaches out to me and whispers, “take me to the river”.
We’re driving down the highway with the windows down, because she said she wants to be able to smell it when the air changes. Lyza flicks through radio stations, skipping over Top 40 and Indie Rock and Country music until she lands on a song she remembers from her childhood. She turns the radio up and tilts her head back as she finds her place, eyes closed tight underneath those huge sunglasses. She sings along loudly, not quite word-perfect but close enough to convince me that she once knew all the lyrics. Her hand floats out the window as we hit Ballina, palm surfing the currents of salt-soaked air. There are kids riding their bikes on the dirt shoulder of the highway, and Lyza wonders aloud where their parents are. I shrug, flick on my indicator to change lanes and say, “Anywhere. Home, probably. The RSL.”
“But they should be watching them,” she says.
She turns around in her seat to watch as the kids veer off and slip down a track beside the river.
When they disappear amongst the trees, she looks back at me.
“Shouldn’t they?” She asks.
Lyza was raised upper-middle-class in an inner-city suburb with one neat, ballerina sister, the both of them private-school educated, both A-standard students. A life full of hyphens. Her childhood was neat hedges, smooth footpaths and bright Jacaranda trees that showered you with purple flowers in the Spring. She can’t fathom an upbringing like mine, didn’t have days when her skin was fifty percent mud and grazes, and she never dug for bloodworms with bare hands peppered by mosquito bites. To her, my childhood is as foreign and idyllic as an Enid Blyton story.
She’s looking at me with raised eyebrows and open mouth, her mind conjuring images of abductions or gruesome bicycle accidents.
I tell her, “Things are safer here.”
The late afternoon sun hits us as we cross the last bridge, gold rays melting into the Clarence River like toffee on a hot day. Lyza sleeps, the wind scattering her fringe across her forehead. I follow the curve of the river past houses and cane fields, a memory on each corner and in the branches of every tree. There, the edge of that field, that’s where I kissed that girl. The first girl. And there by the upturned tinny is where I smoked my first and last cigarette, pilfered from my mate’s old man and gravel-rough on fifteen year-old lungs. The road is old and uneven, and Lyza jolts awake as one of the car’s wheels dips briefly into a pothole.
“Are we there?” She asks, mouth stretching around a yawn.
I dip my head to one side, the bastard offspring of a nod and a shrug.
She hums, stretches and settles back into her seat. The air filtering through her window is cane-sweet and mud-heavy, and it cycles through the air-conditioning over and over like my favourite song playing on repeat.
We pass the tiny general store and the ANZAC monument, and Lyza cranes her neck to see over the coffee trees as we pull up in front of the house. I turn the car off, grip the steering wheel a moment too long.
“This is it?” She asks.
I nod. “This is it.”
She tilts her head back to take in the slanted tin roof, its sharp edges jutting towards us. If I look over her shoulder I can see flaking white paint and the corner of my mother’s bedroom window peeking through the trees. She glances back at me and raises her eyebrows.
“So are we going in?”
I push the car door open and lead her around to the side of the house, up the stairs to the back door. The door creaks open under my palm, the ancient fly screen sagging in the middle. Mum never did lock the bloody door. We duck into the gloomy house, almost colliding with the dining table. It’s always closer than I remember it being.
“Stay here,” I tell Lyza.
She stands in the sunlight cast by the open door as I cross the dark room, sidestepping around aging, mismatched furniture to reach the window. I tug open the curtains and let the daylight flood in, the dust particles caught floating in its pool. Lyza wanders into the centre of the room, shoes scuffing on the worn floorboards. She turns in a tight circle, eyes roving over the faded couch and once-white walls as she breathes in the smell of dirt and damp.
“So this is where you grew up,” she says.
I almost tell her that I’m still growing up, not quite thirty and not quite mature yet, but instead I shrug, nod and say, “My childhood home in all its glory.”
She ducks out of the room and down the hallway and I follow her, watching as she lingers in the doorway of each room. When she reaches the end of the hall she turns and walks halfway back to me. She stops and leans against a doorjamb, fingers running over the dulled paint. Lyza tilts her head towards the room.
“This one?” she asks.
I nod. She pushes off the door frame and steps into my old bedroom, running a palm over one warped wall. Lyza sits on the bed pressed up against one corner, the dust-heavy covers wrinkling and dipping beneath her. I hover in the hall, unwilling to enter quite that far into my own past. She takes her shoes and socks off and curls her knees up to her chest, feet resting on the edge of the bed. I go to say something about the state of the house, to tell her that dirty shoeprints won’t make all that much of a difference, but I change my mind at the last moment and swallow my words instead. She pats the space beside her and waves for me to come in.
“Scared of a little dirt?” she teases.
“Scared that bed’s going to collapse, more like,” I say.
She smiles, tilts her head and waits. I shake my head and laugh even though it isn’t funny.
Crossing over the threshold and into the room doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. The floor in here creaks just the same as it does in the hall, and the air is just as stale. It doesn’t seem like a profound homecoming, like the return of the prodigal son. I just feel like an overly tall child, standing in a forgotten room in an abandoned house. For a moment, I see myself from a different angle and I wonder how it is that I could have run for so long and moved so little. I sit on the bed and lean into my girlfriend, and she rubs a hand over my back as I stare blankly out the window. It’s closed. When I left it was open behind me, too far above the ground for me to pull it shut after I had tumbled out into the long grass. I pushed my bag out first and then clambered after it, the night air cool on my skin. In the other bedrooms, my mother and my brothers and sister slept on. I always assumed that if and when I came home, they’d still be there fast asleep, not missing me at all. Never even noticing I’d been gone weeks or months or years. Life, of course, moves on whether you pay attention to it or not. My siblings grew up and scattered to the wind and in the gap between their visits my mother died suddenly, a stroke, with no one to find her crumpled and vacant on the bathroom floor. And the house was closed for business.
Lyza strokes the back of my neck, her fingers playing with the ends of my hair. She presses her lips to my temple and whispers something that sounds both pointless and meaningful, even though I can’t make out the words. I’m not crying, I don’t think, but something tickles my cheek and when I reach up to swipe at it the tips of my fingers come away damp. Lyza turns my head towards her and kisses my lips, breathes the life back into me. When she pulls back she puts her hand in mine and murmurs, “The river. Show me the river.”
It always seems to call out to me, from across state borders and highways and chicken-wire fences. I hear it, and I feel it pulling me back like some kind of Siren, like I’m writing a new Odyssey. Creeks and estuaries flow into creeks and estuaries and I follow them, always making my home somewhere in sight of the water as if I belong to it. As if it belongs to me. It’s the smell that hits first, then the taste of the air. Somehow rotting, fresh and salty all at the same time, like the doorway of a fishmonger’s. I need it. I use it to clear the dust and petrol fumes out of my head. I lead Lyza to the banks, both of us barefoot as we stand ankle deep in the dark mud. It’s dusk, and mosquitos buzz around our elbows and knees, tapping into our veins before flying off fatter than before. The water laps up over our feet and Lyza lets go of my hand, bends forward to inspect the guppies swimming back and forth in silver clouds. She stands up, tucks her hair behind her ears and smiles at me.
“I like it here,” she says.
I breathe out, dig my toes further into the mud and laugh even though this isn’t funny either.
“I feel safer here,” I say.
Liam Konemann is a young Australian writer who wandered off one day and found himself in the most expensive city in the world. He currently lives in East London, and can be found online at @Liam_Konemann.
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