Ash came down off the escarpment. At first, I thought it was bugs—swarms of them—but the air didn’t clear either side. I rode my brother’s bike through it. There wasn’t that far to go and I took the long way, swung around corners to add blocks of space.
Usually Lou wanted to go someplace no one else was, to the cubby house by the creek or the old train tunnels, but that day he’d called to say meet by the water. I could see him from a way off. He’d grown his hair since we were kids and it hung low around his shoulders. It was hot but he wore black jeans, legs of stretched bone under the denim.
Bike wheels scratched over rough ground and I slipped forward off the seat, said, ‘Did you see the fire?’
Lou nodded. ‘Some mates were at Garie for a surf. Drove past the start of it, few flames in a bush. Heard there were a few places it started though.’
‘Thought about it last night.’ Moisture had settled on my skin and I wiped one cheek, said, ‘The treetops looked like something solid. Seemed if it caught it’d keep on forever.’
‘Where’d you go?’
‘I just walked.’
‘Woulda come with you if you’d told me.’
‘I know.’ I stepped off the bike but didn’t chain it.
Lou took my place and I raised myself onto the handlebars while he held it steady. We rode along the coast to the old Headlands Hotel, faded walls blocked off from the place it had stood for 90 years. The last hundred metres made your thighs burn but Lou didn’t stop. He stood on the pedals, hair falling into mine, chin over my shoulder. I could smell his body, the work of it.
People still sat outside under the umbrellas sometimes, old men who grew up on the place mostly, but the courtyard was empty. White graffiti took up part of the wall and I traced my name below the paint with a fingertip. Months ago we’d cleared the last shards of glass from a window and we leant the bike beside it. Inside no air came through. I walked around the main room before I sat on the bar. Lou stood in front of me. The places where our bodies touched burnt.
The first time we had sex it was me that wanted to. Lou was scared, I think, but he wouldn’t say it. Neither one of us liked to be home at night and we’d snuck out, met under the street sign and walked for hours on dirt tracks to see the blood moon from someplace no one else could. Clouds came over when we were halfway there and nothing showed through. We waited. Lying by the edge of the cliff, I thought about it, what it’d be like. We had never touched before, not really. Lou wasn’t my boyfriend.
Trees shook behind us and I stood up and took my clothes off. Lou just lay there to start but he did the same. We stood beside each other with our fingers clumsy on zippers, pulling at fabric in the dark. Light hit some places and missed others. The grass was wet under my body and when he touched me it didn’t feel like the other times. I didn’t let it.
Girls at school talked about sex as if it was something they weren’t a part of: a quick grope in the backseat of a car, used condoms left in bins their mothers emptied. I’d sat through a hundred lunches hearing about it. Lou said the boys were worse. It wasn’t like that for us. I guess it couldn’t be.
In the old hotel Lou only leant his head against my chest. His elbows dug into my thighs and he let his weight go like he was falling. Wood groaned above our heads.
‘You reckon our parents came here when they were kids? Snuck in?’
‘Reckon they came here their whole lives.’ Lou pulled back. He laid both hands flat on the bar and pushed up until he was sitting beside me. ‘Ya know that well enough. Only stopped cause the beer did.’
Lou never told me but I knew his mum was a drunk. Nobody else did, or at least they wouldn’t say it out loud. I think it made it worse for him, a secret he had no choice in. I understood having to cover up something you wished never existed. I had a secret too. It was worse that it was his mum as well, though I couldn’t say why exactly. All our dads drank.
I wonder what’d change if we knew them when they were our age,’ I said, and I’d thought about it long enough but I couldn’t make myself ask. ‘What happened to them.’
‘Don’t think I’d wanna know.’
‘Guess not.’ Dust was stuck to the palms of my hands and I wiped it on my skirt, said, ‘I just wanna know if it matters. If there’s a thread, something that happens when you’re young and you can’t get rid of it. Maybe it can make you a person you don’t wanna be.’
‘Who says that’s not how they wanna be?’ Lou’s voice came out rough like he was talking to someone else. He ran his hand along the wood, tugged at a loose joint. ‘Maybe it’s just not how we want them to be.’
I looked down at the floor, at what I could see of it. ‘I hope not.’
Lou tensed beside me. The bones in his arms straightened as he pushed off. A floorboard cracked under his weight. ‘C’mon Tilly,’ he said and stood with his head bowed, one hand out as if he were waiting for it to be struck.
It was the same temperature outside but it didn’t feel the same. The ocean was mostly flat. Small tracks of whitewater punched towards the rocks and fell back. We left the bike by the hotel and walked, slow steps over hot cement.
It was night by the time we got to Austinmer station. Floodlights took over the tracks and small fragments floated down, caught in the light like it had the weight to hold them there, like the ash was suspended, unmoving. Lou bought tickets while I stood on the edge of the platform and held out my hands. To the side of us rising land cut out half the sky.
There were voices on the train but no bodies. A bruise sat green and yellow on my knee and Lou rubbed at it with an open palm. He left his hand there and I wondered if we were just playing at being grownups, if it was mirrored action. In our own space it wasn’t like that. We grabbed for each other like it gave us something solid, and I guess it did.
Fluorescent light took hold of shadows, erased each one. Lou said, ‘You wanna play eye spy?’
I reached out a closed fist. ‘I’ll play knuckles.’
‘Nah. I always lose cause I don’t wanna hurt you.’
‘You can’t,’ I said. ‘It’s only skin.’
Lou started eye spy. I shook my head but he kept going anyway. He spied things I wouldn’t think to look for: the proper names of screws in the wall, colours too exact to count. I spied what was right in front of me. It was his turn when a woman got on the train and sat across from us. Lou turned his body around. All his limbs folded in on themselves. When we were alone I forgot that he was so unsure. Each curve and line in his face took the route it should have. Back when I was a kid with freckles and teeth too big—before anyone noticed my body—I used to think that if you looked like that you could meet anyone’s eye. It’s not true though. People mostly feel the same.
The woman got off two stops later but we stayed quiet. By Otford the smoke was strangling. I touched one hand to the glass and rubbed at a smudged fingerprint, said, ‘Where are we going?’
‘I wanna see it. The fire.’
‘You can’t.’ I tried to picture a static map, the roads that fed through the park, but none of it joined up if you couldn’t drive there.
‘We could get close, close enough.’
Gum was stuck to the seat by my shoulder. An open bottle of soft drink rolled over the floor downstairs, liquid spilling out slowly. ‘Close enough for what?’
Lou shook his head. ‘I saw the photos on the news. It looked like nothing could stop it.’
The carriage shook going around a bend, metal pulled and straining. I went back to looking out the window. Before streets were clumped together with bush between but now they stood in never-ending rows. Since I was a kid I’d picked out houses, drawn imaginary new lives inside the walls during the few seconds it took to pass. I wanted to do it that night, to find an empty thought to occupy, but the houses only showed up as outlines, darker black.
We got off the train and stood on an empty station waiting for another. Twelve-year-olds in jeans rolled up past their ankles were smoking outside the fence. A drunk old man walked past, tripping over his left thong each time he took a step. I felt bad for him, I guess, because I watched him until he passed out of view. By the time we got to Cronulla it was late and we walked to the wharf knowing the last ferry had gone already. I didn’t want to say it, though, didn’t want to be the one who stopped anything.
‘We could hitch hike.’ I wasn’t sure if I was joking, if I’d have the guts for it.
‘Thought of that. Don’t reckon they’d let anyone through.’
The houses that backed onto the water were lit up but there were no people inside. We walked back to the station and I thought that was it, that maybe we’d sit by the beach and fool around before we went home again. Girls in high heels and make-up I didn’t know how to do stumbled towards Northies and I pushed my hair back off my face. I looked down at worn sneakers.
Beside me Lou touched a shoulder to mine and when I turned, he started to run. Once he took the corner I could only hear him, hear his shoes hit the concrete and his voice call for me to follow. It didn’t take long to catch up. He had waited, slowed until he was barely jogging, but he sped up again as soon as I came close. Our arms swung into each other.
The Esplanade wove along the cliffs and over the edge nothing looked back. It was dark enough that we could see light catch on moving surfaces but not where it came from. I wanted to laugh but something else moved through my body, something close to fear, the anticipation of it. We ran a long way before we stopped. My lungs filled sharply and then collapsed again.
At the end of the path Lou took off down a flight of stairs two at a time. Bush protruded on one side and a white house cut into the hill behind. I stood on the top step a while before I felt for the ground. The moon was out but it looked like someone had reached up and smudged it with a school rubber. Grey ash and smoke hid a curved rim. I knew where we were. Lights drew the shoreline across the water, a single line of houses and then more either side where the streets grew into a town. The wharf struck out, aged wood searching for land.
Lou walked back, slowly. He kissed me bent over. His breath was ragged and our teeth touched when he ran out of air, when he tried for more. ‘We could swim,’ he said.
‘You can’t see it.’ I pushed my hands flat against the ground. He didn’t mean a wade in the shallows, I knew that. Waves rolled in and I said, ‘Over there or here, it doesn’t matter.’
‘It matters. Every light’s on.’
It wasn’t always like that. One of the saddest things was walking through streets knowing no one else was awake, watching for movement or noise and finding none. I knew what he meant, but I’m still not sure why I followed him into the water. Maybe because I knew he’d go either way and I didn’t want him to be alone. Maybe because I didn’t really care if I came out again. The water took our bodies like we were sinking.
We left our shoes in a small space carved out of the rocks at Salmon Haul but we kept our clothes on. I wasn’t sure about it, if it was safe. Lou’s jeans hung low off his hips from the weight before he was in up to his waist. It had looked still enough from the shore but the tide pulled roughly and small waves hit my face each time I tried to breathe. The edges of the bay were shapes in the distance when something rough grazed my thigh. I could feel it afterwards, feel the skin where touch had settled. We weren’t close yet and I tried to keep going but panic made everything harder. Liquid caught in my chest and I coughed it out with my face submerged. In my ears the water was loud as thunder, cracking earth.
Lou was a better swimmer than me. He’d been in red and yellow on the beach for years before he told his dad he wasn’t doing it anymore. When I stopped he was treading water. He said, ‘Are you okay?’
I let my head break under the surface to push hair out of my eyes but I guess it worried him because he came closer. I thought of my feet sinking and wondered at what was below us, the bulk of it. ‘It’s a long way,’ I said.
‘I didn’t mean it.’ Water was in his mouth like he was spitting. ‘Shoulda thought. We can go back.’
‘No.’ The ocean tugged at my ankles. I turned onto my belly and started swimming again.
It was easier after that. I don’t know if anything had changed or if my muscles only took the warmth and made use of it, but I figured out a way to turn my head for air without getting water instead. The next time it wasn’t me that stopped. Lou was pointing at something, legs kicking to raise himself up as he held one arm high. ‘Do ya see it,’ he said. ‘Can ya see?’
Red, filtered light hung over the shore and when I looked up the small flecks of ash I’d seen under the escarpment were multiplied. What was left of whole hectares came down from the sky. Lou lay back in the water. His skin and bones were jagged but his face was the quietest I had ever seen it. Each muscle pulled someplace nicer. I kicked to the surface and we floated still over a moving current.
I didn’t want to look down. We did, though. It wasn’t so magic in the water. Grey dust pooled and when we started swimming again it was thick. Handfuls of it caught on the surface. A hundred metres had passed us while we watched and we skewed our bodies back, angled closer to Bundeena wharf.
No one was waiting on the other side. I thought maybe they would be, that someone had seen us. We stood on the sand with water dripping off our bodies. We were lucky, I guess. Stupid too, because there was nowhere to go. Lights were on but we couldn’t see any people.
We walked barefoot through empty streets. The town was awake but we were still separate, alone. An old wooden hall offered the closest to something welcoming and we stood outside in the street then raised ourselves onto the fence. The door was cracked wide enough for light to come through but no more. My feet hung close to the ground and I kicked them forward and then back again.
Lou was still. He said, ‘What do ya think is inside?’
‘Stacks of old chairs. A hot water urn.’
‘What about all this. You reckon anyone’s in there, busy? You think people are sleeping, like it’s somewhere safe?’
I shook my head. Swathes of gum leaves hung in the air above us, blossoms thick like they’d just found space. ‘Maybe there’s one person, waiting, in case.’
Lou was quiet a long time after that. He said, ‘I’d like to help.’
Lou had pictured firefighters in uniform, good men behind desks marking off maps and women like we wished our mothers were using soft words to give comfort. That’s not what we found, but even if it was we would’ve been told to go. That’s the bit that was hard to take. We’d both seen the damage adults do without trying. It didn’t seem right no one could trust us because of youth alone, but it was still the way it was.
We sat there for almost an hour but no shadows moved inside. No one came or left. The fields out the back caught stray light and let it go again. The air was hollow. It heaved smoke above us but we had stopped looking up.
Lou stood first. We walked until we came to an empty campground by the water. It was dark away from paved roads. A few hundred metres in, the silhouette of two deer stood out black against the moon on the water. They had their heads up—it was the movement we saw—and once they were still we took careful steps off the gravel and sat next to a leaning banksia tree. Lights flew across the water and the deer grazed stubby grass in front of it. I did the same. I pulled out chunks with my hands.
After a while Lou lay down. He reached one arm out for me and I stayed there, my cheek against the shirt damp over his chest. I slept but I know he didn’t. He was awake when I closed my eyes and awake when I opened them. In the morning we caught the ferry back. No money had made it over in our pockets and a woman older than my mother paid our fares, reached into her handbag for loose change. Lou tried to ask for her address so he could send it back but he mixed the words, stammered until she held up one hand. She looked upset but she said it was OK. She said it a few times.
Later Lou told me he hated himself for the excitement he’d held on to when other people only had fear. He said it late one night, sitting underneath my bedroom window. Something had happened but he wouldn’t tell me. Inside the house men were yelling on the TV. Blue light moved across the walls. I picked a stalk of lavender from the garden and crushed it. Lou’s face didn’t look right. He looked like a little kid trying not to cry. I held my breath, repeated the same words the woman on the ferry had said. It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK. I leant my head against his shoulder but he didn’t move. He just stared straight ahead.
The fire was under control within a couple days, out in a week, but the black soot of it stuck around a while. We only saw the flames in the newspaper. A few months later fence panels started to pile up around the old hotel. Bulldozers came in and took it all. We watched from the street. Lou stopped going to school when the weather turned cold and I couldn’t do anything to fix it. I tried. Afternoons I rode my brother’s bike through town looking for him. Weeks passed and I started going further. If there was nowhere else, I took the highway and coasting down hills with semi-trailers passing inches by my shoulder I felt the vibrations tear at my joints. I saw my body as blood and bones on the side of the road and for whole minutes I thought I could do anything, that if I kept trying years might move like seconds and I could get out: that nothing could touch me. I’d stopped caring if it did.