The eucalyptus and red gums exploded with thrumming, the air vibrating with the voice of a thousand cicada pupae; the aural accompaniment to the heat haze wafting up from melting bitumen.
Thomas turned off the road onto an almost hidden path between two houses and disappeared into a pocket of bushland dissecting the suburbs. As he followed the doglegged track beside the creek the houses disappeared behind a thickening screen of eucalypts; a curtain forming a protective hollow for exploration and tranquillity. His thongs slapped a staccato rhythm against well-worn feet toughened by walking barefoot everywhere except across patches of bindies.
Against the commotion of cicadas, a girl’s voice sang: “We built this city on rock and roll.”
Around the bend, she came into view, her back to him, bopping on the spot. She held a bright yellow Walkman and the headphones covered her ears like miniature Princess Leia cinnamon scroll hair buns.
“Katie,” he said.
The singing continued. He jumped forward a step and tapped her on the shoulder. She startled and turned, ripping the headphones off her ears, the song lost to the cicadas’ drone.
“Wondered if you were gonna turn up,” she said.
He pointed to the Walkman. “When did you get that?”
“For my birthday.” Katie turned and walked ahead, the headphones now a necklace.
They walked in single file: Thomas keeping in step behind Katie. He picked at low hanging leaves, tearing them into pieces before scattering the fragments. The thought of their last year of primary school temporarily interrupted the summer holidays.
“Who do you reckon you’ll get next year?” asked Thomas to Katie’s back.
“I want Mr Murdoch for Year 6. You?”
“Same. Or Mrs Watson. Don’t mind.”
“Don’t have to worry for six weeks til school goes back.”
Katie stopped at the storm water marker, a large concrete cylinder jutting out of the ground above the creek, the front exposed by floodwaters chewing at the soil. She sat on the circular cover, the yellow paint worn back to the base metal in several places and drew her knees to her chest. The exhalation of nature’s breath moved the tops of the trees up on the ridgeline. It was unfelt in the gully cut by the creek where the air stood still in the heat, a clammy hand wringing sweat from every pore.
Thomas slipped down to the creek.
“Going to be a bumper year for cicadas,” said Thomas, his back to Katie.
“What?” The quiet gurgle of water ran as a counterpoint and his words were swallowed by the cacophony.
Thomas reached for a long stick, wary of the time they’d seen a red-bellied black snake cross their path, before disappearing into the undergrowth.
In the shadow of an over hanging tree Katie watched tiny skinks scurrying and skittering through the leaf litter to find a place to sun themselves. She picked the broad waxy leaves and collected thin twigs. Selecting two leaves of similar shape and size she began to fashion the hull of a boat, interlacing the leaves with the twigs like a needle and thread. A second twig crossed from port to starboard to give it shape. Putting it aside she crafted another followed by a third: a dry docked flotilla moored beside her.
The snap and crackle of dry undergrowth signalled Thomas’s return. He threw down his snake stick, his other hand held slightly in front and loosely closed. Katie swung her legs over the edge of the storm water marker, tucking her hands under her knees. He climbed up from the creek and stood beside the storm water marker a little below her eye line. Beads of sweat formed a watery moustache in his upper lip. He wiped it clean with his free hand.
“I have a present for you.” He unfolded his fingers and picked an object from his palm.
Reaching over, he placed the empty cicada shell he’d carried up from the creek on Katie’s t-shirt; its hooked limbs stuck into the fluoro green fabric. Katie looked down at the empty shell astride her burgeoning right breast.
“Have you read Where Did I Come From?” Katie asked.
“Dad gave it to me after that night at school.”
“Have you seen a breast before? Like a real one?”
“I’ve only seen Mum’s.”
Thomas looked at the cicada shell and the small raised profile beneath Katie’s t-shirt.
Katie removed the cicada shell from her shirt and placed it beside her. She reached down to the hem of her t-shirt and lifted it over her chest, slipping her arms out of the sleeves. It formed a scarf. Her new breasts poked out; the areola beginning to rise like a loaf of bread.
“Touch them,” she said.
With his finger Thomas traced around the shape of her breast and over the nipple, a drop of left over dough mixture like he had seen when his mother made cup cakes.
“It’s very soft.”
“Mum says I’m a late starter. I’ll be the only girl in Year 6 who doesn’t need to wear a bra,” she said, slipping her arms back into her t-shirt. “I wear a singlet so I feel like everyone else.”
She pulled her t-shirt down and placed the cicada shell back above her breast.
“Do you have any hair down there?” she asked.
Thomas stepped up from his position below the storm water marker, pushed his thumbs into the waistband of his shorts and underpants and lowered them half way down his thighs. A handful of hairs sprouted above his flaccid penis. Katie reached out and held it.
“Feels like an uncooked sausage,” she said letting go.
She stood and hesitated before pulling down her shorts.
“You’re lighter down there than on your head,” he said.
“Your’s is about the same.”
The thrum of the cicadas intensified as they covered their nakedness. Katie bent down and picked up two leaf boats, placing one in Thomas’s hand.
“Come on,” she said and cocked her head towards the gurgling creek.
The little boats rode the quickening current, squeezed between mossy rocks and out into a deeper pool where the water stilled, circling in the eddy. Katie’s boat was whisked away, quickly lost to sight while Thomas’s continued meandering in circles.
“Time to go,” said Thomas as the thrum ebbed. “Forgot to tell Mum where I was going.”
Katie checked the shell was still attached to her shirt. Thomas picked up the spare leaf boat and followed Katie out of the bush to the chorus of cicadas.
* * *
After the third consecutive 40-degree day he took a bet he couldn’t cross the four lanes of the main road. Barefoot. A small contingent of hardy souls came out to see the spectacle but took refuge under whatever shade was handy. Even the cicadas thought it was brutally hot to make too much of a fuss.
Thomas stood barefoot on the edge of the gutter feeling the heat rebound off the bitumen into his soles. As he shifted his weight the dry grass crackled beneath his feet. Checking both ways for traffic he tensed, digging his toes into the grass before launching onto the black expanse.
He sprinted. The first few steps felt good, his feet barely touching the surface. The heat dispersed momentarily as his foot raised mid-stride, cooled with the passing air. By the time he reached the double white lines in the middle the heat had accumulated in the soles of his feet, exacerbated by the friction of running. The safety of the opposite gutter seemed unattainable. A few strides from sanctuary, he made a desperate leap for the grass. His toes clipped the gutter, scraping the skin, sending him sprawling.
“Water,” he yelped.
A kid who lived opposite ran for the garden hose coiled like a snake in the sun and turned it on. There was a brief second of relief before the scalding water enflamed his aching feet. He yelled.
“Let it run cold,” said Katie, pushing the stream away.
The cicadas intensified into white noise as Thomas watched the stream of water gush tantalisingly close to his aching feet.
“My feet are melting!”
The arc of water returned and drenched his feet, ran down his calves and down to his groin while the ground drank, unable to slake its thirst.
“Who’s gonna get my thongs from the other side?” he asked as the crowd dispersed.
Katie dropped them at his feet. “One step ahead of you.”
For the next two days the painful pressure of walking kept him indoors. The coolness of the kitchen linoleum was a respite but he preferred the bathroom tiles. With his back to the bath he moved his feet from tile to tile refreshing his aching soles. Katie sat cross-legged on the lid of the toilet and watched between sips of orange cordial and bites of watermelon.
* * *
Thomas counted the remaining seconds of summer by the incessant clacking of a thousand Green Grocers, Yellow Mondays and Black Princes while Katie went with her family to Queensland for the last two weeks of the holidays. He sat beneath the eucalypts or the liquid ambers and let time slip over him. A measured cacophony where he imagined each click to be a grain of sand rattling against the hourglass.
“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said and Thomas stared at the picture perfect image of Noosa when it arrived, then turned it over. The stamp was skewed in the top right hand corner. Katie’s neatly formed cursive script filled the blank space.
Having a great time.Sunburn is now peeling and I saw a sea turtle when snorkelling.
See you at school.
He pinned it to the corkboard over his desk, just above the pen tray where he kept his prized shells. First he put it picture side out but turned it over five minutes later to see Katie’s handwriting.
Picking up the plastic ice cream container of cicada shells, he went out the back, slipped into his thongs and headed towards the creek. Overhead the click of a cicada turned into a shriek. A magpie landed on a branch, its prize plucked from the air and smashed it against the bough. The carcass of a Green Grocer dropped to the ground.
The wings, miniature cellophane stained glass windows, reflected the late afternoon sun. He remembered watching a pupa emerge from the shell, its wings wet, requiring the heat and warmth of the sun to give them strength. The remainder of the afternoon was spent squatting back on his heels, under the eucalyptus in the backyard, watching tiny black ants scour the carcass, moving inside and out, under and over.
The students swarmed around one another on the first day of Year Six, creating their own cacophony: talking over each other about movies they watched, places they went, who stacked it on bike or skateboard, the worst sunburn and the space shuttle explosion.
Katie appeared in front of Thomas, hair in a multitude of plaits beaded at each end. He stared at the remnants of sunburn peeling from her nose, the fresh pink skin pushing through the darker outer layers. She squeezed his hand and he felt something cool inside. In his hand was an empty pippi shell, the translucent pinks and greys beginning to fade.
“I couldn’t beat your watermelon seed spitting distance,” he said. “I tried every day you were away.”
Summer paused with the first chime of the school bell. Lines were arranged, desks assigned while blisters formed on heels as new shoes were broken in. In Mr Murdoch’s class, Thomas sat in the row behind Katie, three lines of desks back from the board.
The excitement of the new year faded with the waning of summer. Blisters healed, exercise books became dog-eared, scattered with marginalia and the cicadas began to fall silent, settling in to the winter hibernation.
* * *
On the cusp of a new summer, Thomas wore his best jeans and a new shirt purchased especially for the Year 6 dance, rounded off with his favourite pair of worn-out sneakers. A begrudgingly accepted compromise.
“You’ve put gel in your hair,” Katie said.
She tugged at the hem of a black cardigan worn over a green dress that danced around her knees when she moved.
“You look pretty in green,” said Thomas.
“Green is my favourite colour.”
“Please find your partners for the Pride of Erin,” announced Mr Murdoch behind the Mobydisc desk after muting the squeal of feedback.
Two circles formed: boys on the inside, girls on the outer. Thomas and Katie held hands in the correct position. Against the clamminess of his, Katie’s were cool and soft. He glanced at her breasts removed from their winter shell, fuller and rounder than when he had touched them.
They danced their steps in time to the music as practiced and Katie’s dress flared out as she spun to move onto the next boy. Thomas watched the green dress progress around the circle.
The song ended with a polite smattering of applause. Formalities over, pop songs bounced out of the speakers and girls walked like Egyptians as the boys congregated and boys danced on the ceiling while the girls huddled in the corners.
Thomas never lost sight of the green dress.
* * *
Summer started before the school term ended. The first slap of thongs on bare feet beneath the eucalyptus and red gums punctuated the buzz of cicadas in the trees above. Another dry docked flotilla beached on the metal storm water marker—Achilles’ beaked ships drawn up on the shores of Ilium. Beside it, lined up like an alien invasion fleet of star ships, sat row upon row of empty cicada shells.
Thomas and Katie stood side by side, their toes edged into the water, careful not to slip on the moss, a boat held by each.
“Look,” said Katie, lifting up her t-shirt over her chest with her spare hand. “First real bra.”
“I still wear Batman undies,” said Thomas.
Katie stepped upstream, crouched and set her boat sailing. As it reached the end of the channel, Thomas stooped down, scooped it from the water and passed it back.
“What’s your uniform like for high school?” he asked.
She crouched down again, ready to set her boat afloat.
“Gross. At Mount St. Benedict’s Girls’ School I have to wear a white hat every day. And a blazer.”
“At Turrammurra High you have to wear a tie. Mum’s already bought my new uniform.”
“What’s it like?” she asked.
The boat sailed.
“The jumper’s a bluey-green colour. Mum calls it teal blue.”
The boat was scooped and returned.
“Anyone else going you know of? Anyone from Mrs Watson’s class?” he asked.
“No. Just me.”
The boat sailed.
It rushed past Thomas’s feet, caught the current, and sailed on. Thomas squatted down and launched his boat, forever to play catch-up.
* * *
Katie grabbed Thomas’s hand. “Graduation’s over. Come with me.”
“Where?” asked Thomas.
“I have a present for you.’
They slipped though the milling parents and children, shined shoes and neat hair, and threadbare uniforms holding out to the last moment. Thomas looked over his shoulder to the stage and the banner above the podium: Congratulations Year 6. We’ll Miss You. He caught snippets of parents’ conversations discussing successes or disappointments.
He let go of Katie’s hand and paused in the stuffiness of the school hall letting the din of voices and scraping chairs reverberate. Through the open doors at the rear of the hall he caught the faint click of cicadas of the evening as night fell. A hand slipped into his and pulled him away.
The cicadas’ buzz intensified as the hall’s murmurs receded.
“Where are we going?”
Katie led the way past darkened classrooms and stopped at the last in the row.
“It’s our room,” said Thomas. Moths battered into the fluorescent light above the door. The light left on in the storeroom illuminated the forest of chair legs placed on desks. Thomas looked in to where he had sat, where Katie had sat, all from a different angle.
Katie unzipped the pocket of her uniform and handed across a large matchbox.
“I found this on the first day of summer and kept it for you.”
Thomas cupped the matchbox in his left hand and pushed the tray with his right forefinger. Inside was a perfect cicada shell. She reached over and carefully removed it, placing it on his shirt just above his chest.
“Bye, Tommy,” she said.
Leaning in, hands on his shoulders, she kissed him tenderly on the cheek. He felt the wetness of her lips and tackiness of lip-gloss, smelling faintly of strawberries. He felt the gentle pressure of her breast and heard the snap of the shell breaking.
And the cicadas fell silent.
ADAM BYATT (c) 2014
First published in Tincture Literary Journal, 2014