Three and a half years in this flat. The longest I’ve lived at any one place since leaving home at eighteen. I’ve grown used to the way the rickety sash windows rattle in the faintest of wind and the ashy smell of the neighbour’s fireplace as it travels through these old vents.
Ten years on this Great island. Long enough to become British. Not just in nationality or legal status, but in thought, speech, spirit, even in physicality, in the way I move through the world, my reflexes. Like I was given some strange nylon to wear upon arrival and it’s been on me so long it just feels like my skin. What was once so unfamiliar now lives in my cells.
There’s so much to say about belonging to two places. About loving people on two different sides of an ocean. A blessing. A curse. A privilege. A bipartite state of being. No words convey the duality of this evolution. Where the person I was back then over there and the person I am now here are somehow exactly the same and yet entirely different.
This place is in me now. Of me. I am it and it is me. It can never leave me. It can never cast me off. Nor can I shed it. No matter where I go or how far I am from it, it’s the nylon I can never take off. Never want to take off. It goes with me. There is no distance. Where I am it is.
Why do we always ask people what they do? What’s their job? Are they married? Do they have kids? A house? Where’d they go to school? Do they make good money? We want answers to these questions first in order to form an opinion of who we think they are, if they’re being successful in life and if they’re worthy of our time and attention. But how could someone’s material circumstances, their resume, trophy case or photo album every really tell us who they are and what they’re worth? Somewhere down the line we stopped asking the questions that matter.
Why aren’t we asking instead what keeps them up at night? How do they want to be remembered? What makes them weep and what’s their biggest fear? What books changed their life? What’s the biggest sacrifice they ever made for someone? Are they as scared of regret as you are? Do they come alive at the thought of making art or feel God when they’re alone on a quiet street? Have they ever saved someone’s life, and if so, how did it feel?
Instead of asking someone’s occupational status, why don’t we ask them the status of their heart. The content of their soul. Look into their eyes and ask what they hope for more than anything else in the world. What they live for. What they’d die for. And why.
But asking the right questions requires bravery. Requires us to suspend judgement. Requires us to be vulnerable. To face our own truths as we ask them of theirs. But it’s what we’re here for; the breaking down of walls, the excavation of our humanity, the unlearning. In order to see the value in another’s truths, we must first see the value in our own. We must first be brave. Let’s be brave.
I used to wish I was a morning person. To awaken with a fury, ready to own the day, moving at pace towards all of its untainted possibilities. But now I don’t resist my natural affinity for the night. Perhaps it’s a predetermined state of being. As programmed into us as our DNA. We can try to fight it, but it seems to be that we’re either moved more by the purity and hopefulness of a new dawn or we’re drawn to the mystery and intrigue of night. Not yet tomorrow though no longer today, when all goes dark and quiet, danger feels closer, a sense of urgency awakens the mind, and a sunset brings our imagination to life more than a sunrise ever could.
You enter the Castle grounds at dusk as the lights of the Round Tower gleam against a lavender sky, and walking through the ancient wooden doors that have fretted and warped under the weight of ancient stone, you emerge into the nave of the chapel as the strings of the orchestra begin to strum and the choral soprano of the boys choir travels through the transept like an echo through a canyon, and when tears fill the corners of your eyes as the violins shriek their mighty cry, you look to the ceiling to keep them from spilling over, when you see those pillars, those centuries-old gothic giants holding up the crests of Garter Knights and sheltering the final resting places of Kings and Queens and your feet feel as if they’ll rise from the floor as it all ends with the celebratory Old Hundredth and a rapturous wave of ovation, and spilling out of those medieval doors back into the ghostyard of monarchs, you pause for a breath before leaving the moment, the seraphic notes still ringing in your ears, your skin tingling with alertness, and you thank the universe for the existence of sounds so pure and transcendent they lift your very soul out of stagnancy and make clear how it feels to feel with every flesh and bone and gut of you.
I used to write here often, but I haven’t in a while. Not any real words at least. A year exactly. Since I first started this book. I’ve been saving all of the words. Plucking them out of my subconscious and laying them down like bricks. Labouring to build a path as I trudge down it. It’s a dimly lit path with no signposts. All that exists is the next word, the next step in front of me and the sound of my unsteady foot lumbering forward into an unknown. Because you don’t know that the words will take you anywhere. You keep typing, keep reaching in the dark for something to anchor you, hoping that if you fall you’ll do so silently, so that no one will hear the thunderous roar of your failure. You don’t know anything. The only certainty is showing up, tapping on the keys and trusting that the right words will come. No one is forcing it, it isn’t life or death, and yet, sometimes it feels as necessary to survival as the next breath. And so on you write, and on you wander down the shadowy path, surrendering to what could possibly be found along the way.
Aren’t we all just here to save each other?
To put pressure on the wounds and stitch up the flesh and mop up the blood that seeps out of each other’s lives like rainwater from a potted plant; to help sew what’s torn, ice what’s bruised, fill what’s cracked.
Aren’t we all just here to lower ourselves to the bloodstained ground, look one another in the eyes, humbled and present, and whisper “I feel it too.”
And as we kneel there together, gripping each other’s hands for dear life and feeling each laceration as if they were our own, we hear the faint sound of music; not yet loud enough to dance, but not quiet enough to sit still. We lean against one another as we push upwards against the weight of our mutual pain, steadied by our closeness and lifted by our oneness.
We limp slowly and hopefully toward the distant sound, side by side, the drops of blood becoming smaller and the pain becoming lesser as we walk, subtle hip shaking moving us forward as we step out of the shadows, soon to dance wildly like dandelion spores in the sunlight.
I was probably only going 20 mph but it felt like 100. The chalky red earth caked my trousers and motorbike as I revved the gears and dug my heels into the pedals, racing up the hill and into the open paddock as the fire red sun made its way toward the horizon. It was 2008 in outback Queensland Australia, and the only things I needed in life were my bike and that sunset.
Ambling along the lively east coast from beach town to beach town was a worthy journey for a twenty-something, but after life in Sydney and the constant buzz and extroversion of coastal living, I longed for the dry air and red skies and quiet, for the long empty roads stretching out all the way across what seemed like the universe. The outback sounded like a last frontier. Like a departure from all that was ease, comfort and modernity, and an arrival at something more pure, raw and ultimately more hard work. I wanted a piece of it. I said goodbye to my apartment, my roommates, the ocean and the friends I’d made in the previous weeks on the road and boarded a bus inland.
After several hours on the road staring out at sunburnt fields, I arrived at a sprawling outback ranch in early evening. Turning into the dirt drive I quickly scanned the property; stables, a tractor, a pickup truck, a modest house and miles and miles of nothing. The sun was low in the sky but still beat down harshly on the land, painting a yellowish hue and long shadows over all it touched. This was the outback I’d seen in my mind.
My host Bill welcomed me to the property and showed me my quarters, a room full of bunk beds in one of the outhouses nearer the stables. They were modest but clean, with pillows and blankets folded neatly at the bottom. I threw my backpack onto one of the top bunks and quickly followed Bill out as he carried on with the introduction. The stables were full of horses, and before I’d even had a chance to look from one end to the other he’d thrown me a saddle and said to follow him outside. She was a beauty, maybe 5 or 6 years old, with burgundy coloured hair and a soft black mane. Brushing her was easy, but the saddling was new. Bill walked me through the knots, ties and tugs and within a few minutes she was ready. She was also mine. For as long as I was staying at the ranch she would be my ride.
The next morning, I woke up to sunlight bursting through the window and the faint scent of frying bacon. I was greeted outside in the garden by a table of fresh cow’s milk, granola, fruit, buttered toast, bacon, eggs and an abundance of strong black coffee — a rancher’s breakfast. Hearty and heavy on the caffeine, we fuelled up and headed out to the field at the side of the house. Clocking a dirt bike ahead propped on its stand, I was told to get on it. Bill said there were only two real modes of transport on the ranch; horse and bike. If I didn’t master them both I’d have to settle for walking, and that was a hell of a lot of ground to cover. I’d never ridden a motorbike before but I jumped on and did as instructed. It was trial and error as I practiced switching gears, accidentally stalled, and repetitiously drove around the field one lap after another. After the 20th lap, I was good. Feeling comfortable enough with the gears and clutch I followed Bill out of the field as we raced up a dirt track and deeper into the property. We were flying now, but I was keeping up just fine as we rode along the perimeter fence past the livestock. I’d always loved driving back home and the free feeling it gave me, but this was different. This was so uninhibited. I understood why people chose two wheels over four. There’s something carnal and liberating about riding out in the open, exposed to the elements and always only one wrong move away from danger. It was thrilling.
We spent the next hour driving around the property over fields dotted with Baobab trees and through wooded enclosures where the cattle took shelter from the relentless midday heat. Bill shouted from a few meters ahead that we needed to get back and start on the afternoon chores. We ditched the bikes where we found them and I hopped in the back of his pickup truck. If this was how each day started I thought, I was excited to see how it continued. As I made a seat out of the bales of hay, I looked down at my arms, now a shade of dusty brown. It could have been mistaken for a tan except for the beads of sweat leaving my paler complexion trailing up and down the length of them, my socks stuck to the surface of my skin and the back of my neck stinging from the grit and sun. I untied the bandanna hanging from my neck and let the breeze cool me as we road further into the paddocks. “Get the bails ready” Bill shouted over the driving wind. He made a signal and I threw one over the side, leaving it for the horses to find. We went from one end of the property to the other, dropping hay bales every few hundred feet.
When we returned it was midday and one of the other lodgers had arrived. She was crouching down next to the chicken coop at the side of the house wearing tan khakis, a light flannel shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and sturdy ankle-high boots that looked like they’d seen a mud pit or two in their time. She was oblivious to my approaching as she called out for the chickens, watching them as they clucked and pecked.
“Hello” I said as I stopped beside the coop.
“Oh hi! I’m Casey” she said as she stood up and held out her hand.
“I’m Annie. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” she said as we shook one another’s hands.
“Did you just get here?” I asked.
“Yea about 20 minutes ago, but I’ve already been clothed and shown around this part of the ranch.”
“Yea they don’t waste any time here do they. So those aren’t your clothes?” I asked.
“Nope, haven’t you seen the gear shed?”
“No. Bill must have forgotten to give me that part of the tour” I said.
“Well I’ve never seen so many khakis, dungarees, and cowboy hats in all my life. It’s amazing. Want me to show you?” she asked.
“Yes!” I shouted as we walked over to the shed just beside the living quarters.
I opened the creaky wooden door into a small room full of shelves, crates and boxes. The dust particles floating around the room were glistening like fireflies in the shaft of sunlight now pouring into the space. As I breathed I could taste the air, thick with earth.
“Where are you from?” Casey asked as I walked nearer the shelves.
There were at least a half of a dozen pairs of khakis and twice as many button-up shirts.
“Chicago” I said as I grabbed a pair of trousers.
“Canada. Vancouver. And what brings you to this dusty middle of nowhere on the other side of the world?” she asked.
“Everything,” I replied while slipping on a pair of old boots.
“Me too” she said with a smile as we grabbed a couple of work gloves and walked out of the shed.
As we strolled towards the front of the house for lunch, we saw three girls sitting at the table chatting as they picked at a spread of cold meats, bread, boiled eggs and salad. We sat down in the empty chairs and introduced ourselves.
“Hi” one of the girls said in a thick Nordic accent, “I’m Marja and this is my friend Olga. We’re from Finland.”
“And I’m Hanna” said the other girl, “from Germany.”
We talked for the next hour in between mouthfuls about each other’s travels, each other’s countries, and how it was that we all came to be here, at an outback ranch miles from civilisation and a world away from the well-trodden scene of the Sunshine coast.
“Mostly I just wanted some peace” said Hanna.
“Us too” said Olga.
“There’s only so much surfing and socialising a person can do!” said Hanna laughing.
“I know what you mean” I said. “Wasn’t it tiring? I wanted to break away and find some head space, do something with my hands, go to bed feeling exhausted from a day’s work, maybe go to sleep with the sun and wake up with it too.”
They all nodded their heads in agreement as a dark-haired girl wearing jeans, riding boots and a white straw cowboy hat approached us, about our age, early twenties, carrying a soft and long-strapped shoulder bag.
“Gday. How’s everyone doin?”
We nodded and smiled.
“I’m Mia, the ranch-hand, and this right here is Roxy” she said as she hung the bag up on one of the wooden posts.
The lilac coloured pouch wriggled and bounced as a tiny furry face poked out.
“She’s just a young joey, found her a few days ago alone out by one of the boundary fences. We think her mother may have been hit by a car. Isn’t she a beauty? You can hold her if you want.”
We all held and coddled her as we finished up lunch, and placed her carefully back in her pouch bag, ecstatic in the realisation that lunchtime activities would include kangaroo cuddles.
“Well that’s about enough of that for now, who’s already done their morning chores and been given a horse?”
“I have” I said as the other girls informed her they’d just arrived.
“Alright then, I’ll let Bill get you four started with some chores and some horses, and you can come with me.”
The afternoon sun was hot and bright as we sat low in our saddles, sauntering out to the southeast expanses of the ranch. Our hats and the occasional shade of a bottle tree were the only things keeping us from sun stroke. Mia pointed out toward where the boundary fences end and briefly explained the workings of a modern cattle station. As she spoke she held the reins loosely in her right hand and kept her left hand casually on her thigh, hat tilted back off her forehead as she scanned the horizon, a look of comfort and ease on her face, and the distinct look of someone who was raised on a saddle.
“Are you from the area?” I asked.
“Yep, born and raised, on a small horse farm not too far from here.” “And yourself?” she asked as she took her eyes off the trail and turned towards me.
“From the states, Chicago more specifically.”
“Ohhhh the Windy City right?!” she shouted with a proud smile.
“That’s the one.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to America’s big cities, but I’ll admit, city life intimidates me” she said.
“Yea, me too, and I’m from one” I said as I readjusted in my saddle.
She laughed as she gently picked up the reins to guide her horse left, mine following closely as we continued at a slow and unhurried pace.
“But what’s brought you all the way to Australia? And to an outback cattle station nonetheless? Chicago sounds a lot more exciting than this.”
“Well I’ve been traveling, and decided when I got to Australia that I didn’t want to leave so soon, so I moved to Sydney. But life in the outback intrigued me, and I wanted a taste of it myself.”
“What’s so intriguing?” she asked.
“The relative discomfort, the necessary focus on each task at hand, the work required to merely exist out here. I suppose I’m looking for novelty, something completely different to the world I’m from, something closer to the dirt, and animals, and I guess, myself.”
“Well, you’re definitely getting closer to the dirt out here” she said with a grin.
“But I understand, because I guess I feel that same way about the rest of the world. I’ve been here my whole life, aside from the short trips I’ve taken to Brisbane and Sydney. I’ve never really gotten a taste of something else” she said as she wiped her brow and pulled her hat lower onto her head.
“My life has been horses and cattle ranches and rural Queensland. I dream of places like New York and London and Singapore. I’m a country girl, but sometimes I feel that I’ll never know another side of myself unless I leave.”
We both went quiet for a few moments as a breeze swept through, cooling us as we let these thoughts resonate.
“Let’s stop for a drink just over there” she said as she led us into a small area of woodland.
She hopped off her horse and tied him to a tree. I jumped down and did the same as we perched ourselves on a log and I drank hastily from my canteen, letting the water rush down my throat until I had to take a breath.
“Well, can you?” I asked.
“Can I what?” she replied.
“Leave, travel” I said.
“I hope so, one day. I’m trying to save money and my folks still expect me to be there to help out with the farm. But I’m hoping the right moment will present itself, and then I’ll go.”
I looked over at the horses happily grazing on the grasses at the base of the tree, and as I took a bite of my granola bar, sweating, hair matted to my face and my filthy, oversized trousers now partially wet from the water that had dripped from the canteen, I thought, life is funny, and I couldn’t help smiling as this notion bounced around in my head.
“Go on then, what is it?” she said.
“It’s just interesting how I’m all the way over here 10,000 miles from everything I know, envious of your exotic lifestyle and how you spend your days, and maybe you’re sitting over there thinking the same about mine.”
She paused for a moment, and then laughed at the thought, nodding her head in agreement that it was indeed a strange contrast.
“You ever met a Redback?” Mia said.
“The spider?” I asked.
“No. Not close up” I said.
“Well then you’re in luck — come take a look at this beauty.”
A few paces further into the woodland was an old safety cone hidden amongst the dried shrubs. Now a dull orange, it perched next to the trunk of a large tree. Mia slowly tilted it over on its side as we peered inside the conical nest, crouching down to see the web near the bottom of the cone.
“You see her?” she asked.
There it was, the bulbous black body with long spindly legs and menacing red stripe painted on its back.
“Geez — you’re a little bit close for comfort. You’re kneeling right next to it. Couldn’t it move pretty quick and bite your leg if it wanted?” I asked.
“Well yea, I s’pose it could. We’ll just have to hope she isn’t in a nasty mood today” she said.
“Aren’t Redbacks one of the deadliest critters in the country? They kill people don’t they?” I asked.
“Yea they can do some real damage. You definitely don’t want to find out. Would ruin your afternoon that’s for sure” she said laughing.
I gave the spider one more look and stepped away as Mia lowered her head closer to it.
“What’s the safety cone for anyways?” I asked.
“I don’t know, it’s been here for ages, and once we found out the old girl was making a home in it we let it be. Don’t wanna go evicting her now do we?” Mia said as she placed the cone right side up again and walked back towards the horses.
We hopped back on the saddles and settled into a slow saunter as the minutes passed silently.
“Awfully quiet there Chicago, what’s on your mind?” she asked.
“Just thinking about how fearless people in the outback seem to be about things. Like death doesn’t scare you or something.”
Mia was quiet for a moment and turned back towards me in her saddle.
“It’s not that we’re more fearless or brave or something, I think we just realise that death is a natural part of life, ya know? It happens every single day around here. We’re close to it. And we don’t try to sanitise it. It just is what it is” she said.
“The other day I took a group of city folk around the ranch, just like this on saddleback, and we came across a kangaroo carcass on the trail, still fresh enough that it looked like it might jump up and hop right past us. As we approached, they all screamed. I turned around and asked if everything was ok. I thought one of them had fallen off the saddle, but no, their shock was in seeing a dead animal. I couldn’t understand it. They all went on about how sad it was, and poor kangaroo this and poor kangaroo that. It’s as if they’d never seen anything dead before. I went on about how it’s not sad when you think that this body might provide food for another animal, or that maybe it’s the natural world’s way of controlling the population, but they just looked appalled.”
“It’s nature. It’s not sad. It just is” she said.
I thought about how I might react coming across a dead kangaroo on the trail. And though I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have shrieked, I do think I would have reacted with a slight pang of sadness, which made me feel foolish.
“I understand that if it’s not something you have to confront everyday then it’s easy to pretend like it doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t happen to us all, human or animal, but out here we don’t have that luxury. Death is a part of life here. It happens and we move on” she said.
Knowing the truth in what she was saying, I wondered in what other ways growing up in a city had softened me. I desperately wanted to sharpen some of those smoothed edges, dust off the disinfected layer of comfort and see things from a different angle. I suppose it was exposure I wanted most; to different thoughts, different lives, different ways. I felt happy in that saddle, closer to the marrow than I had in a long time, or maybe ever.
“I’m glad to be here” I said, feeling that the sentiment should be expressed out in the open air.
“Stoked to hear that Chicago, and I’m glad to have you here” she said as we picked up pace into a trot.
“I guess there’s no one right way to see things is there? And there’s certainly no perfect place. Not here, not Chicago, not Timbuktu. You’re appreciating things here because it’s in direct contrast to where you’ve come from, but you’ll use it to add more depth to what you’ve already learned from your own world” she said.
“Yea, absolutely. I suppose that’s it — just taking bits of each experience that resonate within us to cobble together a deeper, more textured lens from which we view the world.”
“I really like that” Mia said.
“Nothing like sorting out life truths during a casual afternoon ride eh?” she said.
“Yea, I should ride horses more often” I said with a smile.
We spent most of the long ride back to the main house in a relaxed saunter, but knowing sunset would soon arrive we picked up the pace and made it back to the stables while the sun was still casting long shadows on the ground.
“The other girls must have taken their bikes up the hill for sundown already, come on let’s get moving” she said as we ran towards the paddock to pick up two of the motorbikes. We revved the engines and sped up the dirt track back along the livestock fence and up into the open field where the sun was slowly making its way down toward the tops of the hills.
We walked over to the group, everyone silent and smiling, cross-legged on the grass in their muddied boots and trousers as they watched the sky change colours. Mia and I sat down next to them. Minutes passed as the air got cooler and the sky got darker.
Casey shuffled a bit in her seat and said with an even-tempered sigh “I don’t ever want to leave here, surely this is as good as it gets.”
Mia and I glanced at each other with a knowing smile as the clouds turned a deep shade of purple and the fire red sun disappeared from view. There was just enough light left for us to make it back to the house safely, but none of us seemed concerned enough to want to move. Instead, we sat there quietly as the darkness enveloped us, our faces turned up at the sky and the faint sound of howling animals our only immediate thought. We’d make it back somehow.
I’m not sure what I love most about the desert; the warm days spent scrambling over golden hills or the cool evenings spent gazing at the starry skies or the hot dry air that makes the skin tingle and burn anew or the way the sand sounds like thousands of tiny whispers as it blows across the dunes and erases all trace of life, or how, in the dusty wilds of the Middle East, you’re as likely to come away smelling of shisha and spices as you are of woodfire, and that same thick layer of red earth that dirties the body also cleanses the soul.
Salvaged 19th century sketches stacked atop dusty anthologies, antiquarian journals, philosophy, medicine, geography, history. One doesn’t so much browse as stumble; into the bygone, the foregone, the lost and unremembered. Rare leather bindings with sturdy spines and hand sewn silk endbands simultaneously holding together pages of the already familiar, and the as yet undiscovered.
There are moments in life that acutely remind one of their mortal transiency, and while a feeling of youth and vibrancy might be reigning vigorously on the inside, externally one is, matter-of-factly, decaying.
The funny thing about finding your second grey hair in a bathroom at 35,000 feet is realising you’re now actively in the process of dying and you can’t even make a scene about it.
Grey, formerly quite an agreeable colour; the perfect Winter wardrobe palette, the pigment of the majestic elephant, the perpetual shade of an English sky, and now a menacing symbol of my fading youth and imminent death. My previous enjoyment of the colour grey has now reached its swift and acrimonious end.
Standing there prominently at the front of my head just where the landmass of hair begins, my second grey is acting as some sort of filamentous lighthouse, only instead of courteously guiding me to safety, it’s blinding me with its ‘thereness’ as I crash up against the rocks, seawater rushing in from all sides as I choke up mouthfuls of my own salty vanity.
Finding one’s first grey hair is novelty. Like bird poop on a shoulder. It’s random, a fluke, good luck perhaps. Afterall, one isn’t evidence of anything. It’s just one. Inconsequential. Even fun. It’s not a sign of one’s ageing, but of one’s maturity.
Two is an entirely different matter.
Two is a priority telegram typed in all caps and hand-delivered by reality to inform me that I am now fully engaged in the ageing process, to communicate that which one grey hair does not: that my position on the pendulum of life is now firmly in the downswing.
If finding one grey hair was a fun paintball shot to the left bum cheek, finding two is a much more unpleasant battle axe straight through one’s steadily overripening skull.