By Alice Bishop
This story was shortlisted for Right Now’s Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
Oscar split a silver packet of chips as soon as we got in the car that day, headed for Warrandyte—the pop filling the cabin before rushing out the once masking-taped gap in the sunroof. “Don’t want any?” he asked, looking at me with blue eyes, faded like the plastic pegs of our line. And I tried to convince myself they were not that way from a lack of sleep, vitamins or, most importantly, from something missing in me. Perhaps it was growing up in Hamilton, years spent in always just-overgrown lawns separated by brick fences low enough to step over. It would have been hard to adjust to the city and life in my white-walled, boxed-in unit. I wished, then, that the radio or cassette slot was working, so someone else’s mix tape could cover the sounds that accompanied us as we drove down Jumping Creek Road: the crunch of chips in Oscar’s mouth, the buffeting windows and the tapping of his feet on the dash.
I had packed the blue esky with things from the weekend papers: olive tapenade, ciabatta loaf, some of those tiny violet-skinned tomatoes. It was nice to do the things I always thought proper couples did, like buying food listed in the weekend papers, even if Oscar always preferred I spend money elsewhere. I’d packed gin and honey, lemons too, and the plastic cups I had unpacked from the garage, their liquid glitter sides swirling gold when you tipped them. “Got the smokes?” Oscar asked as we pulled up beside some park bins that were being picked apart by Currawongs, yellow-eyed and shiny. And I assumed the joke meant he was in a good mood, making us think of the night he’d crossed the bar to meet me in my mustard dress, a cigarette tucked awkwardly behind his freckled ear. “Come share my last,” he’d said, though it was the first of many we smoked together before both quitting one December, the year his mother found out her lungs had begun to stop working, her voice fading at the other end of the telephone line.
Oscar pulled off his thin t-shirt as we walked down the dirt track to the Yarra, wrapping it tightly around his head before rubbing the leftover streaks of sunscreen into his speckled skin. The smell of it always reminded me of being small, of the weekends my mother forgot to reapply, my skin blistering, then sometimes sticking to cotton before I had to be soaked in the bath, clothes and all. “I’ll do your back when we get there,” Oscar said, reaching over and flicking the strap of my bathers. The Lycra was still the softest baby blue, almost sky-coloured, the day we found duck eggs nestled amongst the reeds of the Wannon River. The trip, however, ended up causing a clay-coloured water stain to flower across the stomach panel, turning what was once a nice set of bathers into the kind you couldn’t take to the pool. “Sorry,” Oscar said, on the sparkling forecourt of the petrol station we stopped at, on our way back to the unit. The way he looked at me – his mouth downturned and his head halloed by a silver and purple chocolate ad – made me realise he was still caught somewhere between the city and the neat front yards we had just left behind.
It was common to make small talk over the counter where Oscar came from. He said you were meant to know almost everyone by name down there—or, at least by the car they drove, the dog they tied up out the front of IGA. So it wasn’t that strange that Oscar would have held eye contact with the checkout lady, buying cheap sunscreen and chips that morning. He was the type to use stranger’s names too. “Thank you Maeve,” he would say, squinting at the chest of the woman serving him, then at the name badge pinned to her shirt. It bothered me, the way he made a point of it. He’d turn around, ask me to take an extra bag from him so he could go to Liquorland, for wine, nuts, maybe beer. That was when he still liked sharing the courtyard with the neighbours. “Thanks Ro,” he’d say, pointedly, “See you at the car now.” And I’d wait by the little Mazda for what seemed like hours, wondering if my choosing the expensive yogurt, the organic kind, had been some kind of mistake.
So I was wearing a dress, mustard-coloured, the night I met Oscar, two of its buttons already loose at the end of their threads. I remember noticing a coppery head above the crowd and, as Oscar got closer, how his blue shirt was wrinkled at the elbows and across his middle, like he had been curled up in bed before making his appearance at Lucy’s – or maybe it was Heather’s – party. I smelt the cologne on his neck as he leant into me, well after the hall had closed and half the balloons, pink and grey, had gathered underneath the bar stools. Oscar’s neck smelt like jasmine that night, like orange blossom, or maybe just like the Cottee’s cordial I used to drink when I was small.
“Sixteen sleeps so far,” Oscar had said, after I followed him out into the flowerless beer garden “but still need someone to show me around.” And that had been enough for me that night. I was just young enough to still want saving and he was tall enough to have to stoop a little to meet me. Our shoulders, I remember, were about the same width as we walked out onto Sydney Road. Supermarket trucks crawled by us as we walked slowly towards the unit, Oscar tucking me under the side of his fleece-lined jacket. Sometimes I remember seeing a semi trailer packed with crates of chickens, white, barely feathered hens that had probably never seen sun. But other times I’m not so sure. I do know it was the only time Oscar ever wore cologne.
It took me a while to set the picnic rug up under the Paperbarks, their roots running across the embankment and into the river. A deflated lilo had been washed into a fallen tree a little downstream, its ridges blooming with a filmy moss. I wondered what part of the river the plastic mattress had come from, what kids were missing it, were in trouble for seeing it off and watching it float away with grins that, soon after, softened with disappointment. Oscar was quiet from his spot on top of the esky, watching me struggle with leather sandal straps, then the pearly buttons of my shorts. “It’s a bit eerie out here in the heat,” he said, picking up the sunscreen and waving me over to sit between his legs. It was nice to have Oscar’s hands kneading the space between my shoulder blades. The groundcover itched the backs of my thighs and tiny blue-black ants ran into the gaps of my toes. When a young Magpie warbled Oscar squeezed the back of my neck. White imprints would have patterned the skin as he took his hand away, patting me on the head, “Go on then, get.”
Heading out towards the middle of the river I could see all the way down to the bend. The murky water was cool against our legs. It didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t feel calmed by rivers, like I did in the stillness of dams. Even the circular water troughs we had sat in one year, up at Hamilton, seemed more relaxing, ceramic cups of Oscar’s step-mum’s punch making me care less about the mosquito larvae that wriggled about the disturbed algae blooms and semi-drowned termite flies.
A pair of ducks circled us warily, hoping for stray bread crusts as Oscar waded over to me. I remember that his arms were lifted up from his sides in brackets, that the pale of his underarm hair had darkened, with sweat I suppose, maybe water. It had gotten later than I thought, the lowering sun just visible through the bush and the drone of the cicada cases beginning to take over from the other sounds of the day.
“Think quick Ro Ro,” Oscar yelled as he waded closer, a triangle of ripples appearing in the water behind him, the tops of his swimming shorts – ones I’d bought from a warehouse sale, not far from where we first met – seeming bright against the murk. Flicks of water were sent my way, then splashes, Oscar cupping his hands and scooping the earthy water up into the air. And I had smiled at his first few attempts to get me, thinking about how nice it was to be playful and for just a moment relieved that my trip was worth the effort. This is what unwinding would look like, I thought, to the trickle of passersby, their string bags full of glad-wrapped sandwiches and clear bottles of homemade insect repellent. I guess I was reassuring myself though, more than Oscar, as earthy water fell about my shoulders like a heavy, murky rain.
And a few green-flecked rosellas left the trees above us as I squealed, a noise I hoped would come out light-hearted yet sounded, in the end, a little strained. The youngest birds, not yet red, were the first to let out a metallic sound, a piping, as they flew across the just-darkening sky. Oscar was too close, then, for me to do anything about the signs I recognised just a little too late, his eyes opening a little too wide, so that even from where I stood, still metres away, you could see the pink of their rims.
Oscar’s bulk caused my back to fold, my face breaking through the water before my eyes had the chance to close. I didn’t panic though; the light was gold down there, kind of softer, in the space above the place where the water turned dark and cold. Just before Oscar let go I felt my arms prickle and my mind roam. I thought about the gravel roads we’d just driven down and then of the backswimmers I’d seen on the way into the water, their limbs pushing across the surface current in little deliberate curls. When I came back up – short of breath, the musty taste of silt in my mouth – Oscar was trying to smile, his eyes almost back to normal and flecks of the setting sun hitting the side of his face.
“You’ve got twigs in your hair Romy,” he said, dragging out the last syllable of my name so that it hung in the air between us for just a moment too long. I remember him turning his back to me then, and heading for the bank. I just stood there, waist-deep, noticing the sun damage on Oscar’s back, how it bloomed across his shoulder blades, petering out towards the pale strip of his spine.
The cicadas had quietened by the time Oscar began fumbling through the esky at the river’s edge, pulling out olive tapanade, ciabatta loaf and the tiny violet-skinned tomatoes. I saw him studying the small tub of quartered lemons, his chewed-down fingernails probably catching on the lid. I wondered if he was thinking of the coffee table of his mother’s house, of the small ceramic dishes of Earl Grey tea, her tightly sealed Tupperware boxes of Milk Arrowroots and other standard biscuits, bought on sale and in bulk from the IGA across town. The glittery cups glinted in the setting sun when Oscar found them, then the gin. He sat there drinking as I lay back in the river, thinking about all the tiny particles that added up to make the water its murky brown.
Alice Bishop is from Christmas Hills, Victoria. Her work has appeared in Australian Book Review, Overland, Visible Ink, and Voiceworks. She is currently working on her first collection of short fiction, A Constant Hum. You can follow her on twitter at @BishopAlice.