Paulo kept thinking about what would have happened if he hadn’t found the boy in time. He felt morbidly curious about it, even though he knew the boy couldn’t swim, so really it was obvious.
The night he’d come home, after the whole rescue drama, he felt like snapping at Tan when she said to Hayley, ‘You know your dad’s a hero, don’t you?’
‘Daddy’s a hero!’ Hayley said, jiggling around in excitement.
‘What happened, Dad? Was the kid nearly dead?’ Ethan said, cornering Paulo at the back door.
‘For god’s sake, don’t be so bloody stupid!’ he said sharply and Tan’s face contracted as if he’d thrown water right at her, and Hayley started crying.
‘Sorr-ee, Dad!’ Ethan said.
Paulo realised later that the kids had made a card and Tan had put a bottle of champagne in the fridge to celebrate.
He said sorry to her, held her in his arms, allowed her to be prickly and unforgiving for most of the evening until she thawed out a little and consented to drinking some champagne. Then he went in to hug Hayley and Ethan and leaned in for a moment to breathe in their different child smells. Ethan’s acidy, newly sweaty 11-year-old self and Hayley’s still milky scent mixed with the tang of baby shampoo and what somehow seemed like sunlight.
Soon after that he tracked down the family’s number from one of the search people, Grant. He knew him from the kids’ soccer club. He wasn’t supposed to contact them again but he said he just wanted to make sure the boy was okay. ‘I’m sure I can swing it,’ Grant said.
He texted the number a couple of days later adding, ‘U know u did good, don’t u?’ and Paulo felt a mixture of irritation and shame. He didn’t reply.
He sat on the number for a week, not mentioning it to Tan. Finally, one weekday evening he decided to do it. Tan had gone out early with a friend and he faced the whole dinner/bedtime ordeal on his own. It was no different to scores of other nights. Ethan was teasing and Hayley was whingy about the broccoli in the pasta sauce and then they were both up and down from their beds even though he had tried to give himself over to them, supervising teeth cleaning and reading Hayley an endless array of mind-numbing picture books.
He was getting a beer from the fridge thinking about the call when Hayley appeared in the doorway in her nightie for the tenth time. Paulo felt irritation rising in his throat. ‘Bed,’ he said harshly, barely turning towards her. ‘Now!’
She just stood there sucking her thumb, seemingly oblivious. ‘Carry me back to bed, Daddy.’
Paulo sighed. He put the beer back in the fridge, closed it and leant his head against it, eyes shut for a second. And, just because he couldn’t think of what else to do or say, he picked her up and carried her down the hall to her room.
Paulo still thought about it most days. Tan had finally said, ‘Maybe you should sleep in the spare room for a few nights,’ because he was so wired he was keeping her awake, up and down, tossing and turning.
One night he got up and walked down to the beach at three in the morning. He sat on a bench on the foreshore for an hour in shorts and a T-shirt even though it was freezing. The wind made scratchy noises in the pine trees and the sea was completely flat and black.
The dark, the cold, being alone; it felt something like penance. He couldn’t get the look of the kid out of his head.
A couple of weeks after the rescue he had seen another autistic kid on the beach. Paulo had been zipping up his wetsuit, about to go for his first surf in months when he noticed the boy hovering around strangely, fluttering his hands in front of his face. The father was there and a younger kid about eight—normal, as far as you could tell—and he seemed completely uninterested in the weirdness of his brother.
Paulo walked to a spot on the rocks that bordered the beach and sat where they wouldn’t notice him, his surfboard across his knees, just watching. The father was a big bloke, meaty looking, both firm and gentle with the boy. He had a heavy air about him; he didn’t smile. Paulo thought that the three of them had probably been at this beach many times before. He felt so sure of this that he wondered why he had never seen them.
The older boy—he was tall and well made, maybe 12 or 13—went down to the water and his father followed. The boy splashed his face, reached down and scooped up wet sand, dropped it and waved his hands around his face like fish swimming in the air. Then the father took his hand and led him into the waves.
Paulo felt his stomach pitch anxiously, but the father was calm and in control. He seemed to be aware of the boy in a particular, deep way. They stood facing the swell, the man barely moving and the boy bobbing up and down just a little. He turned back towards the beach for a minute and even from far off Paulo could see he was ecstatic. The two of them, holding hands, could have been having a religious experience. Then again, the boy could have been a sacrifice, the father offering him up to the ocean.
He remembered the boy’s legs around his waist that day, and the softness of his skin, but how very cold it was, as if the boy was not quite human any more, something else. He thought of it when he was in the shower in the morning, turning up the hot tap more and more until it was blasting on his skin. The boy hadn’t said anything while Paulo had been muttering, ‘It’s okay mate, it’s okay’ over and over until he felt as if he was reassuring himself. The boy smelt of reeds, of dank water. He had sediment on his face and twigs in his hair. Paulo held him close.
When he rang the family, the mother answered. At least he thought it was the mother—he recognised her slight accent. She said hello again and Paulo hung up. He was in agonies for a couple of days in case she traced the call. What kind of nutter would she think he was then?
On the day it happened they all clapped him on the back while they were bundling the boy up in blankets and getting him dressed. Paulo sat on a log feeling out of it but euphoric. And then ten minutes later the family drove in—the mother and the grandparents—and everyone seemed to be crying and laughing. He remembered the mother’s smell when he hugged her, like cloves, and then the grandmother, very ancient and tiny. Paulo had towered over her, lowering his head to hear her.
‘Thank you, darling,’ she’d said, whispery like the beginnings of moist rain. ‘Thank you.’
Paulo had been a swimmer when he was a boy. His parents had taken turns in getting him to the pool two weekday mornings by five-thirty, from the age of nine until he was 14, when he gave it up.
The kid in squad had been 15, nothing wrong with him, no comparison, though of course there must have been something. There had been rumours about the family. People said the father was too pushy, wanted the kid to get to state level and it was never going to happen. There’d been some sort of shouting match with the head coach Gary and the kid had been crying. Paulo wished he could remember his name.
He didn’t see anything but his friend Eddie heard from someone that they found him floating in the pool when they opened up in the morning. ‘Gone,’ Eddie said, making a chopping gesture at his wrists. ‘He must have hidden in the dunnies when they closed up. They would have had to drain the pool.’
Paolo remembered the flashing lights of the police car and Gary coming out to meet his dad and the other parents, ‘Sorry, people, pool’s closed today. We would have contacted you but it was too late to stop you.’ No mobiles then.
Paulo was ashamed at how relieved he had been that squad was called off. But he never went back.
If he closed his eyes he could still remember the pool; the bubbles from his own breathing and the slightly smeared look of the chlorinated water through his goggles. He could hear Gary’s echoing voice, some kid laughing, could feel the almost hypnotic state that came on after a certain number of laps, how his throat got tight with thirst even in the middle of all that water.
Then afterwards, driving home in the car with his mum or dad beside him, not speaking, the day growing light, the radio news coming on, wolfing down a banana and an apple and a muesli bar before he even got home.
And it was only later when Bonnie and Elsa were getting up, crabby from sleep, and Paulo was hoeing into a huge bowl of Weetbix, that he realised he had emerged from the dream state. Back to the world.
It was a cool day although the summer had been so incredibly hot. He was laughing with Max; they certainly hadn’t expected to find the boy. They were just going to get some footage of the searchers and get back to the studio. They were talking about the footy, then they got onto how hopeless it all seemed. God knows, the boy had been gone overnight and they had 50 guys out searching. ‘Waste of money,’ Paulo remembered saying, ‘he couldn’t last out here.’ He implied that the parents were negligent somehow, letting him stray like that. Everyone had heard the kid was simple. ‘What were they thinking?’ he’d said.
‘Still, wouldn’t be easy,’ Max said and Paulo shut up, thinking of his own countless parental fuck-ups.
The searchers were everywhere and Paulo filmed them for a bit. Then they’d got footage of the guy coordinating the whole thing saying they were worried, conditions had been cold overnight but they still had more ground to cover. Paulo walked back through the area the searchers had already been through, ostensibly to get a bit more footage but really to have the cigarette that he’d pinched from Max’s pack.
‘Good idea?’ Max had said, knowing how long he’d struggled to give up, but with that quick smug grin that Paulo knew meant he was glad he was back in the fold. He ignored the dig but thought he’d have to change when he got home—Tan would kill him if she knew he’d taken up it up again. He almost smiled, thinking that it was like he was having an affair.
Then he saw him. He was like a mirage, the shape of him across the river, naked and completely white. Perfect. Paulo’s eyes took in the form of him just before he shouted and plunged in. And this was the image that stayed with him. The boy was wading into the water, silent, parting the reeds, completely intent, as if he were in some Garden of Eden.
When he lay awake at night remembering it, Paulo thought of the book his grandmother had read him as a boy, The Water Babies. He thought of the rich gilt edges of the pages and the pictures of the babies’ round forms swimming underwater, vulnerable but not, free and alone.
The boy, the one he’d saved, hadn’t looked up as Paulo approached. His eyes had been on the water.
He was looking at the water. He was walking into it.
Kate Ryan’s work has appeared in publications including Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review and Best Australian Stories (2016). She won the novella prize in the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards (2017).