The river water is a jolly poo brown. The bridge, which I would usually cross to get to school, is entirely obscured. The clubhouse by the soccer fields is visible only by a single layer of breeze blocks and the tin roof. The waters lap midway up the walls and windows of a dozen houses that stand opposite the soccer fields and the gardens where cabbages grow. The water carries a melange of scum: sticks, leaves, litter, and a vast hodgepodge of buoyant possessions now separated from their owners. There’s a watering can; many thongs; denuded tennis balls; a few battered witches hats; a plastic Colt. 45; pieces of plasticised cardboard that might once have been photographs; some crap held up by bicycle inner tubes. The river has claimed it all but doesn’t care to keep any of it. The scum will be left behind when the big water heads downstream, a stinky levee of detritus. The big water is noisy, rushing to appear and rushing to depart, it’s a narrow valley: a precise funnel out to the flat lands further west.
Still, school’s out and the excitement I feel is alibied by the dozens of cars parked by the road. A few semis have parked and their drivers and dogs are consulting NRMA maps to consider alternate routes. Boot-shod blokes and sturdy women with squinting eyes and a jumble of their kids all stand around listlessly to assess the scale of it. “Not as big as ’72 or 68” they say, or “the river reached the pub in 1876, you seen that picture?” Someone on the other side has brought down his tinnie and outboard to ferry animals to dry land, startled looking donkeys and, mysteriously, a lama shuffle nervously on so small a craft. The boatman takes it all in stride, DK Lillee moustache and all he doesn’t even work at ignoring the lurching beasts. Old fellas take off their terry towelling hats and stare. It won’t last, they say, couple days at most and all the water will be gone. And having made their judgements people start heading back uphill to the bowlo where the CWA ladies are making tea in an urn big as rainwater tank and the cops are frying up bacon & eggs for those stuck on our side of the bridge.
Next day the water is all gone. Just gone, the river is back as the piddling stream I had always taken it to be. The mess is still there and as the day warms up the smell of drowned sheep is enough to make me gag. Both the trucks and the cabbages are long gone. The soccer fields are a sponge of dead grass and bent metal goalposts. The houses look as if someone has painted a brown stripe two thirds of the way up their walls. They are ruined houses for the time being. As the day goes on a fascicle of fireys and police and RSL figures and SES types have gathered to pull out the carpets from the affected houses. Later the fireys hose out the blancmange of ruined things as necessary with all the other blokes manning brooms to push the water out. The heat is the dryer of necessity and it doesn’t take too long for things to look roughly like they did before.
I hover all day long, too small to be useful and eventually judged not trouble enough to be sent to attend the women who come down the hill with sandwiches and long necks. I like the food. Mrs Mac our neighbour brings her shortbread and orangeade. She snaps the top off a bottle and sits with the blokes. She’s eighty odd if she’s a day. She wears a flowery house dress and a pinnie decorated by vines. The consensus, as I munch a biscuit, is that we got off easy. Mrs Mac listens and downs her beer. When she’s done she stands and fixes the sergeant from Cowra with her aged gaze: “There’s more devils than God made,” she says and waddles away in her wellington boots.