Tag Archives: Endangered & Dangerous

Weathering the Storm, Claire Jones

Naomi stared up into the sky, darker and more threatening than the Sunday Nippers were used to.

The girls huddled together, like penguins in their matching swimsuits, trying to stay warm and protected from the sand being hurled at them by gusts of icy wind. The notoriously flat Collaroy surf was large and violent today. The water events had been called off and the sand events, Naomi hoped, would shortly follow.

‘Alright, Under Fourteens,’ the supervisor called, ‘take your marks.’

Reluctantly, the girls separated and took their places – their backs facing the water. Naomi knelt on the sand, inching back until her toes found the groove of the freshly drawn line. She gave a quick glance down the line of competitors before lying flat on her stomach. The sand felt cold against her body as she folded her hands neatly on top of each other, elbows out to the side.

‘Heads up.’

Naomi raised her head up from the sand and stared out at the Collaroy Surf Club in front of her. The normally bright yellow building dulled in the absence of any sun. She turned her gaze right, about a kilometre down the sand, to the two-story houses that lined the beach – hers amongst them. In their back garden that opened onto the sand stood the lean-to shelter her father had built. It displayed the first surfboard he’d ever used and his father’s before that, spanning four generations. The limited space of the lean-to was currently occupied by a small group of mothers, including her own, taking refuge from the wild weather. Naomi envied them.

‘Heads down.’

Naomi placed her chin back down on her folded arms, her body clenched tight with cold and nervous anticipation. The optimistically applied sunscreen stuck grains of sand to her arms, smelling thickly of creamy chemicals and salt.

Phwoot!

The whistle blew and Naomi jumped to her feet, turning to run into the wind for the hosepipes sticking out of the sand a few meters behind her. She plucked a hose from the end of the row as she ran past it, sand hitting her legs as two girls beside her dove for the same flag. Satisfied, she gave the hose to the supervising lifeguard and returned to the start as the course was reset.

Walking back to the line, she picked her father out from amongst a group of lifesavers gathered closely together under the big red tent. This wasn’t unusual, quite the opposite, but Naomi could tell from the way he and the others were standing, furrowed brows and arms crossed or gesticulating wildly between the waves and the buildings, that something was off. She lay back down on her stomach, ready for the whistle. But her eyes and mind were still on her father. It’s not a shark, or someone in trouble, or they’d by running for the rubber ducky, she thought. A big rip? No, they don’t need a group talk about moving the flags. What’s going on?

Lost in thought, she didn’t register the starting whistle, springing up a second after the others. Damn! She was close enough to her neighbour to be in with a chance if she dived, but Naomi didn’t like diving into the sand – that’s what the ocean was for. She kicked at the sand where the flag had been and headed over to the tent.

‘Out already, Naomi? What happened there?’ Paul asked.

Naomi shrugged. ‘Just wasn’t concentrating, I guess.’

‘Not to worry.’ Paul clapped her on the back. ‘You’ll get ‘em next time.’

‘Is everything okay? You’re all looking worried.’

Paul took a deep breath, recreating his troubled stance from before.

‘There’s a low pressure system moving in from the east, apparently bringing one heck of a storm with it.’

‘A cyclone?’

‘No, sorry love,’ Paul laughed. ‘Just a big, windy storm with some pretty sizable waves.’

‘Will you have to close the beach?’

‘Yeah, we’re starting to send people on their way now.’

Meanwhile, the company of mothers in their yard had dispersed. Trinny, Naomi’s least favourite of the mother’s group, approached them. Her whiter-than-white smile looking even more unnatural against the ever-darkening skies. Please don’t talk to us, please don’t talk to us, please don-

‘Paul! Darling! Young Mark over there was telling me you’ll likely be evacuated with these king tides. Well, you three are always welcome with us up on the plateau there. You could keep an eye on your house from the lounge!’ Paul smiled tightly while Naomi tried to mask her horror.

‘Thanks, Trinny. But we’ll be right. People like to over-warn to avoid lawsuits.’

‘Well, if you’re sure, darling. My door’s always open if you change your mind!’ Trinny gave Naomi’s arm an intrusive squeeze and, after an uncomfortable wink in Paul’s direction, she was gone.

Paul let out a frustrated sigh. ‘Look, Naomi… even if we end up being evacuated, it’ll only be as a precaution. Your mum will probably want to pack up a few things just in case. But I promise you, there’s nothing to worry about.’

Naomi felt a slightly terrified thrill working its way up her chest. Her cousins in the Blue Mountains had been evacuated countless times during the fire seasons, and she thought it sounded like quite an adventure. Nothing like that ever happened to Naomi and secretly, she resented it. Maybe this year she’d have a good story to share at the Christmas table.

The heavy clouds unleashed, rainfall rapidly building. The yellow sand turned dark and the beachgoers were sent packing. It was then that Naomi’s mother, Angela, arrived from the house, bringing Paul a travel mug of fresh coffee and a kiss on the cheek.

‘Will you be needed here for long?’

‘Only about an hour after the beach is closed. I think the weather will keep people away.’

‘I gave my mother a call after I saw the storm warnings. She’s happy to have us if needs be.’

‘Thank god,’ Naomi said with relief, ‘I’d rather drown than spend ten minutes with Trinny.’

‘Naomi!’ Angela gasped, giving her a light slap on the shoulder. ‘We’d better get to the house, start packing what we can.’

‘Just in case,’ insisted Paul.

‘Just in case.’ Naomi nodded back.

 

 *

That evening, Naomi stood at the window of her unlit bedroom, the immense power of the storm shaking the window in its frame. It was exhilarating being so close to the raw elements, only the tremoring glass pane separating her from the thrashing storm. The rain pounded relentlessly on every surface. The streetlight cast the trees’ shadows against her wall, moving violently from side to side. The weakest were branches ripped from the trunks and flung in every direction. She was transfixed. What would that feel like, to be at nature’s mercy? Could I end up in Oz, like Dorothy?

A deafening crack came from somewhere nearby and the street was plunged into darkness. Before iPhones, a blackout always meant her parents pulling down the candles from the top of the pantry, the three of them sitting in the dim light around the dining room table. They’d draw pictures and play cards or board games until it was time for bed. That was the part Naomi looked forward to most. Getting ready for bed while her mother followed her around with a candle made her feel like an eighteenth century princess. For nostalgia’s sake, she fumbled through her cupboards for a candle and matches by the light of her phone. She placed the lit candle on the windowsill and sat down in the middle of the room, hugging her crossed legs to her chest and staring at the orange glow against the black.

Not long after the blackout the Emergency Evacuation Alert had come through on their phones. Naomi was breathless; whether from fear or excitement she could not tell. She bombarded her parents with questions as they drove their packed car up to Angela’s mother’s house on higher ground, asking, could their house get flooded? (Possibly.) Would next-door’s fish drown? (No.) Could Grandma get evacuated too? (Unlikely.) After much fussing from her grandmother, Naomi had settled on a roll-out bed in front of the unseasonably lit living room fire, her parents on the fold-out couch behind her. The fire crackled, it’s heat warming her face. Rain pelted down in the background , the occasional clap of thunder barely discernible above the wind. Naomi had assumed her parents had fallen asleep until her father spoke softly.

‘Say it.’

‘What?’

‘I know what you’re thinking, just say it.’

Angela sighed reluctantly. ‘I’d feel a lot better right now if the sea wall had been put in. I wouldn’t keep imagining the beach collapsing from under our house.’

‘Ange, if a seawall had been put in, there’d be no beach to collapse. No nippers for Naomi, no life saving for me. Just a kilometre-long concrete slab.’

‘You don’t know that, Paul. Not for sure.’ Angela paused before mumbling, ‘I don’t think Naomi even likes nippers.’

Naomi could remember the seawall causing conflict between her parents a year or two before.

 

*

‘Do you know what we’re doing here, Naomi?’

Naomi shook her head, eyes squinting in the glare of the morning sun. Her hand felt tiny, grasped in her father’s.

‘We’re drawing a line in the sand,’ Paul said.

Naomi looked out at the line of people stretched along the beach, from Narrabeen to Collaroy, where they stood.

‘Woah! It looks like hundreds of people!’

‘Thousands!’ Paul grinned widely.

‘Millions?!’

‘No, honey,’ Angela said flatly, adjusting her sunglasses and looking at her watch.

The seawall had been a contentious topic at the dinner table the night before.

‘There’s no evidence that sea walls will prevent coastal erosion,’ Paul had insisted. ‘In fact, it may well do the opposite. The water will just hit the walls and drag the sand back in. Eventually there’ll be no beach left.’

‘Trinny was saying -’ Angela started.

‘Oh god, not Trinny.’

‘She was saying that the council could use all the sand they dredge from Narrabeen Lake and some of the other lagoons to replenish the beach.’

‘That’s not just sand, that’s sediment and sea grass and all sorts of crap. Do you want to turn our beach grey? That Trinny is an idiot.’

‘Let’s hear your great idea then, Paul.’

Paul leant back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. ‘Not my job. That’s what the local government and its fancy think tanks are for.’

Angela had simply shaken her head in an angry silence as she cleared up the plates to the kitchen.

‘We’ll show ‘em what’s what at the protest tomorrow, eh?’ Paul had said to Naomi with a wink. Naomi scrunched up the left side of her face and blinked hard in an attempt to wink back.

 

 *

The storm raged on for another twenty-four hours. Naomi was glued to her iPhone, transfixed by the images and videos on social media capturing the increasing severity of the damage. Narrabeen Lake had spilled over, flooding sections of the main road. People were filmed kayaking in the side streets.

‘Idiots,’ Angela said, shaking her head.

‘Still not as stupid as the people driving through the flood waters,’ Paul replied.

‘You wouldn’t run into a bushfire, so don’t drive into a flood,’ Naomi read aloud from her Facebook feed. Then she saw it.

An eleven second clip taken the night before by one of the Collaroy residents, showing a backyard pool being dragged into the sea along with barbeques, garbage bins and outdoor furniture. Police lights flashed in the background. What was on the other side of the pool punctured a hole in Naomi’s stomach. Is that…

Her back garden. At least, it was where her back garden used to be. Now it was a straight drop into the tide, barely a metre from their back door.

‘Dad? Dad!

The lean-to was gone. The family’s boards were nowhere to be seen. The table, chairs, her mother’s roses, those were replaceable. But…

‘Shit.’

‘Paul! Language!’ Paul took the phone from Naomi and showed it to Angela.

‘Oh my god. Oh, Paul. Wha – what do we – how will…’ Angela trailed off in despair. Paul handed Naomi her phone. He left the room without a word. Naomi felt paralysed. She had wanted something exciting to happen. But nothing like this. She felt her mother’s arms wrap around her shoulders.

‘It’s okay, Nomi,’ Angela whispered. ‘We’ll be okay.’

 

*

Naomi waded into shore, looking out at the reserve that now separated Collaroy beach from Pittwater road. Small children with ice cream-smeared faces played on the grass as their parents watched from a picnic table. That used to be my living room. Water dripped from her hair onto the sand as she bent to collect her belongings. She straightened, car keys firmly in hand, and noticed her father’s dusky orange van beside her dented Mazda in the car park. She spotted him stepping off the short wall that separated grass from sand. He held a close-to-melting ice cream in each hand.

‘A graduation present.’ Paul held out an ice cream. ‘Congratulations.’

Naomi exchanged it for a kiss on the cheek and sat down on the wall, toes digging into the dry sand. It’d been six months since she saw him last. She’d stayed with him in Byron Bay shortly after her mother’s wedding, Naomi and her grandmother vacating the house in lieu of a proper honeymoon.

‘How long are you here for this time?’ Naomi asked, catching drips of ice cream with her tongue.

‘Just for the week, then I’ll spend a few days in Coff’s on my way back. Do you want to join me?’

Naomi counted out the days in her head, realising with disappointment that she had to work.

‘Another time.’ Paul promised.

Naomi watched as Paul looked around behind her, biting into the cone as he contemplated the recreational area standing in place of the houses. Once it had become clear the large-scale storms would be a more than annual occurrence, beachfront homes at Collaroy, like Naomi’s, were no longer viable. Bit by bit, the land was sold back to the state and transformed into a reserve. Though Paul had held out for as long as possible, Angela and Naomi having already moved in permanently with Naomi’s grandmother, the fight was eventually one he could no longer afford.

Naomi gave him a friendly nudge. ‘At least the beach is still here, right?’

‘Yeah,’ Paul conceded. ‘They could’ve done worse.’

‘Speaking of, Dad…’

‘Mm?’

‘Trinny sends her love.’

‘Naomi, that’s not even funny.’

 

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The Nightlight, Kate Dawson

Gail watched as the house across the road continued to burn. She saw others gathered outside pointing and staring, children crying and that mutt from next door yelping.  There was a body only metres from the house, lying face down in the grass. It looked like a man. He was wearing pyjamas. Her fingertips turned white as she squeezed the rail of the balcony. The flames were eating away at that weatherboard house. She didn’t know her neighbour very well but had seen him in passing. An odd fellow with glasses, who was always fidgeting or rushing somewhere. And there were always dark circles under his eyes. She should probably call that woman, Joan. The one who had come around one afternoon bearing lemon slice and wishing to speak about Gail’s new neighbour. The one who had been worried about her son; she had begged Gail to watch out for him. The distant sound of sirens grew closer as a fire truck sped down their little street. The firemen ran as fast as they could in their huge boots.

 

*

 

Matt was supposed to outgrow his nightlight, but it hadn’t gone to Vinnies with his old clothes. Neither had it been stuffed away in a drawer. While it was plugged into the wall, it ensured his safety from the horrors outside. The orange glow from beside his bed encouraged books, shoes and an outdated computer to come to life; they were shadows on the wall. An open notebook lay on the desk, with envelopes of mail beside it. Some were torn open, while some remained sealed. The light let the room be filled with a warmth, rather than a presence. But there was a rustling and Matt’s eyes snapped open.

Something was outside.

It’s just a possum, he thought and closed his eyes again. But another noise scraped the side of the house, as if a tree branch had decided it would grow a fingernail. His eyes sprung open once more and he creased his brow. There it was again.  It’s just an animal. It is not a person standing outside the window. Matt tried to pull the curtains shut tighter, not willing to invite the darkness in. He tossed over to the other side and pulled the blanket back over him. The night continued to age and soon Matt was asleep.

Outside the wind grew and the trees shook, dancing to show off their moves and rid themselves of extra weight. Blades of grass moved as one. The limbs of trees relocated to new places, some finding refuge on the corrugated iron roof. The roof, however, would not accept these visitors silently.

The orange snapped into blackness, shadows became invisible. Matt sprang up, wheezing for air. He went to grab his glasses from the bedside table and felt his hand knock them. There was the unmistakable sound of plastic skating across wood and hitting the wall.

Damn it.

The glasses were trapped behind the bedside table.

‘No…no…no.’

Light was his priority. Matt tried to switch his nightlight back on – nothing.

He shouted for his parents.

Matt rolled to the floor from his bed and began to crawl, shivering though his body was covered in sweat. His fingers gripped at the thick carpet, afraid of what lay ahead. The smell of satay noodles drifted through the air from the takeaway Matt had ordered earlier. Dinner seemed so long ago.

‘Mum, Dad,’ he whispered, but the response – nothing.

Hand after hand he crept ahead, searching for the doorframe. When his hand found it he reached up along the wood, clutching the wall for support as he grasped for that switch. Hopefully it was only the nightlight that was broken, but the switch clicked without gifting any light. He slumped back to the floor, still shaking. Where are my parents? Are they even alive? Are they tied up?  He could hear his heart pounding in his chest and his breath was loud and quick. He brought his knees in close and held them tight, trying to stay still and silent so no one would know he was there. His eyes weren’t adjusting to the night. Without his glasses, they couldn’t.

My parents don’t live here.

He realised he had been calling out to strangers or to no one. So they might still be alive.

In the kitchen, there would be a torch, but that was miles away. And with the wind still speaking, who knew what was out there? How could he go out unarmed? But if he didn’t risk it, he would not make it through the night. The rustling sound came again and then that fingernail scraping. He covered his ears and sunk into the carpet.

‘Stop, stop, stop,’ he whispered, begging as he clutched at his ears, shaking on the floor. The sound eventually faded. Matt carefully lifted his hands from his ears, hoping whatever it was couldn’t see him.

He had to get to the light, which meant getting to the kitchen. If he crawled, then he wouldn’t knock himself out by bumping into anything. It will be safer. He placed his hands back on the carpet, reached ahead to make sure it was clear, and began to crawl. The wind had started outside again. Or was it rain? It was difficult to tell. It had a voice that screeched and howled like a banshee.

Matt felt like he’d been crawling forever. Reaching his foot back, he hoped for it to reach nothing but carpet. It touched the doorframe.

‘Shit.’

Trying not to be discouraged, he continued forward.

He tried to slow his breathing. ‘Just take a deep breath and focus,’ is what a psychologist would have said, had he ever been brave enough to go. But the hypnotherapist his mother had sent him to as a child hadn’t helped.

An animal cry pierced the darkness. Matt covered his mouth to stifle the scream he felt rising in his throat. Is that thing in here?

Then it happened again.

What is that?

A dogRelax, probably belongs to the neighbours to complement their irritating kids. 

Matt’s hand touched something sticky. He shuddered and tried to ignore the germs that must be writhing within the fibres of the carpet. Wiping his hand on the carpet to remove the stickiness, he bumped the leather couch to his left. He needed to change direction soon. Only now did he realise the painful irony that he hadn’t bought those sensor lights. The ones he had been looking at in Bunnings only a few days before. They were so magical. You walked past them and suddenly – light! That beautiful thing that allowed us to see and gave us warmth. Curse you sun for not being out all day and night. Forget the other side of the world! We need it more. I need it more.

His face knocked into a wooden chair. His eyes tried to make out the shapes in front of him, but they didn’t look familiar. He’d forgotten where things were placed in the house. His eyes squinted as he looked ahead at the distortions in front of him, which were fuzzy around the edges. They could be pieces of furniture, or just as easily a ghost or creature. These shapes reminded him of an earlier time when he didn’t wear glasses, when everything was blurry or seen in double. As a child he’d felt like his friends had evil twins. He had a sharp sense of hearing, but his sight had always been both terrible and frightening.

Matt moved ahead, weaving around objects through the carpet, dirt and hair.

His own hair covered the tips of his ears and his mum had always disliked it. She would complain it was too long and nag him to get it cut. His fingernails were ripped short; he hadn’t been able to kick the habit of tearing the tips when they grew to a reasonable length. The flannel pyjama pants hid his lean body from the world. And that was the way he liked it, never wearing shorts that would expose his pale chicken legs.

A cold, smooth sensation ran under his hand, interrupting his train of thought. He pulled it away instinctively as if he were trying to avoid a burn from a pot. But he had to continue on, so he reluctantly placed his hand back on the surface, trying to decipher this new texture.

Lino. Could it be?

The kitchen.

Relieved, he wiggled forward and placed his other hand to accept the cold and felt his knees hard against the floor. The usual humming of the fridge was silent, as if it had lost its voice. The silence was not his friend. He reached to the left letting his hand find the kitchen drawers. He felt the edges and figured out which one was the third drawer, ‘the miscellaneous drawer’ he had called it when he first moved in. He now regretted making that secret hideaway of random junk which had no place. He searched the drawer for that keyring-torch-thing his Mum had given him last Christmas. He had thanked her, knowing she was just trying to help. She had always been worried and had hoped he would grow out of it. But when he didn’t, when the fear followed him, she had felt helpless. The keyring was a gift meant as kindness, but really it just drew attention to everything, to the darkness, to his inability to sleep through the night. To the fact he had fallen short of being a man.

He didn’t want to look at the torch and be reminded of what it represented, as it   dangled next to his keys.

So he’d hidden it, and now was sifting through the drawer for it. But in amongst everything else, he could not find it. His hands fumbled through the drawer, passing over pegs, Blu-tack, batteries, an emergency pack of cigarettes. Then his hand came across a small box with a rough edge. A nervous but excited laugh escaped his lips and hung in the darkness. He shook the box and heard the small pieces of wood hit the sides. He attempted to light a match, but it didn’t take. His hands were shaking as he tried another. Light spread in front of him as a flame was born. An unsteady glow of light allowed the shadows to dance and sway. Matt exhaled in relief and continued rummaging through the junk searching for the torch. The flame of the match bounced around, providing little light to assist.

Then there was a sound at his feet. Matt stopped and looked around trying to figure out what made the scuttling sound. Something hairy ran across his foot. Gasping, Matt jumped backwards trying to escape what he hoped he had imagined. He could not shake the feeling of that thing. He felt it all over him. His shoulders hunched and his hands curled into fists. Then he noticed light in the corner of his eye. Matt turned towards it, towards the fire that was spreading across the carpet. The hand that held the match was empty. His eyes widened as he stepped back. The fire was growing, fast. He had to do something.

He yanked the tablecloth from the dining table, sending the fruit bowl spinning and a mug crashing to the floor. He threw the tablecloth over the fire hoping it would smother it, that the fire would surrender. For a second it worked. But then the edge of the tablecloth began to burn and smoke seeped out as the fire began to consume the fabric. Matt leapt backwards and pulled his pyjama top over his mouth, trying to avoid the harsh smoke filling his lungs. This smoke wasn’t comforting like a cigarette. This smoke was evil; it wanted to swallow you. It stung Matt’s eyes. He had to get out of there.

Dropping to his hands and knees, Matt headed for the door. It was becoming even more of a challenge to breathe and the fire was bright. Sweat dripped from his skin. When he hit the door he scrambled to open it, thumping and banging, trying to escape. When he found the handle he screamed as he touched it, withdrawing his stinging hand. He used his shirt to cover his hand, and turning the handle he finally rolled out into the darkness and onto the grass. The darkness brought a cool freeing air to his lungs. He felt the grass on his cheek and rolled over to get more air, his hand throbbing and his face and eyes wet. Outside suddenly felt so safe.

 

*

 

There were shouts from the road and a child crying. Neighbours had gathered outside and the sound of sirens were loud. A middle aged lady appeared in front of him asking if he was okay, waving a blurry hand to see if he could understand her. He tried to answer but his energy had left him. Attempting a nod was the only response he could return. At the sound of footsteps he turned to see firefighters run past in black and yellow, helmets and masks covering their faces. The lady told him she would call his mother and rushed to get him some water. The glow from the house softened as the firefighters shouted commands to each other.

The nightlight hadn’t survived.  It would be nothing more than a piece of melted plastic within his empty home. Tomorrow he would face the night again and he would face it alone.

 

 

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