The chill embrace of water was invasive. A pond stretching out in smooth monotone reflected only the dead black trees, clutching and distorting like lost souls grasping for salvation. In places a mist danced, swirls of vapour disappearing and re-emerging within the blink of an eye; drifting towards the pond’s banks and adding burden to the dense brambles and thickets of weed. Here, a lonely black crow occasionally paced, agitating water from the undergrowth and sending it downwards to disturb the silvery veneer. The grass sweeping up to where he stood was sopping, congested with dewdrops longing to be transformed into jewels by an absent sun. And into this reservoir one more droplet formed, trickling down his scarred cheek and stolen by the air.
The mist on that day one year ago was somehow more startling. It hovered fleetingly down in the small gully at the back of his plot, barely distinguishable in the first light, twisting through the remaining tree ferns like some ghostly serpent of the dreamtime. He was always up at this hour, surveying the daybreak from the back of his veranda, but not once could he recall mist down there at this time of year. He found the pre-dawn a beautiful, peaceful period, becalmed before the summer sun gathered in ferocity and the winds became energised. It was his time, a secret hour of solace before the industry of human activity discovered the world again and disrupted its placidity.
The first sounds, apart from those of the creaking deck upon which he paced, came from the birds. Usually a lone wattlebird set everything off, calling to its mate and waiting – sometimes forlornly – for a distant reply. Without a response its cry would intensify towards panic, only subdued when an echo rebounded from somewhere amongst the trees lining the road. As the black of night faded indigo and navy blue, the kookaburras stirred; first a guttural warm-up from the lead voice, like that of a car’s ignition struggling to get going on the first attempt. Upon finally starting this lone cackle would act as an alarm call for the others to burst into a cacophony. This seemed to peeve the sulphur-crested cockatoos, shrieking in retort to being rudely awaken. The shrill flits of galahs and rosellas followed, while the currawongs and magpies struggled to be heard in the melee. By time the first red rays of sun glowed upon the upper reaches of the big cabbage gum to his right, an uninterrupted wall of sound flowed through the air and the world was awake again.
A wall of sound greeted him now, walking up Highgate Hill, though little of it emanated from anything other than what man had done. Red double deckers played tag, rumbling up the hill from Archway and swapping places at alternate stops. Occasionally a black cab spirited its way towards the city and fluoro cyclists diced with death on a mad downhill descent. But mostly there were Range Rovers and Landcruisers and a variety of precision-made German-engineered supersized cars perfectly suitable for the rough terrain of north London. Inside, almost unequivocally, a well-groomed mother was returning from the school run, bedecked in a smart-fitting pastel blazer and adorned with large sunglasses.
Overhead, a few pigeons scattered in the skies, continually eclipsed by the roar of jets ascending from Heathrow, veering left as they rose on a repetitive north-easterly track. Many destined to escape the chill. It was perhaps only around four degrees – already incrementally warmer than overnight – but the cold was bitter enough to cause him to be jolted by the heat encased within Sam’s Cafe as he opened the door.
It was only ten in the morning when he had been hit like this last year. Protected by the settler’s schizophrenic garden of apple tree and acacia, fuchsia and grevillea, his blue weatherboard home escaped the worst excesses of summer. Unlatching the back door and opening out its fly screen onto the veranda, he was immediately confronted by a burst of heat; like that of an airplane door closed at Aberdeen and opened again at Alicante. Over the creek he could see his neighbour’s Friesians clustered under the shade of a eucalypt. Their complaining bellows had replaced the melodies of dawn long since passed, with only the intermittent clucking of his chooks competing for attention. As he made his way across to their pen to collect the morning’s yield, a waft of wind stirred in the cabbage gum. This was replicated a minute later by the trees upon the ridge, whipped up in greater fury for ten seconds before dying completely. Gathering up just two eggs – fewer than normal – his throat had dried and any relief from his own saliva was fleeting.
On days like this there was little he could do. Tending to the chooks, clearing the yard of clutter, and undertaking perfunctory checks on the water tank, roof and gutters was about the sum of it. There was nothing for it other than to close all the blinds, reach for the fridge, crack open a beer, and wait for the day to pass. The beer was the medicinal part. The contours of the glass, coated in icy beads of water, were balsam to his ruddy hands. In one fluid gesture he passed the bottle across his forehead, twisted off the cap to release a short, sweet spurt of gas, and brought the rim up to his lips for an indulgent gulp.
Soothed and mellowed, he reached up to the shelf and flicked on the radio, before settling down in a wooden chair that had seen better days. Set to the ABC – as it had been for umpteen years – a young bloke was talking about his experimentations in crop diversification. Several varieties of something called keynwah, he thought they had said. Apparently, he got some of this keynwah sent over from South America and one of its party was delivering promise here in Gippsland. There was good money in it, apparently, and as the talk meandered into yield per hectare, cost inputs and market pricing, he found his eyelids dropping and head becoming heavy, dragged down by a tonne of exotic wholegrain…
…a young Peter Hollingsworth was walking alongside the Thames once again. The brown river was languid, a juxtaposition to the barges and cruisers bustling up and downstream with purpose. It was sunny, though crisp, with a gusty easterly wind whipping under the railway bridges and backstreet arches of Bankside. Next he saw a pint of chocolaty brown ale in front of him, topped off with creamy white foam. It was called something like Black Boar, and was a fine sight to behold. But more striking, more achingly beautiful, more lustfully alluring was the vision of Emily Coniston, animated across the table in delivering a rebuttal to some dandy twerp who dared to suggest she should stick to becoming a housewife and mother. Making out her argument was tough – the crackle of the open fire incessant – but you could tell she was having the better of things, and looked all the finer for it.
The crackling intensified, and slowly the image blurred and vanished. The talk of keynwah had ceased and the radio had lost signal altogether. Slowly rising, Peter switched it off, and went back out to the veranda to check up on what the world was doing. By now, the midday sun was searing and he lingered sparingly in it. Everything was eerily still and quiet. The cows had gone, probably offered refuge in one of the big tin sheds up on the hill. Even the cicadas were subdued, no doubt wallowing amongst the more succulent clumps of grass and weed next to the boundary fence. The chooks were silent too, but faring okay as he ambled down to their pen with extra water. Inside the small shed attached to their run, he noticed four hens snoozing away in the shade, as if the heat was today’s excuse for a typically elongated siesta.
Turning back to the house was when he first noticed a narrow plume of smoke, rising vertically many kilometres distant, up somewhere in the ranges west of Buchan. This was nothing new, the whole country up there so rugged and devoid of human habitation that fires could burn away for months on end. Twelve years previously he remembered it coming down from the mountains and torching a few sheds and accounting for six cattle and a cat in one of the scattered settlements in the valley. The fire had ravaged an area the size of Belgium, but its damage was mostly temporary, the bush regenerating, as it does, to take on its latest iteration. Even the old couple who lost their cat easily got a new one from the dozens offered by well-meaning do-gooders.
Heading to the back door he looked once more at the smoke, but did not see that of a bushfire simultaneously destroying and rejuvenating a tangled patch of far off high country; instead it was that rising from Battersea Power Station to his west, adding another smoky texture to the otherwise blanket grey sky. Emily was gliding on the ice, reaching out for his hand and guiding him with both a tenderness and passion that was as much about a journey into his heart as it was a helping hand to an Australian unaccustomed to such wintry escapades. His tentativeness and clumsiness eased, so much so that he could finally avert his gaze up from his feet and dwell longer in that carefree smile and the large, brown eyes brimming with life. Only when those eyes reached into his did he stutter once more, crashing to the ground accompanied by the sounds of unbridled, joyous laughter.
A small gust of wind rattled through the cabbage gum, and briefly diverted his attention back to the present. But his mind was now deeply focused on the past. It may have been nearing forty degrees in a rural homestead in the middle of not much at all, but Peter was now transfixed on one magical winter many years ago in a huge, sprawling city on the other side of the world. Retreating inside, he sought out one of those shoeboxes that contain life’s memories. It was buried in a bigger box under souvenir stubby holders and a dream catcher and several bits of key chain and magazines about photography and newspaper pullouts about walking trails and places in South America and recipes for Malaysian curries. Inside, the smell was of an old bookshop in Melbourne, as letters and postcards, photos and train tickets, spilled out onto the kitchen table.
The afternoon passed in a blur of words and images. Three cherished letters, two photo booth pictures, a program from the Old Vic, and a return train ticket from Waterloo to Winchester were the only physical representations Peter retained of his time with Emily Coniston. He read and re-read every sentence in the letters; the first was full of sparkle and suggestion, of hopes and dreams of a life to come. The second, composed a few years later, was more formal, though he detected an occasional playfulness in between lines of her impending marriage to Will Barlow. The third was more recent – sent upon the turn of the millennium – in which fondness for their collective past was painted in such a vividly romantic hue that it was impossible not to rue what might have been.
The train tickets did little justice in capturing the memories of that day. It was a sunny Sunday in early February. The train carriage had been stationed at Waterloo overnight and so, first thing, it was like entering a cold store full of legs of ham hanging from the ceiling. Things warmed a touch as the sun penetrated the carriage, and the white frost-capped roofs of the suburbs slowly began to drip as they passed by. In Winchester, the lawns in front of the cathedral were pocketed white and dewy green, the harsh frostiness lingering where the spire had shadowed the sun. Walking together alongside the old stone walls of the college, they joined arms, offering internal warmth more than sufficient to counter that of the ice layered across the waterway to their right. Warmer still, the hot chocolate shared in a cafe beside the bridge, and the contentedness of being in that place at that time with that person.
A sudden and strong gust rattled the house, causing the shoebox to drop to the floor much in the same way as past memories rapidly evaporated back to the present. For the first time that day, Peter felt a shiver, as if he had been briefly relocated through space and time into that railway carriage on the platform of Waterloo station. The wind whistled again, becoming more persistent and sustained. He could hear the leaves in the gum tree in perpetual motion, the sound as if it were that of a waterfall plunging over the rim of a sandstone cliff. The noises were troublesome, the shrieks and hollers of spirits risen up from the earth, come down from the mountains, and returning from the past.
Outside the situation transformed rapidly, but somehow – and it is hard for him to describe – the next hour passed to Peter in slow motion, in discrete and deliberative moments of time, stitched together like acts from Richard III; a past winter of content soothing what was now becoming a summer of alarm. Before too long, embers began appearing from the west, blazing leaves of eucalyptus oil floating on the sky and whirling downwards to rain on the front porch. Like the snowflakes floating onto their faces atop Parliament Hill. Each one extinguished before it took hold, as if coming into contact with a rosy cheek reddened all the more with wine. Peter glided calm and assured, as if he had finally perfected the art of ice skating, only on the grass and thistle and weed of the Australian bush. His skates from R.M. Williams and his support, his companionship coming this time from the hosepipe gripped in his hands.
A couple of kilometres out, a wall of flame was now visible upon a ridgeline. Trees in the near distance were touched by the smallest ember and immediately ignited into a fiery vaporous mass. Cockatoos shrieked and fled, their usual brilliance dulled by the smoky air. A kangaroo, eyes panicked and bewildered, clattered into the fence by the road at full force. The cows up in the shed wailed in a desperate high-pitched tone that was marginally more terrifying than that of the wind, or the shriek of the Bakerloo line train coming into the curved platform at Paddington. In an inevitability that was only a matter of time, the cabbage gum caught and Peter found that he was being overwhelmed.
Emily was with him again, grasping the hand that had dropped the hose in panic, and leading him away. Cloaking him in the February of London, guiding him down to the ponds on the Heath. Pausing only to unlatch the chook’s pen, and hearing the birds follow in terror as they fled down the hill. Stripping off in a fit of bravado and alcohol-induced daring to plunge into the icy cold waters of the pond. Laying there in the shallow waters of the creek and being kissed once more, treasuring the feel of her cold, smooth skin upon his. Together in the freezing water as the flames licked overhead, as if in the dead heart of the fire in the pub. Passing through the inferno of hell in the recollection of a heaven. And shedding a tear of happiness into the creek that would eventually run into the sea and cross oceans and find its way back to that pond one year later.