There are people in the water tonight.
We heard it on the radio and now Jean won’t stop talking about it.
Mum says we should get on with making dinner – chop carrots and fry butter a little faster, be glad we’re us and not them – but Jean says the opposite is true. She looks up reports online; one hundred and twelve people, mostly men, some children.
Jean likes to blanket herself in details as an insurance against worst-case scenarios. Less than half of the people would have life jackets, she says.
Mum opens a can of tomatoes. How silly would you be, to get on a boat like that without a life jacket, she says.
But Jean says, It’s not really like that.
Rolf’s coming around later. Mum calls him my big Estonian boyfriend or she just calls him Ralph.
Rolf says the way we all talk about people coming here by boat says a lot about the national psyche. He’s just finished a degree in history, so he likes to take a broader perspective. Mum can’t stand it; she usually says something like, Can’t we just eat without you indoctrinating my daughters? And she shakes her head. Jesus, Ralph.
He won’t be here before nine, at the earliest, and Mum will be in bed. She’s in bed early these days, then she’s up again at six to drop Jean at swimming, then straight to work because she has to start on the phones first thing.
It’s 9.45pm when he comes up the drive. I see the light on the front of his bike through our curtains, then I hear him get off, and I wait on the sofa until I hear his knock on the door.
He’s got ice-cream and Twisties and his hair’s all pushed up from his helmet so he looks crazy.
Have you had dinner? I say.
He has, but I heat up leftover casserole and put some bread in the toaster. While the microwave hums we have two minutes to kiss and when it dings we pull back and I scratch my fingers across his stubble.
This can’t be aerodynamic.
Good point, he says. So maybe it wasn’t my thoughts weighing me down all day.
What thoughts? I say, but I’m thinking, Maybe it’s me. Maybe I am weighing him down.
You heard it, on the news, he says.
The people in the water.
Yeah. A hundred and something, I say.
I won’t remember the numbers, one hundred and fifty, or ninety, or three hundred and fifty-three, because they’re coming every day now, asylum seekers in boats. Day after day, in sinking boats, and the navy is always fishing them out.
Rolf spreads more butter on his toast than probably anyone ever has.
I just keep thinking about them, he says.
He’s like Jean. If she were out of high school he’d be dating my sister instead of me.
We all do, I say, and it’s true. But I also agree with Mum: we’re so sick of hearing about people in boats, and their insatiable hopes on our horizon.
I don’t tell Rolf. We take the casserole and Twisties to the living room and settle into the sofa with my blanket over us.
You warm enough, I say.
He is, but I don’t know how. I touch the shiny lycra of his bike shorts, the mound of thigh underneath. We kiss again. Rolf didn’t always dress like this. He used to come around in normal clothes, jeans, but since the Tour de France began he’s been riding every afternoon and that somehow led to padded lycra shorts. It’s for comfort, he says. I think he looks ridiculous, but I don’t have the heart to make fun of him. Mum hasn’t seen the shorts and I don’t want her to. She’ll tease him, which will make him self-conscious and then he might stop riding. And the riding is good, despite the shorts.
They can’t get SBS in Rolf’s sharehouse so he comes around at night now and we watch the Tour together until I fall asleep. Cycling is not something I’ve ever been interested in, but it’s growing on me this year – this alternate reality of grown men riding bikes up mountains on the other side of the world. I’m not so concerned about who wins; I’m still figuring out how the winning works. It’s the forward motion of it all I like. The reliability. I’m usually asleep before anything interesting happens, but when we turn it on next night they’re still there, the men on bikes, on a long slog up some new mountain, or the same one – I can’t tell.
Rolf stays up until the end, that’s the other reliable thing – when I stir and he’s there. He covers the blanket over my shoulders, kisses my forehead and I fall back to sleep.
Rolf starts work at half-past six now, so once he’s gone I climb into bed and doze a couple more hours until Mum and Jean leave too. Sometimes I lie in and think of Rolf on his afternoon ride, powering through hills, the rhythm of his breath filling his ears and thoughts.
He’s tired tonight. The casserole probably doesn’t help, and after a feed and half a packet of Twisties he’s quiet. I pat his hair and say, Are you okay?
Yeah, just worn out. I rode 40ks.
Really? That’s so far. Was work all right?
I guess. About the same.
It’s not for much longer, you know.
Yes, it is. It’s six months. Or more. Or forever.
But that’s up to you, if you want to stay.
Only to a point, he says.
No one’s forcing Rolf to work for his father, it was his idea. I guess the thought of it – early mornings, a real pay cheque – seemed romantic, in a way. Now if I stay at his place, I wake to him dreading the day ahead, pulling on his work boots as if they weigh a tonne, and I get the feeling that everything ahead of us is going to be this way, this weight. Sometimes I leave while he’s still in the shower and don’t say goodbye. I feel guilty but relieved so then I walk to the library where I plan to work on an electromagnetics assignment or something, before anyone else is in, except the study rooms are already busy. These days they’re always full with students who have been up since who knows how long before me.
On TV, a French guy is showing how to cook rabbit stew. Rolf flicks over to check the news, but the search is shut down overnight. They’re saying the ocean is twenty-nine degrees so it’s possible to survive thirty-six hours, if you have a life jacket or something to hold on to. I picture the dark water, a stranger’s legs dangling above like the silhouette from Jaws.
Is the race on yet, I say.
I see a stranger suspended in darkness.
It’s still the cooking bit, Rolf says.
I want to keep talking so I say, Have you thought any more about going into Honours this semester? even though I know this is not a good thing to bring up.
I’ve thought about it, but I can’t see it happening, he says.
But you could, if you wanted.
Yeah, but that’s not the problem, you know that.
I know, I’m just saying. You’ve got the option. And whatever you choose, it’s not like you can get it wrong.
Well it feels like both options are wrong.
Does it? Do you really feel that?
Rolf looks over and kisses my forehead in a long, slow way. On TV a helicopter is gliding over a castle while the cyclists slide over distant mountains in their colours, people in T-shirts lining the road.
I don’t know, he says. It’s not the end of the world, anyway.
I know the exact feeling Rolf has when he’s riding. I used to swim, back in high school, and I remember how the effort would focus my whole self into a rhythm. Rolf used to feel like that about work too. Not that it was ever completely absorbing, but it gave him a physical satisfaction. It was real.
Rolf’s dad is so proud that his son has a university degree. It’s the first in the family, but there’s a certain work ethic they both have, a connection to the outdoors and the masculinity of physical labour. It’s as though the idea of working in a university or being some sort of historian is exactly half-satisfying to Rolf, so there’s always a looming disquiet – he’s not sure he’ll ever balance his need to be intellectually engaged with a bodily connection, the feeling of having done his day’s work the way his father always did.
I don’t know if there’s any way around it. I think it might be the kind of compromise everyone makes but you always think you won’t have to until it happens. That’s why Rolf rides. He finishes early, stops home for a nap then heads out on his bike for an hour or two, sometimes more. It’s getting longer each day.
The year of the Athens Olympics I watched the swimming with Mum and Jean. I remember Ian Thorpe winning a lot of medals, I don’t know how many, but his races would start and we’d scream at the TV. We’d be running on the spot, pumping our arms, as if our muscles were linked to his and our goodwill and racing hearts would bring him home.
In the pool that week every kid swam like an arrow. I never expected to be a champion, but I felt slick and powerful in the water. I was moving beyond my potential, my arms slicing all resistance away. That’s how Rolf is when he’s riding in the hills, the muscle memory of two hundred Tour de France riders driving him on. He is empty of thoughts – a direction.
On TV, a breakaway group of cyclists starts up the incline. The camera glides back to the main pack, the peloton is what they call it, where riders stay to conserve energy. It benefits the riders to work together to cut down on air resistance, but eventually someone’s got to go against the group. In your typical race it’s just everyone for themselves all the way, but not cycling: there’s something both altruistic and animalistic about cycling – all those riders working together, knowing someone must break out at the right moment, always preparing to sabotage the group to further the success of their own.
I turn to tell Rolf about this, but he’s asleep. I kiss his cheek and he doesn’t wake, so I leave him. He needs more rest, it’s good. I try to go back to my thoughts, but without him the race lacks structure, so I switch to the news and they’re replaying an interview about the discovery of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle that physicists have been searching for. A line of text crawls across the screen: Search for 112 asylum seekers to resume at first light.
I try to think of what they are feeling, but they remain ghosts to me, ragged breaths in the dark.
In my experience, you always feel cold after a while in the water, regardless of how warm it seems when you get in. By now they would be shivering. Probably wanting to take moments of sleep, but I doubt you could. It’s not worth the risk, no matter how exhausted you become. I wonder if there’s a point where you get so worn out that tiredness overrides the fear.
I picture a stranger again, legs dangling in the water. If she falls asleep she will release the wood or whatever she’s holding on to; it will slip from her hands and she’ll sink beneath the surface. Her arms and legs will no longer have the strength to resist.
I’m tired but I keep my eyes open, like it’s something I can do. On the TV, cyclists pump their legs, muscles burning although they don’t let it show. They can’t dwell on that, they must remain as determined as the electric currents that guide their hearts and lungs. I don’t even blink. I see Rolf’s thighs twitch like they’re trying to get out from under the lycra. It’s the exertion of riding and working all day. In his dream he’s riding up some imaginary hill, fighting to be king of the mountain. To arrive. The cyclists’ legs are on fire. Maybe it’s the fear, uncertainty, the salt water drying on their skin. Their hearts race with effort, with the strain of holding on. Darkness disconnects them from their limbs. Their feet slip against pedals, they can’t hold on. Can they see it? The light of a boat in the distance? It could be there but it could also be something they imagine.
Their mouths begin to fill with water, but they hold on.
The door pulls shut and I wake.
Rolf’s outside. I don’t hear him right away, but I know, and I wait for the sound of his tyres crunching the stones by our driveway. His bell is loose so it rings itself as the bike swings under his feet and he heads off along the street. I am the only one who knows what it’s like – these sounds of being left behind by Rolf. I think how I might tell him about it later, but I realise I’m wrong: Jean’s awake, too.
I can sense her at the edge of things, a threat and a comfort. How often is she awake and listening too?
I pull the blanket to my shoulders. I should move to my bed before she’s up but I’m too tired, I close my eyes and right away I am in a dream where Rolf is back on the couch watching TV, but not with me. It’s only as I wake I realise: I am not even in my own dream.
Shove over, I hear Jean say, and she squeezes onto the couch with her laptop before I can be awake enough to move my legs.
Ouch, look out.
Only thirty-two survivors, so far, she says.
She tells me she has spent a lot of time wondering what their rescue is like. She describes it to me and I let her.
They are huddled on the deck of a boat, she says, tired shapes wrapped in blankets and oversized jackets, but I can’t picture their faces. I can’t ever picture their faces, she says. I can’t see what’s in their eyes.
I don’t know what to tell her, I don’t really know what she means.
Do you remember that movie, she says, we saw it when we were kids? That one where the girl went out in her boat with her pet cockatoo and then she was lost on the ocean?
I know it. I try to remember what it was called.
I can still see the way she went, Jean says. I can still see the dotted line, her route on the map, after all this time.
I try to picture it, but this is different. With so many hundreds of people, it’s too abstract and when you try to account for them all you end up with thousands of crisscrossing lines; they fill in the oceans until they’re just black patches on its surface, like the shadows of huge clouds.
Image credit: Charlotte Astrid