“Meg? Oh yeah we were pretty good mates for a long time. Ages actually. I don’t know if I’ve felt that close to anyone since. She was a lot funnier then she thought she was. That’s what I liked about her. She was one of those people who just existed on another plane, like she went at her own pace and in her own damn way no matter what people said. Stubborn… yeah, I guess you could say stubborn. But not in a negative way. She was just… Meg. It sounds cheesy, but I knew from the moment she did that Clint Eastwood impersonation, that she was from my tribe. You know? You just get this feeling about some people, like you’ve known them forever even if you’ve only just met.”
The day that Meg blew into their lives was the same day Ella’s body decided to take another step towards womanhood. The weather had been good that morning, so the kids had spent the best part of it playing cricket on the sandbar. Tempted back to camp by the smell of sausages and wood smoke, Jack, Daisy, Ella, Drew and Kyle walked barefoot along the ti-tree lined path, the boys still in dispute over the final score. Lost in her thoughts, Ella trailed behind them and absentmindedly watched her brother repeat his Shane Warne bowl for the benefit of the younger boys. Drew towered above them all, already taking on the lanky dimensions of a boy mid-puberty. Jack and Kyle idolised him, and hung off his every word as he educated them on the finer points of spin bowling. Daisy was way up ahead of them, poking a stick at an ant mound with the intense curiosity that five year-olds often possess.
“Take one more step and I’ll shoot!”
Above their heads, in cut-off denim shorts brandishing a piece of driftwood, sat a girl whose face was a map of freckles and sunburn. Her tanned leg dangled down from the gnarled branch of the Moonah tree, swinging back and forth in casual disregard. Drew snorted, and made as if to keep walking.
“I’d like to see you try,” the girl continued in her best Clint Eastwood voice. Ella took a moment to silently thank her dad for making her sit through all those old western movies, for as the rest of the band stood dumbfounded, staring up at this strange girl with the stick in her hand, Ella leant down and picked up a Banksia pod that had been lying next to her feet, straightening slowly and narrowing her eyes.
“Go ahead,” she growled as she twisted her mouth into a grimace. “Make my day.”
The girl in the tree held her gaze for a moment, then letting out a peal of laughter, sprung cat-like from the tree landing squarely in front of Ella, hand extended.
“Meg Delaney. We’re camped in site number twelve.”
And before Ella or any of the boys could say anything useful, she was off down the beach track, strawberry blonde plaits dancing behind her.
When Ella went to the toilet that night, she found marks the colour of burnt rust in her underpants. She buried them in the sand dune behind the toilet block and didn’t think about them again for several months.
After that camping trip, Meg Delaney became an inseparable extension of their family. The parents bonded, as they often do, over wine and the trials and tribulations of raising children. Discovering that both families hailed from the Mornington Peninsula, school holiday catch-ups and weekend barbeques became a uniting factor for the Delaneys and the Stevensons. When Ella’s first real period did finally make an appearance, it was Meg who gently showed her how to fit a pad to her undies and told her everything she knew about the female body. The usually tomboyish Meg softened in this sisterly role of authority, comforting the confused Ella with a sideways cuddle and a hot Milo. The extent of her health education so far had been a very confusing class with Ms Scott who had sighed about the “complexities of the female condition,” which made the girls giggle because Ms. Scott had a boy haircut and only wore hemp.
The next three summers were spent back at Croajingolong in much the same way. It was only the summer before Ella turned fifteen when something shifted. Some invisible thing changed and all of a sudden, Meg withdrew into herself. Ella remembered feeling confused, as Meg refused to be tempted from her camping chair by bushwalking or beach cricket. She spent most of the trip with her nose buried in a book, and though she tried her best to seem interested in Ella’s conversation, something was missing. Waking up in the tent one morning, Ella found Meg’s arm draped across her waist, a casual affection that made Ella’s heart beat in her chest. It had been so long since Meg had hugged her in the rough bear-hug way that she used to, let alone this. Her arm was warm, and Ella concentrated on the weight of it lying across her hip. When she reached out to take Meg’s hand though, the arm withdrew back into the sleeping bag a little too quickly for someone who wasn’t awake. Ella rolled onto her back and watched the silhouette of an ant crawl across the waterproof ceiling of the tent, outlined by the morning sun.
“She’s just hormonal,” Julie Delaney explained as they foraged for kindling in the surrounding campsites. Ella’s mum Bridget raised her eyebrows knowingly and gave her a pat on the back.
“Don’t take the moodiness personally love. She’s having a tricky time.”
But Meg’s continual silence did hurt. And her fourteen-year-old self felt something that, in hindsight, was akin to heartache for this wild girl who had changed her life.
Rain had started to fall in the garden, and realising her cup of tea was getting cold, Ella raised herself to re-boil the kettle, shaking the pins and needles out of her feet. Maybe too much reflection isn’t good for the soul, she thought as she stood watching a raindrop hurry down the windowpane. But then, she had always been most comfortable with the company of her own thoughts. Reflection, it seemed, was an inevitable part of being Ella. She had been thinking about her teenage years more than usual lately though. Something about turning thirty had kicked off the nostalgia perhaps, or maybe it was because there was something not quite right about her memories of that time. She felt like she was putting together a jigsaw, but the piece that made the picture make sense was missing. The way Meg had looked that summer, subdued and soft, haunted her in a way that she couldn’t understand. She still saw Meg occasionally these days: their kids went to the same school. But there had been a gap after that camping trip, up until they both finished high school, during which they hadn’t seen much of each other at all. Meg dropped off the map. She came to school sometimes, but kept mostly to herself. She dyed her radiant hair a dark chocolate brown, and stopped going to parties. Something was keeping the wild girl with the killer smile from being herself, but Ella didn’t feel she could ask Meg what was wrong even now. There had been too long a silence, too much time with no explanation. Steam curled up from Ella’s cup of tea, and she was carried back to the summer of 2010, when the smell of the sea was never too far away and there was always sand in the bed no matter how many times you shook out the covers.
The striped sunlight that filtered through the gaps in the veranda above cast strange shadows on the near-naked torsos of Meg and Ella as they sat under the house, hiding from the 35 degree heat. Both absorbed in their books, neither of them noticed that they were sharing the space beneath the house with two reptilian eyes. It was only when Ella rolled over on her towel that she noticed the glossy black coil half obscured by an old wooden pillar.
“Get out, get out get out!” she screamed, grabbing Meg by the upper arm, and half-crawled, half-stumbled out of the shade. The snake had by this point realised that its hideaway had been discovered and was skating like liquid ebony across the packed earth towards the girls, in confusion more than wrath. Their screams brought Ella’s uncle Ben running, who upon seeing the snake, grabbed a piece of driftwood that had been drying next to the veranda. He brought it down hard on the ground in front of the snake, diverting its path from the lawn where the girls had run. They watched it disappear into the dense coastal scrub at the end of the garden. The strings of Ella’s bikini had come loose in the swift exodus, and heart still thumping, she absentmindedly readjusted herself as they stood glued together on the dry brown lawn. Ella will always hold the memory of Meg’s arm clamped around hers, sweaty and shaking, and how she noticed that one of Meg’s nipples had been exposed, a small brown island in a sea of pale early summer skin.
“What were you doing under the house anyway?! You’re both savvy enough to know about snakes, with all those darn camping trips. Under the house is where they go when it’s bloody hot! Use your heads!”
“Don’t be mad at them mate, just be thankful it wasn’t worse.”
Ella’s dad sighed and slumped back onto the couch, rubbing his temples. Uncle Ben winked at Meg and Ella.
“Just as well there was a bloke around eh?”
Ella nodded feebly and Meg smirked, but then watched Uncle Ben as he walked into the kitchen, her eyes following his retreating back with an intensity that reminded Ella of the look the snake had been giving her before she had registered its silent and dangerous presence.
“From now on, this is where we write our stories. Our near-death experiences. The important stuff.”
“I don’t wanna go back in there! Are you nuts?”
The girls stood outside the cavity under the veranda, Meg holding a piece of charcoal in her hand.
“Suit yourself. I’m going in. We got away Ella, we need to commemorate this death-defying feat.”
“Meg, we screamed and ran. You basically cut off circulation to my arm.”
Meg’s back was already disappearing under the house. Hesitating for a second, Ella followed, trying not to think of spiders as she bent to enter the shadowy hideaway. On the bottom of the veranda slats, Meg was writing something, shielding her eyes with the other hand from the falling charcoal dust. A childlike drawing of a black snake, and the date, 26 January 2010, was scratched onto the wood.
“Good. Remember this Ella. It’ll be our secret place.”
And there was that look again, that expressionless yet solid look that Ella had seen in Meg’s eyes in the lounge room the day before. For a reason that she couldn’t pinpoint, Ella shivered despite the heat of the afternoon. Crawling back out into the warmth, she turned her head to the sky and watched the strange mottled red colour of behind eyelids, the only thing keeping her eyes from the blinding sun.
The weekend before they sold the beach house, Ella had got on her hands and knees and crawled into the space under the veranda. She sat for a minute, looking out at the parched lawn from the shade of the cubby. Then, crawling to the back of the hideaway, she held her phone up to illuminate the veranda slat roof. There, further back than she remembered, was the faded outline of the charcoal snake. Narrowing her eyes, Ella looked closer and made out more images on the adjacent slats. A childlike drawing of two girls, both triangles with circular heads, their stick like arms crossed in a cartoonish hand-hold. Further along, was a stick figure man, taller than the girls, with its arms held out wide. In an attempt to give the man a face, a black hole had been scratched on as a mouth, giving the impression a of a Jack-o-lantern leer. A bogeyman. Ella crawled along through the dirt, illuminating the next charcoal sketch on the wood. She looked at it for a long time, until her feet ached with pins and needles and the faded black lines became hazy and undefined. Memories flashed by her with new significance, a jigsaw puzzle that she no longer wanted to finish. The two forms etched onto the furthest slat burned themselves into her mind, obstinately daring her to look away now, after all these years of guesswork.
Here we are, they said. We have always been here, but you never dared to look.
Outside, the cicadas had begun their afternoon chorus, a wall of shrillness that pulsated upwards from the ground, accusing and hysterical.
Ella slumped down into the dust and the cobwebs, her phone sliding off her lap onto the packed soil that eighteen years ago had felt the warmth of two adolescent bodies, full of life and the salty wildness of the sea.