I carried her down from the mountain. As mountains go, Mount Montgomery in the Dial Ranges, near where I taught on my island’s North West Coast, was no Matterhorn. There was no blizzard, no ice and snow. Still it was an effort, she was heavy, and it was the only way.
I was bringing up the rear of the group of school children, shepherding the throng, ensuring none fell behind. I was responsible for all their safety, something that I never took lightly. This mountain, as tame as it may be by mountaineering standards, was still a challenge to many students, and that was the point – meeting the challenges of life. Bonding was involved too. After the climb we regrouped at the summit, had a spell and commenced the descent, again with myself the last to leave the top. A short distance on I found her, sitting on a log. She was done for, or so she claimed. She wasn’t going anywhere. No amount of quiet cajoling could coax her to budge under her own steam. And time was pressing, we had to be back at school around threeish or alarm bells would start to ring. There was only one solution if she would take it – and she did. She consented to be ‘piggy-backed’ down off the mountain. It was a struggle, testing my already dodgy levels of fitness, but I did it, welcomed back with some appreciative clapping by an audience no doubt as wary of the time factor as I was.
Daniel would have been there that day; he wouldn’t have missed out on something like that for quids. He and the young lady were in the same grade cohort and were both Down syndrome. It was Daniel’s face that appeared constantly to me in my mind’s eye as I worked my way through Peter Rix’s very fine novel.
Daniel was, for the years he was in my world, the school mascot if you like. One of my reasons for staying on for so long at my rural tenure was the fact that students could remain with us right through from kinder to Grade 10, and Daniel was, by the time he left, one of these few special ones. He was special in so many other ways too. He was a ‘character’, you knew he was about. We worked a curriculum around his needs; the fact it was a farm school was always useful, and Daniel had some responsibilities in that regard. I was part of his daily routine. As soon as he was off the bus he would be in to me, sitting at my computer in the school’s library. He was most interested to find out what I had repasted on over the last twenty-four hours and to gather my thoughts on how my beloved Hawks would go at the weekend, or debrief about their last match. I would receive pats on the back if they lost, high fives if they were victorious. He developed special bonds with some of the school’s personnel – my vivacious library assistant for instance, and he adored our groundsman, a larger than life figure for many who needed positive male role models in their lives. Daniel was ebullient, for the most part just so happy with life. When he was affronted though, we knew it. He’d have a face like thunder. I have no recollection of him being bullied, for generally our intake was of good country stock who would ‘look out for him’. The biggest cheer at any athletic carnival was not for the winning house or the champions, but for Daniel finishing a race – and he would milk it for all it was worth. As he burst through the tape, always replaced for him, his arms would be raised, his fists pumping.
Later in my career at Yolla School Daniel returned to us as a man, becoming an assistant to and mentored by the same adored groundsman. Special that.
And Peter Rix’s Tom is much like Daniel. You know this novel comes from the heart as the author is father to a Down syndrome daughter. But if it was only heart that was involved we’d all be writing novels of this class. This is Rix’s first fiction, but I suspect it would be greatly based on experience. Tom is a remarkable creation as he is word painted so realistically. The thought processes of Tom, in first person, are so akin to what I perceived as Daniel’s that it is remarkable. Relating such in an unwaveringly consistent way would have not been easy, but Rix has the writing chops to master the difficulty in a manner that keeps the reader entranced. The novel brings to mind Robin Klein’s thin volume ‘Boss of the Pool’; a book that certainly had an impact on me, and many others, when released decades ago. It opened up our hearts to something many Australians to that point would have had little experience of due to the practices in place at that time. Rix’s effort is of course more fleshed out, and its path is less original these days, but it is no less worthy for that. It also bought to mind the lovely German movie of earlier this year, ‘Vincent Goes to Sea’, as in both the role of the father is pivotal and go on a similar journey. In this narrative Tom embarks on a similar bonding exercise to the climbing of that North West mountain – travelling to his challenge of white water rafting on an unpredictable river. Father Jim is also on a journey. His is more spiritual. It is one of trying to see his ‘number two’ son in the same light as his wife Fran, of trying to re-establish relationships that have gone sour, as well as connecting with Tom to share his adventure. Thrown into this mix are a bevy of First Australians, their knowledge of land and water crucial to the narrative’s outcome.
There is humour and pathos to be had as well, together with liberal amounts of ‘watery’ symbolism, of both the salty and fresh kind. I felt the denouement, after the climatic events on the river a tad ‘Hollywoodish’, and was disappointed at the author’s low regard for human nature on page 247. ‘Water Under Water’ still remains a most praiseworthy effort, a highlight of my year’s reading.
The Toms/Daniels of this world, like the rest of us, all have their foibles. They, though, do wear their emotions on their sleeves, reward kindnesses given with so much love in return, and their openness brings out the best in humanity. In the discussion points after the conclusion it is alluded to, for comment, that the practices of the past should still be followed today in regard to those with Down syndrome, as well as those with other disabilities. I feel that would be a pity. As someone who has worked closely with these incredible, wonderful human beings I have had my life enhanced as a result. And I think the reverse applies as well. We enhance theirs.
Peter Rix Answers 10 Terrifying Questions = http://blog.booktopia.com.au/2011/07/05/peter-rix-author-of-water-under-water-answers-ten-terrifying-questions/