Sometimes the world throws up ludicrous surprises. Mostly in the form of comic tragedies, but on rare occasions events so improbable and wondrous they prompt a renewed investigation into the mysteries of chance.
Two years after my twelve-year relationship with my high school sweetheart broke down I was ambushed by a friend with these sage words: ‘Jess, you are never going to meet anyone if you never leave the house.’
I lived far out in the bush with my mother and my two small children so this statement seemed a probable truth. I smiled obediently, nodding my head in agreement, but inside I was pondering – But where would I go? My hometown was your classic one-pub metropolis, but without the pub. There was a sports club, but it took a good deal of inner coaxing for me to even approach its dingy glass doors. I’d only been inside once but the memory of the psychedelic beer-stained carpet and the electronic cacophony of the pokies was prohibitive. And who would I meet? As far as I remembered, the sports club only housed a ragtag collection of my dad’s old drinking buddies who were, if possible, even more decrepit and dangerous-looking than they’d seemed when I was a child. It was a conundrum.
The fact of the matter was I’d lived in my tiny hometown since I’d had my first baby, and I just didn’t know very many men. It was hard to imagine from that particular vantage point what a desirable male might look like, let alone where I might find him. Looking back, I was a perfect candidate for internet matchmaking, but this was in the days before satellite internet, and I was yet to discover the joys of cyberspace.
And so it was that the next day I lay in my bed half-blinded by a sudden migraine, waiting for my mother to bring the children back from school, when I heard a voice calling, ‘Hello, anybody home?’
I staggered out, wondering who it could be, and there he was. Hands still on the bars of his bicycle, he looked about tentatively. My house, near the end of a dead-end road, had over the years become submerged in forest, and it was clear that only someone very lost would accidently happen upon it.
‘I was wondering if I could get a glass of water,’ he said, and I stared at him in surprise.
‘Sure,’ I replied, rubbing my throbbing temples and leading him inside.
‘I’m from Tasmania,’ he said. ‘I took a wrong turn.’
Since I live in the most northern corner of New South Wales, this comment made me smile.
‘I mean, I’m on a cycling tour.’ I could see his cheeks redden. ‘I flew into Brisbane with my bike. I’m cycling home.’
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that his beauty was apparent to me even then. He had large soulful eyes, a greyish blue-green, and lush young lips that stretched over his teeth, promising some kind of innate sensuality. But he was lost and thirsty and I was laid low with a migraine. In those circumstances good looks seemed irrelevant.
‘Where did you think you were?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure. Not here.’
After his glass of water I offered him a cup of tea. While the kettle boiled we chatted a little. He was planning to work his way back home. Cycling from farm to farm, offering his labour in exchange for room and board. What a brave young thing, I thought. I asked him his age.
‘Nineteen, yesterday actually.’
‘Yes. It was my birthday.’
‘Happy birthday for yesterday.’
I had just turned twenty-eight and felt like an old woman in the way only young parents can. I put a CD in the player and pressed play. Tom Waits. The boy smiled then, a slow inching of pleasure that spread across his face. His smile was like one of those light bulbs that starts off dim and slowly, imperceptibly, brightens. I felt the edges of my headache lift.
‘I was just listening to this,’ he said. ‘On the ride down, on my iPod.’
‘Tom Waits?’ As far as I knew, nineteen year olds didn’t listen to Tom.
‘This exact song.’
‘Yeah,’ he nodded, and looked around shyly.
When the tea was ready he took off his helmet and hung the straps over his arm. It dangled down beside his body, and I took it and put it on the end of the table.
‘We’ve got work you could do,’ I said. ‘You could stay here awhile.’
And so it was that my friend’s prediction turned out, against all logical expectation, to be wrong. The Tasmanian boy stayed with us for a couple of weeks, chopping wood and other such wilderness activities. I watched him, amazed that he even existed. The boy read books. He was thoughtful – whimsical and dreamy – like a character straight from a Leunig cartoon. He liked to cook, and would approach me from time to time with a small plate of food offered up quietly. We made a cake from candlenuts and lime that we foraged from the garden, and he seemed inordinately pleased to have been so self-sufficient. When he was in the room something inside me prickled, some kind of yearning. I had no idea what to do with such a feeling. I was nine years older than him, but in his company I felt fresh – a young untried girl.
I took him walking in the bush and he hid behind me at the sight of a cow, but when we reached a waterhole he stripped right off and stepped in. His naked skin was pale and clean like early morning sunlight. I stood on the edge, fully clothed, not knowing where to look. His nudity seemed a provocation. Before that moment I had ignored my quickening heartbeat in his presence, ignored all my body’s signals of desire. Though I was a mother of two children I had no experience of seduction. I had gotten embroiled in a high school relationship as a very young teen, and though it had lasted almost half my life I could barely even remember how it began. Who put what where? How was such a thing instigated?
‘Are you coming in?’ the Tasmanian boy called from the water, his gaze on me unwavering. He lifted his chin, infinitesimally – a subtle dare. What a brave young thing, I thought again, but I didn’t get in. I could see the pale splendour of his body beneath the water, tantalisingly close, and I was afraid, my heartbeat as skittish as a newborn foal. But I was stymied there – standing on the bank, paralysed with indecision – and slowly he got back out, dressed, and we trudged home.
He rode off a day or two later, and it’s true that once he was gone I did regret my lack of nerve at the waterhole. I moped and mourned, looking around for traces of him. The plate he had made me toast on. The knife he had cut up apple with. The wood in the woodpile he had so diligently chopped. But then, to my surprise, he called. He was in the next big town along, and would I like to have lunch? It seemed to me a date, and something inside me panicked. Raising small children had been a kind of banishment from civilisation, and I couldn’t help but imagine the stilted way I would hold my fork, my terrible clumsy awkwardness, and all of it under the gaze of my inquisitive townsfolk.
I balked, suggesting a bushwalk instead.
I picked him up in town and we drove out to the local waterfalls. He was subdued in the car, as though adjusting to this different time and place. I hadn’t been to the falls since I was a child and chose the place based on the vaguest of knowledge. As it turns out, the walk to the waterfall is down a huge forested canyon. We stood at the top, peering down the gully, and all I could imagine was how on earth once at the bottom I would make it back up.
‘It’s a long way,’ he said, looking sideways at my face. ‘Are you sure you want to go down?’
How I wanted to be able to blithely nod my head, but I was nervous. Climbing mountains was not one of my strengths.
‘Let’s just walk for a while and see how we go,’ I said, and we set off.
We had only begun the descent but my legs were already a little shaky. Ignore it, I told myself. You can do it. You will climb down this canyon with him and then you will climb back up. Because you are an adult. And that’s what adults do.
And then out of nowhere it hit me. A long pointed, spikey leaf – sharp like a stick, straight in the eye. I squealed a little in surprise, tripping backwards. The pain was sharp and strong.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked, stepping slowly back toward me.
Clumsily, I sat on a root, covering my eye while it streamed tears.
‘Oh,’ he whispered, ‘You’re hurt.’
‘It got me good.’ I muttered. ‘Bloody spikey plant.’
Trying not to cry, I counted the seconds in my head. It always hurts to be poked in the eye, but usually the pain is short-lived. Gently, he pulled my hand away to have a look. I could barely open my eye, and it kept streaming.
‘Let’s just wait a sec, it’ll come good,’ I offered up hopefully.
Even though it hurt, I couldn’t help laughing. I’d chosen the bush over the cafe because I thought it might offer me some protection, but instead it had attacked. Something about it seemed ridiculous. Up close, his face was sympathetic, but on the edge of amusement too.
‘What do you want to do?’ he asked.
‘Shall we keep walking?’ I said. ‘Give it a try?’
We set off again, but my eye stung and wept, and I could only walk if I held it closed with the palm of one hand. Off-kilter, I stepped tentatively along the path. I have thrown it all away, I thought. I could have just gone for lunch, like any ordinary person. And now I have been thwarted by nature and will have to go home.
‘Shall we just go and get a coffee?’ he suggested finally. ‘In that coffee place we passed?’
When I clambered into the driver’s seat I checked my eye in the rear-vision mirror. My face seemed magnified, my one injured eye red and swollen. All the smile lines I’d gathered over the years, but never really noticed, were suddenly emphasised in the stark summer light. It was as though one side of my face had aged ten years, while the other stayed young. I laughed out loud then, a kind of hysteria building inside me. I am old, I thought. He will look at me and know that I am old.
‘What’s funny?’ he asked, fastening his seatbelt.
‘I’m a wreck,’ I said, turning the key in the ignition.
He didn’t say a word, only smiled his slow-spreading smile.
At the cafe we ordered tea and waited for it to arrive. I wore my sunglasses. I was jittery, my belly rolling with butterflies. I was hanging on by a thread. He stared at me from across the table. I tied my hair up in a messy bun.
‘Please take it out,’ he murmured.
‘Take your hair out. Leave it down,’ his voice was soft but sure.
‘Take your glasses off.’
What a brave young thing, I thought, and not for the last time. With trembling hands I removed my sunglasses and undid my tied-up hair. It wafted down about my shoulders, hanging long against my back. My body shivered uneasily beneath his gaze.
‘I want to be able to see how beautiful you are.’
And there it was, in the open, whatever strange thing was between us. I stilled with sudden calm. A waitress brought the teas out and placed them carefully on the table. I sipped my tea and watched him as he watched me. A quietness was settling inside me. A rightness.
‘You could come back and stay,’ I suggested, after all the tea was gone. ‘Chop some more wood?’
He tilted his head, taking one last long look at me.
‘I’d like that,’ he said.
And when we walked back to the car he brushed a leaf from my shoulder, and my skin tingled with the barest hint of his touch.
Image credit: Thomas