“You’re gonna do what?”
“Enter the UTA,” Izzy repeats, lifting the half-empty wine glass to her lips. Damn she should have ordered a bottle.
“You know what that is, don’t you? It’s for like proper runners, in the bush and stuff,” her sister Jacqui spits back, and then shakes her head and reaches for her phone.
Izzy glares as Jacqui furiously taps at her screen. She knows she is already sharing this with the rest of the family – Izzy the try-hard, Izzy the dreamer, Izzy the wannabe.
“Who are you texting?”
“Rob. He needs a laugh. Seriously though Izzy, you wouldn’t be able to find your way out of a paper bag. You can get lost and stuff. Freya did it a few years ago. She fell over, sliced her knee up and had to be rescued. I mean, like how embarrassing. And she was actually fit.”
“I’m fit.” Izzy is monotone as she taps porcelain fingernails against pink prosecco.
“Yeah right. Well, I gotta go. Rob says the movie starts at eight.”
Izzy watches from the pub’s open window as her sister flicks her honey-blonde hair away from the phone at her ear and strides away.
“You need this stool?” A mulletted girl asks, glancing for Izzy’s companion. Izzy lifts her glass to avoid the girl’s eyes and gives her a thumbs up. Here she is again – Saturday night, half-empty glass, empty table, empty life.
Her phone buzzes at her hip, and she retrieves it, suddenly blissfully happy at the prospect of talking to a solar panel upseller trapped in the basement of a third-world country. “Mum,” the screen flashes and she turns it over, softening its insistent nag with a serviette. Jacqui must have called her. The phone buzzes again, and again. She should have got a bottle.
“Izzy, what ARE you doing now? You have to stop with all this … this … nonsense. It’s normal Izzy. Everyone just takes their time to find their way. Give yourself time – to heal. I was reading about it the other day – all this climate or covid or cost-of-living crisis. All you young people are having a quarter-life crisis. I remember being your age, but then I got married and had you and didn’t have time to think so much. Time heals everything. You don’t need to do anything crazy!”
“Mum. It is not a crisis and I do not need to HEAL – there is nothing wrong with me. I just want to do this. Why can’t you just be supportive? I’m not asking you to do it with me or rescue me. I’ll be fine!”
“Jacqui says her friend Freya has a permanent injury from her fall. Won’t ever be able to wear heels again.”
“Well, I’m not Freya, I’ll be fine.”
Jesus, what was she doing? It had been fun buying the gear. Shoes and a running vest stuffed with energy shots to get up the hill. Signed up with that club and she had trained – well most weekends. It was starting to rain, and it was frigging cold. And all these people with their flash gear talking about PBs. Personal, frigging best – wasn’t once enough? Breathe, she tells herself. It’s fine. All she has to do is finish and she will have the shirt. Then she will show them. No one gets to see your results.
“Oh, hey Izzy – I didn’t know you were a runner?” Fuck, it’s Freya.
“Just started. Seemed like fun. Jacqui said you were injured – couldn’t run anymore.”
“Oh that – just a scratch. Made me more determined. Hey, let’s take a selfie before we start and one at the finishing line when we cross over. I’m gonna make a reel out of the whole thing on my Go-Pro – you can be my movie star buddy.” Freya whips a phone from her vest, pulls her close with a corded tricep and clicks.
Izzy looks at the photo, their wet heads touching, Freya’s Oakleys are tucked into a fluorescent pink cap, teeth white and even. Izzy eyes are shut, her long dark hair is plastered against her ruddy face. She cringes as she imagines her sister’s gleeful amusement when the photo beams into her feed. Well, Jacqui can gloat all she likes, she won’t be the one with the race shirt!
A horn sound signals the start is imminent. “Good luck! See you at the end for a drink.” Freya slides her glasses down and clicks on the Go-Pro. Izzy nods, thumbs up and offers her best movie star grin.
GO! A human millipede manoeuvres along the fire trail, jostling for position. Freya turns momentarily recording Izzy’s steps as she slips slowly backwards. It’s fine, I’ll catch up on the downhill, she tells herself as she smiles and waves. She’s done the track thousands of times on the virtual reality setting of the treadmill. There is about 2 k of flat and then 3 km downhill. She’s better on the downhill, that’s what her stats at the gym said.
She turns the corner to the downhill and looks ahead, a bobbing wave of colour is spread over a few hundred metres before it disappears around a sharp bend. Freya’s cap turns as she rounds the corner, her hand lifts and waves as she disappears. “Thank Christ”, Izzy wheezes and looks behind her. A gnarled old dude is scuffling along and a saggy baggy woman, then a chatty bunch of middle-aged women in bike pants. Izzy’s face drains. How tall was Freya? How far was the range on a Go-Pro? Fuck!
The saggy baggy woman jogs close to her and matches her pace. “First time dear?” Izzy nods.
“It gets easier. You can pace with me if you like. I’ve done it every year since it began.”
“It’s OK. You go on.” Izzy puffs, her face flaming. What did this woman think – she needed a support worker – she was just pacing herself.
“Good luck dear. Now you make sure you get yourself a drink at the stop. You look a bit piqued. The next wave will come through soon and you don’t want to be on the track when they pass. They are the serious ones. Doing the full hundred!”
The wet sandy rocks slip and roll under her new shoes and her feet burn as each leg lifts and hits the ground. She has to be nearly there at the corner – the quarter-way marker. She checks her watch. It mustn’t be working. Says she has only done 1 k since the last time she checked. She better stop and check it. She’ll need the Strava stats for later.
“You OK?” One of the middle-aged women with poles is striding along, as she stands clicking at her watch. “Will I let someone know you need help at the checkpoint?”
“No. No fine. Just my watch. I want to record it. It stopped.”
“Oh yes. All that technology – can’t get my head around it. Good luck. I best be going. We have to make the check-in within an hour or we get disqualified.”
What? Izzy hadn’t read that anywhere. “Thanks. You too!” She flicks rapidly at her watch. Nothing changes. She has 2 km to go and 20 mins to do it. How the hell has it taken forty minutes to do 2.5 km – must have been the crowds – delayed start. She has to get moving. She lifts her feet and moves. Her knees burn and her feet scorch. It will be fine – just get to the bend, then it’s flat for a while. Must be her shoes or socks, not on properly, rubbing. She’ll take them off at the first aid tent and get a band-aid and then she’ll be right. Pick up time on the next leg.
Behind her she can hear the thunder of feet, as she lifts her own – prestissimo to her largetto or was it grave – this bastard road was conducting every step.
“Coming through,” a man yells and she hobbles sideways into a steep drain, now starting to run yellow as persistent rain collects clay from the road base and drains away. The 100-kers pass, barely registering her presence. At least she can no longer hear her own ragged breathing. That checkpoint must be close. A few thousand more steps – that’s all – it’s not fair – they should have let the beginners go in waves like the city to surf. They were slowing her down and she wouldn’t make the cut-off.
Leaves clump and sway as the rain picks up, at least she was able to get back on the track. As each runner passes, she smiles with a little wave. They will just think she is one of them now. No one notices anyway, their heads do not turn, eyes focused on a distant finishing line. The trees are now enormous, towering over the road, obscuring the bend. How far was it? She checks her watch. Five minutes to the disqualification time.
A yellow marker pokes from behind a sway of leaf in the distance – the turn. She will never make it. Maybe if she sprinted? What happens when you don’t make the cut-off? Do you get walked back or have to be escorted out? She can imagine Freya’s reel – her at the finishing line, emerging from the escort vehicle.
Ahead she can hear them hollering, calling people in, checking numbers, offering cups of water, cheering and she puts her head down. She is muddy and wet, no one can see her number surely. Behind her she can hear another pack, perhaps if she slides in behind them, they will not see her, but she needs a drink, and then they will know. If she’s quick, it will be fine. There is another large group coming – the next wave of 100-kers maybe? She’ll arrive with them and then hide for a while, wait till they go, and then go out with the next wave. There has to be more of them behind. They have 100 km to run, there must be more!
“Here you go, love. Hard going you 100k lot. You need anything else.” A wizened first aider reaches a cup out. “Wish I could still do it. Too old now.” Izzy smiles and glugs the water down and then another. “Oh, here they all come. Better go now. Good luck Miss!” She can hear them too, the last bunch of runners, keen to meet the cut-off for the 100 km thundering in. Opposite the aid station, she can see a large gum tree. Its lower half is burnt, but the tree grows around it with a stepping stone at its base. She waits until the check-in station is clear and darts off the track – obscured by the runners and slips inside. She lowers herself to sit on soft bark and leaves blown inside long ago. It’s dry and warm and the only sound is her own ragged breath. Her legs are shaking, her knees burning and her feet. Oh my god her feet. Hot fucking bricks. She yanks at her shoes and socks and plunges her naked feet into the cool dampness. Angry lines scour her arches. Outside the rain continues and begins a steady drip from the leaves towering above.
As she rests, the drum of runners’ feet becomes more distant, until there is only the clump of boots and the rattle of empty cups being retrieved from the sodden fire trail. “That all of them?” A man calls out as his yellow-trousered legs pass in front of her tree.
“Just gotta check the sensor picked up everyone crossing the next bend and we’ll wait for the grim reaper to see if there are any left out there.” A chuckle rolls around the group. “Larry even dressed up this year. Full bloody kit and a scythe!”
“Computer says there is still one out there. Female Mid-twenties. I’ll radio up and see if she turned back. Nope, must have gone to do a bit of sightseeing also, knowing she missed the cut-off. Probably gonna see a thousand selfies with the Grim Reaper in a few days.”
She has left it too late. No chance to slip out with the 100-kers and then fall elegantly as they rush past. She will just have to make it look like she fell just ahead and is limping back. The guy who gave her the cup will remember her. Easy. Just wait till this bloke goes back to the checkpoint, and she’ll step out. No one will know.
Yellow trousers stomps past her tree as Izzy holds her breath, careful not to reveal herself. Water is rolling over her face. Sweat, rain, tears? She licks at the salt. She will have to stand up and step out, ready her excuse.
Cheering erupts from the checkpoint as they see a figure running down the hill and then clapping. “That’s Larry – must be the last one! Come on let’s clap them in.”
“Hey Larry, where’s your runner?”
“Ain’t seen anyone for a k or so. They’re all through.”
“Not according to the tracker. We’re missing one.”
“Maybe she went off for a pee and you passed her, and she went back.”
“Bloody long pee. I stopped as well. Do you know how heavy this costume is in the rain? Radio up. Get someone to start walking down, maybe she ducked off the track and turned back. I’ll start heading back too. Give us the first aid kit. Come on.”
Izzy shivers. She has to move. What would they say if they found her in here? What if they start a search and tell someone? Who did she put as her next of kin? Fuck! She leans against the tree and attempts to stand. Her muscles lock. She screams and falls back sideways into the small gap.
An old man in a fluorescent raincoat is leaning in – a light on his head, his hand gently shaking her. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I …”
He steps back into a curtain of rain and waves an arm. “She’s over here.”
The gap into the outside world is obscured by ponchoed faces. “Isobel Regan?” She nods. “Can you stand?” Izzy shakes her head; her last attempt had wedged her sideways and it hurt – someone had to get her out.
“Might just check you over before we work out what to do next. Bill get us an emergency blanket. Need to get her warm. She’s shivering. Anyone remember seeing her, how long has she been in here?”
She is covered in tin foil as they shine a torch in her eyes. A gloved hand offers her a warm drink and then waits. Behind him, she can hear a low rumble of voices, punctuated by the static of a radio.
“When you warm up, you’ll be right. Just a cramp. You got any allergies?” She shakes her head. “Right magnesium and hydrolyte, give it ten and you’ll be right.” They pass her the fluids and she drinks.
“Right give it a go now. Fred here is under your arm to support you.” Izzy tries to stand, but her backside is now wedged in the gap, her arm twisted behind her. She tries to move her arm, but it is tight in the tree.
“Can’t. My arm is stuck. My elbow it just won’t go.”
“Ok, we’ll help.” Arms reach around her attempting to slide and move things. “Got anything slippery in your pack, Bill? Trees sucked up all the water and swelled in the time we been waiting. She’s stuck.” Her arm is coated in a gooey jelly as the men cajole her forward. There is no movement save for her skin now grated into the tree. “Don’t worry Izzy. It’s all good. We’ll figure something out,” a man says, with eyes that say otherwise.
“Right, we’ll try this.” The men pour some sticky stuff against the tree innards and her arm and lever again. Nothing. “You have to try just a bit harder Izzy. You can’t be in here overnight, and the tree guy says it’s going to swell up more, so it’s best now. Come on deep breaths – you got this.”
Izzy heaves and breathes over and over, wailing with each push. “Stop, stop.” she shrieks “Can’t you just cut me out – cut the tree,” she screams as the tree takes another layer of skin from her forearm. The ponchoed people step back, blasted by her purple-faced fury.
“Don’t know where you think you are lady, but we don’t just cut trees. Never know what’s going to happen. This tree’s been here for maybe a hundred years. You’re hiding in its scars. It’s healing. We cut it, might just stop all that healing and collapse, kill the lot of us. We leave it alone; it will be here for maybe three hundred more.”
Izzy’s head drops to her knees, hiding from their eyes. “Is this the only way?”
“If we can’t get you out with just pushing, we’re going to have to dislocate your shoulder or your elbow. We’ll give you a greenstick,” the first aider replies matter-of-factly.
Izzy’s sobs. “Can you knock me out and like twist me?”
“Nope. No room for anyone to get in there. It’s you and the tree. You got to work together, find a space in there and lever around. We’ll give you ten minutes to get your head around it, and then it’s time. We don’t have long – you and the tree, you’re swelling up.”
“We’ll try to move first, so just take one puff on this and we’ll push and pull with you.” Izzy sucks in the morphine whistle and pushes against the tree with her backside, she can feel the timber splintering her already raw skin. There is no movement, and she sinks back, tears flooding down her cheeks in unison with blasphemy freed by morphine.
The men step back and wait. “Right well, we know you’re breathing. What do you want to do? Have another go or dislocate?”
“Dislocate” Izzy whimpers.
“OK. We’re just gonna wait till the paramedics get down here, with a bit better gear. Make it easier – they’re on their way. Be in here in ten. Just hang in there – we’ll have you out in no time. And you’ll have a ripper story to tell. The day you willingly dislocated your arm, rather than hurt the tree – they’ll probably give you a trophy – champion tree-hugger.”
She wants a T-shirt, not a trophy. Freya is probably finished, and they are radioing in about a stupid girl stuck in a tree and Jacqui is texting about Izzy and her quarter-life crisis inside a tree now having a quarter-life crisis all of its own. She was not only hopeless, she was contagious!
“OK Izzy, this is Janelle, and she’s our paramedic. She is going to dislocate your elbow, so we can get you out of here. Bill and me we are going to hold you and stick stuff under you so you don’t slip back down and we’ve got a small chisel just in case we need to cut a bit out of the tree around you. So, if you hear any tapping and cutting it’s the tree – not your arm. You got any questions?”
What questions should she have? Am I going to die? If I’m stuck here, what if I just wait and starve and then they slide my skinny body out? Can I have more drugs, please?
Izzy shakes her head. “OK. Take a deep suck on the stick and nod when you’re ready. On the count of three, we are going to do it.”
Izzy sucks in hard, and her head swims. In her mind’s eye, the tree’s limbs reach down and caress her, holding her, she imagines a rush of warmth at her back as its lifeblood flows down around her. She turns to the paramedic and nods.
Crack. Tap. Tap. Tap. Scream. Tap. Tap. Tap. Scream
“We got it. Hang in there Isobel, almost there. One more splinter off the tree and you’re out.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Scrape. Scream. Grind. Scream. Tap. Feint.
“Isobel. Isobel. You’re out. Can you hear me? You are out.”
Her body is cold. The warmth of her tree womb is gone. She feels her blood pumping in a fierce torrent around her limbs, refilling the lengthened veins. Voices ebb and flow, hands poke and prod, wrapping her, twisting her, and lifting her.
“How is she you?” It is the voice of the old man who offered her the drink on her arrival.
“She’ll heal. Just a matter of time.”
The back of the van is warm and soft as she drifts in and out of a hazy dream. There is a woman in the back with her who keeps poking fingers into her bruised skin and a mumble of conversation, that she can’t quite capture.
“Lucky… what do you reckon? … Who knows? … First time for everything …”
“Isobel, Isobel. We are going to transfer you to an ambulance and take you to the hospital to check you over now. OK?”
They lift the stretcher from the 4WD and place her on a waiting trolly to be tucked neatly into an ambulance. They ask her name, date of birth, what she is doing there and how she got there. She is unsure what she answers, but they seem satisfied and allow her to drift back to sleep beneath the soft weave of a cotton blanket.
“Ah, wondering when that would wear off – I’ll just let the Doctor know.”
“Isobel, my name’s Doctor Howard. The paramedics have brought you in as a precaution, and we thought it was probably wise to just check you over again, let you come down off the Greenstick. We’ve had a look at their reports, just looks like cuts and bruises and they put your elbow back in so a sling for a few days. Is there anywhere else you are feeling any pain?”
Isobel feels around the rawness of her skin and its bruises. She is a patchwork of gauze and plastic strips, tied together with crepe bandages. She shakes her head. “Just feel a bit woozy.”
“Yes, well you won’t be driving for a while.”
“Oh?” Isobel frowns. This was her thing. She was doing it on her own. No one else was here and there was no way she was ringing Mum to come get her!”
“I’ll write you some notes for your GP and I suggest you get a checkup next week to check none of the cuts are infected. In the meantime, just keep all the wounds clean and your arm up. It should be OK to drive and use normally in a week or so – but your GP can clear you.”
The nurse returns with a drink and a sandwich for Izzy and a smile. “Thought you might like this. Leftover from day surgery. Will I let your friend know you’re ready to go?”
“Yeah. She’s been waiting for you to take you back to the event. I’ll let her know you’re ready.”
“What?” Izzy frowns. One, she doesn’t have any friends, and two, she is not going anywhere near that finishing line. God – how embarrassing. The nurse disappears, and Izzy slides off the bed, attempting to hobble into her shoes, and a floppy fluoro jumper one of the first aiders must have donated to her. She really had to get out of here, before some rando do-gooder kidnaps her.
“Izzy! What a champion!” Freya beams as she strides into the emergency ward.
“I can’t believe what happened. How unlucky. The checkpoint guys say you tripped in the rain and then stuck in a tree, and they had to dislocate your arm. Here can I take a photo? And a big smile. Jacqui and your Mum are beside themselves. The organisers rang them of course and they’re on their way up to see you. But of course, I came straight here after the race. I told them I would wait for you. Thank God you’re alright. Have you turned your phone on? You must have a thousand messages.”
Freya has not taken a breath, her phone is held aloft, as she curls a sweaty arm around Izzy and clicks.
“Can I put it on Insta – so everyone knows you’re alright? Everyone’s asking about you!”
“Oh, I almost forgot. I picked up your shirt. Here!” Freya reaches into her handbag, lifting the crumpled material towards her. “Do you want a hand to put it on?”
The fluoro aiders jumper and calico sling are cast aside as ochre and black slips over her shoulders. It feels good. It feels very good.
“Here put your sling on and we can do a before and after photo,” Freya sings and clicks. Izzy eyes are wide open, her face ruddy and grazed and her smile broad, with Freya’s sweaty arms around her shoulders.
“What will we caption it?” Freya sings as she taps at her phone. “Oh I know, ‘better luck next time’, or maybe “we did it!”
Photo: Tracie McMahon