I love my brother Donny to bits. He’s the funny one in our family. He sings and yodels “There’s a Track Leading Back” and plays the guitar like his heroes, Slim Dusty and Smoky Dawson.
I follow Donny, both of us barefoot, around the farm. I’ve been following him all my life. Since I was old enough to walk. Our old dog Streak runs between our legs sometimes. I’d follow Donny to the ends of the earth if I had to. To gain his love. He dishes it out to me in little bits to keep me in my place. To show he’s boss of us. Specially as I’m a girl.
Our river lies just below our house, at the back of it. It’s fast flowing and sometimes it floods. Donny and I love the floods. We get out of going to school and we get to swim and row the tin canoe Dad made us in the flood waters that circle our house. Even our older brother, Billy-the-Brains, joins in at these times. Mum yells out at us: “You kids! Molly! Donny! Get out of the filthy dirty water! You’ll catch the typhoid! Get bitten by snakes!” She isn’t in the race, though. Her voice is high, she’s a soprano, and we can’t hear through the noise of our fun and screams as we tip one another out of the canoe into the dirty brown waters swirling around us.
All of us kids get taught to swim early. Thrown in usually and made to sink or swim. Don‘t go near the river on your own, you kids! is always ringing in our ears at home. “You’ll drown and no-one will hear your cries!” Mum says. “There are bull-routs in the reeds at the water’s edge!” Uncle Barney, who lives on a farm nearby, tells us to frighten us. We are supposed to only go there with grown ups, with Dad or with Uncle Barney to fish from the banks.
Donny has always been derring-do. I love it about him. I think he’s gotten worse since that nasty fall from our Shetland pony.
I know that he plays the clown in class, because I often see him standing outside the classroom in the corridor. When I ask him why he’s there, he says: “I put bobby pins in my hair to make Bobby Bailey-Tart, laugh. An’ I asked him if I can I have some of his jam tarts.” It got his mate the cane, too, for laughing at his jokes.
“C’mon, Gringo,” he says this day, “we’re going to the river an’ if yer help me carry the boat, I’ll take yer fer a row in it. Maybe even to the island.”
I am chuffed. I know he’s been going out in the boat after that first time I spied him. Not every day, but whenever he sees the coast is clear he goes there. Sometimes with a mate, Jimmy from across the road, or another friend from school. It’s usually when Dad stops off at the pub after work, which is most afternoons, rather than come home and try to talk to Mum, who’s always busy with the young kids’ needs and with cooking tea for us all.
That first time I followed behind them at a safe distance right down through the weeds and grass that separate our place from the river. Then I hid and watched through the tall reeds and the willow trees lining the bank. Saw them take the boat out.
The boys don’t usually like a girl tagging along. Donny needs me for something. I’m excited and pleased. It’ll be such fun.
At the end of the boat ride I know that the boys often have a swim at the water’s edge. They take off their clothes, except for their underpants, and swim and laugh and splash in the cooling waters. I can see they feel happy, all their troubles from school forgotten, as they skylark and carry on, while I watch them from my hidey-hole, in between the tall grass and weeds.
Afterwards, I see Donny and his mate drag the dinghy, along with the oars, in among the trees and weeds lining the bank for future use. Then they slink back along the path, pretending to be peeing or doing poos, under the tree next to the stinking outdoor dunny.
I follow him as usual this day down to the water’s edge. Or I should say I struggle under the weight of the tin dinghy.
“Me, Hiawatha! You, Minny Ha-Ha!” Donny mimicks the syllables coming from the mouth of a ‘Red Injun’. I giggle and play along with it: “No, me ‘Running Bear’ and you ‘Cowboy Jack’. Me no squaw, me no want to be tied up again.” Once he tied me to a tree with rope, danced around me and left me there and forgot to untie me. Mum it was who heard my cries and rescued me.
“Git along, little doggy, git along!” he sings, as we bump along the now well-worn track to the river with the green painted tin dinghy between us. Donny carries the boat by the sharp point of the bow, while I puff along behind, grabbing onto a rope tied to the end as best I can. The oars are hidden in the long grass underneath one of the willow trees.
I get in first, and Donny places the oars in the side notches made for this. He pushes the boat out until it floats, and scrambles in behind me. He pulls on the oars and wear out into the middle between the bank and the island. We are free as the breeze through our hair. I love my warm brother at this moment more than the earth and the sky and the water. It is so good to have him all to myself for once.
“I dare you to dive in and swim!” he says.
“No, Donny, no!”
“Scaredy cat! Cry baby! Yeller-belly!”
“Well I’m goin’ in.” And with that he dives in and comes up squirting water from his mouth in a long arc up into the air. Then he grabs hold of the dinghy and shakes it; “No, Donny!” I shout. ‘I wanta go back! No! Could be sharks.” I can almost feel, can see the sharp teeth of the monsters of the deep biting into my warm soft flesh. Into that of my brother too. “I’ll tell Mum!” I scream.
“OK, OK, Pueblo, enough tough-talkin! We’re headin fer home!”
And with that he scrambles back into the dinghy, almost toppling us into the river, and has us back into shore before I can protest further.
Back at the river’s edge, I have not had such fun in a long while. Donny is like a dolphin or a seal in the water, all slick and oily skinned, diving down and up and showing off.
‘Come-in! Come-in!’ he shouts.
And he dives down again and again and longer each time, as I count.
And up into the softening summer’s light snowy head darkened with water droplets.
“I’ll beat ma record this time!”
And down again: …five …six…seven…eight..nine…ten…I feel a stab of fear but it’s shaken off when his head shoots up once more and he’s there again laughing and pleased with himself.
And down on his face in the water just floating there.
(A Short Short Story: Commended FAW 2012)