Forty-five degrees, that’s what they’re forecasting for today. There’s a total fire ban and Maggie has left her kennel and retreated indoors. I’m freezing bottles of water so I can wrap them in towels and slip them into bed tonight. The curtains are drawn, the blinds are closed and the evaporative air cooler is struggling to cope. It might bring the temperature down a few degrees but only if I leave the doors and windows open so the air can circulate. That seems like madness on a day like today. Open windows are a sure invitation for blowflies – hateful creatures that settle in ugly clusters on furniture and countertops. At least we’ve still got power. A main transformer blew yesterday and half the town was cut off for five hours.
The sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour are twelve hundred kilometres away from this dusty outback town. It’s a place of regular dust storms; plagues of mice and crickets; hordes of red-back spiders, snakes, moths, locusts, cockroaches and small black beetle things no one seems able to identify. It’s also a place of sunsets that take your breath away, until the next morning when you realise sunset was simply the prelude.
Heritage-listed buildings of majestic beauty tower over crumbling miners’ cottages, modern bungalows stand next to ancient shacks seemingly built entirely out of scrap metal. The road I live on dribbles to a stop when it reaches the edge of town, as if the original road gang simply lost interest, turned around and gave up, leaving the desert to reclaim its territory. Sharp sand nibbles at broken bitumen. Pavements are optional.
It’s an odd place for a middle-aged English woman to live, a vegetarian with a lifetime of failed relationships behind her, but life has a strange way of sending you in the right direction when you finally stop fighting the tide. When I gave up on love and concentrated on like, this is where it led me.
I dreaded the thought of living in such an isolated place. How would I fill my time? Who would I socialise with? It was only when I let go of my preconceived ideas and prejudices that I learnt to appreciate life in such a remote spot. This town didn’t expect me to be smart or funny or engaging, it simply accepted me. The welcome was unconditional, friends easy to find and the sense of community tangible. It was like stepping back in time, to an age when shops shut for the weekend by Saturday lunchtime, when jars of homemade jam appear unexpectedly on your doorstep and kindly neighbours offer to put out your bins.
Saturday nights no longer involve tickets to Sydney Theatre Company or expensive restaurants in Balmain. We throw camping chairs into the car, pack an esky with steak and eggs and drive out to an empty creek bed, where fallen branches from the Coolabah tree form the basis of a roaring campfire. When the fire dies down, we settle a battered frying pan onto a bed of glowing charcoal and brew a billy for tea. Some nights there can be a dozen of us out there, surrounded by silence and empty space, the roof of our theatre a million stars, the walls a line of majestic trees.
Love turned up too, much to my surprise. There was no spectacular electrical storm, no bolt of lightning or clap of thunder. Love simply stood beside me and waited, with infinite patience, for me to notice it was there. Having spent years chasing the wrong men, pursuing a romantic notion of love based on fairytales and fiction, when the right man turned up I was convinced he couldn’t possibly be the man of my dreams. He wasn’t. (And boy am I lucky he wasn’t, the man of my dreams would have made a rubbish partner!) Sometimes it’s hard to recognise the value of a real man until it’s almost too late.
I’ve found a level of contentment I didn’t know existed and I’ve never been happier.
Five years ago it was a different story.
Framley Coddrington is a picturesque English village. Church bells ring on Sunday mornings, the Live and Let Live pub serves award-winning real ale and the fields are full of dairy cows. In autumn, blackberries ripe for the picking cluster in ragged hedgerows.
The cottage I lived in had climbing roses in the back garden, productive fruit trees and a flourishing vegetable patch. I had a well-paid job, several close friends, five adorable nieces and nephews, three loving sisters, two caring brothers-in-law, one kindly partner-in-law and dear old Dad in the next village along. I was also, to put it mildly, throat-chokingly miserable. There was no partridge in my pear tree and there hadn’t been for many, many years.
I was the odd one out in the family when it came to relationships. My parents got engaged within three weeks of meeting each other and they’d enjoyed a long, happy, stable marriage. My three sisters – Wendy, Elizabeth and Rachel – all married their childhood sweethearts, men they’d met when they were still at school, and they’d raised happy, well-adjusted children.
Rachel’s marriage to her first (and I suspect only) boyfriend may have ended in divorce but she was on good terms with him and happily resettled with a stable, long-term, committed partner. Relationships seemed to happen naturally and easily, for other people that is. If I’m perfectly honest, they also seemed a tad boring. Where was the passion? Where was the romance? I was holding out for perfection, which probably explained why I was still single (the only person who seemed surprised about that fact was me). I lived alone, I had no children and no pets (not since the demise of the last cat) and the longest proper relationship I’d ever had was way back in 1984. It had lasted less than two years. There had been a series of short-term flings and even two short-lived engagements, embarked upon not because I was in love but because I wanted to fit in and get married like most of my peers. On both occasions I broke the engagements off, causing untold hurt and confusion. I was terrified of commitment and utterly confused by love.
As a gullible young child, curled up in a corner of the local library on wet Saturday afternoons, I consumed an endless diet of fairytales. I gulped down a succession of stories in The Red Fairy Story Book, The Blue Fairy Story Book, as well as the yellow, pink, green and all colours in-between books. I believed the world was a magical place, full of knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, beautiful princesses and handsome princes ready to ride to the rescue.
A combination of burning curiosity, crippling shyness and hopeless naivety was always destined to get me into trouble. At twelve I was old enough to catch a bus to visit a friend in the next village but too shy to speak to the man sitting next to me. ‘I’m getting off at the next stop, could I please reach across you and ring the bell?’ The words stuck in my throat and I missed my stop. I missed several stops. In fact, rather than speak to the man or stand up to encourage him to move, I stayed on the bus until he finally got up and hopped off, forcing me to walk five miles home in the dark.
At fifteen I attended a local youth club and met sixteen-year-old Sandra, whose brash self-confidence seemed the perfect antidote to my blushing shyness.
‘My parents force me to stay in at night so I pretend to go to sleep then I climb out the bedroom window,’ she boasted. What she did after she had climbed through the window wasn’t clear, but it sounded like a great adventure.
‘Can I come too?’ I asked.
So I followed her through the village one night to a house where two men were waiting upstairs. I was mutely compliant in what followed and washed off the shame when I got home. I told no one and never saw Sandra again.
I moved on to romantic fiction – Georgette Heyer, Catherine Cookson, Daphne du Maurier. In these books the only thing that mattered was meeting the man of your dreams, and the destiny of star-crossed lovers was hampered by cruel fate in the form of wicked stepmothers, scheming employers, shipwrecks, thunder, lightning, fire and flood. No matter what the obstacle, the ending was always the same – lovers who fell into each other’s arms and lived happily ever after.
The world of romantic fiction offered an escape from the shameful secret that I carried inside like a petri dish full of spores, multiplying in the dark. Secrets don’t like company. A secret forces you to keep to yourself, even in the midst of a happy family, so I withdrew from my sisters and left them to the sweet innocence of first boyfriends; I needed something more ambitious to erase the memory of that false start.
One hot Saturday afternoon at the end of June, several months short of my sixteenth birthday, with the exams over and the school holidays stretching ahead of us, I went to my friend Anne’s house for tea. Her music promoter dad introduced us to Stavros, a short chunky musician in his late twenties who was booked to play the summer season on the island of Guernsey. Stavros handed me a cup of tea and smiled at me. Whoosh. I fell off a cliff I hadn’t even known was there. Our eyes met, the teacup rattled and I was his, whether he wanted me or not. Here was the romantic love I’d read about, the absolution I craved to erase the guilty memory of grubby sex with a stranger in a back bedroom.
The foreignness of Stavros reminded me of the swashbuckling heroes I’d read about. Here was my dashing, handsome prince. I didn’t think beyond the desire to be with him, to fall into his outstretched arms and be swept off my feet. I found out where Stavros lived and wrote to him, emboldened beyond measure by this new feeling. ‘I’m planning a week’s holiday in Guernsey,’ I lied. ‘Could I visit you?’ I added my phone number at the end of the letter. A few days later he rang. ‘When you come over?’
I told my unsuspecting parents that I’d been invited to stay with Rebecca, a school friend, and her aunt in Somerset during the school holidays.
‘How lovely, I’ll write to Mrs Jackson and thank her.’
‘Shall I post it for you, Mum?’
I walked up to the local post office and threw the letter in the bin, suffering a stab of conscience that wasn’t strong enough to make me come clean.
The money I’d earned working weekends on the bacon counter in the local Tesco supermarket was enough for a bus from Bristol to Weymouth, then a ferry from Weymouth to Guernsey. ‘I’ve booked a bus to visit Rebecca, will you be able to drop me off at the station please, Dad?’
On the day of departure my skittish teenage nerves were cloaked in flared jeans that featured a lampshade fringe sewn on the hem, a simple white t-shirt and a yellow jacket casually tossed over my shoulder. Dad dropped me at the station as requested.
‘Say hello to Rebecca from us. Have a good holiday, love. See you in a week.’
I watched his familiar Ford Cortina pull away with an unexpected lump in my throat then I picked up my bag and presented myself at the ticket office.
‘You’re too late,’ said the man in the ticket booth, glancing up at the clock. ‘You’ve missed the ten thirty. Be another three hours before the next bus to Weymouth.’ He went back to the paper he’d been reading.
It took a moment for his words to sink in. If I waited three hours for the next bus I would miss the ferry from Weymouth to Guernsey.
‘You could get a bus to Bath, maybe pick up a train from there,’ he added, turning the page.
‘One-way ticket to Bath please.’
I arrived in Bath four minutes after the train to Weymouth left. At that point I wavered, tearfully wondering if I should give up, go home and admit the lie. I pictured my kindly parents’ shocked faces as they listened to the story, imagined their incredulity slowly giving way to anger and disappointment as the depth of my deception unfolded and I knew I couldn’t do it. I walked to the road in front of the station and stuck out my thumb.
The first driver to offer me a lift was an elderly woman who had to be reassured that, yes, my parents knew exactly where I was and, no, she didn’t need to call them. I fretted when the lorry driver who picked me up next had a dirty cab; I didn’t want oil staining my treasured yellow jacket. The third lift was from a middle-aged salesman driving a Ford Cortina. Surely I would be safe with him?
We drove through open countryside. On the last stretch of motorway before Weymouth he offered me a cigarette.
‘No thank you, I don’t smoke,’ I lied.
He put a cigarette to his lips and there was an awkward fumble with a box of matches that somehow dropped into his lap. I glanced across to see sweat marks spreading from under his arms.
‘Would you like to stop for a bit? Get out and stretch your legs?’ he asked, fumbling with some intensity between his legs for the fallen matches that were proving difficult to pick up.
I stared straight ahead. ‘No thank you, I’m in a bit of a hurry,’ I said, primly. ‘I’ve got a ferry to catch.’
Guardian angels do exist. That sweaty travelling salesman kept driving and dropped me in Weymouth without another word.
I walked off the ferry in Guernsey to find Stavros waiting for me. He kissed my cheek – oh, what a sweet, romantic thing to do – and sent my heart swooping through the clouds, where it floated for the next seven days. During the day I would sit trancelike for hours, watching Stavros chain-smoke or strum the guitar, and at night I would accompany him to the venue and watch him perform, nodding sagely so any girls in the audience would realise he was taken. I even feigned a wince, as if I’d spotted a wrong note (this from someone who doesn’t have a musical bone in her body). It was a blissful week of sweet sex and gentle music and we were destined to be together, no question. When it was time to leave, Stavros put me on the ferry home and he kissed me again, this time far more passionately.
‘I love you,’ I whispered, my arms wrapped around his neck. ‘I am married,’ he whispered back. ‘But we still meet, yes?
Stay close to the wires of distant freedom,’ he added, cryptically. ‘I call you.’
I cried all the way home. Who could I tell? Not my parents, certainly, and not my older sister either, or she might have told my parents. And if Anne found out, she would have told her father and he might have called the police.
‘Hello, love. How was your holiday?’ Mum said when I got back.
‘It was good, thanks, but Rebecca wasn’t well. I think I caught the flu from her.’
I went to bed and stayed there all week, grieving for lost love. How could such powerful feelings be evoked then denied? Was I meant to just go back to school and forget him? Nothing I’d read had prepared me for such misery.
We met a couple more times, clandestinely of course, but I hated knowing that he went home to someone else afterwards. In the end I stopped seeing him. I kept the whole escapade to myself, confided in no one and took long, sobbing walks through the village before drying my eyes then going home to sulk in my bedroom, nursing another shameful secret that couldn’t be shared. I fanned the flames of my tragic existence by writing truly awful poetry.
After that, it was easy to lurch from one instant fix to another, throwing myself at men in a series of encounters that proved as unsatisfying as packet mash potato. In a desperate bid to recapture the bliss I’d lost and erase yet another painful memory I asked out my French teacher, my bank manager and my economics lecturer. The French teacher stood me up, the bank manager turned out to be a transvestite who wanted to wear my clothes and the economics lecturer had not one but two wives.
‘We live in the same house, everyone is happy with the arrangement,’ he said, leading me upstairs to the attic room of a student house that he owned. It was the middle of the day and he was armed with fish and chips and a bottle of vodka. ‘Of course, I’m only married to one of the women, but I think of them both as my wives,’ he added, taking off his trousers.
He must have assumed the tenants would be out. Moments later the attic door burst open and the startled face of a nice young man (with all his clothes on) appeared. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he asked.
‘Your landlord,’ said my lecturer, not bothering to reach for his trousers.
I even asked my doctor out one day. I was in my early twenties and he was a young registrar, filling in for a few weeks. He seemed like a nice young man, for once almost the right age for me, so I rang the surgery and asked to speak to him.
‘Are you allowed to see patients socially?’ I asked. ‘Because if you are maybe we could have dinner?’ I added, not waiting for a reply to the first question.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said quietly, ‘I’m afraid that’s not ethical.’
Two weeks later I was forced to go back and see him about a pimple under my arm that had developed into a festering boil. By the time I plucked up the courage to do something about it I was nursing a raging fever and the boil was the size of a lemon.
‘That looks angry,’ he said, as I lay on the examination table with my arm above my head.
‘I hope you’re not.’
He shook his head. ‘No hard feelings,’ he said, reaching for a scalpel.
‘I suppose this is divine retribution?’ I said, trying to make light of the situation.
‘I’m not divine,’ he replied.
I disagreed, oh how I disagreed, but somehow it didn’t seem the right time to tell him. We both focused our attention on my sweaty armpit and I watched pus drain from the boil he’d just lanced.
After a dwindling number of depressingly similar encounters in my twenties and early thirties I punished myself for all that meaningless sex and gave up on men altogether. I’d given up on a few jobs by then as well, from librarianship to event management and public relations. I was a quitter.
‘Give sorrow words’, isn’t that what Shakespeare once said? ‘The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.’ How true. I’d kept my feelings hidden for so long I couldn’t speak of anything that involved emotion without my throat constricting. An overflow of emotion, like a body of water pressing against the sides of a dam, would push at the back of my throat and tears would quickly follow. I could cry at the drop of a hat onstage; offstage I battened down the hatches, tightened the screws and let no one in. Intimacy was a foreign concept.
Five shrivelling years of celibacy followed and I aged into the original Miss Prissy Knickers, in sensible shoes, big pants and no make-up. Sex became a dirty word. My favourite word was no. Don’t, won’t, can’t, shan’t and mustn’t were all up there, but nothing beat the simplicity of no; the absoluteness of it; the sound of a door slammed in your face.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to start again, at the beginning of the alphabet.
Excerpted from Love in the Outback by Deb Hunt. Copyright © 2014 by Deb Hunt.
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