The day Juniper held her breath, Jack and I were busy helping dad build a bigger fence so the neighbours would get a TV rather than linger in their yard watching the girls play badminton or throw ping pong balls at Black Chip, the big kookaburra who had watched over us since we were nippers.
Black Chip never went to the beach, but Franny did. She dragged Juniper along so mum wouldn’t know she was meeting up with Dot, her boyfriend from the Inner West. Mum wasn’t keen on the Inner West, regarding anyone who came from there as a tradie looking to rob your house. Or someone training to be a tradie so they could eventually rob your house.
“One minute they’re doing your bathroom, the next they are down the pawn shop with your TV,” she said. “Buggers. All of ‘um.”
Maybe that was why Franny liked Dot. He had roughly cut hair and used to smoke rolled cigarettes that smelled like damp leaves and thunderstorms. He called me Topper, which I didn’t like very much, and never made eye contact with anyone other than bus drivers, which Fran thought was quirky but Jack and I strange. He never took the bus, always picking Franny and Juniper up from down the road where the Castlemans had let their garden go “bloody North Queensland”, as dad used to say.
At the beach, Franny would untie the straps of her pink bikini and Juniper would sink below the waves, holding her breath and waiting for Dot to wade in so she could snap at his ankles like a shark. I guess that day Franny undid a bit more than some string, as all it took was a kiss and a cuddle and Juniper was gone.
Dot was first in, diving so shallow he scraped his chin and gave himself a blood beard. The surfies followed but they never found her.
Juniper was twelve; wanted to be a teacher. She had been trying for years to get us to call her Junps. No one ever did ‘til I stepped in at the memorial and made a speech.
Franny was dead-eyed the whole time, and Dot lingered at the door, not sure if he was welcome and still carrying the dead weight where Juniper should have been, dripping wet yet alive. I didn’t say much, which everyone thought respectful, when in truth I had nothing to say. The day before the memorial, I sat in her room and it felt like a set on a TV show. Something dreamt up by middle-aged men in tight t-shirts imagining the life of a twelve year old girl.
Dad swore she was still out there. Somewhere beneath the waves. He stopped drinking and quit his job to spend his days sitting in the dunes looking for kids in red swimsuits, his boardies growing looser as he grew thinner. He had to tie them up with a bit of pink string.
Looking back, Franny had it the hardest. Though she always swore she only turned away for a minute, we all knew Juniper could stay under longer than that. Two years later and with her HSC behind her, Franny left, though only Jack and I noticed; mum cut her out long before, ignoring her washing in the basket and not laying a place at the table for her. As for dad, it could have been 1973 for all he knew; his world became the dunes and the waves and the string he used to keep his boardies up.
I saw him save someone once, pulling her from the waves and yelling Juniper’s name before performing mouth-to-mouth, the saltwater spurting from those little lips that weren’t any we knew. The girl’s parents tried to pull him off but dad put up a good fight, insisting: “That’s my daughter!” ‘til someone replied: “Your daughter’s fucking dead mate” and it took the wash out of his waves.
“She’s just under the water,” he whispered as we made our way back home. “She could always hold her breath longer than anyone.” He was holding his boardies up as we walked, the pink string lost somewhere on the beach. Two years is a long time to hold your breath, I thought, wondering how long dad could hold his.
A year after Franny left, dad came home with a twelve-year-old girl dressed in a red swimsuit, the same one that Juniper wore. She was dripping wet.
“Juniper’s back, boys!” Dad announced. Jack and I couldn’t tell if it was her or not. “She was under for bloody ages but she’s a trooper.”
He said this every hour for the first two days ‘til one of the neighbours complained and we couldn’t take it anymore. Old calendars were dug out of cupboards. Dad got back on the beers. Mum dished up an extra portion of each meal that Juniper never touched. She was different; this girl who had held her breath for three years. For a start, she never said a word. And her eyes never blinked, even when you threw a ping pong ball at her head.
I knew what was up, but Jack was like mum and dad; he’d never really dealt with Juniper’s death. I’d wake him up at night and we’d lie on our tummies in the hall and look under her door, the light in her bedroom always on and her feet in a puddle at the end of the bed. I even paid him five bucks to give her a hug. He said she was all cold with bits of seaweed in her teeth.
It took a week for the police to come knocking. At the door they said it was a routine enquiry; looking for a missing cat or checking for a dodgy gas main, but even dad noticed the nod exchanged when they saw Juniper shivering at the dinner table in her red swimsuit and wet hair.
“She’s back boys!” Dad declared while mum made tea and the cops edged closer to the girl. One of them chanced a question. “You alright love?”
It was dad who answered. “’Course she is.”
Date Duggen, a cop from the Inner West, placed a hand on the girl’s arm and that was enough. Dad grabbed a butter knife, leapt across the table. Date shot five times, four in his chest and one in the porcelain duck that I’d always hated. Mum dropped the tea. Jack sucked his thumb for the first time in five years.
Franny came to get us from the cop shop. When it was all over we ate Golden Gaytimes in the car park and she told us what happened.
“He found his way into this school for the deaf down the road,” she said. “He just took her.”
She licked the dripping ice cream from her hand. I waited for Jack to finish his, wondering what I would say if I ever had to make a speech for Franny. She was my sister. She turned her back at the beach. She never went in the sea, ice cream leaving a stain where she was scared to get wet.
“I think he finally got fed up watching the waves.”
We went to the beach the next afternoon. Franny and I took turns to see how long we could hold our breath while Jack sat in the dunes, hugging his legs and sucking on a sandy piece of pink string.
About The Author
Born in the UK but Australian since 2004, Nicholas has been living overseas and writing off and on since high school.
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