'THIS IS HOW it was, when I saw you for the first time.'
When Mackenzie Lachlan butted up against the side of Australia he was twenty-five, with nowhere in particular to go and no one in particular to be. Walking up from his ship's anchorage on the too-bright, too-blue harbour, he turned at the sound of a Glaswegian accent – more angular than his northerly Scots, but still friendly for being familiar – and found himself talking to a rosy man called Ewan who'd been ashore a month and found a job on the railways. 'It's way away, laddie,' he'd said to Mac Lachlan, 'out in the space where your family must be from,' and he punched at his shoulder and laughed as Mac frowned. 'A river called Lachlan, man; I'm taking engines out there, out to the plains.' And Mac Lachlan, who liked a good story, thought he'd like to see the river that ran along in his name.
At the yards, with Ewan still pummelling his shoulders, he was told there were no jobs for the run, but – a nod, a wink – he might as well travel out with his mate. 'Off we go, lad,' Ewan boomed as he took a train – and Mac – out through the city's suburbs on their first run. 'But y'picked a lousy place to come looking for work, or a lousy time.'
They left the coast the next day, the engine hauling them south and west through green space, blond space, dust-dry space and white space that seemed to hold pure emptiness. 'And you'll see your family's river,' Ewan promised again and again, and Mac laughed too, this great space and all its potential blossoming inside him. He'd dreamed of places this open, this broad, this flat and inviting. This warm – teothadh, his gran would say.
The ranges and the hills, the slightest inclines and hummocks behind them, he could feel his imagination stretching out, wider and wider, trying to span not just this intoxicating stretch of open land but the very curve of the earth he could make out at its edge. He saw birds high in the air; he saw animals bounding along beside the line. He saw mirages and shadows that loomed where there was nothing to throw them, and strange figures that seemed to rise out of the tiny gap where the dirt met the sky, that ran with the train awhile before folding themselves back into that liminal rut. He saw different shapes picked out in stars, and different colours marking the phases of dawn, day and dusk. And when he arrived, he rode out to see this river that was somehow his, its water khaki, its edges soft with khaki gum leaves. He even passed a tiny place that bore his grandmother's Christian name, Maude, to match the river that marked her surname, Lachlan. And he took all this to mean that this was the place, in all of Australia, that he had been meant to find.
Back in town, he put out the word for any work and was told to meet with a carpenter early the next morning for a roofing job that was needed in a hurry.
He slept at the pub, his dreams spiked by tall thin figures that darted, all silhouette, along the horizon. And when he woke it was still dark, a frost on the ground, and the sound of snoring all along the hall. He washed his face, shaved, wetted down the worst of his hair, ate porridge in the pub's kitchen, drank a huge mug of tea, and was out in the clear, cold air as the first birds began to call.
He liked the town, the way it pressed together in a single clump rather than spreading wide in all the room it had. He liked the sound his boots made on its gravel roads. And he liked the river, had sat by its waters and written back to his gran on the other side of the world. Now, he followed the instructions the publican had given him, humming here and there, singing now and then – a snatch of 'Speed Bonnie Boat', a premature snatch of 'Morning Has Broken' – and entranced by the possibilities of all this dry space.
He did miss the coast, that wide surge of the water and the way its blue ran out towards the blue of the sky. He was an ocean boy – the cuan, he loved it – mucking along beaches for whelks and crabs, out on trawlers whenever he could, and swimming out as far as the grey Scottish water would let him, peering down at what was underneath. His gran had told him so many stories of the ashrays and the selkies and the blue men of the Minch, and he had wanted any glimpse of them he could get.
How cold it was, how cold, as Mac Lachlan swam through his childhood until his fingers were numb, then his hands, then his arms right up to his elbows. He never managed to stay in longer than a few minutes, shivering back across the rocks and home to find his gran with the fire high and the soup on the stove. She'd warm him up – teothadh – and fill him up, and tell him the next round of stories about the water lovers to make sure he wanted to go back.
But the water that lapped around this country, the water his ship had sailed through into Sydney: that had looked warm, welcoming, like you could swim for days towards its horizon. Whatever he found here, in this inland, with names that he recognised, and a span of sky as wide and as blue as the sea itself, he still wanted to get back to the shore, to the sand and the ocean. He wanted to see what its water held.
'My bonnie lies over the ocean,' he sang softly, as he rounded the last corner. He'd reached the edge of the town without realising it and before him lay the shape of a house, low and spreading, with its roof, triangular and partial, open to the morning. The road dipped down a little towards it, the first brightness of sunrise beyond in reds, pinks, golds: he was walking directly east. 'My bonnie lies over the sea.'
'Good morning, Mr Lachlan,' a voice called from up in the air, and as he looked to see where it had come from, he made out two figures perched on the roof's narrow frame. 'The kind gentleman in the public house said you'd be along early in the morning.' It was an odd accent, soft, with the first syllable of each word leant on a little, like a strangely rhythmic march. It was unlike any he'd heard before, and as his eyes adjusted to the changing light he made out the man, tall, fair, with a tanned face and a thick blond beard and moustache.
'Mr Kalm,' he called, 'I hope I've not kept you,' and as he raised his hand to wave it shaded his eyes for a moment, so that he saw her just as the ball of the sun came over the crest. Anikka Kalm, standing next to her father, watching the earth roll forwards into a new day. Tall and fair, like her father, her feet were set apart to balance on the beam – he thought, she'd stand well on any ship – and the bright rose-gold of the moment seemed to make her shimmer with light.
'The first time I saw you,' he would whisper to her afterwards, when he told her the story, 'it was just getting light. I took you for part of the sunrise.'
But at that moment, in that morning, he simply stood and gazed up at her while she stood above him and gazed out towards the sun.
Oskar Kalm swung down onto the ground, talked about frames and nails and slate and hours, and Mac agreed to everything, paying no attention to the conversation. He heard himself say, 'I'm more an ocean man than a carpenter'; heard Oskar say that one would have to be an ocean man to find oneself so far from home and in this part of the world at all. But then the shape of those words, too, disappeared with the sound of Anikka's voice.
'I've never seen the ocean,' she said, her voice halfway between the roundness of her father's Nordic accent and the stretch of every Australian voice Mac had encountered in this place so far. 'It must be so wide, so blue, so...' She fumbled for a word, fingers worrying at the air as if she might find it there. 'So wet.' And she blushed.
'My daughter,' said Oskar Kalm, 'was born rudely landlocked with my ending up here.' He swung a belt, a hammer, towards his new assistant, calling up to the girl that they needed to be getting on with the job they were there for. And Mac watched as she swung herself down – bending easily to grip the framework near her ankle, dropping down until her toes found the shape of a window below that, and then springing back to arrive standing, next to him, and almost as tall, on the grass.
'Mackenzie Lachlan,' he said, holding out his hand.
'Anikka Kalm,' she said, shaking it firmly.
'I could take you to see the ocean one day,' he said, and blushed.
'I could come with you to see that,' she said, laughing – although he wasn't sure if the laugh was for the suggestion of the ocean or the red flush on his cheeks. 'It's nice to meet you, Mr Lachlan. I'll bring some lunches out later in the day.'
And as she strode away, it seemed that the sun kept pace with her movement across the ground. Her blond hair was so bright it looked lit from within.