IF YOU WANT to know how we got here, we will tell you.
Once, not so long ago, we were everybody’s ageing parents. We lived in nursing homes, aged-care facilities, places called Freedom Villas. These were not always good places. Politicians loved coming to visit for morning tea, bringing their own cups. Thankfully our children visited too. They are good people – we’ve raised them well. Most of them are parents now. Somehow this has happened.
– My word, Marilyn says, it’s strange seeing your own children parent: the same thing giving them the shits that once gave you the shits.
– But also, Oliver says, the very creatures who brought love into your life get to see how magical it is.
We nod. Oliver is a real softie.
Most of our grandchildren are lovely. Most, by this stage of our lives, are teenagers. All of them busy bees, lots on their plates. They came to visit as often as they could. The girls turned up wearing sneakers and tiny denim shorts and shirts that were basically bras.
– But we loved it! We weren’t prudish about it!
– Absolutely not!
– We were prudish about nothing!
None of us is leery (well, except for Marshall, but he can’t move quickly). No, to those beautiful teenage girls we wanted to say (and some of us did), Oh, to be your age! You look gorgeous! Your skin – see how it returns to its shape after you press it like this? You’re glowing! Enjoy that, please. The boys, the best ones, our beautiful grandsons, we watched them carefully to see if they carried their mothers’ grocery bags into our Freedom Villas. We smiled when they searched for the best place to put our shaving cream, our barley sugars, our incontinence pads. We saw the muscles of their arms flex and their calves contract as they crouched to the ground. They didn’t quite know where to put their hands or how to embrace us.
– Anywhere is fine! Eleanor says.
– That’s right, Marilyn says. Come here, we would say. Give your nan a hug.
In their bodies, we remembered our own games of cricket and netball, the snap of a bathing cap at the pool and the pummel of water when we dived in. We remembered walking long distances with no destination in mind, or speeding up to catch the bus to work. Our bodies, the machinery, it was all understood and it all worked.
– Mabel here wants to say something.
– All right, Oliver says, let her speak.
– I feel such a lightness here, Mabel says, in this place. And in my head. This isn’t a bad thing. There’s an awakeness, isn’t there?
– You must take time to sleep each day, Mabel. You have to try.
Across the expanse of our beach, we’ve set up a dozen spots where we can sleep. Vito takes Mabel by the arm and steers her towards a nest made ready. Sleep comes at different times for us all. Since we began to wander, some of us developed a theory that rather than making us sleepier, the wandering – the getting lost – released something in our brains.
– Like a mechanism.
– It’s all mechanisms, Sarah says, gesturing her soft and wrinkled hands up and down her body.
What we’re trying to say is that we’ve never felt so awake.
LET ONE OF us explain. Eleanor is good at it.
– She’s very clear, yes.
– Precise, and not at all condescending.
– It would be my pleasure, Eleanor says. What happened is this: lots of people were living in that town.
– Lots of old people.
– That’s right, Eleanor says. And I’ll happily use that word: old. I see no problem with it. It’s a beautiful spot. The turtles go there in the summer, lay their eggs. You can go down in the middle of the night with torches if you’re quiet enough. A lot of us get rather caught up with those turtles and their eggs when they begin to hatch, with the plight of hundreds of tiny animals about to face the sea. The town where we come from is close to here, to this island. It has nice parks, plenty of cafés, a cinema–
– Cheap Tuesdays!
– Yes, all that. Well, one day, about two months ago, something began to happen, across all our brains.
– It might have been the tides, Vito says.
– Tides have been here longer than any of us, says Brian.
– It was a daytime event at first, says Marshall. Something we did in the daytime.
– No one knows for sure the exact reason, Eleanor says. But Sarah used to be head of nursing at Townsville Public. And she’s tried her best to piece things together and do her own research. You know how computers work? Well, it’s something like our very own inner positioning–
– GPS-related, Don says.
– Yes, just like that. It changed. Our brains changed.
– And we began to wander.
Putting aside the tides or the moon, here’s what we think: events of a lifetime accrue in our brains like calcium. Like radium, settling in our bones, a never-ending half-life. The brain can only take so much. Sometimes, in our Freedom Villas, we were left for hours, our bladders pinched, our bones aching in the dark. Thirsty at noon with a jug of water just out of reach, and a call button that may as well have been connected to our very own breastbones.
But enough of that.
Even the good stuff weighs one down before it hollows one out. Our entire planet – every thought that’s ever been had, every deed – is determined, controlled and organised by the brain, by what we cannot see. Trillions upon trillions of messages back and forth, if old age is where you find yourself. Our brains began to misfire and all the old faces, and the doorways and hallways in our homes, and streets and patterns in the outside world, they became a puzzle. And, for us, it was a puzzle we had no great desire to complete. Like: why were we so intent on solving it when we could just wander and be with one another? Find clarity. We got lost when we couldn’t find our way to the end.
WE HEAR THERE’S going to be a meeting in town. Some of us crowd around one another, burying our feet in the sand, and we’re able to see the meeting.
– Okay, says Eleanor. Let me–
– Yes, says Lupita, this part is hard to explain.
– The vision, Don says, the town turning over while we are not there.
– Somehow it is visible to us, Lupita says. The brain is a wonderful thing. That’s what they told us at our Freedom Villas. And now we believe it.
– It’s marvellous fun!
– Even though sometimes it fizzles in and out, like a wireless.
So, you see, we cannot explain it. But we can see it.
Frida, who runs the bar at the RSL on weekends, is taking around platters of eggplant dip and haloumi skewers. Ursula from the newsagent is there, Toni from the fish and chip shop, Cameron and his four rib-eye sons who have a monopoly on all domestic and civic garden maintenance. A few of the local teachers are there. Rick the electrician, who always takes up two parking spaces at Freedom Villas instead of one.
– But he’s always fair. As honest as the day is long, Brian says.
We watch the part of the meeting when Bob stands, clears his throat and says, ‘It’s all very strange, yes. But…Marilyn, my mother-in-law, has been missing for almost a week… What I’m saying is: maybe we should let sleeping dogs lie.’
‘Bob!’ His wife, Cindy, a tall and powerful woman, strikes him on the thick of his back, right above the rump. Bob sits down. We look over at Marilyn. She is lying on her belly beneath a casuarina reading an old copy of Frankenstein that somebody else – maybe Ken – brought along. We feel bad for her. She frowns at something in the book, licks her thumb and turns the page.
– King of the mother-in-law jokes, Marilyn says. What a genius.
– Cindy got stuck with him, Sarah says, didn’t she? But she could have gotten out. There was still time. Nothing is set in stone, even after you have children.
We turn back to the vision. Marilyn returns to her book.
‘It all boils down to this,’ Frida says. ‘How do we keep our goddamn parents alive?’
‘We must make this place safe,’ Niamh the kindergarten teacher says. ‘They could wander down to the beach like that.’ She clicks her fingers.
Cameron shakes his head. ‘They must be absolutely terrified.’
‘Cameron, some of them fought in Korea,’ Janey the high school teacher says drily. We know that she refused to pay Cameron to do her yard. ‘I reckon they’ll be all right.’
– Oh, bless that sensible Janey, Eleanor says.
We all know the story of a colleague of Janey’s who drove his mother to a cottage in the Tablelands and locked the door so she couldn’t escape. The son turned up at the house the next morning to find she’d hitched back to town.
– Never mind that he could have stayed with her all night, Lupita says. Spent time with her?
– I have something to add, says Denise.
She is weaving palm fronds, making a small bowl.
– Yes, go on, Denise. Please do.
– When Andrew was nine months old, I couldn’t leave him, not for a minute, could not walk out that door because if I did he held his breath till he passed out. Talk about inner positioning. That baby knew where I was every second of the day. It was like he watched me through the nursery walls, lying there behind the bars of his cot, just plotting my movements around the house.
– Oh, Denise, you poor thing.
At the meeting, we watch Andrew slide a cube of haloumi from the skewer into his mouth. We feel sorry for Denise, who for many years was caught up in disputes with neighbours about recalcitrant dogs, and fences, and garbage bins, and parking along the yellow line outside her driveway, right up until she got lost, to be with us here. Oliver squeezes Denise’s arm at the elbow. She drops the palm-frond bowl, reaches for a green plastic bucket and lays the foundation of a sandcastle between her feet. Beside her, Ken and Lupita hold tree branches in their laps. They sharpen the ends with their small, red knives.
– So, my son can just give me a minute now, Denise says. He can give me a mile. No one’s passing out. I’m sure as hell not. It’s a very sinister sort of captivity to be in your nice home that you’ve designed and kitted out with appliances and soft cushions. You’re trapped. You’d claw your way out of there if you could. And I couldn’t, not for about three years. And all of this would be fine if there was an end to the worry parents feel. But there isn’t. It doesn’t let up. Not for your whole life.
– Oh, Andrew, we all say, though he cannot hear us.
Ken and Lupita put down their knives and pat Denise on the leg, one each.
MARSHALL HAS DONE some eggs for our tea, Mabel has done the chops. We hear rumblings that they’re coming for us. That the end is nigh. But that could be a false feeling our brains are feeding us. Ken hands around the plates and offers to slice the meat for those who need it. Mabel garnishes the chops with tufts of pigface and we spread across the sand, easing down to sit and eat.
Look, we all had disparate experiences in our earlier lives. We mentioned Denise’s difficulties with her neighbours. Sarah lost a son to a terrible fight with a stranger on a foreign beach. Don founded a company that he later sold for $120 million. Lupita adopted dogs that nobody else wanted, and one even saved her life. We’ve had first children and second children and lost children and final babies that we knew would be our last (many of us have agreed this was like settling into a body of water that initially shocked us, frightened us, but turned out to give us great pleasure and joy). The things going on in our brains that make us wander are difficult to explain – but look! Look how happy we are, now that we don’t know where we are going.
THE NEXT DAY starts off normal enough, but by dusk we can all feel it. Something’s not quite right. Vito loses his footing on a tree root. Marilyn unpeels a mandarin and the pith gets caught in her throat, almost choking her. Denise wakes from her afternoon nap to realise she has lost her voice. Looking at one another, we think but do not say: Is this the end? Is someone coming for us?
We are lying in the sand. The sun is sending up great big swathes of colour into the sky. A sharp breeze sluices through the air. When those of us who like to observe boats and ships see them out on the water, we wave the others over. Watching a ship, even with the naked eye, is telescopic. It acts to minuscule us even further. Who is at the controls of that ship right now? we think. What do they see when they gaze back across the seal-grey ocean that laps upon our beach? Do they imagine we are a ‘lost tribe’ that might pop up on the evening news?
Lupita and Brian are propped up on their sides, facing each other. They have their feet in the water. Oliver wears a wreath of pigface and gum leaves twisted around his head. Marilyn sits back on her heels with a pile of sand heaped in front of her. Sarah joins her and they drag their hands through the wet sand. They build a moat. We agree how lovely is the grit of sand in the webbing of our fingers.
– Someone told me once, Eleanor says, that there are more atoms in a grain of sand than there are stars in the universe.
– Oooh, says Ken, I think you’ve got that a bit wobbly.
– But who’s going to know? Marshall asks.
– There’s no way to prove any of that, Denise says.
– Lovely thought, though, Vito says.
We agree it’s a lovely thought. Ideas like this keep us watered and fed.
We hear a shout, then twigs snapping.
The woman is young. Gorgeous round hips. Lovely smile, dark curly hair. The man is short. Small, flat nose. His eyes are generous and sooty-dark. He wears a footy jersey and black socks and sneakers; she is in jeans turned up at the ankles and a rain mac. The two of them come round the edge of the beach where the island’s sand dips away towards the forest. We watch them. They are both wet to the knees. Our breathing syncs up: that part we know.
‘We found you,’ the man says.
They have found us.
‘Whoa, there are a lot of you, aren’t there!’ he says.
‘You’re safe now,’ says the woman, slowly. ‘I’m Paula. This is Jason.’
‘We’ll show you the way home,’ Jason says. ‘You must be freezing.’
‘Here,’ Paula says. She holds out a hand.
Mabel rolls onto her back. She resembles a pale, uncooked pastry dusted in sugar. She looks up at the sky. She raises her arms above her head and makes a snow angel in the sand.
‘Let’s get you home,’ Jason says.
– No, thank you, Mabel tells him, then to the woman: I know you. I used to clean your mother’s house.
‘Mrs Jeffrey,’ Paula says, reaching for her. ‘If they find you, it won’t be pretty. Please let us help you.’
– Okay, Mabel says, making great sweeping swirls with her arms.
We watch Jason and Paula watching her. ‘Please,’ Paula says. ‘Better to come with us. Jason and I are the good guys.’
‘We can sort everything out once we’re off the island, hey? Once we’re back?’ Jason says.
– There’s nothing to sort, Vito says. We’ve made our goodbyes.
– Thanks, love, but this is it for us, says Eleanor.
Jason doesn’t seem to have heard. ‘But another day or so and the Freedom Villas people will find you.’
– They won’t find us. Vito is forceful.
– That is a promise, my dear, Lupita says.
Paula opens and closes her mouth. She takes a step back. Jason scratches his head. Sarah has removed her coat and slippers. Her blouse with the delicate blue stripes, made sheer by the water, sticks to her chest. The young ones don’t know where to look. But we are entirely comfortable. This is yet another experience that will become a layer in our brains.
Out to sea, a container ship eases through the water, along the line of the horizon. It looks like a toy being pulled by a child.
The waves rock and suck around Ken’s ankles. Lupita moves to his side and they crouch in the shallows, their temples together. We watch them whispering. Lupita leans down and dips her knife into the water, swirls it round.
Listen to the audio of this story (read by author Laura Elvery) here.