We drove along Snowy Mountain Highway, until we reached Adaminaby.
‘So this is where you spent part of your childhood,’ Cillian said, as we passed through the quiet town.
‘Sure is,’ I said, overtaking a couple of cyclists and a quad bike.
As we passed St. John’s Church, I remembered Mum telling me how the building was moved brick by brick, like most of the houses in the area, from Old Adaminaby, which was now under Lake Eucumbene about five mile away.
Memories flooded in of Dad taking me trout fishing on the lake. I’d been mesmerised by the trees drowned beneath it, their branches breaking the surface like twisted fingers. The cemetery on the banks had also fascinated me. Dad would tell chilling ghost stories as we sat in the boat in the moonlight, which pricked my imagination. Imagination I’d lost somewhere between then and now.
‘I loved it here,’ I said, fighting an urge to cry.
We continued past sparsely dotted houses, goats in generous pens, and my old school. We didn’t see a soul, the population apparently as small as it had been when I was a child.
We pulled up in front of a store near the Big Trout, and I smiled, remembering how I used to be convinced I’d catch one as huge as the ten metre high fibreglass model.
‘I’ll show the staff in the shop a photo of Mum. Ask if they’ve seen her,’ I said, opening the car door. ‘You hungry?’
‘Starving,’ he said. ‘Pretty thirsty too, mate, if I told the truth.’
I climbed out, and headed into the shop. But I was out of luck. Nobody there had seen Mum.
‘Where did you live as a kid?’ Cillian said, once I was back in the car.
‘Just round the corner from here.’ I handed him a pre-packed sandwich and a bottle of water. ‘The owner sold the place to a holiday rental company after we moved to Springfield.’ I gulped down the water, my mind whirring. ‘Maybe she’s there,’ I said, a surge of hope racing through me. I snapped on my seatbelt. ‘She loved that house.’
‘Worth a try,’ Cillian said, biting into his sandwich as I reversed the car too fast, the roar of the engine at odds with the quiet surroundings.
We pulled up outside my old home. It was nothing like I remembered. It had been pretty run down when we lived there, but clearly the holiday rental company had spent thousands on it.
We got out of the car and walked up the path, memories racing to greet me: voices from my past, getting louder - neighbours, friends, my school teacher - happy times.
When we reached the door, I hesitated. If I did nothing I could stay in this bubble of hope, believing my mum was inside, ready to spring open the door - greet me with open arms like she did when I was a kid. Once I rang the bell, and a stranger answered, my bubble would burst.
‘Ring the bell, son,’ Cillian said gently, hovering behind me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘OK.’ I pressed my finger on the bell, and a shrill sound broke through the house.
We waited, but there was no reply. I looked towards a silver car parked on the drive. Had Mum hired it? Was she inside?
I reached for the door handle and pushed it down. It was open. ‘Should we go in?’ I said, looking about. Realising that without me noticing, the sun had gone down, replaced by a dark star-filled sky. There was no sign of life anywhere.
‘We’ve come a long way not to,’ Cillian said.
I pushed the door wider, and we stepped inside.
Instinctively I knew where the light switch was, and flicked it on, illuminating the hall. It looked nothing like it had when I was a child. There were no clues that we’d ever lived there; no baby photos of me, no pictures of my first day at school, or the one of me holding up a trout I’d caught, that I’d insisted on throwing back. But then I hadn’t expected there to be.
Still, there was something familiar in the air I couldn’t put my finger on.
Silently, we made our way to the lounge, and I switched on the light, bringing the room into sharp clarity. That’s when I saw her, curled on the sofa like a child. She was clutching a photograph. I rushed over and crouched beside her, tears almost blinding me. ‘Mum!’ My heart was thumping. ‘Oh God. Mum!’
Cillian pulled out his phone, and began thumbing the keypad. ‘Christ, I can’t get a signal,’ he cried, waving it around, pacing back and forth.
I shook my mother gently and the photo fell to the floor. It was the same one Sue and Derek Blake had given me. ‘She’s not waking up, Cillian,’ I cried, brushing tears away. My mind felt paralysed. ‘What’s wrong with her? I don’t know what to do.’
He was suddenly beside me, picking up an empty bottle from the floor. ‘I knew it,’ he said, his voice shaking.
‘Knew she’d taken some of the potion with her when she left me,’ he said, picking up the photograph. ‘She must be in the picture, Isaac. In Phototime.’
‘Mum!’ I cried, shaking her harder. ‘She should come out if we call her, surely.’ I shook her again. ‘Mum, Mum! Wake up.’ She didn’t move. ‘Oh God, is she stuck there? Stuck in Phototime?’
Cillian rubbed his face. ‘Suki said if we don’t come out when the five minutes is up, we begin again, over and over,’ he said. ‘This is my fault.’ He rose, and headed for the door. ‘Jesus, I need to get a signal on this bloody phone, so I can call an ambulance.’
He went outside, and I turned back to Mum, stroked her pale, lifeless face. She looked as if she was in a coma, but I knew Cillian was right; she was locked in Phototime.
I placed trembling fingers around her wrist, pressing down on her pulse, relieved I could feel a faint heartbeat. ‘Mum,’ I whispered. ‘It’s me, Isaac.’
Her eyes finally flickered open. ‘Isaac?’ she said, her voice weak. ‘Is it really you?’
A wave of relief washed through me, so strong it made me dizzy. I pulled her into my arms, turning towards the door. ‘Cillian!’ I yelled. ‘She’s awake. She’s going to be OK.’
A squeal of car tyres outside, followed by a resounding thud, sent a shard of panic through my body. I let go of Mum and rushed to the window.
I slammed my palms against the glass, heart thudding. A man had jumped out of a car parked haphazardly, its headlights illuminating a body lying in the road. The man crouched over the body, and even from a distance I could see the panic in his eyes. ‘Cillian!’
Hours passed, as I sat in the hospital waiting room, my head in my hands.
‘They’ve checked me over, Isaac,’ Mum said, and I looked up to see her finally in front of me. ‘I’m fine. I can go home.’
I jumped to my feet. ‘Thank God,’ I said, hugging her, not wanting to let go.
We sat down.
‘Any news about Cillian?’ she said, taking hold of my hand.
I shook my head. ‘I spoke to him briefly, and told him you’d woken up. But he’s in a bad way, Mum.’ My mouth was dry, my eyes sore. Images of my friend lying so still in the road played on a loop in my head. The anguished driver had tried to avoid blame, asking over and over, ‘What the hell was he doing, wandering in the middle of the road?’
Mum pushed my hair from my eyes, like she used to when I was a child. ‘This is my fault,’ she said.
‘No, no it isn’t.’
‘It is. I stole what belonged to Cillian,’ she continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. Her eyes were bloodshot, dark shadows underneath. She looked thin, and her normally neat hair was tangled. ‘The potion wasn’t mine to take.’
‘You had your reasons,’ I said, trying to understand. This was supposed to have been a happy reunion, but it suddenly didn’t feel like one.
‘I suppose I did,’ she said quietly. ‘I wanted to see your dad again.’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘I missed him so much, Isaac. I wanted to believe there was something else.’ My hand tightened around hers. ‘But I shouldn’t have taken it. All I’ve done is end up hurting you.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said, looking away from her, but I knew it was obvious I was far from fine.
‘I need to explain,’ she said, cupping my chin and turning me to face her. ‘At least let me try.’
I knew I didn’t have much choice. And anyway, maybe it would help.
‘When Cillian told me about Phototime I got it into my head that if I went into the photo, I could save your father.’ She paused, and I could see she was struggling not to cry. ‘I knew Sue and Derek had taken a photo shortly before the accident. If I could get hold of it and go in as Aaron, I could save Dad.’ She shook her head. ‘It was a ridiculous idea.’
I wasn’t sure it was. I’d considered it myself after seeing him fall, believing if I went in again – or even stayed in - I might be able to grab his hand.
‘So, I went into the photo when I was in Sydney, but something wasn’t right,’ Mum said, her voice low. ‘It was as though I needed to be somewhere closer to him. We’d been at our happiest in Adaminaby.’ She gave a brief smile. ‘Remember?’
I nodded, unable to speak.
‘As soon as I arrived there, I was drawn to our old house. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the ‘to rent’ sign in the window with a number to call.’ She paused for a moment, her gaze fixed somewhere beyond me. ‘Once I was in the house, I became obsessed with retracing your dad’s last steps over and over, certain I could change things.’ A tear slid down her cheek. ‘It was the sound of your voice that brought me out.’ Her gaze returned to mine. ‘I realised I had other things to live for,’ she said, placing a hand on my cheek. ‘I’m so sorry, Isaac.’
‘Don’t be,’ I said, forcing the words past a tightness in my throat. ‘You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.’
She leaned in closer, her face soft with relief. ‘I didn’t tell the medical team I’d been out for as long as I had,’ she said, and I wondered for a moment just how long she’d been in Phototime – she looked as though she hadn’t eaten in a while. ‘They might have thought I was part alien, or crazy.’
She was trying to make me smile, but my mouth wouldn’t obey. ‘I miss, Dad,’ I said.
‘He loved you, Isaac.’ She stroked my cheek with her thumb. ‘We were planning to visit.’
‘I’ve been into Phototime too.’
‘You have?’ Her smile faded.
‘I saw you at Molly Malone’s.’ The words felt weird, as I pictured Dad in his green leprechaun hat.
‘You have to be careful, Isaac,’ she said. ‘It’s like a drug.’
‘I saw Tilly too.’
Mum nodded slowly. ‘Mr Cooper still lives in their old house in Springfield. Still a policeman, I believe.’ She gave me a searching look. ‘She’s grown into a lovely young woman, Isaac. Very pretty. Very American.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You were close as children.’ Mum sounded nostalgic. ‘Remember how she preferred being at our house, away from her sparring parents?’ She sighed. ‘She doesn’t talk to her dad. It’s all terribly sad.’
A couple plonked down a few seats away, oblivious to us, and I recognised them as Sue and Derek Blake. He was holding a towel around his arm, blood soaked into the fabric.
‘We came to Adaminaby to relax, fish, cycle - have fun,’ Sue growled. ‘And all you do is knit.’
‘That’s no reason to stab me with the bloody knitting needle.’
‘Well maybe you’ll give me more attention next time,’ she said, folding her arms.
‘I would if you stopped knocking back the amber nectar.’
‘It’s the couple from the tour,’ Mum whispered, and I nodded. ‘Cillian spoke of coincidences in Phototime.’
I remembered the Phototime side-effects Cillian had listed, so relieved that hairs hadn’t grown on my bum. But I wasn’t sure Sue and Derek Blake turning up had anything to do with Phototime. I’d read on the internet that coincidences are an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances without perceived underlying connection. In this case there was an underlying connection: Mum had recommended Adaminaby, and they’d decided to go there. It wasn’t unlikely that we’d all be sitting in the nearest hospital to the town. Was it?
We fell silent as nurses and doctors rushed past, observing the patients and visitors waiting.
Eventually, Mum gripped my hand again. ‘I’m so sorry, Isaac.’
I turned to meet her eye. ‘What for?’
‘For taking you away from Australia, when you were a child. ’
‘I loved England, Mum – eventually. You had every right to move.’
‘And Gran needed us.’ I added, with understanding.
I rose to see a doctor approaching in a white coat. ‘Yes.’ Please don’t let it be bad news.
‘The thing is…’ she began.
Just tell me.
‘Cillian Murphy has gone.’
‘What? Oh God, no...’ I covered my face with my hands, tears scalding my eyes.
‘No, no, sorry. I must stop doing that.’ She smiled. ‘Not that sort of gone. He’s gone, as in left the hospital. He was wired to a drip one minute, and gone the next.’
I stared at her. ‘Where? Where did he go?’ I said. ‘What about his head injury? You said he’d cracked bones.’ I was talking like someone had pressed a fast forward button.
‘Admittedly he shouldn’t have left the hospital. We had tests and scans lined up. But if someone wants to leave, we have no way of stopping them.’ She held out a folded piece of paper. ‘He left this on the pillow. I believe it’s for you.’
I took the paper from her. My name was scrawled in black biro.
I unfolded the letter and read.
You’re a good lad, and I couldn’t be happier that you’ve found your mum, and she’s OK.
I’ve enjoyed our time together, but the time’s come that I need to be on my way. Continue my search for Gary.
I’ll never forget our time together.
Take care of yourself, son – and remember ‘life goes on’.
I dashed a tear from the corner of my eye, and turned to Mum. ‘Where would he go?’
‘Back to Yulara, maybe?’ she said, as though clutching at something – anything. ‘His work’s there, isn’t it? His home.’
‘We need to find him, make sure he’s OK,’ I said, realising I didn’t even know his mobile number, and knowing my words were useless. I sensed Cillian was the kind of man who would vanish without trace, if he didn’t want to be found. He’d spent most of his life alone, searching for his brother. He needed no one. Not even me.
Gus rushed out of his house as we pulled up in a taxi, having dropped off our hire cars on our route home.
‘Kate, Isaac,’ he said, pulling us into a bear hug. It was as though he’d been waiting at the window since I left. ‘I’m so glad you’re both OK.’ He released us, and added gently, ‘Come and see me as soon as you are settled. I’ll crack open some wine or lager or whatever you fancy. June’s made a carrot cake.’
‘Thank you,’ Mum said, with a tired smile. Turning, she headed towards her front door.
Gus dropped the keys into my hand. ‘I won’t be needing these anymore.’ He tilted his head, his kind eyes meeting mine. ‘I’m so pleased you found her.’
Inside the house, the cats appeared.
‘It’s so good to see you, boys,’ Mum said, bending down to fuss them. She was smiling, but I could tell she was finding it hard; being there without Dad.
‘I’ll make a cup of tea, shall I?’ I said. She didn’t reply. It was as though she hadn’t heard me. ‘Are you OK, Mum?’ I sounded like a little boy.
‘I will be.’ She rose and took hold of my hands. ‘Will you stay here for a while?’ she said. ‘I realise you’ve got to get back to England eventually, but…’
‘I’m not going back,’ I said. I hadn’t thought until that moment that I wouldn’t return, but the truth was I had nothing to go back for. Not even Ricky could lure me over with his declarations of love. At that moment in time I knew I belonged in Australia, with my mum.
The cats followed us into the kitchen, purring.
‘Cillian will be OK,’ said Mum, as I filled the kettle. ‘He’s a survivor.’
‘I know,’ I said, but I wasn’t so sure. I’d glimpsed a vulnerable man under the powerful exterior. A man I cared about more than I’d realised.
We wandered around the kitchen, Mum feeding the cats, me hunting for t-bags and sugar.
‘There’s some dried milk in the cupboard,’ Mum said, seeing me sniff a carton I’d taken from the fridge, and pull a face. The atmosphere felt strained, as though neither of us wanted to say anything for fear of upsetting the other.
‘Shall I call for a pizza?’ I said, barging towards a pile of menus near the toaster. I fumbled with them, dropping one on the floor, knocking a cup from the mug tree. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘Yes, darling,’ she said, approaching and placing a steadying hand on my arm. ‘Let’s have a pizza. I’m guessing you still love mushrooms.’
She smiled. ‘Some things never change,’ she said, picking up the phone.
She was right. I would always love heaps of mushrooms on my pizza, however much my world spun on its axis.