The Promise

I’m sitting here on a log next to a waterhole, chewing on an old biro I found when I was out walking in the Bush.  I always give “Bush” a capital letter because that’s what the Australian outback really is – just miles and miles of dry, rather limp looking, scrub.  At least until the rains come and then birds and freshwater frogs drown out the usual cries of the crickets and the crows.  It rained heavily last week and the creek ran a banker for a while.  But now the water has mostly soaked into the dry earth and there are only waterholes left.  Soon they’ll all be gone too. The land will be as bereft as I’m feeling now.

I’m wasting time. I should get on and tell what happened to Sandy and me, but I’m finding it difficult.  Mum thought it might help me to let it all out, and I promised her I would.  She knew I always kept my promises.  But right now it’s so hard, because I’d promised Mum I would look after Sandy and… I just have to take a deep breath and try.  It’s not going to matter to Sandy – she’ll never read it – but I did make a promise to her too. Perhaps if I write our story as if…I’ll just get on with it.

Sandy’s the same age as me, sixteen years and nine months.  We’ve always done things together ever since we were little.  Our families often referred to us as ‘the twins’.  She’s been away at college for the past year so I haven’t seen much of her.

Dad and Mum said it was okay for Sandy and me to use the old Jeep to go camping overnight up in the mountains to the north.  Dad’s property extends twenty-five kilometres in any direction from the homestead.  Sandy lived to the east so I drove the thirty kilometres to her place and we headed off.

She looked different when I picked her up, more in proportion than I remember.  And her face is a bit prettier – not beautiful, mind you, but it has character, enough to make you want to look at it a second time.  But I’m wandering off again.  It’s just that I think of Sandy as … a mate, I suppose.  That’s a pretty high call in Australia, but true in Sandy’s case nevertheless.

In the summer sun, driving the Jeep was hot work, not helped by a clutch that kept slipping on the steep grades.  I’d meant to strip the gearbox down and fix the damn thing but had never got around to it.  Still, it did the job, and the cooler air in the mountains was very pleasant after the heat of the spinifex plains.  It was just mid-afternoon when we pitched our tent at the campsite I had chosen.  It was next to a waterhole fed by a mountain spring.  Once the tent was up and our sleeping bags tossed in place, I gathered kindling for the fire we’d need later while Sandy changed into a swimsuit.  I dropped a dry stick in a hurry as a brown snake slithered away through the grass.

I wiped my brow.  I knew how devastating a bite from this snake was.  I’d watched a vet who was treating a bull calf for snakebite on our property. The poor thing just grew weaker until it fell on its knees and then collapsed. The vet could do nothing but watch the calf die. Angry that he had not saved the animal, I caught him gazing at me. His face was troubled. “There’s nothing to be done if there’s no antivenene, and my supplies have been held up by the Waterside Workers’ Strike.” I swallowed my anger and kept silent.

I looked in Sandy’s direction but she had seen nothing.  She was trying to ring her mother on her mobile phone.

 

“There’s no signal, Jack.  I’ll just have to assume Mum knows we arrived all right.  She’s such a worrier.”  She threw the phone into the tent.

She wandered down to the waterhole and was testing out the water with her foot when I joined her.  I threw off my shirt and jumped in, wearing just my shorts.  Sandy soon followed.

“Jack!  It’s freezing,” Sandy yelped, then dived and came up spitting water.  “I love this place, it never changes, does it?  No matter what time of year we come here, the water is always cold.”

“You’re just getting soft in your old age,” I teased, and splashed some water in her face.  Of course that began the inevitable water fight which raged until I grabbed her around the waist and ducked her.  She punched me in the midriff and swam to the edge of the pool, where she grasped an overhanging tree branch to heave herself out of the water on to the bank.  She turned to make some joke at my expense but then noticed that one of her breasts had slipped clear of her bra.  She caught my mesmerized gaze, wheeled on her heel, and stormed back to the tent.  I remained in the pool, desperately trying to understand the rush of emotions tearing through my body.  This was not the Sandy that had gone away to college.

About ten minutes later, I left the waterhole and began a fire to boil a kettle and cook our tea.  Before long, Sandy joined me and we both tried to carry on as though nothing had happened.  But our lives had changed.  I could not find anything to say.  It was Sandy who broke the silence and eased the tension.

“What’s the matter, sailor?  Never seen a girl’s breast before?” she asked.

I could feel my face burning.  “Uh, actually no, I haven’t,” I said.  My face was now really hot, and the nerves in my stomach were churning overtime.

“Disappointed?” she asked.

I risked a glance and the old cheeky grin was there on her face, plain to see.  She was teasing me.

“Of course not!”  I answered.  “I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more, as a matter of fact.”

“Cheeky boy!  You’d be lucky.” She gave me a silly grin and asked, “Emma not been around then?”

“She’s been around once or twice. Why?” but my face was brick red.

“Alright, mate! Spill it! You’ve been checking out Emma’s assets, have you?”

Somehow I felt I had to explain how a simple inattentive moment found me stepping out on to the verandah where Emma was catching some sun. “I didn’t realise anyone was out there. I was reading and didn’t think.”

“Man, when you get your nose in a book, you have no idea what’s going on around you.  So tell me what you’ve done all the time I’ve been away.”

Our conversation turned to livestock, weather and other matters of interest to two country people.  Eventually, I brought it to a close by mentioning the light and our planned trip to the top of the nearby mountain, where we’d intended to watch the full moon rise over the Murangie Ranges.  We washed our cooking utensils and then drove the jeep laboriously up the steep slopes.

We were both young and fit and it was not long before I was spreading a light tarpaulin on the ground for us to sit on.  We sat close and Sandy peered at the moon as it began to make its way above the eastern horizon.  My thoughts were in turmoil as I gazed at her profile and then snatched my glance away in case she caught me staring. A vision of a bared female breast at a waterhole intruded, no matter how often I raised a new topic in conversation. I wriggled and squirmed trying to sit comfortably. I tried to concentrate on what she was saying, then realised time after time, that I was peeping at her shape beneath her blouse.

“Well, do you like what you see?” she asked.  “You’ve been staring at me long enough.”

Caught out, I stammered, “Y-yes, very much.”

She turned her face to me and asked, “How long do I have to wait before you kiss me?”

Afraid that I might muck it up, I leaned over to meet her face and found her lips.  She opened to me.  It is almost the most glorious memory I have.  I say “almost” because as the kiss deepened, she took my hand and placed it on her left breast.  We forgot the moonlight as she let me unbutton her blouse and remove her bra.  I had never seen or felt anything more beautiful than her breasts bathed in the soft moonlight.

I tried to unbutton her jeans but she stopped me.  I notice she was panting as heavily as I was.  We lay for hours on the groundsheet, cuddled together, kissing and fondling.  I was in heaven.  It had never occurred to me that girls could be so interesting.  At the same time I knew there had to be something more, something to be discovered with patience and love.  I knew that Sandy would tell me when she was ready for that next step and I was prepared to wait.  Then, without a word, we rearranged our clothing, collected the ground sheet, and returned to the campsite.

I checked that the fire was completely out while Sandy took the kerosene lantern and entered the tent.  I could see from the shadow she cast that she was preparing for bed.  I waited until she had shaken out her sleeping bag and begun to wriggle into it.  But then she screamed.

I rushed in to find Sandy in her bra and briefs hopping around on one foot.  To my horror, I noticed a large snake slithering from within the folds of the sleeping bag and out through the back of the tent.  It appeared to be the same size and colouring as the brown I had seen earlier in the day.

“It hurts, Jack.  My God, it hurts.”  Tears spilled down her cheeks. “How bad is it?”

I sat her down on a sleeping bag and, in the light of a kerosene lamp, examined the bite.  Sandy had two puncture wounds on her right ankle.  All I could do was try to assure her that she would be all right when she reached the hospital. She saw through me at once.

I brought the First Aid kit from the Jeep and bandaged her leg as tightly as possible.  I knew how toxic an adult brown snake’s venom was.  Sandy was in a lot of trouble.  I helped her to the Jeep and strapped her into the passenger seat beside me in the front.  Then I switched on the engine and drove like a man possessed.  Sandy moaned but I could do nothing more for her.  It was as I drove down an incline that the faulty clutch slipped.  I double-declutched.  There was no response.  I tried again to get back into gear without success.  The Jeep rolled to a stop at the foot of a steep hill.  I tried and tried to regain power but failed.

I cursed my indolence.  If I had only fixed the problem before we’d left.  If only I… The “if onlys” kept coming until Sandy stopped me.

“There’s no one to help, is there, Jack?”  Her voice was calm and solemn.

“I’ve tried the mobile phone but there’s no service out here,” I answered.

“But it’s just you and me, right?”

I squirmed in my seat.  “Somebody’ll come along.  Hey, it’s the twenty-first century, remember?”

“Nobody will come along in the middle of the night, Jack darling,” she said.  “I like the sound of that.  ‘Jack darling’.  Because you are very dear to me.  You’ve looked after me since we were kids, always there, always fighting my fights for me.  Lift me out of the Jeep now, please.  Sit me on that ground cover we used last night.”

I lifted her down and settled her on the ground sheet.

“You’re crying,” she said, and licked a tear from my face.  “I wish we’d made love completely last night.”

I placed my finger on her lips.  “We will again,” I said.

“You’re a bit of a fibber, Jack.  I’m a country girl, remember.  I know that if I don’t get treatment, I’ll die.”  I tried to stop such talk but she took one of my hands and held it to her breast.  “I’m not afraid of dying, more disappointed that we couldn’t have more time together.  Promise me you won’t blame yourself, Jack.  Promise me.”

“If I’d fixed the bloody Jeep,” I raged, but she stopped my lips with her hand.  “Promise?”

I gave my word and held her close.  Once, she complained of being cold, and again of the light disappearing from the sky.  Then she squeezed my hand and, soon afterwards, I could feel the life flow out of her.

I covered her with a blanket and began to run.  I ran and I walked and then ran once more until suddenly there was life in my phone and I could summon help.

Sandy is buried in the garden of her parents’ home.  They’ve never blamed me.  I do enough of that myself, until I remember the promise.  Then I get on with life.

The Jeep has a new clutch, but I cannot drive that vehicle any more.  I know Mum is worried about me, but hopes writing down what happened will help me. Well, I’ve done what she’s asked, but healing for me will come on the remembrance of the promise I made to my soul mate as she left me forever.