Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets.
It was just an offhand suggestion, and a trip I have made many times–just up the road, as my father would describe a ten-hour drive to Meekatharra–but I am prepared and packed, and the boys next door, who seemed to leap at the idea, are nowhere near ready and don’t seem at all perturbed. If we don’t leave soon, we’ll get there in the middle of the night!
Just doing a last check, patting my wallet, as it were, I discover I don’t have my phone. Where is it? Not there, or there … when did I last have it? Something strange is beginning to happen to me: I can’t for the life of me remember when I last had it! Instead of running around in circles like a mad thing, just remember what you were doing when you had it last. I can’t. I’m like a little boy: I just can’t.
In England, visiting my dying stepfather, and realizing Mum’s unpreparedness was the real reason they had paid for the trip, I read her the funny letter in her magazine which proved she wasn’t the only one. When people get older, they spend a lot of time thinking about the hereafter. Going from one room to the other, they ask themselves, what am I here after? Boredom is the soul of relativity.
The boys arrive, and I’m distraught. This isn’t supposed to happen. Without my phone, I’ll be as helpless as they, who’ve never been before, will be. The woman steps in, and makes a call. Next minute I’m talking to Sue, from the insurance, who doesn’t think this is at all unusual, and will furnish me, right now, with a temporary replacement, run me through it, help me with police statements if necessary. She’s very calming, but deep down, I know chaos: I can’t remember anything! I’ve checked every pair of trousers I own, every jacket, outside and inside pockets, even though I wouldn’t have been wearing any of them: I was at work. Ah!
It’s all a bit of a dream. Will the charger for this phone work in my car? Is this my car? Is my charger in it? Which car are we taking? Why are we going down Rathdowne St? Sue is so nice. She doesn’t have a customer service manner, just seems to be intimate with everything I’m not. Did I check my taxi uniform? Should we go back? Sure enough, the taxi depot guy has a carton with my stuff in it, the contents of a shift, including my phone and charger and paperwork not done. The owner sits in the back. Not the end of the world, seems to be his attitude.
Did I get robbed, I ask. The cab’s fine. Was it a blow on the head? Getting my phone back doesn’t solve anything. The past is blank.
What would it be like to turn ritual inside out? If people didn’t begin to grow up until they were old enough for their children to look after them? If habit and expertise were an exoskeleton and experience and meaning a dream? If the law was a ceremony made of sign-posts? Does a priest have someone to upgrade his phone plan? How would priests like it if people spoke to each other as they do to priests? What if there were a woman to take charge for every Imam, she proceeding on his journey while he lived in another world, incompetent, asleep? What if reality were only a five percent swing away and twitterbots were hacking practice in kindergarten? What if I were a murnong in a sheep run and kangaroos ruled the world?
What will happen about the replacement phone? It’s ok, the woman explains, you’ve made the minimum four calls, and that waives the formalities. It’s my cab we’re going to drop it off in. I recognize it, but the day-driver doesn’t seem as though he’s ever driven before. At the lights, he starts bashing that bit of unstuck moulding on the dash with a steel rod from my carton, wrecking the cab in front of the owner. The boys are laughing and talking with him in another language.
And now we’re in Brunswick Rd, at the construction, and he’s missed the detour that sticks out like dog’s balls and driven straight into the fenced yard. Blithely, he backs out into a wall of oncoming traffic. Look over your shoulder, I tell him, like a supervisor. He doesn’t. Miraculously, there is no impact, and we’re on our way to the airport. The owner and I exchange the sign of the finger across the throat.
Life is a journey: Carlton to Tullamarine with a cabbie who puts personality into his driving, because you know the way; Tullamareena’s journey as mainmet through hostile country after release for not understanding English; Chinese journeys from Cooktown to the Palmer River goldfield terminating in the fork of an ironbark hung by the pigtail for ‘Ron; Airlie Beach to Cooktown intersecting with 350,000 comfortable daily trajectories; A Day Out With Thomas ten days ago with two fledgling migrant train-driver apprentices from Melbourne. All a dream. A recharge of the phone.
I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up? A statue of Captain Cook, or the last Orange-Bellied Parrot. I want to be unique, doing something nobody’s heard of, and be really good at it. I want my own space, but where everybody is always happy. Perhaps I can discover that I’m an ugly duckling, a gorgeous swan to cuckold Tyndareus, or model bikinis with my tip-tilted breasts. Could I possibly continue in the direction my journey has led me thus far? I can’t seem to find it. Have my opportunities dried up like shingles at low-tide, or are there as many as there always were, but now they’re disconnected from forgotten dreams? Why is every upturned face so vacant? Over the hills and far away … I wish I had stored Sue’s number. With her I could keep going. She makes empty country benign. She’s the Centre. She’s an original.
Only one member of the Burke and Wills Expedition, John King, made the return to Melbourne. The others died, but King was cared for by some Yandruwandha people. While searching for the missing expedition along the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1862, William Landsborough buried some supplies in the hope the missing explorers might find them, and carved the word, ‘Dig’ into the trunk of a eucalypt. The tree was Heritage listed, but destroyed by ‘vandals’ in 2002. By the time King died, inland Australia was crawling with whitefellas and their cattle.