She remembers swimming here as a child, her brothers splashing and taunting her from the deeper water as she stood at the end of the jetty and held her nose. Remembers bombie competitions from that same jetty, before they put up the signs about amoebic meningitis. A cartoon man holding his nose, tornado above his head, and the warning in thick red letters stating simply, "Don't risk it. You could die." So holidays from the lakeside, then, half a blackened and rusted 44-gallon drum as a barbecue, Coles sausages spitting fat, and the ever present smell of burnt onions. Before the kiosk with postcards, keyrings and souvenir stubby holders. Before the kitschy tourist train. Before the gate.
Tonight, the gate across the pitted and dusty single-lane gravel road is pulled closed, secured with a looped chain and a brand new padlock that gleams dully in the moonlight. It's close to full, the moon, and it shines through the huddled gums that line the lake, casting dancing shadows onto the water. The sound of the frogs chainsawing at each other carries clearly from the bulrushes at the other end of the lake to where she is standing.
Other than the frogs, it's a quiet night. The train that runs along the shore finished its final run hours ago, the charter-bus-driven tourists have headed back to the big city, and the single-room cafeteria closed for the night. She inspects her shoes, the mud clumped across the toes and shoelaces dragging in the soft silt where the water dries up and the eucalyptus roots twist and tangle as they reach down toward the lake. The lock is at her feet, and she thinks that the mud will probably jam the mechanism.
"Hah! You drag me all the way out here and expect me to grok this? What am I, a naturalist? Davey Attenborough's secret love-child? Jen, I'm a fucking arts major, all I'm supposed to do is smoke pot and read Kerouac. You can't expected me to get this. It's outside my limits. Officially beyond the scope of my curricula."
She knew they hired canoes out here, knew where they kept them, but didn't think it would be so easy to gently force the lock and walk one down to the waterside. Thought that in this day and age there would be someone, anyone, to stop them. She realised, then, that she'd been in the city too long. Worrying about alarms and home-security. 24 hour call-out. She'd even been to the hardware store the week before, a whole aisle dedicated to tiny white signs explaining in meticulous detail why you shouldn't jump the fence to burgle this house. Her house. It still thrilled her to say that.
But there were moments when she knew, felt in her bones, that this wasn't it, that it wasn't right. The city destroyed people. Ate them up and spat them out as latte sipping clones, fixating on whether Mulberry burst or Teal tension would suit the feature wall better. So she stood in that cavernous, fluoro-lit hall, looking at chrome fixtures and knew she'd need to get out again, and get out soon. No little white sign for her: "Beware: bored and irritable country girl. Exhibits symptoms of cabin fever when contained. Bites when threatened."
Now. Now, the alcohol beat a fiery tattoo in her veins and Leigh pranced up and down the shore, skipping stones and dancing a strange little jig, hand on stomach and elbow outstretched. He seemed genuinely excited. City boy in the country. Styled hair and fashionable shoes so wildly out of place she wanted to laugh at him. Walk up and smack him one in the stomach and call him pissweak. Instead, she flicked the hair out of her eyes and yelled, "Oi, Leigh, quit fucking around and help me with this for a second, willya."
They ease the boat into the water. A flat, stubby nose and no keel ensures that it rocks wildly with every tiny movement and she overcompensates at first, leaning it heavily to the right and eliciting a squawk from her passenger in the back. She knows he'll make jokes when they're out there, knows how uncomfortable he'll feel but, bugger it, he's inflicted enough trivia nights and weekend brunches on her. Still laughed at her enunciation. Her clothes. She grins as she thinks how he'd take it if she took him back up north. The old country. Home.
Her brothers would eat him alive. Mirrored shades and knowledge of Plath, Burrows, and The Unicorns hold no social currency in the Territory, red dust working its way into everything, dog in the back, rifle on the floor. Spotties for the roos and tinnies for later. No Mojitos. No Mid-strength. Metrosexual as foreign as Molvania. She'd do that later though. Force him out of the city, and out of his comfort zone. For now, this was good. Drunk and floating in a stolen canoe, in a lake they said should have dried up years ago.
She leans back on the paddle and they coast to a slow halt, blurry stars reflected in the ripples and the brown water silver in the moonlight. He laughs then, a short bark that echoes off the water, "Fuck, if they catch us now, we're so fucking fucked."
"Eloquent, Leigh. Eloquent. Sure it's F.A. you're taking and not Law?"
"If your honour would please, the plaintiff was forced, under duress..." "Duress? That's what it's called, is it? Running back to the car to get the extra bottle."
"Well, I was clearly not in command of my faculties."
"Yelling at me as to whether ma'am would prefer the salt and vinegar, or the cheese and onion."
"Going back again for the glasses."
"I shall cry piracy on the high-seas. Taken at cork-screw point and forced aboard by a fearsome she-pirate."
"I'd say more muddied, brown and rapidly lowering seas. And I think the word is corsair."
"Ships are but boards, sailors but men: there be land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves"
"If that's yours, I will spot you the rest of the salt and vinegar, pour you a glass, and row you home."
"Bill. Always Bill S. He of the Globe and the funny pants"
She leans back then, against his chest, and looks up at the stars. Pollux and Castor draw parallel lines in the rippling surface of the lake, lines that trace the silver-grey trunks of the gums and point out over the scrub. This is a compass bearing away from white pickets, wheat grass, and 'skinny with one, cheers' and it soars upwards and out, to where there is nothing but clear and open air between here and the desert. But not yet. Not while the frogs are singing opera and the moon sits above, fat and contented.
"Leigh, how do you feel about amoebic meningitis?"
"What, I, what?"
"Hold your nose."
And she rocks to her right, hard.