Gusting. The wind always seems to be roaring about me. Strong enough to catch at the keys rattling by my hips. Three sharp toothed guardians almost fully covered by flaking red rust, that has migrated to my fingers and is now rubbing off onto the faded folds of my shorts. Digging around in the pocket opposite the ancient keys, I draw out a bunch of my own amid soggy ends of tissues and other scraps that make up the land-fill within my clothes.
Vape awaits me patiently as I struggle with an armful of papers that had come with the keys. Like a cheeky pixie, the zephyrs tug free the rust-stained roll of papers from their vulnerable position under my arm, and several skitter along the pavement with me in frantic chase.
Finally inside the car with a dishevelled heap of documents on the back seat that are important enough to make me run, but which I can’t bring myself to read yet.
Though older, I usually feel that I am in better shape than my car, nicknamed Vape as an unkind allusion to the various coloured (and smelling) vapours it releases, but usually I’m not recovering from an unexpected sprinting session. Some guy, who is otherwise forgotten, remarked once that, like some people and their pets resemble each other, my car and I share striking traits. Neither of us likes to move very fast, are hard to get going, especially in the mornings, and could both probably use a good vacuum. My new acquisitions are covering a mass of, possibly essential, material: last semester’s students’ work, new textbooks to review, sandwich coupons. One day, like Troy, it will be excavated.
The car has lasted me longer than most relationships, and kept me true to my student roots, though these days, in slightly more respectable professorship, it doesn’t get used as much. Instead the partner’s well-groomed, grown-up adult sedan is my serious chariot, within which mess is not tolerated.
This road-trip to Cairns however was an adventure which needed the support of an old friend. In humidity that acts like an unending warm shower, however I did miss the sedan’s air-conditioning.
There is a small, hard envelope amongst the other papers. It feels like it contains photographs, but, like the rest, I am not game to open it quite yet, just deconstruct the meanings of each faded letter on the outside. The graceful cursive, done in ink. Do they still teach cursive in schools? Ink, rather than ball-pen, is he someone with a creative flair, a literary bent? An eccentricity? Is he someone who owns quilted waist-coasts and spends conversations insufferably concerned with the price of premium goose-quill? Will I ask who taught him? Or will such questions fall between us like all the years have?
On the yellowed back are names and dates. It occurs to me that after all this time these may be all that is ever left to me of my son, Scott. I assume June is his wife’s name, followed by (two?) children. Skylar slash Damia. I didn’t spend much time choosing his name, and now my boy is the only one in his family with one so boringly normal.
The envelope and its unopened secrets back on the passenger seat, Vape shakes itself dog-like as it resurrects, and we begin to pull away from Cairns, aimed towards the northern highway.
Pregnant rain-clouds cluster on the hills, still holding jealously to their brood for the moment. Northern Australia colours are so rich after the dried-out stretches down south. How can one ever appreciate so many shades of green? And there is a sense of age, despite the fecundity. This is where the last virgin forest survives, the last echoes of a wild country that existed before dairy farms and cane-fields.
Driving into rainforest, the storm winds rising from the coast quiet a little, hemmed out by the canopy, netted in leaves. I don’t like it. This muggy, slow, breathless feeling of being contained, without clear air or space.
Or maybe that’s just the sign of a building anxiety attack?
What will I say, when he asks me: Why has it taken so long? I sent you the letter years ago.
Well, you see… Could I wordlessly indicate the state of the car, with a shrug to say, can you guess how my house must look? Could we laugh about it? How I almost had thrown away his messages out of sheer unawareness of their existence sandwiched within unpaid journal subscriptions and travel itineraries.
But they were found, and my house suffered through a one-woman cyclone as I scoured for any further missives. But there was (perhaps) only this one, leading me like a treasure map to Cairns, to the old, black-iron post-box containing these keys, an address, a map. Proof of a family of four living somewhere in these hills.
Why does he (did he?) even want to see me? What am I to him? The mother, who at 28, had no excuses regarding lack of funds, or worldly inexperience, to explain handing over her baby. Does it count that I knew the mother I chose for him would be better than me? I gave a child to a barren womb filled with all the maternal vibes I lacked, because I never wanted children. Life is stunningly unfair sometimes, I only sought to redress the balance.
What should I tell him? She asked me, already staring deep into his hazy blue eyes. Whatever you want. I had replied. Leave me out completely, if it makes it easier.
As a teacher, how would I instruct my students to analyse this situation? This sudden driving (nay speeding! Back down to 80, girl!) need to see that infant, now man, again?
Am I doing the right thing?
Vape complains as edge it from the road onto the muddy verge. I kill the engine and just stop a moment. Mosquitoes surge against the windows.
Am I doing the right thing?
There is a roll of papers on the back-seat that might tell me. I flick past the typed letter on top. This is my instinct, my issue, to bypass the boring looking things and stack them in a pile somewhere, always intending to return to them… eventually.
My eye catches colour and finally stops. Crayon drawings. Christmas trees and lumps that are possibly people. Happy Birthday cards. To me.
And between them, smaller and more normal than I would usually look at, letters from Scott. Telling me about his dairy farm, about the difficulties of hiring backpackers, about their hopes to expand next year.
There is eight years worth. Each card from Scott signed by a smaller, smudgy hand, that gets steadier each time.
After absorbing each one, until I could redraw them myself, I flip reluctantly back to read the typed letter. It is from her, his mother in everything but DNA. My anxiety renews.
It is shorter than I expected.
I told him: Your mother is a force of nature. At any time, some part of her is up in the atmosphere so it might take a while to get her attention and you must be patient. But eventually she will come.
Now, I told him that, because I know you won’t make me a liar, and I didn’t promise him anything else. I warn you though, that I think he has plans to convince you to become less mother and more mum.
Sorry if this makes things more difficult for you, but you gave me a gift once. My time has come. I give it back.
With unusual smoothness, Vape slides back onto charcoal coloured highway, and before long, we turn onto a muddy side road, breaking through the gloom of trees to edge ponderously up a scrubby hill. The wind rocks the car in a rough greeting.
There are gates, each one yielding noisily to a different key. We clatter over cattle-grids. The road, sharpened from recent deluges had melted into the grass along it like molten copper. It is, thankfully, a short journey for my off-paved-roads-virgin vehicle.
That must be their house. A typical Queenslander house on stumps, surrounded on all sides with verandahs and a peaked corrugated iron roof at the bottom of a smooth-sloped, midori-coloured valley. A cluster of sheds, paddocks and other farm-like equipment surround it.
Vape stalls outside the last gate. The starter-motor refuses to turn. I can see a blonde bob of hair within the mosquito netted verandah moving around. Suddenly nervous I flip the photo and gaze down again at the smiling couple, my son (so handsome!) is dark-haired, a bit serious looking and definitely a man of the land with his jeans and akubra. Despite the farmer exterior, I can match him to the graceful calligraphy on the front and in the letters. There is a sense of dedication about him, of sticking with things until they become beautiful. June, is light reddish curls and bright, cottons clothes, at the time of this photo healthily into the late stages of her pregnancy. They are framed by this exact scene, even the menacing weather, with newly planted palm tree sprouts (they are quite tall now) by the stairs bent into yoga poses by the wind.
The child is blonde, and quizzical, come half way down the steps of the house, wondering who it is loitering outside the gate. She looks about 8.
Skylar or Damia
Demmie it is then.
Did I bring boots? Nope. My shoes shed mud each step in fat chunks, as I abandon the car, opening the last gate smoothly.
“Mum and Dad around?”
There is a festival game blowing fragments of me around in my gut. Like all the rubbish in my car, and drawers of my desks is flying free. Will they ever settle?
I knock on the door, but she goes to turn the handle. The door sticks. My weathered hands join her smooth ones. It resists us on the first attempt, but a glass rattling gust assists and all together we push it open. It is much cleaner than I would have expected from the house of my offspring.
The palm trees straighten as the wind outside finally calms.