(This story shares its title with a performance celebrating the resilience and heart of the people of Lismore in the 2017 floods, created and developed by Sunita and Zeb of RealArtWorks, Lismore)
We stand on the balcony, Heidi and I, hair whipping across our faces. The rain has fallen in sheets for days, backdropped by a gunmetal sky. Heidi’s eyes are wide. She shivers, wraps her arms across her chest. I want to draw her to me, but my arms won’t move.
“Will we be okay, Mum?”
I nod. My mouth is pressed into a flat line.
We’ve spent the last two hours bringing everything up from under the house: the lawnmower, Heidi’s bike, the box of donated toys she outgrew a few years ago. We’ve learned, you see, from last time.
“Let’s go inside,” I suggest. I hope she doesn’t notice the catch in my throat.
She nods slowly, but doesn't move. She’s staring instead at the churning brown river: a muddy soup racing an escape to the sea.
I take her elbow and lead her indoors.
She was only six the last time, but she still talks about the things she lost.
Tony was still here then. It was his idea to evacuate “just to be on the safe side.” But we watched the water rise from the sports centre on the hill where we sheltered and we knew that everything was gone.
“We should have stayed,” he said. “Protected our things.”
Ooh, there’s the hindsight, Tony. It was one of the things that irritated me most: he’d make decisions, regret them, then talk about what he should have done. Like Kelly. “I should have told you before I did anything.” Well hoo-fucking-ray Tony. Aren’t you the big man, owning your mistakes?
Tony and I had returned two days later to a brownwashed wreck. The stench of dredged sewerage and decay nearly knocked us sideways. Most of the windows were smashed, the yard was a swamp and one of our kitchen stools teetered in a tree across the road.
Harry, our octogenarian neighbour had been there for hours when we arrived, clad in his Wilson nylon waders hosing down his steps. I admired his energy. I barely had the strength to step over the threshold and start sorting through the shattered remnants of our lives.
It was at least clean when we took Heidi back. She insisted on coming, and Tony’s mother said it was for the best, rather than her having to imagine it. She was clutching a plush yellow Pokemon toy that some kindly soul had donated, the clean animal too bright and unsullied for the stage of our broken home.
She stood between the buckling, exposed supports that were once walls.
“Where’s my bedroom?” she whispered.
A scrap of Winnie the Pooh wallpaper still clung to a chunk of plasterboard that had found itself living on the floor.
“We could have saved her things,” growled Tony, as though it was my decision to leave them all behind.
“You two are okay?”
“Can I speak to Heidi?”
I hand the phone over. Who knows how much longer we’ll have a signal or electricity for.
Heidi cradles the mobile with both hands. Her voice is hushed. I fish out the candles and matches from the cupboard and look through the recycling bin for bottles to wedge the candles into. I push a greasy white pillar candle into an empty Tempranillo bottle and, for a second, I’m in that trashy little Italian place Tony and I used to love. It had red and white checked tablecloths, and Tony used to pick the wax drippings from the bottle. I shake the image away and concentrate on spacing out the bottles to maximise the light when night falls.
“I’m not scared,” Heidi says, but a tiny tremor betrays her. “I know, I know. One in a hundred year occurrence.”
This is the exact same conversation I had with her about two hours ago. We were usually on the same page, Tony and I. Even now.
Heidi is holding the phone to me. “Dad wants to speak to you.”
I smile, as though talking to my ex husband is a treat, and take the phone from her.
“Rebecca,” he says. He only ever called me Bec when we were married. ‘Rebecca’ started after he’d stopped trying to win me back. “Are you really okay?”
“The house’ll be fine, even if the levee breaks, but you might get cut off for a few days.”
“That’s not going to happen.” I had to believe that. “We’ve got heaps of food in. Too much!” My voice sounds unnaturally bright. “Anyway, I want to charge this phone up, so I’ll get going.”
“I can come and get you both. You can stay here.”
I take a deep breath. “No thank you.”
I can’t - won’t - be in that house where he lived with her, even if she’s long gone.
“Fine.” He sighs. “Holler if you change your mind.”
I hang up.
The restoration and raising of the house took close to two years.
“It’s not going to get that high again, darl. Not in your lifetime. But we’re putting it at twelve metres, just for peace of mind for you.”
It was hard, living between Tony’s mum’s cramped flat and later, one room at a time while we were fixing it up. No wonder he sought space from us.
We didn’t have insurance. The insulting grant from the government evaporated. We pulled in loan on top of loan to make our house livable and safe, while working our arses off. We even had a Go Fund Me to replace the windows. I hated myself for using a photo of Heidi forlornly standing in the mud, the ruin of our house behind her, but, we did what we had to.
Tony never really got the benefit of the renovations. He was living with Kelly three months after we moved back in.
“Here you go.”
I hand Heidi a can of tinned spaghetti and a fork. She smiles briefly, then it vanishes.
“It’s like camping,” she says.
We’re bathed in a soft, corn-syrupy glow from the candles and the sky beyond our windows is a sullen navy blue. I try to tune out the relentless smacking of rain on our tin roof, but it hammers on.
I dig my fork into my cold spaghetti tin and scroll through my news feed.
Residents of South Lismore Urged to Evacuate, reads one article. I click on it, but the damn thing is behind a paywall. There’s a bit of moaning about it in the comments, then some lovely citizen has posted the text.
Experts say it’s highly unlikely that the river will breach the levee for a second time in five years.
I breathe a sigh of relief before reading on.
2017’s catastrophic floods saw water levels rising to 11.59 metres and homes in the CBD and South Lismore destroyed when the Wilson River overtopped the flood defences. The ‘one in 100 year’ figure however should not mislead residents into complacency, and occupants of flood-prone areas should head for high ground, just to be on the safe side.
I look at Heidi, sucking a strand of spaghetti through her teeth. She catches me watching as the orange sauce spatters across her lips and chin.
“You don’t want to go to dad’s?”
She shakes her head. “Not without you.”
“Yes! I know. It’s…” she dips her fingers into the can, raising them to her lips and sucking the tomato sauce off them. “It’s fine.” She nods at my phone. “What does the news say?”
“Oh, you know. Unlikely to breach the levee but we should all evacuate et cetera.”
Her forehead rumples. “But our house is at twelve metres and the levee is eleven metres, so we’ll be okay, right?”
“Right. As long as the levee holds, we should be fine. And if it doesn’t, then we should still be fine.”
She nods, satisfied.
We were praised for our resilience after the 2017 floods. Giant red hearts were festooned about the wreckage of our town. Our flood stories were celebrated in art works, music and dance, our weary faces and the carcasses of our homes splashed across national news outlets.
Oh, you poor thing! outsiders would say, heads tilted in sympathy. You're so resilient.
I felt like a fraud. My tired body mopping the river guts from our balcony may have looked like a woman rebuilding her life, but I was a gaping void inside.
How, I would think every morning, can I possibly get out of bed and put our family back together? How can I be a good mother, good wife, when something of myself washed to sea in that murky river?
“Snap out of it,” hissed Tony one morning as I looked at Heidi like she was a stranger.
The diagnosis of depression didn’t come as a shock to me, but the tagged-on PTSD label did.
We stand on the balcony, Heidi and I, hair whipping across our tear-streaked faces. The alarms have been sounding, but it’s too late now. We don’t have time to get out. The water licks the top of the levee wall, and all we can do is watch. Wait.
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What a lovely use of the prompt, Jay. This is literally AND metaphorically on the edge of something dark, and you deserve some brownie points for managing to work in both of those at once. Prompt aside, the use of language is what captured my attention while reading. There's something so tragic in the prose. It's very unadorned, very spare, very economical, and it just has this matter-of-fact tone to it that I adore. I like how there isn't a lot of flashy poetic lines or lyricism, because the topic of the narrative - the flooding - isn't a ...
Thank you Zack. Yeah, it's a huge and growing problem in my area and unfortunately, it's those in the lowest socio-economic brackets that are most harshly affected. :(
Congrats on the shortlist, Jay! Well-deserved, well-earned, and well done.
What I loved about this piece was how the prompt was interpreted, BUT ALSO how you gave importance to the characters and their dynamics. The use of the prompt was great, but the layering of the story was wonderful, IMO.
Thank you so much! I've been sitting on this as an idea for about two months, but wasn't sure about balancing sensitivity with laying it on too thick, drama wise(even though it was so dramatic).
Great story! Sometimes we nurse our wounds, but sometimes we let them fester, fertilized with injured pride and past failings. We indulge them and ignore reality, but Mother Nature doesn't care about our problems. What a tragic situation for the mother and daughter. We can only hope they survive the flood but it doesn't look good. This works both literally and figuratively, as the mother even said "something of myself washed to sea". That's a good way of describing depression. The ending is also disturbing for other reasons. "of the cent...
Thanks Michal. I've been wanting to write about the catastrophic floods in the town I lived in until last year. I'm lucky that we moved - a drive by in the aftermath just a few months ago saw that my old house went under. I was part of those celebratory art events between the two floods only five years apart. The people who put on such a brave show then have been destroyed by the second. There's talk of 'relocating' the town, but people are reluctant to walk away from the close knit community. It's pretty heartbreaking. Friends of mine s...
Congratulations on the shortlist, Jay! :D
Thanks Michal! Exciting!
Congratulations, this is a moving story well told. Sparse with details and still so emotionally. While I always smile when a Tony plays a role, I am not sure if I like this one. Well done! Thanks
Thanks (nice) Tony!
I really enjoyed your story. Well-written and flowed beautifully. Living in Durban we have just been hit with two terrible floods within weeks of each other and while we were fine, many others were not. One little town very close to my heart was pretty much decimated … it was devastating. So this story really resonated. Worthily shortlisted. Well done!
So sorry to hear about the floods in Durban, Andrea. Such devastation wreaked. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.
This is beautiful, Jay. Emotionally resonant, profound, and economical with prose. Not sure how I missed this earlier in the week - it's such a well-deserved shortlist. :)
Aw, thanks so much! I just read it for Blue Marble (I sound like a mongoose chewing a pebble)
Oh, this made me feel stuff!
Hi Jay, I finally got around to reading your story - well deserving of all the praise you've been getting for it! It's a really powerful story, touching on a real devastation that many people have to deal with all around the world. I remember one of the first winning stories I read on here was a flood themed one. It's a really interesting good topic to explore, and I like how you did it, ending it on that ominous scene - I also just love when bits from the start return at the end of the story so I really enjoyed the similarities in the fir...
Aw, thanks so much, lovely. ❤️
Wow, Jay! This story is so powerful. It’s beautifully written, so balanced and great tension. Thank you for sharing. :-)
Oh Beth! Thank you so much. :)
Well hoo-fucking-ray Tony. Aren’t you the big man, owning your mistakes? I laughed real loud at this line. Jay, The interpretation of the prompt felt two-fold to me. One, because they're awaiting this awful natural disaster. Two, because they've already lived it and they're now living it again. Which is what PTSD feels like anyway. That constant reliving, the feeling of always being on the precipice of something awful. I love that you had Rebecca Stan stoic in her decision to stay. It didn't even seem like it was from a place of pride, but...
Aw, thanks Shea. This one was a bit close to my heart. Hoping I've done it justice.
Another great story Jay. Bringing home the challenges of real people during recent events here in Australia.
Aw, thanks Russell. I lived in Lismore and have many friends who have just lost everything again. It's so sad.
Would you be interested in reading it, or any of your stories, for us on Blue Marble Storytellers?
Congratulations on a wonderful story, Jay. I thought you did an exceptional job translating so much pain into something creative and powerful.
Aw, thank you Kevin. What a lovely comment :)
Beautiful Jay xx
Thanks lovely! How are you? Shall we Binkle soon?
This is so emotive, I felt this story, knowing it was more than that. Beautifully written. I look forward to reading more of your work
Aw, thanks Wendy! I have wanted to write about the floods for the last few months.
"My tired body mopping the river guts from our balcony..." If the story was one image, that would be it. Well done.
Thank you Carolyn! 😊
What an enjoyable read! What struck me most was Rebecca's psychological state - I understood why she hated herself for using a tear-jerker image of her daughter on GoFundMe as well as how humiliated she felt for accepting charity. That made the end, where she reveals that "something of myself washed to sea in that murky river," so powerful. Well done!
Thanks Katy! Those poor folk are a wreck, and three months on, the support has all but stopped and they're shivering in their skeletal house-wrecks. So sad.
beautiful story! I loved your interpretation of the plot, but even more so the dynamics and relationships between your characters.
Hi Jay, great story. Heartbreaking. Loved ' gunmetal sky', cool foreshadowing straight off the bat. I really felt her struggle, her desperation to stay positive for her daughter. The part about them being called resilient on the news struck me, because yes they are, but I've always watched that and thought it's not like they have a choice! Awful tragedy for these people. "Will we be okay, mum?” - I think it should be Mum with a capital because she's using it as a name. Thanks for writing this story.
Thanks Rachel. And thanks for catching that Mum. : )