Dammed if you

It rained all summer the year they paved the road.

Our mob were opposed to the roadworks, of course, the natural (such as dirt) being spiritual and the artificial the domain of Ahriman, who would no doubt be just as surprised to hear he’s not a spirit after all as to find himself specifically associated with tarmac.

Hornsby Shire Council also failed to grasp this reasoning, said some things about bus traffic and paved the road.

The sloping five acre block that was by then the Arcadia Free School had a rich but largely forgotten history and an ambivalent relationship with drainage.

Never ceded by the Dharug, nonetheless at some point someone with European masonry habits had quarried a fair bit of sandstone out of it, built some wonky walls and a small bridge over a creek at the bottom of the hill then abandoned the project when their incompetent stonework fell into the water.

The creek bowed to form two boundaries of the property. I can’t remember the high point of its origin – a spring, perhaps? A pipe under the road, or some uncharted source on the adjacent property? It’s just another thing I’ve lost along with the site of the school itself.

The farmhouse where the school began looked to have been built in the 50s. The creek ran close by it then a hundred meters downhill past the quarry to a concrete weir. There it formed a putrid ditch about two meters deep, bowling-green surfaced with azolla and utterly anaerobic.

Being ten years old, Dang and me decided the most fun in the world was to stand in the middle of the weir and release methane bubbles by poking the rotting vegetation on the bottom with a stick. Having made the pond fart we’d try to ignite it by throwing lit matches. Naturally it was me that finally fell in.

Having to strip off my rank, sodden weed-encrusted clothes before Mum would let me in the car was humiliating enough that two years later I was still leery not just of the weir but all the other bodies of standing water on the school grounds.

There was the pond full of mosquito larvae in front of the covered walkway between two classrooms, a thriving swamp in the old quarry, and the dam.

The dam was presumably farm infrastructure from the same era as the house and had been used as a dump at some point. Or maybe it was a dump that had filled with water. Either way by the time I turned twelve it was a black pit of tetanus soup.

In dry weather you’d see loops of barbed wire and the filigree knife of a rusted-out 44 gallon drum crest the surface. When we returned to school after that wet summer it was brim-full and completely opaque with mud from the roadworks.

It being early in the term, Wat had yet to come up with anything to teach us. After some furrow-browed pondering he announced we were going to embark on “A test of bravery and common sense.” He instructed us to cross the dam while “avoiding hazards.” Dang shrugged, got his kit off and waded through the mess with the rest of them, having at least come up with the innovation of using a long stick to feel his way forward.

I just outright refused. You couldn’t have gotten me in there by throwing me. Wat was quietly furious and said several demeaning things about my cowardice while everyone else set about proving themselves. I sat on the side in the same nauseous adrenaline chill as the time I’d had to strip off in the car park. Water, water everywhere and I just couldn’t win.

Afterwards as the children sat in the sun to dry off he announced “You have all passed the test of bravery. He, on the other hand,” pointing at me in my mounting dread – “Is the only one to have passed the test of common sense.”

*Names are changed regularly to preserve freshness