‘Don’t you love your country, Mister?’ Sarah asks, her head tilted to the side.
‘My country? My country, she say!’ his laugh is a shrill bark. Like an angry sea lion. ‘Don’t you know nuttin’, kid? Der ain’t no my country! White man done stole my country.’
Sarah cringes back from his scorn. So obvious, stinging, like nothing sheltered Sarah’s met before, not even from dirt-mouthed primary school bullies. It scalds through her thin skin like acid. She burrows into Madison’s side. Madison lets her.
Besides which, giving her sister hell is for Madison and only Madison to do. As her big sister, it’s like, an exclusive right. No dumbass stranger hanging off a bit of Auzzie mountain’s gonna mess with Sarah and get away with it. ‘Hey, how would she know that, huh? It’s not her fault. She was just being friendly. Jeez.’
‘Yeah, well, kid should know dat shit. A body c’n git so damn sick and tired of being overlooked. Like his history and his peoples’ struggles don’t mean nothing.’
‘Sounds like you do so love your country. You just don’t want to admit it,’ Madison fires back.
‘Ain’t much to love. Not worth all de struggle, all de pain, nohow.’
‘But…’ Madison finally speaks up, ‘Are you like, blind or something?’ she throws a wide gesture, embracing the mountains
‘Aww, I ain’t from here, kid, not really.’
‘Whaddya mean, not from here?’ she can’t keep the challenge out of her voice. ‘When you just finished yelling at my sister about how basically it is yours, how basically it was stolen from you,’ she catches her tone rising, swallows, tries to calm herself down. Yelling at a man on a ledge. Not the smartest move ever. In the video game of her life, she would have lost about a million points already. More reasonably then: ‘A thing has to be yours to be stolen. That’s just logic.’
‘Dat white logic, kid. Dat’s exactly de problem. Whole damn world gotta run on white logic, doesn’t leave nothing for nobody else.’
Sarah, still clinging to her side like a monkey, turns her face up to Madison again. Whispers, ‘He hates us, Mad. Because we’re white. Let’s go,’ she tugs her sister’s sleeve, like there’s some part of her sister’s attention that’s not on her, that she needs. Every last bit of attention.
‘My sister thinks you hate us. The way you talk, I’d say she’s right. You’re just as bad as those nasty white racists. You talk like white people are all one big thing, all the same. We’re not, actually.’
‘Listen, kid. I learned de hard way –‘
‘Maybe that’s your problem, then,’ Madison butts in. This guy is starting to make her angry, hanging from a big, stone age rock or not. ‘You’re so sure you know something, you won’t listen to anything or anybody, else. Like those dumb morons who were so convinced the world was flat, they wanted to burn that Gallileo guy when he said, like, actually guys, it’s round, and by the way, the earth goes around the sun and all that stuff.’
‘You calling me ign’rant, gal? Hell, you just a kid. Don’t know a damn thing.’
‘Yeah, I’m a kid. And the good thing about being a kid, Mister, is that I actually know I don’t know everything! I’m still ready to learn stuff! You should try it sometime, instead of crawling up onto a rock just to kill yourself.’
Oops. That. That was definitely in the category of wrong things to say to a guy starfished to a rock. In the video game of her life, that was totally Game Over.
Under Mads arm, Sarah squints out at the guy. ‘Learning is better than dying, Mister. Even at school,’ she says, seriously.
The morning before
Sarah snuffles, sits up, as Mad is creeping out. Nothing for it but to bring her, if she wants to go at all. You never know, she might even come in handy in the kangaroo catching department. Get her to go round behind them and pull faces or something. If Mad were a kangaroo, she’d run straight into her own arms to get away from that.
As Mad pushes through the emergency exit, the damp reek of the concrete stairwell full in the face, she turns to her little sister, straggling on behind, pink drawstring bag trailing. ‘You gotta keep up. If you get lost, it’s not my fault.’
Even as she says it, she feels the first prick of dread. It would totally be her fault. Most things that go wrong with Sarah end up being her fault. Bubble gum in Sarah’s precious freaky-blonde tresses and an expensive haircut later? Mad should’ve known better than to share it, even though Sarah nagged and nagged, with her whole hard-done-by martyr’s show.
They take George Street. The middle all dug up, where they’re putting in some kinda train line, apparently. Almost no one around, barely a car on the road, the chill spring air felt even through fleece and jeans.
At the train station, she finds the train they want, platform 6, with five minutes to spare.
Two hours, with Sarah nattering and whining – arewethereyet-arewethereyet-aaareweeetheeeereyeeet – is even more boring and frustrating than the most boring Geography lesson with No-Brows Toocan warbling on and the popular boys messing around at the back so nobody can concentrate even if they wanted to. Mad tries to read her book and ignore Sarah. As if.
The plan was to get the first bus from the place across the road from the train station. But the look on Sarah’s face as they trail out of the station, lagging behind a clump of practically goose-stepping, camera-slinging tourists, all professional hiking gear and straps-everywhere rucksacks, that look lets Mad know it’s just not gonna happen.
Because as everyone knows, the world actually revolves around perfect, unimpeachable, angel-haired Sarah. Sarah, swinging Mad’s hand back and forth like she’s entered a baton-twirling competition with her sister’s arm as the baton. Sarah, complaining she’s hungry, complaining she’s bored, complaining complaining complaining.
So Mad sighs, and peers down the little street past the swiftly dissolving flock of tourists, and says, ‘C’mon. Let’s find some breakfast.’
Later, she’ll think, if she’d only come another day, or if she’d only escaped without Sarah. Or if they’d caught that bus after all. If they’d only skipped breakfast, or taken longer over it. If they’d only tried out that crazy yellow cable car that swing wildly out across the chasm between mountains. If only if only if only.
Again comes that sea lion bark of a laugh, loosed like a victory cry, the man man’s face turned sharply to the sky.
The sudden movement – or could it be the sound itself? Such a powerful laugh, could it cause a piece of mountain to crack? – shifts the black man’s balance. In that second, as the man tries to adjust his footing, blindly grapples the rock within range of his dark-skinned hands, with a flash of unexpectedly pink palms, in that instant, Mad realises two things.
One: They don’t even know his name. It didn’t seem important. Only now, now it seems the most important thing of all. What kind of failure is it, not to have asked?
Two: A more grievous failure this, that they haven’t done the first thing they really should have done the instant they saw him balanced precariously there.
They haven’t called for help. Ambulances, police, firemen. Professionals, all of them better equipped to deal with this. To deal with this man who is going to jump or fall, to plunge the awful distance to the ground, barely visible from here, from this high up.
And then she’s through with thinking. She’s scrambling up the two wooden slats of the stubby bridge railing, and stretching out as far as she can.
Not far enough. Nowhere near.
One of the man’s feet skids, orangey fragments of rock skitter down in a plume of dust.
Sarah has grabbed her right leg, as if to anchor her sister to the bridge.
But somehow, Mad doesn’t know how, the black man is still there, his footing re-established. He has not fallen. He is not dead.
Mad eases herself to an uncomfortable sitting position, straddling the upper rail, one leg each side, feeling precarious, feeling scared.
‘Do you think you could come down from there now?’ she asks.
Beads of sweat on his forehead, at his temples, trickling down his cheeks, glint in the morning sun. The look in his eye, when it rolls round to her, is something animal, the white stark against his dark skin. ‘You asking if I wanna come,’ he pants, ‘Or if I can?’
Mad kicks back over the bridge. Walks into the little shelf, tucked into an indent on the land-side of the mountain pillar. He must have climbed over the barrier here on the right.
Behind her, Sarah scuffs the dusty red grit. Says, in such a small voice it’s almost, but not quite, a whisper, ‘What are you gonna do, Maddy?’ Mad can hear the wet clot of tears coming in her sister’s voice.
‘Maybe we could skip the questions,’ Mad says. It’s her father’s voice she hears now, not her mother’s. Her father that she sees maybe once, twice a year. If she’s lucky. ‘How about we do first, talk later.’
She unbuckles her belt. Good, strong leather, a gift from Dad two birthdays ago. But maybe not long enough. Cold air licks against her thighs, then her calves, as she shunts her jeans down, kicks off her shoes. Goosebumps prickle down her white-white legs.
‘What you doing gal? Dis ain’t no time for sunbathing.’
She shoves her sock-feet back into her shoes. The rubber soles will offer a better grip than her own numb toes.
‘That is so true.’
She ties the stiff cuff of her jeans around the fence-post nearest the man. Ties the other around her left wrist. Holds her arm out to her sister. ‘Make it really tight.’
Then she climbs over the wire barrier. Turns back to her sister. ‘Hold my hand. Like this.’ She wraps her own hand, the one with the jeans-tether, around her sister’s skinny-kid wrist, her sisters fingers stretch around hers, under the stiff denim knot. ‘Hold on as long as you can, as tight as you can.’
She turns back to the man. ‘I really hope you don’t decide to jump now, Mister. What with me being the hated enemy and everything.’
She edges forward, back to the jagged stone pillar. Her toes extended out over the thin lip of rock. Reaching as far as she can with the fingers of her free hand. The blind, over-ambitious strain of a kid on tippy-toes, trying to touch the ceiling, or the stars.
She tries not to look down, beyond the careful placement of her feet. She tries to remember to breathe. She looks from her feet to his face, and wills him to reach out, to meet her halfway. To try, like she is trying.
Above, way back up the steep switch-back steps that brought them here, Mad hears a shout, the rasp-clatter-clang of feet beating down rusted iron stairs and steps carved into the mountain.
Their fingers meet. His hand is rough, and warm, and huge.