The girls ran ahead of him. Jonas could hear them screaming with excitement as they struggled to keep up with their own legs. All the way down the steep, grey track towards the river, the air smelt of meat burning on the barbecues and the high, sharp note of eucalypts after a heat wave. His fingers were swelling.
‘It’ll rain,’ he told his wife, Kelly.
She didn’t reply, just shook her head and passed him the esky to carry so that she could juggle the rest of the picnic gear: baskets, their daughters’ backpacks, the bubblegum-pink iPad.
Inside the amphitheatre, the band was playing a rollicking, panicky song. Six or seven musicians, maybe eight. Men dressed as fading pirates, the singer with greasy, pub-lank hair. The basin was awash with dancing children, holding hands and spinning on the uneven stone, flinging themselves around with desperate abandon. On the edge of the boiling crowd one kid stood alone, doing that poker-backed Irish Riverdance crap, her hair scraped into a tight bun. There always had to be a show-off.
The Harveys were already there; blankets set up on one of the amphitheatre’s deep bluestone steps. Maureen Harvey was tying and retying a violently red pirate sash around their son Jack’s narrow waist. David Harvey stood with his hands on his hips, smiling while Jack hacked at the heavy air with a plastic blade, disembowelling invisible foes.
‘Mate,’ David bellowed at Jonas ‘glad you could come. Weird weather. How’s these fires? Gone! Just like that! You have any family up North?’
‘Glad to hear it, Joe, glad to hear it.’
‘Horrible,’ Maureen shook her head at them. ‘So horrible. Lucy, come say hello?’
The Harveys’ eldest daughter, Lucy, was making her way over to them. Her jeans were the high-waisted ones all the teenagers were pouring themselves into. A ripe pear bottom, blindingly white T-shirt emblazoned with rainbow-coloured kittens and the word BITCH. She had Maureen’s thick hair, large lips that peeled back from her teeth. Jonas had a sudden memory: David Harvey in the front bar of Percy’s in their university days, leaning against the window as Christmas shoppers streamed by in the heat and saying that it was cruel, seeing daughters stand next to mothers who had ‘let themselves go’.
Lucy put her arm around Maureen’s shoulder, nodded hello. His own daughters – Delilah, Tilly – twitched and shuddered at his side.
‘We’re going to go dance, okay?’ Tilly was tugging at her big sister’s arm.
‘Noooo,’ groaned Delilah, reluctant. She was staring greedily at Lucy. ‘Is Lucy going to dance?’
The teenager, a foreign country of breasts and studied aggression, reached nonchalantly into the esky and swiped a can of beer. Maureen sighed, batted at Lucy’s arm, but said nothing. Lucy cracked open the can, took a swig. Wiped her mouth with the hem of her T-shirt flashing a flabby, pierced belly button.
‘Go on, Delilah,’ said Kelly. ‘Have fun. Take Jack, too.’
The little kids went down the steps and onto the floor of the amphitheatre just as the song was ending. They stood awkwardly at the edge of the sea of children. Jack drifted away, leaving the girls alone. Tilly said something to her sister. Delilah laughed affectedly, looking back over the crowd rising above them to where her parents sat. Kelly waved.
The drummer lifted his sticks over the kit, a shaggy, heavy-set man with the beaten face of a serious drinker. Flags of spare skin floated under his upper arms. The sound exploded – the deep call of the bass drum. The band leaned in.
A flock of cockatoos rose from the eucalypts across the river.
Jonas’s daughters began to dance, faces glowing in the grey afternoon stillness. They kicked off their shoes, long toes splaying on the bare ground, moving into the crowd of children. They touched fingers.
Delilah ran tiny steps on the spot, rising and falling, then flung up her arms and brought them slowly back down over her throat. The fabric of her singlet pressed in against her bra-less chest, the buds of her twelve-year-old nipples nuzzling it curiously as if they were waiting to get out and see what was going on, what all the fuss was about. Mimicking her older sister, Tilly stretched her own arms up to the sky then down over her body in a long arc.
It was how they danced at home, too. How they danced around the kitchen table in great looping circles, listening to Disney soundtracks on repeat and warbling to the lyrics – I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid, tell me, Princess, now when did you last let your heart decide? On his deathbed, when everything else was lost and gone, Jonas would still be able to sing the Aladdin soundtrack. He hated the songs, but he realised now that they would make him remember his daughters as girls, crazy dancing in the kitchen. Because their dancing seemed different, down there, with the pound of the pirate band.
Jonas felt his stomach move.
He grabbed the roll of just-in-case toilet paper, took the bluestone steps up and out of the amphitheatre, pushed through the mingling families, past bikes and food vendors. Outside the amphitheatre’s basin the music was muffled, and the sounds of a normal Sunday came back to him.
As he crouched over the steel rim of the toilet he heard the tinny voices of talk-show hosts coming over the radio set up on the kebab stand. The footy report. There was some hassle over last night’s match.
‘He plays like a girl,’ raged the host, ‘get his mum to come pick him up after the match and give him a bandaid.’
‘Better watch it mate, you’ll have the ladies calling in,’ interrupted the guest, laughing.
‘Let ’em, and I can tell them the only reason he’s on the team is so the ladies have some eye candy.’
Back in the amphitheatre, Jonas stood at the top of the stone steps.
Something had changed in the five minutes he’d been gone. The whole crowd was watching his girls now; turning heads, rustling interest. Everyone. Maureen’s daughter was yelling into her iPhone, but she was looking at Delilah, rolling her eyes. Directly across from Jonas sat a man with his mouth half open, holding a bottle of beer but not drinking. A crumpled, paper-wrapped kebab next to him on the stone. The song closed with a boom. Back in the amphitheatre, Jonas stood at the top of the stone steps.
Jonas went back to their picnic blanket, sat next to Kelly and took a big swig of his light beer. Then he leant over to his wife and said, quietly, ‘Can’t you stop them?’
He made his mouth smile. Whispered, close to her ear, ‘Do something about the girls? Everyone’s looking.’
‘Jonas, what are you talking about?’ Kelly gave him her ‘you’re crazy’ face. ‘You okay, love?’ She laughed, batted him away. Returned to her conversation with Maureen. ‘Uni High? I’m thinking the same for Delilah. You know, if Jack and her both get in we can carpool. I’m exhausted with the constant driving, I feel like a taxi with tits…’
The singer raised his arms, hollering an announcement into his microphone. His sunglasses were opaque, reflecting back an inverted world. There was going to be a dance competition. The best dancer would get a prize, a very special prize: a free CD. The kids fizzed with excitement.
When the music started again Jonas saw his girls pull apart, sizing each other up. Then Delilah, the eldest, turned her back on her sister. Tilly looked blankly after her for a few beats and then she clasped her hands to her stomach savagely, swirling her hips so that the tulle of her skirt rose and billowed, sweeping her head, her eyes closed to catch at the strains of music, determined.
They were desperately beautiful, his girls. Rising on their toes, every now and then glancing at each other from behind the silky curtains of their hair. Tilly imitating her big sister, stealing, mimicking. Spinning through the frothing sea of oblivious children.
As the song rose towards climax the girls danced themselves into a trance. The afternoon was swallowed up in their poreless skin, the folds of their tulle, the secret spaces between their dusty toes.
And then the song ended.
The applause, when it came, sounded like rain.
His daughters were breathing hard, waiting in the expectant crowd. Delilah took another step away from her younger sister.
‘Well,’ the singer paced the escarpment between the children and the band. ‘Well, wow, shit, didn’t you all beat our normal crowd. I wish we had a hundred prizes.’
‘But there’s only one. So…’
Jonas knew it would be Delilah. She was wonderful down there – coy, waiting, pretending she didn’t know she’d won by a mile.
There was resignation in Tilly’s eyes as she watched her big sister. A touch of bitterness at the edge of her mouth.
The singer’s hand shot out, finger at Delilah. She was expanding with pride, delight flushing through her cheeks, feigning surprise. She looked up to where they were sitting, her hands on her face like the starlet of a reality TV show. Kelly gave Delilah the thumbs up.
‘You, with the cheesecloth shirt on!’
Delilah nodded in excitement.
‘That’s right, you, girl, you sure can move those hips! ’
Delilah’s smile was fixed. She nodded, eyes wide, mouth open.
‘You came second, because you’re not really a kid, are ya!?’
Her hands dropped, her smile slipped. She looked around her in confusion, then up at Jonah and Kelly. Kelly raised her hands into the air, shrugging ‘oh well’.
‘But the boy there with the, yes, you, that’s right, what’s that, the red sash, you came first! Love your punky attitude. Great ’tude. You come back after the show and we’ll give you a CD, ok? Alright, this one everyone will know. Let’s do it…’
It was Jack, the Harveys’ boy. Until that moment, he’d been invisible in the mess of dancers. Now a winner he pumped his fists in the air, rutting in wild excitement with his narrow hips. Maureen and David looked up from their carrot sticks, clapped with pleasure.
The music started again.
Delilah went limp with embarrassment. The singer was already shaking his head in time to the next song, a swinging, soaring tune, something vaguely familiar, the urgency of the bagpipes rushing beneath its surface. Out over the amphitheatre Jonas felt a spreading accord on the steps and the picnic blankets: a silent, guilty pleasure in Delilah’s expectation, her beauty, her humiliation. ‘They’re the same age,’ Jonas wanted to roar, ‘Delilah and that boy are in the same bloody class.’
The other children were dancing again, anarchy spreading, snapping toes and creaking trunks. But his daughters weren’t joining in. They just stood there. Delilah began smiling in what she seemed to think was a grown-up way, as if she was in on a joke, looking out over the heads of the dancers at the wholly unremarkable, wholly inoffensive Jack in his jeans and striped shirt. The winner, who was still making excited little victory punches with his closed fists.
‘That was mean,’ Kelly whispered in his ear. ‘Jonas, go get them.’
He took the steps down the amphitheatre fast, stumbling a little on the last one. Once on the stone floor the banks of people reared up to engulf him: the bending faces, the gum trees tipping in curiously to watch. The sound was different down in the basin, more physical. He edged around the heaving mass of children to where his daughters stood.
Delilah glanced over her shoulder and saw him.
‘Dad!’ Her face agonised. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Dancing, come on, dancing.’
‘No Dad! You can’t dance!’
‘Come on, come on.’
Jonas raised his hands, as if he was their conductor. He had a moment of fear, not knowing if they were still going to obey him, follow his lead when he brought his hands back down. But then he was moving, thrusting his feet around, shaking his hips, his arms coming down, and they were pulled into movement too.
Clementine. Oh my darling, Clementine. The singer’s voice was guttural and rough with years of smoke and sticky, stale carpet.
Jonas knew the whole band was watching. He could feel them. He wanted to force his way to the front, stare the bastard singer down. ‘That’s right,’ he wanted to yell. ‘That’s right, you fucker. They’re still only children.’ But he did not. He stayed where he was.
Tilly began to laugh, bumping into Delilah who was swaying self-consciously – newly self-mocking and self-aware.
‘You’re so embarrassing, Dad,’ said Delilah. Jonas wiggled harder, pouting at her, pirouetting madly. When she started to laugh as well, to move freely again, he felt a fire of pleasure. His beautiful, dancing daughters. A prickling feeling in his skin, a painful stretching near his heart.
Up on the steps, Kelly lifted the dull glass bottle of her light beer in an ironic salute. And then they were all there, in that moment, the audience leaning in, the wild dancing of his growing daughters, the darkening skies heavy with rain pressing down on them, the grey slope of the river, the white shards of the birds in flight.
Jonas tipped his head back to the clouds over the stone rim of the amphitheatre. ‘Not now,’ he prayed silently. ‘Don’t rain yet. Give me this moment. Wait for us.
Image credit: Amelia Rhea