Rainbows

Three Cheers and Tiger ~ Bronze
Gillian Brent


Wentworth Falls
Photo Credit: Cor/redphayze

My phone said: “RAINBOWS!!!!!”

I cursed. This meant I was late meeting my sister and my beautiful niece for our Saturday walk by the creek. It meant that Penny was grumpy with me because I wasn’t there yet, it meant she thought she was being clever by instead telling me what little Cecily had seen (the tweet was from the @CecilyCuteStuff account she had set up), and it meant it was raining. Dammit.

Diving out the door, I grabbed the brolly leaning against the wall and then blinked in the bright sunshine. No rain. Not a cloud in the sky. Double-drat—then they’re down at the falls already, Cecily trying to lean forward to put her fingers in the water as it cascades over the ledges, and Penny attempting to keep her as dry as possible. I grabbed a hat and sunscreen instead, repositioned my backpack (and cursed at the weight—how much food and drink could a five-year-old consume anyway?) and jogged down the road to the path by the creek.

It was only a few minutes later when I caught up with them at the bridge over the old swimming hole. I’d slowed down as I approached, trying to catch my breath, when an eager child ran at full tilt into my stomach. Cecily hovered over me for the whole time it took for my muscles to remember how to inhale again, while Penny merely looked up and down the creek, scanning for possible wildlife. That was the point of the walks as far as she was concerned: a nature excursion for her daughter. For me it was a load of fun to listen to Cec’s excited chatter, and a chance to work off some of the flab that accumulates when you sit behind a desk all day.

“You were ever so late, Auntie. We waited for ages and ages, and Mum talked with some other walkers, and we saw two wattlebirds, and we only just got to the first bridge!”

“Sorry, pumpkin. I was up too late last night. Now where exactly did you see those wattlebirds?”

Cec pointed back upstream, her finger wavering somewhere between the school and the old garage that sits across the creek at the highway. The creek runs through the town, under the highway and down to the falls, and used to be the water supply for the trains back when steam was a way of life. Later, it was the rubbish dump for half the businesses in town, and it was only the last twenty years of incredibly hard work by the local bush care clubs that had brought the cleanliness of the creek back to something the animals could enjoy. The clubs had also cleaned up the old path down the side of the creek, removing non-indigenous trees and encouraging native plants, with the lovely effect that the bird life was returning as fast as the quolls. And the tourists. And locals wanting a pleasant walk. It was not unusual on a Saturday to run into other people enjoying the sunlight and the sound of the running water. If you were lucky now, you could see a yabby.

The town of Wentworth Falls, “Wenty” for short, is more of a village. There’s only one hair salon, one cheapy junk shop, and one pub. Want a carton of milk after nine o’clock? Not a hope. But want the most evil sour cherry danish pastries this side of Sydney and I’ll point you to the bakery and insist on accompanying you to make sure they’re still as wicked as ever. There are a couple of real estate agents, the mechanics’ garage at the bottom of the hill over the creek, and two butchers. But sod all else.

We rounded the next turn, about fifty metres up from the falls themselves—a two hundred metre sheer drop down sandstone cliffs—when the blue-clad group gathered on the path caught our eye. It’s not often you see a policeman on foot in the area, so to see a dozen all gathered around a pile of ropes and pulleys was a shock. They were accompanied by some of the professional climbers from the area—that usually meant bad news. A tourist wanting a view of the falls closer than the fence allowed, or a desperately miserable person wanting to go out with a long drop.

I knew some of the climbers from my work at the tech college up the road. Tom, the Head Teacher for Outdoor Guiding, waved and ran up to us.

“Mary! You’re looking fit!” This was kindness on his part—I was red-faced and sweating, and nothing on my body could remotely be called “fit”.

“Heya Tom. What’s the story?” I looked around at the pile of equipment. They included roll-up canvas ladders, full packs, and torches. It was obviously important and going to be difficult—hard enough that they expected to be out all night.

He smiled at me, and gestured me to a shady spot a little way from the rest of the group. The sergeant from the local cop shop was outlining search limits, but Tom obviously already knew the deal. “Not something you want the small person to hear, OK?” I nodded, and he continued. “You know that robbery yesterday down the mountain? The one at the jewellers where they clobbered the assistant and cleaned the place out?”

“Oh yeah. Car chase up the highway, and some fast turns around the Linden Bends. The cops couldn’t keep up, which means the gang are probably locals with knowledge of the area. How much did they get?”

“Our friends in blue won’t say.” Tom rubbed his fingers together in the age-old sign for money. “But I’m sure there’s a reward. And more importantly, we think they hid the jewels somewhere around here. The Lithgow cops caught the gang last night, but no sign of the shiny things. Our boys found the first car abandoned in the Bowling Club car park this morning. We thought it might be just car-swapping, but then we found footprints heading down the creek.”

He glanced over to where Cecily was dabbling her toes in the creek, and looked back at me.

“A hiding place? How much space are we talking?”

“About the size of a football. So look out for anything unusual. ” A yell from the group behind him jerked him back into “professional” mode. “And I’d best go. Keep your eyes out.”

“I will.” I clapped him on the back, and he hoisted a coil of rope over one shoulder and set off down the creek with the others. Cecily came running over to me, a tadpole cupped in her hands and mud all the way up her shoes and socks.

“Auntie Mary, I caught a fishie!” The next few minutes were taken up with a description of the life cycle of frogs in a manner suitable for a small child, and then the rapidly expiring critter was returned to his muddy puddle at the side of the creek and we pushed on down the pathway. Penny and I mused over the possibilities—both the fate of the gang, and the many and varied ways a pair of eager women can spend a hypothetical reward.

“A holiday. Somewhere where I can relax and not be the mother all the time.” Penny’s dreams were a little more realistic than mine. “And one of the gems would be nice, too.”

I laughed—my sister is the “jeans and sneakers” sort, and didn’t have the inclination towards make-up and jewellery even before Cecily came along. “And a new set of bookshelves for me, and perhaps some books for them.”

“As if. Your shelves are already double-packed. And where would you fit them? You’ve turned your spare bedroom into a library already, and it’s completely full.” She turned back to Cecily, who was watching the sunlight glint off the water at the last still pool. Cecily was trying to catch something, but every time she lifted her hands from the water she looked disappointed.

I used the prerogative of annoying younger sisters to splash Penny from behind while her attention was diverted, and the next little while passed wetly. Cecily decided that she needed to be part of it too, and by the time we stopped we were all soaked and muddy, the light sparkling through the drops on our clothes as they fell to the ground. They looked like diamonds and I was recalled to our new purpose.

“So if we’re getting this amazing reward, we need to think like jewel thieves.”

Penny had removed Cecily’s wet outer clothes and let her frolic for a while in her undies while we unpacked the picnic gear. “All right. We’ve got something with us that’s small.”

“Like me?” Cecily galloped up to us, her eyes on the lunch. “I’m going to be even smaller if I can’t have lunch.”

“Hang on, Pumpkin.” I laid out the sandwiches while Penny poured the juice. “There are plenty of places off the cliff. But that would mean chucking a bag of jewels down, and at night you wouldn’t see where it could land. It would work if you were trying to get rid of them, but not if you want to hide them for later.”

“Agreed.” Penny frowned, and absent-mindedly rubbed her ankle. “And you couldn’t carry stuff down those steep goat tracks at night. Just trying to climb them yourself isn’t easy. I can still feel that sprain.”

“Yeah, you’d need your hands free. No, you don’t want to spend time doing that. Pass the nappy.” This last comment might seem a little strange to outsiders, but when we were kids, our mum had always packed an old clean nappy soaked in water with the picnic gear, so that hands could be easily washed. I scrubbed at my own hands, surprised at how resistant the mud was being, then passed it to Penny who attempted to remove some of the creek’s finest silt from Cec’s face and hands. Little Miss Five submitted to this treatment with resignation, then began what she thought was a stealthy raid on the fairy bread. Alas, she looked up just as I was scowling, and hurriedly went for a cheese sandwich instead, which she took to the water’s edge and ate as she looked at the water.

“If that’s the case, then they’re looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t seem logical.” I took a bite from a sandwich myself. “I could understand that if you were by yourself and hiding out for murder, especially if you knew the area. But not for a jewel heist. You can’t sell the gems out in the bush, and you’d need to know you could get back to them. No, they’ve hidden them somewhere else.”

“And taken off with a new car that they left at the Bowling Club. Lucky it wasn’t a Thursday night, or they would have had the cheap meal contingent on their case.” We giggled at that. The Bowling Club sat up the hill from the creek, on the same highway as the pub and the garage. Thursday nights the place was packed, as the meals were only five dollars per person and every pensioner in the area regarded it as a sacred duty to have the meal and play the pokies for a couple of dollars’ worth. The food wasn’t bad, and I’d often treat Penny and Cec to a dinner there. But the car park would have been packed Thursday night, so the replacement vehicle must have been put there on a Friday. Probably some kind-hearted worker at the club thought it was left by someone doing the sensible thing and catching a cab home instead of driving under the influence. I looked up at Cec, who was once more bending over the water, her sandwich forgotten beside her and now the province of a line of starving ants.

“Cec, hon, don’t lean in. You’ll fall.”

“Auntie! Rainbows!”

I looked at Penny, who shrugged. “She saw some this morning, in the water. Made me put it on the Twitter. Nothing special.” She turned to her daugher, who was looking now at the water and jumping up and down in that excited summoning way that only small children can.

“My turn, I think.” I pushed myself up and staggered over to my niece, who grabbed my arm and pointed into the water. Sure enough, floating on the surface was a fine film of oil, the sunlight catching it and turning the slick into a prismatic wonder. The colours shone brightly, reminding me of wild nights and early rising and rainy days and wet roads.

And my stomach turned and I grabbed Cec’s hand and pulled her back to Penny. “Have you got any soap on that old nappy?”

“Some. Why?”

I grabbed the rag out of Penny’s hand and cleaned Cec’s face and fingers roughly, the small body starting to shake as she cried from the startling and the scrubbing. Looking at the rag, I saw the oily scum had stained the cotton, and folded it over to a new spot to clean my own hands.

“Don’t eat anything else,” I told Penny, handing the rag to her as I held and comforted my niece. “And I’ll tell you why after, but you and Cec need to go home and have a good wash before you finish lunch. And I need to go talk to Tom and the sergeant.”

She looked quizzically at me, then picked up her daughter and started striding back up the path, Cec’s cries of bewilderment drifting back to me as I abandoned the picnic. Some things were more important than fairy bread.

Three hours later, Tom knocked at my door, the smile on his face telling me the important facts.

“Tea?”

“I’d love a cup.” He shed his muddy boots on the verandah and followed me into the kitchen. “But you have to tell me, Mary—how the bloody hell did you know they’d buried the gems under the old garage?”

“Did you never hear how the garage spent half a century dropping oil and old engine parts into the creek, before the council came down on them twenty years ago and made them clean up their act?” I turned on the kettle and unearthed the teapot. “When Cec saw the rainbows, what she was seeing was the oil that had come out of the old creek bed when they disturbed it to dig the hiding place. The creek had been so clean for so long, it was a shock to see that scum in it.” I threw two teabags into the pot, then turned back to Tom in distress. “And now, the bastards, that oil is going to leak out for ages.”

“So spend your reward money on the clean-up!”

“Maybe. If I get it. If not—well, Cecily always does like mucking around in the creek.”

pencil

Gillian Brent is a tall red-headed computer tech who is finally allowing herself to think she can write. Mother of two grown boys, now mother of two overfed dogs. Cook, knitter, sewer, she-who-wields-the-drill. She grew up in a sceptical household (daughter of a mathematician and a journalist) but fell for the glory of fantasy at an early age. Now she has a foot in both worlds, although her best work seems to come from the truth. And she’s been addicted to Cadbury Creme Eggs for 25 years. Thank goodness Easter is only yearly. Email: gmbrent[at]optusnet.com.au