The Bay looked over at Pebble Street with mild interest as a battle-hardened station wagon pulled up to the largest of the waterfront mansions.
It was a clear winter morning and the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows reflected the oily water with a clarity The Bay could only dream of. A family clambered out of the car and gazed in adoration at their new home. Watching them, The Bay felt very old – older than she should have felt. She had watched the coast since summers began and could remember the very first humans that walked her shoreline and used nothing but the scrub around them to build their homes. The Bay welcomed them as they waded into the water to hunt fish and collect stones. She listened to them sing and tell stories on the sand. On some days, when the sunset was particularly vibrant, she could still recall the words.
But not so long ago a new group of humans invaded and filled the coast with sounds of running, shouts and explosions. The new humans were interesting, but not kind: blood trickled into the water and booted footprints carved their way across the sand. They inserted pipes into The Bay that force-fed her faeces and street litter; they strangled the underwater creatures with plastic and set foreign animals on The Bay’s beachside friends. The fish grew smaller, the trees fewer and, bit-by-bit, the shoreline was sectioned off to support glass mansions and neatly-trimmed grass.
The white-haired, retired couple who had built the largest house didn’t stay there long. Soon after they settled, the coastline began to change: summers grew hotter and The Bay began to receive new gifts. Not just plastic, but birds from different places with exciting calls and warm stories. She missed the bees that used to hover over her, but she was happy to accept more water – water from a colder place that made it easier for her to reach the shoreline and watch the humans.
At first the retirees didn’t seem to react to the rising water. They went on as usual. But from her new vantage point, The Bay noticed fresh wrinkles appear on their faces, and their comings and goings becoming more urgent. After only a few summers, real estate agents began showing the home to others. Like their neighbours up and down the street, they offered up the whole mansion for less than a third of what they’d paid for the land.
The Bay had a direct view of the new family moving in through the glass walls, as did anyone who was driving along the beach. The previous occupants had relished that exposure. They used to strut around the living room, beautifully dressed, sneaking glances down at the passers by to see if they were looking up at them. The new occupants moved differently – not with quiet satisfaction, but glee. Little piths of spray leaned closer to the rocks to watch the family drag a one-armed couch to the living room window; with dazzled expressions, the family looked out across the water, staring past the docking cranes that were being moved higher above the waterline.
There were two children – both girls. Just after they arrived at their new home, they ran across the road to meet The Bay. She licked their hands and they giggled and placed withering flowers on her rippling surface. These girls weren’t beautifully dressed. Their hair was greasy and their clothes were the wrong sizes, but they seemed content. They played on the grass until after the sun had set, and whenever they came close to the water, The Bay could remember more of the words words from the original humans’ songs.
The Bay began to watch over the children. The taller girl was called Connie, the smaller Lottie. Every day Connie would enclose Lottie’s struggling hand in her own and walk her to school along the shore, allowing small stops along the way for skipping stones. The Bay would help them practise, dredging the thrown stones out of her depths and placing them back on the sand to be found the next morning.
Yet as much as The Bay tried to give the girls her full attention, she was getting distracted. The immigrant droplets from distant lands had grown from a dribble to a steady flow. She could see the grass dying where her tide was soaking more of the parkland, and she worried for the birds and insects that used it as their feeding ground. The colder droplets told The Bay they had once been frozen to an icy landmass, but warmth had forced them to migrate. They had slipped, one by one, to join the salty rushes that carried them to this polluted coastline.
When spring came around The Bay could feel Connie and Lottie’s excitement for the school holidays. On the last day of term, Lottie tugged right out of her sister’s grip and ran ahead to show her mum an invitation to a party. Connie walked behind with her eyes to her phone, texting plans to her friends. The Bay saw Connie’s Mum laugh and tell the girls they could party after they helped bring the washing in. It was going to rain soon.
Late that night, as thick clouds divulged rain overhead, The Bay felt a surge of cold water rushing underneath her, lifting and tossing her towards the shore in violent swells. Waves crashed over the jetties and smashed yachts against each other. The boats came up over the picnic areas and football ovals and collided with the playground equipment. The Bay watched, helpless, as Connie and Lottie and all the children along the street were snatched from their beds by their parents and hauled away from the attacking water. Their terrified faces came closer and then receded from The Bay’s view with every motion of her waves.
The Bay reached the road outside the abandoned houses and sprayed against their front fences before she calmed and crept back across the grass, taking pieces of playground debris and yacht hulls with her. She perched herself just at the edge of the parkland, dreading the moment she would be pushed forward again.
The Bay watched the clean-up from her new position, marvelling at the speed in which things went back to normal. There were small changes though. A new project began to move the docking cranes to an even higher position, and Connie and Lottie’s parents were heard arguing regularly. The Bay caught snippets shouted through the glass: ‘…tied up in the mortgage…unsellable…huge mistake…’.
When school started again the girls no longer walked beside the water but stuck as close as they could to the picket fences across the road. They would sneak glances towards the rippling shore and then look away, as though afraid the water would reach out and swallow them.
This was the summer that never really left. Salty droplets kissed the grass more and more, eventually streaming right across the parkland. The Bay swelled with hope when Connie and Lottie came wading out across the new shoreline. But instead of playing, the girls solemnly helped their parents dig into the grass with trowels, collecting washed-up sand for hessian bags to place across their fence line. When they finished for the day, The Bay nudged a perfect skipping stone into Lottie’s gumboots. Lottie picked it up and readied her arm, but her face changed and she slammed the rock into the shallows and splashed away while it sank.
Even when the days shortened the air still hung warm and thick. Storms came frequently now and during each one, The Bay would swell to reach the road, pouring over the gutter and making small slurping sounds as she disappeared into the storm-water drain. The Pebble Street residents were terrified of admitting the mistake they’d made in buying the mysteriously-cheap waterfront homes. They seemed determined to act as though nothing was wrong, even when the water spilled onto the road and lapped at the passing cars.
One night the girls’ parents came splashing across the road, carrying a toolbox and a crow bar. Once they reached the flooded jetty, they set the toolbox down and began to work, prying the rotting beams free and carrying them one by one back to the house. Over the next few weeks the family used the planks to build a deck around the second floor of the house, with ladders and stairs leading up to it. They took out a side window and replaced it with the bathroom door. Lottie broke into a giggling fit at the idea that their new front door had once lead to a toilet, and her parents smiled because they hadn’t heard her laugh in a while.
A month later The Bay reached the sandbags outside the Pebble Street fences. The sand held, but the water crept around them. Waves crashed into back gardens and surged through gaps under doors and windows. The Bay witnessed a street-wide scramble to move furniture upstairs.
Denial had ceased. The Pebble Street residents gutted the shoreline. Remaining jetty beams were pilfered, as were washed up boats, playground equipment and park benches. Connie came up with a game to entertain Lottie: they had to race from one end of the street to the other without touching the water, scrambling over the neighbours’ inventive house extensions. They climbed up playground slides propped up against second floor windows and crossed bridges made of jetty beams.
One day an Official Person in thigh-high gumboots waded along the road with a tape measure and a clipboard. He climbed up to each house to knock on makeshift entrances and talk to the remaining residents. The Bay caught snatches of him talking to Connie and Lottie’s parents, listening from inside the ground floor. The girls’ mother was angry; their father pleaded for him to find them another place to live. But the Official Person was powerless and apologetic. He shook his head one last time and waded back to safety.
The days grew longer again and the heat grew worse. The Bay mingled with the waterlogged drains and waste began to flow freely, carried by a tide that moved in and out like cancerous lungs. The smell was unbearable: a mix of rotting meat, mildew and faeces.
Lottie was the first in the family to get sick. Her father carried her through the trash soup to where their car was parked inland and sped away. The Bay never saw her again. She soon missed the tread of her blossom-patterned gumboots through the muck.
Connie remained, canoeing to dry land each day on her way to school. Sometimes she would lie down in the canoe and let the water carry her wherever it wanted. But The Bay struggled to support her, weighed down by pollution and despondency. Old animal friends had either run away from her or were now corpses floating just below her surface. Even the water rats paddled to shore, shook the excrement from their fur, and wandered away to seek home elsewhere.
When the power went out it was too dangerous to repair, and dysentery flowed through the houses as fast as the first flood. The residents filled the water with waste from their bodies and lay on their roofs, unable do anything beyond stare.
It was a full moon when a team of Official People came back to the waterlogged street. The Bay could see the mouldering houses reflected across her surface, the once crystal window panes now looking like black obsidian. Motorboats with big red crosses painted on their hulls dodged past the floating debris towards the struggling families.
Connie and her mother were found camped in the living room, eating tinned food in the dark and nursing Connie’s sick father. Connie’s mother was too tired to be angry with the Official People this time. She stumbled into the boat and curled up in a thermal blanket, hiding her face from the night.
As the boats ferried everyone away, Connie gazed out at The Bay one last time. She stared past the ghostly docking cranes that had been toppled by the waves, her eyes asking a question that the water couldn’t answer.