But now, at the age of thirty-four, he has taken to bird-watching. It’s true he might once have laughed at this, but since then much has changed.
When she was in her twenties Anna had thought of herself as a bohemian, a free spirit who was serious about the right things and carefree about the rest, but now she was turning into some other woman, a woman on the edge of becoming anxiously acquisitive.
‘But there’s nothing here!’ their friends would exclaim when later they came to visit. No shops, no hotel, no community hall, no boat ramp or barbecue area. And this was true, and it was the reason they had chosen the place. They felt that in some essential way it was uncultivated, a landscape out of time, and as such it could not define them. Here they could live, and simply be.
Often the boy appears to play alongside them, whirling around in the dust or darting mischievously among the weed piles and throwing clumps of weeds into the air. Sometimes he sings snatches of nursery songs in a thin, childish lilt that is charmingly off-key. At such times his parents do not look one another in the eye; the weighty joy of it would be too much.
There is no time: time is a loop of endless return, a return to this moment, which is not strange but a coming home, and it does not occur to him to ask where this home is because he is simply there, he is in it; this silent space of euphoric emptiness. And for the rest of his walk home he is elated. He has never been happier; pointlessly, mindlessly happy.
He dreams of a tidal wave that sweeps in from the ocean and submerges the settlement in a depth of clear green water. But this isn’t a nightmare; it’s a benign dream, a dream in which he swims beneath the sunlit surface like a water baby. And the boy is there, swimming alongside. His face is radiant and there are small translucent fish darting around his head; his golden curls stream behind him in unravelling coils of light while his small but supple limbs beat against the current.
A sign of the times, he thinks; olives, vineyards, walnut farms. The old-style selectors are gone and change is everywhere, and now he and Anna are a part of it. And with this encouraging thought he puts down his book and walks to the window where the blinds remain furled and big cigar moths beat against the glass. Only the stars at night seem fixed in their station, and this, too, he knows is an illusion.
Delighted to find that Luke and Anna can both hit a ball he invites them to play doubles on the weekends, and sometimes of an evening after work. Like all social tennis, it is played with an underlying ferocity, the men volleying at the net as though their life depends on it and swearing under their breath. Nor is Anna immune to this manic athleticism, even if there is something comically grim in the way that Alan barks out the score after every point.
Bette is not a shy woman but she has a natural reserve so Anna is surprised when she says, ‘Do you think, Anna, that you’ll ever start a family?’
‘We’ve put that on hold,’ says Anna, firmly. ‘First we have to decide where home is.’ This isn’t the whole truth, far from it, and she hopes the boy isn’t listening.
My God, he can’t even name it, thinks Luke in a spasm of bitter scorn. Typical. His father never could deal with the messy human dimension of feeling. But then as he watches the spray foam up from the blowhole, for the first time it occurs to him that the ‘other business’ might have been painful for Ken, a man with no grandchildren.
In the city the weather is just a backdrop to your day, a painted canvas against which you enact the plot of your life. In the country the weather is the plot.
As time goes on the all-pervading squalor of his tour seems to induce in Sir Frederick an increasingly acid disillusionment. This dry, stony country, these wretched towns and villages, these gloomy basilicas and their fake relics; can this be the Promised Land?
Alan is standing at the edge of the grassy path, beside the body of a dead swan. It appears to have flown into the wires overhead and been electrocuted, and not all that long ago since there is no sign of it having been set upon by crows. It’s a deflating sight: the twisted black carcass, the slash of white feather down its middle, the broken neck splayed at a right angle, the crimson beak lying bright against the sandy stubble of the track.
She loves the lurid metropolitan sunsets, and she cannot see how these flushed and burnished skies are inferior to what they look out on from the veranda at Garra Nalla; indeed, the dark, blockish shapes of the city skyline, the contrast of their sharp-edged silhouettes against a fiery sky, confer a on nature an even greater drama.
Damn Luke, damn his stupid ideas. All he has succeeded in doing is creating a situation where she doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Now she belongs in neither place, like some migratory bird that has lost its bearings. But the most disturbing thing is this: here in the city there has been no sign of the boy.
‘In the middle of a bloody drought!’ fumes Gil. ‘It’ll be a fire hazard for one thing. And I’ll tell you another thing. It’ll suck up all the water out of the water table and eventually out of the lagoon. In five years’ time that lagoon will be a bloody mudflat. Them swans’ll have to find somewhere else to breed.’
At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is this land and so small are they. And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless. She has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth; she might float away into the blue of the sky and never be heard from again.
It’s a long time since she heard his stick clatter across the veranda, and now there is a fire burning on the rim of their world. Where are you? she asks. Is it something we’ve done, some oversight in our thoughts? Have we become too self-absorbed and careless? Have you decided, after all, to leave us?
And how odd this is, for isn’t Sir Frederick a Christian? And yet the first encampment in which he finds himself happy—beyond even this, inspired—is a citadel of Islam. It appears to Luke that despite his stern low-church principles, Treves has fallen in love with the city’s exotica, and especially the Great Bazaar where he and his wife are intoxicated by the perfumeries.
And the flames are burning nearer, the upper balcony close to collapse, yet she continues to rummage through the bric- à-brac. Ah, but where is the boy? She had almost forgotten him. Where could he possibly be? Is he hiding again, playing his childish games? Luke is standing in the doorway, clutching suitcases in each hand. Hurry up, he says, we have to get out of here, we have to get out of here now. But what about the boy, she groans, we can’t go without him, we can’t leave him behind—
‘Oh no,’ he sighs, “that’s the bird. That’s the one I told you about, the bird in the banksia tree.’
‘Are you sure?’ Anna stares at the stiff form on the mat. He must be mistaken. It can’t be that bird. This is just a common wattlebird, one of the predators of the garden, no loss to anyone.
‘Yes, that’s it! That’s the bird. Wouldn’t I know it?’
She looks at him in exasperation, amazed to see that he is distraught.
In those bleak hours after they had cleaned the sticky blood from Anna’s body and wheeled her into a pale blue hospital room, the hospital counsellor asked them if they wanted to give their child a name, and they nodded, blankly, and said yes, it would be a good idea. But in the numbness of their grief, no name presented itself and thereafter they had come to think of him as ‘the boy.’ It seemed so much more intimate than any given name.
He shakes his head. ‘Not the fire,’ he murmurs. ‘Not the fire.’
He nods, unable to speak, and stands on the spot, as if to take another step is entirely beyond him. She puts her arms around him, steadying herself because he is heavy, and she absorbs the shudder and heave of his body, clasping his back and drawing him into her. And they stand there, in the doorway of their home, and they hold one another for a very long time.
And yes, it is him, it’s the boy, and she sees now that the sloop is for him, is waiting to carry him to his next destination. Ah, she says, so you are leaving us. So you are on your way at last. But it’s okay, it’s alright; yes, she thinks, I am ready for this, and she raises her arm in a soft salute. Thank you, she says. Thank you for staying with us all this time.
Miraculously, not all of the she-oaks in the garden burned. There is still a cluster of them in the south-east corner and she listens to the sound of the wind whistling through their canopy, that eerie siren song, and she remembers how it felt to sit in the canoe with the boy nestled against her chest while Luke paddled them across the lagoon; the long slow glide of the boat across the black water.