April 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Flooding back

By Sarah Holland-Batt
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Watching the Brisbane River swell, once more, to a destructive force

When it rains, Brisbane disappears. The skyscrapers in the CBD first, then the steel cradle of the Story Bridge, Newstead Park’s white wooden rotunda and Norfolk pines, then the waterfront mansions in Bulimba. It all goes.

From Hamilton Hill, you can mostly tell which way the weather’s coming: blustery storms scudding inland from the ocean, or banks of heavy cloud hauling over the western ranges towards the river mouth. But sometimes the downpour’s so monsoonal, so battering and changeable, it’s impossible to orient yourself at all.

This time, the rain settles in like a mood: pattering, then driving diagonally, pausing, sheeting, stuttering. Early on, there are breaks in the cloud, patches of light. Then they close over, and there’s only hanging sky, lowering and black.

A CityCat ferry drags towards Bretts Wharf at quarter-speed: the only moving thing in the river. As the light fades, a bat careens close to the window glass, hunting a roost. The wind lifts, and the rainfall intensifies. It’s smashing down now, belting in sideways like a firehose at full blast. Wind howls through the gaps in the window seals. Palm trees whip sideways. Traffic on Kingsford Smith Drive stalls, then thins. Caught in the yellow downlights, the downpour’s noirish, cinematic.

Morning, and the rain’s still falling, no end to it. It’s dumping on the city in waves. The river’s swollen, pale grey: a pour of cement dragging trees and dead limbs. Bergs bob on the surface, white and red, small items that are impossible to identify at distance. Outside, the fig trees thrash and rustle.

The first swell of detritus rounds the bend from Newstead. There’s an overturned red fibreglass kayak skittling in the current. Then a pontoon, tracing the same trajectory. A friend texts: part of a concrete walkway has broken free at Howard Smith Wharves. Another pontoon, this time with a black speedboat tethered and tarped on top of it. Then a vast slab of concrete, half-floating. A jetski. A shock of green: an uprooted palm tree. Another pontoon, with a lockbox on it. Rafts of mulch and leaves. A commercial fridge. A huge white buoy the shape of a marshmallow. A fluorescent lime surf ski. There’s a stretch where the current picks up speed and sends the pontoons crashing like dodgems into a huge marine signal pole. It’s like the city’s breaking up, fragmenting, splintering into its composite parts.

The river picks up speed. Hulking shapes, now: larger pontoons, more of them, sweeping past. Another friend texts. Her roof’s leaking. There’s no break in the rain. It drums on dully. The sky is graphite, smudged and undefined. On the Gold Coast, my mother’s watching the canal invade her backyard, reporting the ingression on the phone. “You can’t even see the boat ramp,” she says. “It’s right up to the bottom of the deck.”

Two yachts slowly round the bend as a single form. They’ve collided or are lashed together somehow. The smaller of the two is listing. Unmanned, unmoored, with their sails still rolled up under navy tarps, they drift aimlessly. Then I see there’s a man crouching down on the larger boat. His yellow raincoat and orange life vest are a bright slash against the grey. A marine rescue dinghy and a water police patrol boat are ushering the yachts down the river. Synchronised, they move ahead of the yachts, then behind them again. The dinghy gives the larger yacht a nudge, angling it away from the bank. For a moment, the collided boats seem to be motionless. The next time I look, they’ve vanished.

A call from a friend in New Farm: her car park’s flooding and her power’s going to be off for days. She says she doesn’t have much food: she’s boiling all her eggs and potatoes. On the news, a warning not to swim in floodwaters, then footage of a man paddling a surfboard down the street in Milton. A woman sobbing. A family’s reunited with their golden lab.

A rigid-hull police boat screams past at full speed, its lights flashing.

The markers of order are untethered: a traffic cone, a section of fencing, marine markers and mooring pylons slide past. Text messages ping from friends in Melbourne and Sydney: You okay?

A video of Toombul shopping centre rolls on my phone: Kedron Brook, the thin creek that winds behind it, is now a vast brown torrent sweeping through the shops, the car park, smashing everything in its wake. “Fuck off!” the man filming it says, impressed.

 When the sunshine comes, it’s sudden, hot, stinking. The sky, a hallucinatory blue. The river’s bloated, reddened, the colour of rooibos with milk. Veils of silt drift over its surface. The roads are impassable. Breakfast Creek is flooded. Aerial shots show fingers of water where the roads should be, cars only visible by the tops of their roofs. A man in his early thirties has drowned overnight in his car at Indooroopilly. On the news, a herd of jersey cows swims in neck-high water, lowing in distress. In the paper, a photo of the bloated corpse of a cow washed in at Mermaid Beach on the Gold Coast.

Bull-nosed tugboats creep past, towing junk. I take a walk by the river. There’s a stench of verdant things – salty, rotten. The pavement is steaming. A barge loaded with a broken crane slides past. The joggers in front of me stop to watch. I visit my friend, whose electricity’s finally on again. The streets leading to her apartment are stacked with trashed possessions: couches, mattresses, cribs, chairs, books, rugs. Everything crusted with mud.

At the supermarket, the produce section’s empty, and there’s only six bottles of full-cream milk left in the fridges. The cashier looks exhausted. She says the storeroom flooded and the delivery trucks can’t get through, and all the customers who’d usually go to Toombul are coming here instead.

In the parking lot, there’s a busker I’ve never seen before, playing a saxophone mournfully. Tunelessly. In the sky, a double rainbow, vivid and sharp. We all stop to take a photograph. Then the rain starts again.

Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-Batt is a poet. Her most recent book is The Hazards.

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