Third Prize: Ebb and Flow
A story about the push and pull of life in Derby.
by Myra Kendall
I squint from the sun’s setting rays.
My eyes sting as the sunscreen residue mixes with my tears. I pull into our usual spot, two bays down from the gate. The blasting chill of the air-conditioning has finally kicked in and the sticky wet strands of hair start to lift off my forehead.
The click-clack of the car-seat buckles brings me back to the present and I hastily wipe my eyes. My two girls dive headfirst into the passenger seat. Layla reaches the power-window button first and the humid air jolts me.
“Can you see any crocodiles, Poppy?” I ask as I turn down the local radio station.
“Yep. I see a big one over there,” she says, pointing to the north.
“No there isn’t, Poppy,” her big sister declares, then looks at me. “Mum, Miss Clara taught us about tides today.”
“Did she? What did you learn?” I put the window back up and the cool air washes over us again.
“Well … the water rises and falls because of the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon.”
“That’s right,” I whisper.
“And it’s a full moon tonight,” says Layla. “That’s why the water is so high.”
“But it was all muddy before school,” Poppy says as she points towards the latte-coloured water.
“And now it’s just below the Jetty. It changes so quickly! Cool huh?” Layla says. “And Mum, did you know that Derby has the highest tides in Australia?” Layla gazes over Poppy’s head to the horizon.
I do remember that fact, from all the reading I did six weeks ago, before we arrived in this little Kimberley town. I also know we are exactly 2,353 kilometres from ‘home’, and before that fact can pull me under, I’m once again smothered by the warm moist air that rushes in as Layla opens the passenger door.
“Come on, Mum!” Layla helps Poppy out of the car. “You said we could get a milkshake.”
I join the girls in the thick heat, and we cross the car park to the kiosk.
We take our shakes to the rotunda. It’s so hot, I’d rather sit in some air conditioning. But at least if we stay here a bit longer it delays having to go back to the house.
A white sedan pulls into the spot next to our car. A lady and two kids about the same ages as my own head to the kiosk.
“They were at the library last week,” Layla whispers.
My girls put their milkshakes down and start hopping on the mosaic artwork that fills the centre floor of the rotunda. Jumping from the orange frill-neck lizard to the branches of the dark-grey boab, and one last hop onto the brown tiles that make up the goanna’s tail.
The girl from the white sedan races towards us. She plonks her milkshake on the wooden bench and starts jumping in unison with Layla and Poppy.
“Are you going to drink your milkshake, Milly?” asks the lady, as she sits beside her other child on the bench.
“Soon. I want to play!” Milly grabs Layla’s outstretched hand.
“The blue is water,” says Poppy, looking at Milly’s feet. “You can’t go on it.”
“Lucky you reached out for me then,” Milly says to Layla, and the three girls smile at each other.
“I’m Tess,” the lady says to me. “I saw you at the library last week.”
“You’re new,” she says. It’s not a question. “How are you finding it?”
I take a deep breath before I answer. “Hot!”
“Oh, tell me about it! You’ve come at such a hard time too — it’s the build-up to the wet season, so it’s even hotter and the humidity is ridiculous. We’re from Victoria, so it was a shock for us,” she says with a laugh.
It’s been a shock for me too.
I miss being able to pop into Mum’s for a cup of tea, playing at the playground without getting attacked by mosquitos, and drive-through anything would be so handy sometimes. The isolation is something I have not been exposed to and, just as the tide comes and goes, the tightening in my chest begins in the morning and eases in the afternoon.
The next day, Tess and her kids are at the rotunda before us.
“Where are you guys from?” Tess asks.
The girls are playing hopscotch on the twisted mosaic snake that surrounds the native flora and fauna beneath their feet. I take a sip of my ice-cold mango smoothie. One thing I now know is that nothing compares to the taste of mangoes grown up here.
“Jarrod, my husband, got a transfer to the high school.”
“Lots of staff come and go up here,” Tess says as she sips her smoothie.
I remember the conversation I had with Jarrod last night — how people seem to come and go in Derby. Just as the tide continues to rise and fall, so does the community.
Tess and I sit in comfortable silence watching the girls jump on the brown tiles that form the Brahman cattle.
On Friday, Tess is already waiting in the carpark. (I instantly get a rush of enthusiasm, followed by the awareness that I haven’t once thought of ‘home’ today.)
“I need coffee,” Tess grumbles as she approaches our car.
“Girls, you go play. We’ll bring the drinks over,” I say as I point toward the rotunda.
When we’re settled with our drinks I point to Tess’s handbag.
“I like your keyring,” I say.
“Thanks. I’ve started doing macramé. You should come around for a coffee and make one. They’re pretty easy.”
“That’d be nice.”
“I’ll text you my address.” Tess hands me her phone so I can add my number.
“Come over tomorrow. A few of us are getting together for a crafternoon — I’ll introduce you to some other mums.”
I add my number and give back her phone silently.
“It does get easier. I promise,” she says as she places her hand on my knee.
“What I’ve learnt is that the friends you make up here become the family you miss so much now.”
I nod in agreement because, if I talk, I know I will cry.
“Come on kids!” Tess calls. “We need to go to the post office!”
I can’t help but laugh.
“I never thought that going to the post office would be something we’d look forward to,” I say as I stand up with the two milkshakes in my hands.
“I know, right?” Tess smiles.
We walk together as a group to the car park.
Just as the tide is high this afternoon, for the first time in weeks, so are my hopes.
There have been plenty of days in the past few weeks where I’ve felt as though nothing has moved but the tide.
But not today.
“Ready to go, girls?” I turn to face them.
“Yep. Let’s go!” they say at the same time.
I look in the rear-view mirror and imagine a receding tide taking my yearning for home away with it.
We pull up in Tess’s driveway and when I open my door the sweet scent of frangipani floats past. It reminds me of the frangipanis in Mum’s backyard, but instead of feeling the pull of what is missing, I smile at the push of what could be.
I sip my hot chocolate and try to memorise the names of the mums and kids around me. The morning turns into six hours of crafting. After a few hot glue-gun burns, we decide to call it a day. Somehow, we decide to sign up for a stall at the next night market.
I accomplish more in these six hours than I have in the past six weeks.
Ten full moons pass.
We go to the red dusty speedway and our first rodeo. Jarrod catches a Barramundi. I learn how to toss a throw net and devour giant mud crabs. The girls even try mango on pizza!
More importantly, we connect with our community — loving, compassionate people from diverse backgrounds.
The tides are a predictable occurrence. We watch them every day.
And then another transfer notice arrives for Jarrod.
Jarrod is at work, packing his things. Layla is at school. Poppy is with Tess.
And I am at the Jetty.
I reach the far point of town and allow the power of the tidal water to sweep over the crevasses that now encompass my heart. I stay long enough to watch the water come in again and replenish the sun-baked cracks of the marsh.
The end comes quickly.
The day before we leave, Tess invites me over for morning tea. The water slide is up, and it takes no time at all for the kids to race towards the cool water.
“Here’s a little something to remember your time in the Kimberley.” Tess places a gift in front of me.
It’s the wooden chopping board with a gorgeous wood-burned Boab in the centre. The one I commented on at our first market together.
“Thank you,” I say, shakily.
“I wish you weren’t going back to Perth.” Tess places her hand on my knee, just as she did that afternoon at the Jetty. “People come and go in Derby,” she whispers.
“Just like the tide,” I say.
She nods. “You’ll find yourself back here one day.”
Six months later…
The one place I used to visit daily is the place I miss the most. The need for the Jetty aches inside me.
I travel to the edge of my new town.
It takes almost an hour to reach.
Here, I watch the waves crash onto the sand. I don’t feel the calming sensation that the slowly moving tides used to bestow upon me. My heart has again formed mismatched pieces, like the muddy cracks that used to surround me.
The pull to return to Derby intensifies with each day that passes and, as I look towards the horizon, I imagine myself being taken out into the open sea; the water changing from aqua to turquoise to the latte of the mudflats and then, I am there … at the Jetty, slowly making my way towards the edge of town.
I’m startled as Jarrod and the girls return to the car with ice-creams.
The wind whips at the power-lines and the car shakes.
I don’t know my way around this landscape yet.
I am home, but I am lost.
I need the tide to guide me.