Part II: What It Was, or The Return
Posted on April 24, 2017
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 another three days before his body would be brought to the surface. I returned twice more after that, first to lay yellow everlasting daisies on the channel bank, and then again when another of my brothers returned from overseas, to guide him through what had happened that day.
In the years afterward, 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 the places we were to where the accident had happened. The sight of the flow regulator spanning the irrigation channel appeared suddenly before us, before I was ready, like a scene from a dream made real. The place where they drowned 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. We didn’t stop that day, 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 a low cement bridge. I took a minute to study the spot where the police searchers had hoisted my brother’s body up from a net that had been left there to catch him, like a haul of fish. It made me think of Helen Garner’s book This House of Grief, and of her conjuring of the image of the three little drowned boys as silvery water sprites who might have somehow escaped their unthinkable fate. On the side of the bridge, someone had screwed on a small metal plaque in loving memory of somebody else. It seemed wrong that someone other than my brother 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 impact of it in my bones.
One the day that they drowned, there had been no gate or sign. We had turned from the dirt road onto this other unsealed track that runs alongside the channel, leading to The Basin, a vast man-made reservoir nearby. The water travelled from the Basin all the way to the dry Mallee town where I spent my childhood, via the irrigation channel. 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, where the water fell. 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, in which my eighteen-year-old self, barefoot, dressed in a black bikini, had run the distance back and forth between the two points, looking for any sign of life in 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, followed by my brother, had leaped into the water from behind me, into the roiling water in front, and the place where I had stood on the lower edge of the bank, underwater now.
Standing there, I imagined that I could pinpoint 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, 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 thought to swim there that long ago day, and that 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 for taking us there to swim. I had disagreed, saying that it had been a simple error of judgement, that people make them every day and it doesn’t end as that day did. I never went back to that counsellor again. Still. I recalled my own hesitation on the day that my father and brother had died. I had sat on the cement ledge next to the fall, that stinking hot afternoon, and stuck my feet and legs into the strong downward flow of the water, 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 that it was wise to take the plunge. It hadn’t looked safe to me. Such reassurances as there were to be had about what was or wasn’t safe ended that day.
This is what I wrote immediately, or the day after I returned.