The Creek

Laura McPhee-Browne

for Kate Chopin

She takes heartbreak walks, daily, along the edge of the Merri Creek and up the steep green hill. They are heartbreak walks because she is heartbroken. The body moves differently, when there is nowhere left to go. Her form feels like a weight being dragged behind her.

She hasn’t lived here long—she moved here because of the heartbreak, and it’s too beautiful and alive for what she needs it to be. She had to be quick in finding somewhere, so she applied for a flat in a brown brick block that she hoped might take her, and it did, on her own, without the guarantee that a partner can bring.

Now she lives in a third storey room with discoloured carpet in the kitchen. The bathroom has cracks filled up with blue mould like cheese, the towel rack collapsed when she used it, and the shower sprays way above its frame and all over the floor. This is the suffering she finds appropriate, in her hour of no more need. In this desolate flat in the middle of an affluent suburb, she licks her wounds. She still eats well—food is her comforter, her angel—but sometimes she cries while she does it, and drips tears on her toast, into her coffee.

Who hurt her, I hear you ask. It would be safe to say that no one did. She was with a woman who wasn’t right for her, who she wasn’t right for, and as these things go, she became fixated. When one party becomes fixated, the other often detaches: the adored starts to feed off the neglected.

Because she feels she has lost everything she wants and will never have anything she wants again, the woman walks without purpose, and thus she walks mindfully. She notices things she would never have noticed before: the concentrated babble of the creek against the rocks, the shiny truth of her reflection in the water. There are always young children playing along the banks, with their parents or their grandparents, perhaps a nanny. She notices a flicker of envy inside her because they are so very ignorant, so lucky.

The creek she walks is the Merri. It is a happy, healthy body of water, for the most part, though rubbish can gather and block its natural rhythms, pollute its flow. On the weekends, volunteers who are lucky enough to have the time and energy wade through the glossy liquid in knee-length galoshes to pull this rubbish from its teeth. It lets the trash go easily, it doesn’t want to eat it. This creek knows what is good for it, and accepts all love.

Every day, she walks. She passes River Red Gums and naked Black Wattles, Lemon Beauty Heads and Bristly Wallaby-Grass, even the occasional Twiggy Daisy Bush, waiting to flower. Does she have a job, you might wonder. How can she walk so often? Has she nothing else to do? The woman is employed, yes, but her job is time-flexible, and on weekdays she walks in the morning, before she begins. It helps her get through the work day to walk with Merri beforehand.

Over the weeks, she sees the same people on her walks, sometimes. Some of them smile at her—the woman with the silver cropped hair underneath a woollen hat; the older man moving fast but wearing jeans; the mum with her toddler, harried and happy; the young woman in black wearing big headphones—and she smiles back. She wonders if they recognise her, and if she would like them to.

On most days she stops at the Merri Creek labyrinth. She doesn’t always feel like walking it, doesn’t have the energy for communion with the shape, or the earth, or herself and her thoughts and her body. But sometimes she does. Despite herself, she begins to hope there are children there when she reaches it—the mum with her toddler, having a brief moment on her phone while her child dances between the rocks, or a grandfather, patient and droll, with his offspring’s brood. They give her energy, other people’s kids. The love that surrounds children is palpable.

She gets to know the Merri. Some parts of the creek are shrouded: the trees hide the water, the water feeds the trees. It is private, and she respects privacy. A creek is allowed some secrets, and so is she. Seeing the way the creek puts in its boundaries is an inspiration. It asks for what it needs and nothing more.

The heartbreak dissipates. There are days when she doesn’t think about her woman—the woman—at all. The walks become just walks, not heartbreak walks anymore, and her body moves forward against the wind, the sun, the thick air of survival. The walks become purposeful, as if she has a destination, which she just might. At work, she has a new colleague, who smiles shyly at her more than is necessary. At night in bed she imagines this colleague holding her.

With her new crush comes spring. The Merri opens up like Blue Periwinkle flowers: gorgeous and rampant. There are more people to walk past, and most of them don’t seem to know the place the way she does, she decides, by the loudness of their voices, their careless strides. She has become territorial—it hasn’t taken much. She wants the creek to herself, but she also needs the company.

She walks and she walks, and she wonders if she is addicted to the freedom of moving her limbs, but it doesn’t matter, because she will always be walking, she can always be walking; she is allowed to walk, and able to. She starts to feel like a person who lives in a little flat, in this particular suburb, in this precious city full of creeks, called Melbourne. Her lungs are full of air, her face is healthy with sun: you could say she is thriving. She starts to feel as if she is one of the lucky ones.

Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her debut novel, Cherry Beach, was published by Text Publishing in 2020. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have been published widely in Australia.

Illustration: Jackie Nguyen

Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.