Can you believe it… A year after deadly and devastating floods Queensland is in to day three of a predicted week of continual rain. Here is one story from the Arts Alliance anthology Can you believe it…
THINNER THAN WATER
IT had been relentless. Throughout the night constant rain and wind had battered their caravan.
It was now 8am and the Kerren brothers braved the conditions preparing to depart the tourist park as quickly as possible. While Glen and Craig attended to the outside tasks, Craig’s wife Georgie was busily securing the internal items.
As she worked, the extroverted 30-year-old brunette could feel her anger and frustration increasing. She thought of all the wonderful caravanning holidays she and Craig spent with Glen and his wife Jane: wild happy times. The four were so good together. But things were different now; Jane died more than 12 months ago.
It had come as a surprise when Glen invited them to join him and new partner Emma for a three-week trip through the Southern Queensland/ Northern New South Wales coastal hinterland. Despite their initial reservations, they agreed.
It was only day two and Georgie realised the obnoxious acid-tongued Emma was the total opposite to her dear friend Jane. For Glen’s sake she’d kept the peace, but it was against her nature to hold off indefinitely.
‘I’d appreciate a bit of help, if you don’t mind.’
‘I’m doing my nails,’ was Emma’s curt reply. ‘What’s the big hurry anyway?’
‘Oh don’t bother, forget it.’
The door opened and Glen leaned in. He’d been wearing plastic wet-weather gear but still appeared to have received a substantial drenching. ‘If you’re all finished, let’s make a move,’ he said.
Each carrying an umbrella, the two women emerged into the bleak morning and hurried to the 4X4 Land Cruiser.
‘I’ll drive,’ stated Emma, taking the others by surprise.
‘Oh no, sweetheart, not in these conditions,’ replied Glen.
‘I’m driving!’ repeated Emma, more forcefully.
‘Ah well, okay, but please be careful,’ conceded Glen, so submissively it caused Georgie’s fury to return.
Hurrying from reception, Craig was also dismayed to find Emma behind the wheel. He and his wife exchanged savage glares conveying their mutual disapproval.
With a series of violent jerks, Emma turned on to the main road without acknowledging a courteous driver who had stopped to give way to her. Sitting in the back Georgie and Craig were seething as their self-appointed chauffeur ploughed onward through the downpour. The radio forecasts warned of continuing severe weather and the likelihood of major flooding. The uneasy backseat travellers observed the alarming build-up of water in areas adjacent to the roadway.
Approaching a road junction, Emma shocked her passengers by slowing and turning on to a rain-sodden minor track.
For Georgie this was the final straw. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ she demanded.
It was Glen who answered. ‘Just a slight detour; Emma wants to pay her uncle a quick visit to show me where she grew up. It’s a little place called Rosemont; we can re-join the main road further on.’
Georgie was irate. ‘Look Glen, I’m sorry if this offends you, but I’ve had a gutful of Emma and the way you pamper and indulge her every whim. Haven’t you been listening to the warnings? We’re facing a serious weather event. This is no time to be towing a 22-foot van around these goat tracks and visiting obscure relatives, just to please this stupid bitch.’
‘Careful who you’re calling a stupid bitch,’ yelled Emma, before Glen could respond.
‘Look mate, Georgie is right,’ agreed Craig. ‘Let’s turn back to the main drag, head for the coast, then home. This just ain’t working and now with the bloody rain the whole thing’s turning to shit.’
Glen was in a bind. His normal non-confrontational attitude was being tested. A decision was required. ‘How much further Em?’
‘Only about five kilometres. We’re not turning back now.’
‘Please just bear with her till then. I…’ Glen didn’t finish the sentence as Emma slammed the 4WD to a shuddering halt. For 20 metres the road ahead was covered by muddy water, making its depth and flow velocity impossible to determine.
‘Well that’s definitely it,’ declared Craig, but Emma was quick to engage the four-wheel-drive and proceed.
‘Stop! Are you completely crazy? You’ll get us all killed,’ yelled the horrified Georgie.
She was ignored as the vehicle inched onward. On several occasions there was a frightening sidewards movement, compounded by Emma’s overcorrection.
‘It’s getting deeper by the minute,’ exclaimed Craig. ‘For Christ’s sake what the hell are we doing here?’
Eventually, to the relief of the passengers, the Cruiser gained traction and climbed from the dangerous torrent. Pausing briefly, they observed the rapid increase of the water height behind them. To turn back was no longer an option.
‘Nearly there,’ announced Emma. ‘Around the bend, over the river, up the hill and that’s it.’
But the sight confronting them as they turned the corner was horrendous; the river crossing and at least 50 metres either side were engulfed by a raging powerful torrent. Unperturbed, Emma again switched to four-wheel drive and proceeded.
‘No way, not this time. It’s suicide,’ screamed Georgie.
Even Glen had succumbed to the sheer lunacy of continuing. ‘Yair come on Em; stop and let me get us out of here.’
‘Well it didn’t take long did it?’ Emma screeched at him. ‘They’ve gotten to you and you’re too weak to speak up. Glen Kerren, everybody’s friend, ‘Mr Nice Guy’. You make me sick. It was a different story when you wanted to share my bed.’ Her comments were delivered with such vitriol her passengers were stunned.
Craig was first to respond. ‘You’re psycho. Stop the bloody car right now or I’ll wring your bloody neck.’
Glen tried to be the peacemaker. ‘Please everyone, take it easy. This won’t help.’
An alarming increase in water depth and the violent buffeting, exasperated by Emma’s diminishing control, forced the travellers to focus on the moment. Reaching the midway point of the new-born lake the Cruiser and caravan were thrust sideways, slamming heavily into the wooden railing of the bridge.
‘Whatever you do, Em, keep going. We can’t stop now,’ exclaimed Glen, trying to quell the anxiety. Supported by the side railing they were making progress, when suddenly a section collapsed causing the van to skew sideways and become grounded. Now at the mercy of the torrent’s full force, they were going nowhere.
‘Our only option is to release the van,’ declared a frantic Glen.
‘What! That’s a $75,000 custom built caravan. Jesus mate what are you saying?’ replied his stunned brother Craig.
Glen was already half way out the door. ‘The alternative is we lose the lot, including us.’ Craig reluctantly joined his brother.
With the angle of the van, the surging water and driving rain, the task confronting the brothers was challenging. The ever increasing flow made speed imperative. Using the remaining railing as support, Glen unlocked and desperately pounded the towbar attempting to separate the van from the Cruiser. The release came swift and unexpectedly, resulting in solid contact between the steel frame and Glen’s forehead. Both he and the caravan tumbled into the raging floodwaters and were swept away at phenomenal speed.
For Craig it was a surreal moment. The brother he loved and admired was gone.
‘No not like this. It’s so stupid,’ he bellowed, barely noticing Georgie joining him and placing a supporting arm around his back. The water force pressing them against the bridge railing and the ferocious turbulence confirmed any rescue attempt would be futile.
Craig’s concern was now for his wife’s wellbeing. ‘Quick, get back in car, babe. It’s too dangerous out here.’
In the noisy chaos they had not heard Emma continue to drive ahead. They stared in disbelief as the Cruiser emerged from the floodwaters and paused briefly before speeding away to disappear in the distance.
‘Can you believe it? What the hell do we do now?’ sobbed Georgie. ‘She’s a complete nut case. My mobile, my credit cards, money and handbag are in that damn Cruiser.’
‘Well all my stuff is in the bloody caravan. If we stay against this rail we’ll make it out of here. Come on, babe, keep going. We can do it.’
Being an A-grade hockey player Georgie was serious regarding fitness and health, but she found making progress in these conditions an extremely energy-sapping experience. With Craig behind and using the guard rail as support, she edged forward. The increasing rocking motion of the railing, their lifeline, only served to escalate her anxiety and reinforce the urgency to keep moving. She ignored the buffeting of floating debris until a large brown snake drifted by, causing her to shriek loudly.
‘Hey, it’s okay. Snakes can’t strike when they’re in water,’ reassured Craig.
‘Who told you that? Sounds like bullshit and I sure as hell don’t want to test your theory.’
The laborious struggle continued until Georgie felt an upward slope beneath her feet.
The water was becoming shallower until finally the saturated pair staggered onto roadway and collapsed, exhausted.
Recovering and reflecting on the ordeal, emotions overflowed and they held each other in a tight embrace. Craig was first to speak. ‘We must be within a kilometre of this Rosemont place. Are you okay to continue?’
‘Absolutely. I can’t wait to see Emma again!’
A weather- beaten sign announced they had arrived and were welcomed to Rosemont. The road began a gradual climb and on each side were a scattering of modest old-style houses. In the teeming rain and premature darkness these appeared silent and uninhabited. Around some of the lower-lying dwellings, make-shift levees and sand bags were prominent.
Craig noticed a laneway to his right leading to a stately homestead. On an archway at the lane’s entrance Riley Bros was embossed in gold lettering.
A voice from behind interrupted his thoughts. ‘G’day there. I’m Russ Wilson and this is the wife, Marg.’
Turning, Georgie and Craig saw a middle-aged couple dressed in heavy rain coats.
‘Oh you poor things. You look like drowned rats,’ stated Marg with gentle sincerity. ‘Come with us, we’ll look after you.’
They were led further up the street to a well-lit community centre building. Electricity was obviously down and the building was being supplied by a large generator. To the weary travellers it looked homely and inviting. Once inside the make-shift evacuation centre, Georgie and Craig found the hospitality, afforded by their hosts and other Rosemont residents, reached an almost embarrassing level. They were shown to the shower room, given dry clothing and then served a traditional county meal.
‘Thank you so much. This place is like heaven,’ exclaimed a grateful Georgie.
‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ offered Craig, feeling guilty with all the attention.
‘Nah, fine at the moment,’ replied Russ.
‘Oh, by the way, what’s the story with the big old homestead on the edge of town?’
‘Belongs to old Don Riley, the richest and most miserable man in the whole district.’ The smallish, roughly shaven grazier let out a laugh. ‘He owns all the land to the west, almost as far as the eye can see. Been in his family for generations. Originally he and his brother ran the farm but Merv died a couple of years ago, so old Don owns the lot now. The tight old bastard would be worth a fortune.’
Marg chided her husband. ‘Come on Russ, that’s no way to speak about the poor fellow; you know he’s on his last legs, totally bedridden and frail. I delivered meals-on-wheels to him yesterday and he looked shocking.’
‘Still doesn’t change what he is,’ snapped Russ.
Craig was concerned. ‘When we were passing I swear I saw dim lights in the windows.’
‘Probably candles. I tried to get him to join us here, but he wouldn’t have a bar of it.
Says his place is just as safe as our Community Centre. Got this old bloke looking after him at the moment and he said something about his niece coming to visit.’
Craig and Georgie exchanged glances. Georgie spoke. ‘Niece? Did he mention her name?’
‘Yair, now let me think…ah Emma…that’s it Emma.’
‘What? That’s the girl we’re looking for,’ exclaimed Craig. ‘Come on, babe, let’s go.’
Russ advised caution. ‘Wait, wear this wet-weather gear and grab a couple of torches.’
‘Thanks Russ. We’ll be back.’
SHE paused briefly at the homestead door, before pressing the intercom button. A weak voice answered.
‘Hello is that you, Uncle Don? It’s Emma. You know, little Em, your niece. I got your letter and came as soon as I could.
‘Please come in, Emma,’ was the gasping reply. There was a clunk as the door lock was released. Having grown up here, Emma was familiar with the house and was soon standing beside her uncle’s bed, gazing at the pale feeble form before her. Sitting in a chair opposite was another elderly man. Dressed immaculately in suit and tie the man introduced himself as Charles Overton, Mr Riley’s accountant and long-time friend.
Emma noticed he was holding a large envelope. Her attention returned to her uncle. ‘Are you okay, Uncle Don? You look awf…I mean I didn’t realise…ah don’t worry I’ll look after you now,’ she stuttered, trying to portray genuine concern.
‘Little Em, soon to be the last surviving Riley,’ sighed the old man. ‘Remember the little talk we had when your father died?’
‘Yes of course, Uncle Don.’
‘I gave you a copy of my will. This property, this homestead and my personal fortune all go to you after my death.’
‘Don’t talk about it now uncle. You’re not well.’
The old man continued. ‘That envelope Charles is holding contains my new will. I wanted to tell you face to face about the changes I’ve made.’ Emma’s expression was now bewildered rather than sympathetic. ‘You see, Emma, I have been monitoring your life closely and have been concerned for a long time. Your manipulating deceitful ways, your insincerity, your frequent and inappropriate relationships and, of course, lifestyle choices and substance abuse.’ He paused.
‘What exactly are you trying to say,’ demanded Emma.
‘I have decided you are unworthy to be the caretaker of our family’s heritage.’
‘You stupid old fool, I’m not going to let you ruin my future,’ yelled Emma.
‘I have left everything in a trust to be managed by Charles. The long term plan is to establish a rural retreat here for the benefit of underprivileged children.’
Emma suppressed her rage and turned to Overton. ‘Can I talk to you alone please?’
Don Riley decided it was a waste of time continuing. ‘Go ahead. But you’ll find Charles fully agrees with me.’ Emma was livid as she followed the aging accountant on to the back veranda where a spade lay in the corner.
‘There is nothing you can say to make me change my…’ was all Overton could finish before Emma struck a powerful blow with the spade. The impact to the back of his head was delivered with such force, he died instantly. Dragging the body down the stairs and across a mushy back yard, Emma removed the envelope before pushing her victim down a slope, watching him plunge into the ever-rising water below.
Em was sympathetic. What a tragedy. Accountant dies after striking his head and falling into floodwaters. She turned her attention to another matter. Now it’s your turn, my dear uncle. She smiled to herself and returned to the house.
‘Is that you Charles?’ called Don Riley. He stared in horror to see his niece enter the room alone. She was soaked and in her hand she held the sodden envelope.
‘Correct me if I’m wrong, Uncle Don, but if this will did not exist and you were to um sadly ah pass away; wouldn’t the original stand?’
‘No…No…help, Charles please,’ pleaded the old man.
Emma grabbed a pillow and forced it over her uncle’s face. ‘He’s not coming I’m afraid.’
TO Georgie and Craig, the Riley homestead lane was gloomy and uninviting. Rounding a corner they were relieved to see a vehicle. Although locked it was definitely what they had hoped to find, the Land Cruiser. The flashlight beam revealed Georgie’s belongings on the back floor, apparently untouched.
They climbed the front steps. Craig tried a door and was surprised to find it unlocked. He entered. ‘Hello, hello Mr Riley; Emma, are you here.’
Emma’s heart pounded as she recognised Craig’s voice. She removed the pillow satisfied the old man was not breathing.
How did they get out of that flood?How the hell did they find me? I can’t front them now. They won’t believe a thing I say. Let them find the body. When others come, I’ll have a better chance with the traumatised-niece routine. Where to hide? Yes, of course, the cellar…perfect.
Voices and footsteps were closer as Emma dashed into a back room. Lifting a heavy trapdoor, she stepped down an internal wooden ladder. She pulled the door closed and waited.
‘Over here. Must be Mr Riley,’ yelled Craig, first into the room. ‘I think he’s dead.’ Georgie let out a startled yelp as the old man opened his eyes. He sighed sadly. ‘I was just faking. Little Em…she tried to kill me. Please help me,’ he wept.
‘It’s alright. You’re safe now. We won’t let her near you,’ reassured Georgie, who was affected by the old man’s alarm.
Inside the cellar was eerily dark and silent. As Emma took a step lower on the ladder, she shrieked in horror. Her foot contacted water; deadly, rapidly rising water. Frantically she reached up and grabbed the trapdoor lock handle. She tried to twist open the rusty mechanism but it snapped and came away in her hand. She screamed, but remembered from her childhood experiences, the old cellar was virtually soundproof.
As the water level reached chest height Emma thumped, pounded, punched, scratched…
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