Home > The Inland Sea

The Inland Sea
Author: Madeleine Watts

 

 


I couldn’t sleep at night. The heat rose in the evenings, the old bricks of the house absorbed it, and after dark my bedroom felt as thick and quivering as an oven. Open windows didn’t help. On the seven o’clock news there was always somebody making a show of frying an egg on the asphalt of an outer-suburbs driveway. Watch this! they would shout to the camera. Yolks slipped out onto the bitumen and sat trembling there beneath the burning Australian sun. The people on the news were always grinning, nearly naked but for a singlet or a pair of shorts, sweating into their sunglasses. Nobody ever ate the egg.

By the time the fireworks had blown up over the Harbour and the city was wasted and the New Year begun, I had handed in my final papers and my academic life was behind me. The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland. During the sleepless days of that last hot summer I had no money and nothing to do, but the bus that left from Cleveland Street could get me to the beach in half an hour. The air along the coast in those months was full of seaweed and car exhaust and the fires that were burning on the edge of the city. Rounding the cliffs, I could walk through the parklands and along the ocean path to the secluded rocks and boat racks of Gordon’s Bay. I passed weeks there, stretched out on a towel, reading novels and jumping into the deep water when the heat became unbearable. In the end, they would say that this January was the hottest month on record, in the hottest year on record, although they’ve said that about every year since. But this was the last January I sweltered through before I left the city entirely. I don’t know anything about those other summers.

The heatwave broke with a storm. The squall bore down from the Pacific, sweeping southerly winds across the city and snatching frangipani flowers from their branches. The convulsion of the storm struck in a way that seemed only natural, following as it did the tense weeks that seemed to justify the punch to the back of the head, the child left locked in the back seat of the car, the missing girl.

The morning after the storm arrived, I lay on the rocks beside the bay, and at last I was able to sleep. When I woke up I was overheated, my body covered in sweat. I picked a way down the rocks and surveyed the brown storm surge mucking up the edges of the water. I took a leap. The day was still, the rocks deserted, the splash could be heard all over the bay. I dived deep under the storm surge and closed my eyes and began to swim out. When I’d gone far enough into the depths, I turned and looked back to where I’d been. From above, the palms and bougainvillea erupted in great green and pink swarms from the cliff face like some madman’s garden of Babylon. Seagulls circled overhead. I floated in the clear water in the middle of the bay and thought that I wouldn’t be so afraid to be lost at sea. The smooth blue expanse couldn’t hurt me, not the one I imagined stretching out for miles and miles, all the way east to Valparaiso, north to California, the tips of Alaska and Russia and Japan, eternities away from here. The sun beat down. I treaded water and spread out my arms. And I observed just then, as though waking not out of, but into, a nightmare, a long yellow-and-black thing swimming in the water.

The sun glinted on its scales, and it took me a moment to see it for what it actually was. I had never once seen one in the wild. When I was a child my mother had told me how deadly they could be. She had seen them, coiled on the seabed in the north of the country, and washed up on the beaches of the remote Pacific islands she had visited with my father when they were happy together. That sea snakes rarely struck didn’t make them any less threatening. If they bit you, the neurotoxic venom would begin to work through your limbs before you could make it to shore. Blurred vision, numb throat, a prickle in the soles of the feet, and then a burst of pain in every cell of your body, like a fire sweeping through the nervous system and destroying everything in its path. I looked at the water, flat and silent, all around me. I had swum out too far. The bay was empty. I knew that it was the most vulnerable parts of the body one needed to guard. They bit you in the thin, fleshy spaces between your fingers and your toes. I drew my hands into fists. I kicked with my toes clenched. I swam towards the rocks, moving through the water as though I were punching it.

The snake had been carried into shore overnight, swept along from warmer depths by the storm.

The snake was weak, but weak things lash out.

Its body rose and fell with the lap of the tide, and it moved with its mouth open.

 

 

HEAT

 

 

I had moved to Redfern twelve months earlier, at the beginning of my Honours year at the university. When I first moved in my mother helped me drive my things across the city from Ashfield, where I’d grown up, and carry my boxes up the fifteen steps to the door. As she left that first day she looked around at the old terraces and the old Greek lady next door watching her husband watering the tomato plants, and the group of men loitering on the corner by the housing commission apartment blocks. She squeezed my arm and walked down the staircase to her car. Be careful, she said. Please. We had never lived apart before, and she believed the place was dangerous. She was concerned about the mold that grew beneath the baseboards and she was skeptical about the efficacy of the cast-iron security door and she was afraid, more than anything, of the neighborhood and its people.

Redfern still had the reputation of being a sordid area of Sydney, even if it was not as dangerous as it had once seemed. The suburb was filled with decaying Victorian terraces and housing commission towers where graffiti caked the open doorways. Overdoses still trembled in the parking lot behind Surry Hills Shopping Village when I passed by with Coles bags full of carrots and hummus and rice. Bed sheets covered windows. Iron lace rusted into the pavement. Verandas were converted into kitchens without the council much caring. But things were changing. The junkies weren’t gone, and neither were the indigenous communities in The Block. Students and artists in search of cheap rent lived there, as ever they had. But by the time I moved in there were cocktail bars and cafés and seven-dollar loaves of bread. On the edges of the neighborhood floorboards were being polished and courtyards were being landscaped. Old factories had been demolished. High-rises were rising. A television newsreader living on the eastern fringe suggested that his side of the neighborhood be renamed South Dowling to spare it from the stigma associated with the rest of Redfern.

The house where I lived was on Elizabeth Street, far from the South Dowling side. All the terraces on my side of the street were built so that they were elevated above the foot traffic, as though the original architects had been afraid of the squalor they suspected of festering at street level. As though the cockroaches couldn’t fly through windows open that high. Each house was reached by a staircase of fifteen steps, spread at intervals along a sloping incline patched with vegetation and cement. The cockroaches still got in.

The Elizabeth Street house was old. There were forever cobwebs in the corners of the living room and an orange mold that bloomed in the bathtub. The green paint on the baseboards had begun to peel away to reveal something black. The washing machine had a sticker at the base that read “Made in West Germany,” and of the three of us who lived in the house none of us had been alive before the Berlin Wall fell. I lived upstairs in the front room and I was higher than every tree and building around me.

The men I lived with had gone to high school with my friend Maeve, and I never knew them particularly well, not in all the time I lived there. So it was in the bedroom that I spent most of my time. I tacked postcards of Carol Jerrems and Bill Henson photographs to the walls and hung a pink paper lantern over the bare light bulb. My bed was covered by a yellow eiderdown and jutted out into the center of the room. When I moved in, I supposed I’d be staying.

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