Jenny sat in the classroom chipping nail polish off her thumb with the edge of a ruler. The bubblegum pink looked so hopeful in the mornings, but got a bit skanky by the end of the week. The rain thrummed on the window in time to her scraping. They weren’t to complain about the rain, not with drought around every corner.
Then the rain let up. And then the rainbow came out as the last bell of the day set them free. Jenny and Rose got their bikes.
‘Let’s follow the rainbow,’ Jenny called over her shoulder.
‘I’ll race you,’ Rose challenged.
Their wheels went bumpa-bumpa over the wooden bridge at the end of the street. It was the loveliest noise in the whole world. Jenny lifted her feet off the pedals and glided.
Rose sped past. Shouting, ‘last one there’s a rotten goog.’
There was construction on the highway, with heaps of gravel spitting under their bicycle wheels. A bobcat skittered onto the road and a lollipop man stepped out sharpish. His Slow rotated to Stop. There were no cars. Only Jenny and Rose on their bikes. They looked at each other, not sure what signals were for them, and stopped anyway, two schoolgirls chasing rainbows, bikes leaning against long tanned legs at the end of a dry old summer.
The lollipop man stared blankly ahead. The girls glanced at each other deciding whether this was awkward or not. The girls began to giggle. The lollipop turned slowly to Slow.
Jenny pushed down hard on the right pedal. They’d lost sight of the rainbow and had to get around the next bend. They cycled abreast, any thought of competition over.
‘What do you think is at the end of the rainbow?’ Rose asked.
‘What are they?’
‘Little people of course. What are you?’ Jenny looked at her friend’s curious face.
‘Like midgets and dwarves?’ Rose delved.
‘No littler. Like little enough to live in toadstools. Okay, toadstools are like mushrooms only prettier, red tops with white polka dots. You’ve never heard any of this? Irish. You know.’
‘Funny, ha-ha,’ Rose laughed falsely like a teenager, which they would soon be.
‘Chinese parents don’t know this stuff.’
‘You don’t know about the pot of gold?’
‘We all want gold.’
‘Well the leprechauns keep their pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. Not like a tea pot. No lid. Gold glinting.’
‘For story stupid.’ It was Jenny’s turn to laugh.
The air was fresh, refreshed by the rain. Air clear enough to see the future: Jenny wanted to grow up and get to high school so she could start life; Rose wanted to ride and ride until there was no going back.
The rainbow hadn’t seemed so far away when they’d set off from the school-gate. It’d promised to fall to earth over the first hill. They’d be catching the bus in this direction next year, an hour each way to high school. Homework time, Jenny’s mum called it. Jenny saw her sisters grabbing nail polish and mascara on their way out the door each morning, and they each had a tiny mirror in their pencil cases, along with broken rulers and grubby rubbers that smeared the page. Forget algebra and grammar, the bus was time to put on their faces. Her sisters were mere blank pages when they left on their bikes to ride to the bus stop, six gates to get to the road.
They measured distance in gates not kilometres.
It’d only looked a few gates to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
‘What do you think is at the end?’ Jenny asked Rose as they pedalled on. She meant Rose herself and she meant all the Chinese in the world.
Rose said, on behalf of herself and herself alone: ‘The light will be there. Red and blue and green and – all those rainbow colours. Mixed in an ethereal light. We’ll stand there and bathe in it.’
Rose may not have known leprechauns but she knew ethereal. You had to know these things when you lived in a cliché: the Chinese family who run the Chinese restaurant at an RSL.
‘We can make a wish when we get there. In the light,’ Jenny promised.
They’d made it to the top of the hill and the rainbow didn’t end beyond it after all. From Rocky Top it looked like it was coming down over the next hill. There was no question of turning back. All they needed was refreshment to propel them on.
‘Want a rest first?’
Jenny was off her bike before Rose could answer. She had a homegrown apple left over from lunch. She didn’t like eating apples in front of people: they were so loud in their protest at each bite. She was hungry enough now to forget this.
Rose had a metal ruler with an edge perfect for cutting through a crisp granny-smith. Jenny handed her the apple, and she severed it in two, to share.
Jenny lay back on the verge, bit, risking a choking wedge in the throat ala Snow White. The grass was wet from the rain but she was sweaty from pedalling up the hill so it was much of a muchness.
Their town spread like an amoeba below them. The nucleus: a wide main street green with peppercorn trees down the middle. It was the only thing that looked planned from the height of the hilltop. Maybe life needed plans. What just comes along might not be up to much.
The girls chewed their halves of apple beside their strewn bicycles. The noise was contemplative. The rainbow colours were even more intense this high up, the way colours get when you get closer.
Down they swooped, following the route the bus would take them to high school, passing yellow signs with helpful ideograms of children. Just then the actual bus loomed up the valley, coming toward them, bringing the teenagers home.
Jenny kept her head down. Maybe her sisters were doing their homework and not staring out the windows dreaming the paddocks into landscapes of desire; not staring out and able to see Jenny travelling in the wrong direction. It wasn’t as if their mum ever forbade them from chasing rainbows but Jenny knew she should be in the kitchen getting the potatoes peeled for tea.
Jenny’s bike juddered a little in the wash of the bus on the narrow road. Rose lifted her hand and waved. The shadows in the bus may have waved back. Or mooned them. The bus interior was too dark to tell.
On the empty road they pedalled abreast again. The rainbow was fading into grey at its apex, but was still as bright as a pre-school mural as it disappeared behind Blue Metal Hill.
‘I think it lands on Declan’s house,’ said Jenny.
‘Which one’s Declan?’ asked Rose. The gradient was rising again. The long muscle in her thighs squealed like ukulele strings. She fell back. Rose wasn’t interested in boys.
Jenny and Rose got off their bikes to push them up the rest of the hill. The left pedal knocked Jenny’s shin. Grazed it. Not like sheep in a paddock graze, Jenny told Rose, like this was a joke.
At the top – there was the end! The rainbow lit up a stand of gums in the next valley. Gilded them. All the rest of the trees were somber and the sky was darkening to the black of newly laid tarmac.
Gums have multiple personality disorder. Haunting characters, ghostly and threatening one minute, then elegant ladies with long, pale limbs and dancing arms; then homely, fusty; then gregarious in rustling groups. All depending on the light. From the top of the hill, the gums at the end of the rainbow looked oil painting perfect.
The girls almost missed the message in the black, black clouds.
Twenty minutes after the bus had passed, Jenny turned her bicycle around and sailed back down the slope, too tired now for anything awesome. The rain was pelting down in a thick curtain. A shower curtain. Jenny tried to shout her newest joke back at Rose as they raced homeward, but the roar of the bucketing water washed her words into the weeds of the long paddock.
Jenny hadn’t wanted to give up, didn’t want to admit the treasure at the end of the rainbow was unobtainable. But there was no sun left to manufacture a rainbow out of the air. Besides, she knew her mother would be worrying and her sisters would be dobbing her in so her mother would be angry and peace at home was gold in itself.
Rose headed back into town. Jenny opened her first gate. It was miserable riding home alone in the rain.
High school arrived the following summer. Jenny got on the bus every day as was her heart’s desire. She felt grown up in her new uniform that her mum bought two sizes too big so it’d last. Her new grey socks didn’t stay up after the second week.
Once during Year 9 she saw a boy on a bike from the bus window. Something about the way he hunched over his handlebars reminded her of the day she chased the rainbow. She remembered feeling alone through primary school, but there’d been another bike up ahead in the memory. She looked around the school bus and knew it wasn’t any of the kids there. It must have been Rose, the girl who went away to boarding school.
She lent against the window, her cheek on the cool glass, remembered giving up on finding the rainbow and coming home in the mother of all storms. She remembered getting into trouble.
She’d forgotten the afternoon until then. Then did again.
In Year 10 she had to decide whether to keep going at school. There was a job advertised at the abattoir in catering. School seemed a long way away. Too many gates. Too many hills.
One night, too many years after that, her boyfriend Declan took her to the Chinese at the RSL as a pre-Christmas celebration. He ordered three dishes and twirled them on the Lazy Susan. Her shandy sloshed over. She tried chopsticks and gave up because she was ravenous.
The owner’s daughter was back from university. She was beautiful. She smiled at Jenny from behind the till. Jenny’s boyfriend said, ‘she’s a bit of alright.’
Jenny smiled back at Rose. Something stirred in her. Something that could have been missed opportunities.
The next morning, Jenny woke from a dream of leprechauns and pots of gold. She lay in bed not wanting to get up, not wanting to spend anther day in a dead-end job, her brain in neutral. She was inevitably running late for work – she grabbed her car keys and left by the back door, telling the sunning cat he was a gorgeous boy as she passed.
When she turned the corner of the house she could see it was raining up ahead, starting about halfway along the drive. She was very late so, without thinking, she kept walking. Until the first huge raindrops skidded into her eyelashes.
Then she paused. Looked up. A threatening grey cloud hovered above her. She turned. The back of the house was in sunshine.
She thought, ‘I suppose, like rainbows, clouds have to end somewhere.’ She felt the raindrops glide down her cheeks. She took one step back into the sunshine.
Jane Downing‘s stories have appeared around Australia in The Big Issue, Seizure, Verity La, Southerly, and previously on The Regal Fox. She can be found at https://janedowning.wordpress.com/