A story written for the Lodestar Contest
Word count 2113
Australia. Friday 11th July 2001
Although not yet six am, the bedroom is becoming uncomfortably warm, the sun streaming in through the open window. My sheets lie tangled at the bottom of the bed where I’d fought with them during the hot, sticky night.
I almost trip over Sean, forgetting for a moment he’s sleeping on my bedroom floor. I give his mattress a kick on my way to the bathroom.
“Piss off, Ben,” a voice mumbles from under the pillow.
“What’s up, mate?” I ask.
There’s no movement.
“Come on, Sean. Wake up. What’s going on?”
My best friend pulls the pillow off his face, squinting at the brightness of the room. He screws his face up; probably remembering last night.
“Nothin’ much. Had another massive fight with the folks.”
“Well, mine weren't too happy either, after being woken up at midnight when you banged on the door.”
He doesn’t react.
“The third time this week? What the hell’s going on at home?”
“What time is it? Sean asks, totally ignoring my questions. “It’s bloody hot in here.”“
Ten past six. We could go down to the pool later.” It might chill him out a bit, in more ways than one.
“I’m so bloody hot, I need a swim now. Let’s go down to the river.” Sean’s suddenly energised and extricates his long frame from the sleeping bag, making a grab for his clothes on the floor.
“Fine, then, but let’s clear off before the folks get up.” I take a moment before saying, “Y’know Sean, they aren’t keen on us spending so much time together since you got suspended for fighting. My dad said you can’t stay here again.”
That’s okay, Ben. I shan’t be needing their hospitality again.” He sounds pissed off.
I get some towels from the bathroom and we leave the house. I make sure we're quiet when we go; wheeling our bikes out onto the road.
Neither of us speak during the ride. I can see the troubled expression on Sean’s face, but I say nothing.The sun’s beating down; it’s only a couple of miles to the river, but the sweat, running down my face, gets into my eyes.
”We should have had breakfast, I’m starving,” I call out to his retreating back.
My stomach's rumbling and I’m thinking this is a bad idea. Sean just grunts and pedals faster, getting way ahead of me. He shouts out something I can't decipher. He’s either angry, or just determined to show off. Whatever it is, his mood is making me unsettled.
“Hey, wait for me.” I attempt to catch up.
We race toward the river. I hear it before I can see it. Torrents of water tumbling down the steep terrain, over rocks hidden after the unseasonable downpours of the last week.
We drop our bikes, flopping onto the grass to get our breath back. The race had cheered me up and I laugh out loud after the exhilarating ride, but when I turn to Sean, I soon realise he isn't joining in. I'm shocked to see tears mixed with the sweat.
“Christ. What’s going on, mate?”
“I’m in trouble.” Sean’s voice catches in his throat. “I don’t know what to do.” I wait for him to say more, but he scrubs away the tears and jumps up before I can ask him anything. “Fuck it. Let’s go.”
Peeling his shirt from his sweaty back as he goes, he kicks off his sand shoes, runs down the grassy bank and dives into the water.
I follow, unsure of what’s going on. He seems reckless and desperate. I can't think of what to say to him.
“Come on!” I hear him shout.
Sean is a strong swimmer and despite the current, he’s already in the middle of the river, striking out to the opposite bank.
Despite how good the cool water looks, I reconsider, just for a moment, whether to join him. I’m unsure of the current, it looks strong.
A rope hangs from a branch of a large paperbark tree on the riverbank. I decide to swing into the water, gasping at the sudden chill. Cutting through the fast-flowing river, I soon reach my friend.
We mess about for a while. Sean seems better, more cheerful. We joke, dunking each other under the water and having races to the opposite side.
We’re lying on the bank, getting warm, Sean’s staring up at the towering rock face, downstream.
“How high do you reckon it is, Ben?”
He squints up at the overhanging rock.
“It’s probably about fifty feet to the water.”
“I’m going to climb up. Are you coming, or are you scared?”
I decide to go along with what he wants to do. We dry ourselves, and wearing just our shorts and shoes, scramble up the steep track to the top of the cliff.
It seems higher than I figured. Sean gives me what I suppose he thought was a playful nudge. It scares the shit out of me,
“Christ, mate, don’t do that. I could have gone over.”
Sean sneers, “Lots of kids have jumped off here. It’s not that high, it just seems like it.”
I wonder how deep the water is at the bottom of the cliff.
“Anyone crazy enough to jump from here would need to check the depth and make sure there’re no rocks or…
”Sean interrupts, “It’d be a blast. Let’s do it! Together?”
I can see by the excitement on his face, he wants to jump.
I shake my head. “No way! Come on, let’s get back. Mum will wonder where we are.”
”You’re such a mummy’s boy. It’s time you grew up. You know nothing.” Sean gives me a piercing glare, a look I’ve never seen before.
“What’s got into you, mate? You’ve been acting strange all day,” I challenge him. He’s making me uneasy. I just want to get home.
“You wouldn’t understand, you’re just a kid.”
” I’m seventeen. Shit, you’re only six months older than me.” He’s pissing me off with his big man's attitude.
“Are you going to jump with me, or not?” Sean dares.
My eyes glance again at the green water below.
“I’m going home. You can please yourself,” I tell him and turn to go back.
Sean says something I don't catch. “What did you say?” I turn to face him..
Sean is close to the edge. He’s taken off his shoes.
“Come away, you idiot. You’ll fall in.”
I place my hand on his shoulder. But he turns to face me. He looks strange; not scared or anything. Then he jumps.
I hear him hit the water and fall to my hands and knees to peer over the edge. I drop to my stomach, the hot rocks burn as I scan the water. He's not surfacing.
My heart’s in my mouth as I run down the path to the water’s edge. I peer up at the cliff and run along the bank to where I thought he’d entered the water, and dive in.
The visibility’s poor. All I can see is green froth. The only sounds, my blood pumping and gurgling water. I grope around until I run out of breath, diving time and time again until I’m exhausted.
“Sean!” I scream out one last time. The sound of my voice reverberates against the cliff.
Our bikes lie on the bank where we left them. I was hoping Sean’s would have gone, that he’d left, alive. I hate to leave without him; how am I going to explain what’s happened? What can I say to his family and to Mum and Dad? Will they blame me? He must be dead; there's no way anyone could have survived the jump from the cliff.
Monday 14th July 2001
The interrogations were as bad as I’d expected. Questions, so many questions, from the police, my parents and Sean’s family.
Whose idea was it to climb the cliff? Did he jump deliberately, or did he fall? Were you fooling around up there? Was there an accident? Did you push him, Ben? Just tell us the truth. Over and over. I feel accused and guilty. Even though I did nothing wrong, I wonder if I had done enough to dissuade Sean from jumping. Why hadn’t I tried harder to find out what was wrong with him?
The police divers were on the scene within hours of my reporting what had happened. I stood waiting on the riverbank with Sean’s mother, watching as they surfaced, shaking their heads each time.
I felt a sense of relief, because deep inside, I hoped against hope Sean was still alive. Somewhere.
Mrs McIntyre stood, not speaking or crying. Her resentment toward me palpable. I tried to come up with something to say. But there were no words.
The police have questioned all our friends. I suppose they’re trying to find out whether Sean tried to kill himself. I wonder the same thing.
His secrets came to light, though. The things he’d wanted to say to me, but couldn't.
Sean’s death was all everyone talked about at school, that, and how he’d got his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, pregnant. Sean had already had his eighteenth birthday, so knew he’d be charged with having sex with a minor.
He’d been dealing drugs, too. When the police searched his room, they found evidence of drug taking and some scales. I suppose that explained the sudden change of behaviour. He must have thought he could see no way out.
When the search for Sean McIntyre was officially called off, I was crushed. Now we have to wait for the inquest. I will have to go through it all over again.
Sydney. Australia Winter 2011.
“Time to move on, mate. Take your stuff, people will soon be wanting to get into the shop.” A police officer ushered the homeless man from out of the doorway. “Don’t forget to take your bag.”
The officer held out a tatty plastic bag. The man shuffled back to retrieve it. “Thanks,” he said, his voice hoarse from sleeping out in the cold.
It had been raining all night. The street lamps, still lit, reflected in the puddles. In the dawn light he scurried along to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where he found a place to sit amongst a crowd of down and outs, like himself.
“You got a fag, Sam?” someone asked him.
“Nah, sorry, mate. Not today. Pension day tomorrow. We’ll be okay then.”
He leaned back against the damp stones and opened his bag. It contained old newspaper cuttings; yellowed and torn from being handled so much. He pulled one out and read:
The search for missing youth, 18-year-old Sean McIntyre, was called off today. Although presumed drowned, there has been no sight of his body, which was thought to have been washed out to sea.
It showed a faded picture of a handsome young man dressed in a private school uniform.
“Sam,” cast his mind back to that hot Sydney morning. His plan had worked. The bag of clothes and money he’d hidden the day before, had still been where he’d stashed it behind the rocks. He’d made sure Ben witnessed him going into the river. He’d felt little concern for all the angst he’d put his friend and his family through.
Things hadn't turned out as he’d imagined, though. The hard life he was living now hadn't been in the plan. He sometimes regretted not staying and facing the music, and Ben hadn't deserved what he’d put him through. He’d watched, hidden, while his friend dived so many times, refusing to stop searching until exhaustion set in.
He sometimes wondered what would happen if he were to run into anyone who’d known him before. He looked at the newspaper photograph. No, he was unrecognisable now from that young man. His hair was long and he now had a beard which covered most of his face. It would be unlikely even his own mother would know him.
He’d hitched a ride to the city changed his name and he’d been there ever since, wheeling and dealing. Everybody knew him as Sam.
Sometimes things were good. When he had money, a place to stay, and friends. Other times, such as now, things were not so good.
He wondered if his girlfriend went through with having the baby. He shook his head in disbelief he could be a father of a 10-year-old. He told himself he didn’t care anymore. His family were here, on the streets. His only concern was his next fix.