The man’s cropped dark hair was flecked with grey, and he was wearing a short-sleeved checked shirt that gaped around his stomach, and squeezed his upper arms. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his bright green shorts and rocked back on his flip-flops.
‘I’m looking for Kate O’Donnell. I’m her son,’ I called.
‘Thought as much.’ He skipped down the path and drew me into a bear-hug. He must have felt me tense, as he released me and stepped backwards.
‘Gus Livingstone’s the name,’ he said, just as he had on the phone. He stuck out his hand for me to shake. ‘Good to meet you, Isaac. You must be knackered.’
‘Yep, pretty much,’ I said, taking his hand which was rough and large. My legs wobbled. I was close to dropping.
‘Let me get the key and let you in, mate,’ he said, letting go of me. ‘You look like you could sleep for a week.’
I followed him, and stood in the porch of his house. The shrieks of laughter and incessant chatter coming from inside was too much for my tired brain.
A woman, about five years younger than Gus, popped her head round the door and smiled. Her brown hair was dragged on top of her head and fastened with a slide, and she was wearing blue, knee-length shorts, and a baggy, faded T-shirt that hung loosely over her round belly, the words I’m not pregnant, I’m fat printed across the front in bright letters.
‘Hi there,’ she said, blowing her fringe from her forehead. She was clearly overheating, despite the air conditioning.
‘Hi.’ I raised my hand.
‘Crikey, I know exactly who you are,’ she said, looking me up and down with warm, brown eyes. ‘It’s Isaac isn’t it? You look just like your father.’
‘People often say that.’ I returned her smile, but ached inside, desperate to be alone. The mere mention of Dad made me feel as if I’d been pushed into a black hole.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ she said, making me feel even worse.
‘It’s OK,’ I said, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t OK at all.
She sucked in a sigh. ‘I’m Gus’s wife, June, by the way. Very pleased to meet you. Why not come in for a bit?’ She gestured for me to enter the lounge, and I edged in, feeling I had no choice. The room was chaotic, children dashing around the furniture almost knocking over the ornaments and photos that cluttered the units. June didn’t seem to mind.
The lounge opened up onto a dining area with a huge farmhouse table full of cakes and jugs of drink; and a kitchen, where children’s paintings covered every cupboard front. An elderly woman with white hair, wearing a pastel blue dress, sat in the conservatory. There was a bag of wool by her side, with knitting needles, and what looked like a half-made scarf, resting on top. I couldn’t help but wonder when it would ever be worn in Queensland. She was talking to a man with dark hair, sitting by her side, his back to me. A young woman looked out at the garden, a baby girl on her hip in a pink and white checked dress and matching socks, chubby legs jiggling. Several men about my age were chatting in the adjoining kitchen, swigging lager, and a row of women sat on the sofa. Scurrying about the floor was a yapping snack-sized puppy, tail wagging. The room was homely, friendly. But I wasn’t in the mood.
‘Would you like a drink, Isaac?’ asked June. ‘I reckon you must be parched. It’s baking out there today. Well every day this time of year.’
I was dry, but the thought of staying longer to quench my thirst wasn’t an option. I wanted to get out of there. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I said, pinning myself to the wall near the door.
A little girl with a mass of blonde curls ran over and grabbed June’s leg. She stared up at me.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Isaac.’ I looked from the little girl back to June.
‘She’s one of the tribe,’ June said, ruffling her curls. ‘We’ve got four kids; Kirstie, Jack, Laura and Paul, three kids-in-law and seven grand-kids, would you believe? And then there’s Stephen. He’s got the two daughters and a grandbaby.’ She pointed to the woman with the little girl on her hip. ‘Not that we ever see his youngest girl, which is a great shame.’ She sighed. ‘Bet you can imagine what a nightmare buying Christmas presents is, aye, Isaac?’ She rested her hand on my wrist and winked. ‘To tell the truth, we sometimes buy gift vouchers these days, particularly for the grown-ups. It’s much easier.’
‘I’m Ellie,’ said the child, which was a relief as I wasn’t taking in June’s family tree or her Christmas present issues.
‘Yes, this is our lovely Ellie,’ June said, putting her arm around the child. ‘She’s Laura and David’s youngest.’
Too many names. Please stop talking.
‘It’s Granny Gertie’s birthday today,’ Ellie said with a smile. ‘She’s very old, and has to use a stick to help her walk and to poke people.’ She paused, glancing at the table. ‘We’ve got heaps of cake.’
‘Wonderful,’ I said, straining to feel any emotion whatsoever, ‘sounds absolutely delightful.’
‘You want some cake, Isaac?’ said June, tilting her head. ‘We’ve got plenty.’
‘No,’ I said far too bluntly. ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’
Gus appeared jiggling the keys. Thank God. ‘Right, let’s go.’
‘Bye, tall man,’ Ellie said, waving.
‘Bye, little girl.’
‘Ellie,’ she said, giggling. ‘I’m Ellie.’
‘Of course you are. Bye, Ellie.’
‘Cheerio then,’ said June. ‘Don’t be too long, Gus, we’ll be doing photo time soon.’
‘Bloody photos,’ said Gus, once we were out of June’s earshot. ‘We have to take pictures of every occasion under the sun. We’ve got enough to fill a million albums already. And it’s worse since we’ve gone digital; photos of me appearing on bloody Facebook. There was one of me on there last week where I looked like chipmunk. I’d just scoffed some nuts and the camera flashed.’ He gave me a sideways look and smiled. ‘Although I’m glad the picture didn’t show what happened next. I choked on the damn things. Went as red as a beetroot, and then all hell broke out. June had to give me the hemlock manoeuvre.’
‘Heimlich, I think.’
‘That’s what I said, wasn’t it?’
He pushed open the front door of my parents’ house. ‘Now get some shut eye, mate,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘I’m right next door when you’re ready for a chinwag. The family will be gone soon. Love them to visit. Love them to trundle off home where they belong.’ He laughed, and as I watched him skip down the path, his rotund belly bouncing, I opened my mouth to call him back - I needed to question him about my dad’s accident, Mum’s disappearance - but I didn’t have the energy to string a sentence.
Instead, with my holdall and carrier bag in my hand, I stepped into the darkness of the house where my parents had lived for the last four years without me. I stood, not opening the blinds, the darkness comforting.
There was a smell of cats; not unpleasant but rather too fishy, and the familiar sound of out-of-sync ticking clocks filled my ears. Mum had collected them through the years, and it felt as though I’d finally come home.
The ginger cat from earlier followed me in and began purring and winding itself round my legs, which were overheating in jeans. I closed the door and crouched in the darkness, tickling the cat’s ears, the softness of his fur reassuring.
‘Hello, Yeats,’ I said, recalling Mum telling me the ginger one was named after William Yeats. Or was that the black one, who had yet to show his face?
I stood up and switched on the light. The room was how I’d expected it would be. Heavy, dark wooden furniture decked with ornaments my parents had collected on their travels: a heavy Buddha, a replica of the Sphinx, Chinese etchings, all nestled in the dust. There were framed photos too - many of me, from baby to graduation. Clocks were on every surface and mounted on walls, jostling for space with arty prints and photographs of places they’d visited.
The clock Gran had bought my mum in Sligo - a cheap thing, nothing like the antiques Mum loved so much - took centre stage on a bookshelf that stretched the length of one wall. So many books; my dad must have read a library in his lifetime.
I walked over and crouched in front of the books my dad had written. There were nine or ten factual books with glossy photographs, all about his travels and adventures, and another dozen of his bestselling fiction books, where he’d used the locations he’d travelled to as his settings.
My mind drifted to the day he’d given me Great Expectations. It was my first day at university, and we all sat in the crowded university café.
‘It’s a good novel,’ he’d said, pushing it across the table, trying a last-ditch attempt to get me to read something other than IT books.
‘Thanks’ I’d said, and he’d smiled, and despite my teenage angst that had divided us over the last few years, I was pleased he’d cared enough to bring the book.
‘Lose yourself in the story,’ he said. ‘Don’t look for reasons to dispel its credibility. There are no boundaries in fiction.’
To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what he was on about. And it was moments later that Gran grabbed my hand.
‘You’ll sow your wild oats here, Isaac,’ she said, her voice rising above the hum of chatter, her eyes trawling the room for potential girlfriends. It wasn’t the best moment of my life, I can tell you. In fact, I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.
‘And don’t forget to wear a condom,’ she’d continued. ‘You can catch some nasty things these days.’
‘Oh God.’ I looked down at a scattering of sugar on the table, arms folded across my Black Sabbath T-shirt.
‘Shhh, Mam,’ Dad said.
‘But why, Patrick?’ She pursed her lips.
‘Because you’re embarrassing the poor boy, that’s why.’
‘Don’t be so silly. Wearing a condom is nothing to be ashamed of.’ She was still talking far too loud, and several people at the next table were laughing.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my gran, always had – my memories were speckled with good times I’d spent with her. The problem was, at eighteen I cared more about what strangers thought.
I picked up the book, and noticing Gran eyeing the Eccles cake in front of her, and knowing she would need to put her teeth in to eat it, I rose, kissed them all stiffly and suggested they leave - immediately.
What was worse than that day was the fact I never did sow those wild oats, and only found use for one condom in all my time at Uni – and that was for a water-filled condom throwing contest.
Three months later Gran passed away. A massive heart attack, Mum said. They found her in the annex, which I found deeply ironic. The thought that she was going to be moved from one box to another haunted me for ages, as did the fact that the last time I saw her I was embarrassed by her.
‘She knew you loved her,’ Mum reassured me at her funeral, taking my hand, seeming to know my inner thoughts.
‘I did,’ I said, eyes stinging with tears. ‘I really did.’
Two months later Mum and Dad returned to Australia. I didn’t join them.
‘Come with us,’ Mum said, clasping her palms together as though in prayer. ‘You loved it there as a child. You may even see Tilly again, as we’re buying a place in Springfield Lakes. Remember how much you loved it there?’
But I stayed in the UK. England was my home. And the truth was, I knew if I’d joined them, they would keep taking off on their adventures, which I really didn’t want to be a part of, leaving me alone. I decided I’d rather be alone in England, than anywhere else in the world.
Now, the cat jumped onto the back of the sofa, stretching before testing out his claws on the beige fabric. By the looks of the snags and tags, he’d done it many times before. Mum had never been house proud. 'A home is for living in,’ she would say, and then laugh. ‘At least that’s my excuse.’
On the quarry-tiled floor was a box of photographs, and a couple of pictures were scattered about, as though someone had been looking at them. I wanted to wade through the box, but my brain was shutting down by the second. And despite it only being five in the afternoon, I could barely stand for tiredness. I flopped on the sofa and the cat curled by my side. Seconds later I was out, dreaming in black and white.
‘Olivia?’ I said. It was Yeats nibbling my nose. In fairness to Olivia, fishy breath was never one of her many faults.
Time had evaporated. It was morning, and the sun streamed through open blinds.
As I began to get my bearings I heard a winding sound, and smelt cat food. I opened my eyes and shot upright.
‘I hope I didn’t startle you, mate.’ Gus put down a clock and stepped towards the Grandfather clock in the corner. ‘It’s just the kitties needed feeding, and you left the door unlocked. I reckon you must have slept for well over fourteen hours.’ He opened the Grandfather clock, and fiddled with the pendulum.
I stretched and yawned. ‘What’s the time?’
My throat felt dry, and I rubbed my throbbing head. The room felt cooler now, and I realised the air conditioning was on. Electric payments must be coming out of Mum’s account for there to be light and air-con, which I hoped was a good sign.
‘You must be hungry,’ Gus went on. ‘There’s nothing here, but I can rustle you up an egg sandwich if you fancy it.’
‘Sounds good. Cheers.’ I stood, and staggered to where the smell of cat food hung in the air and found the black cat, eating delicately.
Gus followed. ‘This is Byron.’ The cat flashed green eyes at me, stiffened, and shot through the cat flap. ‘He’s not as friendly as Yeats.’
I opened a couple of cupboards before finding a glass.
‘Listen, why not come round to mine, son?’ Gus said. ‘I’ve got some bottled water in the fridge. You must be as dry as dead dingo’s donga.’
I put down the glass, and rubbed my forehead again. ‘Have you got any painkillers?’
He nodded. ‘Too right, I have. Why not have a shower first though. You smell like a dead dingo.’
‘Enough with the dead dingos,’ I said.
Gus roared with laughter, and I knew there was a smile inside me somewhere. It didn’t reach my face.
An hour later, I was sitting in Gus’s kitchen-diner, showered, fed and watered, my jeans now ripped to the knee. It was quiet compared to the day before. All his family had dispersed to wherever they’d come from. I must admit I was relieved.
I eyed the kids’ drawings stuck to the fridge and cupboards. On the far wall a huge, framed family photograph hung, and a candle burned on the windowsill.
I turned Dad’s ring round on my finger. ‘You said on the phone my mum went to Ayers Rock.’
Gus nodded. ‘She just upped and left, saying she needed to see someone, and that she’d be back in two weeks. When she didn’t return, I spoke to the hospital where she works sometimes. Apparently, your mum had said she hoped to be back in two weeks. Although there’d been nothing set in stone. That’s why the cops didn’t seem worried.’
My mum was a supply nurse. Because of Dad’s travelling whims, she’d agreed a long time ago that full time work was out of the question.
Gus patted my hand, looking awkward, as though he didn’t know what to say.
‘But why would she go to Ayers Rock?’ I said. ‘Why would she want to travel into the Outback to see a huge sandstone rock? Nobody much lives there, do they? Isn’t it more of a tourist area?’
Gus shrugged. ‘They’ve got campsites, hotels and lodges up there. As I said, she needed to see someone.’
‘So what did the police say?’
‘They weren’t too helpful, to be honest. They saw no reason to worry. They asked stupid questions, like ‘was she depressed?’’
‘She was though, wasn’t she? My dad had just died.’
‘Yes, but she didn’t appear depressed when she left. In fact, she seemed happy. Full of hope.’
‘I don’t understand.’ My headache was getting worse. ‘That can’t be right.’
‘The cops asked if it was out of character for her to head off, and I couldn’t say no because her and your dad often travelled, always taking off.’
‘But, Gus,’ I said, ‘if she’s OK, why hasn’t she come back, or contacted us, if only to check on the cats, or let the hospital know? At the very least she would have charged her mobile, surely.’
He nodded. ‘I know. And I told the cops that.’
Annoyingly, tears filled my eyes. I rose and headed for the door. ‘I haven’t got a clue where to begin searching for her.’
‘Why not talk to the hospital, mate? Doreen Chambers is her colleague there,’ Gus said, sounding defeated. ‘She might just remember something I haven’t.’