In the days and weeks after what we as a family collectively came to call the accident, I returned three times to the part of the irrigation channel where my father and brother drowned. The first time, the day after they died, I walked there from the family property with my then boyfriend. My father’s body had been recovered late the night before, but my brother still lay somewhere beneath the opaque brown surface, emptied of all that had made him himself. It would take a further three days before they recovered his body. I returned twice more after that, first to lay yellow everlasting daisies on the channel bank, and then again when my brother returned from overseas, to guide him through what had happened that day.
In the years afterwards, though I often passed close by when I was visiting my mother, driving down the same road, we always turned off, either to reach my cousin’s farm or the road to Tatura and onto Shepparton. One afternoon earlier this year, returning from Shepparton with the kids in the back, I asked my husband to turn in the other direction. I didn’t tell him where we were going, and I don’t think that he ever knew previous to that how close we were to where the accident had happened. It appeared suddenly before us, like a scene from a dream made real, before I was ready. It could only be seen from a little way up the road, because it was around a curve in the channel. When we drove up to the gate you could no longer see it. I had no memory of that curve at all. That day, we didn’t stop, but the next time, a couple of months later, we didn’t have the children with us.
The track that you drive down to get there is a fairly lonely stretch, but close by to where they drowned, at the point where you turn off the road and follow the one that leads to where they died, is a farmhouse. On the same side of the road as the farmhouse there is one side of a low cement bridge. When we pulled up there was a car parked beside it, and a fisherman sat with a line dangling into the water below. I sat for a moment, thinking on the strange intimacy inherent in occupying the same close rural space, one cannot simply say nothing, and the customary nod and hello wouldn’t suffice in these circumstances, given that we were about to jump a fence and trespass on land that was clearly signed as forbidden. I got out of the car, walked over and told him what we were going to do and why. He nodded in an understated way, and said no worries. Crossing back to the other side, I took a minute to study the bridge where they had hoisted my brother’s body up from a net that had been left there to catch him, like some haul of shining fish. It made me think of Helen Garner’s book This House of Grief and her conjuring of the image of the three little drowned boys as silvery water sprites who escaped their fate via a kind of unformed magic. On the side of the unlovely bridge someone had screwed on a small brass plaque in loving memory of somebody else. It seemed wrong that someone else should be memorialised at this exact place. I wondered what that person’s story was, whether he had perhaps been a fisherman, and this his sweet spot. To the left of the bridge was a gate with a No Trespassing sign planted beside it. I climbed the gate and jumped to the ground below, feeling the jarring of the impact in my bones.
One the day that they drowned, there was no gate. We had turned from the dirt road onto this other unsealed track that ran alongside the channel , leading eventually to The Basin, a vast man-made reservoir. The water travelled from the Basin all the way to the dry Mallee town where I spent my childhood. Walking along the track gave me my first sense of the largeness of the distance from the road, around the curve to the drop bar. In my memory, the distance was on one hand as unquantifiable as the time that had elapsed during the accident and its aftermath, but on the other hand the length from the flow regulator to the bridge was much more compressed in my recollection, the one in which my eighteen year old self, barefoot in a black bikini, had run the distance back and forth between the two points, looking for any sign of life or limb poking out of the water.
When we reached the flow regulator, I was surprised by the ordinariness of what I felt. Like a person showing someone around a new house, I began pointing things out to my husband, here is the place where my father parked the ute, this is where he dived unworried from the safety of the small wooden platform into the smooth flow of water above the drop bar. I showed him where the dog had leapt into the water from behind me, into the roiling water in front, the place where I had stood on the lower edge of the bank, underwater now.
Standing there, I imagined that I could pin point exactly where in the water I had last seen each of them, my brother, furthest away, never looking in our direction, and then, closer but still impossibly far, my father, his arms outstretched like a drowning messiah, his mouth open. I took a photo with my phone, not knowing what I felt. I had long searched the Internet for a picture, so that I could better explain how they had drowned.
Looking at the water, I understood that it was madness to have tried to swim there that day, and the matter of why they had drowned was not something so easily captured. I remembered the counsellor who had told me that I should be angry with my father, and how I had shaken my head, explaining that it had been a simple error of judgement, that people make them every day and it doesn’t end like that day did. I never went back to that counsellor again. Still. I recalled my own hesitation, sitting on the cement ledge that stinking hot afternoon, and sticking my feet and legs into the strong downward flow, instead of jumping straight in, though it had been my idea to go for a swim. There had been an instinct that had made me hold back and wait for one of the older men of my family to say it was all right, that it was safe to take the plunge. Such reassurances as there were ended that day.