Back at the hotel we lay on our beds in silence. My mind whirred, my mouth was dry, and my head throbbed. The drone of the air-conditioning was annoying me, annoying me, annoying me. Where are you Mum?
Eventually, I drifted into a half-sleep, lost in a black and white world.
‘Wake up, Isaac!’
I shot up with a yell and cracked heads with Cillian who was leaning over me. ‘Christ!’
He drew back. ‘I’ve been down to reception,’ he said, ‘and borrowed this.’ He was holding a game of Cluedo.
‘I’m not sure I’m in the mood,’ I said, rubbing my forehead.
He stepped away from the bed, dislodging the box so Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum fell to the floor. ‘OK, mate,’ he said. ‘Stupid idea, really.’
He bent to pick up the pieces and the box opened and all the contents fell out. He cleared it up, throwing a tiny rope, lead piping and candlestick back into the box, before standing up, and putting the game on the table. He looked sad. ‘I just thought it might take your mind off things for a while. But I know it’s not that easy.’
‘It’s not, but thanks,’ I said. I pulled on my trainers, got up and headed for the door. ‘Listen, I’m going for a walk to clear my head.’ I opened the door.
‘Do you want me to come?’
I didn’t look back, just shook my head. I needed some space to think. ‘I won’t be long,’ I said, closing the door behind me.
I wasn’t sure where I was going, and as I pushed through the busy streets of Sydney I pulled out the photograph I’d taken from Aaron’s wall.
Sue and Derek Blake looked a bit rough round edges - not that my parents would have judged them on that. In fact, I felt sure they would have befriended them.
I turned the photograph over. There was something written on the back.
Sue and Derek Blake x 1 copy by post. There was an address in Sydney on there too. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it, but I now knew where I was going. My mum could be there, or at the very least the couple might know where she was heading. My spirits soared. This was good. This was really good.
I took a tourist speedboat from Sydney Harbour, and got off near The Opera House, scarcely registering the landmark. I continued to walk, using the sat nav on my phone for directions, barely looking where I was going, as I attempted to untangle my thoughts.
I’d been walking for well over an hour when I realised there were no longer tourists rushing around with cameras, snapping everything in sight. They’d been replaced by locals without me realising. Some were down and outs, swigging from bottles, staring at me through heavy, dark eyes.
I stopped, heart racing, taking in the run-down area. Windows were boarded up, and walls were covered in graffiti. Skinny dogs roamed free, savaging in bins for food. I desperately wanted to carry on, find Sue and Derek Blake, but something told me I should turn back.
‘Oh God,’ I muttered, as two men approached, blocking my path.
‘G’day,’ one said, looking me up and down. He was about thirty, small but broad, with a scar on his cheek. The sun glinted off the knife in his hand, and I felt the pulse in my neck thud. The other man was older, taller, uglier, his dark hair tangled to his shoulders.
I knew I was about be mugged if I was lucky; murdered, if my luck had run out.
‘Let us relieve you of your wallet, phone and trainers,’ said the uglier of the two.
‘And your T-shirt,’ the other chirped in.
My heart thumped. Why hadn’t I taken up Kung-fu as a kid, when my dad suggested it?
I thought about running. I thought about appealing to their better natures, but felt sure they didn’t have one. I thought about calling for help, but by the look of the area, I knew I’d probably attract more baddies. Baddies? Baddies that might do more than steal my belongings.
The less ugly one seized me from behind while his friend went through my pockets, finding my phone and wallet. He grabbed my hand and yanked my dad’s ring from my finger, before crouching to untie my trainers.
Anger rose as I struggled. ‘That was my dad’s,’ I said, choking on my words.
‘Ooh, that was his daddy’s ring,’ said the one holding me in a vice-like grip as the other removed my trainers.
‘You’ve got holes in your Superman socks, Isaac.’ I turned my head to see Cillian, his hands on his thick waist like jug handles, his feet apart. All that was missing was a red cape.
Within moments, he’d dragged off the less ugly guy, and punched him so hard he dropped to the floor unconscious. He was now heading for the bloke with the knife.
‘Hey,’ the bloke said, in a casual tone, as though he and Cillian were best buds. He slipped the knife in his waistband and raised his hands in surrender, stepping backwards. ‘We’re only trying to make a living. A guy’s got to eat.’
As Cillian strode towards him, he dropped my belongings and ran.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Cillian said, as I pulled on my trainers and jammed my ring back on. He sounded furious, but looked relieved, and I blinked back tears of delayed shock.
‘The couple,’ I said, catching my breath. ‘The couple Mum was searching for. They live around here. I didn’t know it was such a rough neighbourhood.’ I felt like a kicked puppy.
‘Well we’ve come this far,’ he said striding onwards, and I raced to keep up with him.
We finally reached Sue and Derek Blake’s address and Cillian knocked on their shabby front door. Eventually it opened, and the smell of frying bacon escaped.
‘Derek Blake?’ I said to the man, and he nodded, rubbing a hand over his shaven head. He was solid, heavy, and intimidating.
‘I’m looking for Kate O’Donnell,’ I said in a rush. ‘You toured The Blue Mountains with her.’
‘What? The one whose husband died?’ he said, now rubbing his broad chin.
I nodded. ‘I’m their son.’
‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘You must be pretty gutted.’
I swallowed hard. Stay focused, Isaac.
‘I understand Kate came looking for you recently,’ Cillian said, clearly seeing me crumble.
‘Yeah, that’s right. She wanted a copy of a photo,’ Derek said. ‘Now if you don’t mind, I’m in the middle of something.’ He went to close the door.
‘What photo? Where is she now?’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘How the hell do I know?’
‘Your wife,’ I went on, sticking my foot inside. ‘Perhaps she’d remember.’
‘Sue?’ he said. ‘I doubt it. She can’t remember what happened yesterday - too much of the old amber nectar.’ He laughed, and gestured drinking with his hand. ‘Listen, I’m not being funny, and I’m sorry about your dad, and all, but your parents weren’t mine and our Sue’s type. They were friendly enough, but it was a bit like spending time with Judi Dench and Bob Geldof. Now I’m sure Judi and Bob are lovely people, but we didn’t want to spend time with them, thank you very much. No offence meant.’
I went to open my mouth and closed it again. He hadn’t finished.
‘Truth be told,’ he went on, ‘I didn’t want to go on the bloody tour in the first place. But it was a gift from the kids for our wedding anniversary. I told our Bernice, that’s our eldest, I said, “Bernice, love – you know I’m not one for travelling. I’d much prefer the wool I’ve got my eye on down the market.” A beautiful butterfly pom eyelash blend yarn, which they do it in purple and fuchsia.’
‘You knit?’ I said, unable to help myself. He really didn’t look the type.
‘You got a problem with that?’
‘No, no, it’s just…’
‘I don’t look the type,’ he said, as though he’d read my thoughts.
‘My gran taught me when I was a kid,’ he said. ‘The other lads teased me about it, so I toughened up.’
I smiled, remembering my gran trying to teach me. She never did get very far, said it was because I was left handed.
‘Not that it’s any of your business,’ Derek went on. ‘Anyway, our Bernice knew her mum wanted to travel, so we ended up on the bloody Blues, getting blisters as big as balls on our heels.’
I opened my mouth again, but he still hadn’t finished, and was nodding at two florescent pink cases by the door. ‘And thanks to your mum, we’re off again.’
‘Yeah, she told Sue about all the places she’d been in the world – said Adaminaby would always be her favourite. So we’re heading their today.’
‘Happy valley,’ I said, as memories of my childhood home drifted in.
‘If you say so,’ Derek said, rolling his eyes. ‘I hate travelling.’
‘So, the accident,’ Cillian said, steering the conversation back. ‘Do you remember anything about it?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Derek said with a sigh. ‘Truth is we fell behind that day. Your mum and dad and Aaron carried on without us.’
‘So the photograph my mum wanted, did you give it to her?’
‘Yeah, it was of Aaron and your parents. I took it on my phone just before we gave up.’
‘You couldn’t print me off a copy, could you?’ I asked. ‘I’m happy to pay.’
He thought for a moment, scratching his head, ‘Twenty dollars?’
‘If you like.’ I pulled out my wallet and handed over two ten dollar bills.
‘Won’t be a tick,’ he said, disappearing.
Cillian and I looked at each other but didn’t speak. Minutes later, Derek returned with the picture.
‘I’m sorry about your dad,’ he said handing it to me, before closing the door.
As we walked away in silence I studied the photo. It was scary and unsettling to think it was taken minutes before Dad died.
We finally reached The Royal Botanic Gardens, which were crowded with tourists. There seemed to be too much of everything: happiness, excitement, sun. Things I couldn’t appreciate, and wondered if I ever would again.
‘Thanks for saving me,’ I said. ‘Those clowns were going to take my dad’s ring.’ I turned it round my finger.
‘No worries, Isaac. I’m just glad I was there.’
‘Why were you there?’
‘I was following you - looking out for you. Being there for you,’ he said.
I smiled. ‘That’s kind of you, Cillian. You’re a good friend.’
‘Friend,’ he said, as though testing out the word.
‘Yes, friend, and I’m sorry.’
‘What for?’ he said.
‘Not wanting to play Cluedo.’
He smiled. ‘It was a silly idea. I just thought it would take the pressure off a bit, you know.’
We continued walking for some time before he said, ‘You’ve got shadows under your eyes, mate. I worry about you.’
‘Who are you, my mother?’ It sounded wrong, as though I wasn’t grateful for his concern, which I was. ‘Honestly, Cillian, I’m OK.’ I shoved my hands deep into my pockets.
The answer in my head was a resounding no. I was far from OK. ‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Look at the cockatoos,’ cried a middle-aged woman, rushing towards a flock on the grass nearby.
‘Stay there, Tilly. I’ll get a photo,’ her companion called after her.
I looked at Cillian and he smiled. ‘Is that your childhood friend?’ he said.
I shook my head. ‘Not unless she’s aged in days.’
It was obvious my Tilly wasn’t the only Tilly in Australia, and maybe it had been some random Tilly I’d seen at Molly Malone’s - some beautiful random Tilly who I couldn’t get out of my head.
We walked on, the sun on our backs, the spectacular views wasted on me.
‘So you were in love once,’ I said, observing Cillian’s giant strides. Beads of perspiration had gathered on his forehead, and his T-shirt was dark with sweat beneath his waistcoat.
‘Yes, there was someone once,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Just before Mum died, but when I began obsessing over finding Gary, she found someone who had time for her.’
‘Do you ever go into photos of her? The woman you loved.’
He shook his head. ‘No point. I know what went wrong. I was useless. I didn’t deserve her. Obsessed by my past, you see, unable to focus on the present or our future together.’
We entered an area covered by a pagoda, fruit bats asleep in the trees above our heads. My mother once told me how they take food to their mouths with tiny clawed thumbs at the tops of their wings. It made me realise how versatile creatures are; how they adapt to make things work against the odds. I had to be the same. I wasn’t about to give up my quest to find my mother.
‘We will find her, won’t we?’ I said, searching Cillian’s face as though he had the answers.
‘Most definitely,’ he said.
And it could have been my imagination, but I felt sure I saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes.