I found water chilling my five-year-old bed-warmed feet as they reached the floor one grey morning. My tiny toes soon retracted, shocked and sloshing. 

It became my first conscious memory of water’s impact on my own body, my life. It became hard-wired, the first of many welling watery waves.

Around Australia today, 50-odd years later, countless small children are beginning to grasp the power of water. 

Their town’s rivers are rising centimetres daily, morphing from pretty local fishing spots to the places that swallow cars and houses. 

Their cars and houses.

My fine messy curls, slightly sweaty from a night of innocent slumber, flapped as I shivered at the weird, watery abundance.

It was licking at my ankles, splashing at my calves, spilling beneath my bedroom door from the linoleum hallway beyond.

Why was a paddling pool on my bedroom floor? A sense of forbidden fun charged through me as I scrunched my nightie in my hands, knowing I shouldn’t let it get wet. 

These new sensations were accompanied by a rhythmic swooshing sound. The shape of my mother efficiently sweeping watery waves towards our open front door came into view as I peeked into the hallway. 

An unfamiliar coolness had also pooled there in the darkened corridor. 

Outside the front door, a dull yet oddly bright morning was shedding light on our toppled rubber tree. Its split trunk and once sky-high branches now blocked our car’s exit from the carport and driveway. A fallen giant.

My brother and I were wide-eyed as we met in the hallway, our bare submerged feet tip-toeing their way through the dimness.

Mum broke her broom-wielding focus, scooping us close with her free arm. Her perspiration left a smudge on our faces and shoulders as she ushered us outside with the excess fluid, thin summer pajamas a novel uniform for the day.

We raced to clamber between the fallen branches and shiny purple-red leaves of the dense tree that had once separated our front yard from the neighbour’s.

They too were surveying this brave new early morning world and Tropical Cyclone Trixie’s hallmarks. I began to hear the word ‘damage’ repeatedly spill from everyone’s mouths – Trixie Cyclone, whoever she was had a damaging reputation.

And she was way stronger than anyone I knew. 

Everything was so different today. Perhaps yesterday was a dream. What would tomorrow be like? The answers didn’t make any sense.

I’d never met Trixie. Where was she now and why had she damaged our street? Would she come back?

Sheets of water had moved mounds of soil to the road below, mowing through the shrubbery of the gully beyond. 

It had created deep rivulets in the sloping remainder of scant lawn, exposing the roots of trees all along the street.

The big kids next door rode their bikes through the silty build-up, creating new roadways, raising the sense of excitement that sent pulses through the thick atmosphere. 

Small bugs were sticking to my skin, floating in the air, lost.  

Leaves of all shapes and sizes were strewn confetti-like, some stuck fast in the diamond-patterned cyclone screens encasing the windows. 

Soon my toenails and cotton nighty were stained with the familiar rusty red of the Pilbara as I embraced the freedom. 

The attention of the adults was concentrated elsewhere, and a new pecking order had formed. The big boy next door was the leader of our street’s kids, on the new red chopper he got for Christmas.

I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. “Don’t go through that puddle on yer bike love, the spokes’ll rust.” 

I stole glances at his wheels to see if they had begun to lose their shine. I was certain Trixie had the power to make his bike rust.  

The swish of bristles on watery floors syncopated with my father’s axe as he and the street’s men hacked through green wood. White gooey tree blood dripped onto the sodden ground, like primary school craft glue. 

Offhand but furrowed-brow warnings not to touch the sticky deposits interjected as we made sense of our rearranged front yard and street. 

It grew steamier as the sun radiated under the dense cloudy blanket, powerful rays trying to melt their way through.

Toast for breakfast hadn’t entered our minds in this new overcast, eerie playground but plates of bread with butter and Vegemite were a welcome addition to our adventures beneath the soupy sky.

We wolfed the stiff slices down, leaving black salty flecks in the corners of our mouths. We were powering up for our next expedition, like underdressed astronauts on a new planet. The garden hose washed brekky down, flushing away the crumbs.    

Mum had made headway with the interior rivers, keen for muddy-footed children to stay outdoors as the floors began to dry. 

All the doors and windows were yawning open, sucking in air. This was new! We had been trained to conserve the refrigerated air that relieved us from the usual stinging outdoor temperatures by closing the doors behind us.        

Could we turn the telly on soon. Could we change into our play clothes for a trip to the shops. Could we go to the beach for a swim. That’d cool everyone down and make us all clean again.

Talk turned to the eye of the storm, how long it would last until the rain and wind returned, how much damage would Trixie do to a place called ‘inland’. 

I didn’t know storms had eyes. I searched skywards, expecting to meet the angry gaze of a grimacing girl called Trixie.

All I saw were endless clouds, plump with steely rain, and the sun still trying to burn its way back through to us.

My baby brother learned to swim in a water tank named Violet.

She was sheltered from the late afternoon sun by a lonely stand of eucalypt. Her cool, pump-fed oasis protected from the Pilbara’s unrelenting evaporation by a flimsy, removable corrugated tin cover weighed down with red house bricks.

The creaking jangle of her Southern Cross windmill eked out a welcome call, audible from the stone homestead 100m away. Our heads would turn, anticipating an elusive waft, willing it to tickle our sweaty hairlines.

Magnetised to mattresses on the verandah, we would patiently listen for the faint Indian Ocean breeze travelling from 50kms west.

We were placated by the blades’ midnight maneuvers; the remote yet friendly family member grated out a one-way conversation our ears became attuned to.

Laying sheetless under mosquito nets, Violet’s bounty drip-fed a lattice of floor-to-roof chicken wire colonised by hardy creepers. The damp shrubbery caught and cooled any breath of air that reached it, an ambitious solution to the throbbing brick and stone walls of the homestead’s inner sanctum.

Her liquid miraculously flushed the frog-infested chain-operated toilet, and the solitary kitchen tap echoed before the flooding swoosh eventually shuddered its arrival. 

Daily the noisy plumbing summoned the ancient waterbody from deep artesian bores into domestic and agricultural duty, gifting we humans a false sense of power despite our outback isolation.

The impossibly deep iron bath was rarely filled higher than bellybutton height and its scalding bounty needed a half-hour wait before tender skin and hardened shards of yellow soap could be introduced to its sterilising temperature.

My baby brother’s bulbous cranium, feathery golden filaments flattened, bobbed happily, buoyed by the liquid bonanza in the cool circular water tank. 

His chubby, star-dimpled hands and smooth brown forearms doggy-paddled between my cajoling parents, tall and strong enough to stubbornly grip Violet’s slimy concrete floor with their curling toes.

His green water-filled eyes lined with dark clumping lashes blinked unaffected, matched by a wide pink grin over perfect baby teeth. Bunching his shining cheeks, my baby brother’s giggle was never far away as he gave Violet another life-affirming vocation.

I called him ‘baby’, but my brother was a sturdy toddler the year I went into Grade Five. I was already lamenting my entry to weekday primary school boarding and the time it stole from my dusty meanderings at the faraway sheep station.

Like all youngest siblings, he remains an eternal infant, cradled at the family bosom, even as it shrivels into the drought of life.

As I struck out from the rickety ladder to the centre of Violet’s pool, I would dutifully heed stern commands to steer clear of the windmill’s pump float. It would surely pull me under if I edged too close.

Our movement stirred green globs, tongues registering a faint dirt quality, palms and soles gradually turning a stubborn wrinkly white. No one wanted to leave Violet on those baking afternoons. A swim in her was a relieving reward after an arduous day that began with the rising heat of the east and its smug crow song.

The dog lapped at the cattle trough, claiming her share of Violet, slumping down panting on the shady side of her hard grey cylindrical bulk. The red mud stuck to her short blonde coat, quickly solidifying before drying to dust. 

I witnessed my baby brother’s paddling grow stronger every weekend as I returned to the station after five days in town an hour’s drive away. Swimming lessons in the freezing chlorinated pool were a poor swap for Violet’s lukewarm yet intimate acceptance.

My middle brother and I demonstrated the finer points of our mandatory Education Department swimming lessons, introducing freestyle and showing off our backstroke. 

As we grew stronger, three butterfly strokes easily spanned Violet’s girth. 

Our boisterous skills splashed her waves of gold over the side, muddy rivulets sending her life force back to its earthly spring.

Before retreating beneath the covers to read myself to sleep, I would drape my dark blue Arena full piece across the end of my bed. 

There my racing bathers would wait, primed to help me slice through the rectangular body of water across town early the next day.

Nanna must have known I’d need an alarm one day. Every day. Except Sundays. The dark green faux leather had little time to gather dust as my hands reached almost daily for the small folding clock, shutting off the irritating bell. 

Shorts, a shirt and rubber thongs also waited at the bottom of the sturdy piped cotton bedspread. An already-packed bag held a faded towel, goggles, knickers, 20c, a plastic shopping bag for wet bathers and a freshly powdered swimming cap. Red.

My hand silenced the jangling of Nanna’s clock, and my body would groggily glide, eyes still closed to the toilet and bathroom. With teeth brushed, face splashed, and chlorine-green tinted hair pulled back into a quick ponytail, I was ready for the morning ritual.

The house was still and silent as I headed out the front door toward my Malvern Star, its pedals usually tangled with those of my brothers’, the well-used machines shoved carelessly into the steel bike rack welded by my father. 

My middle brother was often slower than me to leave the house for our shared destination, but he always caught up, forcing a race as we approached the town pool and its turnstile entry.

Swimming lessons. The endless challenge of immersing one’s sweaty limbs into a vast, chilly body of water to join the splashing queue chasing our relentless taskmaster – the black line.

100m medley to warm up, the coach always repeated the directions chalked on the poolside blackboard as the latecomers ebbed and flowed through the entry gates. 

But the ultimate coach was that black line, leading us on, stroke after stroke propelling our lithe bodies 50m closer to the finish line under the unflinching gaze of the analogue minute clock.

The water, initially a shocking scourge, became a warm supportive friend as we battled that line, punctuated with tumble turns and a brief loss of it from immediate view.

Always it returned, sometimes obscured by a floating Band-Aid, or a glinting coin, or misplaced goggles. Teamed with the buoyancy and freedom of the water, this meditation became a coping mechanism, a way to regulate the breath and repetitive limb beats, sped up or slowed down on command, setting the day’s rhythm.

Slavishly I churned up the metres, building my resilience and strength, giving my brain time to turn the worries of the coming day over, and my eyes a private space to seep tears unnoticed. Deep sobs reverberated in my eardrums as I pushed out air before refilling my hungry lungs. 

I anticipated the only obvious reward, a long warm shower in the concrete changeroom cubicle. 

Then, goose pimples calmed and body cosseted in dry clothes, I’d set out for the mainly downhill coast toward home and the comfort of Vegemite toast and Milo before another bike ride to school.

This swimming lesson routine was matched each afternoon with a swift sunset glide toward home. 

Another race to the family chlorine-smelling shower, followed by pajamas, Doctor Who, dinner and the exhausted release of a Trixie Belden novel and sleep.



Dirty paws and spittled mouths left their telltale marks on the dented 1-litre plastic bottles. 

They had once contained sweetened orange juice but were now refilled with the quenching plentiful water borne by our kitchen tap. Warm. Often plain hot, despite the blue coding on the tap of origin. 

Refrigeration was the key to life in that searing town.

Every couple of months the bottles were retired, after a life of rough and ready handling, the loss of lids a regular reason for renewal. 

They were refilled regularly each day with the steady stream of hard calcium-laced water that killed our thirst. Bulging again, the malleable vessels would be thrown haphazardly back into the fridge door, testing the limits of the Kelvinator’s forgiving plastic and aluminium barriers.

We couldn’t have predicted these bottles and their dwindling contents would become an after-dinner treat. A before sleep soother. 

These nightly sips were a reminder of a life left behind and the delicious dawning of the new one ahead. Adulthood was gaining on us like a rising spring tide. 

Until then, the years ahead were unbidden, with no comprehension of a future threat to our plentiful drinking water. 

But that watery end of days did arrive, and we were collectively responsible for exhausting our limited supply to soupy dregs, dished out in ever diminishing quantities until the bottles were finally and firmly empty. 

There was no option of a refill. The source was a 3,000km round trip away.

The strong smell of chlorine had become a comfort, when previously it had been a recognisable olfactory assault only overcome by a tooth-aching chill. We greedily gulped, its goodness dispersing to all corners of our bodies via intricate deltas of river-like veins.

We grew to love it by default. Chilled water was the only effective antidote to the urgent thirst that was the hallmark of young boundless energy. Lemon Cottees cordial sometimes broke the monotony, but the plain tap taste was never really surpassed for its sheer ability to revive.  

It was needed to replace the sweat that oozed between the grime of outdoor play, sport, bike rides, hill walks, salty swims and the beating sun on our hatless heads and freckled noses.

In contrast but just as plentiful, the softer water of these new southern water pipes lacked flavour. It took too long to rinse the soap suds from our hands, hair and clothes – a symptom of not being treated to within an inch of its life like its northern cousin.

How we ached for the comforting taste of fluoride and chlorine-treated artesian water, and later the dammed spoils of the Harding River.

Our young heads had never grasped there would be such a noticeable difference in such a simple thing. Water from the kitchen tap.

We were pining for a life we’d so naively taken for granted, as all children who are lucky enough to live in the moment do. 

We had begun to realise how our bodies, borne upon water, were finally changing course.

Meet the Author!

Michele Nugent is a former Australian print journalist and editor of 27 years, published author, blogger and busy media/comms officer for a metropolitan coastal local government. A 2021 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre Fellow, she is working on a 62k word coming of age manuscript that needs serious attention. She writes all day: in her head, via computer, pen and paper, to produce fact and fiction professionally and unprofessionally. 

Instagram: @printisnotdead Madam Editor – Perth, WA (@printisnotdead) • Instagram photos and videos

LinkedIn: Michele Nugent (4) Michele Nugent | LinkedIn


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