Continental drift

ALL SHE THOUGHT about was leaving for England. There was nowhere else to go. America, of course, but America was big and brash and she was neither. She was a sweet, dreamy innocent, so America would not suit her at all. At least that's what Hugh said, and Hugh knew everything about her.

Professor Mackay had introduced them at the university staff club one Friday afternoon. Hugh, meet Jean. Jean, meet Hugh. What is everyone drinking? Hugh had bowed and kissed her hand and told her what a pleasure it was to meet her. She had spent the evening staring into his navy-blue eyes and then invited him back to her flat for dinner. In 1975 it was not unusual for men to sleep with girls half their age on the first meeting. In university circles, as far as she could tell, it was common.

In the morning he presented her with one of his books on the history of shipping design. He wrote a poem in the flyleaf by WB Yeats, which began: When you are old and grey and full of sleep / And nodding by the fire, take down this book... She was impressed that he knew the poem by heart, when by training he was a naval historian. She imagined that all Englishmen must be like this, charming and broad in their education. She invited him to move out of his hotel for the weekend and move in with her.

'My flatmate's away in Melbourne,' she said. 'It's her mother's birthday.'

'You talked me into it,' he said.

Each time they had sex he apologised for not being as young and spritely as all of her other boyfriends.

'What other boyfriends?' she said.

'Who was the likely lad at the staff club?' he said.

She explained that Don was just someone she worked with. They were both doing research for Professor Mackay as a way to make money over the summer. He had them reading whalers' logbooks on microfiche and making a note of each time a ship made landfall on a Pacific island.

'He's nobody,' she said.

It wasn't true. Don was in love with her. She knew that because he made it so obvious. He kept calling her and inviting her out for drives in his new car. Once, he'd driven her to the house of a judge so he could show her the kind of house he wanted to own when he was a judge himself. It was right on the harbour, with a view that stretched all the way to the Opera House. She told him the house was lovely, if you were into that sort of thing. She wasn't trying to be rude. It was just that Don seemed to have his life all planned out, while she preferred the idea of letting things drift.

After the weekend was over Hugh flew back to England to be with his wife and three children. He wrote to her from his home in Dartmouth saying how cold it was and how much he missed her. She wrote back saying that as soon as she had enough money she was flying to London to start a new life. If I stay marooned on this desert island for much longer I will die of loneliness and boredom, she wrote, and she meant it. After meeting Hugh she'd finally understood just how far away she was from the real world. Yes, Australia was lovely and day after day the weather was perfect, but there was something lacking, some soulfulness that only old countries could possess. In this way her desire to leave was connected with her desire to be reunited with Hugh. It was a kind of homesickness. Only when she reached England would she be able to shed her innocence and uncover her true and passionate nature. Hugh would see to this. She wasn't quite sure how he would manage it, given his circumstances, but she was convinced that love would find a way.

In the meantime she spent her days in the dark little room where the microfiche machines were. She and Don sat side by side and talked in a desultory way about the work they were doing. Don understood its purpose better than she did. If Professor Mackay could account for every encounter between the islanders in the Pacific and the white men from the whaling boats, it would help him to prove a theory of his about a lost Spanish caravel that predated the whalers by a couple of centuries.

She tried to seem enthusiastic, and in a way she was, but not about the lost Spaniards. To her the logs had a horrible fascination all their own, for what they described in their phlegmatic mariner's prose was a catastrophe. Sailors let loose ashore for days or weeks while their vessels took on water and food or were laid up for repairs: it was easy to imagine what went on. How defenceless the islanders seemed, and how doomed. She never took note of a landfall without feeling a pang of sorrow. Some of these people must have guessed from the outset what it would all come to, especially given that the boats returned season after season and could not be persuaded, even by violence, to stay away. Newly impressed by the vastness of the world, the sailors must also have learned to pity the beauty of islands and feel ashamed.


HER MOTHER TRIED to talk her out of going. England, she said, did not particularly welcome strangers, apart from which it was cold and grey for ten months of the year and never had anything that could truly be called a summer. She knew because she'd lived in London after the war and been treated like a leper.

'I'm not going to have fun,' said Jean.

'Well, what are you going for?' said her mother.

'To test myself,' said Jean.

Her mother laughed. 'I don't understand,' she said. 'You have such a good life here with all your friends, and your job, and Don is such a lovely young man.'

Which was right, as far as it went. But her mother didn't understand that she would happily have traded all of these things for one more weekend with Hugh. She barely understood it herself. It was just that she had a vision in her mind in which Hugh and England were inextricably entwined and utterly irresistible. It must have been like this for explorers, she thought, when they set out on a sea voyage with only their desires to guide them. Nevertheless, she felt ashamed of her lack of gratitude. Her ancestors had gone to all the trouble of leaving the old world behind, and now all she wanted was to reverse all that inglorious history and get back to where they came from. The old place names sang to her: the Wye Valley, Ayrshire, Devon and Dorset. Her mother had written them all down for her so she could visit the family ghosts on weekend expeditions into the heart of the country.

Don drove her to the airport and kissed her goodbye at the gate. They had slept together by then, but as far as she was concerned it had not been a success. Don had been trying too hard, as had she. It had been a matter of giving in to him and pretending to enjoy it because it seemed unfair to refuse him any longer, especially given that she was going away.

She didn't tell him she wasn't coming back. She didn't tell him about Hugh. She thought she would wait for a while, then write to him with the news that there was somebody else. This was the kind of shameful fudging that she had been hoping to avoid and was now desperate to put behind her. She wanted to be where nobody knew her or had any expectations of her future, nobody except her lover. She almost cheered when the plane left the ground. After that it was so simple. She just had to sit in her seat and watch the desert down below her slowly slide away until it came to an end and fell into the sea.

In London she found a job as an au pair in Barnes. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing and at least she had a roof over her head. The child's name was Simon. His mother and father were separated but saw each other whenever the father was home from Hong Kong, about once every six weeks. He was something in finance and the mother was something in publishing, and Simon had half-brothers and half-sisters in various boarding schools around the country. Simon was too young for boarding school, so he had Jean instead. She didn't mind the work. It was easy. All she had to do was be there when Simon came home from school, feed him his evening meal and put him to bed before nine o'clock. Saturdays and Sundays, during the day, she was free to do whatever she liked. If she wasn't meeting Hugh she would catch the bus into town and go to plays and films and free talks at the ICA. If she was meeting Hugh she would tell her employer a lie about staying overnight with an old friend of her mother's up in Oxford. She never knew exactly why they had to meet in Oxford but Hugh said it had something to do with his research and she had no reason to doubt him.

Hugh was older than she remembered, and not as handsome. Sometimes he looked downright ragged. The same could be said for England. It was less dazzling than she'd imagined: beautiful in parts, but mostly bleak and unlovely, as were so many of the people. And her mother had been right about the weather. It was never warm and always damp, like the inside of a cave. When she expressed her disgust to Hugh he laughed at her. 'Welcome to Great Britain,' he said.

In an effort to cheer her up he took her on a road trip to Yorkshire. It rained the entire time, except for their last afternoon together when the clouds dissolved and the weak sunshine broke through. They walked around the town of Whitby in the mock-summer sunlight and then along the seafront, while he told her the story of the colliers on which Captain Cook had learned to sail. They were flat-bottomed, he explained, so that they could be unloaded on the beach if need be. The Endeavour was a collier, he told her, very stable and with lots of room inside for storing provisions.

'Fascinating,' she said. And it was. She could well understand how a bright boy like James Cook might have felt cooped up in Yorkshire, especially given that the whole of Europe was just half a day's sail away. She was beginning to think she'd made a mistake coming to England to be with Hugh. He was a nice man, too nice to leave his wife. It occurred to her that a different kind of man would stop telling her to wait while he made up his mind what to do. A different kind of man would have shown her by now what it meant to live large, instead of which Hugh had retreated and become almost paralysed with fear. Their sex life had suffered accordingly.

Perhaps she should have gone to Paris, or even to Rome. If she'd done that she'd be halfway to being fluent in French or Italian by now, rather than biding her time in Barnes and growing older by the minute. If she waited too long she'd end up like Simon's mother, shrill and nervy and constantly carping on the phone to her friends about the price of pimentos and flights to Spain.

Simon's mother took her to Malaga, where she was house-sitting for a friend. The cafés and beaches were full of English pensioners complaining about the gypsies and the sewage in the sea. There was oil too. Simon came out of the water with globules of it stuck to the soles of his feet and clinging to his hair. She helped him to soap it off and he helped her to take the ticks out of the dog's ears before they bled him to death. It struck her that she had no wish to return to London when the time came, that she would much prefer to catch the train up to Seville and then to Madrid to see what the real Spain was like. In the end she decided to go back for the boy's sake, because she didn't want to be next on the long list of people who failed to put his interests ahead of their own. She reasoned she could wait until his mother sent him off to boarding school after the summer and then leave.

She wrote to her mother that she was thinking of moving to France. England is such a smug little island, she wrote. I feel stifled here, as if I'm breathing used air. She had no idea what she would do for money in Europe once her savings ran out. All she knew was that she couldn't go home - that would mean she'd failed the test, a basic requirement of which was to stay away for as long as it took to lose all trace of innocent sweetness and turn into a worldly sophisticate. But this was never going to happen in Barnes.

On their last weekend in Oxford she told Hugh she was tired of waiting for him to make a decision. 'I need to find a direction in life,' she said.

He had anticipated something of the sort, he said, and kissed her goodbye. 'Forget me,' he said.

'I already have,' she replied.

All the way back to London in the train she swallowed her tears, while outside the rain fell in billowing sheets that shut out the scenery. It wasn't until later that week, when she was sitting alone in a cinema, that she gave in and cried. And then it was because Australia had never been as beautiful to her in all her years of living there as it appeared now before her on the screen. The desert scenes in the film were unbearable. She watched them with a lump in her throat and dabbed her eyes every now and then on her coat sleeve. It was one thing to leave your country, she realised, but an entirely different thing to stop missing the light. Clearly that was the part of the test called Grief, for which, even in Paris, she knew she would never find a cure.

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