BUOY

by Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning First Nations Australian writer. Her first book, Heat and Light (University of Queensland Press, 2014), was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize.

“Will you tell me when …?” Tai says, lifting up his shirt, showing his ribs.

Simon—younger, thinner—can’t.

There is no telling when they will disappear.  


Megan is swimming. She started ten weeks ago. She hasn’t missed a day. She is getting bigger in her shoulders. And her hands. She feels she carries herself differently.

She starts to sneak in an extra swim after work in the late hours of the night, lets herself back into the school where she works during the day as a gardener. Behind the school is a path going under the railway tracks and this is the trail from the skin bar to the south-west suburbs. She sees skin boys going home through the tunnel. Skin boys make thin shadows and are quiet for different reasons.

Even when she swims in the daytime she imagines them there, just beyond the pool gate, behind the wall. She doesn’t know why she thinks such men are so beautiful. There is one, Goorie fella, with dark stubble, moles on his cheeks, hanging out of grey-blue sweaters and black jeans, moving like a dancer. There is another, she thinks barely twenty, long waves of hair, eyes the colour of his pale jeans, white socks. Both as thin as cigarettes but not warm, they keep close to the walls as if exposed.

She swims every day and is determined to keep doing so. She is more buoyant than ten weeks ago, when she felt she might sink to the bottom with her thoughts.

In the day while she blows leaves and trims hedges, the pool is occupied with girls in lime-green costumes and matching caps. They have been swimming since they began their schooling. She is at an age when she can remember her school years with a whole body flinch. She wasn’t taught how to swim when she was a child. Now the school tells her everyone could swim.

Skin boys make thin shadows and are quiet for different reasons.


There are records on the shelves. Pineapple fermenting in a jar. Simon has the feeling he wants to stay all night but he can’t. They have to leave eventually. He was seventeen when he first came here. He will drink six or seven glasses but not eat. Other boys around small in clothing. To be so transparently desirable. To be of skin.

No-one parks here. They avoid the street. Move south, take the backway out of the bar.

Sounds of milk trucks rushing past. The train breaking above. Too soon for a kiss. The shelter of the tunnel, his shoulder on his back, his hand on his zip. The danger of range.


Coppa cars when Megan starts. A body found in the water at the school that morning. Spirit spat one out. She wants to know first it wasn’t the brother boy or the young one. Relief. Still sad, even though she didn’t know him. Threat of clusters in her throat. Allows herself to grieve old way, to go by herself to sing that mourning song taught by her grandmother. The paperbarks are listening.

The school didn’t know what it meant. They thought the pool was safe for all. Promoted those lies seen everywhere. She knew the currents pulled those without weight, pulled them down. She herself had heard the seductive whispers of the spirit deep below.


Skin boys weren’t buoys.

 “If I make it to forty …” Tai is saying before he blanks out in the tunnel, against the wall. Simon kneels beside him, holds his shoulders upright against the concrete. He has them now too. The dizzy spells, the headaches. They won’t take better care of themselves.


She has enough life for herself, and maybe now some for others. She sets out to the tunnel to intersect the skin boys.

Megan wonders what she can understand about them. Her ex used to say, ‘I want to dissolve. I want to be you.’

To starve is to fall, and keep falling. She looks at herself in the mirror before she leaves the changing room.

Four strokes before she takes a breath. She beats her lap record, pushes out two kilometres. It’s the strength in her palms, and the balls of her feet. Breath down around the belly button, jumping and burrowing.  

She has enough life for herself, and maybe now some for others. She sets out to the tunnel to intersect the skin boys.


The gardener girl is watching them, always watching. For a while she has acted as their keeper. Looked for them from far away, from the other side of the shadow. Now she approaches and takes her hood down.

‘You right?’ she asks. ‘Need anything?’

Simon and Tai don’t know if or how to answer. Recoil is the bodily response they have to those sort of questions, no matter the tone. Though those questions have stopped being asked. No one talks to them on the street, they are halfway to disappearing. They won’t eat if asked. They won’t stop if asked.

This time, something sticks, drips of water, vapours of chlorine, and they are wet but not drowning.


Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning First Nations Australian writer. Her first book, Heat and Light (University of Queensland Press, 2014), was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize.

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