As Estha stirred the thick jam he thought Two Thoughts, and the Two Thoughts he thought were these:
(a) Anything can happen to Anyone. And
(b) It’s best to be prepared.
When we were children, before she entered the nursing home, my great-grandmother, a nonagenarian, used to tell stories of the untimely deaths of people from her distant past. Driving past a hill with a crater missing from its side like a bite taken from a giant apple, she remembered a friend who had fallen into the middle of it during a picnic in her youth. He had broken his leg and died—of shock presumably—before he could be rescued. More than once she told us about her cousin Chris, who drowned on his 16th birthday trying to save a woman’s hat. He was only the second person to have drowned in the vast man-made Waranga Basin. The basin held water diverted from the Goulburn River, and carried it through a network of snaking channels to irrigate farms throughout the state of Victoria.
In dealing with evaporation and seepage losses it is much safer to be guided by measurements of actual losses per unit area of channel bed on some existing work in like conditions, and to compute there from the whole loss to be anticipated, than to assume without observation or computation any percentage as being applicable to the proposed system of channels.
My brother, our cousin and I drove into the small town of Rushworth midmorning on the second day of 1993. Nick Cave’s album The Good Son was playing on Grant’s car stereo. Grant, who at 25 was seven years older than me, had given me the tape to make up for taking my place at the concert the month before. The tail-end topic of conversation was the car accident that the two of us had been in years earlier. He described to our cousin Andrew his phone call to Mum, his voice sped up for comic effect: ‘Hi, Mum. I’ve had an accident! Dani’s in a coma! Bye.’
Amber glass from a full slab of Victoria Bitter stubbies in the backseat had shattered over my face, and I had been knocked unconscious. For years afterwards, the sight of me in the hospital covered in blood and glass became a kind of family lore, retold by everyone—Dad had described my face as a bloodied pulp—but the only memory that I retained was that of Grant sobbing in Mum’s arms as I was wheeled in for a brain scan.
My injuries had turned out to be superficial. Andrew joked: ‘Lucky you didn’t kill her. Ronda loves her kids.’
The next song began.
In much of the Mallee country runnels of the same volume and velocity would in a few hours erode deep gullies. Of course, the earths are of different origin; the mountain coating being rock decomposed in situ, while the Mallee soil is deposited water borne material.
The three of us went for a swim in the channel out the other side of town. All together we jumped from Fraser’s Bridge on Stanhope Road into the fast current below, which propelled us a little downstream before we could cut across, get out and jump again. The channel originated upstream at the Waranga Basin and meandered some 200-odd kilometres to the Mallee town of Wycheproof, where we had spent the early years of my childhood. As children, my brothers and sister and I had swum in the channel at the other end, fishing hairy freshwater mussels from under our feet and turfing them out onto dry banks made muddy by our splashing.
Weeks later I returned to Bushy’s, the 38 acres on the corner of Stanhope and Middle Road where my parents had been building a mudbrick house. I walked around and took photos with my dad’s SLR camera. The land had been successively passed down on my mother’s side since our Scottish forebears had settled it in the 1850s. The pair of shacks that those ancestors had built by hand still stood. It was at the back of these, in the remains of the old garden, that we had sat talking before we left to go swimming for the second time.
The beginning and the end of the conversation are lost. It may as well have begun with Grant declaring casually, ‘I’m never going to die!’ and Andrew’s guffaw and retort: ‘Did you hear that, Uncle Bob? Grant’s never going to die!’ Dad said that when he died, he would like to be stuffed by a taxidermist in an upright position. He strolled over to lean on the old wooden mantelpiece in the kitchen at the back of the house and modelled his desired pose, cigarette in one hand, Melbourne Bitter can in the other. I rolled my eyes. My mother laughed. ‘Who do you think would have you?’
‘I’d have you, Uncle Bob,’ said Andrew.
Grant said that when he died he would like to be buried there, at Bushy’s. When I developed the black-and-white photos at school, I saw that I had accidentally placed the negative backwards, so that the grainy print, full of shadows, was a mirror image of where we had gathered before the swim, not a true representation.
As the channel became smaller, the proportion of loss to supply would increase until a loss would be found which in the given length would absorb the whole supply. The loss of one-tenth of a foot is assumed for purposes of illustration only; but losses as high as this have actually been measured during hot weather in the northern parts of Victoria.
I had never been to the part of the channel that Dad drove us to. A small waterfall effect was artificially created by a metal bar set across the width of the waterway, like one shallow step leading downwards to a lower level beneath which the brown water roiled, raged and churned in on itself in knots yellowed at the edges, snapping, snarling and rumbling like a pack of dogs at one another’s throats. Though I was first out of the back of the ute, where I had travelled with Grant and the dog, Rex, I stopped short at the roaring spectacle of the water. Instead of jumping straight in as intended, I sat down on the edge, sticking my legs into the hard-downward flow of the fall to wait for the others.
Behind me, Dad had stripped down to his jocks—an outfit favoured lately for mortifying nocturnal visits to our kitchen where I had sat with my new boyfriend—sauntered from his ute and dived in from a little platform above the fall, where the sun-glittered water was a fast-moving, smooth brown sheet. In memory, the vision splices in slow motion: the sight of Dad hurtling horizontally over the soft edge and Rex leaping joyfully into the maelstrom as I called out to my brother, ‘The dog’s in the water!’
His own dog had disappeared at Dights Falls in Melbourne weeks earlier. Grant had offered a reward of 500 dollars for her in the classified section of the local paper, but, despite a few opportunistic phone calls, no trace of her had been found. Immediately, he dived in. Events spiralled rapidly. I watched in passive confusion as Dad and Grant, both silent, were tossed around and twisted by the force of the water like bones or ragdolls—thrown to the dogs. I emitted a nervous laugh at the uncanny sight, and my cousin snapped: ‘It’s not funny! They’re in trouble!’
More than 20 years later I read an article about the instinctive drowning response, which explains that a drowning person is too engaged in drowning to take any apparent action to save themselves. The instinctive drowning response means that a person may look as though they are climbing a ladder, as they invest every ounce of energy in the attempt to keep their head above water. A drowning person at this point cannot call for help or reach for a lifebuoy, or do
anything except try to keep breathing. The person may not wave their arms about or even appear to be struggling. They will not look at you or heed your cries or reach for the orange rope that you have grabbed from the ute, untangled with your cousin and thrown repeatedly towards them. Because of the instinctive drowning response, a person can drown in front of witnesses without them realising what is taking place.
For instance, take a channel with length of 20 miles, a mean wetted perimeter of 30 feet, and capacity at commencement of 100 cusecs, in a district where the loss by seepage and evaporation in hot weather is one-tenth of a foot over the whole earth surface with which the water comes in contact per day of 24 hours.
Andrew was in the middle of the channel, clutching one end of the rope, me on the other, scanning the area around him frantically for any sight of Dad or Grant. He called out desperately, ‘Pull, Dani, pull!’
But from the bank I saw my father’s glistening body surge up from the depths behind him, his arms outstretched like Christ crucified, his brown eyes open and glassy. I screamed, ‘Behind you! Dad’s behind you!’
An instant later my father disappeared into the jaws of the water and they closed around him as I tried in vain to pull Andrew to safety. I heard a car driving down the dirt track that ran along the channel to Middle Road and—insanely—I tied my end of the rope to a clump of grass before running up the bank and flagging them down. They stopped abruptly. Two men jumped out and hauled my cousin from the channel. They asked, ‘Is anyone else in the water?’
I moaned in reply, ‘Yes, my father and my brother are in there!’
The rescuers ran back to their vehicle to go for help, and I sat on the blond grass next to Andrew, who had collapsed, vomiting water, his face a ghastly shade of white. He asked quietly, his eyes back-lit by sorrow that I was yet to comprehend, ‘Are they gone?’
I answered, ‘I don’t know!’ And left him alone to run along the bank to the bridge, watching the water intently for any sign of my missing family members.
The portion of the Waranga-Mallee Channel, which normally has bed width of 73 feet and carrying depth of 7 feet, is changed to a bed width of 40 feet and depth of 10 feet where it passes through ridges, with the result of considerable saving in excavation.
The first people on the scene were from the farmhouse on the other side of the bridge. A young woman held me in an embrace that I struggled out of. She said, ‘Don’t worry, love, they’ll find them.’
Next were the local policeman and the State Emergency Service men, as well as an ambulance and paramedics. In the channel, the dog was still treading water. I crouched and watched as some of the SES men used a device with a loop on the end of a long pole to try to rescue him. From behind a man warned me in a sing-song voice: ‘Don’t you get in that water.’ I stared back at him incredulously, but he had already turned his back and walked away. My uncle arrived. I sat in the back of his car as we prepared to leave, realising that elsewhere the rest of my family still believed that their lives were intact. Just then the exhausted dog was hauled from the channel and I wrenched the car door open to call him. ‘Rex!’
He ran hard into my arms. I held him tightly, my face buried in his fur. He trembled uncontrollably, smelling of wet dog and heartbreak.
Dani Netherclift has been published in Cordite and Verandah. Her work was nominated for the 2018 Judith Rodriguez Prize and highly commended in the Cliff Green Short Story Competition.
JS Dethridge, ‘The Construction of Irrigation Channels’, paper and discussion, accessed via University of Melbourne Digitised Collections.