“Yes it is.”
Arrayed on tables outside the shop was a countless variety of footwear, ranging from gaudy sneakers to titanium-reinforced hiking boots. I didn’t want any of it.
“Is there anything you like?”
“You can be as stubborn as you want, Joel, but by the end of the day you’ll have shoes on your feet, even if I have to take you to a farrier and have them nailed on. Now pick something you think you might be comfortable in.”
I stared at the assortment before me, but couldn’t see anything that wouldn’t make me throw up the moment they touched my feet. I shrugged and shook my head.
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Joel, don’t start another argument. Everybody else wears them.”
“The Collins family don’t.”
“We don’t what?” a familiar voice said from behind me, and I turned to see Lorina Collins walking towards us.
“Oh, hello Mrs Collins. I’m trying to get Joel some shoes for your trip, but honestly, anyone would think I was leading him to the gallows.”
“What are gallows?” I asked, thankful for the diversion.
“Places where insolent brats like you are hanged by the neck. They were all the rage a couple of centuries ago.”
Lorina smiled. “Look, it’s your decision, Jill, of course, but really I don’t think he’ll need shoes. David and Loraine don’t have any, and of course Mark and I never wear them.”
Mum gave me one of her exasperated looks.
“He’ll be fine,” Lorina said. “We won’t be doing any off-track walking, particularly after what happened to Peter.”
“What do you mean?”
“He stepped awkwardly on a loose rock and twisted his ankle. It’s nothing too serious, but given his age, he’s decided it’s best to come home.”
“See, Joel, all the more reason to be wearing boots. Those ones there should do the trick nicely.” She pointed to something I’d seen country music artists line-dancing in, with heels so big I was sure I’d topple over forwards if I put them on.
“Actually the doctor said his injury would’ve been a lot worse if he’d been wearing anything like that.”
“It’s all about leverage,” I said, grabbing one of the boots and rocking it back and forth on the edge of its heel. “Once you reach the tipping point, you’re gone.” My hand thumped into the table as the boot capsized.
“He’s right,” Lorina said. “The rounded heel of a bare foot naturally minimises any twisting and is far safer, particularly for a seasoned barefooter like your son.”
Mum took the boot from me, rocking it against the table for herself. “I suppose it makes sense when you look at it like that, but what about the ones with ankle support? They’d be the way to go, surely.”
Lorina smiled. “They’d prevent twists and sprains, of course, but restricting ankle movement like that puts additional stress on the knees and hips, leading to other insidious long-term damage.”
“It’s all true, Mum, really.”
She stared at the boot in her hand, turning it and feeling its weight before putting it back on the table. “Well what about those pink sneakers over there? They look soft and flexible enough not to cause you any discomfort or damage.”
“What? But they’re girls’ shoes! I can’t wear those! You’re joking, surely, aren’t you?”
“Not if I hear any more reports of you fighting, Joel.”
“Huh? More reports? I haven’t been in any fights! I wouldn’t know how to fight!”
“So you’re not the Quibbley the Great who beat up two boys after the State of Origin game?”
“Beat them up? They laughed at me when I tried to stop them hurting another boy, then walked away because this whacko kid was drawing too much attention.”
“I don’t care what happened, Joel, there’ll be no more of it or wearing pink sneakers will be the least of your worries. Now show me your foot.”
I lifted my left leg, balancing precariously on the other one, while she poked my sole and rotated my ankle back and forth before running her fingers around the curvature of my heel.
“So do you think your feet are tough enough to stand up to all the walking you’ll be doing in Victoria?”
“It’s your decision, Joel, and you must take full responsibility for it. You’re not to go complaining to Mr and Mrs Collins if they start hurting, or if you stub a toe or step on some prickles. Is that clear?”
“Promise both me and Mrs Collins.”
“I promise, I swear!”
She sighed. “I still think those pink sneakers would look good on you, sweetie, but if going barefoot’s so important to you –”
“It is, Mum, truly.”
“Be it on your own head, then, but all right I suppose.”
I wrapped her in a bear hug. “You’re the best mum ever, truly!”
“That may be so, but how am I going to explain this to your father?”
“Think of the money you’ve saved,” Lorina said.
I smiled as Mum looked in shock at the price tags on some of the shoes. “I guess that’ll make Jack happy. Now come on, Joel, at least let me buy you some new board shorts. You’re not going away in those shabby things you’re wearing.”
“Sure, Mum, anything you say.”
* * *
“Sunshine Airlines welcomes passengers travelling on flight 387 to Melbourne. Please have your boarding passes ready for checking at the gate.”
“Have a wonderful time,” Mum said as she hugged me, “and don’t go making a nuisance of yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
She gave me a final inspection, staring at my bare feet for what seemed an eternity before pushing my hair back and kissing me on the forehead. “You really should’ve had your hair cut, sweetie.”
“When I get back, I promise.”
“Very well, then, off you go.” She turned me around and nudged me towards the Collins family. “Don’t forget to call me when you arrive.”
“All set?” Lorina asked as I joined them at the end of the queue.
“Well done,” Loraine said. “No shoes and no haircut!”
“Sometimes you truly amaze us, Joel,” David said, wiggling his toes while running his fingers through his tangle of wavy black hair.
We soon reached the flight attendant, who scanned our passes and pointed us through the gate to the awaiting aircraft. Twenty minutes later we were zooming skywards on our journey south.
* * *
The resort in Warragul was beautiful, with landscaped gardens, a minigolf course and a horseshoe-shaped swimming pool. As soon as we arrived, I pulled my shirt off and followed David and Loraine outside.
“Hey, this is our pool!” a tall boy with a crew-cut said.
“Not any more,” David said, thrusting out his chest.
The boy raised his fists. “You gonna fight me for it, squirt?”
David turned to me. “Sic him, Quibbley.”
“I, no, Quibbley the Great is dead,” I said, seeing those horrid pink sneakers dangling in front of me. I raised my palms while stepping backwards, but had forgotten how close to the edge of the pool I was and took one step back too many. Shocked at suddenly finding myself submerged, by the time I’d figured out which way was up the heavily-chlorinated water had filled my nose and sinuses. Eventually I broke the surface, coughing and spluttering.
“I was only joking, mate,” the boy said between guffaws of laughter. “No need to drown yourself on my account. I’m Ellis, by the way, and this is my sister Penny.”
“I’m Joel,” I spluttered, “and that’s Loraine and her brother David.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Penny said, stepping out from behind her brother. “Are you from Melbourne?”
“No,” Loraine said, “we’re from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. We just flew down this morning.”
“Wow, we went there once for our holiday. It’s beautiful.”
“So what brings you to Warragul?”
“We’re going hiking in the Bunyip State Park tomorrow with our great-grandfather.”
“Is he Billy Collins?”
“Yes, how’d you know?”
“We’re going on the hike too.”
“Our parents run the resort and he invited us.”
“So this really is your pool.”
“Yeah, but we’ll let you use it just this once.”
* * *
“Does anyone know how this park got its name?” Billy asked as we squatted on the ground in front of him.
“Is it those things that drop out of trees onto your tent?”
“That’s drop-bears, stupid. Bunyips can’t climb trees.”
“Don’t call me stupid!”
“That’s enough, you two. Anyone else?”
I raised my hand. “I, I don’t know whether bunyips can climb trees, but they live in the swamps near the river, don’t they, and eat people who go near the water after dark.”
“That’s very good, Joel. A long time ago, long before even I was born, Aboriginal people like me lived around here, but the swamps on the Bunyip River were a bad, bad place, particularly, as Joel said, after dark. The Elders told everyone to stay away, but still many of our people were lost, way too many.”
“Are there still bunyips here now?” Penny asked.
“Nobody’s seen one in many years, as the early farmers drained the swamps and drove them away, but I think they’re still out there, hiding and waiting, because that’s what they’re very good at, hiding and waiting.”
“That’s just make-believe,” Ellis said. “It’s like Bigfoot and, well, drop-bears.”
“You think so, Ellis?”
“Sure, I ain’t scared of no swamp monsters.”
“That’s ’cause you are one.”
Billy waited for the laughter to settle. “Bunyips or not, the swamps are dangerous places, and it’s all too easy to get snagged and drown if you go in the water. For those of you who want to swim, there are safe waterholes at the end of our walk.”
“Can we go swimming in the waterholes?” Loraine asked her mother.
Lorina looked at Mark, who shrugged. “Only if Billy says it’s okay and only if you stay with your brother.”
“I’m a better swimmer than David anyway.”
“Whether you are or not makes no difference; neither of you are to go swimming alone.”
Loraine scowled and poked her tongue out at David, who reciprocated.
“You’d better get your backpacks on,” Lorina said. “Your great-grandfather’s ready to start.”
She waved goodbye, grimacing slightly before joining the other adults on the minibus for their tour of the historic Koo Wee Rup village. I scuffed my suddenly itchy soles on the gritty track, eager to begin.
That concludes Joel’s narrative, but follow the action into the novel in Ripples on the Water.