The skin on the inside of my right arm is burning from his touch. Just a light brush of a single finger, but I am branded by that one second of flesh on flesh.
I shouldn’t have been at this party at all. We only came—Amy and me—because her older brother Mike was driving out to his friend Dan’s semi-rural property for a gatho and Amy thought it was better than staying home. Theoretically, my parents wouldn’t allow this sort of party until I was eighteen, but Amy’s parents are away, mine are working, and I was meant to be company for Amy at her house for the weekend. We’ve been friends since kindy, but lately I’m not that keen on her idea of fun. We know Mike’s friends a bit, and Amy even went out with one of them for a few months until he dumped her. As soon as we walked in the door, Amy ran into her ex and immediately hooked up with him, even though she had vowed never to speak to him again. Well, they weren’t doing much speaking. She was sitting on his lap as he swilled beer, stroking his ragged curls with one hand, waving me away with another.
I left the room. In the kitchen Dan and his girlfriend were trying to defrost sausages to cook. I zipped up my jacket and went out to the fire that blazed orange against the indigo sky. A banana moon was rising above the gumtrees, and the indistinct sounds of the Aussie bush transmitted ambiguous messages to my air-chilled ears. My shoes scuffed the loose gravel. Hands in pockets I settled on the curved bench around the fire-pit and stared at the sky. No stars yet.
When my eyes were used to the gloom, I realised that one of the un-nameable nocturnal sounds was just a boy dribbling a soccer ball near the fence-line. I thought about going back inside. I sat quietly, hoping to be ignored, as I mostly was by Mike and his friends. Bad plan. The noise of the ball swishing through damp grass, the repetitive thud of his foot on leather, the grunts as he changed direction running this way then that, got louder as he approached the fire-pit. I shrank smaller inside my jacket.
Too late for escape: he was sitting on the bench, tossing the ball in the air, kicking it against the sandstone rim of the pit, over and over.
“I’m the firewatcher,” he said. “Got to make sure it doesn’t go out.” He pointed to the stack of chopped wood behind me. “Careful. There could be anything in that heap. I got a red-bellied-black this afternoon.”
“I’ll be right,” I muttered, thinking again about going inside. Thinking about calling a taxi, wondering if one would come all this way, and how much it would cost.
“Friend of Dan’s?” he asked.
“I’m with Mike and Amy.”
“Oh yeah, Mike…he’s in my team. Scored a great goal last week…you play?”
I shook my head.
“Um, … more like, maybe… netball?”
“Bet you like music, though?”
“Watch the fire, OK?” He jogged into the darkness.
I wasn’t sorry to be alone, still fantasizing about the impossible taxi that would deliver me. A sound from the treetops—an owl?
Dan and his girl staggered outside carrying trays of meat and bread rolls. Somebody else lugged flagons of sauce. Mike and another guy followed, mock sword-fighting with long metal skewers as they skidded over the gravel.
“We need a table,” the girl told Dan.
“Don’t let the dingoes steal our food,” Mike warned as they went for the table.
“Goannas, more like,” said the soccer boy, suddenly returned, without his ball. Instead he had an acoustic guitar slung on his back. He tuned it. Then the crisp sounds of classical guitar joined the hooting-owl and the rustling-nothings in the eucalypt forest.
Dan’s girl handed me a can of coke. “I’m Jess,” she said. “You OK out here? Don’t worry, the guitar-player is harmless.”
“Not so. Remember the red-bellied-black,” complained the guitar player.
“OK so you saved us from a snake. Evan. Just keep an eye on the fire while you strum that thing.” Jess went back into the house.
The coke was ice-cold, but the sugar hit improved my mood. Dan put a wire grill over the fire and tossed sausages on. My face was warm and my feet toasty resting on the rim of the pit. I unzipped my jacket. The first star peeked through the sky.
People began to drift out of the house at the smell of hot food. Some sat around the circle, others brought chairs and grouped around the table now lit by candles. No sign of Amy. I began to relax. The guitar wasn’t bad really.
Evan continued to work his strings, moving through genres. Classical, jazz, old pop songs. He really could play. I hummed softly as he cruised through songs my parents had played when I was little.
We were eating sausages laced with tomato sauce when Evan stopped strumming mid-chorus, leapt up and tore my jacket from my torso. Food and drink went everywhere.
“A burning ember,” he explained. In torchlight we examined the small brown-edged hole burnt into my jacket sleeve.
“Could have been a hole just here,” Evan said, with a light stroke of his forefinger on the inside of my arm.
Amy staggered from the house and threw up in the bushes. Mike groaned. “I’m taking these children home.” As we supported Amy to the car, I looked back to the fire-pit.
Evan looked me in the eye and nodded.
The skin on the inside of my right arm is still goose-pimply from his touch. Only a light brush of a single finger, but I’m forever branded by that one second of innocent flesh on flesh. As Mike’s car barrels along country roads back to suburbia, my mind sizzles with the sweet sounds of the night, the heat of the flame, and the firewatcher’s touch.
For some reason, the flight home from Perth seemed so much longer than the way out there. Maybe it was pre-match adrenaline: we’d got off the plane and pretty much headed straight to a full day of back-to-back games. We started off in winning form, but as the weekend progressed, injuries and tiredness mounted, and we didn’t end up coming home premiers as we’d hoped. All in all, morale was a bit low as the plane bumped through turbulence back to the east coast.
Clouds above and below, we seemed to travel in another dimension. Earth, the red solid mass of desert somewhere beneath us, was a dream that you could believe in or not, as you were inclined. You might as well think we were flying over deep turquoise oceans or the fire-filled pits of hell. It was all cloud, all atmosphere, all nothingness.
I was watching soccer highlights on the small screen built on the back of the seat in front. The restless guy in front, captain of the team, had finally stopped experimenting with reclining angles and returned the seat to upright, then he’d gone across the aisle to rehash the final game with the coach. There was a fair amount of seat-swapping going on. Although the plane wasn’t full, you could see that our team was annoying the cabin crew. There’d been some trouble because half of the team was under-age and couldn’t legally be served alcohol. How hard was that for the leg-weary smartly groomed flight attendants serving refreshments? I felt sorry for them.
I’d already tried dozing, but it wasn’t working for me, so I flicked again through the channels on the in-flight entertainment. Ronaldo was talking on one of those “Who-are-you-and-what-did-your-ancestors-get- up-to?” TV shows. I turned up the sound on my earphones. Might kill a few minutes.
Apart from the team and our coach, there were a couple of parents who were kind of co-managers and some brothers and sisters of players who had come as spectators to cheer us on. Mike and his family were sitting across to one side, but his younger sister Amy was seat-hopping around like an agitated kangaroo. She hopped into the vacant seat beside me.
“You like that crap?” she asked, leaning across to see my TV screen. Her breath was minty from the chewing gum she was working with her jaws to cover up the smell of the rum I’d seen her empty into her coke earlier on the sly.
“Umm…what?” I didn’t really want to talk with this troublemaker, but she was in my face and there was no escape. Despite strict supervision from her father, she’d been discovered last night in the room of two of the older players and was in disgrace. Mike was furious and wouldn’t speak to her.
“That who-do-you-think-you-are crap on TV? I mean, who really gives a shit? If your great granddaddy was a convict, soldier, or murderer…? We all spend our lives trying to get away from our families. Who wants to know MORE about them? Ancient history…”
I play along to keep the peace. “What do you like then?”
“TV sucks. Except maybe for Survivor. Better to be out living it up…friends, parties—had a great time last weekend—can’t remember much of it! But got some great pics. Here…” she flicked back through the camera roll on her iPhone like a demented lizard testing the air with its tongue for prey. “Here’s me and…well you know who that is. Last night, celebrating the team win.”
“Lost? Really? So that’s why all the guys are so down. Who knew?” she continued scrolling through the photos. School events, selfies, groups of girls…
“Who’s that?” I interrupt, forcing her to pause, immobilising her restless fingers with my larger, stronger hand.
“That? Who? Oh, you mean my BFF. Jill. You know her…yeah?”
“We’ve …met.” It’s the girl from Dan’s party, the shy one sitting at the fire-pit. The one whose face has floated in my dreams at night. I’m looking at the pictures, the school uniforms, looking for clues…Mike and I didn’t meet until uni. I don’t know what school these girls go to. And Mike is in no frame of mind to help.
“You want her number?”
“Sure.” Too easy, I didn’t even have to ask.
“Well I don’t think…” she’s suddenly coy. Pretending. Game playing. That rubbish stuff flirty girls do.
“I don’t think I should …without asking her first. Online stalkers and all that. You know? Not that you are…I mean you might be a bit geeky and all that, but you’re a nice geek…I mean…”
“I said, forget it.”
“Anyway, Jill’s parents are being totally strict this year. Like, she can’t date. Actually, I’m not even sure she LIKES boys. Know what I mean?”
I sat silently, hoping she’d bounce off to another seat if I gave her no response.
“But I’ll ask her. Give me your contact and I’ll tell her to text you.” Amy grabbed my phone and sent herself a message before I could stop her. Then she thumbed her own device and a message pinged back on mine. “There. I’m sure she’ll want to get in contact. She likes you. Really. Trust me.”
I changed the TV channel to a music station where a Spanish guitarist was playing classics. This must get rid of her, I thought. I thought too about stealing her phone to get the fire-girl’s number myself. That is how I think of her (I never got her name)—fire-girl—her flame-burnished hair is a private picture treasured in my mind. Mixed with the evocative fragrance of eucalypt leaves, wood-smoke, and the musky scent of …her.
Amy was so glued to her phone, I would have had to wrestle it from her grip, and that would’ve caused a scene neither of us wanted.
“You like this?” Amy gestured at the TV with plucked eyebrows raised. “Oh yeah! You’re the guitar-boy…I remember now!”
I jumped up and staggered down the aisle to the toilets. I waited in the dunny as long as I dared, and when I came out Amy had found someone else to annoy. I breathed out gratefully as I buckled up my seatbelt for landing. We were descending through cloud, white, fluffy stuff like Christmas-card snow, lit by rays of sunlight. I was floating on currents of possibility. I had the fire-girl’s name. And maybe, if air-head Amy bothered to tell her, the owner of that golden flame-burnished hair would call me?
From the start, I was sceptical about Amy’s motives for entering the mud-run, but when she turned-up with a brand new singlet-top, French manicure and freshly-straightened hair, I knew for certain she wasn’t serious about the exercise. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “There’s nothing serious about a mud-run.”
In my old shorts and a baggy t-shirt, I’d come along as I always do, out of habit, the tag-along friend. Amy’s parents thought we still went jogging together in the afternoon and to the local gym, but for months it had only been a cover for Amy to meet up with her current boyfriend. With the HSC looming, we were supposed to be concentrating on study, so she was keeping quiet about her social life. I didn’t feel right about it, but hey, I wasn’t the one telling lies. I told Amy that I wouldn’t lie for her. I really had been going to the gym and running regularly, so I was fit enough to take on this 10 km challenge without too much pain.
Amy’s dad brought us: Amy had her Ls now and had driven us, with him nervously sitting in the passenger seat. He watched the start of the run before walking off to find a coffee and read his newspaper. Amy was being supervised fairly closely after the debacle in Year 11. It was only through a lot of crying and promising to change that she managed to avoid being sent to a new school. Once her dad was out of view, Amy repositioned herself within the pack of runners, close to her (surprise surprise) boyfriend who just happened to be here too. They were going pretty slowly, and I guessed wouldn’t last long on the official track. I kept running and sloshing through the first mud puddle, ready to tackle the obstacle up ahead. I stopped thinking about Amy. Running and getting thoroughly grimy and tired was a good stress relief: I was taking school pretty seriously now, the final exams only weeks away. My shoes were already gloopy with water and clay, heavier with each step. The oldest runners I owned, they were already worn out and thin in places. I intended to throw them in the bin at the end of the course.
I got over the splintery treated-pine wall easily and jumped down into the waist deep mud, wading through the ditch beside other cursing, laughing runners. I looked back but couldn’t see Amy. The next obstacle on top of a hill involved ropes and tyres. My legs were responding to the work-out, and not wanting to tire too soon, I paced myself up the hill in a steady jog. The sole on my left shoe was starting to flap with each step. I thought about stopping to try and secure it, but really, there was nothing I could do about it. Running barefoot didn’t appeal. Through the tunnel of tractor tyres, up the knotted ropes that burn your chilled, damp hands. Swing out and land in another deep, caramel lake of mud. Struggling out, I stumbled and laughed with the crowd of strangers around me. Carefree clay-covered clowns in pursuit of a crazy pointless finish line. Running up the next slope I fell into a rhythm beside another runner. There was something familiar about him, but covered in so much dirt, he could have been anyone. I felt happier than I had in a long time.
Somewhere along the last squelchy leg of the course the sole of my shoe ripped right off. I stumbled, landing heavily on my knee. The runner beside me scooped me up in his arms and charged the last few metres to the finish line. Whooping and cheering with the other finishers, and on my own feet again, we hugged, and I realised who he was. Soccer-boy. Guitarist. Firewatcher. Evan.
I tugged off my broken shoes and threw them in the dumpster. Drank water from a fast-flowing faucet and washed clay from my face under the large communal shower. Evan stood beside me, eyes locked on mine.
His kiss was inevitable, improbable, and irresistible.
Amy’s shrieking broke the circle of calm in which I stood. “There you are! I’ve been looking for you everywhere! Dad’s waiting for us…”
Amy’s father was looking at me with steely eyes. Soaking wet, clasped in the arms of a similarly drenched Evan, I didn’t look innocent. Amy, who was fresh as a daisy apart from a few carefully places dabs of mud on her arms and knees, and who had been out of view the whole time, was doing a prima donna job of making a scene to deflect all potential trouble onto me. Her boyfriend was nowhere in sight.
“You know I had to do it,” she hissed to me later on the phone. “I’ve no chances left. After being caught with those guys on the soccer trip. That’s when Evan asked me for your number, by the way…”
“He asked for my NUMBER?”
“Yep. But I didn’t think you’d want him to have it, you are so quiet and all. You’re never interested in guys. It’s always me…you know my parents said they’d send me to that convent school with the nuns and I’d be grounded for the duration…”
“I’m tired of you and your lies,” I said. “Why drag me into your shit?” I’d had a serious talk from my parents about the importance of studying and not being distracted by “romance” at this point in my life and “…why was I kissing a perfect stranger in the shower?” I decided then and there that Amy and I were done. I can cope with her selfish manipulations, her petty little deceits, but for her to pile undeserved blame on me in front of her dad, and throw me into deep shit with my parents— just to save her own skin— that was just one step too far. I press END CALL. Finished. Our friendship was no longer just on the endangered list, it was extinct.
Just one problem. A serious one. Except through Amy or her brother Mike, I had no idea how to get in touch with Evan.
It was a long time after the mud run before I could even bring myself to talk to Amy. We were busy with study, or at least I was, and there were enough people in our group at school that we could get by without too much open conflict. But then it was the end of year formal and all that. We kind of made a truce to get through. Then friends started leaving for holidays, trips overseas or some working casual jobs they had arranged. I was keeping to myself mostly; the long-term plots Amy and I had made for schoolies, way back in the old days, cast aside. She went off to Queensland with a group I didn’t like, and no one really knew where they’d gone or when they’d be back. I settled for a week in a rented beach house with a group of girls Amy called the “try-hards”. We gossiped and sun-baked and talked about the future. All of us hoped we’d get to university, but we were still waiting for results.
All through the exams I hadn’t tried to get in contact with Evan. He was on my mind, but I had to compartmentalise the memory of him in a sealed mental box until the stress was over. My parents were relieved that I didn’t mention him. I got my driver’s licence. With the sudden, adult freedom of driving Mum’s old Mazda wherever I wanted, I casually patrolled the places where soccer might be played, drove past Amy’s house and hung around, on the pretence of researching course information, at the university Mike attended. Always hoping to run into Evan. I never did.
When I got home from one of those days loitering around the university library, quadrangle and cafes, there was a postcard waiting for me. On one side a view of Noosa: on the other, a familiar scrawl. Amy had written:
Having a great time! Never, ever, ever coming home!
Wish you were here. Lost my phone!! Call Evan or else bro
will never speak to me again. No hard feelings?? Amy xxx
Written sideways on the card almost as an after-thought (typical Amy) was a phone number. I sat on my bed and looked at the card. Thought about the fire-watcher, mud-run-kisser, Evan. The elusive man who inhabited my dreams. I looked at the card a long time.
My mother came and stood in the open doorway. I knew she must have read the card—no privacy existed in this old-fashioned method of communication.
“Evan is the mud-run boy?” she asked.
“Going to phone?”
After all this time, I wondered if there would be anything between us. A spur of the moment connection. A kiss. What did we really know about each other?
I thought about it as I showered that night, as I tried to sleep. I thought about it in the morning as I drove to the beach with some of the “try-hards”, as I floated in shallow waters and surfed foaming breakers. I could have confided in those friendly girls. But I kept it to myself, hugged the question, like a secret gift tucked against my heart. As if to take action would threaten the perfection of the dream. The postcard with the precious number was folded in half, safely private inside my wallet.
The following afternoon I called.
Summer storms had rolled in. The purple tinged, steel grey mega clouds had darkened the sky and pelted the city with large raindrops and hailstones the size of tennis balls. I waited until the tempest had passed, subsidising into a gentle misty rain borne on a southerly breeze.
I told a little lie. I told my parents that the “try-hards” were travelling with me down the south coast. I gave them the real name of the caravan park. I didn’t tell them I was going to meet Evan.
I drove through city traffic and along rain wet highways until the landscape changed and the traffic thinned. I was sensible and sedate, not rushing, careful on these roads I didn’t know. Down steep inclines into dripping forest gullies, around hairpin bends, up mountainsides, I stayed quietly in the slow lane and remembered the texts, the conversations, the reassurances, of the last week. We had connected through cyberspace and developed a level of trust. But still, mixed with excitement and anticipation, a little hesitancy. It wasn’t just road safety that was making me drive cautiously. I was a little worried that I had created a fantasy boy in my head and that the reality would be a letdown. It was a long drive alone, and my parents were right to be concerned. I got a little bit lost but kept my head. I stopped in the little town, bought an iced coffee, and texted home. I drove on. A glimpse of a rare lyrebird in a bush clearing cheered me. I drove up out of the misty rainforest valley into open farmland. Over little bridges across teaming streams. Rain had swollen the rivers and was rushing over rocks and waterfalls, out to the sea. The sun was out, and clouds were swept away by sea breezes. Nearly at the coast.
There were rain puddles on the pale clay ground when I stepped from the car into the holiday park. Evan’s cabin was easy to find. His directions were clear. I knocked, no answer. The unlocked door was open, I went inside. The simple open plan room held a kitchenette, a sofa, a table. Evan’s guitar rested on the sofa. Beyond that, a bedroom, littered with t shirts and socks. His phone was beside the bed. I used the bathroom, brushed my hair, drank some water. Calmed my nerves. Evan would be working somewhere on site. Handyman, gardener, cleaner, his holiday job included accommodation but paid little. It was the location and the freedom it offered that had lured him here for the summer. I sat on the sofa to wait.
I must have dozed. I was roused by footsteps. It wasn’t him. It was a woman, mid- forties, in khaki shirt and shorts, talking into her phone.
She saw me and stopped mid-sentence.
‘He’s not here,’ she said into her phone. She eyed me up and down. ‘Looking for Evan?’
‘Aren’t we all,’ she muttered.
Then the story emerged, bit by bit. Evan was missing.
My hands gripped the textured cotton weave of the sofa cushions. Missing?
The khaki woman, who turned out to be Evan’s boss, explained. Some kids had been larking about on a dinghy down at the beach before the storm. The current had swept them out beyond the headland. Evan had swum out to help. In towing the boys back to the beach, the little boat had capsized. The boys got to safety, helped now by other surf-lifesavers. Then a monster wave had hit, and Evan was swept under. Lifesavers on duty were searching for him, in speed boats, all up and down the beach. The manager had come to the cabin just in case Evan had managed to swim back and had returned unnoticed. No such luck.
‘You look pale,’ she said. ‘Come on, let’s find a coffee.’
I stood on the beach, sipping the hot latte in a flimsy paper cup, scanning the horizon for the lost swimmer.
‘The tide is coming in,’ said the lifeguard. ‘The current is pulling toward the rocks.’
What does that mean? I wondered. Were they expecting a body to wash up? My mud boy, just a corpse on the sand? I couldn’t comprehend the possibility. A dreadful absence of feeling, of physical numbness, crept over my entire body. I sank down and crouched on the damp sand. Hours passed.
There was a commotion in the car park. Cheers. Then a wet, tousled head above a mound of damp towels was led to my side.
‘Carried . . . to the lighthouse rocks . . . by the tide,’ Evan explained. ‘Couldn’t . . . swim against it . . . had to go with the flow.’
The manager bundled him back to the cabin. Paramedics checked his vitals. Pronounced fit and well, if a little scratched and bruised, Evan took a shower and the manager disappeared. She came back carrying burgers and hot, steaming potato chips. ‘Eat, then sleep,’ she commanded. ‘Take a few days off.’
We feasted on the food, like starving people, sitting shyly opposite each other as if meeting for the first time. We didn’t talk much. After eating, Evan said: ‘Let’s go for a drive.’
He jumped into the passenger seat and I drove. I followed his directions to the lighthouse at the end of a rocky promontory. A 360-degree view of tumbling indigo seas. We climbed out onto the ancient cliff of weathered sandstone and let the ocean winds tousle our hair, let the salt air clear our minds. Behind us, the glow of the setting sun burnished the white lighthouse tower with reflected flame.
“It’s you,” Evan said. He took a deep, cleansing breath. “After all this time. My fire-girl.”
In our kiss, four elements met. The cleansing air currents, the surge of swirling waters, the heat of the dying sun and the steadiness of the earth below, all combined into a life-giving force so powerful, there was no time, no place, no past. Just the future, and both of us sure of our place in it.