In this chapter Des is on the plane to Melbourne and half expects to see his ancestors. He then imagines himself in the landscape of Australia. He sees his mother at St Vincent's and he drinks red wine.
CHAPTER TWO : Des at the Crossroads
So he slept, lulled by the quiet hum of the engine and the feeling that someone was in control of the aircraft. High up, way up. What the hell were the physics of this? How does the plane get up and stay up? He looked out of the curve of the window. His thoughts moved across the broad terrain of his memories so there he is standing beneath the knarled gum tree in the school yard in Thornton. It is summer and a gust had picked up dust and was whirling it around and he watches as it is carried across the playground, while in the school car park the cars sat passively. Then Des is sitting at the bridal table at Suzie's wedding and he looks across the assembled group. Earlier in the kitchen Suzy was having second thoughts. Gary looked like what he was, a country boy way out of his depth. Jacket off, vest unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up. Beer in his hand, eyes already bleary.
Oh sweet Jesus. The cabin was lit by the clear high altitude light: light holding the space. He hlaf expected to see his ancestors. His war hero grandfather. His too beautiful grandmother. His mother's parents walking towards him through the crystalized domain, down the carpeted space, their forms pierced by light and the scene suspended, slowed. When young and beautiful, perhaps on their first date.
Des felt the softness of the seat. The light still held him and he wanted to stand. He wished he could float out of the plane and up and up. The only thing to do was to sit there and feel the tingle move from his feet, up his legs to his stomach and heart while at the same time feel his face and skull vibrating with grief and his eyes unable to hold his tears. A sob rose from inside his chest, an involuntary convulsion. Part of him wanted to run from the aircraft, wanted to be alone. The other part, the bigger part, couldn't give a flying fuck. He remembered hearing his father sobbing in his bedroom and imagined him being cradled in his mother's arms. The men in his father's family were all great criers so he let himself be carried by his grief and by the waves that rolled through his body until he came to a quiet space and just closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
He was awoken by the pilots voice and by the 'ding' of the 'no smoking' and seat belt sign going off. Out the window he could see the landscape of his childhood -the sweeps of green and brown, the lines of fences, the roads that stretched for miles and miles. His heart lifted at the sight of it all. It were as though he was looking at himself. This country was him and it seemed to express something about his personality and character and his family. His tribe. His people had worked this land. Built towns. Celebrated weddings in community halls. He had sat, on those long Saturday afternoons in the summer, with Ronny and Peter, at the base of the War Memorial with its tight sharp columns, the names all in lines, names that he recognised. His own family's name was there -his great, uncle Robert. They would feel the sharp edges of the letters and be reassured by the solidity of the structure, the way it stood there at the centre of the town garden, but was private, an island away from the main thoroughfare, which anyway was deserted now, after the bustle of Saturday morning. Just a few hours earlier the footpaths in front of the shops were all bright colours and smiles. Shopping lists, either in heads or paper. And once the shopping was done stopping for a cup of tea or popping into the dress shop. The gaiety of it all. His mother never looked more beautiful than when she was standing beneath the awning in front of the hardware store talking to Mrs Kennedy. She laughs and turns and looks at him and winks. He feels his heart melt.
They sit with their back against the plaque. The sun is high and it is hot. Their bikes lay willy-nilly on the lawn in front of them.
'What'll we do now?' asks Ronny, all tightly coiled energy.
'Let's go down to the river,' says Peter, taller than Des and Ronny. Intelligent, funny Peter.
'Yeh,' says Des.
So then they are off, racing their bikes towards the river. It didn't matter that they had no bathers. Their shorts would do fine. The water was cool and clean and clear and it was surprising, on a day like this, that they hadn't thought of it sooner. Perhaps it was in the back of their minds, the way Christmas was there from late November onwards.
Splash, splash. Watery coolness.
'Watch this,' called Ronny from the far bank, where he held the rope that hung from an old tree. His grin lit his nut brown face. His hair was wet and slicked back making him look like a sweet undersized seal. He pulled the rope back so it formed a loose line from the branch to his hand. He ran and left the ground, swinging out from the bank he is suspended at the highest point, then he releases the rope, curls into a tight ball and hits the river like a bomb, sending water in every direction. After a second his head pops up and he smiles and waves and swims to where they are standing in the river.
The new Tullamarine airport gleemed. Des stands in front of the conveyor belt waiting for his old black suitcase which had travelled with him on all his adventures. He looks around at the shining new airport and at his fellow passengers dressed in light summer clothes but already adding a jumper or jacket.
How strange to think that yesterday morning (was it only yesterday?) he stood in the shower fantasizing about a cold, wet, grey Melbourne day and here it was. Some kids raced around, nut brown, hair bleached from the sun, as their parents watched the belt. The mother held a baby.
Oh Jesus, Des, not now. He looked up at the small length of windows that framed the fading afternoon light. He found strength in his love for this city.
He spotted his suitcase with its thin brown belt holding it closed and the faded stickers from his boat trip from Sydney to London. It was like seeing an old, uncomplicated friend and it reassured him. Before he knew it the doors were sliding open and his Uncle Jack and Fi and Coll and Fi's husband Tom as standing there like survivors from some wreck. The wreck of their lives.
The street lights were on and the roads had that Sunday night stillness. Deserted. He watched the suburbs pass as Fi told the story on the last few days.
'Mum and Dad were in Melbourne for a reunion and they were staying at our place. The reunion was on Friday night at the Southern Cross. Mum wasn't feeling well all day but she felt well enough to go, but you know Mum. So they went and came home and during the night Mum got up and she fell and hit her head on the heater. Dad woke up at some point. We don't know how long she was laying there. I called an ambulance and we raced her to St. Vincents. She tossed and turned all night then went into a coma in the morning. Actually there was very little to be done. She had a massive stroke and the operation was exploratory. Not much hope really. So they operated yesterday and its all shocking and terrible.'
They drove in silence through Coburg. They passed a tram. Inside, a couple sat together, her head on his shoulder. She was laughing at something he said.
Des felt his heart contract. Oh he hated being single. At that moment he wished he had a wife, or a girlfriend, who he had known for years, who had been with him in London, Rome, Paris, Prague. To whom he could say 'Remember the time we stood on the Charles Bridge in Prague and looked at the Saint of Actors and Dogs? And the way the Palace stood on the hill shrouded by the morning mist and the sun was rising?' Oh Jesus.
He had let them go. And until now, right now, in this car with his family, he hadn't counted the cost of his carelessness, feel the weight of his philosophy. His faith shaken, he tasted the ash of isolation, his self created, once triumphal, splendid isolation. Splendid isolation. Portable, compact, mobile, no strings attached. Travel light. It had served him extremely well until this point and now he realised. He had an epiphany: he wanted to meet a girl who he could marry.
But first he had to wait for his mother to die, pack up in Moresby and move back to Melbourne.
'In shock. He's in shock,' whispered Fi.
Jack parked in the front of St Vincent's on Victoria Parade. Des felt like he had been transported from another time and place. He was struck by the clean orderliness of everything, by the guttering and the footpaths, the solidity of the buildings. He thought about the dusty Boroko shopping centre. In the tropics human habitation was sketched on the landscape as though any minute the jungle would encroach, a tropical downpour wash it all away and the blazing afternoon fade it. The sound of the car doors slamming reverberated off the heavy dark walls of the hospital and met no resistance from the Sunday night quietness.
Coll led the way up the stairs and down the tiled corridor, even quieter and more deserted than the city outside. They stood in front of the lift doors. A trolley passed, pushed by two orderlies in green shirts and white trousers. The patient, who was covered by a blue cotton hospital blanket, stared at the ceiling, hands clasped on her stomach.
They watched the numbers light up, then the door opened and they got in. Once out of the lift, they faced a similar darkened corridor. They walked, a tight group. Des' heart pumped. As they came to the end of the corridor his father appeared. They hugged and his Father gripped him. Des felt his solid compactness but also his frailty. His Mother was in the ward. He stood beside her and looked down. Her eyes were closed and her mouth slightly open. Tubes ran from her arm to a metal stand with bags of liquids hanging from it. Her head had been shaved and a jagged flesh wound sat across her skull. The sliced flesh was held together by stitches, darkened with blood. His mother's hand lay on the blue surface of the blanket, so he held it and leant forward. He whispered some words in her ear. He wasn't sure how long he sat there holding his mother's hand but after a time he felt Fi's hand on his shoulder.
The Italian restaurant was as empty as the street outside and Des wondered if there had been a civil alert to evacuate the city. He was grateful for the familiarity of the place. He drank his several glass of red wine with his pasta. He thought about Moresby. He wanted to tell them about the way the light hit the livingroom floor or how it felt driving back from the river, the mountain air rushing through the cabin of the car. The way the mist blew in and the corrugated surface of the muddy road. The feeling of the waterfall on his back. And smoking a joint with Janie, looking down from the peak to Port Moresby, a shimmer in the distance. Janie. Where was she now? Probably working in London. He held the image of her pale inner thigh as he viewed, with a hooded expression, his family. He felt as though his memory banks were full and all he had to work with was his heart. He felt a deep love for these people rising within him. Was it time to come home? He knew that the person under the shower yesterday morning, and all his quiet certainties, was gone forever and the new Des was being formed with bits of the fragments. He pushed his plate away and put his head in his hands and let the tears run down his cheeks. Coll put his on his shoulder and when he looked up again he saw his family in various states of grief.
Clinton De Vere