Should auld aquaintance be forgot

New Year’s Eve, 2009.

I remember a pretty country cottage sitting nestled in amongst tall gum trees, bushes and herbs.

To access it, you drove about 2 hours from Melbourne, into country that is increasingly greener and more undulating, although unfortunately on roads that are increasingly narrower, and more in a state of disrepair, until finally you are dodging cracks and huge potholes as you round the bends at 80kmph.

Finally, you turned right, off an asphalt road onto a loose gravel road, drove a slow, bumpy, dusty half kilometre or so along that track, and then turned in, where someone had to jump out and open a gate, and close it again, and jump back in, before you drove slowly down the long driveway, flanked on either side by the huge gum trees that were all over the property, the house still hidden from view until you were over the first few bumps.

I remember my brothers arrived separately, having taken a different route for the last part of the trip and approached the gate from the other direction. F. reversed his huge old circa 1980 Holden sedan (no power steering!) to park close to the house, and drove straight over a pot plant, smashing the terracotta pot.

I remember that I entered the house and immediately loved the cool, dark interior of the cottage, the deep warm brown of the wooden floorboards and the timber bench tops, the potbelly stove, and the cosy, homely furnishings.

I remember inspecting the second bathroom, complete with an old claw-foot bath that sat brazenly in full view of a window overlooking the garden, and the veranda encircling the entire house and facing straight out into bush that began only a few feet away, and thinking that this house was just perfect. Except for one thing, which is that in Australia, to be in a house that is literally only feet away from dense bush so dry it crackles when you walk through it, in the height of summer, is a slightly scary proposition, especially for city slickers. I don’t know why I mention that, since it’s of no significance in this memory, since there were no fires while we were there.

I remember that we played the Spics and Specs board game, and F. did a great rendition of the tune to Sweet Child of Mine, using text from some silly book to replace the lyrics. I remember just after sitting down for dinner, that I felt dizzy for no reason, and then felt fine again.

We were in that house for a week, and I remember that on New Year’s Eve, the five of us drove right down to the Promontory, into the National Park, to the point where you can’t take a car any further, ate our sandwiches in the camp ground, and then caught the bus to a lookout point we’d picked out of the tourist information back at the house, which described a scenic walk in that area. We jumped off the bus and took in the views from the lookout point. While some of us peered at the sparse tourist information supplied there and discussed whether to go for the walk which, we only now realised, was up the side of a mountain, my brother J. made his own decision, headed up the track and disappeared.

None of us could get coverage on our phones in this relatively remote area, so, as we were unable to call J, he basically made our decision for us. We started up the track, expecting we’d catch him at some point on the way, or at the top. There were no signposts anywhere, to indicate how long the walk up the mountain was, so we began optimistically, but our hopes didn’t take long to be diminished as the heat grew more intense, and large, biting “March” flies kept flying into our faces or landing on our shoulders, arms and legs, while there were no signs to give us any clues about how long the walk might take.

What the information we’d consulted had not explained was that the walk should have been categorised as “intermediate” at least – it was on a rough track up a steep mountain side, requiring hardy walking shoes and, on a day which was about 35 degrees, water supplies and sun protection! Not having planned such a hardy walk, most of us were wearing thongs, or Birkenstocks, on our feet, and we had half a bottle of water left between us. The day had been forecast to be in the high 20s but actually turned out to be in the low to mid 30s, quite a different proposition for taking  a mountainous bush walk.

I started to worry about the heat, and the lack of sunburn protection, on my daughter more so than myself, and contemplated that this unplanned mountain hike was probably quite foolhardy. It was not surprising when, after about 15 minutes of this, my 11-year-old daughter voiced her desire to stop a number of times. Her dad was all too happy to oblige, so they headed back down to wait at the bottom. My brother F and I persevered for maybe another half an hour, slowly trudging upwards, hoping each time we slowly rounded a bend, that we’d find ourselves close to the top, or find J. sitting and waiting for us at some half-way point. There were still no signposts anywhere, to indicate how far away you were from the top, and the winding track and dense bush made it impossible to see further ahead. We reached another designated look out point – but there was no sign of J.

At last, hot, bothered, and annoyed at not having any clue about how far we still had to go, we too gave up, and walked back down again.

At the bottom, all five of us sat in the afternoon heat, wondering how long it would take for J. to decide we weren’t coming, and then, to walk back down again. There was no tap to fill up water bottles, nothing but the ground to sit on, and barely even any shade. The bus back to the campground came only every 30 or 40 minutes or so, so as you can imagine, we desperately hoped he’d arrive before the next bus did.

It was not to be, so when the next bus arrived, my partner and daughter got on – at least back at the campground they could sit down, fill up their water bottle at a tap, locate a bathroom, find some shade, or buy an icypole at the kiosk. At this stage, all of those things sounded like heaven, but someone had to wait for J, so F and I continued to wait, and wait.

Now, you rarely ever got annoyed at J, because he was always very thoughtful, so it probably took until about this time for us to start directing any resentment towards him. Even then, we didn’t see his quick disappearance up the hill as an indication of thoughtlessness or disregard for us. We were more annoyed at the situation imposed by the lack of telecommunication signals in the area and the poor-to-non-existent signage for tourists that could have informed J. and ourselves about how long the walk upwards would take.

I don’t remember how long F and I waited. Maybe another bus came and went while we sat talking and waiting. What I remember is that we reached the end of our tether, and formulated a plan to scratch a message to J. in the gravel, to say that we had gone back to the camp ground, and after doing so, get on the next bus. We were reduced to employing the kind of desperate, pre-historic tactics one had to employ in the not-so-long ago days before mobile phones! Fortunately, there were so few other people coming and going by this point, that we were fairly confident our message would not be immediately walked through and rendered illegible.

I remember that I found a rock, and scratched out a message in the loose gravel: “J – got bus back to camp.”  Soon after, the bus arrived, as timetabled. Of course, just as it pulled in, J. emerged into view, sauntering down the mountain track towards us. If you are trying to picture this, you should probably imagine him smiling serenely, because that’s probably accurate. I also picture that he had an ever-present cigarette in his hand, but to be honest, I can’t really recall that detail so you can leave that out if you like.

The three of us boarded the bus – at least two of us gasping with relief – and travelled back to the campground, and from there, drove back to the holiday house. F. and I felt like sailors who had been stranded at sea for days, finally setting foot back on land.

That was a significant New Year’s Eve for many reasons, not least because the events of that day didn’t even end there, if you can believe it. A whole other story could be made from the remainder of the day but I’ll cut it short. I’m including this part to illustrate what an inauspicious start I had to that year.

After arriving home, I began to prepare dinner for ourselves and friends who were joining us to see in the New Year, but very suddenly –  and then very rapidly – began to feel more and more unwell. I finally ended up retiring from the party shortly after my guests arrived, and all I was able to do for the remainder of the evening was lie on the bed, with the room spinning and my stomach churning, until some time around 12.30am, when I violently threw up. After vomiting so violently, I immediately felt recovered. Of course, my guests had gone home long before, and all I had the strength to do at that point was to go back to bed.

What an ominous start to 2010.

Now, I’m not normally superstitious, but I remember wondering if that turbulent New Year’s Eve was a sign that 2010 was going to be an awful year.

As it turned out, it meant nothing, because 2010 passed without any major incident.  It was in 2011 that J died in his sleep one night. Yet I recall no omens occurring on that New Year’s Eve to suggest that 2011 would be a terrible year.  I can’t even tell you where I was at midnight when 2011 reared its head.

*

Those of us who have had someone we love die will forever have a distinct break in the timeline of our lives when we look back – there is the time before they died, and then there is the time after.

New Year’s Eve 2009 fell in my before time, so in my memory, the day has attained the rosy, soft-focus glow of an idyllic holiday, despite the less-than-ideal events of that day. Because of course, given the choice, I’d choose to be back there, stuck at that lookout point in the heat, waiting for J. to come down, or lying on the bed feeling violently ill, if someone could guarantee that those were the worst things that would ever happen.

 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. That was quite an adventure, of the sort that is better to look back on than to endure at the time. It must have been excruciating to wait for J to reappear and a huge relief when he did.

    Such memories stay with us forever and our feelings about them evolve as we do but they always form a part of the experiences that have contributed to making us what we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Thanks, as ever, for your comment Silver Tiger. As you say, it’s better as a story than it was to live through at the time. Overall it’s just part of the very fond memory I have of that week-long holiday, which I’m so grateful I invited my brothers (2 of them) on.

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      Reply
  2. What a heartbreaking ending, especially that line, “Those of us who have had someone we love die will forever have a distinct break in the timeline of our lives when we look back – there is the time before they died, and then there is the time after.”

    I can relate to that as can anyone whose lost someone, be it to death or another kind of separation.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • I wrote a plethora of posts about grief when my brother died & since then my thinking about all of life in general is affected by him being gone. I feel the need to reflect on that in a post every now & then. So I’m grateful you took the time to read & comment on one of those posts. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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