The rain pings off the bottom of the small, tin dinghy and I tuck my body as far into the bow as I can manage. Dad’s silhouette is black against a deep plum sky. His hands grip the worn, wooden oars and his body moves mechanically, propelling us through the choppy river. I look over the edge of the boat into the murky depths. I’ve never seen the river look so dark, so rough, and so unknown. I imagine the monster that lives under the water that changes colour with the sky so you can’t see it lurking below. It’s watching us, waiting. The boat jerks with the current and I wonder if the monster is trying to capsize us. I can’t recognise where we are or how far we have to go, the riverbanks are hidden on the dark horizon. As the boat turns a bend in the river we start to sway again.
“Hold on,” Dad’s voice is gruff against the rush of the river. I grasp the cold metal sides of the boat and try to see beyond but the rain pelts my eyes and I lower them from the sting. The current become’s rougher and the rain changes from a tinny ping to a roar. Maybe that’s the monster’s roar, warning us of the attack it’s about to make. I look at Dad and can tell he’s struggling. His usually relaxed manner as he rows down the river in the little light the setting sun has left, has been replaced with hunched shoulders, white knuckles and his brow rippling under the raindrops.
I pull the heavy oilskin hood over my face as the water drowns out my vision further.
“How far, Dad?” I call out over the rumble of the river.
He looks at me and smiles, “Can’t handle a little rain aye Rangi?”
I poke out my tongue and he laughs.
He starts to sing, “Life is a breeze,” and then I join in.
“We do it for fun. No apologies, to anyone. We live on the seas, we do as we please.”
We continue singing until Dad manoeuvres the boat toward the left side of the river. I peer behind me into the shadows and see the shape of the jetty jutting out into the river.
“We can’t land on the jetty. It’s too rough, okay?” Dad calls as he struggles with the current that’s trying to push us out into the middle of the Hawkesbury River.
I nod, not watching him, but the jetty.
Dad turns the boat around so that he is closest to the bank and rows at full speed. He jumps out into the shallows holding the side of the boat as the river plays tug-of-war with him, or maybe it’s the monster. For a moment I think of what might happen if he let go.
Before I can think about it too much, the bottom of the dinghy scrapes on solid ground. Dad breathes heavily as he pulls the boat up the bank with me inside. We throw on our backpacks and Dad grabs the esky.
I stumble as we walk through the bush toward the hut. The hood of my oilskin coat falls over my eyes and the sleeves hang well below my hands. Through the dense bush I can see light dancing in the darkness as we move closer to the hut.
“Think quick!” Chris’ voice cries out as we enter. A can of VB flies through the air toward Dad, which he catches and cracks open.
“Thanks mate, actually worked up a bit of thirst on the river.”
“Yeah she is.” Dad drops the esky near the kitchen area before sitting down at the table.
“She wasn’t scared?” he nods in my direction and Dad shrugs his shoulders noncommittally. “How you going girl?”
I smile shyly, mumbling, “I’m good,” then go and unpack. I hang my coat on a hook by the door and kick off my muddy trainers. Dragging my feet along the wooden floorboards trying to dry them. I change into my PJs and unroll my sleeping-bag in front of the potbelly fire and burrow into it wriggling around like the very hungry caterpillar
“You’re not sleeping on the floor, you’ll catch the draft down there.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I open my book, The Enchanted Wood, at the folded down corner where Silky and Moonface take me to a new land at the top of the faraway tree.
Chris deals out cards on the table and Dad rolls a cigarette before lighting it and picking up his cards. “I’m surprised you guys made it out tonight. She’s a brave little grub.”
Dad mutters a response.
While they talk I watch the flames licking the glass, and the warmth of the fire on my face makes me sleepy. I hadn’t been brave. I hadn’t realised there was any need to be.
They place cards on the table as the rain pounds the roof of the hut. Dad glances out the window shaking his head from side to side. Every now and then things get heated and they call each other bastards and cunts, followed by a lot of laughing. I glance up before slipping back into my book.
My body melts into the wood and I struggle to read another word from the orange, flickering pages of my book. The smell of tobacco and pine warm the air and I fall asleep. From my dreams I can hear Dad sigh as he picks me up, sleeping-bag and all. He places me on the top bunk and kisses the top of my head.
The scent of bacon hangs in the air as Dad shakes me awake. I rub my eyes as I walk over to the table and he sets a plate with far too much food on it in front of me. Through the small window I can see that the rain has stopped and the sun is rising, reflecting like fire on the river.
“Thanks Dad,” I mumble with my mouth full of bacon and eggs.
“Eat up,” he replies. “We’ll go for a tiki tour soon, k? Chris has gone for a kayak.”
I nod and inhale my food. When I can’t eat anymore I slide my plate across to him to finish and scramble to get dressed. I pull on purple leggings with pink polka dots and a pink sweater. I pull my hair into spikey pigtails using my turquoise and silver sparkly butterfly clips to keep my fringe off my face. When I run back to Dad pulling on my damp trainers from the night before, he shakes his head at me trying not to laugh.
“You know you’re just going to get dirty right?” He grabs the oilskin off the hook and drapes it back over my shoulders and I slip my arms back into the too long sleeves. He rolls them up for me almost to my elbows. “Come on then.”
We turn away from the river and walk through thick brush. I keep close to Dad so the branches he bends as he walks won’t thwack me. The ground starts to slope upwards and the bush thins out. The dirt here is a rainbow of reds and oranges. The trees are thin and spread apart and it is easy to manoeuvre through them. I run ahead hiding behind too thin trunks and try to jump out and scare Dad. We keep going. I don’t know where we are going or what we are looking for but it doesn’t matter. It’s nice here. Peaceful.
“Dad,” I whine after what feels like hours. “I’m tired.”
“Not far now,” he replies.
“But I’m tired.”
He looks at me and rolls his eyes. “I think I carried you too much when you were a baby.” He picks me up and places me easily on his shoulders. “Old Rangi no-legs and no-taringas.”
“No,” I cry and hit the peak of his cap. “What’s a taringa?”
“Ears girl, it’s Māori for ears.”
“What other Māori do you know?”
He’s quiet for a few steps, then he takes a breath and starts to sing. “E tangi ana koe. Hine e hine. E ngenge ana koe. Hine e hine.” His words are rich and deep as he projects into the trees, the clack of the kookaburra joining in.
“What’s it about Dad?”
“It’s about a sad girl.”
“Where did you learn it?”
He’s quiet before he answers, “I don’t remember.” He starts another song and keeps singing as we break through the trees. At the top of the hill the dirt forms into craggy rocks. The sun in the sky burns bright as Dad places me down on a jutting red rock.
“Take a look at that Girl,” he says, rolling a smoke, and I do. Sitting on this rock you can see down to the river being strangled by shrubs on our left and to the right another hill climbs higher then the one we have just conquered. The red rocks in the distance look back at us and I lean back and let the sun warm my face. Dad finishes his cigarette, careful to stub it out on the rock. He tosses it and it lands near my hand. I notice that it is still smoking slightly and reach out to stub it. Before I can grab it an ant almost the size of the smoke picks it up and scuttles off.
“Look Dad,” I laugh at the ant with its cigarette. Then notice there are more of them scurrying over the rock we are sitting on.
Dad sees it and is immediately on his feet. He brushes down my shoulders and frantically turns me around. “Time to go Kiddo.” He flings me back over his shoulders and starts jogging downhill. Up on his shoulders I sway and hold on tight, almost being bucked off his shoulders. He keeps running, slowing down, as we get closer to the hut. It was so much faster getting back here. “Don’t want to fuck around with bull ants, Rangi, they hurt like hell and can do a lot of damage.”
We break through the brush and hear splashing so we make our way down to the jetty. Chris is climbing up the ladder, dripping wet.
“Hey mate,” Dad calls to Chris, who replies with a rude hand gesture and a whoop before running back off the jetty into the air above the river. “Bloody nutter,” Dad grumbles as we walk down to the end.
I sit on the edge, my oilskin jacket by my side and watch the water running under my feet. Chris climbs back up the ladder and jokingly pushes Dad toward the edge of the jetty. Chris is long and lanky and I giggle as he pushes on Dad whose arms are bigger than Chris’ legs. Dad pushes Chris into the water easily with a laugh before kicking off his boots and bombing on top of him. They play in the dark water, still murky from the rain the night before, splashing and dunking each other. I watch from above, egging them on. I’m not allowed to swim in the river. I wonder if the monster from the night before is still out there. Maybe it’s friendly.