A Changing Wind

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?”

She nods.

“Right then.”

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.

As always, feedback or comments are welcomed. Spelling is Australian.

The White Wine With Your Revelation, Madame?

I’m suspicious. This restaurant is too nice, too elegant for the simple process of eating. Much more classy than the sticky, old benches at Sladey’s Fish’n’chips. This restaurant has carpet! Carpet with flowery designs instead of lino that can be cleaned with a mop and bucket.

That must be why Mum told me not to eat any more bread-sticks, she doesn’t want me dropping crumbs on ground. Mum feels sorry for cleaners. She always says that she started working on the office floors before she started working at an office. She says that she knows that without dirty floors cleaners wouldn’t have jobs, but she says we should make their jobs as pleasant as possible. She says, “They’re human beings you know! Use your own bloody legs sometimes.” A lot of cleaners like my Mum.

Funny thing is though, Mark isn’t a cleaner. Mark is always, forever dropping things on the ground, and turning red when Mum does the, They’re human beings you know! speech. Mum says she hasn’t made Mark any neater, but she has definitely made him appreciate the work cleaners do.

We’re inside the fanciest restaurant ever, part of a ring of circular tables, dressed up like all the other quiet, chatty diners, sitting in high-backed wooden chairs with actual cushions. There is the constant soft shusshing noise of the chairs being pulled out for ladies. Nothing is bolted to the floor in here!

If Mark had come on time today then he could have pulled out Mum’s chair for her, and then mine. He’s Mum’s gentlemen, she says so all the time, except he doesn’t look much like one. He’s got a gross goatee shaved in thin lines down his face and a silver stud under his lip. I reckon he has a tattoo too, but I’ve never seen it. If I ever ask Mum if he does, she goes bright red and lectures me about dirty needles and HIV.

Sometimes I wonder why Mum and Mark like each other so much. If Mum has her way I won’t be getting my ears pierced before I’m married, but if I asked Mark I reckon he’d do it for me.

“This place certainly has atmosphere.“ Mum says, not looking at me or the other diners or at the room at all, just watching the door. Atmosphere! What’s wrong with the atmosphere at Sladey’s? Chip fat makes for a far more substantial atmosphere than this place. This place smells too clean.

“What if… “ Mum’s hunches a little, before shaking her head emphatically. “This is ridiculous. He gets another five minutes. “

“Maybe he got lost. “

She nods, and angles her chair a bit for a better view of the door.

Well I hope Mark appreciates how clean I am. Mum hasn’t even said a word. Generally she goes crazy if I remember to use soap! When I heard we were going out for lunch I even brushed my teeth in the water fountain, without being asked. Has she noticed? No!

At first, she was really excited, I mean, we’d just been invited to this fancy restaurant. I got pulled me out of school and everything, with her saying something about us being a package deal.

Now she doesn’t look so happy. She fiddles nervously with her hair. I’ve never seen her put it up like that, all high and curly. Generally she lets it hang loose around her neck. Mark tells her she looks like a yowie and she tells him that piercings on men stopped being cool in the 90s. Before I was born! In the really old days.

“Maybe Mark’s picking something up?“ I say, an image of a pony in my head.

“A six pack, I’ll bet.“ She is cranky to bring that up. Mark hasn’t drunk anything for years. Last time he almost got told to leave. I was so sad about it, even though I was only a four year old baby then. Mark promised us he’d never drink anything stronger than juice and he hasn’t in all the years since, and I’m six now.

“Maybe we should get him a surprise while we’re waiting? “

Mum snorts, “Seeing you with brushed hair should be a big enough surprise for him. But what did you have in mind? “ She actually looks down at me for the first time since we arrived.

“Like… “ I pretend to think about it, “ I know! How about a baby! I’ve figured it all out Mum, it won’t cost us anything! I’ll just ask God really nicely and I’m sure he’ll send us one in time for Mark to get here. He is running late. “

“Trust me, I realise. “ Mum plays with the watch Mark gave her when she started work at Logan and Flately’s Accountants. He said it looked like a business watch, for a woman who meant business. He says the dumbest things sometimes, I can’t even understand him!

“I’m sorry Clo. I know how much you want a baby brother, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Bloody Mark isn’t helping, asking me to a bloody overpriced restaurant during my bloody lunch-break and then not bloody showing up. “ She swears a lot under her breath, but I hear it.

“I would take care of the baby, I’d be so good at it. “ I say, but too quietly for her to hear. I’ve told her that heaps of time but she always says the same thing, minus the bloody everything part.

God. I say silently. Please tell Mark to hurry up. I don’t get pulled out of Year 1… well, ever, to come to fancy restaurants. Plus, if he’s any later I reckon we won’t even get to eat more than these yucky bread-sticks before I have to go back. God, You know what those babies are like after lunch! A big whiny, wet pack of wimps still wanting a nap like in Kindy. I want to be a grown-up for one afternoon. I shake my head, eyeing off the last bread-stick. He better come soon God, cos I am getting pretty tired.

So is Mum. She has stopped fiddling with the watch and now has her head in her hands.

“Kel? “

“Mark! “ I yell. Too loud! All the other people look at us. Everyone yells in Sladey’s, especially Sladey, and nobody could care less.

“Mark! “ I whisper.

“Hey Chloe. “ He whispers back, grinning. He winks at Mum, but Mum doesn’t even smile.

“Where have you been Mark? “ She generally only uses this tone on me, on the very, very rare occasion I sneak the last Tim Tam.

“Wha- who is this? “ We both stare at the boy who has just appeared next to Mark’s leg. He’s a lot younger than me, I reckon he can’t even speak yet. He actually looks like he’s only just woken up, glaring up at us with annoyed, blue eyes that are the same colour as Mark’s.

“Has someone lost him, you think?“ Mum twists to look around the restaurant.

“No Kel, he’s fine.“ Mark pulls up a chair and sits, scooping up the boy and balancing him on a leg. One of the fussy waiters practically runs over to us. He’s been itching to take our order all afternoon, but Mum only wanted more water and bread-sticks so he left us alone. Until now.

“Ready to order now? Drinks? We have an excellent selection of wines, and may I suggest- “

“Apple juice. “ Mark says, “For me and Chloe and this one. “ He puts a hand over the boy’s blonde hair. “Kel? “

“I’m fine. “ Mum still sounds cranky. She waits until the waiter moves off to talk. “Are you looking after him for a friend? What’s his name? “

“Jonathan, though usually he goes by Johnnie. “ Mark replies, his gaze flicking between the boy’s head and the table.”I’m really sorry we were so late Kel. It was a bit of a drive back, had to pick up some nappies and other gear… “

“Oh? “ Mum isn’t really sitting in the chair any more, more balancing on the edge of it. Mark grabs her hand, to keep her from standing up I think, but he’s still not looking at her, just gazing at the tablecloth. Mum says he is unable to go near a tablecloth without tying knots them that a boy scout would be proud of. She packed ours away and we eat on bare tables now. I reckon he’d like to be working on this one, except that he’s got Johnnie in one hand, and is holding Mum down with the other.

“The other reason I was late coming today Kel, was because I really didn’t know what I was going to say.“ Neither of them look good. Mark has gone a really pale, grey colour, and Mum has turned red. “I know how you don’t want any more kids. “

“Who is he Mark? “ Mum’s voice is going up. I wave at the approaching waiter, trying to tell him to keep away, but adults are so DUMB at times. He sets down three cups of juice in tall glasses between Mum and Mark. Mum is staring hard at Mark who is still tying knots in the tablecloth with his eyes.

“Is that all? “ The Dumb Man asks.

“Yes. “ Mum says in the voice she reserves for people selling Bibles. It works pretty well on him too, and he backs off fast.

“Mark! “

He bounces the leg with Johnnie a few times, and grips Mum’s hand even tighter. “A few years before I met you Kel, I was in a really awful relationship. I wasn’t such a great person back then either and it ended quickly. I haven’t seen her in years, but, “ He draws a deep and shuddering breath, “something a lot more permanent came out of it. I didn’t even know about until six months back when she finally contacted me for payments.“

“Why after all this time? “ Mum doesn’t sound so angry now, only bewildered and shocked.

“Seems like he’s been handed around a bit. Her folks, foster homes… At first, I thought I’d just send the cheques, and leave him where he was. I didn’t want to do anything to ruin this. ” He makes a gesture between himself and Mum. “I didn’t want us to end, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I have to be adult about this Kel, I have to be responsible. You taught me that. “

Mum doesn’t say anything, but at least she is waiting, Mark doesn’t have to hold her down any more. “You and Chloe are the greatest thing that ever happened to me Kel. “ Mark says finally looking up at her. “I became a better person knowing you, but I can understand if you don’t want…” He stops, also waiting.

Mum leans back in her chair. She reaches for my juice and sips it. Then she makes the weirdest noise.

“Pfffft. Cloe is right! Men are so DUMB. I already have two kids in my house, and you thought I couldn’t handle another? You’ve just saved Clo having to petition God for one! “ She sets my cup down, “I am really going to need something stronger then that. Where is that bloody waiter when you actually want him? “

Mark is leaning on the table now, luckily it seems to be strong enough not to tip. “So… We’re okay? “

“Well. “ Mum says looking at her watch, “You’ve got about seven minutes to buy us lunch before Chloe has to go back to school and me to work. I’m sure by the end of that time we’ll be as okay as we ever were. “

Mark’s got this big dumb grin on his face. Mum is so right about me being right about men. Like she would leave Mark to look after himself! Who would buy his razors to keep his goatee straight? Meanwhile, Johnnie is a bit too old to be a baby brother. But that’s okay, I can train him to clean up my room for me and eat my vegetables.

Mark looks at the menu, “Wow, I really should have checked this place. I can’t pronounce half these courses, let alone afford them. How ’bout a Sladey’s fish burger instead? “

Best idea I’ve heard all afternoon.

“I never get to eat at a nice place. “ Mum complains but I can see she’s packing up her purse.

“So, really, are you good with this? “ Mark asks, putting Johnnie on the table, as he pulls out Mum’s chair. He just lifts me out of mine by one arm, with Johnnie in the other.

“Yeah, I’m good. “ Mum says, then, “You’ll pull your back out. “

“Nah. Y’know, I reckon it’s about time for Chloe’s ears to be pierced, she’s almost seven now. With an ice cube and some disinfectant, I could do it this arvy. “

“Don’t push it. “ Mum warns.

“She said I have wait ’til my wedding for earrings. “ I tell him.

“Oh really? Well, “ He leans in and whispers, “Maybe it doesn’t have to be your wedding. “ Then he winks at me, and I wink both eyes back.

Australian English glossary:

lino = linoleum

bloody = an Australian/UK epithet, similar to damn

yowie = the Australian Bigfoot

six pack = how beers are often sold in Australia

Tim Tam = a delicious chocolate biscuit

Biscuit = Australian for cookie

nappies = diapers

this arvy = this afternoon