No Dams by Kathy Sharpe, winner
Kathy Sharpe is a graduate of the University of Wollongong’s Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She writes about contemporary Australian life, and her stories are often set within the small, enclosed world of country towns. She has twice been awarded a Varuna residency and was shortlisted for one of Varuna’s Publishers Introduction Programs. She was selected for the Hachette QWC Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program (2009). She has worked in editorial roles in regional newspapers for 23 years. In 2011 she helped create and publish a collection of memories of the older residents of one humble street in North Nowra. Track By the River collectively narrates the story of a very poor, but strong community of battlers who lived along Illaroo Road on the Shoalhaven River. No dams is the winner of the 2017 Wollongong Writers’ Festival Short Story Prize.
Mary flings open her jacket to reveal the familiar yellow and black triangle.
“Look what I found,” she says. John and I stare at the letters on her T-shirt, stretched large and straining, not slapped flat as they used to be on her younger, skinnier chest.
“I hate you for still fitting into that,” I say.
“No dams,” says John, tasting the words.
Those words, encased in their pool rack triangle, on car windows, telegraph poles and pub toilets doors all over Sydney. Shouted through megaphones at city street rallies. A call to arms.
Mary takes her seat.
“Now, who do I have to sleep with to get a drink around here?”
The barman doesn’t raise an eyebrow when we order champagne, even though the Swan has just opened for the day.
“Good man,” says John. “He remembers the 1980s.”
The Swan is our old student haunt, but gone is the lingering whiff of rancid hops and the faint smell of gas. Gone too are the junkies like shadows around the pool table and the nasal drone of the television, calling the dogs, the punters sitting transfixed, their cigarette ash growing long and finally falling onto the table in front of them.
“Gentrified,” John says.
We don’t wait for Bruce. We clink our glasses together, we three. Mary, still beautiful, though I notice a tiredness around her theatre-dark eyes. John’s salt and pepper hair suits him, but his face remains tense. His eyes are small but they still manage to dominate his face. He is watchful and wary as ever, as though the world is out to trick him.
Mary puts her arm around me and draws me to her, rubbing her hand over my hair. Her perfume is smoky and spicy like the incense we used to burn in our student house. The smell of our youth is a decaying mix of incense, Champion Ruby and seagrass matting.
“Lou,” she says softly. “Where do the years go?”
We drink quickly to cover how much it still means, for us to be together.
Bruce arrives, flinging himself into a chair, puffing and panting in his grey tracksuit.
He picks up a serviette and wipes his damp face.
“Someone get me a drink, for God’s sake.”
“Did you run here?” John says. “Why didn’t you tell us, we would’ve sponsored you.”
Mary divides the last drops of champagne between our glasses with scientific precision.
“What’s with you?” Mary says. “Trying to keep up with that young girlfriend of yours?”
Once a year we meet, and each time I wonder at the electricity that still sparkles between us, like static, raising the hairs on our skin. One day a year, to let old attractions and hurts jostle for position as memories are shaken out, aired and exposed under the harsh light of being grown-ups.
“Good for you, Brucie,” says Mary. “You’re still hot, if you ask me.”
At a nearby table, a group of students are drinking coffee. One of the young girls laughs loudly, flicking back her stream of caramel coloured hair.
“Look at those twats,” says Mary.
“It was better in our day, when university was free,” John says. “You got real students, like us. Dirty, unwashed, the arse falling out of our jeans.”
“But with ideals,” says Bruce.
Mary bursts out laughing mid sip, and spits champagne across the table in a fine mist.
“Still haven’t learnt any table manners,” Bruce says.
“Here’s to ideals!” John says, raising his glass and clinking it against Mary’s. “No dams!”
“No dams!” we echo.
We drink, and like always, our time together starts to race, as we build the warm, boozy cocoon around us.
John comes back from the bar with two bottles of white wine and four glasses. He puts them on the table and as he leans over he squeezes me into a tight, cold hug.
“I wish it was still the 1980s,” I say.
“Lou, you always wanted to save the world,” Mary says.
“But you didn’t, did you Lou?” John says. “You left that up to Nigel.”
They are all laughing now. They always have to bring up Nigel.
I sound whiny as I try and defend myself. I sound twenty again.
“You all came to the protest marches, too. It wasn’t just me.”
“I only went to meet girls,” says Bruce. “Greenies got all the roots.”
“I only went for something to do,” says Mary. “Plus, I got to wear this!” She flashes her Tshirt again, tossing back her drink. Bruce is staring at her breasts and I can tell that Mary doesn’t mind.
We drink, and the morning slips away. The kitchen is closed by the time we decide we are hungry, so we have to be content with bar snacks. A waitress brings a share plate scattered with a dozen tiny morsels of vegetable and animal, drizzled with yellow olive oil and sprinkled with cracked pepper. A single lemon wedge perches apologetically to one side.
“That’ll keep us going,” says Mary, refilling glasses.
“Don’t worry, it only cost $40,” says John.
The waitress’s expression doesn’t change. She looks like a shop mannequin as she picks up the empties with her long, stick thin arms and glides off back to her position behind the bar.
“Have robots already taken over the world?” Bruce says.
“We used to look like that, Lou,” Mary says. “If we’d known we’d never be that thin again we would have worn better clothes, instead of all those rags from vinnies.”
“And all that black,” I say. “The whole city, full of young people dressed in black. As though we were in mourning.”
“We should have worn tight fitting dresses, and short skirts,” Mary goes on. “With low cut tops to show off our goods. We might have met richer men.”
John flinches and Bruce rolls his eyes.
Nigel liked thin girls. With small breasts, he said. My breasts were small, back then, and at the time I had taken this remark as a great compliment. But now, all these years later, it seemed creepy.
Mary picks at a tired piece of tempura cauliflower on the share plate.
“Look at this crap,” she says. “Seriously?”
As the sun slants in from the street, travelling across the floorboards, Mary and John are bad-mouthing people we used to know. It’s a game they play, passing cruelty back and forth between them, each time saying something slightly worse. Their words shoot back and forth, soft and light as arrows, glancing towards some invisible line that should never be crossed. Mary throws back her head and laughs and her glossy, black hair, her Princess hair, bounces around her shoulders. John smirks silently, watching her, enjoying her reaction, looking forward to what she will say next. He raises his glass and drinks, never taking his eyes from her face.
The bottles of wine are empty.
“My shout,” says Mary, heading off to the bar.
“Get something decent will you,” Bruce calls after him. “Not that camel’s piss again.”
John turns to me now.
“Remember when Nigel made you beg in the street for money for the trip to the Franklin?”
“It wasn’t begging,” I say.
Me. Standing in Martin Place, rattling a tin, trying to project my voice like Nigel had shown me.
“No dams,” I said. The words came out small and flat, lost in the rumbling of trains and the clatter of hurrying feet. No one even noticed me.
“No dams,” I said politely. With each person who walked past, I seemed to grow smaller and my voice softer, until I felt invisible.
A busker turned up and unfolded a filthy blanket, which he spread out on the ground against the wall. He sat down, cross legged and took out his guitar.
“No dams,” I called but then I couldn’t hear myself above his singing and the clinking of the coins that people were tossing into his battered guitar case. After a while, he scooped up his loot and stuffed it into his pocket. He packed up his guitar, then walked over to me. He began dancing around me, singing, “No dams, no dams, no dams, thank you mam!” People were laughing. The busker pushed a five cent coin into my tin, then walked away. I could smell his dirty clothes and his cigarette breath. But it didn’t matter how bad he smelled. He was the winner. He had won.
“Nigel,” John scoffs. “You would have walked on water for that fuckwit.”
We always do this. We let the alcohol unravel us and then we start to snipe. We dredge up humiliating memories from the past. In this way we can keep from showing, at least for now, how fiercely we still love each other.
“So Lou,” says Bruce, “Still waiting for Mr Right?”
“Leave her alone,” says Mary.
“And what about John?” says Bruce.
“We’re not all pedophiles like you,” John says. I gasp and we dissolve into laughter.
Mary tosses her hair. She says it’s going grey underneath the dye, but it doesn’t show.. I see how John and Bruce watch her, transfixed.
“Maybe we burned up all our sex appeal back then,” she says. “It was like we had to have sex with as many people as we could. We were living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.”
“That poster was everywhere.” says Bruce. “The mushroom cloud.”
“And that one with the poem,” I say. “When the last tree has fallen, when the last fish is poisoned….”
“And no dams!” says Mary, pulling back her jacket and thrusting her boobs out to make her point.
No dams. That triangle told of a far away world, in Tasmania. Students were packing up and heading south, in search of their better selves.
“Except I didn’t make it,” I say, then realise I have spoken out loud. But luckily, no one is listening to me. They talk, and laugh and tease and argue, while my mind goes back to the kitchen of the dark terrace house, that I’m sure is still standing, just outside the doors of the Swan, and around the corner. The morning I walked in and saw Nigel huddled over the table, looking at a map with a texta line drawn down to the bottom of Victoria, then a dotted line across the sea, then a solid line south to Tasmania.
“Morning,” I said. He looked up at me, annoyed. I pulled my quilted dressing gown around me, tying its belt, and suddenly felt hopelessly suburban. I lit the gas and put the kettle on the stove. I stood for a moment, watching the flame burn down the length of the bbq matchstick.
“We can only take 12, in the van,” Nigel said out of nowhere, just as I blew out the match, the smoke curling, white and pungent into a giant question mark in front of my face. Or maybe it wasn’t really a question mark, but that’s how I remember it.
“We had to prioritise,” he said, “according to personal commitment.”
I heard the scrape of him dragging his bike down the hall, the slam of the door. I stood there, my feet cold on the dirty lino, until the screeching of the kettle became unbearable.
The sun has lifted its fingers from the floor boards now and the pub is filling up with people. Mary is on her phone to her husband.
“Can you pick them up, hon?” she says. “And Holly’s got that dance thing later. I’ll get takeaway on my way home. Love you.”
“Listen to you,” says John. “The whole fucking package. The husband, the kids, the Range Rover.”
“Don’t pretend you’re any different, fuck-face,” Mary says, her voice loud and reckless. “None of us are fighting the good fight and rallying against the establishment anymore. We ARE the fucking establishment.”
Mary and I were sitting on her bed, watching TV when we heard. Bob Hawke came on, making his promise to stop the dam. The camera panned to the greenie camp, the people celebrating. I searched for Nigel in the blur of brown, dancing Dryza-Bones, bedraggled beards and wet hair, and suddenly the pain of not being part of the victory was worse than the pain of not being Nigel’s girlfriend anymore.
“Who’s got cigarettes?” says Mary. “Or are we all still pretending we don’t smoke.”
“Still pretending,” I say.
Bruce reaches into his jacket and pulls out cigarettes. He puts his hand on her elbow, to steady her, as they make their way out into the beer garden. Funny that the two who are coupled-up are the two who are flirting with each other. John and I are left in our pool of silence. He looks at me and I look at him. History passes between us. I raise my glass.
“Here’s to the unloved,” I say.
“Or the unloveable,” he says.
I see his small eyes are red with drink, and his face is clenched hard.
“But we used to…” I start.
“Don’t,” he says.
I stop talking. I reach across the table and hold his hand. It feels small and cold in mine.
Bruce and Mary are taking a long time. Their phones have been ringing and ringing on the table. When they finally come back, Mary picks up her phone, swaying as she tries to focus on the words in the message.
“Fuck,”she says. “It’s after six. I’ve got to go.”
“Share a cab?” says Bruce.
“Nuh.” She starts to gather up her things, swiping items off the table into her handbag; her phone, her purse, her sunglasses, Bruce’s cigarettes.
Bruce looks crestfallen and I know Mary has been kissing him, out there in the beer garden. Mary hasn’t changed, I think. She still wants everything. Everything and everyone.
“See you fuckers next year,” she says, and walks out. Bruce rises unsteadily from his seat. He hugs us both, awkward with John, their angles crashing together, the futile male patting of each other’s backs. He folds me into his soft, slightly sweaty chest. I don’t want to let go, but he pulls away.
Soon John and I will leave too, still holding hands as we walk down Abercrombie Street. We will walk slowly and silently under the streetlights. Gone are those kids who raced along Chalmers Street, Cleveland and Crown, devouring life, tripping and falling over and holding each other up.
We will go through the little iron gate of his terrace, and up the narrow stairs. We will lie on his bed with the balcony doors open. We will listen to the city roaring around us and the lost will come home and the unloved will be loved and we will remember how it was, back when we thought we could save the world.