20 November, 2020
This is the fifth and final column in an ongoing fiction series about the creative process. You can read the fourth column, Hemlock Forest, here.
After I turned off the bascule bridge, the road opened onto three straight lanes. The traffic thinned and I crept up through eighty, a hundred, moved into sixth and settled at a hundred and ten. I shook off the echo of sleep, turned up the stereo. In another lifetime, I wrote a book about driving and the aesthetics of the freeway, about car music and the allure of the road. Now, the music drowned out the hypnotic purr of the engine and the rhythmic vibration of a thirteen thousand kilo hunk of metal moving at speed. I passed a service station, the familiar paradise green winking against the sky. It was the colour of oil slicks and melted ice. Sometime, somewhere, I’d seen news footage of Deepwater Horizon, rust sludge choking the gulf, but I was still driving. A semitrailer emerged up ahead and I eased down on the accelerator, switching on the blinker and pulling out to pass it at a speed that meant death on impact, if anything were to happen. Hub caps spinning. I gripped the wheel as the needle inched east. No impact and I pulled back to the left as the truck grew smaller in the rear-view mirror, disappearing into the paddocks whistling with pale listless grass.
I took an exit ramp, turned to the right, and wound through a seaside village with rows of fibro cottages huddled together. I stopped the car behind a line of weathered sleepers, crossed the bluff and scrambled down to the beach. It was overcast, the sky savage and low. Squally winds chopped at the cliffs and whirled in my ears, blowing my hair out as I picked my way over the rocks, dodging the spray that flew up each time the waves rushed toward shore.
The place felt deserted but as I stepped onto the sand, I saw a woman standing in the waves. She was wearing a wetsuit, her hair curled with salt although she was only knee deep. The water broke around her body as she walked further into the surf. I almost called out. The sea was surely too rough for swimming and there were no surfers beyond the break, but as the swell surged around her chest, she lifted her arms above the foam and, in the space between two waves, dropped out of sight.
The view changed. Looking back I saw another woman standing where the dunes bloomed with coarse coastal grass and tiny mauve flowers. A ridge of shaking ironbark.
I drove inland to where the mountains began to rise into the clouds and pulled in at a small guesthouse. Rooms were available. There was no one visiting the village, the receptionist said, due to the weather. It had been like this for months, too broody and unpredictable for people to want to do the kinds of activities the area had to offer. She gave me some leaflets for bushwalks and kayaking and directed me to the main street. There was a second-hand bookshop there, she told me with some pride, that people travelled from all over to visit.
At the village pub, I fell into a conversation with a man wearing a thick hand-knitted jumper. He was sitting at the bar alone and when I complimented the jumper, he turned and smiled. In fact, he told me, he’d knitted it himself. His name was Stephan. He’d emigrated from what was now Croatia almost thirty years ago and had resettled in this village because it was so different from the place he’d been born. Rijeka, he said, and seemed surprised to hear that I’d been there, not many people he met had, it wasn’t a popular destination. I said I’d been there to speak on a panel and to interview a woman who’d reimagined Bach’s cello suites and he nodded. His mother played the cello when he was a child, the sound bouncing around their tiny apartment. He was nearly fifty now, he said: when I left I was a young man. When I think of her, I think of the sound of her cello. He lifted his glass, half full of amber beer, to his lips. Perhaps I am dreaming, he said, it’s this way only in memory.
My own memories had the same failing.
I drove higher into the mountains on a thin road cut into the slope. The exposed face was slick with water and, every so often, the road was littered with rocks that had broken free and tumbled down the drop. On the other side, the drop was densely wooded. I wanted to learn to recognise trees and to call them by their botanical names but when I tried my mind became fuzzy and dark. I shifted down into second, climbed slowly, the tyres gripping at each bend. I had the window open to stop the windscreen fogging in the mist and the air smelled like eucalyptus and fig, wet leaf and wood and dirt.
At the top of the mountain the thick forest gave way to green pastures and the road undulated like a long black line through patches of breathing emerald. The sky opened and a shaft of sunlight broke through the cloud, shattering into a cluster of pale rays. The starling came out of nowhere. It flew straight into the windscreen and tumbled onto the road. I stopped the car. The bird’s wing was broken and its soft belly might have been punctured, its breath was coming out in rapid gasps, wheezing with a strange, strangled sound. I could see the windbreak between two paddocks tremble. Cradling the bird, I put my fingers around its thin, bony neck, feeling the tiny interconnected bones under its papery skin. I covered the bird’s face and twisted its throat with a short, hard crack. The wind buffeted the clouds, sending trails through the air. The starling’s heart stopped beating.
Breathe. Exhale. Breathe again. Exhale, long and deep.
Your body is filled with warm, healing light.
Close your eyes softly.