Two days before the last day of the holidays I lost my hanky and I lost my nerve. It was summer on the West Coast. Bush crowded down to the sea mostly. But there were quiet roads and paddocks and spitty gravel we drove over in a dull green station wagon, keeping to the worn tracks. Mum held her hand up to the windscreen and pressed it with her fingers if a car came towards us. She wasn’t waving though.
I got stuck out in the middle of the long swing bridge over the Heaphy River. Dad went over first with the baby in his pack and my big brother and sister went over on their own, yelling and laughing and bouncing on the ropes at the other end when they got there. I was right out in the middle when I just froze. I couldn’t move. Mum was stuck there too. She had my little brother in front and me behind. The bridge bucked and rolled to the side. It was too flimsy. And you shouldn’t make a bridge out of ropes if there is deep water underneath and it’s churning.
On the first day of the holidays a wave leapt up onto the beach at the other side of the lagoon and took away my sister’s jandal. Dad ran down to the water but his feet sank into millions of tiny pebbles. He couldn’t save it. The waves crashed down and sucked everything away, even the sand. ‘It drops away pretty sharply,’ Dad said. And he said that under the water the waves rolled and rolled at the bottom of a steep wall. The jandal was probably trapped there going around and wouldn’t come back up. Mum waved my sister’s other jandal at us and said, ‘Don’t go too close!’
Then Dad caught two kahawai fish and Mum gutted them. Dad always said I had an enquiring mind; so I watched as Mum cut off the fish heads. Then I took a picture of one of them with my Instamatic. Mum said I was too close and it wouldn’t come out. Part of the innards of the fish spilled out from the ragged edge of grey and red skin. The head lay on its side with eye and mouth opened in surprise. It was round and full and looked alive. If it just had its body back it could swim again. Between dead and alive there wasn’t much really. Only a missing bit. Mum said, ‘Leave it.’
Miss Stringford was staying in the hotel in town. She and Dad worked together for the forestry service and had to do research on field-trips even though we were on holiday. I went with them on a field-trip one day. I took the notebook and pencil that Dad gave to me so I could write down the interesting things I saw. I talked to Dad about my observations on the death of fish. He told Miss Stringford I was ‘perspicacious’ and I felt proud until she asked Dad if I even knew what it meant. I was going to look it up later. Dad laughed and patted my head. He’d never patted my head before. Miss Stringford chewed gum all the time because she was trying to stop smoking. She and Dad laughed when nothing even seemed to be funny. She didn’t look at me properly. Her eyes kept sliding off.
In the dark, I woke up and heard Mum asking if Miss Stringford was going to take us kids too. Dad was crying and the sound of it made me feel sick. I knew my sister was awake. She turned over and the bed creaked. Then Mum opened the door. She looked straight at me and I thought she would say something but she closed the door again slowly. I shut my eyes because the darkness felt too heavy on me. I was afraid. But there were tiny lights in my head. And the tiny lights made pictures.
In the morning of the day I got stuck on the bridge, I saw one cow drink another cow’s pee. The bush and the cows were still steaming because it was early and the sun had only just come up. I was in the back seat and not the back-back with the mattress for babies. I had a clear view of a cow bending its head to drink a stream of deep yellow from the backside of another cow. It could have been a bull. I thought it must have been pretty thirsty.
I asked Dad, because he knew things. ‘Dad, why would a cow drink other cows’ urine?’ He didn’t know. Later, with my father on the opposite side of knowledge and because I had nothing to hold on to, I became lost. I asked Mum. ‘Mum . . . ?’ She was busy pointing out some stuff in the distance to make us look ahead. Everyone looked except me. I examined the cows and wondered about the drinking thing. Did they all drink each other’s urine around and around? One of them must have had a drink of non-urine in the first place.
The thirsty cow was connected to my getting scared on the bridge. Both things happened when I looked and saw something nobody else saw. They didn’t seem to be looking close enough. They didn’t want to know about the same things as me. They just looked ahead. They looked where they were heading.
I don’t remember having a cold but I remember the handkerchief I was holding. It was folded nicely and edged in blue. I remember it falling. I looked down and saw it drop away through a hole in the netting.
Then my mother let go of my other hand and there was nothing to hold on to anymore. My little brother was in front and she held him because he was bouncing and the holes in the net were too big for his legs to get over. I tried to stay still. For a long time I stayed very still. My father was on the other side already. It was his fault really, so my mother says. But why did she let go?
I never managed to cross the bridge. I never managed to succeed. I never managed to speak up. I never managed to be brave and daring. But I was resolute in my looking.
I am resolute. I have picked my way to the middle over and over, where there are always large holes in the netting and the skittery planks are broken. They are not strong enough to hold the handkerchiefs up. And the blue edging turns in the fingers of children who cannot hold on. Who do not hold on . . . the silly children. Silly children for looking down and not ahead where your mother is busy pointing out things in the distance. Your father is on the other side now and knows what it is like to be there already with his pack on and the baby in there, waiting. You are the last. The one behind. Not looking ahead and not holding on. You are at the mouth of the sea. The very thirsty sea. It drinks the river and your handkerchief. And it will drink you because this bridge is made of holes. There is no foothold on the skittery planks and only empty air to grab on to. And if you lean on the rope it will swing you around to the underneath so you are hanging on and your fingers can’t hold you up anymore. You know this because it is obvious and will always happen, scientifically.
The next day I climbed a pine tree and watched the road and the hotel and the Four Square. I climbed as high as I could. Trees are solid. Dad came up the road and went into the hotel. Mum and the others came up the road from the bach. At first I thought Mum was taking everyone to give to Miss Stringford but they came around the corner. They were going to the beach. I watched them walk away down the road to the lagoon until they all went wobbly and melted into it.
Crickets were making a huge noise with their legs rubbing together. I was lost but nobody seemed scared. If I went to the beach, but not too quickly, I figured Mum would be glad she had found me. I would still be in time to dig pipis from the sand and watch the way they opened slowly in the water when it was boiled over the little fire of sticks.