Astrid’s mother’s mother died in Germany and left her enough money to buy the farm. ‘A gift from the goddess,’ she mused, swinging aside the curtains of her long, straight hair, smiling at little Parvati in her arms. Jürgen, the baby’s father, licked and glued the edges of a neat and slender joint.
Everyone in the squat had been invited to live on the farm, although some chose, in the end, to stay in the city, despite the privations of the condemned building that housed them and the lure of a more wholesome life on the land. Later, Jürgen shared his assessment of them: they were spiritually unprepared for communal life. ‘Their souls are not advanced enough,’ he said. ‘They are not ready to surrender the shackles of materialism and tired morality. Their imprisonment makes them feel safe.’
Joining the commune was a matter of timing for Jude and Brian, who had been at the squat for two days when Astrid extended her invitation. Two days later and Jude might have missed the opportunity. While she experienced the squat with a weird fascination, it unsettled her, and she got onto Brian about leaving almost as soon as they arrived. The mongrel dogs that defended the gate terrified her, as did the people, all of them older than her own seventeen years – the men hard-eyed and bearded, the women wire- thin, philosophical and sure. Everyone spoke freely and with conviction about society, politics, religion – theories of varying sense, but each with its core of truth, jostling in Jude’s head against her own tender ideas of the world.
She had fled the suburbs and her docile parents as soon as she could persuade Brian to come with her. Brian had kept her sane through school. He was less bothered by his surroundings, existing as he did in a reality of his own making. They heard about the squat from a friend of Brian’s older brother. ‘Tell ‘em Phil says you’re cool,’ he said, and so they set out, equipped with Phil’s visa of coolness and an urgent desire to try everything their parents had ever warned them away from. But the residents of the squat had laughed when Brian delivered Phil’s endorsement, and while they weren’t hostile, they’d left Jude and Brian to decipher the ways of the place, and how they might fit in, for themselves.
Those first two nights they slept in the living room with eight other people and the dogs, and then only after the last revellers had laid aside their guitars and bongs. The kitchen plumbing didn’t work; the only source of water in the house was the cold tap in the bath. The much-trafficked bathroom lacked a door. Washing in private seemed an impossible luxury until Jude noticed one woman taking a bucket of water into the back garden and stripping behind a sarong hung between two bushes.
The journal Jude kept belied none of her misgivings, however. In her recorded version of events, she had arrived where she was meant to be, the dream intact. While she concealed the journal from everyone with a fierce paranoia, she had a dim and guilty awareness, even as she penned it, that it read as though it were written for someone other than herself.
On the third day she met Astrid and Jürgen, who were returning from a pilgrimage to the coast. On their arrival, a kind of calm settled over the squat. Someone cooked a hot meal for everyone to share. A warm gathering took place in the lounge room, where Astrid made her announcement about the farm they’d just purchased. Someone gave Jude a toke of the strongest weed she had ever tasted, and the sunlight drifting through the windows froze.
‘We should go and live on that farm,’ said Brian, radiant with excitement.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jude. ‘Who are these people?’
Possibility made her stop and ask questions. Astrid and Jürgen glowed serenely in the smoky light: they looked like happiness. Jude wanted to follow them. But she also wanted to be sure her reasoning was good and whole, and not influenced by some enchantment.
Jürgen caught Jude’s eye and beckoned to them. ‘Two beautiful young people,’ he observed, as she and Brian sat on the floor next to him. He sat cross-legged, with a straight- backed, feminine elegance. Gold lights shone in his beard and the soft loops of his hair. ‘Are you lovers?’
‘No!’ giggled Jude.
‘You should be. Don’t waste time. Love is all we have.’ His accent made a soft blur of the consonants. ‘Do you know LSD?’
He unwrapped a small package of tabs and offered them one each in his palm. Brian took one and immediately put it on his tongue. Jude stared at hers a moment. So this was what all the fuss was about. A tiny square of paper between her forefinger and thumb.
Then Brian leaned forward and kissed her, delivering his trip into her mouth.
Mike Solomon was one of the many drifters who came to a stop at the Livingstone farm within its first year. The constant influx of new voices exacerbated the commune’s teething troubles, and it was already dividing into those who liked the idea of living in a self-sufficient commune and those who were prepared to make it work. Keenly aware of which side she herself was on, Jude found herself drawn to Mike, an Englishman whose past was difficult to piece together but who was rumoured to have arrived via recovery in an Indian ashram after losing it on the free festival circuit in Europe. He was twenty-two, but to her he seemed closer in age to Jürgen, who was nearly thirty.
Mike was tall and narrow, but strong-shouldered. He wore his thick, straight hair long, and there was a hardness in his eyes that his mouth sometimes betrayed with a wry smile. At first Jude interpreted the glint as a sign of restraint and pragmatism, and she was right, insofar as he applied himself with great competence to the daily work of the farm, and to the endless improvements they needed to make around the property to achieve any level of comfort.
In dividing labour the commune had proceeded informally, based on the idea that everyone would take on equal responsibility. In practice the informal approach was problematic. Some people fell into roles according to their talents and preferences – within weeks Brian had confined himself to the kitchen and the daily miracle of creating meals for twenty adults who had yet to produce a vegetable from the land – but others varied their chosen work from day to day. Some had a disinclination to lead but a genuine willingness to apply themselves to any necessary task. Others were artful drifters, Jude thought, concealing their aversion to the more repetitive and thankless work of the commune.
Jude became adept at finding work that would take her away from everyone else, and asked Mike to drive her one morning on a dawn reconnaissance mission to assess the state of the fields and fences. Brian’s side of their bed was usually cold when she woke, and Brian elbow-deep in yeasty flour somewhere in the kitchen below, but this morning she had asked him to wake her when he got up. He took this request seriously, shaking her hard, flinging open the curtains and blinding her with the overhead light.
The commune consisted of three dilapidated buildings and a few hectares of coastal land. The main part of the house, an old stone cottage, was crumbling and draughty, and the walls and floor of the upstairs extension were paper-thin. Everything needed painting, but before that, plastering; cracks loomed large and damp crept downwards from the leaky roof. Downstairs was freezing in cold weather, and upstairs a furnace in the sun. In the beginning there had been enough rooms to go round, but some of them lacked doors, and while sarongs made colourful curtains, they did not provide the privacy needed to arrest mounting tensions.
They weren’t only at odds with one another. The human inhabitants of the commune waged constant war against various kinds of intruders. They evicted a family of mice from the kitchen stove, but could still hear them scratching in the skirting boards at night. A duck became trapped in the chimney one evening, and another night, Jude woke to feel a large cockroach burrowing into her ear.
While the house alone provided plenty of work, the land offered even greater challenges. They planted a large area with vegetables, but two escaped goats destroyed the first emerging crop. The chickens needed better protection from foxes and in windy weather the hay shed door came loose and banged through the night. And aside from all the fixing and building, field upon field awaited ploughing and sowing and grazing, and distant fences sagged in anticipation of repair. Rabbits multiplied as the debate over whether to kill them or not continued, unresolved.
Jude made her own tea and took one out to Mike, who was already rolling away the bedding in the back of his van. He had quite the set-up: black-out curtains, tools and cooking equipment, even a tatty Persian carpet. Along one side were several wooden crates of books, packed spine- upwards, full of titles on philosophy and religion. He’d rejected the sleeping space offered to him on the living room floor, and some people took this the wrong way – they thought it a less than communal attitude, or a sign that he didn’t intend to stay – but Jude thought them envious of his privacy. ‘You’ll get cold out here in the winter.’ She handed Mike his tea, and wrapped the fingers of both hands around her own.
‘We’ll have the house sorted by then.’ He was matter- of-fact. He didn’t entertain the possibility that the summer might run away from them before they could achieve even half of their plans.
His van bumped over rocky tracks and furrows, making it impossible for Jude to make her breakfast joint. She wound her window down instead, and watched the miraculous day roll itself out across the hills and ocean. She was rarely awake at this hour, unless she’d been up all night, and then it was an ending rather than a beginning. The cool, sweet air and lively birdsong made her feel virtuous and hale.
Brian should see this, she thought, suddenly wishing he had come with them. He would have been chattering non-stop, but Mike drove in silence, willing the rackety van over each rut and stone. He was vocal in the commune, routinely engaged in some kind of head-to-head over Hindu pantheism, the finer points of the White Album, or the engineering of long drops, but when he was composed like this it had a strange effect on Jude. Sometimes in his company she realised she was holding her breath.
‘This is the last paddock,’ said Jude. She directed Mike onto a public road, jumping down from the van to man the gate, the dew kissing her ankles. They chugged gently upwards, the edge of the property on their left, the last paddock rising with the hill until gravity defeated it.
‘Keep going,’ said Jude, when Mike slowed near the last fence post. ‘I want to see over the hill.’
It wasn’t much further. The road made the crest of the hill and continued along it. Mike pulled over and hushed the engine, and they stepped out of the van. Jude knew better than to try to persuade him to share her joint. She smoked alone, amused by his silent disapproval.
The sea was scattered with glassy light. A curve of rocky beach lay below them, under the cliffs. A slope fell away to it a little distance from where they stood. Dark, tangled vegetation swallowed a tenuous downward track.
‘Come on,’ said Jude, magnetised.
Mike didn’t voice any enthusiasm, but he didn’t protest either. It had been hard to tell whether Mike even liked her, until she learnt to read the signs: a tendency to sit nearby, giving her a little bit of extra time to elaborate on her opinion before he disagreed. He was so contrary, Jude thought, as they delved into the bushes, heat gathering close around them, that when he did agree with her it felt uncomfortably intimate.
She wanted to ask Brian whether Mike made him feel the same way, but hadn’t been able to find the right way to voice it. She had a misgiving he would take something away from her words that wasn’t there. Mike and Brian had sized each other up early. Brian was convinced Mike wouldn’t stay, and for that reason didn’t trust him. ‘He’s assessing us,’ he’d told Jude, ‘and finding us lacking.’ For all that, Brian refused to play the antagonist and that seemed enough to keep Mike away.
They descended further into the scrub, leaning and pushing their way around wayward twigs. The path was a spindly line of dirt. Insects ticked and rustled and the flies pestered their faces. Near the bottom, the path became indistinct but by now they could hear the play of water, and found their own way through the last line of bushes to the rocky platform of the wide shore, interrupted here and there by pools of water or islands of sand.
They stood on a large, flat rock next to scattered boulders, where the cliff was crumbling away. The rush of the waves and the cool breeze made Jude feel like shouting. Her whoop ricocheted back to her from the cliff-face.
‘What an amazing spot!’ she said, kicking off her thongs and padding down to dip her toes. Wavelets streamed soft and cold around them. She bent and touched the water with her fingers. Water astonished her: its vulnerable, inviting skin; that there could be so much of it, yet so contained.
She turned to Mike, stooped with her fingertips still trailing in the water. He stood behind her, staring at the horizon. ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ she said.
Mike returned from his daydream, registered her suggestion, and licked his lips. ‘I’d rather not.’
‘I really want to.’
‘Go ahead.’ He sauntered away from her, along the perimeter of the rock where it met the cliff.
Jude stalled. She felt self-conscious about getting naked in front of him. She’d gotten over her attachment to privacy to some degree, but she’d never seen Mike unclothed, and it seemed like too much of a concession to him, somehow. In the end, she couldn’t resist; she stripped to her underwear, and waded in. Mike loitered on the shore.
‘Great spot for a camp out,’ she called to him. ‘With swags. And a fire.’
Mike shrugged and glanced around.
Jude looked at him. A feeling thrummed in her, shamefully un-communal. She considered the secluded beauty of the beach. Mike had his van. She needed a place too, away from the ostentatious craziness, the squabbles, the organic ferment of the commune. Some air untainted by cabin fever.
‘Apart from Brian,’ she said, ‘why don’t we just keep it to ourselves for now?’
There were dead bees in the main living room, one or two a day, for four days in a row.
‘It means a swarm is coming,’ said Jürgen, looking from the dead bee in his palm to the chimney. ‘They want to join our commune.’
The bees sent scouts, he said, to find a good location for a new hive. Then the whole hive would move at once.
Mike snorted. ‘Do we seriously want a chimney full of bees?’
‘There might be honey,’ someone said.
Everyone began to argue. Jude tugged on Mike’s sleeve, pulling him out of the thick of it. ‘Don’t get involved in this now,’ she said. She didn’t want the disagreement to swallow him, to ruin their plans. Yesterday he’d told her that he was going away tomorrow, and her insides had given a small, sharp twist. She’d asked if he was coming back, not realising until that moment that she shared Brian’s suspicion, and tried to cover the question with a smile.
Mike had shrugged and said: ‘We’ll see.’
Jude had climbed to her room and curled up on the bed she shared with Brian, her cheek resting on her clasped hands. She didn’t close her eyes.
After a while, she’d come down again to find him, a little breathless with her plan for the next day. A daytrip at the secret beach, she’d suggested, fretting over how she might organise for the two of them to leave without Brian knowing. There was nothing official about her relationship with Brian. They were friends for the most part, and friends who share a bed eventually, inevitably, have sex. They both understood it that way, so why did this feel so complicated?
When she stood next to Mike, it had become hard to hear anything other than the vibrations of his voice and her own breathing. Every time he moved or spoke, it felt like she was falling; as though she were filled with sea-foam or collapsing meringue, as though she were losing air.
They were here, all three of them. They parked Mike’s van where the dirt road surrendered to the scrub, and entered it, laden with blankets, water, a sloshing brown bottle of whiskey. Mike strode earnestly. Brian’s walk was a kind of jagged, narcotic shamble. At the secret beach they piled their things on a rock and stood squinting in the early afternoon sun.
Jude felt awkward, as though she had promised a variety show but forgotten to book the entertainment. She fought the nervous urge to sing and dance. Mike and Brian already knew this place, they were expecting to swim in the sea, to sleep by a campfire, that was all. Moreover, they had chosen to spend the day and evening in each other’s company, which was something in itself. She bit back a smile at the thought that she might be the reason for it.
Brian got out the acid and picked apart the tabs with his long, well-kept fingernails. ‘No time like the present,’ he said, offering the first one to Mike. Jude drew in a sharp breath. Was the gesture cordial but ill-judged – had Brian not come up against the force of Mike’s objections to drugs? It was possible, she supposed, since they avoided interacting. Or Brian might be baiting him.
Mike declined quite mildly.
Jude pincered the tab that Brian offered her. It was disappointing that Mike wasn’t going to take acid with them; she’d fantasised about it, even though she’d known it wasn’t going to happen. Still, if the trip had been, to her mind, the point of the trip, so to speak, then it was flattering that he’d decided to come anyway, that their company was enough.
It was Mike, however, who suggested they go for a walk while they waited for the acid to come on, to get the blood circulating. They set off along the beach, soon rounded the point where the cliff jutted towards the water, and found themselves in another inlet. Here the terrain was a mixture of craggy boulders and narrow runs of sand. They pressed on towards the next point. Jude lost track of the number of bays they traversed. After a while, she was merely conscious of their infinite repetition. No one mentioned stopping but they stopped all the same, by some unspoken consensus, after a period of walking that might have been twenty minutes or two hours.
Jude went to dance with the sunlight while her brain came to some arrangement with the intensifying acid. After gazing for some time into the depths of a rock pool, at crabs and shells and fronds of rusty seaweed, it made a lot of sense to go for a swim in it; in fact, it became the only possible course of action. Jude pulled at her clothes like a child still learning the order of her limbs. Underneath them, her grown-up body surprised her. They were absurd, these long, fleshy legs, these breasts, this patch of hair. She descended into the water, crouching in order to submerge herself to the neck, and looked around for her companions. Brian was a distant figure teetering on a high boulder, facing the sea; if he went any further he would vanish around the point into the next inlet.
Mike was doing something at the shoreline, perhaps twenty yards away. Bending, stooping, standing, bending again. What was he up to? His arm flicked, and she fathomed that he was skimming stones. There was something unguarded about it, something boyish, and she wondered if he felt left out. The opportunity to watch him like this was rare, and as she did, she became aware that since the acid had taken her over, the hum in her ears had stopped. Even her breath had returned. She had her senses back – oh, it was glorious. Was she still attracted to him? She tested it out, prodded the feeling that had become so familiar, to see if it responded. And she found that it did, but that she seemed to experience it at a distance, as something of an absurdity, as her own body had been a few moments ago. All the world’s a stage, she thought, with a surge of unburdened happiness. The water was clear, and she was lucid.
Mike had wandered a little further along the water’s edge, but she didn’t notice until he shouted out to her.
‘Come and look at this,’ he called. He was leaning over a waist-high rock, his gaze downwards.
Jude drew herself up out of the pool and padded across to him, her clothes catching on wet skin as she tried to pull them into place. The stone underneath her feet was sea-washed, slick and cold. She rested a hand on Mike’s shoulder, on the warm fabric of his shirt – conscious of the very different warmth of his skin underneath it – and peered over him.
He was looking at the shape of an animal foot on an otherwise flat rock. It appeared in negative relief, with three large digits, quite clear. The toes were pointed and splayed like claws. Jude guessed it was three inches deep and at least twelve inches long, maybe more.
‘What do you think it is?’
Jude thought of ammonites from school museum trips, ancient creatures imprinted into rock. ‘It’s a fossil.’
‘Of what?’ ‘Of a foot, obviously.’ ‘What, like an emu’s or something?’ Jude pealed with laughter. ‘An emu! You idiot. An emu’s not that big. That thing would crush an emu.’ Mike blushed.
‘Fossils are millions of years old.’ She nudged him with her knee. There was that warmth again. ‘It could be a dinosaur footprint.’
‘The drugs are getting to you, Jude.’
‘Well, think about it. There’s nothing walking around now with feet like that.’
Mike looked scornful. ‘Rock dating techniques are relative, you know. Flawed.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Jude, wishing suddenly that she had delved into those crates of books, into any books, that she didn’t feel like she was on the back foot every time she disagreed with him. ‘They seem pretty confident about it. The ones who date the rocks, I mean.’ She raised her eyebrows at Mike. ‘We have to show this to Brian.’
But Brian was nowhere to be seen. ‘Shit,’ said Mike. ‘He was over there before,’ she said, pointing. ‘Stay here,’ said Mike. ‘What for?’ But he had already started off across the beach. He
took a long time to reach the point. In fact, she had never seen such laborious progress. He seemed to climb a lot of unnecessary boulders. It was hard to tell how unnecessary; if she stared at them for any length of time, they began to melt and swim.
Then he was gone. Jude looked around for a place to sit, and chose the sand. At ground level she was truly on her own. The sea was enormous. It came barrelling in, ignored the rocks, trawled the sand on its way out. The world was savage and elemental, and she saw herself within it: frail, organic, short-lived. It was so easy to die, she thought, looking around and imagining the overwhelming power of an unexpected wave, a momentary slip from a boulder into the unforgiving sea.
She fretted for Brian’s safety, and then for both him and Mike as time passed. Anxiety could make minutes into hours. It wasn’t always easy to die, she reminded herself. People survived astonishing injuries and deprivations, out of a bloody- minded will to live. Either way, a human life was fleeting in the scheme of things. It was life itself that was resilient. The winter sun had grown warm and radiated down on her scalp.
‘There you are,’ a voice said above her.
She squinted upwards, put a hand up to shield her eyes. Mike and Brian stood on the rocks, towering like mountaineers.
‘I couldn’t see you down there,’ said Mike. ‘Right. If you’re both going to keep vanishing, I’m taking you back to the campsite.’
Before the sun set Mike dispatched them both into the scrub to look for firewood. Brian went into the scrub but ignored the directive, either intentionally or distractedly; they found him later sitting under a bush, watching a beetle crawl from hand to hand. Jude applied herself, but without much success. Everything seemed much too alive to touch, sticks included.
Still, they managed to make a small fire on flat rocks above the tide-line, around which they held up their tin cups of whiskey for increasingly impassioned and preposterous toasts. The night appeared in soft focus, yet individual things were so clear she could see their atoms vibrating. Her chest heaved with dying laughter – what had been the joke? They had been telling Brian about the footprint. The emu footprint; that was what they’d decided to call it. Jude lay back and looked at the stars for a moment, to catch her breath.
It was surprising, really, Mike’s naivety, he of the book- lined van and firm opinions. She propped herself up on one shoulder and looked at him in the firelight, enjoying this new perspective on him. She thought she could love him in some way that was unconnected to her desire for him, the way she loved Brian, which struck her in that moment as a noble kind of love, and made it seem possible that the three of them could form some amicable trio in which she had everything she wanted, and nobody would be diminished.
Mike got to his feet, held a hand down to her. ‘Don’t lie there,’ he said. ‘We’ll never get you up again.’
She let him pull her up to standing. He sweated whiskey; it blurred him. They clung to each other for balance, heartbeats syncopated. They were going to kiss, and she wanted to, but it still felt strange, this business of being animal.
‘What’s that noise?’ She listened. ‘Sounds like an owl.’ They peered into the pale night, towards the sound.
Something white bobbed in the blackness of the water beyond the low breakers.
‘It’s Brian.’ They moved to the water’s edge. ‘How is it?’ called Jude.
Brian hooted again. ‘What is he doing?’ ‘I think that’s Brian for “come on in, the water’s fine”.’ Jude untied and unbuttoned herself, and stepped naked
out of a cloud of crumpled cotton, into the sea. She made a face as the cold water crept up her thighs. Mike followed, descending with athletic strides. Jude swam out to Brian. The water was silky and refreshing in a way nothing had been for a long time.
‘I wish I could breathe underwater,’ said Brian. ‘You need to evolve gills,’ suggested Jude. ‘We’ve stopped evolving,’ said Mike. ‘Regress, then.’ Jude giggled. ‘Back into the ocean.’ ‘We haven’t stopped evolving,’ said Brian. ‘Humans
have evolved to be the planet’s consciousness. It’s the final frontier. We’re only just beginning to experiment with the power of our collective mind.’
Jude snorted. This was familiar twaddle from Brian, but Mike was listening carefully; unusual for him. ‘But the commune is modeled on an old way of life,’ Mike said. ‘A simpler way.’
‘Yeah, but we’re not medieval peasants, are we? Not morally. We’ve advanced.’
Mike scoffed. ‘All this moral advancement isn’t getting the fields ploughed, is it?’
‘We’ve progressed. We’re becoming better people.’ Brian carved tides in the satin surface with his arms. ‘There has to be a point to all this.’
For the first time, Jude heard the two of them agree.
After the water, the fire’s warmth was bliss on her skin. They talked, sharing their psychedelic amazement with Mike, until he fell asleep with his head in Jude’s lap. She and Brian watched the sky in silence. She’d never before been conscious of the planets revolving. The moon, although not quite full, was clearly spherical, its fingernail shadow a third dimension, not as black and depthless as the space behind it. It arched over their heads and advanced towards the horizon at dawn, cold white warming to yellow and finally burnished orange as the sun emerged again at their backs. We make them commonplace, she thought, the movements of moon and sun, paint a dimension out of them to stop the spin of them making us dizzy. It is easier to see them as paper circles on a dark backdrop, a flat and finite edge, our world contained. We are parochial in this part of the universe.