Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Footprints in the Snow - Chapter 1 - The Slurred Sunrise of a Forgotten Destiny...

Chapter 1 - The slurred sunrise of a forgotten destiny...

“Shit,” he curses, though his voice is empty. He is not a man who often swears and now that he has, it sounds pretentious. Such unnecessary angst. Life rarely strikes him as worth it anymore.

Yet he repeats the word again, testing the boundary of the letters, trying to jog his memory. His mouth is dry and the air aggravates his windpipe. “Shit.” As the letters tumble forth he stumbles over them; they sound strained and foreign, as if spoken by someone other than himself. But there is no-one else around. He knows, with both terror and relief, that he is all alone.

Day is dawning, hot and oppressive, and he stands by the side of the road, car parked in the brush behind. Steam rises from the cracked earth where the cup of water he was holding has spilled; the rest is soaking deep into the red earth. Space loiters all around, he is alone and he is free.

The landscape is bathed in golden-red morning sunlight. With every passing minute the molten sun rises higher and higher, and the air grows hotter and hotter. The sun rules here, opposition is futile. Arumpo Road, earthy-red, and mirage-crested, stretches away into the distance in either direction, not one car can be seen kicking up dust along its meandering trail. There is a peaty smell blowing, and as he breathes it in, Jeremy Blackwell slips further and further into serene contemplation, surrendering himself to the overpowering notion that the Earth is a flat expanse from which one can simply step off.

Just imagine it. All those great explorers – Magellan, Columbus, de Gama and thousands of ship-hands and sailors and Captains sailing with them – setting off on journeys from which they may never return, seeking out the lands beyond the horizon, unsure whether the flat Earth may suddenly end. It is a delicious notion, so full of certainty. Yet it is also a lie to which he has been clinging his entire life. The astounding fact about the world, he muses absently, is not that it floats silently through space, dancing a gravitational ballet with the stars, but that no matter how one tries to reach it, a veil of secrecy still hangs over that point of finality. Like truth, it is something to spend your life chasing, all the while knowing that it doesn’t exist. Spherical infinity. The Earth is a treadmill from which the end will always be hidden behind another horizon ahead.

Perhaps all one need do is stop?

So he has. But now his feet are frozen in place, and even if he can get them moving he doesn’t know where he will go. To his left, rising in clefts and waves, vast sand dunes stand and fall, blustered into formation by the wind and rain, their presence but a temporary mark on the map to be transformed with every passing breath of air. In the distance an ancient dry lake swelters in the morning heat which will slowly dissolve the rest of the world into mirage. It is only 8.30am but already the heat is unbearable.

A Shingleback Lizard yawns, its pink jaw opening to an obscene ninety degree angle, but Jeremy is not watching. Its black tongue licks at the air, sucking in the burning heat and establishing how best to deal with the temperatures that daily threaten to engulf its senses and blot out consciousness. But still, no-one is watching.

He has seen it all before. He has seen everything before. And that is the problem. He has hiked alone in the wilds of Alaska, climbed Kilimanjaro, stood on the North Pole. He has rafted down the Amazon, walked the Great Wall of China, strolled peacefully down the streets of Tehran. He has even been here before. This desert, this country, this road. A long time ago.

This is an environment he knows well. The power nature exerts over its landscape, its rugged disregard for human life, the need for caution. All lessons he learnt a long time ago. If he is to escape he should get going, reach shade, and find something to drink. But he is having trouble lifting his feet to begin. They are heavy and swollen and he is tired. The lines about his face show a weariness that he has not noticed creeping up on him. And now that he runs his rough, blackened fingers over theses wrinkles he is already powerless to change them. Perhaps it is with misgivings, but he isn’t even sure he would want to. They are interesting, altitude lines mapping the gradients of his life without embellishing the details; demonstrating the highs and lows without hinting at the underlying events. He has lived a vivid life, everything about him makes that clear. But he is tired now. Maybe this is where it all ends. Maybe this is what he deserves. Fitting, really, if a little unnecessary.

Finality does not scare Jeremy, indeed it is something he has been seeking his entire life.

Yet the road stretching into eternity has proven illusive. Over horizon after horizon he has searched, but always come up empty handed. He cannot express what it is he seeks, it is a feeling, an image, a sense of self: nameless and ethereal. It is out there though, he has felt it in passing, for a minute here or an hour there, gone before he realises how lucky he is. Just the empty ghost of something missing, something that should always have been there.

Still he stands here. Hands thrust deep into the pockets of his khaki shorts, scruffy hair dripping beads of sweat down his face where they are caught in his lengthening beard. He looks like a tramp. And he is, sort of. Only a tramp with a job and expense account and quite a lot of money sitting in a bank somewhere, growing bigger just by lounging there. He looks down at his untied shoelaces and a droplet of sweat splashes into the ground. Despite waking only an hour ago he is exhausted, his forty-four years have led him here and now he wants to sit on the ground and go to sleep. But he just stands there looking into the distance, waiting for something to make a decision for him.

All around are signs of the Aborigines who roamed these plains for thousands of years. None of them would ever die of thirst in the desert. But Jeremy doesn’t know the secret waterways that criss-cross this land, he has forgotten the knowledge of the animals and the fish and natural world all around him. The songlines do not sing his heritage, he cannot follow them home. He is nothing, an intruder. He can’t even track footprints anymore.

A thin wisp of cloud floats overhead, the dry bushes waver in the wind, insects in their millions wander under foot. But he sees none of it. Hears none of it.

Eventually Jeremy turns his eyes away from the vista and walks back to his dusty Renault Megane. Ducking into the driver’s seat his vision blurs as a dizzying rush of blood whips through his weary head. He sits still, eyes clenched, and waits for the blood to flow back into his body. There is petrol in the tank. He has clothes on his back and in his hand he clutches an empty polystyrene cup. But that is it. Everything else is either lost in the airport in Adelaide, or scattered here or there around the world. It is just him, alone, and already he can feel himself beginning to evaporate.

The engine starts on the third attempt, chattering away to convince itself that everything will be fine. He sets off, driving forwards because it is the only way to go, offering silent prayers to the Gods he has shunned that the car will abruptly plummet from the Earth. He pays no attention to where he is going: after all, what does it matter?

Awash in the morning heat-haze his eyes struggle to focus on the road. It is as though he is driving through a Dali painting, stable constructs dripping and melting into each other, meltingin toeac hother. Long legged elephants march in unison across the scrubby landscape, brightly coloured birds line up by the side of the road to watch him pass. Time drapes like loo roll over a dead tree branch. It is a world of infinite possibility but finite reality. And that reality is shrivelling.

Along this uncompromising road Jeremy drives, inscribing the dusty ground with his inconsistent thoughts. But amidst the blurring of his vision one image holds true, a memory he has not considered for twenty years. Her face, smiling. Here. The last time he swore.

Ember. Ember Langdon.

The image evaporates the moment he is conscious of it. He cannot comprehend its pixelated message, all lips and hair and eyes and face. A kangaroo hops across the road and into the bush, stopping to glance over its shoulder, as if to warn anyone against following. Jeremy wants to, but does not. He saw them here before, so many years ago now. To follow would be to chase his past. And he has never had any interest in that. But the past is chasing him.

Whether it is the familiar landscape or his growing dehydration he is not sure, but memories are beginning to assail him. He can no longer fight them away. They press upon him in garishly surreal colours, oily-bright reds and blues and yellows. It is all too much, he is getting a headache. He shuts his eyes and wishes it away. Eventually all that remains is the sound of a sweaty heart-beat thumping in his temples. And an empty gurgle in his stomach.

His mind is wandering again. He thinks of the air-pockets being forced around the car’s sleek body, the cyclones of dust his passing triggers. He thinks of how many particles of the world he is forever changing, just by being alive and driving along this road. He thinks of how those particles mingle with the heated carbon emissions from the exhaust pipe and rise up into the atmosphere where they converge and join new wind currents flowing endlessly around the world. To possibilities unknown.

A single Wedge-Tailed Eagle shoots past on the wind, silhouetted against the burning sun; but no-one is watching. Jeremy continues to push his foot into the accelerator. And the car continues to push forwards.

It is hours later that the car comes to a coughing halt in a quiet Sydney suburb and Jeremy comes out of reverie to notice the world once more. The petrol meter reads empty. The car will not restart. Shit. But he doesn’t even think the word this time. Doesn’t care. Just blinks, unsure where he is. A sunset shrouded street, houses, pavement, front gardens and drive ways. It is all very suburban. And oddly familiar.

Gradually it begins to dawn on him that this is Wallaby Lane. The houses, the tarmac, the curve of the road. None of it has changed. Had he been aware of where he was heading he would have turned around and sought death in the desert. But now the car is out of petrol, and he cannot go anywhere else.

Wearily he peels his sticky shirt from the plastic car seat and stares out through thick shatterproof glass at the scene before him. A fish in a bowl. And again the memories rise unbidden. There they are, together, walking past this exact spot, lost in thought one minute, embraced in a first, awkward, passionate kiss the next. Joining hands together, smiling, walking up the garden path, and into the house. Together.

It is as if the memories reach out to grab him and pull his gaze toward number twenty-two. He looks up from the sidewalk to take in the house before him. The door is still there, he notes with relief. Its deep varnished finish warm in the evening sun. The house, like its neighbours, is built on stilts, raised from the ground to allow the breeze to cool it from below. It is square, symmetrical. Like a child’s first drawing.

He fumbles trying to open the car door, hands thick and ponderous with fatigue. Arid brain pounding. He is now very thirsty. As he lifts himself out of the car the sun’s reflection flashes like an emperor’s fury from the bonnet and he shuts his eyes firmly. When he opens them again he catches sight of himself in the wing mirror. His eyes are bloodshot and dry and the lids scrape as he blinks. Every glint of light causes him pain. Each beat of his heart an earthquake which shakes him to his foundations.

The garden path beckons him forwards, past the lemon tree on either side of the trail, past the dry and thirst lawn and onto the porch. But Jeremy wants his feet to move in the opposite direction. He stands there swaying in the breeze, tilting this way and that, struggling not to collapse. Nausea washes through him. He takes a deep breath but his throat is too dry, it feels like someone is striking a match against his trachea. The air is drawn up through his nose, burning thickly in his sinuses, and then let out. Hands automatically go to his diaphragm, to feel the air going in and coming out. Expanding and contracting. Going in and coming out. The breathing exercises he has been practicing for years.

When he opens his eyes again the world is calmer. Before him, he sees his younger self carrying Ember up the steps and through the door, trying not to bash her broken leg. He sees her opening the door to him a few days later, inviting him into her life like he has never let anyone else do. He sees them strolling hand in hand in the light of predawn, backpacks bouncing with each step they take. But that was years ago, when he was a young man. And he is here now. Alone. Individual moments separated by nothing but the permeable fabric of time.

He sighs. The young in one another’s arms, heedless, engrossed in the sensual music. He seems to be spending a lot of time sighing. Regret: a regrettable note on which to go out.

Perhaps the memories are lies, perhaps they never even happened, but they are safe and he smiles, caked, salty sweat crackling on his skin. He focuses his attention on the door, savouring its finish, remembering the feel of it beneath his calloused fingers. It was his promise to himself that the searching was over. Stupid kid.

The memories have caught up with him at last. This house is the memories, and he can no more escape them than he can get in the car, turn the ignition and drive off into the sunset.

It amazes him that somewhere can be so intimately familiar. Almost overpowering, but at the same time incongruous with reality, spectral, distorted. Like gazing into a rectangular fish-tank, its dimensions warped by the slick delirium of water. Water, Jeremy’s parched throat cries out for water. But he cannot avert his eyes from the house.

He is struck with the urge to run at the steps, leap them in a single bound, enter and be welcomed back into the arms of his family. But this is not his house, his family has never lived here, and his body is too exhausted to run. Brightly coloured fish swim about his vision and slowly he drags his body along the garden path and up the steps to the porch. It feels like he is walking on water, the strain barely registering in his mind. His body is weightless, shorn of past and present and future. There is just this moment, and him and these deliciously wet looking fish just beyond his reach. He is moving further into himself.

His legs give way, his head smacks against the door and he is falling. When he opens his eyes he is on the floor. It is all so familiar, and yet nothing is quite the same. Like the warping he can now see close up in the grain of the door, life has moved on.

Jeremy wakes an indeterminate period later. He looks up, the sun now safely set behind the houses, and watches the sky darken slowly through shades of blue. No-one has emerged from the house to find him. No-one on the street has stopped to say ‘hi’. Strange behaviour for suburbia.

He tries to stand. It takes all his strength and determination but eventually he is able to claw his way up, using the porch fence for support. His head thumps, and he has to shut his eyes until it gets used to the new equilibrium. When his balance is stable he reaches out and grabs the heavy brass door knocker, lifting it to its pinnacle and letting it go, watching it fall in a smooth arc to connect firmly with the door. Thud. He waits. Stepping back he looks up to investigate the upper floor. But the change in angle makes his head pound again and he returns it to the level, determined not to move ever again.

Instead he listens for signs of life. Nothing. A bruise is rising on his forehead. His skin has turned to leather and he wonders what there is for him here? Other than water. And water can be got at any of the houses along this street.

But he needs this water. It makes no sense, but it is so. No matter the extent of his dehydration, he cannot leave this house. Not now that he is here. He made that mistake once before and is not about to repeat it now.

He squints through the windows, seeking any sign of habitation. Empty rooms and dusty surfaces. Maybe no-one even lives here. He tries to peer through the spy hole, but it is one way, and he just sees a reflection of himself. So he waits.

Minutes pass, the sky turns navy blue and lights begin to appear along the street. People pass on the sidewalk, barely glancing up from their daily routines, never noticing the new face leaning against the door to number twenty-two. This is obscene, he thinks, no-one recognises me yet I remember every single detail.

And he does: he remembers how the lady three doors away flung her windows open to let the evening air in; how the twins at number 12 fired water pistols at passing cyclists, running into the house in fits of laughter before the shocked rider realised what had happened; how the old man played cricket with his grandsons, failing to appreciate the confines of the street and smacking the ball with a characteristic swing of the bat into one of the adjacent gardens.

No-one is home. He sits down on the top step, unsure what to do. The sky is almost black, the temperature cooling. Humidity hangs in the air. Sweat and hose pipes and spilt drinks. A light breeze caresses his skin. His stomach gurgles as an empty spasm shoots through him.

He waits.

Three doors down, the windows remain tightly shut, a young man in a brown suit and a lady dressed in a loose white dress return to no 12. No cricket is being played in the street and the few cyclists who pass are drenched only in their own sweat. High above, the sky has turned black. This is not right.

He waits.

It is night in the small street, silent and bible-black, and Jeremy remains sat atop the up-most step. Nobody is home. But he cannot abandon the house now. And nor, despite his desire to do so, can he kick down the door. It is too thick and he is too weak. He wants to shut his eyes and go to sleep.

Somewhere in the distance an old man with a cane is watching the night sky, keeping watch on the slow, cranking passage of time. He is the mooncumbulli. “Kee eel all icth rervu wee” he coos, serenading his people and the unsleeping spirits, “Kee eel all icth rervu wee”. The earth has already turned. The earth has already turned. He walks slowly down Wallaby Lane, long beard and threadbare rags flapping in the breeze. As he passes Jeremy, he turns and winks, his whole face coming alive for a second; and then he is gone.

But what is that? A faint patter of water alerts Jeremy as a sprinkler springs to life. He strains his ears to hear from whence it comes. It sounds like the back of the house. But that is such a long way away.

His muscles show no appetite for the effort and his head burns, but slowly blood returns to his limbs and he is able to stumble forwards, though even this exertion strains his gasping body to its limits. As he creeps along he imagines the image that will great him: a beautifully green, lovingly cared for, garden in three careful tiers leading up to the bluest, warmest swimming pool he has ever seen.

Yet when he finally reaches the garden, the sight that greets him is nothing like the picture in his head. The grounds are rugged and lifeless: vast swathes of ivy drape menacingly over the fences; the tiers have multiplied, and now climb one upon the other like a tower of human bodies up as high as the sky is low; the pool that he cannot see stands solemn and forgotten, strewn with dead foliage and baked insects. It is as if the garden itself is questioning his memory, laughing at his pitiful vulnerability. He wants to weep, but has not the water in his body to do so.

Et in Arcadia ego.

Worse still, the sprinkler is in the garden next door, projecting back and forth across discarded toys and patio furniture, mechanically satiating its thirsty charge. Just his luck that it is so completely out of reach.

Dejected, stumbling, eyes neither seeing nor caring, Jeremy returns to his station upon the steps, telling himself he will wait only a few minutes more. He waits.

Car headlights move up and down the road, turning from white to red and vice-versa, swamping his vision in a sea of light. Mouth tasting of soot and head thumping with ever increasing vigour, Jeremy Blackwell falls asleep. And still he waits.

Later still, witching hour, just as night turns into morning, a car moves down the street and Jeremy opens a bleary eye. But he does not see Wallaby Lane anymore. It is another world altogether. He stares out at the same road in another time, concreteless, white sand and woody green hills. A fresh world, untouched by others, a world for him to discover anew. A world of giant colourful snakes wriggling across the flat planes, roaring rivers threatening to engulf and wash away the dry land, and rich red rocks poking from the earth like the top of a bald man’s head. Australia as Captain Cook found it.

Amidst the flashing lights and swirling dreams, lost amongst the conflicting emotions whirling about behind Jeremy’s tired eyelids, still he waits.

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