Early, on the first morning of the school holidays, I found Dad out on the driveway hooking up the caravan.
“There goes the secret!” he said, “I want to get going a few days early this year…beat everyone to the good spots.”
Lucy probably would not arrive until the weekend…only Wednesday today, so excitement eluded me.
Out on the highway, Dad drove us ever-slightly west, away from the ocean, up into the ranges. Dad turned off the air-conditioner and we wound down our windows to inhale the rainforest. The radio started to hiss and fuzz as we got behind the mountain. We amused ourselves trying to identify bird-calls and complimenting Mum on her singing.
The five hour trip takes forever, and just as boredom set in, trying to not get caught poking my sisters in the ribs, the familiar Camping Ground – This Way signappeared.
“Here…finally,” Mum said turning around to look at us, “and if I hear one more word about annoying your sisters I’ll seriously make Dad reverse the car all the way back home.”
The first summer only a few caravans of families staked a claim along the banks of the river, but every year more came. We felt like pioneers, originals, regulars every year.
As we turned the bend off the dirt road to where the grass rolls down to the river bank Dad exclaimed “What the…” and I looked up from my book. Dozens of caravans and tents already lined the waters edge, a brood of men in singlets playing a game of cricket, the shouts of a hundred kids swimming, camp-fires, kites flying, dogs barking, sausages frying.
“I doubt we’ll get a place, children!” Mum said.
“Don’t talk like that!” said Dad.
They started on each other, only as parents can.
I tuned out, busy looking for Lucy’s caravan, hopelessly I believed…still three sleeps until Saturday— but you couldn’t miss it if it they had arrived. A large silver and blue Jayco with a pop-up top and an awning coloured like a circus tent. You could hold a circus in there too…Mum and Dad and Lucy’s parents sat around in there the whole time last year, drinking and laughing in the shade.
Dad aimed the car down the make-shift street of vans and tents and kids riding bikes but I couldn’t see Lucy’s caravan anywhere…starting to really worry about mums prophecy of parking-space-doom when…Lucy! standing by the side of the track with her mother, their huge awning half up, her Dad sweating with a sledgehammer and a can of beer. I saw them first.
Those three bitter sleeps dissolved like aspirin in honey.
“Hey look, Mim and Lucy!” Mum said.
Mim, Lucy’s Mum’s name… short for…Miriam, probably? I never asked.
Next to Lucy’s caravan awaited a vacant spot. They had parked their car there, to reserve it for us! Dad and Lucy’s father shook hands through the window. Luke…Lucy…Mim, they all have short names.
I took my time getting out of the car and my sister, Jasmin, walked off through the tents with Lucy before I got to say Hi.
She had grown taller, because last year she stood the same height as my sister, and now she had half a head above, and she hadn’t cut her crazy red curly hair. Lucy looked back over her shoulder at me and smiled. My heart burst.
“Come back here and get your hat!” Mum shouted after my sister. Lucy doesn’t wear a hat, she has a parasol…like the day we met. We come here every year, have done so all my life. Back then only a few caravans came…no dirt track, or picnic tables or amenities block. The only thing that has not changed…old Bertha Jones in her ancient Haulmark motor home…ancient even back then, all rusted out like the skeleton of a ship on a beach that nomads live in…she owns this camping ground. I heard Dad say that he reckoned she probably owns about half the properties around here as well, and half the nearby town. She sits out front under a tattered awning all day in school holidays, watching people, drinking from a two litre flagon of sherry. Late in the day she starts to abuse anyone who happens to pass, and then by dusk, when everyone’s out cooking under the stars, you can hear her snoring and cursing in her sleep.
A couple of years ago I met Lucy. Now our families hung out together…I believed that meant destiny, or something. I had this secret spot way up the river. A huge canopy of ghost gums and eucalyptus trees stood, shadowing a backwash by some rapids. A pool formed on the bend and you could see schools of bream taking a break from the current. They flashed in the sun like when you flip coins into a wishing well. On the bank, in the shadows, a huge patch of four leaf clovers grew in a natural circle of rocks. Above the rocks an ancient tree had fallen and firmly jammed in the crevices, forming a bridge. Moss has grown on the bough and birds nested in the forks of the branches. I’d collected hundreds of four-leafed clovers and preserved them between the pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. So…the first time I saw Lucy, she sat on my bridge, dangling her legs over my pool of clovers, and she had a yellow umbrella. I watched in silence, admiring her long, tan legs and the way the light dappled down through the trees behind her and lit up her umbrella like a halo, in awe, thinking how she looked like a saint in a painting, when a lone Rosella parrot, strayed from its company, swooped like a combination of a rainbow and a lightning strike, down through the foliage and alighted, gracefully, on her head. She didn’t squeal…I fell instantly in love. I hid, love-blind, trying to figure out a way to not scare her by suddenly stepping out from the bushes, and what the hell I would say to an angel, when she spoke.
“Hi there!” she said, a little laugh in her voice. “Did you see that! Wow! What a beautiful bird…come out from there.”
I stepped dumbly out from the bushes, blushing.
“I like your umbrella.” I said, swallowing hard, “It looks like a halo glowing in the sun.”
“They call it a parasol, made out of paper, wouldn’t work as an umbrella,” she said, jumping down from the log into the patch of clovers.
“Hey! Careful!” I shouted, and this time she shrieked, leaping into the air, looking around, terrified.
I fell down laughing, which made her angry, and as I rolled around on the ground she kicked me firmly in the ribs. “Why did you scare me like that! Why?” She demanded.
“I didn’t mean to scare you! Look…a whole patch of four-leafed clovers.” I said, rubbing my ribs.
“Oh…wow…I didn’t see those…wow…an eternity of luck!” And she squatted down, running her fingers trough the clovers.
That year, which seems so long ago, will forever remain etched in my memory…the first time I ever held hands with a girl. A drought changed the river that year, the water didn’t make it right up to the grassy bank. A stretch of sand arced down to the stream and a bunch of families had built a huge bonfire. Everyone sat around a man playing a guitar and a cool breeze blew up from the water, fanning the flames, they roared, everything glowed, beautiful, perfect. I stretched out on a blanket, feeling sleepy and content and Lucy slid in beside me. She wore a blue dress with no sleeves over a pink tee-shirt, and the way she dressed reminded me of the parrot, how it floated down like it belonged there. By and by she took my hand in hers and stroked my palm, put her head on my shoulder. She had clovers in her hair.
I wondered if she would notice the scar on my lip, or that one of my front teeth looked new. Just after Easter holidays, back at school, the teacher asked us what we wanted to do, when we grew up, and I said that I wanted to live the life of a poet. At the three o’clock bell, down by the bike racks, a gang of boys beat me, knocked one of my front teeth clear out of my skull. An adult tooth too! Six stitches in my lip later I have a fake, it hooks in behind my incisors. I lived in terror that I one day I would inhale it and choke to death.
While helping Dad set up our camp and peg out the awning, I found myself constantly looking up the street of caravans, hoping to see Lucy coming back, and I think Dad noticed. He had this dumb grin, chuckling to himself and I got really annoyed. When she finally returned, with my sister, my sister had a smirk on her face. I felt a wave of terror that she had spent the last nine thousand hours telling Lucy that I desperately love her and that I write poems about her in my journal. But Lucy looked right at me, not smirking…she had a little smile, as though pleased to see me…and my heart burst.
The afternoon stretched out long and slender and the cricket game between the tents ended. Someone in one of the big caravans further up the river started a generator. A couple more car loads of people rolled along the dusty track, hopeful faces pressed up against windows, searching in vain for a spot to park their vans or pitch their tents. Old couples strolled down by the river, dogs on leads. The call of water birds gave way to screeching clouds of flying-foxes and the sun dropped beyond the trees. Curious possums ventured up to the tents. I could see Lucy in the window of her caravan, helping her mother. How I dreamed of seeing her again! Every desk I sit at in school has her name carved into the laminate. I spray-painted ‘I love Lucy’ in huge letters in a storm drain by the supermarket, the heart in red, dripping, with an arrow pierced through.
She came out of the caravan wearing a pink dress, peeling a banana, and I felt so impatient that I walked right up to her.
“Hi” I said, “have an alright year?”
“I saw you watching me through the window…I could think of that as kind of creepy, you know.” She took a bite of her banana…stopped my heart with her eyes.
“Really nice to see you again!” I blurted, embarrassed.
Her face lit up, she moved to embrace me…and I tried to kiss her, right then, all caution tossed overboard, like a ship’s crew ditching cargo in a panic. She recoiled and jammed the banana into my ear. It went right in there, squished deep into the canal. She ran back into her caravan, slamming the screen door.
I sat over by the barbecues cleaning out the banana with a bent paper clip and a tissue when I heard the screen door slam again. Lucy came across the park toward me. My heart took another beating.
“Sorry,” she said meekly, her green eyes full of remorse.
I damn nearly poked the paper clip through my ear-drum.
“No problem,” I said, meekly. “Sorry I tried to kiss you…I…”
Cutting me off she said, a pale blush colouring her chest, “I really didn’t mind…that you tried to kiss me…I liked it, but I got…I guess I got a shock…the whole…banana thing.” She made a martial arts type movement that she must have learned in school.
A few minutes later my heart started again and with a rush of bold courage—only a year in the preparation—I said, “You know…I really like you Lucy. I wish we lived in the same town.”
“I know,” she said, wiping a bit of banana out of my hair, “your sister told me that you haven’t even talked to another girl all year.”
I swore under my breath, flushing hot above the collar...my sister will meet with pain.
“I like that…I thought about you too…” and she ran her fingers down my cheek.
Then she kissed me…you get the picture… no point trying to describe how that made me feel..
We sat up in the fork of a tree out over the river, holding each other for balance. An owl hooted high above us. Shadows in tents moved about, guitars strummed and bottles clinked.
“Do you want a boyfreind” I asked, stroking her hair.
She sat facing the bank, a camp fire flickering in the green of her eyes. She kissed me again. Her tongue tasted like grape bubblegum. Her lips ridiculously soft, like rubbing satin on your wrist. Her hair smelled like sun and smoke and coconut lotion.
“Yes,” she whispered, resting her head on my shoulder, and then, more firmly “Yes…consider me your girlfriend.” She then slipped a note into my pocket. “Promise not to read it until later tonight…in bed.” She said, and kissed me again.
By the light of a pen torch, under the cover of my sleeping bag I unfolded the note.
It said, ‘Falling, in love with you…will you catch me?’
The next morning while helping Dad make a pot of porridge over a fire Lucy came out of her caravan carrying a towel, wearing swimmers.
“Good morning” she said politely to my father, and turning to me, “Want to come swimming? My brother, our cousins and some of their friends want to go up to the lagoon…there’s a swinging rope!”
I looked hopefully at Dad who laughed and said “Sure, don’t forget your hat.”
I ran and changed, heart singing for this glorious day with Lucy.
The group of us walked up through the trees, following the river along around the bend. The rapids roared over the rocks and then, circling back around on itself, the river emptied out over a cliff about fifteen feet high into a spectacular waterfall. Beyond a deep cool lagoon shimmered, carved out in the limestone from the water pounding there for a thousand years. At the very end loomed an ancient paper-bark tree, about fifty metres high, and someone had climbed way up into the foliage and tied a rope over the bough that hangs out over the water. A piece of broom stick functioned as a handle, wedged through the weave of the rope. You can get up a fantastic speed running down the slope holding tight onto the broom handle and you launch out over the water, high up in the air until, practically horizontal you let go and free fall tens of metres into the lagoon.
Dad came and checked it out years ago, swam around the lagoon with diving gear, checking for rocks and submerged logs. “Seems perfectly safe,” he told my concerned mother, “about five metres deep there, a perfect diving spot.” I had pretended earlier, when Lucy invited me to the swing, to not know about it…I’ve learned this year that girls act more favourable to you when you let them think that they know something you don’t. They love to counsel.
Lucy and I sat on the bank for awhile, watching her older cousins doing somersaults and tandem swings and generally acting crazy. We ate some biscuits and potato-chips and drank a bottle of gingerale. We talked about next year, and how we should write letters and mused that maybe, eventually, we could visit each other without having to wait for the yearly camping trip.
Her cousin suddenly towered above us, flicking water, acting the idiot.
“Have a go Lucy, come on, you will love it…bet you can’t get as high as me!”
She looked at me, reluctantly.
“Go on,” I said, “or I’ll go first!”
“I’ll go first…and then let’s swim out to those rocks…get away from him!” she said, standing, gesturing at her cousin, letting go of my hand. She took a last sip of gingerale, kicked off her sandals and unbuttoned her shorts. A couple of her cousins and their friends rudely stared. I stood so she could put her hand on my shoulder…so she didn’t have to bend over.
Ignoring their leers she skipped over and grabbed the handle of the swing from her brother. “Pull me back,” she demanded, “grab my legs and pull me right back so I get a good speed up…I’m too short to run down the bank.” She demonstrated while saying this: walking backwards up the slope holding the swing she couldn’t get more than two paces before she had to let go of the handle. Her brother and two of her cousins grabbed her legs, roughly, and pulled her up the slope until, horizontal to the ground, she screamed at them to let her go. I leapt to my feet. “Let her go!” I shouted at them. All three let her go and she swung past me with a squeal. She went out over the water and then, when she should have let go, she didn’t, and all of us shouted, “Let go!” in unison. She swung by me again and up, above horizontal, upside down, and then she let go. Flipping backwards in the air, in a perfect swan arc, she landed on her head, hitting the exposed roots of the tree.
A sickening liquid crunch and a deep gurgling scream tore apart the silence. I picked her up and her head lolled sideways like a flower too heavy for its stem. Another cracking sound, like popping bubble-wrap, echoed across the water, and blood poured out of her ear. She vomited and her green eyes focused, unfocused and paled…then she sighed, the corners of her beautiful mouth quivering.
My heart burst, audibly, and everything went quiet. I looked up at the crowd of boys around us, all in shock. I screamed for them to go and get help. They all ran off into the trees, leaving me there, cradling Lucy. Her face slowly shaded blue, some of the bones in her neck had pierced through the skin. I tired to lift her but she’d frozen, her head on my shoulder…her slender, noble neck, smashed in the wilderness.
She had clovers in her hair.