Fly in, fly far away

Life together, at a distance

THE ARGUMENT IN the car starts the way it always does. One brother’s arm is around the other’s shoulders, the two are wrestling, both are laughing and then the eldest uses too much force, the youngest screams and from the front seat I swear. It’s as if it has been scripted, except…

‘It’s different with you here,’ I say to my husband. ‘One of them sits in the front when you’re not here. There’s no arguments.’

This is how it has been the whole week of his visit. He doesn’t know which seat is his at the table or where he should hang his towel. He doesn’t know where to drop the kids for school or which day the bins are emptied. I moved some dresses out of the wardrobe to make room for his suit, but there’s no drawer for his socks, so he uses his suitcase. We eat from plates and drink from glasses that he has never seen. I sleep on the right when I have usually used the left. And now we are in the car that I bought, driving him back to the airport, and our boys have started to fight. I hadn’t noticed they were missing until now.

For six months I have lived in Adelaide with our children while he lives in Abu Dhabi. We did live together in Abu Dhabi, all of us, for seven years, but then it was time for me to leave. The usual array of expatriate worries underlay the decision: giving your children somewhere to call home; missing too many family weddings; parents not as young as they used to be; and, year after year, the distance growing between you and your friends. It was time to come home.

But the issue of my husband’s employment seemed insurmountable. At other times in our lives when we’ve wanted to move, we’ve just chucked in our jobs and taken our chances wherever we’ve landed. But it’s different this time. We’re older now and so are our children. Our superannuation, paying for our children’s university degrees, the uneasy knowledge that health in middle age becomes a more precarious thing – we have to be more careful. ‘We can always come back,’ we said to ourselves as we prepared to leave Adelaide again. ‘There’ll always be a job.’ But after seven years, too much had changed. Old allies gone, a new CEO. The Adelaide office is managed out of Melbourne now. My husband is an engineer and there aren’t many cranes on the skyline.

‘There’s a job in Sydney,’ my husband said as we tried to negotiate his repatriation. ‘We could go to Brisbane. What about Perth?’

But I wanted – I want – to live in Adelaide. We can afford a better house, we understand the schools, the food is good, the festivals are fabulous. But there’s much more to it than that. I’ll be fifty soon. After a lifetime of wanderlust and restlessness, of travelling here and living there, I’m feeling the need to settle, to bury my roots in something more than sand. It is a deep and visceral need. I’m from Adelaide; what’s the point of living in Australia but still not feeling at home?

And that’s how it’s come to be that I live in Adelaide and my husband lives in Abu Dhabi.

‘CAN YOU CHANGE these light bulbs while you’re here?’ I ask when he arrives. ‘Can you hang the corkboard? Can you buy a rake and a broom and deal with the leaves?’

I can do all these things, of course I can. I can change light bulbs, drill holes, rake leaves – but I have underestimated the physical energy that moving back to Adelaide would take. I’m sick of problem solving, I’m over making decisions, and I’m exhausted. You’re here for five days and you’ve got six months’ work to do, my love. Roll up your sleeves.

‘Have you got your passport?’ I ask in the car.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I guess it’s in my bag.’

‘You haven’t checked? I would have checked.’

‘She would have double-checked,’ says a voice from the back seat.

‘She would have triple-checked.’ His brother.

Of course he hasn’t double-checked, because he doesn’t need to. I have already forgotten that in the life he leads it’s part of the subconscious act of leaving home. Wallet, phone, passport.

I feel the physical distance between myself and the rest of the world. In Abu Dhabi people come and go, come and go. London is six hours one way, Singapore is six hours the other. In Adelaide, people leave. Or people stay. A six-hour flight will hardly get you out of the country.

At night, I lie in my bed and listen for the Emirates flight to Dubai. I follow the sound of the plane for as long as I can out over the sea, banking, turning, beginning its twelve-hour flight to the west. This is the noise that woke me in the mornings when I was a child. When I was my children’s age and my parents brought me to Adelaide, we stayed in my grandfather’s house a few streets away from where I live now. I woke to the sound of planes taking off, flying over the suburbs as they left Adelaide behind. Listening now to that late-night plane, I remember how it felt to wake in that house down the road. Somewhere safe that wasn’t home. ‘Goodnight, my love.’ I send a final WhatsApp message. ‘I can’t wait until you are home.’

‘Do you know my biggest fear?’ I said to my husband when we were trying to work out how it would all work out. ‘I’m scared you’ll die and then I’ll never have sex again.’

‘What? Why would you think that?’ He laughed. ‘I won’t die.’

But as our period of global celibacy grows longer, I feel our intimacy diminishing. Skype calls get harder to co-ordinate, and each time he visits we take longer to find our equilibrium. I think of all the hundreds of thousands of immigrant labourers. Philippine families who can’t afford trips home. Labourers who have their passports taken by employers. Get over yourself, I think.

EVEN AIRPORTS ARE more relaxed on Sunday mornings. The place is full, but no one is running across from the car park or pushing their way to the front of the queue. My husband gets his bags checked through for his connecting flight to Melbourne, then on to Abu Dhabi.

‘Coffee?’ he asks.

‘Is there a Subway?’ asks our eldest boy.

They line up at Cibo and I go to the newsagent. I think of the many long nights ahead, and buy The Saturday Paper, The New Scientist, The New Yorker, The Guardian Weekly, and Adam Spencer’s Big Book of Numbers.

‘Have a good journey,’ the woman behind the counter says to me.

‘Oh, I’m not…’ I stop, because I don’t have the energy to explain and because she isn’t interested in my explanations. ‘Thanks.’

I go back to Cibo. The hot chocolate is as good as it ever is, the cheese in the piadina is melted the perfect amount, but the caffe latte is more of a miss than a hit. We stand at the long glass wall, looking out over the tarmac to the gentle grey line of the hills.

And then we are standing at the gate and the final passengers are boarding.

How did it happen? How did we come to this place where we would be spending our lives together but living apart?

‘It’s not the life I would have chosen.’ I have heard myself saying it over cups of coffee and glasses of wine. True enough that it’s not what we planned – even two months ago we didn’t know we’d be living like this. But it’s not the life I would have chosen? I don’t know if that’s true, because what life would I choose? Which decisions would I make differently? Which fingers of fate would I pray to change direction? I will always want to leave, to travel, work overseas. And I would always want to come back.

My husband crosses the airbridge. He does not look back. I watch as he lifts his hand, rubs it across his forehead and over the back of his head.

I cannot catch my breath.

‘It’s all right, Mum.’ The boys close in around me. The youngest starts to talk and the eldest rubs my back.

On our way out, we pass a man my husband used to know back in the days when we said we could always come back. He has put on weight, his hair has thinned, his corduroy jacket is brown. I think of catching his eye, of waving, but the forks in the road and paths not chosen make it all too exhausting.

The youngest boy is still talking, the eldest still rubbing my back.

We get in the car and, partly because we have to take care of each other now, but mostly because there is one in the front and one in the back, there are no sibling arguments.

I drive and soon we are home.

The key is in the lock, the door is open.

The corkboard has not been hung.

The lightbulbs have not been changed.

Leaves, blown by the wind, scrape across the verandah and into the foyer.

My love is flying and I am still.

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