Mud

Mud was nominated and long listed for the Judith Rodriguez Prize, which is run by Deakin University and is open to third year writing students.

The small girl looked away from her teacher and out through the wall of windows to her left. She maneuvered herself ever-so-slightly so her turned head escaped the notice of Mrs Duperouzel, hidden now by Toby who was bigger than most. She sat on the outskirts of prep class, in a building that hung at the edge of many.

Monash Primary School was built into the side of a hill. Its best feature was a natural amphitheatre central to the split-level buildings that surrounded it from all sides. Each building contained two or three open plan classrooms, and were constructed a little different from its neighbour, depending on where it sat on the hill. They were all the same dull grey though, constructed from large besser blocks, a little like Lego but stripped of colour. She knew she would like school but she had not settled in yet. She felt far from the centre of things. With her lesson now forgotten, her thoughts settled on the forbidden area. Her gaze travelled out through the glass, past the veranda where her classmates lined up in pairs each morning, and floated across the small courtyard. She tried to make out the writing on the small white sign. It stood atop a short post under a line of pine trees. The trees made up a tall dense hedge on stilts that hinted at the vast goings-on that beckoned from beyond. She knew the red block letters read KEEP OUT, but the rain, which had finally stopped, still dripped off the lower branches, smudging her view.

The men had not come back; their giant yellow machines lay dotted about, abandoned on the flat graded space that stretched out like an enormous lilypad at the side of the school. It had rained every day, for a whole week. That morning the drizzle had replaced the rain like a new phase on an old season, and her frustration shifted.

Spread out on the smooth clay surface, past the trees, were a hundred mounds of earth. Twice as tall as her, they beamed out from the centre in ever-widening discs. The scene spoke of an impermanence that demanded resolve, a disconnection that needed blending. Her young mind became fixated then on the worry that the work would be delayed still, for how were the men to know it was okay to return if they weren’t here checking? The rain had ceased. Surely it would be dry enough—if only she could get close enough to check—maybe she could tell the office ladies to let the men know they could come back to finish the oval.

“Trixie?” her teacher said.

“Trixie!” her teacher shouted.

“Yes, Mrs Duperouzel?”

“Please pay attention.”

Trixie was still nodding when the lunch bell rang. Toby’s mimed guffaw was interrupted too, and Trixie threw him a glare before he turned away looking for his friends.

For the first day in five there was no rainy lunch-time program, so her classmates ran squealing from the room, down back along the veranda and around the corner to the main part of the school. The collective ruckus drowned out the final gongs of the bell and then faded out before silence lowered its cloak. Rain and wind were absent. She was alone in the wet courtyard.

She was a good girl who had not yet shown she was good and clever and she was getting impatient. It was already April and school had started in February, two whole months ago. Although she hated how they pulled, she kept in the tight ponytails her mother insisted on each morning, and made sure her long socks were pulled up evenly all through the day.

Her brother Michael was in grade six on the other side of the large campus. She never saw him until the final bell each afternoon, but he was always there right on time. He would go to the high school in a few months and she knew she had to establish herself as a good and clever girl soon, so her teachers would be nice and the other clever kids would notice her.

She was beside the white sign, which looked old and forlorn up close, battered from continual use and exposure to the elements. Loaded and unloaded from a pile of signs off and on the back of a tray truck or ute, she imagined its adventures. It seemed small and silly and completely inadequate for such a big worksite. She decided to say, if questioned, that she didn’t see it at all—certainly not that she couldn’t read it.

Trixie stepped forward, intent on her excursion. She would be thanked for being a smart and clever girl very soon, and might even become a little famous.

Emerging on the other side of the dark, sodden green trees, she looked altogether dishevelled. There were pine needles in her hair protesting the tight symmetry of her ponytails. She had lost a ribbon, and the other was undone. Several pulled threads of her woollen jumper had jumped free when she had wrestled herself from the snags of the lower branches that tried to block her way. Her shoes were damp and grubby. She paused, unperturbed, in front of the alien landscape that panned out before her. It was darker on this side, the trees shading what little brightness the winter sky offered.

Laid out before her was a great expanse, much bigger than she had imagined. The buildings from which she had just emerged were long forgotten. The too-neat piles of earth and the great machines depicted a strange and powerful absence.

She stepped off the wet blanket of pine needles and started down the embankment. Her grubby shoes quickly became caked with thick orange clay. The top layer everywhere was smooth wet mud, an inch or two thick, or so she thought.

Trixie contemplated climbing back up the embankment and realised there was nothing to hang on to. She reasoned with herself. She may as well check the flat part where the machines needed to navigate. She felt about her hair and pulled out a twig a few inches long with which to measure the thickness of the mud.

Trixie took a few slow steps towards the closest pile of earth, which reared up and blocked out the remaining weak sunlight, casting her in a dark shadow. She was stuck. She tried to lift each leg in turn but her feet were gripped in place like the scalped earth needed her to stay, wanted her right there, or worse, that someone unseen, beneath the mud, had gripped her ankles and wouldn’t let go. She tried to look behind her to see if anyone was close by knowing full well she was quite alone, and nearly lost her balance. She was sinking and struggling to stand upright.

Tears got ready to burst as she became terrified of the trouble she was going to be in with her teachers and her parents. The warnings from both reverberated in her head as if a chorus of supernatural beings had suddenly surrounded her. Her school shoes were ruined and she knew her parents would have trouble affording new ones. The mud was now at the top of her long white socks. Tears became sobs and then she started screaming.

She was lost in terror for what seemed like three lunchtimes when she heard Michael yelling from the trees to stay still and shut up. She was up to her armpits in mud. Her arms lifted but were getting dreadfully heavy. Her chin was pointed high but it meant then that she could feel the cold muck on the nape of her neck and the backs of her ears. In a quick sidelong glance, she could see that Michael had behind him what looked like his whole class. Some of the boys, and Erin who lived in their street, were forming a human chain so Michael could reach her.

Trixie saw through her wet and puffy eyes that all of them were ruining their shoes. They were all ankle-deep. Others waited about talking anxiously, burying their knuckles in their mouths and squealing with a mix of excitement and fright as each human link was added. With a collaborative adrenalin burst they dragged her from the mud.

The whole of the year six cohort had gathered and were cheering. Michael looked down at Trixie as he carried her through the trees and back to the courtyard, grinning in disbelief. Not only was she completely bonkers, she had made him a hero in front of everyone. His love beamed down at her from his whole face with relief and gratitude.

Amid the noise, a group of girls who had raised the alarm now drew around her and made to bustle her off to the school nurse to get cleaned up. Michael disappeared in a large celebratory huddle, accepting the whacks across his ready back with good humour. Friendly hands grappled and shook each other’s shoulders within the group and latecomers to the excitment joined in.

*

Trixie stirred from her strange nightmare with a happy ending, wondering just how many nights in a row it would last this time. For a breadth of a moment before she lost its grasp she sighed, wishing she could be spared. Why this dream, and why on repeat? She had begun high school and hadn’t even seen her brother Michael in more than a year.

It was 1983, and he was supposed to be in year twelve while she was in year seven. Brother and sister at the top and bottom of high school—just like it had been in primary school. She was annoyed at her ridiculous imagination, sat up, threw the covers off, and made her way to the bathroom.

Halfway through the year before, Michael, as soon as he turned seventeen, had enrolled in the Australian Army Infantry Corps. The descriptions of his days and his connection to home waned as he settled into his new life. As she picked up her toothbrush she thought about how she was losing the thread of how his days looked. His constant movement meant that the interstate telephone calls were not only expensive, but were initiated only by him and rare. She made her way back to her bedroom to get dressed and stopped by the hall table. She riffled through the mail there but there was no mail for her. When Michael did call, Mum or Dad would talk for a few minutes then hand her the phone. She picked up the receiver now and listened to the dial tone. She replaced it back in its cradle and remembered how she would walk up and down the wide hall, twisting the telephone cord around her wrist and tracing her toes like a ballet dancer around the linoleum tiles. She would sit, leaning her back up against a doorframe, and listen to his answers to her questions. He told her that in a couple of years’ time, when he lived off base and had a car, he’d fly her up to Townsville or wherever he was posted by then, for a holiday. He had to give lots of notice for leave, so she’d have plenty of time to talk their parents into letting her go.

An aeroplane. She had never been on one.

She was back in her bedroom in front of her open wardrobe. The pickings were sparse. She always forgot to ask him if there was any underlying truth to the dream, and she was far from convinced there was any other logical reason. On each occurrence, past the first few wafers of thought, its memory simply wouldn’t belong to daylight. She had forgotten today too, already. Still, she dreaded an unknown terror as she lay down to sleep each night, and grew tired of its repetition come morning. On mornings where she was free from its taint there was no telling if its absence signalled a new dream schedule not adjacent to the alarm clock, or if it had decided to leave her for good.

Michael was really gone—and time was past for pretending that it wasn’t for good. His absence had caught her by surprise, caught up as she had been in the excitement of his new adventure. His letters and hers waited in politeness for the other, and were exchanged with steady regularity and length that spoke of genuine communication. Yet they read like flat colourless monologues of questions and answers that fell dreadfully short. They lacked warmth, moodiness, mannerisms, body language, team work, competition—all the palpable and essential elements of siblinghood. She looked at the pile on her dresser, kept with a bow but never reread. Travelling by the Australian Post with millions of others there was nothing special about them, no matter how thick the envelope. The written word was failing her, for the question that she couldn’t remember, that needed to be asked, was no longer a question at all.