Fiction

The water person and the tree person

FOR SOME REASON, Andy Melrose's wife had recently started describing him in company as a ‘water person'. Perhaps this could sound summery and sporty to others, even vaguely sensual, but he wasn't sure she was suggesting that, not after twenty-three years. No doubt Lynne meant it critically because she would add, rather smugly, ‘whereas I'm a bush person'. Or sometimes, more specifically (and, he thought, rather preciously), a ‘tree person'.

Was she just saying they gently differed in their interests, like cat people and dog people, or fans of different football codes? Or was she making the point that she was more conscientious and environmentally aware than her husband? Even suggesting that by comparison he was a shallow hedonist.

Perhaps she was suddenly implying something seriously incompatible in their natures. Or, perversely, wishing it to be so. Lately it seemed to him that she was setting him up as the opposition, purposely claiming new territory, habits, hobbies and people: foreign ground, and a terrain that wasn't necessarily welcoming to him. More and more, she seemed to be sliding deliberately and provocatively out of reach.

This was increasingly unsettling. Sure, he loved the sea, but he had nothing against trees. As he told Lynne, ‘What's to dislike about a jarrah or a karri tree?' (The ‘noble karri', his school geography textbook had described this particular tall species of timber. And the ‘invaluable jarrah'.) Ever since Grade Three, where his school ruler was inlaid with little rectangular samples of the various local hardwoods, it had been drummed into him that timber was a vital part of his West Australian heritage. Timber and whaling and asbestos – strange economic indicators these days. Although the actual forests were hundreds of kilometres from Perth and their everyday experience, he'd even known kids named after timber: Jarrah (boys) and Karri (girls).

He reminded Lynne he'd signed petitions to save rainforests in Brazil and Malaysia and old-growth forests in Tasmania. He'd declined doing ads for companies associated with wood-chipping or pulp mills. And, he felt bound to stress, he had a tree bias; he felt more favourably inclined towards gum trees than, say, old-world oaks or larches or ashes. Indeed, the time he felt most nationalistically Australian, most serenely in tune with his continent, was when he rounded a coastal bush track and glimpsed the summer surf glistening through a canopy of eucalypts.

What did she expect? Unlike her, he'd grown up on this limestone coast with the Roaring Forties blowing sand into his ears and the smell of estuary algae in his nostrils every night as he fell asleep. Ever since, the landscape in his mind's eye was a crumbly moonscape of a coastline, a glaring bleached desert fringed by those two big and wondrous oases, the Swan River and the Indian Ocean.

His psyche preferred a view of water, but he didn't see why it was necessary – even for their relationship – that he state a hundred per cent preference for coast or bush. Lynne, a product of a middle-class Melbourne garden suburb of autumnal tones and spring blossoms and the manicured cold-weather flora of Europe, seemed almost political about it, as though his personal and cultural integrity depended on a firm commitment to landscape. It was as if he had to come out for either the dingo or the shark, but not both.

All his life he'd surfed, sailed and swum, but he thought he liked the bush well enough – as long as the ocean was in striking distance or there was a glimmer of river or lake nearby. In any case, despite Lynne's avowed vote for the outback, it was she who made the bookings for their annual summer holidays, and always chose the coast.

In twenty-three years, she'd never suggested a bushwalking, camping or farm-stay holiday. For that matter, it was difficult to imagine his wife on a horse, or hiking, or in the vicinity of cowpats. He couldn't picture her sitting in a tent, or drinking billy tea, or picking burrs out of her socks, much less cauterising leech bites or humping a knapsack through a gravelly landscape of banksias and tiger snakes.

Sometimes he wondered whether her constantly declared love for the bush was just literary-political correctness, a more culturally sound position for an academic and book reviewer, just like her preference for Australian literature set in the past. All those stories of shallow handsome graziers, feisty plain women and earthy farm labourers with sinewy forearms left him cold. They reminded him of opera without the fat people or the singing. As for their prickly understated romances under the jacarandas, he'd grumble, ‘I never know if they're having sex or not.'

Give him an American crime novel with lots of forensics any day. A cannibal serial killer? Why not? But then he was just an ad-man, with the tastes of the hoi polloi.

 

IT WAS AFTER one of their dinner parties, when she'd produced her first edition of Kangaroo, D.H. Lawrence's take on Australia's political landscape in the 1920s, that he realised how seriously she took this topographical schism between them. ‘Listen,' she said to the table, the guests mostly people from her department, ‘I was re-reading this the other day, and it struck me that Richard Somers could be Andy. It's absolutely Andy! He could be Lawrence's character, or rather Lawrence himself. This is exactly how Andy thinks of the bush.'

Chuckles all round. And of course she then read two or three pages about Lawrence's terror of the West Australian bush.

It was so phantom-like, so ghostly, with its tall pale trees and many dead trees, like corpses, partly charred by bush fires; and then the foliage so dark, like grey-green iron. And then it was so deathly still. Even the few birds seemed to be swamped in silence. Waiting, waiting – the bush seemed to be hoarily waiting. And he could not penetrate into its secret. He couldn't get at it. Nobody could get at it.

What was it waiting for?

They were all smiling at him across their wine glasses. As if this wasn't at all a new topic of conversation for them. Not quite smirking – he was their host, after all, the husband of their colleague – but with a sort of joint comfort in the value of their scholarship (proven once again!) versus his commercial success. (Advertising, no less!) And another sort of wheezy self-regard as well. A smugness in their fogeyish physical deterioration, their deliberate lack of style (cold-weather clothing in all seasons), their indoor-ness, their proud ineptitude with cars and computers and technology in general. From their barely masked sneers when he'd let slip that he went swimming most days, had had to change a flat tyre that morning, and was trying, against the odds, to stay in shape, you'd think he'd been confessing to steroids and testosterone injections.

And then Lynne was reading again.

 

ONE NIGHT AT the time of the full moon he walked alone in the bush ... he walked on a mile or so into the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him ... there was a presence ...

‘It sounds exciting,' he'd said. ‘My sort of book.' But he was hurt and mystified at her mockery. ‘Of course, she's right about Lawrence and me,' he joked. ‘We agree on most things. Never trust the gardener, for a start.' Where did she get this view of him? Anyway, how often did these flabby litterateurs get out into the bush? Had they ever been ten kilometres out of town?

In any case, this year he and Lynne were holidaying on the south-west coast as usual, in late January as always, when the crowds were drifting back to the cities, and at Figtree Inlet again – indeed in the same cottage among the gums with its wide veranda view of the river mouth and the Indian Ocean surf beyond that they'd rented – that Lynne had initiated and organised – for the past eleven or twelve summers.

There was one difference: this year for the first time he wasn't spending every day in the surf. After a lifetime of surfing, his knees had finally given up on squatting and swivelling. Arthritis had teased and twinged and now painfully settled. Not that he'd surrendered without a struggle. He'd attempted to delay the inevitable by swapping a shortboard's wave-ripping and carving possibilities for that stolid standby of the middle-aged surfer, the Malibu. But even on the longboard his knees ached, followed by aches in his ankles and lower back. He might as well sign up for the age pension; to Andy Melrose, it seemed like the beginning of the end.

 

IN THE CIRUMSTANCES, Lynne's Christmas gift had come as a pleasurable surprise. With a modest fanfare, and a lot of wrapping paper, she'd presented him with a kayak. Not only was it a thoughtful gift, it was clearly way beyond the price range of her usual presents: the crime novels or sporting biographies or Bob Dylan CDs. Andy Melrose was touched and grateful.

Obviously she was acknowledging that their recent emotional impasse was over and she was offering him a new physical – and watery – interest to battle his middle-aged melancholy. He thanked God that the tree person and the water person weren't becoming remote strangers after all. He understood that the kayak, a handsome four-metre, mango-coloured craft called a Nemo – equally suited to stream, river, lake or ocean – was a token of her love and understanding.

Rather than launch the Nemo in the Swan River, his hectic home waters, battling the ferries and yachts and millionaires' pleasure boats, he'd saved up its first outing for a month, until their own holidays. And now on this mid-afternoon in late January, the summer hubbub at Figtree Inlet nearly over and most of the estuary's other craft either moored for the season or on their way back to the suburbs in trailers or on car-roof tops, he intended to take it out for its test-run.

Australia Day had come and gone the day before. On the public holiday, he and Lynne had watched from the veranda as some skylarking youths on surf-skis paddled out a kilometre or so to a small sand island in the middle of the estuary. There, in mock ceremony, they planted the Australian flag, saluted it and toasted it with beer.

Andy Melrose had envied them their gesture. He'd always wanted to paddle out there, stand on the sand and claim the island himself. ‘I'm going to do that tomorrow,' he announced to Lynne.

 

TWICE A DAY, this is little elongated island rose from the water and bisected the Melroses' view, the sandbank never quite the same shape or surfacing in the exact spot. From the veranda, it was pale and flat, some days resembling an ice floe, on others more like a desert island in a cartoon; all it lacked was a coconut palm and a castaway.

Setting out, Andy Melrose hadn't felt this enthusiastic about anything for years. As he strained to lift the Nemo on to the car roof, he joked to Lynne that it was true what they said about kayaking: ‘The main exercise comes from lifting the kayak on and off the car.'

‘Enjoy yourself,' she said. Driving away from the holiday house, he was already eagerly anticipating his heroic manly wave to her from the island. In a way, waving to her and receiving her returning wave was the whole romantic point, even after twenty-three years. Maybe because of the twenty-three years.

He launched the kayak from the fig-tree flats on the eastern side of the estuary and pointed the bow towards the island. Well, it floated. And it supported him. It didn't tip, as he'd feared, and it powered through the water. From the first dip of the paddle, he found the Nemo exhilarating. The effort was all buttocks and shoulders; once they'd adjusted to the roll and rhythm his spirits rose even further. The sensation was quite different to sitting in a boat. In an ordinary boat you were above the water, separated from it, whereas the Nemo made him feel part of the estuary's surface. Like a floating, bobbing seabird, his under-carriage was attuned and reactive to every ripple.

 

KAYAKING, HE DISCOVERED, was a mental as well as a physical exercise. By the time he reached the sandbank he felt rigorously tested, but mentally invigorated and strangely serene. Of course, he was satisfied with himself for being so intrepid. Knowing he was being watched (and even applauded) from afar only intensified the pleasure. He felt as proud and youthful as a boy showing off on his first bicycle. Look, Mum. No hands!

He found it was impossible to simply stand up and step out of the kayak; he had to roll over rather ponderously until the kayak tipped him out on his side into the muddy shallows. Laughing at himself, he thought, that'll amuse Lynne. But he wouldn't try to catch her eye just yet; he was waiting for the proper moment. Dripping with mud and reeds, panting, his knees and lower back playing up again, he lurched in several clumsy stages to his feet.

The sand was unexpectedly marshy; the tide was coming in. Fighting suction, sinking knee-deep in the ooze, Andy Melrose valiantly faced the shore. The tide was rushing over the sandbank now and the wind was biting through his wet clothes. The sun was behind the headland. He had better hurry. Paddling back would be hard going.

The only sound on the whole empty estuary was the urgent lapping of the incoming tide on the sandbank. The afternoon light was fading but eventually he picked out the cottage. Dwarfed by the thick surrounding eucalypts, the tall gums, it looked tiny and strangely deserted from here, as one-dimensional and insubstantial as a film set. Now was his moment. He waved his arms vigorously. Lynne, I made it!

The veranda was bare. He stared more intently but there was no one to be seen. How could this be? The cottage was a faded, Depression-era timber bungalow and it looked as if it hadn't seen paint or human habitation for decades.

Behind and all around the cottage the bush loomed back at him.

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