Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Washed Away

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De Peak
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De Peak

WALKING down High Street heading for Galton’s, Ruby and her kids looked around, enjoying the new streetscape. Finally, the cleanup was over. Now they could take a deep breath, without gagging. Though the faintest undercurrent of rancid flood mud lingered, they could walk freely on the footpath without stepping in sludge – or worse!  

Then Ruby saw the stray dog, looking so neglected. Her chest constricted in sympathy, and she suddenly stopped – and stared. “Ouch, Mummy you’re hurting me,” Sally cried as Ruby had unconsciously tightened her grip on her daughter’s small hand. Memories she’d tried so hard to suppress began to surface, drawing her back to that dreadful day.

When they’d finally been able to wade through the thick, receding flood waters to get to the farmhouse; she found Bluey. Partially cemented in sludge, she tried to pull him out before Sally and Tim saw his body. All around him, cementing mud formed large geometric shapes, curling and broken at the edges.  But when she pulled on his legs, slime oozed up all around him. She shuddered, remembering the awful sucking sounds as she dragged him out.   

She’d looked up; Tim and Sally stood staring with morbid fascination. “Go away you two!” she yelled, waving her arm. The shock in their faces bleached them of colour and their eyes brimmed with tears. But Bluey was the least of all they’d lost. Ruby knew they shouldn’t have to see the ugliness in death. Not yet. Watching them clinging together in their ill fitting Red Cross clothes, they seemed ... older, diminished.

She felt angry; they shouldn’t have to know such loss, or need charity. If only she’d been better organised ... saved more things. So many “ifs” plagued her. It was their first home. She’d lived many “firsts” in those rooms – all carving memories into her heart. She recalled the awful urgency. “Ruby, for God’s sake, just grab the kids and go!’ Jack had yelled. “Once Narrowgut breaks we’re going under.” She couldn’t think straight. What to grab, what to stuff in a suitcase? 

She remembered the levee creaking and groaning from the strain. And still the rain pelted down, staccato pings like gunshots on the tin roof. Terror had twisted her thoughts into knots. She’d turned a circle, looking for the photo albums: wedding photos, Sally’s baby photos, Tim’s first day at school. She couldn’t find them! Then Jack yelled at her. “Ruby, come on. We can’t hold the boat steady. Get the kids.” They were all yelling above the roar of floodwater. Sally sobbed, and Tim; so dazed and pale with fear he was practically paralysed.  He barely managed to get in the boat as Jack strained to briefly hold it steady. She had to lift Sally, twisting and screaming. “Mummy, Mummy where’s Bluey? Get Bluey!”

She looked back as she tried to tighten her grip on Sally. If she dropped her, they’d all be lost. The boat lurched sideways, as she slipped, stepping into the slush in the bottom. Her shoes filled with the swill as she swayed then fell sideways onto the rough wooden plank. Water rushed in from the side, tilting the boat dangerously low before Jack managed to right it. She tightened her grip on Sally who pushed her head into Ruby’s chest, heaving sobs. Tim’s silence ominous, his body pressed tightly to her. All three of them cowering, huddled in the middle.

Ruby remembered looking back as Jack and their neighbour, Ted, rowed forward. She’d twisted her head – searching – then wished she hadn’t. A farmer’s daughter, her father’s words echoed in her head: “Good farmers save their animals!”

The river had broken the ring levee protecting the cottage and water surged, rising fast as the torrent swelled, engulfing the house and yard! A few more minutes and ... 

Bluey had found the highest spot; standing his ground as the backyard went under. Hackles raised, he stood jumping and barking with fury at the rising water. Just like that time he’d stood between Sally and the brown snake, fearlessly protecting his own! Ruby bit her lip, scrunching her eyes closed, she couldn’t afford to cry. They weren’t safe yet! The current grew stronger by the minute. The swirls and eddies faster and wider in the strengthening torrent. Ruby shuddered, remembering what a bedraggled bunch they’d been, when she felt a tug on her hand; “Mummy, look, he’s lonely. Can we keep him?’ Sally pleaded. 

Looking down, Ruby sees Tim is missing; he’s run over to the dog. Since the flood he’d been almost mute. The teacher had tracked them down at the refuge to talk about his lack of speech at school. They were all worried. Would the stray help, she wondered, walking over to where Tim kneeled, rubbing the dog’s ears and hugging his upper body. The dog looked up at Ruby, his soft brown eyes twinkling and slowly wagged his tail, making her laugh. A laidback dog, she thought; who also smiles! His crusted coat, and the mud pellets hanging from his legs, indicated that just like them, he’d struggled through flood mud to survive. 

“OK, there’s no rope, so if he follows us back to the car – we’ll take him. But it depends on Daddy.” Ruby looked into their faces; they hadn’t smiled like this in ages. She knew Jack might say no.  He was sick with worry: the ruined farm house, dead livestock, moving in with resentful parents, feeding them all. Now a dog! 

“Can we call him Bluey too Mum?” Sally’s teary voice interrupted her thoughts, reminding them of the other Bluey; now buried deep beneath the aeons of flood mud he’d died defending.

“OK,” Ruby sighed, knowing that naming the dog wasn’t the problem: giving him a home was, because they didn’t really have one anymore.