By Julia Archer
I never thought a bike ride with my younger brother could leave me still waking up from nightmares months after.
Yeah, we do live in central Asia, and some people might think that’s dangerous or exciting. But life for me and Joel is pretty much like it was back home in Australia. It’s school and sport, family stuff, and hanging out with friends.
A bike ride a major drama? No way.
Dad’s a journalist, and we live in Gulistan so he can cover stories across Asia, from riots to elections to earthquakes. The shrapnel scar on his face is from when he got too close to the war in Afghanistan.
But here in Gulistan, there’s no war and riots don’t happen often. Life’s ordinary. So this Saturday, when I looked out the window and saw the rain had nearly stopped, and I was going mental in the house playing Skate with Joel, I right away thought of a bike ride.
The rain had been pelting down for a week. All the sports fields were muddy swamps. Otherwise, right now I would’ve been leading the International School onto the park to play Princes College.
I said, ‘Hey, Joel. The rain’s easing off. Let’s go for a ride.’
‘Nah. It’s too wet.’
‘Come on. You’re supposed to be keeping fit.’
‘Nah, Ben. If you don’t want to play this game, get Motor Storm or something.
I took the controller out of his hands and pulled him to his feet. ‘Let’s ride, little brother.’
We got the bikes, opened the gate and rode down the narrow street where the potholes had been breeding like vermin under the pounding rain. Deep, sharp-edged, they could wreck a wheel rim if you hit one. My parents had to drive down the street in first gear, easing the wheels into the holes and out again.
Today they were both out of town, driving my sister Sarah to some cultural show down the highway.
Joel called from behind me, ‘Ben? You want to go and see if there’s water in the canal?’
‘There won’t be. It’s just a disused irrigation canal. It’s half blocked.’
‘We can look.’
‘Okay. If you want.’
We rode that way, turning out of College Park, Joel whingeing about the rain. ‘It’s running off my helmet, into my ears. I’m cold, Ben, and the wind’s going right through my jacket.’
‘Toughen up, Joel!’
‘You ever notice rain has sharp points?’
I started laughing. ’No! Never notices that.’
We were passing little convenience shops and tiny food stalls on the roadside. Today the stalls were sheltering from the rain under plastic sheets tied to trees or power poles. Cars driving past sprayed water over everything.
Up ahead I could see men and kids standing looking down into the old canal, so I knew Joel must be right, and there was water in it.
We rode over and joined the spectators. Yeah, water was boiling along, but not deep.
‘Where does it come from, do you think?’ I asked Joel.
‘From the river. I rode all the way there, once. With Aurangzeb. When the canal’s dry it’s like the world’s longest BMX track.’
Aurangzeb’s a Gulani on my football team, but he’s Joel’s mate, too. I said, ‘Really?’
‘Yeah. But the end of the canal is blocked with dirt now. The only way the river could spill into it is if it’s flooded right over the banks.’
We sat there in the light rain, both of us with one foot on the ground.
How deep was the canal going to fill? We settled down to watch, along with a growing crowd of Gulanis.
When the farmland was taken over by suburbs, a long time ago, the developers put concrete pipes into the canal and proper fill over them whenever a major road had to go across. But the minor roads dip down and cross on a ridge of packed dirt. So today we had pools and rapids and water rushing through pipes, and it was all a lot of fun to watch.
Kids threw sticks into the water and shrieked as the sticks bounced and spun and raced away. Flood debris came along, too, all making a bit of excitement.
The water was still rising steadily. Looking upstream I saw the rapids over the dirt ridges were now just a bit of turbulence. Downstream the water had filled the first layer of pipes under College Park Drive.
Screams and shouts made me spin around. I couldn’t see anything except all the pointing, the Gulani men and boys running along the bank until a child’s head broke the water. My heart almost jumped out of my chest, like NO! I was frozen with the horror of that little head spinning round and round, racing down the canal, going under and coming up again.
Joel reacted faster. He was on his bike, accelerating down the canal bank, weaving through the running people. He can’t have had any idea what he could do except to get ahead of the child being tossed around in the filthy brown water. I followed, fighting my way through the running crowd.
The child disappeared into the pipes, and by the time I crossed the road he’d come out, still spinning around, and I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Joel was way ahead of me, in clear space now, ahead of the child, riding as fast as he could along the muddy bank. What does he think he can do? He isn’t going to dive in there, is he?
There was one more road crossing, one more set of pipes, and then the canal just ran on and on, I didn’t know where.
Joel was nearly at the road, but in front of him was a wide ditch full of rushing water that poured over the bank and into the canal. He twisted and flipped and flew over the water and up the bank to the road, spun left, braked and jumped off. He lifted his bike out over the rail, held it by the crossbar, and dropped it straight down as a heap of debris arrived, pinning the bike across the pipes. Two seconds later the child slammed into the debris, his arms thrashed wildly, he clung on. He was alive.
A shout went up from the crowd, and they crossed the ditch holding onto each other, terrified of being swept away into the canal. I crossed with them, holding my bike, feeling the safe grip of strong hands on my arms.
Below us, the water fought noisily, angrily, against the obstruction, frothing and bubbling and reaching for the higher pipes. In it all, the little boy was screaming, vomiting up water, coughing, and screaming until he had to take a breath, and screaming again. It was a sound that would haunt me in my nightmares for months.
What could we do? No-one had a rope, it was too far to reach down, and he couldn’t last long. He’d drown or die of cold. The water was rising, the debris with it. He’d be washed through the upper pipe.
A man slid carefully down the concrete side of the canal, another man holding one of his wrists, then that man slid down to the water, his arm gripped, and I held my breath as this incredible human chain stretched out in the wild water towards the child.
The first man grabbed at his slippery little arm, but the child’s screaming grew more frantic, and he fought wildly to stay attached to his tree branch. In the struggle, his head went under a few times, and I thought, He’s going to drown, for all the awesome guts of these guys. Joel was on the edge of the bank, and his body language told me what he was going to do. No, Joel!
I went in. I had no choice. Two strokes in the swift water took me to the little boy wildly thrashing one hand, flighting off the rescuer’s attempts to seize it. I hooked my arm under the skinny little arms, around his icy chest, and pulled him gently against my body. Like a lifesaver in Australia might do. No way could I swim back now, one-handed against the current. I reached out to the nearest man, felt his strong fingers clutch my wrist, and the boy’s screams ripped my eardrums as I pulled him off the branch.
Now the water was fighting harder against my head and shoulders, as the human chain towed me slowly, slowly towards the bank, but all I thought about was keeping that little head above the swirling water.
It seemed to take forever. The flood wasn’t going to give us up without a fierce fight. Debris slashed and slammed us, but now I could hear excited shouting, the sound of men winning a battle. Suddenly my back was scraping concrete and hands were grabbing me under my armpits, grabbing my clothes, and I was clear of the water.
A man took the child, holding him in his arms, kissing him and speaking softly in Gulsha. Everyone crowded around, and they took him to a shop, out of the rain. A woman came out of a house with a towel, and dry clothes, and helped rub the warmth back into him while he sobbed and called out for his mum and dad.
I had blood running down my back and arms. So did the other guys who’d gone into the floodwater and debris.
I slowly realised that no-one here was related to the boy. They were looking upstream for anyone to come running to claim him. They’d risked their lives for a stranger’s child! I blinked back tears. Those guys should each get a medal. For me, it was nothing, no big deal at all. I’m a strong swimmer. None of them were. I was certain. Swimming isn’t in Gulani culture.
Joel was standing beside me, watching them, too, and shivering so hard in the cold rain he could nearly dislocate something. He’s muscled up a bit over the last few months, but there’s still not much of him. Always been a skinny little runt.
I said, ‘Come on, Joel. We need to get you home, and in a hot bath with a hot drink inside you.’ I picked up my bike. ‘Hop on the crossbar. I’ll give you a lift.’
‘Uh, Ben?’ He was wiping his face, wet from tears or rain I couldn’t tell.
D’you think Dad’ll say I’m irresponsible for losing my bike?’
What? Irresponsible? Seriously?
But, yeah, he honestly was worried he might be in trouble. What an amazing kid. He’s never had any idea his quick thinking is a gift not everyone has. I wished he was on my football team.
I said, ‘No, mate. He will not. He will absolutely be happy to buy you a new bike.’
Dad had seen enough death, enough terrible things in the wars and disasters he’d covered. I knew for a total certainty he’d say a lost bike was a very cheap price for a child’s life.