The woman rubbed the palm of her hand across the window, leaving an almost clean spot to look out through. As I grew closer, I could see she had white hair that sprung in coils from her head, and was wearing round, rimmed glasses. She screwed up her nose at the sight of me, before snatching across a torn, checked curtain.
‘Charming,’ I muttered, turning my dad’s cap so the peak covered my burning neck. Sun cream, I need sun cream.
Her caravan was rundown, surrounded by long, straw-like grass. It looked out of place next to the others, which were all in good order, with little picket fences and hanging baskets. The silence was eerie, and I half expected tumbleweed to drift by, despite the absence of a breeze.
I reached her door and heard music and singing from inside. I recognised the song as Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
‘Suki!’ I called, as I knocked on the door. ‘Can we talk?’
The singing stopped and there was the scraping sound of a needle
I stood for some moments. A plane flew low overhead and something rattled in the bushes. The sign, now some distance away, told me the temperature had increased to thirty-seven degrees. On a rusty letterbox beside me, a redback spider scurried across its web. What am I doing here?
I felt panicky, suddenly missing England. I would forgive the rain, the cold, and the harmless spiders that ran across my carpet while I played on my Xbox in the half-light, if I could be back there right now.
‘Suki, please, can we talk?’ I repeated, before the temptation to retrace my steps took over. ‘It’s important.’
‘Suki’s not here,’ came an Irish accent from inside. ‘She’s presently staying at the Ministry of Silly Walks.’
I kicked the dusty ground, in an effort to release my frustration. ‘My mum came to see you a while back,’ I said.
‘Her walk got far too silly; totally unacceptable. I won’t allow it.’
I knocked again. ‘Please, Suki. Open the door.’
‘Halt! Who goes there?’
I remembered the quote from the film The Holy Grail. I’d watched it with my dad. I changed tactics.
‘Ah, Monty Python, my dad loved it.’ He did, and would laugh so loud at the songs. I sighed, pushing away the memories. Stay focused, Isaac.
Finally, I heard soft footsteps inside, and the door opened.
Suki was small, and was wearing a pink cardigan two sizes too big for her, and matted fluffy slippers. She eyed me through the scratched lenses of her glasses.
‘Your dad liked Monty Python?’
I nodded, and threw her a thin smile. ‘Loved it.’
‘Well why didn’t you say so? He was clearly a man after my own heart. Come in.’ She gestured for me to enter, and as I passed her she grabbed my arm and squeezed. ‘You’ve experienced great loss,’ she said, and I felt a sudden burning behind my eyes.
The caravan walls were full of pictures: photos of Suki when she was younger, her hair dark, eyes peering through the same round-rimmed glasses. Most of the photos were taken in Molly Malone’s, where it looked like she’d spent a lot of time over the years. And there were others of her with a group of tribesman in what looked like the Outback.
Her eyes followed mine as they fell on a picture of a man much taller than her, wearing a cowboy hat and a leather waistcoat. She was standing in front of him, and his hands were on her shoulders in a protective fashion. They were smiling.
‘That’s Cillian,’ she said, sounding proud. ‘I miss him, but he needed to head off to Yulara. It’s a beautiful, spiritual place. I have high hopes one day things will work out for him.’
I wondered briefly whether he was her son. But in truth all I was interested in was finding my mum.
The caravan smelt weird, like ultra-strong incense sticks mixed with strange herbs. It reminded me of Ricky’s house before Esme weaned him off pot, but more perfumed and oddly intoxicating. It made my head ache.
There were books piled on every surface; ancient legends, the paranormal, strange looking recipe books. There were jars and pots crammed on shelves, and a vivarium with a fat toad inside. I didn’t recognise it as a species I’d seen before, but it reminded me of a cane toad.
‘That’s Adolf,’ Suki said with a smile.
‘Adolf?’ I only knew of one Adolf.
She stared at me as though she could read my thoughts, and my skin began to leak like a bucket with holes. ‘Not that Adolf, you fool,’ she said. ‘He’s not a toad. He’s a slug. I thought everyone knew that.’
‘Of course. Everyone knows Adolf Hitler is a slug,’ I said playing along.
Suki was unbelievably weird, and so far removed from real life, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or run. Before I could do either, she carried on talking.
‘This is Adolf Green,’ she said, scooping the toad out of the vivarium and stroking his head. ‘He wanted to be a princess.’ She moved her face close to the toad. ‘Didn’t you Adolf? But then something went wrong. I just can’t put my finger on what, but I’m working on it.’ She put the toad back, and I realised my mouth was hanging open. This woman seemed more like a witch than a psychic. All that was missing was a black cat.
‘Don’t look so serious, Isaac,’ she said, as a black cat appeared from under the sofa and purred round my legs. I tried to recall telling her my name.
‘Camomile tea?’ she said, gesturing for me to sit, as a kettle whistled on the stove.
I lowered myself onto a narrow sofa, and after a glance at the mugs, and a slight worry about what she might put in the drink, I made an informed decision. ‘No thank you. I’m absolutely fine.’
She made a cup for herself and joined me on the sofa. ‘You mentioned your mother,’ she said, taking a couple of sips.
I nodded. ‘Kate. I understand she came to see you after my father died.’
‘Oh, yes, Kate.’ There was a painful silence, injected with loud slurps as she drank. She finally put down her cup, and sighed deeply. ‘Your dad died in the Blue Mountains,’ she said.
‘Yes, that’s right.’ My voice cracked. It happened every time I had to acknowledge it. Every time I had to accept he was dead.
‘Your mother missed him terribly,’ she said, with a sigh. ‘She came to me hoping to make contact with him. I tried, but couldn’t reach him. Your dad was on a different astral plane than anything I could tap into.’ She sighed again, and I realised that, despite her crazy words, I wanted to believe her.
‘She wanted me to do something for her,’ Suki continued. ‘But I really couldn’t help her.’ She scratched the bridge of her nose. ‘I remember your parents from Molly Malone’s. They were so in love. Anyone with half a brain could see that.’ She shook her head. ‘There was nothing I could do.’
I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could mutter a word, she tilted her head like a bird, and said, ‘Your father was a bit of a drinker you know.’ She gripped my hand, before I could react to her comment, and added, ‘Would you like me to see if I can reach him now? He could have moved on, be easier to link to.’
Again, without waiting for a reply, she seemed to zone out. Silent, her eyes closed, and her body stiffened. I dragged my free hand across my sweaty forehead, knees bouncing with nerves.
Her eyes shot open. ‘Nope! Can’t reach him.’
‘Why not?’ I froze, hearing my own words. I couldn’t believe how gullible I was being. She couldn’t reach him because it was mumbo jumbo.
She released her grip, and stared deep into my eyes. ‘You think it means the end, Isaac, don’t you? When someone dies, you think that’s it – kaput. You,’ she prodded my shoulder, ‘are a big fat non-believer.’
I shrugged. It was true. I’d never believed in an afterlife. I was practical, sensible, and I’d thought my mum was too. ‘All we have when someone dies are memories,’ I said, instinctively putting my hand in my pocket, to check my photographs were there.
She shook her head. ‘Poppycock,’ she said. ‘There are always ways to hang on to our loved ones. I’m not saying it’s for the best. But it is possible.’
She turned to the record-player and placed the needle on the vinyl. Within moments she was singing along with Monty Python once more, seeming oblivious to my presence.
‘Suki?’ I said, my voice catching as I realised I was getting nowhere. ‘If you know anything about my mother’s disappearance, please tell me. I’m worried sick.’
She turned and smiled. ‘I sent your mother to see Cillian,’ she said.
I looked again at the photograph on the wall. ‘Why?’
She didn’t reply. Just scribbled down an address and handed it to me. She turned her back on me once more, swaying and humming to the music.
I shoved the address in my pocket, left the caravan and made my way back up the hill towards my car. I felt sure my mum would never have been crazy enough to go into the Outback alone. She was level headed and sensible, I told myself once more. The one who’d kept my dad stable. She wouldn’t have taken off on the word of a batty, old woman. She had never been the dreamer, the adventurer – the one craving excitement. That had been my dad’s role.
But then I had to accept that Mum had visited Suki, and maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did.
I looked back at the caravan and blinked as the sun blinded me. Did the parrot just flap its wings and take off? I put on my sunglasses and looked again. The stuffed parrot was still there, more faded and worn than I remembered when I arrived, and a tad wonky. Maybe I was seeing things.
‘Hi again.’ It was the American woman from the bar, climbing into a truck. She clipped on her seatbelt and started the engine. ‘How did it go with Suki?’
I shrugged and screwed up my nose. ‘I’m not sure, really. She seems rather odd, if I’m honest.’
She smiled. ‘She is a bit out-there, although seems harmless enough. Not that I’ve known her long. Apparently she was mugged about a year ago. Not nice at all, but could have been a lot worse if some bloke hadn’t come to her rescue. She’s OK now though.’
I stared, oddly besotted. I probably should have made a quick exit before she noticed I was staring, but instead I felt glued to the spot.
‘Well, it’s good to see you,’ she said, grabbing a biro from the dashboard of her truck. Reaching for my hand, she wrote her number on the back of it. ‘Call me, please,’ she said, holding onto my arm.
‘Yes, yes of course, absolutely,’ I said, managing to hold her gaze.
‘Anytime you’re free,’ she said, releasing me and putting the truck in gear. ‘We could go for a drink or something.’
OK, so maybe the peeling nose look was more attractive than I’d realised. I certainly wasn’t complaining.
‘See you soon, then,’ I called after her, as she drove across the tarmac and sped down the road, and realising I didn’t even know her name.
I jumped into my car and headed for the local supermarket, and two bags of shopping later I was back at my parents’ house.
Yeats greeted me with his usual enthusiasm, purring round my legs as I emptied cat food into bowls.
‘Byron!’ I called. ‘Byron!’
‘Ahhhhhhhhh!’ A heavy weight landed on my shoulder, followed by sharp pains in my sunburnt flesh. Byron had jumped from the top of the fridge and was digging his claws in, causing me to pivot at speed and fall against the wall. He finally jumped to the floor, green eyes wild, and leaving me checking my back for blood as he condescended to eat his dinner.
Later, as I twirled spaghetti absent-mindedly round my fork, I pulled the address Suki had given me from my pocket. I had to find Cillian, if I had any hope of finding my mum. After playing with my meal for some time, I walked into the garden. I’d forgotten how darkness fell quickly in Australia. The way the sun was high one minute and gone the next. The garden was small; a patch of dried grass and a patio – different to when I was a kid and we had a pool, and Tilly and I spent every spare moment in it. Sadness took over, and I slid to the ground, and buried my head in my hands.
‘Mum, where are you?’ I whispered. The journey ahead of me had never felt so lonely.
After a shower, I turned on my phone for the first time since I arrived. Two texts appeared on the screen.
Bastard. It was from Olivia. I deleted it.
You dick, why did you go to Oz without me, bruv? It was Ricky.
I didn’t know you wanted to come, Ricky, my friend, I replied, wishing he was there with me.