This theme for this story was an aspect of the Australian landscape, from the writer’s perspective, and although fictional in nature, to nevertheless to incorporate its change over the seasons and over time. I wrote this story inspired by the riverbank where I grew up, its changing aspect over almost half a century, and how it influenced my life and that of my peers.
The cover photo is of the river bank in the story, and the swans are the next generation. Yes, they are still part of the riverscape.
Returning to the riverbank still evokes the same sensation of awe and mystery that I experienced the first time I trod its grassy banks. The footsteps I left on the muddy embankment between the overgrown wild grass and the reeds harboring the murky water were much smaller then. The passage of time has changed both myself and the river.
Stepping outside of my body and diving headfirst into another lifetime, I see the little girl I was back then – no more than three years old, furtively sneaking out of her house and running the length of the three houses separating her from the wonderland of nature hidden at the end of the ordinary suburban road in the ordinary suburb in which she found herself.
Who knew? Certainly not the little girl’s mother who would have chosen another house if she had realized the proximity to what she viewed as a dangerous wilderness, waiting to swallow up any human sacrifice that came into its territory.
Her mother was proven to be correct to a point, for a child did drown on the very bank on which she played during the course of her childhood years.
The little girl would always run to get there before anyone noticed her in the street and hauled her back inside to the safety of books and broken toys, the only alternative amusement in the early 60s. Breathless and aching with stitch she would sprint straight into grass so tall she could barely see over it, and flop triumphantly arms outstretched, disappearing into the luxurious foliage. She would experience simultaneously the cool of the dew-laden grass and the warmth of the sun.
Looking up into the blue sky from her bed of green vegetation and yellow wildflowers she would try to decipher the significance of the clouds as they chased each other in the blue sky, and revel the sensation of peace and freedom that was to prove unforgettable. It was not remotely comparable to sitting on the lawn at her home, the option she had been given by her mother.
As she closed her eyes and her breathing slowed she savoured the crisp, clean scent of the grass and by contrast the dark, earthy odour of the water. A whiff of something else would often greet her willing nostrils, that of freedom from urban life. It was like being orphaned in another world, one of mystery and myth. In the 60s travel was harder, especially when you were only three years old. The nearest bus was 20 minutes walk away and the nearest park only possible if a grownup could be persuaded to provide transport. While the river was right there. That aroma became ingrained in some of her most cherished childhood moments and remained even as she grew into a woman.
Sometimes she would meet up with other little girls from the street, for a secret rendezvous they had planned the day prior. They would play fantastic make-believe games, rolling down or even more adventurously, sliding down the steep embankments as if on a waterslide, only to collapse into giggling bundles at the bottom. They perfected the art of stopping just short of the edge of the riverbank itself so as not to fall in into the dark sinister water. The prize for their courage was more than the exhilaration of the uncontrolled ride, for at the bottom grew an abundance of yellow wild flowers which the girls all knew were magic. They would chew on the stems savouring the sour elixir that trickled out.
When she turned five the little girl was allowed to go to the river if she was chaperoned by her older brother, who was naturally happy to dispatch her as soon as possible with her friends and escape with his mates. The riverbank had its attraction for kids of all ages. He would meet up with his peers and she observed a change in his posture; a sense of manliness seemed to pervade his usual boyish demeanour as he and his friends walked the walk, emulating the tough boys, heading off with air guns slung over their shoulders to go shooting on the far side of the river. They crossed the river by the old bridge, or if feeling cavalier because they were aware of older girls watching, took a run-up and jumped bravely across the weir. The natural arrangement of trees and profuse undergrowth together with the scarcity of houses at this juncture of the riverbank provided them with enough camouflage to engage in target practice unobserved. As they rounded the bend the only signs of human life were the old glass-houses where tomatoes and other vegetables grew in plentiful supply as a result of the rich river soil.
Occasionally an old withered market gardener would emerge from an equally old glass-house and the boys would scatter, swallowed by the thick growth spilling from the river right up to the unsealed roads.
The crack of their air guns would permeate through the riverbank’s peaceful ambiance and become interwoven in the little girls’ imaginary worlds. Sometimes the gunshot marked their salvation, a heroic hunter saving them from a vicious beast, and at other times it proclaimed the onset of a fierce battle between knights fighting over fair ladies. History wasn’t a strong point with the little girls, rather fantasy and romance ruled in this magical land by the river.
Straight down from the old bridge and distanced from the rest of the world, the riverbank landscape here was the perfect setting for their games. By virtue of it being positioned so much lower than the street, one had to consciously choose to enter it. It meant going off grid, forsaking any regular path and taking a slippery alternative of earthy embankment and long grass. It meant deliberately leaving the street life above with the intermittent activity of passing cars, bicycles and pedestrians who all relied on the old wooden bridge to engage in their daily activities. Adults never chose to enter this netherworld.
Life above the riverbank was the same on each side of the challenged old bridge. It was the link for two unremarkable streets with unremarkable houses. Some dwellings were old and ripe for development, dilapidated and yet not period or heritage and therefore unworthy of renovation, with scary hairy-faced old men peering from the windows at passersby; but most of the houses were neither decrepit enough to destroy nor modern enough to be memorable, just ordinary homes from the austerity period providing accommodation to numerous families who wanted to be close to the river or benefit from the proximity of the bridge and the travel advantages it afforded.
What was unexpected and remarkable was that once past the houses, the scenery morphed almost instantly into a river themed wonderland. The steep embankments were carpeted with lush wild grass. The trees were so dense they created the illusion of mysterious rustling castles which were seemingly guarded by large Balga Grass plants, towering two meters or more in height and resembling boys carrying spears. Even more exciting was the discovery and quiet observation of the wildlife inhabiting the riverbank, all of which had their individual magical worlds and lives. Tadpoles that turned into slimy frogs with their weird mating calls, water rats as big as small cats, and tortoises the size of dinner plates were found lurking in the water or on the banks. Above the ground on the plentiful undergrowth were caterpillars, some green and vulnerable in appearance and some hairy and spiky like the punk version of their counterparts, all of which morphed into butterflies with wings that were so stunningly beautiful they looked like art and varied from vibrantly coloured to checkered in pattern. With no specific dependence on just air, ground or water, there were also numerous native water birds.
Her favourite were the magnificent black swans with their regal demeanour. They had red beaks giving the impression they had recently applied scarlet lipstick and in spring cute fuzzy cygnets could be seen riding on their mothers’ backs as they navigated majestically down the river. Black swans mate for life and once she saw two adults together entwining their elegant necks to create a heart shape. They were emitting musical soft crooning notes.
Occasionally she would see a row of baby ducklings marching behind their mother on the trail, and she would hold her breath.
The little girl and her friends daringly leant over the rail of the old bridge as far as they could and watched fallen leaves twirl and then race downstream, imagining them to be secret messages lost in time. If they stood at a certain part of the bridge an ominous figure resembling a crocodile could be seen hovering below the surface. That it never moved was a source of constant mystery and thrill to them.
On a hot day she loved to sit in the shade directly under the old bridge watching the various forms of wildlife going about their business, whilst feeling the thrill as cars traversed overhead, shaking it’s ancient structure and making its stanchions creak. It was wooden and dated back much earlier in the century. Although not a thing of beauty and despite being incongruent with the beauty of the river, it served it’s purpose. When it creaked or shook too much, she would imagine it crashing down if the vehicle passing overhead was too big.
Although it didn’t crash down, one rainy morning a car did break the barrier and go over the side and into the river. Within minutes the entire neighbourhood was gathered outside to see it. Naturally the police attended. Flashing lights and sirens brought out even the resistant.
It was frightening and thrilling. She stood holding hands with a friend from one of the nearby homes, and they whispered in each other’s ears before being dragged back inside by their mothers. Her older brother was allowed to stay and he reported back to them later with the air of a foreign correspondent. No one had drowned. Without wanting to she imagined how it must have felt to be a passenger on board. The car must have skidded due to the wet surface and then veered and hit the side, crashing through the ineffective barrier. It must have flown for a moment, gloriously air-borne before soaring head first into the water, submerging at least half its body. Back in the days of wind-down windows the only occupant, the driver, escaped, dragging himself out through the window and swimming to the bank.
Despite being only a single lane bridge, it was required to service cars crossing in both directions. Occasionally she had seen two cars advancing from the streets on opposite sides neither wanting to retreat, until an impasse was reached and one of them had to concede and reverse back off the bridge they way they had come.
By the time she was eight she was permitted to go down to the river alone to meet with her friends, most particularly the older girl from the house next door. However, the older girl was a wild child, as wild as the river itself, and instead of being the good influence her mother imagined, she actually dared the little girl to do things. She once even threw the little girl’s net in, when they were fishing or trying to; they only caught tadpoles and some yabbies, not real fish like carp which the big boys managed to snare on their big boy fishing lines.
She walked into the murky water to retrieve the net, keeping a close watch on the crocodile figure that lurked ominously only metres away. The bank itself was sheer mud at that point, no grass to provide a non-slip carpet, and as her flip flopped feet sunk beneath the water into a foreign slimy habitat she felt an undisputable tug from the mud beneath as if her feet and even her whole body was being sucked down into the earth. She struggled and slipped, her body submerged and she tasted the sludge of the brown water and felt it’s chill against her sun warmed skin. She recalled her mother’s warning about the child who had drowned and her heartbeat quickened. Fuelled by an adrenaline rush she managed to drag her body up and over the embankment on to the safety of the muddy ground. As she did so she saw a platform of weeds and debris she identified as a black swan nest with a characteristic greenish white broken eggshell. She scrambled over far enough to grasp it in her hand. It was her secret and it almost made the nightmare experience worthwhile.
That was the only time she ever really felt fear at the river, and attached to that memory was forever the muddy taste and smell of the water and the sensation of being sucked down – and also the secret thrill of finding the nest.
By the time she was a teenager the riverbank was the center of her world’s social life. For it was where you went to meet the opposite sex. Her first romance started there. On the same grassy banks where as a little girl she had lounged trying to interpret the secret language of clouds, she likewise tried to construe the meaning of her first kiss.
The ambience changed with the falling of the sun. The murky brown waters assumed a red hue, like a river of blood, and the gold from the sun’s last rays glimmered on the rippling water in contrast to the shadowy reeds on either side. It was mood lighting, sexy, passionate, beautiful and unforgettable.
The riverscape had barely changed in those 10 years, but the scope of the river had expanded for her. With her boyfriend she ventured further down the river, to the weir where you had to run down a sheer cement slope, stop abruptly and walk a few feet, jump over running water and then take a run up to the identical-twin steep cement slope opposite. If you stood on the flat part of the cement at the right time of year it appeared as if you were walking on water. You had to convince a friend to indulge your pre-selfie-persona and take a photo to preserve the illusion.
Above the weir area was a perfect trail for mini-bike riding. The cool boys rode their mini-bikes there, the sound of the tiny engines buzzing along with the indignant birdsong. From this point she could see the factories and offices peppered further along the streets contiguous to the riverbank, the only signs of industry amongst the suburban oasis. There was a natural ‘clubhouse’ where the boys congregated, under long established olive trees and where three very old trees had conveniently fallen over the years to create a semicircle. She sat in it with them, her boyfriend being one of the fraternity. They lolled on the old fallen trees, some of which were hollow in parts and covered in lichen, precariously unstable even under her light frame. Protected from the elements in there they relished the shade on the summer days, even when the temperatures soared over 40 degrees, and received protection from the wind and rain in the winter. The natural olives that grew there, black and leathery yet pungent, fell by the hundred and were squishy underfoot, catching in the soles of their trainers.
If you ventured in the other direction towards the coast you came to the area know as the wetlands, where horses had long grazed.
With the passing seasons came and went different landscapes and vistas of the riverbank.
In spring the banks were full of promise and teeming with new life, both flora and fauna. Everything was green and fresh, the colours vibrant and the air had an earthy fragrance. The sound of lawnmowers whining could be heard from the gardens of houses that bordered the river bank, and sometimes music from ghetto blasters would invade the natural sounds of the joyful birds.
Summer brought the drying of the grass especially in years of drought and with it, a fear of fire. One year, part of the bank actually did catch fire and the fire brigade attended to put out the blaze. Smoke filled the usually clear air, and watchers from the bridge were privy to another rare sight. As the water level had fallen over the preceding months of drought, the mysterious crocodile was now revealed to be nothing more than an old submerged tree, a landmark that had been present for as long as any local’s living memory.
Summer storms were her favourite feature of the weather. Spectacular late night light shows illuminating not just the sky but the foliage and defining the topography, landscapes often assuming mysterious, almost sinister, perspectives. Such storms were often followed by heavy, welcome, cooling rains, which in turn left in their wake an overpowering warm, damp and earthy smell. Watching the rapidly gushing water left her with a sensation of time flashing past.
In autumn the leaves of trees fell creating a golden crunchy carpet. The nights closed in earlier as daylight saving ended for the year, and an eerie mist drifted over the banks. Crossing the bridge on her way home from the bus-stop she would sojourn and enjoy the moody ambience.
Winter brought torrents of gushing water at times, and she would stand rugged up in her boyfriend’s castoff private school blazer, braving the cold and wind, holding hands and shivering, not wanting to miss the thrill of watching it.
In clear view from the bridge was a large storm-water pipe, where overflow in winter came down to empty into the river. It was also an unofficial place for initiation. Although some five feet at the entrance, you had to bend over to venture further in, and once you had gone as far as you dare, turn your torch off and wait. Predictably a bump echoed through the pipe. She wasn’t fond of this experience, not only was the tunnel cold and dark but the bottom was inches deep with slimy water, cold and odorous. There was an ominous atmosphere being submerged down in that manmade waste ground, as if evil events had happened there, and it was always a relief to emerge gasping into the bright comforting warmth of the sun outside. She only did it twice, once as part of the dare initiation, and the second time to convince herself it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was. Probably her claustrophobia started here. As the years passed this reckless behavior was brought to an end when a locked metal gate was installed over the pipe’s entrance.
Change in her world was mirrored by change in the riverbank. She went off to university and when she returned one day the old bridge was being demolished. For years it hadn’t been used for car passage, and now it was being replaced by a narrower bridge for pedestrians. It marked the beginning of the change of the landscape – a project that would create a sealed trail from the city to the coast along both banks of the river to service cyclists, pedestrians and joggers.
Once barren areas of the riverbank perimeter were cultivated and in time became dense with River Red Gums, European Ash and Bamboo Grass. Little enclaves were landscaped and developed as picnic areas, complete with gas fired barbecues and fixed tables and benches. Playgrounds teeming with slides, swings and merry-go-rounds sprung up, as did duck feeding areas and over time, even out-door gyms.
Demand for housing along the riverbank increased. Expensive enclaves of houses and units were developed where once market gardens and glass houses had stood. Old rundown houses were demolished and replaced with concrete monoliths and designer villas alike, often adjacent to each other creating an odd dissonance. Her childhood home was eventually one such casualty.
One year after extremely heavy rainfall and the resultant water running off the surface of the land upstream, the banks became pregnant with water that had nowhere to go and the water level rose by some three metres. The new locals were anxious, fearing the flooding that seemed inevitable. Predictably when the water level fell leaving a clearly delineated watermark on the grassy embankment, forgotten debris carrying tales of earlier lives and times littered the banks. The cleanup took months.
Amongst the forgotten secrets was a gold locket on a broken chain tangled in a branch which had been dislodged with the gushing water and raised as if from the dead. She happened to be visiting and watched voyeuristically from the bridge as another little girl on a walk with her father sighted it and delightedly claimed it as her own treasure. She watched mesmerised as the man took it from his daughter’s clenched fist and studied it as it swung from its broken chain, the hot midday sun reflecting off it despite its years of neglect imprisoned in the muddy water of the river. Something in the way he shook his head was familiar and she found herself yet again pulled back into the past and the memory of a lovers’ tiff on a moonless night decades before. The man also instantly recognised it from another lifetime and as she watched he removed his sunglasses and wiped his eyes with the back of his free hand.
How many more secrets does this river hold, she wondered. How many lost pieces of people’s lives? At that moment she noticed him bend to retrieve a distinctive bottle caught up in the exposed and rotten dead reeds at the river’s edge. She knew instinctively what it was. She knew it held a message on pale green paper tied with a black cord. She was there the night it was sealed by his brother and the song they were all humming that night came back to her, she could hear it in her head as clearly as if it was yesterday. It had been their favourite at the time. The Police 1979. She recalled his brother throwing the bottle from the bridge only days before he died in an accident.
Watching from her location at the end of the bridge was too exposed and she turned away before the man noticed her, but not before she witnessed his posture diminish as shaking with emotion, he clasped his daughter’s hand in one of his and the locket and bottle in the other. He turned away from the bank and trudged to the trail dragging the reluctant toddler in his wake – clearly he’d had enough memories for one day. Does water never forget?
The river was still the perennial meeting ground for old and young alike. The new bridge, protected by barriers restricting physically what could traverse its smooth bitumen surface, became the ideal place to stand and water watch, animal watch, people watch. And to feed ducks.
Almost half a century after the little girl first visited the river, she returned with her own little girls. She took them to the playground where they squealed with delight as they flew along the flying fox and slid down the hot metal slides, and reflected how she and her friends would have loved it in their day. They ate takeaway fish and chips at the picnic tables. She was overcome with mixed emotions when she assimilated the changes – grateful that despite the building expansion and suburban activity the development was empathetic to her much loved riverbank, but reflective regarding her own passing of time.
The two generations stood on the bridge and watched the same dark waters gush past as she had as a child. They fed the expectant ducks and stopped breathless as a mama duck led her marching band of ducklings past. Occasionally a water rat would surface and they would cheer and run along the bridge to keep it in view as it scurried up the banks before it dived into the water. She searched for the crocodile and held back a tear when she saw it. They watched fallen leaves twirl and then race downstream, secret messages lost in time. Only the constantly moving water would read them and remember them at a point in time when it chose to. Just like us, the river has its memory and its secrets.