Jul 5, 2024 | The Long Read

SHORT STORY: 49 is a dangerous age

Edwina Shaw

A week before her forty-ninth birthday Frankie found herself gripping the rough wooden handle of a Tarzan swing high above a waterhole, wondering if it was such a good idea after all. The deep pool below looked a long way down. She’d watched her young nieces and nephew all have a turn, her brother too, and he was only a few years younger, then all the teenage boys who made up the majority of people at the popular Sunshine Coast swimming hole. As she stood on the mud platform surrounded by rainforest, dripping with water and ferns, she looked up to the branch where the swing was tied. The tree was old and strong, and the rope looked as if it would take her weight, it had held her brother after all… her stomach churned. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t chicken out; she’d show these young ones how it was done.

She’d swung from heaps of Tarzan swings before, or had she? She remembered jumping from many rocks and scrambling up waterfalls and sliding down them in far North QLD where she’d grown up, surely she’d flown from Tarzan swings too? She breathed in the mulch-flavoured air and steadied herself.

Anyway, she only had one year left before she turned fifty, at which point she was certifiably old and would surely never swing on a Tarzan rope again. So this was it. Her last chance. She’d show them all, and herself, that her adventurous days were far from over. She was strong. She’d even been doing ten push-ups in her weekly sessions at the gym recently, her trainer had been super impressed. “Not bad for an old girl,” Sam had said.

“Who’s old?” Frankie had puffed back, throwing in an extra push-up for good luck, before flopping onto her belly exhausted.

She knew she could hold on to the swing. It would be fun, she told herself. She loved this kind of thing. Still her knees were quaking, and the pungent rot of the rainforest felt clammy in her throat.

“Go on Frankie! You can do it!” Her brother, Lenny, encouraged her from the sidelines as his wife trained her phone camera on the swing.

“Go on Auntie Frankie!” her nieces and nephew called from the water below where they’d already landed safely.

Emboldened, Frankie took a deep breath, looked down at the tangle of tree roots and rocks below, the water a good swing out, and nodded.

“Just watch it doesn’t flip out on ya,” said the teenage boy with low-slung shorts, next in line.

Frankie swivelled her head towards him. Flip out? What did he mean?

“You can do it Frankie!” Lenny yelled.

Frankie faced back to the waterhole, took one last gulp of air and pushed off, took flight, preparing to soar.

Soaring did not happen. There was no flight, no elegant swing and drop and plunge. Instead, in slow motion, one by one, each of Frankie’s small fingers lost their grip, unable to hold her weight. Each one peeling off, until – she dropped. Before she’d cleared the tree, before she’d cleared the rocks. Frankie thunked down on root after rock after root after rock, kerthunker, kerthunker kerthunk, all the ungainly way to the bottom where the cold water finally found her – a too late rescue.

All captured on her sister-in-law’s video.

They’d laugh later, but then not even the children were laughing. Frankie emerged from underwater, battered and bruised to see horror on the faces of the children and her brother, even the teenage boys’ jaws had dropped.

“Ow,” she said and slowly made her way to the shallows where she sat surrounded by children checking for broken bones. Luckily, she hadn’t hit her head, but swelling and bruising were starting to appear, and a big lump was forming on her hip and her side, detracting from the scrapes and scratches all over her legs. Frankie started to shake from shock, but the cold water was helping the bumps, so she stayed in and pretended she wasn’t really hurt so badly. No one else had a turn on the swing after her though.

 

Her own children hadn’t come on the weekend away with their much younger cousins. She’d started her family earlier than her siblings, so her kids were eye-rolling teens who thought a weekend away with family was worse than death. At least, Frankie thought, they’d been spared the indignity of watching their mother fall.

She carried her two-year-old nephew, Billy, on her back as they wound their way along the long steep rainforest track to the carpark, between giant buttress roots and vines and prickly ferns, until her legs started to shake with delayed shock, and she had to pass him to her brother. Her sister Bronwyn, a single mum, had had to return for an emergency work meeting and Frankie was babysitting till the following morning, to help her sister out. All easy, after three kids of her own, but the accident had left her shaky and fragile and Billy wasn’t the easiest of kids.

After they got back to the holiday apartments next door to each other they’d booked for the weekend, everyone else went to have their afternoon naps. Frankie took Billy to have his sleep, but he wasn’t keen. Frankie on the other hand, really needed to lie down. Her body was shaking and sore after all that thumping and bumping, so she forced Billy to lie beside her on her sister’s big bed and read him stories until her eyes closed.

His however were still wide open.

“Aunty Frankie,” he whispered loudly, wet toddler lips right on her ear, “you wake?”

Frankie pretended to snore, desperate to rest and recover.

Billy was quiet for a minute and Frankie thought she may have won.

Then, “Aunty Frankie? Aunty Frankie? You sleep?”

Frankie squeezed her eyes together. Oh God, please make Billy sleep.

“Wake up! Wake up! I want Mummy!” Billy burst into tears and Frankie knew there’d be no rest that day. Like all her long years of motherhood. “No rest for the wicked,” she’d always said. But really, she didn’t think she’d been that wicked to have been denied a break for so very long.

That night after little Billy was finally asleep and Frankie had a chance to rest, her mind wouldn’t stop racing, not even the painkillers she’d taken to ease the throbbing in her bruised and swollen thigh and hip had pushed her over the edge to sleep. She was thinking about forty-nine. How it was seven times seven.

For her, that could only mean trouble.

 

Author

  • Edwina Shaw

    Edwina Shaw is a writer of fiction, memoir and screenplays, an editor, mentor, and an independent publisher with her imprint Red Backed Wren Publishing. She also runs 'Relax and Write' retreats.

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