The bike ride with my brother was months ago, but the bad dreams still come. I still wake up in a sweat in the dark.
We’d just wanted to get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air. We weren’t looking for trouble.
Yeah, we do live in Central Asia. Sounds a bit dangerous or exciting, yeah? But our neighborhood is quiet. Life is school, family, sport. Hanging out with friends. Pretty much like your life.
Why do we live in Central Asia? Dad’s a foreign correspondent, and from here he travels really quickly to breaking stories – riots, elections, revolutions, earthquakes, wars, whatever.
But Gulistan is a quiet country, mostly. Not a lot of dramas, so Dad and Mum settled our family here.
So, the day I’m talking about, the rain had been pelting down for a week. All the sports fields were muddy swamps.
Otherwise, right then I would’ve been playing football for my school.
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 said, ‘Hey. The rain’s easing off. Let’s go for a ride.’
‘Nah, Ben It’s too wet.’
‘Come on. You’re supposed to be keeping fit.’
‘Nah. 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.
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. The wind’s going right through my jacket. I’m freezing.’
‘Toughen up, Joel!’
‘You ever notice rain has sharp points?’
I started laughing. ’No. Never noticed that, ever!’
We were passing little shops, the kind that just sprout up in Central Asia where there’s a space and some local official will take a bribe to shut his eyes. They sell cheap groceries and hardware, and colorful plastic kitchen stuff. Butchers with a cigarette in their mouth chop up meat on huge wooden blocks. You can buy every kind of local takeaway food.
People even set up little stalls on the roadside, creating a bit of shelter under plastic sheets tied to trees or power poles or fences. Cars driving past spray water over everything. I think it’s harder being poor in Asia than in Australia.
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’s it coming 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. The water was getting deeper. Out past the edge of town the river must be higher than I’d ever seen it, covering the sandy beaches where we go for BBQ fish lunches, spreading right out over the floodplain.
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 they 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, men running along the bank, until a 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 frantic 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, feeling the strong, safe grip of Gulani men’s 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. The sound would haunt me 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.
I went in. I had no choice. Two strokes in the swift water took me to the little boy wildly thrashing one hand, fighting 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. 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 water.
It seemed to take forever. The flood wasn’t going to give us up without a fierce fight, and debris slashed and slammed us, but now I could hear excited shouting, the sound of men winning a battle, and suddenly my back was scraping the concrete and hands were grabbing me under my armpits, grabbing my clothes, and I was dragged clear of the water.
Someone 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 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.
It dawned on me now that no-one here was connected 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. It had been nothing for me. I’m a strong swimmer. None of them were. I was sure of that. Swimming isn’t in Gulani culture.
Joel was standing with me, watching them too, 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? Was he joking? Irresponsible? Seriously? But I looked in his eyes and saw, yeah, he was genuinely worried he might be in trouble when Dad got home. Amazing kid. He never has had any idea his quick thinking is something exceptional. 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.’