So, like a living cliche of unrequited love, I decide to run away to a distant outback town of miners, dust and gold. I say it is for work so that you won’t know it is because of you. Probably you guess anyway. You tell me I will love it there. You sound excited but I can only notice that it is the first time you mention me and love in the same sentence. A few nights before I leave – this is summer, the nights are close and there’s the ring of crickets in the air –I drive my car far into the flat, moonlit wheat fields. I watch road trains sweep past me and am desperate for something I cannot name. My heart is swimming for you; I want to run or scream or cry. Instead, I turn around and drive home. David Crosby is on the radio and he pours harmonies into my blood. I am full of the things I cannot touch: the night, the music and love. I sing along “I just want to hold you; I don’t want to hold you down.” but I know this is not true, that I really feel the opposite. Then I am gone and the summer grows between us and our one night together, a night when I drunkenly kissed your laughing face, everything so brilliant and you out of focus so clearly. Months later you write me a letter to say you have met someone. You write, “He reminds me of you” and you do it without irony or cruelty, just the heedlessness of early love. You are right about one thing though: I do love that mining town and I marry this beautiful teacher there. I hear that you marry a policeman with a sense of humour. Now the teacher and the cop are gone and the years have swept us together again on this strange promontory. You send me an email out of the blue and when I reply you write, “I’d forgotten your dry sense of humour.” Oh you and your funny men, I think. But I can’t be bitter, not really. Instead I write you a story that I know will make you laugh. Then I press ENTER. I wait.
Category Archives: Love
As they get nearer, the mountain that emerges from the surrounding bushland reveals itself to be a cluster of tightly grouped stony hills. There is no apparent entrance but he has been here before and pulls off the dirt road that has taken them about two hundred kilometres from the coast. Soon a rough track shows itself as two faint wheel ruts that appear and disappear up the side of the hills. Large stones and ditches cause the vehicle to sway and dip as it climbs slowly upwards.
This is their first trip together and she has never been here before. She doesn’t say anything but he senses her excitement. The Toyota reaches a gap between two hills and they begin a steep decline through thick bushes and washed out waterways. The spring sky is clear and the air already warm but in a thickly aromatic way that makes his head swim. Gradually they emerge into a small valley nestled and hidden between the hills. A fading bed of green cloaks the valley floor and gum trees grow out of empty creek beds.
“Oh God,” she says. They park at the foot of a trickling waterfall and he takes her hand and helps her up the ragged red rocks towards the top. “Look,” he says and there on a rock beside her she can make out a faded Aboriginal etching. Then she notices that they are all around her. The two of them sit down on a boulder and the valley stretches east and west below them. She doesn’t say anything and he is glad. He hates the banality of language and how it pollutes beauty, how inadequate words hang over the indescribable and tarnish it with the prosaic. He feels her hand on the small of his back.
Later they make their way back to the homestead. “You love all this, don’t you?” she says.
He nods. “I do, I always have.” Then he adds, “It’s my country.” And she knows he doesn’t mean Australia, only this small part of it where he grew up and where she met him when they were still teenagers. When the next question comes, he is not even surprised. “Did you used to bring your wife here?” she asks. It has become important to her this knowledge. It insinuates itself into everything that is important to her and him; into everything that she wants to make her own. She has a need for a new history with him, not one that is shared. He understands this even though they don’t talk about it.
“No,” he answers. There is a silence and he can feel her longing to know more but also that she is slightly afraid of spoiling this moment. “My wife loved beautiful things,” he says, “but she didn’t have time for beauty.” He reaches out and touches her hand. “You’re different.” She clasps his hand and looks out the window and says, “Don’t talk” and he senses emotion coursing through her like a tide that stops her speech.
He remembers that there is a flat ground in some low hills not far away where you can still make out the outline of strange lines of gathered stones. A black stockman told him once that the Aboriginal people around here used to spend weeks making the intricate patterns and colours and then one day they would just dance all over them. He will take her there tomorrow. She will understand how beauty is not always for keeping and how you can dance it away and how not holding it makes it grow more beautiful still.
He suddenly wants to tell her that he loves her but then he realises that he loves everything.
He watches the rain. It is running down the window. He is thinking of a woman who is far away. He cannot remember ever thinking about anyone for as long as he thinks about this girl. Even so, his thoughts are like a silent movie; images without feeling or soundtrack. He is practicing being neutral. The phone rings. It is his ex-wife. She wants to change a night with the kids. “It’s fine,” he says.
She is apologising. “I’ll make it up to you.” He tells her again that it is OK; he had no plans for the night she wants to change. “I’ll take them an extra night next week,” she says. Then she is gone again and he returns to the window.
He wonders if his wife has a lover yet. Once the thought would have made him apprehensive, reignited the smouldering ash of his emotions after the affair. Something inside him has changed though. For the first time he imagines his wife happy with another man and there is a tiny feeling somewhere inside that he wants this. That he wants her to be happy again. “Weird,” he mutters to the emptiness but finds himself smiling. Part of that smile is for her, a bigger part for the fact of not feeling anything else; no fear, no anger, no hurt. It has been a long time since he felt so removed from her; felt that she cannot touch him anymore.
He reaches for his coffee, holds the mug in his palm feeling the warmth in his fingers. It strikes him dully that he did love his wife for a long time and that the feeling has gone; not even replaced with something close to love. It has just gone.
But where does love go? Not the love for ourselves but the love we feel for others. It fills our hearts then quickly or slowly it goes away. He had once read somewhere that the love we feel defines us more than the love we receive. He thinks about this for a while. Where love goes seems an unanswerable question and a little dangerous. He finds it strange that he has never thought of it before.
The woman occupying his thoughts spoke of love once or twice. It is a big word, she said. They were lying together on a Friday afternoon in Melbourne. Too big for this strange thing between the two of them, she meant. And he knew this was right in a way, in the normal way of the world. But something about love is small too, he thought, easily given, easily lost. His wife said to him once, “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” The thought of this makes him turn from the window.
He mentally shifts away from this time; this time he tells no one about. Increasingly he will not even tell himself that story. But now he remembers that at the time of the affair, he never once hated his wife; not even her lover. He thought he understood love then; that it can be a cruel, spoiling thing and yet almost impossible to resist. He had, early in their relationship, loved his wife so much that it had made him crazy at times. And then it made him calm and good. But in a long, dangerous, despairing drive South on the day he found out about the affair it was the knowledge of the unassailable nature of love that almost destroyed him.
He is a lot of things but he is rarely dishonest with himself. He knows that somewhere in the morass of their feelings for each other, he had stopped being someone his wife needed. He knew it then and he spent four wasted years trying to discover the key again. He avoids thinking about that time now because he did not like what he remained long after her love for another man had gone. And he does not want to be that person again, lost to himself.
He switches his mind to the sad-eyed lady thousands of miles away. He thinks about her hands. He remembers her crooked smile and the way she looks up at him sometimes with a look he can’t fathom for meaning. She is beautiful and she does not believe she is beautiful. Lying in bed in the late afternoon he had stroked her bare breast and shoulder and listened to her talking. He was filled with the wonder of another human being, so mysterious, like a planet. It made him believe in the beauty of the world again.
“Shit,” he murmurs and turns up the music. “You are a sentimental fool.” But he knows that he has never been sentimental. Inside him there is a faint stirring. His heart is making room for someone else. He is not altogether happy about this; sometimes feels nervous, sometimes sick. But he knows it is happening.
The rain keeps pouring. He feels uneasy, has felt uneasy for weeks. Part of him knows they will meet again, part of him believes this will never happen. There is a rumble in the distance. He holds his palm against the cool glass of the window. Somewhere a car swishes along the flooded highway and he wonders where it is going.
I sure did all the dumb things for Colette. From this distance it seems such a beautiful name for first love but I didn’t love her then for posterity. Thirteen was I and sitting on a summers evening verandah seeing her image ranged across the Southern Cross and recalling every soft word, the faint English lilt of it, the pale fingers around a pencil. Colette. Whose fingers were never to touch mine or voice to say my name. Me; too desperate in my dumbness and struggling to find the secret of the older boys, their easy leering smiles and knowing winks. Me; too young for this secret but old enough to know that I did not know. Sometimes when Colette looked at me I felt she was willing me to grow up, to grow me into this knowledge that I could not learn. But how did she know it, I wondered, she who was no older than me. How many nights looking at that bruised sky and searching for the secret that would not come? Too many. So I learned to make people laugh instead and I grew it into a little web and a little shell too. And sometimes I would see her smile, from a distance, but definitely smiling at the jokes that grew for her at night from my helpless heart. Colette smiled. Did I grow slightly older at those moments or did she grow slightly younger? It doesn’t matter; you can’t make people laugh forever. She found an older boy and then her family left town. The last time I saw her she was 17. She gave me this quizzical look as if to say, “So you’ve finally grown up.” But I hadn’t grown up; I’d just grown taller. In my confusion I dug into my pocket for a joke and I poured it from my mouth into her open ears, so gently like a gift. I like to think she is out there somewhere in the big world and that she keeps it still.
Colin turns the page of the old photograph album and suddenly there is Louise smiling at me again from twenty years ago. I remember that party. In the background my younger sister is standing with my girlfriend of that time and they are watching Louise and the man with the camera with amusement. Louise’s boyfriend, Mike, is there, too; partly obscured and looking at something out of shot. Everyone is laughing.
“Hell,” I say. “She was really beautiful, wasn’t she.”
“We all were,” Colin looks at me closely and adds, “What ever happened to your cousin Louise?”
I can feel him looking at me.
“Oh, she’s married with a kid. I saw her about three years ago when I was at a conference in Adelaide.”
I have known Colin since we were both twelve. “You and her were pretty close for cousins,” he says with forced nonchalance. I look up. So this is what he wants to know after all this time.
I look at the photograph. “Yeah,” I say. “You know, Colin, I think I was secretly in love with Louise for a while.”
Colin snorts but not unkindly. “Shit, mate, everyone thought you were in love with each other.”
The years blur. I am sitting in the kitchen of my home with my fourteen-year-old cousin. I am sixteen. It is after midnight and we are the only ones awake. We are talking about life and love and music and dreams. We talk like this at every chance we get. She is on holidays with us from the other side of Australia. When she leaves I go to my bedroom and lie there feeling this deep hollowness grow inside me and it is the first time that I miss someone. For a while we send each other clever, sentimental letters and then we stop.
Four years later we are both back in the little town. I am home from completing university; she is about to start her studies in Adelaide. I have become witty and cynical; she even more gentle and idealistic than before. But something deeper has also changed. We still hang out but now we clash. I hate her faith in everything; she is hurt by my careless dismissal of everything she cares about. One night we are playing pool in the local hotel. She walks up to me and looks me in the eyes saying softly so only we can hear, “Why do I hate you when I’m sober and love you when I’m drunk?”
There will be many little moments like this over that brief summer. I remember the tiniest things. Like watching movies at the Drive In, six of us packed into Colin’s car, she in the front and me in the back. I say, “Can you move your head a bit, Louise, so I can see?”
“Absolutely!” she laughs.
“Louise, can I have a lick of your ice-cream?
“Can I have a kiss, Louise?”
She turns awkwardly in her seat and leans her cheek towards me. “Absolutely” Now her tone is mockingly seductive. For the first and only time I kiss her. I do it quickly and everyone laughs.
But mostly we annoy each other and eventually become overly tender to the most innocent comments of the other. On the day she is to leave we are sitting in my car and trying to find the words for goodbye. We are not being very successful and our jokes fall flat. I desperately want her to leave and yet I can’t bear the thought of it. But I do not show this.
“Say hello to your mum and dad for me,” I say. Then I mention her little sister, “And tell Pippa not to grow…” I stop quickly but it is too late. The colour rushes to Louise’s face, so sensitive has she become to even my silences. There are tears in her eyes. Her voice is soaked with anger and hurt, “Tell her not to grow up like me! That’s what you were going to say, weren’t you?” I sit there mutely, staring ahead and feeling suddenly like I will throw up, like I have just killed some animal. “Weren’t you?” Louise chokes into silence, opens the car door and rushes away into a life that is mostly a mystery to me.
The album of photographs is still lying there. I want to ask Colin, “Do you really think she loved me?” But he turns the page and says, “Any chance of another tea, mate? This one’s gone cold.”
I was standing in my shed one day (this was years ago now) and thinking how different it was to other men’s sheds. No well organised pursuits of the masculine type here; just junk and memories and boxes for both. I was disappointed in myself like my wife had become disappointed in me. This is an emotion more killing than hate. But that is another story.
So anyway, my wife comes out and I hear her calling to the cat. “Here, Beautiful. Come to mummy.” I hated her doing that, talking to the cat like it was a child. Or the child we had decided not to have. Maybe it was guilt. Even though we had both decided not to have children, more and more often I felt I was depriving her of something. Now that something was mutating into a grotesque imitation of motherhood with the cat as its object.
The cat comes half way across the yard then stops, looks at her, sits and licks its tail like it will not play this game. My wife notices me in the doorway and says. “In your shed, eh?” I feel like the cat; I don’t comment.
“Better watch where you walk today,” I say. “I think I saw a snake in the grass by the fence.” She doesn’t even look in that direction but bends to straighten a pot plant. “Well, did you actually see one or did you just think you saw one?”
Suddenly I’m not sure. I wish I hadn’t said anything. And I know there will be a supplementary question just to confirm my unreliability. Sure enough, she adds quickly, “I mean, what colour was it? How long?”
“I don’t know,” I answer, “ I just got a glimpse.” I sound stupid even to myself. She has already moved on though. “Did you remember Roger and Jan are coming over for a drink tonight?”
“Yep,” I lie. I have already stopped listening to her plans; it is my quiet revolt against my lack of involvement in them. But I am glad that people are coming over, and not even worried that I am happy that it will give me a chance to get drunk.
Roger and Jan arrive at around six. I worked with him ten years before up North but I don’t know her so well. It doesn’t matter; it’s easy company and there is plenty of wine. We sit in the back yard and their two kids watch a video inside.
About ten o’clock we are all drunk and Jan says, “How come you guys didn’t have kids?” Roger groans, “Shit, Jan, none of your business.”
My wife looks at me and for a fraction of a second I see panic in her eyes. “We decided to be happy instead, didn’t we, Kid?” I laugh. I put my hand on her knee. “Oh yeah,” she says, “You know, travel, stay in expensive hotels, wipe our own bums.”
Roger sits hunched over in his seat stroking the cat. He snorts. “Sounds like a good plan to me.” The conversation moves on and the kids come out and say they have nothing to do. They start to explore the barely lit edges of the lawn and garden. My wife says, “Tell them to be careful, we saw a snake in the grass today, didn’t we, Hon.” I nod and Jan calls the kids back.
And that’s when it hits me that I love my wife. Later, while she is saying goodbye to Roger and Jan, I have one more glass of wine and a cigarette. I watch moths banging at the yellow light bulb.
“But soon we shall die and all memory (of others) will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”Thornton Wilder, The Bridge at San Luis Rey
And there always was love. Even behind the serious faces of the black and white photographs that we call the past.
There was once a beautiful, dark haired lady named Kate Campbell and, in 1910, she came from Scotland to this windswept, lonesome town clinging to the western edge of a great, dry island continent. She was my great aunt. At the end of the first decade of the 20th Century my little town boasted a population of less than seven hundred people. That is, if you didn’t count the local Ingaada people, and no one did.
Kate had come half way around the world to be with her sister, Georgina, who was left with a baby girl to raise after the drowning of her husband in 1907. And as one sister fought to survive the loss of love, the other found it. In July 1911, on the afternoon of a mild winter’s Wednesday, Kate married a young blue-eyed, brown haired shire clerk who was a popular player in the local football team. He had flat feet and a scar on his left hand. His name was Charlie Lee and he loved her.
The little Congregational church was full and above the door the boys from the footy club had created a banner that read “God bless our comrade Charlie Lee and his bride.” The organist, Miss Wheelock, began playing O Love Divine and Tender as the bride and groom entered the church. Outside a quiet breeze blew off the Indian Ocean; there was a faint smell of salt and dust and camel dung in the dirt streets. Kate held onto a piece of white heather, a token of her homeland, and a spray of fresh orange blossom. She wore a gown of cream crepe de chine.
Miss Wheelock’s sister, Jessie, walked behind as bridesmaid and Kate’s little niece, my grandmother, stood close by with mauve ribbons in her hair. She was four and her name was Sheila.
Afterwards everyone returned to Georgina’s house and danced to the music of the local band of which Charlie was also a performer. Later, he presented his wife with a gold bangle. It was early morning on Thursday before the crowd dispersed to lives now unknown and gone and dust.
But we do know this: that Charlie and Kate moved to the city 600 miles south and in 1914 she died giving birth to stillborn twins. Where does love go and where is the bridge to love when love is gone?
A few months later, in March 1915 Charlie, by now a stockman, signed up for World War One. War is a good place to be when you have nothing else to lose. Charlie carried Kate’s memory to Alexandria and then to Marseilles and that bloody battle for Ypres in Belgium. Does the loss of love make us fearless or does it make us reckless? It earned Charlie Lee the Military Medal for bravery. Did he care too much or care too little as he drove his truck through a hail of enemy shells over and over again until the road became impassable?
Then he came home. He never remarried and like so many of his fellow soldiers he lived out a life of silent dignity. He left no child to remember him. But I will.
When the little girl with the mauve ribbons grew up and married, Charlie was there to give her away. So perhaps it is true, that the bridge really is love, the only survival and the only meaning.