Coming Home

Old friendships and the way they settle into comfortable routines have such claims on us that we instinctively shun change, wilfully blind to unsettling new behaviour. Yet time passes and a parent dies, a child survives a major trauma, or someone spends twelve gruelling months fighting to keep a marriage together and we all change: re-adjustments often made so deep within us that they are not immediately apparent to the other.

Over the years new names had begun to drift into Sally and my increasingly irregular conversations until each one had become a stinging reminder of the distance between us: all my childhood friend's friends are now strangers to me. At times I thought of leaving the friendship behind, yet when I was away and dreamt of home it was always of the water lapping at the ferry's bow and the rhythmic droning of its engine as it made its way across the water to Sally's home.

Her land ran down to an old concrete jetty, a boatshed, and a thin finger of sand overhung with scraggly old she-oaks and encroaching lantana. Like most of the houses on the island it was shaded by tall blue gums and clad in cedar that had weathered to a soft pearly-grey. Her garden - a riot of natives haphazardly planted over the years by her mother when the house had belonged to her - struggled for life between the drought and the hungry weeds. The only colour breaking the grey-green of that landscape was the orange and yellow crucifix orchids that grew wild beside the path, and a bright red geranium sitting in an old terracotta pot beside the front door.

As the ferry rounded the north-west tip of the Island I could see Sally waiting on the pontoon, her bare feet spread wide as she braced herself against the jolt from the hull of the ferry. Offering a practiced hand she steadied me as I jumped off. After waving goodbye to the ferry driver we turned to embrace, her long hair enveloping me in a bewitching shampoo cloud, and my heart constricted with the remembered scent of her and the realisation that I had not been touched by another human being in months.

After all the usual questions and urgent, must-be-told information, we retreated to the grass under the shade of the gums that framed the view up the bay. It was unusually hot that autumn day, and as the fragile wisps of cloud that had trailed across the sky all morning slowly burnt away the temperature climbed steadily toward the predicted thirty-four degrees. Shading my eyes I squinted out across the water to the sandstone cliffs in the distance and the wild bush of Kur-ring-gai Chase to drift back to other places and other times. A hill in Kent; looking across rolling green pastures to the sea on a lazy English summer afternoon. The Channel off the coast of Brighton on a wild, grey day, waves crashing on the pebbly beach, salt spray whipping strands of hair across my face, and a wind that chilled me to the bone. All anchored by the memory of a night of cold love. A church on a hill in Rwanda, the last wisps of rain fading in the afternoon light locked in my memory by the rotting stench of death and a sense of complete and utter despair. Chechnya and a farmer shooing his cows out of a barn as a frosty dawn broke high over a ridge of pines, my body filled with an aching tiredness.

This watching had become a habit; a reminder of too many places and too many times when my compass had veered off course - where safety had not been a given. But not this place, I thought as I relaxed back, definitely not this place. When I turned to look at Sally she was lying on the grass, and so I stretched out nearby breathing in the fragrance of the warm earth against my cheek as I watched her. We are getting older, I thought. Instead of saying this I asked if she was happy.

'You think I'm not?' she asked, opening one eye and looking across at me. When I didn't answer she continued. 'What makes humans happy? Yes, I'm happy. Could I be happier? Probably. We all could, couldn't we? Are there days when I feel like I've got the perfect life, that nothing could be better? Yes, but then there's days when I'd like to change just about everything. What about you?'

'I have my measure.' My work meant that I lived a somewhat solitary life and over the years I had come to believe that happiness for me was fleeting, and that the best I could ever hope for were little pieces of happiness randomly apportioned out.

'Stay for dinner?' Sally asked.

Her kitchen table, heavy with age and history, had come from a nunnery to be passed down through the generations. As an only child, when the table and the house had belonged to her mother, I had often sat there with the family, longing to scratch my name across its surface to mark my place within its generations. Imagining long after I was gone someone sitting at the table with a cup of tea turning to another to ask, 'Who was Kate?' And I would be there in their history along with all the other women. Five generations before me had sat at that table discussing the minutiae of their lives, dispensing love, and solace, and advice as the ghosts of friends and lovers long gone drifted in and out of the room. And so on that hot afternoon, so many years later, my fingers traced along the table's surface until I found the tiny mark I had left over thirty years before and I smiled.

It was there at that table that we sat in the thickening afternoon light, the heat settling heavy on our skin and the sun floating down in shadows to fall across the table as the next generation took their places. Having arrived home on the ferry from school Sally's three children were busy talking over each other for their mother's attention, wolfing down their afternoon tea as they scribbled away at their homework. As I watched she must have felt my attention and looked up to smile across the tops of their heads and that day, or the table, or the family had worked its magic on me again and all the years, and all the times and names that had hung between our friendship had disappeared.

Later, over preparations for dinner, we shared a drink and discussed again the big and the small things in our lives. Chopping, and cutting, and washing, and straining, and then laughter followed by sweet silences until one of us stopped to rest her hip against the bench, or paused with her knife in mid air to make a particularly important point, and then chopping and cutting and straining again. When exactly had I forgotten that Sally was one of the few people in this world who asked you a question and really listened to the answer?

It was still light when Callum, a big good-natured fellow with a quick dry wit arrived home. Leaning against the deck rail, wine glass in hand, Sally and I watched her husband as he cut the motor and the boat drift into the pontoon. Making his way up to the house he stopped on the sand to pick debris off the beach, and then, on reaching a bend in the path he turned to stare back up the bay toward Barrenjoey Lighthouse. As we watched the silence was broken by the sharp whine of a 'tinny' rounding the corner of the island, and the thwack of sails jibing as the yachts made their way down the bay on the last leg of the Wednesday afternoon races. Overhead a currawong cried out startling me and I was back in Chechnya again.

A rooster's cry some way off in the village had woken me that morning. Opening my eyes I saw the weak first light of dawn filtering in through the cracks in the barn walls and I quietly climbed out of my sleeping bag to pick my way over the sleeping bodies of the militiamen that I had been travelling rough with for three weeks. Softly closing the barn door on the musty smell of cow shit, wet wool and old sweat I stepped out into that clean, crisp, mud-scented morning, and with my boots crunching through six inches of fresh snow I turned away from the bloody carcass of the cow they had slaughtered the night before to stand under a nearby fir tree. As I watched the river in the valley below, black and swollen by the unseasonable melt high in the Caucasus, I shivered and moved to draw my jacket tighter around my shoulders. It felt as if winter had taken up residence in my bones. Down in the valley a light came on in a farmhouse, and a short time later a twist of blue smoke could be seen curling up from the chimney. I imagined someone poking with a practiced hand at the embers of a fire from the night before until a lick of flame caught under the newly laid wood. A few minutes later the door opened and a farmer and his dog stepped out framed by the warm light fanning out over the frozen ground, but too quickly the door closed behind them taking with it the promise of home and hearth and of loving warmth.

Digging deep into the pocket of my jacket I found the remnants of the eucalyptus leaf I always kept there. Rubbing its brittle fragments between my fingers I tried to release the medicinal scent that carried with it the sweet memory of home, but all I could smell was the stench of decay from the earth caught under my nails.

In a few hours the militia would be moving down through the valley again and the Russian tanks would splutter into life to rumble along the narrow village roads behind them. I was tired of this war and the militia. I needed to go home.

As he turned to walk the final distance to the house Callum looked up and saw us and I raised my glass to him in salute to be greeted by as warm a smile as anyone could wish. My heart twisted again. Did I yearn for what Sally had? Did I want kids, a husband, a home and a close circle of friends who could tell me they were available for dinner on a Saturday night two weeks in the future? Did I want a life that on some days seemed almost perfect? Was that even possible for me now?

With unexpected visions of babies and happy families floating across my horizon I had recently felt the first creeping tendrils of panic and a new urgency to find answers to those questions. In the lonely light of some morning in a distant future I could not yet see, in some second rate hotel room in some far off land, would I wake up alone to discover that the one thing I wanted most in the world had passed me by?

As Callum took my wine glass out of my hand and carefully placed it on the deck rail he lifted me up and twirling me around, and as I laughed I pushed the uncomfortable thought out of my head that Sally, and her family, and their kitchen table was the only home I would ever have.