I’m not going to lie, I got a huge buzz walking out on Olivia before she threw me out. I even sprayed my chest with her expensive perfume, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Leaving a note telling her she could stick her job and her apartment, was up there in my best moments of all time – almost on a scale with being photographed with Stan Lee at Comic Con.
But now, as the tube train swayed and rocked on its way to Heathrow, I looked down at my worldly belongings at my feet, and sighed. Everything I owned had fitted into a holdall and a carrier bag, and the realisation of how little I had to show for my life so far made me feel pretty naff.
But as the train squealed to a stop at Heathrow, I felt a strange determination. I would prove I was a good man and supportive son. I’d be there for Mum. I’d managed to get a cancellation on a British Airways flight, and I’d soon be on my way to Brisbane, even if it made me sick with nerves.
The thing was, I hadn’t travelled since I was nine, when I sulked for the first half of the twenty-four hour journey from Australia to England; projectile vomited over a very nice Singaporean lady, several carry-on bags, and my mother’s shoes when we stopped over at Singapore Airport, and slept for most of the final leg of the journey, for which, I’m sure, my parents were grateful.
Once on the plane I tried hard to calm my nerves, but when, thirty minutes into the journey, the seatbelt sign went on, I began to panic.
‘Is everything OK?’ I asked one of the cabin crew who was dashing, wide-eyed, down the aisle of the plane.
‘Nothing to worry about, sir,’ he said. ‘Just some turbulence ahead.’
I tugged at the belt round my middle, which I hadn’t taken off since we’d taken off. I was probably going to die.
I pulled Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations from my carrier bag, to try and take my mind off things. I hadn’t seen the book for years, and only came across it when I was searching for stuff that actually belonged to me in Olivia’s apartment. I pressed it to my nose. It reminded me of Dad.
I opened it at chapter one. If I was going to meet my demise, I should at least do him the courtesy of finishing the book he gave me many years ago, or, at the very least, start it.
I’d never been much of a fiction reader, another thing I felt sure disappointed my father. He’d sworn by fiction, said it opened the mind, and I knew he was saddened that I’d only read three fiction books by the time I was eighteen: David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten and two Mr Men books. The ironic thing was, I’d loved listening to my father read to me as a child. His Irish accent felt warm and comforting to my ears: Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, it didn’t matter so long as I was snuggled up to my dad, his voice making me feel safe and secure.
‘Joy Forever,’ said a woman in her thirties, who was sitting next to me.
I looked up from my book.
‘Gorgeous,’ she continued, sniffing the air around me, as she unscrewed a small, plastic bottle of red wine, and I realised she could smell Olivia’s perfume.
I leaned away from her, but she continued to breathe me in, like a sniffer dog detecting drugs.
‘It’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Jean Patou. And before you say anything.’ She raised her ring-cluttered hand. ‘There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with a young man wearing women’s perfume.’ She paused. ‘Or underwear for that matter. It’s rather enlightening, actually.’ She returned to her wine.
‘I’m wearing ‘Superman’ boxers, if you must know.’
She touched my arm and smiled. ‘Thanks for sharing that, sweetie. And there’s me thinking this journey would be boring.’
I looked away. Olivia had had the last laugh.
The plane shuddered as it waded through clouds. The crew were seated now, buckled in, and my heart pounded in my ears. I was in an aisle seat, near an exit at the back of the plane, which I’d read on the internet was where you have a forty percent more chance of survival following a crash. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d booked my seat six months in advance.
I calculated that I’d be first to the door, once I’d grabbed my life jacket, unless the big man with the bald head behind me got up quickly and blocked my way.
The woman beside me looked at me again, and took a gulp of wine from the bottle.
‘It’s just turbulence,’ she said, ‘nothing to worry about.’
A few more bumps and thuds, and I hoped we were through the worst of it.
‘There,’ she said, finishing her bottle. ‘As I said; nothing to worry about. So tell me again about your boxer shorts.’
The crew began milling about once more, their eyes resumed to normal size, and the seatbelt sign went off. I was relieved, but then a sudden sadness swallowed me.
Dad had been in an accident. Had he been scared? Had he known he was going to die? Had Mum seen it happen? All questions I’d never asked. Questions I hadn’t wanted to know the answer to, but did now.
Trancelike, for twenty whole minutes, I followed the little yellow plane on the screen on the back of the chair in front of me, marking out our flight path, trying to stop stupid tears from filling my eyes.
I watched a film. I slept, dreaming in black and white. I ate. I read a chapter of Great Expectations. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
The stopover was in Singapore Airport. I didn’t throw up, of which I was oddly proud. The stay was brief - just enough time for a burger, fries and a strawberry milkshake.
Back on the plane, Qantas this time, I fastened my seatbelt and tried not to listen to the safety talk. I no longer cared where my nearest exits were, because my dad hadn’t had an escape route, so I didn’t want one either.
I slipped into the same monotonous, mind numbing routine as I had on the first leg of the journey: I watched a film, slept, dreaming in black and white, ate, read a chapter of Great Expectations. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
I was about half way through the book - quite a milestone for me, considering old Charlie Dicken’s long-winded descriptive text and his ability to fill the pages with more than a few coincidences - when I found a photograph inside the pages. I took it out and turned it over. Dad had written on the back.
Kate, Patrick and Isaac at the Blue Mountains: one of the happiest days of our life.
I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I’m tired, I told myself. That was all. I’m not a baby.
I studied the picture. I was about five years old, and we were standing on a cliff edge looking at a mountain range, the towering rocks tinted with blues and lilacs, stretching under clear skies. It was the scene from my recurring dream in full and magnificent colour.
I imagined stepping into the photograph and holding my parents close and never letting go.
I closed my eyes, as memories of them flooded my thoughts, bouncing around my head, settling on the day I’d sulked on our way to England, fourteen years ago.
‘It’s OK, Isaac,’ Mum had said, as I’d waved goodbye to my best friend through the rear window of the taxi, my final vision of Tilly a blur through my tears. ‘You can write to her, darling.’
Dad had ruffled my hair. ‘Maybe one day you will see her again, mate,’ he’d said. ‘Who knows what the future will hold?’
We returned to England that year because Gran’s world was ‘falling apart’ as Dad put it. ‘She’s only got us now,’ he’d told me.
The truth was, she’d had a rough few years prior to our return. She’d suffered a heart attack, had a hip replacement, and was now a late onset diabetic - to name but a few of her many ailments. According to Dad, they needed a forklift truck to bring her file to reception when she went to the hospital.
But Gran had never been the kind of woman who’d let a ‘tiny bit of illness’ stop her living her life the way she wanted to live it. Before we came back, she’d still enjoyed bingo on Wednesdays, and a buy-one-get-one-free cod and chips every Friday at the Fox and Starling with Grandpa, was the highlight of her week. But then fate took her legs from under her.
Grandpa, who hadn’t had a day’s illness in his life – apart from the time he swallowed a wasp and Gran sent us a photo of his swollen tongue – was trampled to death by a runaway horse that had freed itself from a cart in the touristy area of Dublin.
After that, Gran couldn’t cope. The thought of having no-one to share her buy-one-get-one-free cod and chips with was too painful. And then, to make things a million times worse, a few weeks after his death she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Looking back now, with my reasonably grownup head on, I could see why she needed us. But at that age of nine, I couldn’t understand why my parents thought it was OK for me to lose Tilly. Or why we had to leave our bungalow in the sun to buy a boring house in suburban England, where, according to Tilly, who knew practically everything, it rained every day.
I’d never really known my gran and grandpa at that time, having moved to Australia when I was four. I just didn’t get the necessity to move.
‘You’ll love Hitchin, darling,’ Mum had said on the plane, putting her arm around my shoulders. ‘It has a lovely church,’ she continued, as though that was important to a child. ‘And it’s not far from London by train. Imagine that, Isaac. We can visit the museums, The Millennium Dome and The London Eye. Remember we saw them on the television? I’m sure you’ll love The London Eye.’
I’d leaned back in my chair, pulled on my headphones and pressed play on my dad’s Walkman. He’d lent it to me to try and cheer me up, even made a tape of all my favourite songs. And as Five’s ‘Keep On Movin’’ blared into my ears, blocking out my mother still trying to convince me I’d love the Hertfordshire market town we were destined for, I closed my eyes and prayed that one day we would go back to Australia.
My dad had been quiet on the journey home, lost in his own thoughts or the pages of his books. He knocked back vodka after vodka, to the sound of my mum saying, ‘Haven’t you had enough, Patrick?’
I hadn’t realised then, he was blurring the edges of his disappointment.
It had been as the plane circled London, getting ready to land, that my mum told me again how my dad had secured a job as a teacher in a primary school that I’d also be attending, and that she would be working at The Lister Hospital in Stevenage, looking after sick people. ‘It will be like when we first lived at Adaminaby. Remember that, Isaac? We were so happy there.’
We’d lived in Adaminaby when we first moved to Australia, before Dad’s writing took off - before they began travelling all the time. Mum had loved it there. Lake Eucumbene reminded her of Cumbria, where she’d lived as a child.
‘Your dad won’t have time to write as much as before,’ Mum had continued. ‘So we won’t be travelling. Not while your gran is ill, anyway.’
‘You won’t?’ I said, looking up at her, a spark of happiness running through me.
She shook her head. ‘Life will be very different here,’ she said, turning to look out of the window beside her. ‘No more nannies for you, Isaac.’
Despite still hating the thought of living in England, and missing Tilly terribly, my happiness increased. It was as though my mum’s words had injected a ray of hope.
I’ll have normal parents. A mum and dad who would be there for me every single day.
‘Let’s hope your gran makes a good recovery,’ my dad had said, cutting into my happy thoughts as he stirred from sleeping. He pulled himself up straight, rubbing his eyes. ‘I can’t imagine a life stuck in the same place all the time, can you, Kate?’
I hated it when balloons burst. It made me hurt inside.
I looked again at Mum; her eyes were firmly on the window as she sighed.
Once in England, Gran, a tiny Irish woman who spoke as she found and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her (or so she said), was brought over from Dublin and plonked in our annex, which, I realised later, was a converted double garage. She was happy living in her box, as Dad liked to call it with a teasing tone. He even made a wooden sign for the door which said ‘Gran’s Box’, which she found hilarious and I’d found stupid.
I liked Gran, and couldn’t have been happier when she told me, ‘They’ve got all the fecking cancer, Isaac. I’m going to be OK.’
It took longer for her to get over Grandpa’s death though, but she did –
Eventually – or so she said. ‘Life goes on,’ she told me once. ‘It has to. You can visit those moments you shared with those you’ve lost, but you can’t stay there forever. It wouldn’t be healthy. ‘The best advice I can give you is to laugh. Always look on the bright side of life, and it will get you through’
I grew to like Hitchin. There were worse places to live in the world, I told myself as I scrambled through my teens, making friends, breaking friends, making mistakes I would learn from, making mistakes I’d make again and again.
Mum and Dad continued to travel, despite Mum’s words on the plane that day, and Dad’s portfolio of adventures increased.
But there was one thing I never fully understood, and that was why Tilly never wrote to me. I’d sent her my address as promised. I’d waited and waited, but never heard from her again.
Now I slipped the photograph of The Blue Mountains back between the pages of Great Expectations, wondering if Dad had put it there hoping I’d find it when I was at university. I never had. I’d never opened the book.
Three hours later, to my relief, the plane landed safely. Passport control seemed to take forever, and even my bones ached by the time I grabbed my holdall from baggage retrieval. I picked up some Aussie dollars and a hire a car, and was finally on my way to my parent’s house.
It was Australian summer, and the temperature was in the high thirties. I was jet-lagged, my vision blurring as I drove.
Mum and Dad’s bungalow was in Springfield Lakes in Queensland, a few streets away from where I’d lived between the ages of eight and nine, before we returned to England.
I’d met Tilly in Springfield. She’d lived a few doors up from me with her parents. Being tall, podgy and pretty tough, she’d protected me from any bully who half dared tease me about my English accent or my hair.
Springfield had been different from the four years we’d lived in Adaminaby. Dad had chosen Adaminaby when we moved to Australia, because he’d read Patrick White’s Happy Valley, many years before, and had always had a fascination for the place. But then so many places had fascinated Dad.
Mum had called it our happy valley, despite Dad explaining that the title of the book didn’t really reflected the lives of the characters.
I remember how my young mind was spellbound by Adaminaby’s history. And it certainly stimulated Dad’s writing. He would disappear for hours, after working in the local school all day, lost in his words.
A sound of a car horn brought me out of my reverie, and I realised I’d drifted into another lane. I lowered the window, turned on the radio – loud, and put my foot down. I was almost there.
Mum had sent me a photograph of their bungalow some time ago. It was much like the one I’d lived in as a child. And I recognised the area as soon as I pulled into their road of modern properties on a hill rising above the lake.
Once outside their house, I turned off the engine. I now knew what a zombie felt like, and made a mental note to have more respect for them when I next watched a zombie movie, or played an Xbox game.
I got out of the car. A ginger cat was sprawled on the doorstep, one eye on a kookaburra on a roof of a house opposite, far too high for him to reach. The sun had increased in intensity since I left the airport, and a long forgotten warmth from my childhood filled my senses. I sucked in the peace and quiet, and stretched my arms above my head, making a noise like a wounded animal. My bones hurt inside, and I didn’t smell too great either.
A man peered out from the window of the bungalow to left of my parents’ house, scratching his head. Within moments he’d opened his front door.
‘G’day!’ he called, raising his hand. He was in his fifties, his lined, round face, tanned and smiling. ‘Can I help?’