Monday, October 16, 2006

Not in Kansas Now

Hurricane Bob had blown down the coast of America, and we had followed in its wake: To Washington, St. Augustine, Orlando, and on to New Orleans. And there it began.

We sat opposite one another in a static world, while all around us people buzzed about; chattering, rummaging in bags, checking tickets and departure screens, waiting for their number to come up. Waiting to embark on their journey.

I saw him and watched him, and saw into him. Had we gone our separate ways then, I’d have thought no more of him.

We boarded our Greyhound coach destined for Memphis, Tennessee. He was up-front with his travel buddy, and I was blissfully ignorant then, nestling into my 30 hour journey, looking forward to the sleep. We had packed our usual sandwiches: one vegemite, one lemon curd. That was our ration - lunch and dinner. Breakfast - we dined out. Thirteen days left and $210 in my pocket. Steve hogged the window next to me, I his reluctant coach partner. I dig deep for my headphones and slip silently into my own musical bliss, and fall asleep.

It is dark outside the window, and all around me weary travelers’ sleep, like an audience. All except for Carole. Carole is my Australian buddy. We have spent the last 14 weeks together sleeping, eating, talking, weeping. When you spend every day with someone, out of choice, you move to the same rhythm. Like a love affair at first, there is so much to learn about each other’s lives, and loves. Sarah is asleep; fallen prey to the night. Perhaps Carole’s subconscious is awakened to the Australian time zone still occupied by her two new friends. A couple of Ozzie guys on their obligatory overseas trip, post Uni’. Hungry for news from home, Carole quizzes them on TV shows, favourite candy bars, and who’s topping the music charts. A prickle of jealousy crawls over me. I should have been up there sitting with her, but her and Sarah grabbed the seats first, leaving me saddled with Steve - our hanger-on, and my unwanted admirer.

Too tired to intrude, I sink back into my slumber and wait for Memphis to arrive.

Walking in Memphis.
Dropped off in downtown Memphis, as is traditional for Greyhound Stations, Carole gets to work locating the best hostel our money can buy. Headed north on foot, we make our way to a big old house on the hill. An old colonial house that stands alone in the eye of the storm, a rose among thorns. It was too beautiful for our money but it would open its doors and allow us in all the same.

It is early morning, 8:15, and the sun shines brightly, with only a mist of rain in the air to paint the faintest of rainbows over the hill. The rain melts the road ahead, and in the early morning sun, it shines gold.

Our small party had acquired two more. The Australian guys had accompanied us to the hostel on the hill. Traveling companions were a welcome dynamic. We had lost a couple back in ‘nooworleuns,’ so I guessed these guys restored the balance somewhat. At the very least they provided a distraction from Steve. Carole walked ahead, still deep in conversation with her compatriots. Sarah and I dragged a little behind chattering:
Did a visit to Gracelands supercede budget restrictions? Wouldn’t a cooked breakfast be a banquet after the loaf of jam-soaked bread we had consumed - all-the-better for the extravagance! And, how much farther away was this bloody hostel?
We were feeling the weight of our rucksacks in the early morning glare and yearned to lie on a bed for ten minutes before freshening up. Trudging on, we turned a corner and there it was: The House on the Hill. Pure white like a mirage, and our home for a night. “No place like home,” Sarah chirped as we pressed on up the hill..


Great. I could taste the warm shower water in my mouth and feel the droplets cleanse away the residue of a long, long journey. But $5! That was half my daily budget, and yet, if we waited until noon we would miss the only bus to Gracelands – today’s Mecca. Well, it is Sunday, and in Memphis NOTHING runs on a Sunday.

Sitting down I resign myself to the fact that I would not be getting a shower until that evening, in consolation I unwrap my last lemon curd sandwich - a little curled at the corners – and satisfy one basic need at least.

“Jeez, well, I am going to pay, man. I’m sick of these clothes. Thirty hours we were on that bus. I’m having the shower!” Carole had a bit more money than Sarah and I, on account of her publishing job in London. She was a bit older than us and had a career already. The closest I had come to work was a job in a ski shop in my parents’ hometown. When I get back to the UK, Uni’ awaits, and a whole new independence. This road trip is just the beginning of my adventure. My whole future lies in wait for me to discover: to rise and fall, to meet friends and lose foes, to teach and learn, and to fall in love, if I’m lucky enough.

The best thing about traveling around, backpacking, or whatever you want to call it, is that you have plenty of time to look, watch and listen. So much time that you don’t need to talk too much. Munching greedily away on my lemon-soaked bread, I watch the two Australian guys as they take quick drags on their cigarettes whilst discussing the days schedule and onward journey. The smaller one is cute. He seems a bit moody, but I like that, it provides a bit of a challenge, a bit of mystery too, maybe. He wears tight jeans and a white T-shirt with ‘Armadillo’ written across in blue and a red and blue armadillo motif. He’s slim, nubile, good jaw-line, jaw-length hair… God, I really had been starved of men these last few weeks….

As Sarah sits sorting through her purse, as is her daily ritual, Carole knocks at the heavy wooden door in a vain attempt to get someone to open up the house before the ‘stated time’. By now I had learnt that Americans generally mean what they say when they go to the trouble of hanging their policy on the door, so, sitting down, I pull out my diary and begin logging the last twelve hours of our trip.

Well, the wall was awesome. Scrawled with tributes, anecdotes and blasphemy, if you believe Elvis is God. Transported from the main gate up to the front door, we were shown around 5 of the 25 rooms, before being taken out to view the grave of a stillborn sibling. Turfed out the exit gate, we’re left to read the other end of the wall while awaiting the bus back into town. Really pissed that I forked out so much money on a white elephant. I guess it’s a notch and a tick on my list.

It’s really hot now and as the bus whizzes us back to the dead of Memphis I check out that jaw-line again. Moody isn’t quite right, he’s preoccupied. There’s a roughness to him that is always attributed to Australians, not that I have much experience of them beyond portrayals on film and TV, his face is already lined by the sun despite his youth, and his facial stubble adds a few years more. He looks like a traveler and I will him to look back and give me a smile. He doesn’t. I don’t think we have even spoken. I guess he’s just passing through.

Back in Memphis we breeze through the balmy streets in search of a café, diner or restaurant, anywhere that sells food. Our breakfast, delayed by the bus schedule, is now claimed by the lunchtime hour. This town is freaky. A ghost-town, which we float through like spirits. Finally, we stumble across a diner open for business.

As the others chatter away in-between mouthfuls of egg, bacon and sausage, I watch the slim Australian who sits across from me, and yet, seems a million miles away. I don’t know what it is about him but I can’t shake it. I seem somehow entranced by him.

Back at the hostel the next stage of our journey is under discussion:
“Well, I’m really up for getting up early and stopping off in Nashville, being that we’re going through there on our way to Buffalo. At least that shaves off an hour os so of the journey and we see something else on the way”.
Carole is looking to me for my support at this early morning rise suggestion.
“What time would we need to leave here?” I ask, certain that it will cement my decision not to go.
“Well, 5.45, to get the coach at 6.20, but that gives us 7 hours in Nashville before catching the coach up to Buffalo overnight!”
Her keenness to follow this plan almost disguises the unholy hour she is suggesting we get up and out of here. After spending the night on a coach last night I am really looking forward to lying flat out on a mattress and grabbing a lie-in if I can. I’ve also got wind the the guys are planning to chill here tomorrow before catching the later coach to Buffalo…
“Ahh, Carole, I just want a lie-in. Nashville’s not so high on my list of places to visit. I’d rather go on the later coach and catch up with you then”.

She is not happy with this assertion.
“Right. Fine. Sarah, I assume you’re not flaking out on me!” Sarah hesitates, registers the no compromise tone from Carole and caves in.
“Yeh, fine, I’m up for that. Better get my things packed now though if its an early start”.
Raising my eyes to the ceiling I turn over on my bed and return my attention back to my diary while Carole reads out facts for the visitor to Nashville from her Rough Guide almanac. Sometimes you just need to step out of rhythm with someone for a while to restore a little air to the scene.

They both awoke noisily, gathered their belongings and set-off on their early trip. I was glad of the solitude. It had been a while since I had lain in bed with no-one else in the room snoring, chattering or hurrying me up to set off on another mission. I lay there listening to the sounds that only exist in a room of one. I felt thoroughly relaxed and entirely relieved that I had made the call to take the second coach out of Memphis.

Eventually I rise from my slumber and seek out the shower room along the corridor from our small dormitory. The bathroom is locked so I lean against the wooden rail, hugging my towel, waiting for the person to finish up and allow me to finally wash the dirt out of my hair and sweat from my skin. (Last night the shower room queue was 6 people deep so I managed a strip-wash in the sink before crashing into bed).

The latch on the door is yanked back into the vacant position and the door swings open in a quick and forceful manner. Out steps the slim Australian, wrapped from the waist in a very thin ethnic print sarong. He greets me with a slightly surprised but very broad smile which is met with eyes like saucers as I stare at the mass of hair on his chest and weigh up in a split second if this factor might pose a problem on the attractive stake. I decide it wont and feel a shot of adrenalin-like fluid fire through my body and redden my face. I give him a clipped “Hi” back and run into the bathroom locking the door quickly behind me.

A Dream Ago

It is a beautiful day, blowy, but the sun is shining and warming the winter chills of the last 4 months. Thank God spring is coming. I love British winters: Wrapping up cozy in the cold sharp weather, and this year I don’t recall much rain, just cold and sunny. But it is always a joy knowing Spring is just around the corner. How English of me to open talking about the weather!

I have spent the last couple of weeks getting on top of the tangled web of paperwork that now runs my life. I was drowning and now at least am treading water. In my efforts to get all the official stuff sorted I opened the trust fund account that the government has launched for children Louis’ age and younger. This was the final document I had to bat back in a table-tennis match of bureaucracy that has clogged up the last few days.

Still, despite my best efforts to get everything in order I am unable to put my hands on my passport. With only 40 minutes to go before my scheduled appointment at the bank, and a 40 minute drop-off at nursery to make beforehand, I fly around the flat turning over piles of bills, rummaging through draws, checking three, four, five times in the places it should be - could only be - whilst filing through my mind for the last time I remember having it.

“Iceland. Was that the last time?” I ask myself. “Or did I use it more recently for ID?”.
The black cloud of doom looms at the edge of my mind fearing the passport had been used for ID and, falling out of an envelope, had been lost.

I grab my birth certificate, push Louis’ coat and shoes on, plant him in his pushchair and rush out of the door.
“Bugger, bugger, bugger where did I put the damn thing?” I chide out loud to myself, before noticing a man waiting in his car watching and hearing me with a puzzled and wary expression on his face. I decide to keep my thoughts to myself but continue to rummage through my head for clues.

I am off to Rome on Monday for a city break with Louis and really looking forward to exploring a new place. One that I have almost no knowledge of I realize since having read the pocket guidebook I bought yesterday. It promises to be spectacular though. I can’t wait to introduce Louis to his first taste of travel, culture and exploration that I hope will embroider the rest of his life.

OK. Child trust fund opened. Job done. Need to remove my big padded winter jacket and let the air cool my skin. I slip off the coat and lodge it under my arm. A wolf whistle blows in my direction but I ignore it…well, outwardly anyway. Secretly I acknowledge my recently purchased red top, nipped in at the waist, is obviously doing the trick.

Arriving home I flick on the kettle for coffee and dispatch two slices of bread in the toaster. “Right, I am going to launch a thorough search of everywhere it might be. If anyone dare phone me I am not answering”. It crosses my mind how lovely it would be to no longer have the burden of work phone calls to disturb my day: The prodding sound of my ringtone pulling at my hem. I would love to be free of the pestering.

Having made a complete and thorough search of all the usual suspect places, I move to the boxes, still unpacked from the house move, that sit dustily on my shelves – the wallflowers of my paperwork life.
“No. No. No. No, no, no, nope”. Pulling all 15 of my handbags out I methodically go through each emptying them of lipsticks, dummies, coins and, oh…. A baby nail-clipper…thought I had lost that.

My eyes move up the shelf to 3 books waiting patiently to play their next part. Glancing through their titles my eyes fix on ‘Bridge Across Forever’. Mmm. And there’s the letter from Mike tucked away in its pages. I take the letter out and carry it through to the kitchen where I flick on the kettle again and make my coffee.
“Just pop the toast in the toaster for a few seconds to warm it through” I decide, and stirring my sugar around the hot coffee I begin reading the letter.

I recall the main thrust but not the tone or pace. It is calm, wistful, retrospective and…comforting. Through the scenes Mike’s word describe I can picture him at the back of the plane looking out at the night sky. India sighs below and waves him onto his ‘real’ life back home. The half-cut Irish man stumbles out of the toilet cubicle and tips his imaginary hat at Mike as he makes his way back to their shared seat.

“Pop!” shit! Forgot to take the toast out early. Now it’s burnt. I put another couple of slices in and throw away the charcoal remains of the first attempt. The burnt smell tickles my nose and I open the back door to allow the sun-kissed breeze to infiltrate the air indoors. Wind rustles through trees and I hear my wind chime clip-clopping in the breeze. The noise from outside wakes me up to the silence within and I walk over to the stereo and replay the Erykah Badu album already in the CD drive.

Returning to the letter I am now in a flat, three storeys up looking out the window at the streetlights of Manly and toward the golden haze of Sydney centre. I imagine the fireworks blooming in the distance on special occasions. I look around the room at the sofa and pile of books awaiting their bookcase. The television in the corner and a pile of CD’s stacked next to it. An ashtray sits on the side with two cigarette butts nestling in a bed of ash.

As Mike pulls himself out of his description and addresses me directly, so I pull myself out of my own imagination and listen to his message, “Wait a little longer. Be patient. Time will tell. Your Michael.”

I sip my coffee and munch on my jam-covered toast.

Returning to my task I opt to try the desk draw once more. There, crouching in a corner right at the back of the draw behind an Orange phone manual, lies my passport.

And The Earth Fell Away - End

…saying goodbye
Our flights were changed, brought forward by a full week. Down £100, the revelation hit that I had indeed come this far to say goodbye. As my son slept soothed by the sound of the waves I cried for the loss of my most treasured friend, my precious love, my security blanket for oh so long… and our legend. Like watching a terminally ill friend die, I knew what I had to do. I had to say goodbye and like a baby I wept and moaned that my fate should dictate this. I did not want to accept nor acknowledge the inevitable. I didn’t want to be alone. I had grown accustomed to the shadow he cast over my life. Just as some people cannot cope when they are cured from a terrible and chronic illness, so I felt desperate at the loss of the devil I knew. The infliction I had nursed for so long could no longer be my identity, my excuse or my shield.

With each wave the ocean washed away the salty tears that fell behind my sunglasses. My son slept on.

…the beach house last night
I could kiss his lips and nuzzle in the nape of his neck and travel in time.

Whether it was the familiar smell of warmth, sweat, deodorant, cigarettes and alcohol mingling - or that indeed my body and my soul once again remembered its soulmate, its playmate - I was back where once we had been before. Each and every encounter those two bodies had shared over a lifetime; lifetimes, were connected, and could be recalled in my memory as clear and with a clarity that would shrink time and bridge plains, projecting me back to that moment: New York on our first adventure, London, as we sunk deeper, or the desperation of Australia.

I realized at once that we could not, and could never, survive the drudgery of daily life together. We were adrift in that world and could not express ourselves, nor relate to one another over who does the dishes, who cooks the meal, or a cautionary “might be late in from work”. We could only ‘play’ house and we knew it. The life and breath we shared existed in the escape, the lost weekend and the retreat. Living there, inhabiting that space we were fucking great. Everything harmonized. It was no-ones turn, it just was. Intense love-making swam fluidly into table-setting. Food appeared joyously and decadently scrumptious. A game of hoopla, full of competitive vigor, sank into a beckoning to the veranda to spot a kookaburra, cockatoo or parakeet. He surfed and I sat, he slept and I wrote, I talked and he listened, he spoke and I knew. It just was. But you couldn’t bottle it and take it home. It had a voracious appetite for the elicit and the exclusive and detested routine and responsibility. Given time it would destroy us. It had to be quelled.

It had to be quelled.

On our last night we wrote endless lists – living wills if you like – of books to read, albums to buy and films to watch. Even recipes. If we were saying goodbye we still had a lot to share. Like packing clothes for a long journey, the lists were carefully constructed to provide maximum value.

End lines.

We roll through the departure gate, eyes ahead traveling in one direction. “Where’s Michael gone?” Louis asks over and over. Ignoring my replies his words seem more a mantra than an enquiry. “He’s gone Louis. We said goodbye to him, didn’t we. Just you and me now, Louis and Mummy.”

As I fill the seat pockets in front of me with essential items, I turn to see if Louis needs a book or his stickers. He has gone: Drifted into oblivion. Head tilted to one side with the back of his hand resting against my leg; seeking the warmth beneath my jeans.

As I rummage in my flight bag at the base of my feet, I come across an unfamiliar book. It is the book Mike and I had discussed over dinner one night – The Lovely Bones. Inside the front cover he has written a message:
“A sad story Becks, but hope exists. Take all care, Michael. x.
I was to discover the irony a few weeks on that this story was also long and heart-wrenching good bye of a different, but equally futile, kind. I cried for its beauty, its loss and its hope.

As I sit like a patient in my straight-backed seat, I watch the horizon rise up and then drop out of view as our plane leaves the world behind - that world behind.
We bank to the right, and the curve of Sydney Harbour raises an eyebrow, before sinking down into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. I turn to my left and switch on the monitor embedded in the headrest in front of me. Leaving my earphones off I flick aimlessly through the channels until the World News subtitles catch my attention.
>>>Massive hurricane hits the south coast of America. City of New Orleans destroyed in its wake<<<
In a skip of a heartbeat at the shocking news the irony is not lost on me, and I shiver at the sardonic cycle. Could there be another girl sitting on a coach heading to Memphis. Or perhaps another me? I turn back to the porthole window once more to gaze out at the blue. In a cloudless sky droplets gather on my window-pane, but this time my eyes stay dry. If this is full circle, and I am back on the same plein I visited twelve years ago, then the lesson I failed to see the first time around is now my swaddling, my coat of armour.
It is my time to move on.

With a smile, my body relaxes and contentment runs through my veins. As I take off my heels slowly tap together one, two, three times, and in the faintest whisper I mouth the words,
“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

Looking within my soul, I embrace my future.
Cells divide.
Kick kick.
Patter patter.