4 September 2017

The 2017 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize Fiction – Rose Forrest

Rose Forrest’s short story A Stretching Summer has been awarded The 2017 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of fiction. Rose was presented with the award at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival at a special event, and wins $500, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of her winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks, Issue #109. Read Rose’s winning story right here.

A Stretching Summer
Rose Forrest

The day the flood came was a Tuesday.

I remember this, because it was meant to be the date of my school dance.

Summer had panted like a hot dog that year, it had extended its parched tongue and begged for
relief, but for two and a half months, none came. Not a single drop of rain. My mother had joked
that it was God punishing us for all the water we’d used on the new town pool, but it wasn’t really
funny, and no one had laughed. Tanned skin became darker as the dirt lightened and grass
bleached, and clouds slowly reclaimed the river until it was just a winding trench of dirt, piercing its
way through red rock and scraggly bush. English class reeked of sweat and sunscreen, and
students stared at blackboards with blank eyes, lost in a hot, bored haze. The cursed town pool
teemed with people; children shrieked, parents sighed, the elderly swam laps leisurely and the girls
in my grade reclined under hastily assembled umbrellas, their wet skin sticking to the concrete.
Charlie’s fur became matted with sweat and dirt, and he would whine when I would try to wash it
out, but begrudgingly comply, resting his head on his paws and closing his eyes.

The lack of rain did not worry me for a long time though; I had bigger issues to concern myself
with. My school dance was rapidly approaching, and as of that time, I was not aware if Bryce was
going to take me or not. When I had asked he had grunted, in the indifferent way that boys do, and
shrugged, dark shirt rustling against his shoulder. He had leaned in to kiss me in the back of his
ute, and I had savoured the nervous jolt in my stomach I felt; the kind of nervous that makes your
chest feel as if it is open, and ribcage exposed, a simultaneously vulnerable and empowering
nervous, as you wrap your arms around a boy and pull him closer. When I had leaned away and
asked again, he had rolled his eyes, but a smile had tugged the corner of his mouth as he had
said, “I guess”, and so I was almost sure that I had a date. I didn’t love him, I knew that, but I loved
the cleft in his chin, the line of his collarbone, his moments of abrasive joy and of quiet
contemplation, and so as far as dates to the dance went, I knew there was no other. He had
dropped me off at my house, and the dust of the road had coated his wheels as they sped away,
the crackling sound of his radio growing fainter and fainter, becoming a part of the horizon. My
mother had asked why I was smiling. I didn’t say anything.

Sometimes, we would go into the city: me, my mother, brother, and Charlie, just to get away from
the confined heat of our town. We would pile into the car and listen to Kate Bush for around four
hours, until we arrived, or my brother started loudly complaining. Occasionally my mother would let
me drive, but not often. She would say that she did not want to die today, thank you very much,
maybe in a few decades but not before she met Kate Bush, and how on earth would she do that if
her teenage daughter killed her in a car accident? I would argue, say that I was perfectly able to
steer a bloody car for Christ’s sake, and anyway, if you want to meet Kate Bush before you die
then you’re going to have to live forever!

She did love Kate Bush.

When we arrived, the city pressed down on us, and we would squirm a little from the intensity of it.
Concrete paths matched concrete walls, and they absorbed the sunlight mercilessly as it tried to
pass through. The heat sat on our shoulders like gravity, a constant presence, centring us on the
hot pavement. We would pretend for each other’s sake to have fun, my brother would make loud
comments about how the buildings were so tall, and there were so many people, and Charlie
would patter along behind us, wagging his tail and looking bemusedly at strangers who cooed at
him, and reached down to ruffle his ears. My mother would yawn, stretch, and ask if we thought it
was time to go back home. We would try not to seem too eager. On the way back, we would not
listen to Kate Bush, but rather let my brother fiddle with the radio. The hills in the distance would
eat the dark orange sun as we pull into our driveway, and Charlie would bark at the birds that nest
on our roof.

It was that summer that I began to write poetry. I had listened to an impassioned performance
given by a poet who had visited our school.

“My uterus is a tiger!”, she had cried out, clutching her stomach, “And you, you will never be able to
tame it, but you will be compelled by its beauty.” The boys next to me had snickered softly, but I
had shushed them: I was riveted. I wanted to create meaning out of words, to feel as passionately
about language as she did, sweating underneath the hot lights of the school stage, her face
flushed, grasping at her abdomen. I didn’t understand her message, but I didn’t need to. I looked
into her eyes, and I saw her pure, honest truth shining through, tantalisingly, blindingly clear. It had
made me feel stripped of any defences; for a shining singularity we were the only two people in the
room, her gasping for breath as she spat out her soul and me, sitting on a creaky chair, letting
myself be absorbed by it. I had walked home that day, tasting my words in my mouth, trying to
figure out how I could control them the way she did.

“My home is an ark like Noah’s.” I stridently told my mother as I set the table, “And I am the beetle
that hesitantly crawls aboard, behind the confident elephant.”

“What are you on about?”.

I spent that summer writing words in a thin notebook, the paper gradually growing heavier with ink,
words weighing down the pages like dewdrops on the thin tendrils of spiderwebs. I wrote about the
people I knew. I told Bryce that his eyes shined like sky reflecting on snow; he snorted, and told me
that it would never snow near here. I told my mother her hair gleamed like a chocolate river, I told
my brother his voice reminded me of the garbage truck that came early in the morning, screeching
along the street and knocking over trash cans as it went. I even wrote a poem for Charlie, with the
opening lines,

A dog
You sit there,
With all of your silent, trembling wisdom.
You gaze up at me,
Eyes wide and knowing
Understanding the nature of our souls
Are one and the same.

The summer stretched on. I began to notice how the sunlight on Mr Johnson’s tree would change
in the afternoon; it swirled and danced gracefully, beautifully, captured in the arms of time.
Occasionally I would make eye contact with the hunched man, as he sat in his window, and I could
tell he was watching the dance too.

I only started to understand the lack of rain when I went over to Bryce’s house one Wednesday
afternoon. He had hushed me, and quietly ushered me to his room. I thought I could hear crying
from down the hall.
“What is it?”
“We don’t have enough water. The vegetables are dying.”
His mother had always refused to buy the vegetables from the grocery store; she’d claim they were
ripping her off with their ridiculous prices, and she’d much rather grow her own.
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Bryce.”
He ran his fingers through his hair. I briefly fell in love with his hesitancy.
“Do you want to get drunk?”
“It’s three o’ clock, Bryce”.

Slowly, the town began to shift. The pool didn’t teem with people. There were no queues at the
local ice cream store. I didn’t see people sunbathing in the park, or tending to the community
garden, or sitting out the front of cafés and chatting. My mother stopped making jokes. Bryce didn’t
invite me over to his house again. The tree in Mr Johnson’s yard bleached a blinding white in the
sun, so bright it hurt to look at, silhouetted against the empty blue sky we were enclosed in.
I spent my days writing furiously, sweating away under an unsteady, creaking fan that clicked
loudly when it spun, the hot air drying my sweat until it caked my skin like a second layer.

“The sun, she is the centre of our galaxy”, I wrote, “So why does she hurt us so?”.

I showed the poem to my English teacher and she told me it was verging on pretentious. The days
cycled on.

The first time we saw the clouds my mother cried. They hung from the sky, glistening like ripe
plums, so close I felt like I could almost touch them. They clustered above us in dark clumps;
individual, small masses that collected together to fill the horizon.

“The rain is here”, my mother had sighed, and wiped at her eyes, “Thank the lord. Thank the lord.”
Bryce had smiled, a real, toothy smile that had stretched his cheeks wide and crinkled the corners
of his eyes. Angus from down the street cheerily gave everyone in our neighbourhood a clap on the
back and a handshake when he saw them. Mr Johnson stood on the street, head tilted upwards,
eyes reflecting the sky, and stood there, for a long, long time. It was as if for an instant, a minute,
an hour, even a couple of hours, that the world had righted itself; it had balanced its place in the
universe, and the rain would come. It would.

The rain didn’t come. The clouds lingered in the sky, slowly, agonisingly moving with the wind, until
they were blown away. The next morning we heard on the radio that down south they were
experiencing a downpour. My mother had switched it off. We didn’t say anything.

The clouds came twice more in the next week, and both times they sprawled across the horizon,
peering down and taunting us before sliding smoothly away, leaving blue holes that grew into
agonisingly clear stretches of sky. Bryce stopped smiling and my mother stopped crying, but every
time, Mr Johnson would stand outside and crane his skin of his wrinkled neck upwards to the
heavens. Whether he was praying, or crying, or just pondering I couldn’t say. It was as if he was in
some sort of a trance; as if he understood the vast expanse of nothingness that lounged above him
more than anyone else in the town, and all he could do was stand and watch.

The day that the rain finally came was a Friday, and I remember that because it was three days
before my school dance. I had chosen a dress; a small, dark blue thing with long sleeves and a
plunging neckline. I’d talked Bryce into surprising me with a corsage, and pointed him in the
direction of the only florist in town. My mother had bought me a stick of new, creamy eyeliner, and
I’d tacked up photos of blonde curls spilling intentionally and beautifully out of neat buns on my
wall. I was excited, but not in an overpowering way: there was a constant burn of anticipation
heating up the bottom of my stomach, and I could call upon it whenever I pleased.

When the clouds rolled over, I didn’t even bother glancing up. They came slowly, one by one, so
slow not even Mr Johnson had noticed. I had been walking down the street, newly bought hair
curlers in hand, earphones blaring, fingers tapping my thigh, when I had felt a cold splash, a
pinpoint of water on the back of my neck. I had looked up, not daring to breathe, hope, even think,
and I had felt another drop.

The world had slowed around me, and the shift in the chronology of time had sent tingles down my
Another drop.
And another.
And another.

The world stopped. I stood there on that pavement, in the midst of that Friday afternoon, neck
stretched upwards towards the sky, and I knew that I was in the centre of a still universe. I couldn’t
move. All I could do was watch as drop, after drop, after drop fell upon the concrete, leaving spots
of dark grey, pattering softly onto my skin until my clothes grew heavy with moisture.
All at once, time returned in a rush of colour and sound, as quickly as it had left. It embedded itself
in the instants; in the creak of the doors of my neighbours houses, in the shuffle of them cautiously
stepping outside, stretching out their hands, disbelievingly smiling, and beginning to laugh, their
intakes of breath reverberating down the street. My mother was wearing a deep blue scarf as she
began to cry, and her tears had mingled with the rain. Bryce’s voice had cracked as he had called
my name, and I had realised that perhaps I did love him, deep down in the space between my
lungs, hotly and quietly. Plastic had clunked together as people hastily retrieved buckets,
containers, they placed them carefully on the sidewalk and giddily grinned at one another as they
begun to fill with water. Mr Johnson had smiled at me, his eyes warm.

The rain had run down the roads in rivers, and the concrete breathed it in like oxygen, gleaming a
dark gold in the streetlights. Somebody set up a speaker, and people danced to music, lyrics
pulsing through the rain, hands and hips twisting, hair hanging in strands on wet foreheads, faces
contorted into laugher with teeth that shone in the yellow light.

“The rain has come,”, I had written simply, sitting in my bedroom that night. “And that is all.”
At first we revelled in the constant downpour of water, we let it soak into our skin until it wrinkled,
furling in on itself like the petals of the flowers in Mr Johnson’s yard. The river filled until it flowed
freely once more, Bryce’s mother collected more than enough water to replenish her garden, and
the bleached tree darkened to a soft brown, but the rain didn’t stop, and its presence on my
window started to become intrusive, rather than comforting. It poured for two and half days before
people became worried.

If the river overflows, one person would say to another worriedly, it will flood.
It won’t overflow, the other will respond, don’t worry. It will stop raining soon.
But there will be an uncertain note in their voice. And the rain will not stop, it will continue, and the
tapping of the drops on our tin roof will drill into my head, ricocheting around my skull until I clasp
my hands over my ears and pray for the emptiness of silence.

The flood came on the Tuesday, and I had taken the day off school to prepare for the dance. It
came slowly: first the roads were enveloped in puddles, and cars hesitantly nudged their way
through them. When the water started to rise to the footpaths, my mother collected my brother from
school, and we sat in our living room, huddled together. My dress had wrinkled on the fabric of the
couch. I remember thinking that I would have to iron it before I went to the dance.

I didn’t spend that night at my school dance, though. The water kept rising, and the skies kept
crying and we were in the centre of the glistening whirl of it all. We climbed up to the roof, my
mother, brother and I, and watched as the water beneath us rose until it broke our living room
window, the dark liquid spilling in. My mother wasn’t crying. She gazed down at the water, and her
expression was blank.

I tried not to think about the journal in my room. I tried not to think about the pages becoming
waterlogged, breaking apart from the bindings, floating aimlessly through dark water, my words
sinking under the watery weight. I tried not to think about the photos that I had tacked up so
excitedly, and the softness of my bed sheets, and my poor old creaky fan that hung uselessly from
the ceiling. And most of all I tried not to think about Charlie, whom I had last seen running around
the backyard, and who did not sit up on that smooth roof with us.

I cried a little bit, and I think my brother did too, though he tried to hide it. Our neighbours called to
us that helicopters were coming. My mother’s expression was still empty. I reached my hand out,
and clasped her hand in mine, our wet skin moulding together. She blinked at me, once, twice, and
then curled her fingers around mine, reaching her other hand out to my brother. He held her hand,
and my other hand, and together we sat, soaked in the sky, just a few meters above everything we
knew and just a few below the horizon, blinking the rain out of our eyes.

Eventually, the helicopters came and we were rescued and dried off and given a temporary home.
We never found Charlie. Bryce and I broke up. Mr Johnson didn’t gaze up at the sky anymore.
I never wrote poetry again.

The years cycled on, and time effortlessly drifted away, but the dry heat of that summer still burns
deep in my chest.