I went back to the old place the other day, Georgie.
Do you remember when we first left?
Those weeks, months, before it happened – just holding on, waiting for the fire to come. The sky ash-grey, sagging with smoke, so thick sometimes that we might as well have been living in a bomb crater for all the view we got. Watching the creep of the front on the fire app, days away at first, then hours, then…
You prayed. I said, “No use praying, we’re all pagans here,” and you said, “Then maybe the old gods can save us.” You meant the old gods of Europe – but hey, they didn’t save Troy, did they? – and there are gods here far older than that. Whose side are they on? I thought. Not ours.
Well, like I said, I went back to the old place just the other week. No, no, you can’t drive there now darling, I had to take a share-pod down to Eden, and then a bubble…. they won’t let you set foot on the land, they treat us as if we’re all carrying foot and mouth. Not that anyone knows what that is these days, that was when we had stock, and meat. No such thing now, it’s all manufactured protein. Miss my steak… but maybe it’s all for the best.
Oh – here’s Derryn, come to feed the magpies. They’re real enough, little buggers.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he says, while he fixes your continence pad , quick and gentle.
Derryn’s nice, isn’t he? One of the new generation, who’ve never seen a cleared paddock, don’t know what a coal mine is for, never been on a hike in the bush. But then, it’s funny, there’s bush all around us – a wattle tree hanging over your bed (lucky it’s only virtual, otherwise it’d make you sneeze, you were always allergic), king parrots on the verandah rail. They try to make us feel at home, like how they used to put gum tree sprigs in the koala enclosure at the zoo, and ice blocks for the polar bears.
“How’s your uncle?” I ask Derryn.
Derryn shrugs. He’s got a fine set of shoulders on him, and those lean, honey-dark good looks that came out of the mix, white and black. “Fine. Haven’t heard from him in months.” But he’s not worried, really. The ones who chose to go back, they fend for themselves, and keep the rest of us out. They say it’s not safe any more. Only they’re not keeping us safe from the bush – they’re keeping the bush safe from us. Ten years of flame and they worked it out – where the white man goes, fire follows. No fire on a concrete footpath, said that politician, can’t remember his name, let’s pave the bloody lot of it over.
“Died of drinking poisoned bore water in ’27, didn’t he, Derryn?”
“Who?” says Derryn.
Oh, that’s right, they’re all dead and forgotten now.
The paths here in our compressed, coastal cities look like rainforest trails, but they burn like asbestos, which is to say, they don’t.
I looked out through the plex, Georgie, and you know, I could still see the outline of our front deck, where we used to sit and drink coffee, watching the dawn, and feed the wallabies – oh, they’re thriving, by the way, you should see. They’re not afraid any more, they don’t even know you’re there. Remember old Elsie with the fur scraped off at the base of her tail, who used to take carrots from your hand? Long gone now, but the place is full of her descendants – where the shed was is just a bunch of wombat burrows and bandicoot tracks, and as for koalas, you never used to be able to spot a single one, but now there’s hundreds of the little bastards staring down at you with their little beady eyes….
Overgrown, you bet. The old forest has come back, all that stuff we cleared, it’s just big old trees now, scribblies and paperbark and the ghosts marching all the way up the hill – it made me tear up, thinking of all the work we put into it, and the money….
There’s still grass. Growing through the tiles where the kitchen used to be.
You’d never guess what happened there, not unless you knew where to look. Remember that day, that stupid day, when we decided to stay. We thought we’d ‘defend’. They warned us, but we loved that place, built it ourselves, wonky walls and all, we couldn’t bear to abandon ship – not to mention sheep. So there we were, peering out through the blankets we’d hung on the windows, watching the sky grow red, then black as pitch, and the ground underneath our feet, it shook for Christ’s sake, and you said,
“Are those helicopters, Dave?”
And I said, “No, love, they can’t fly in this weather,” and we looked out over the valley and saw the glow on the ridges – like the armies of Hell. First there was the sound of explosions – that was the eucalypts – then a roaring, crackling noise, so loud we thought the hills would collapse in upon us, it was like the end of days. It was dark, so dark that we couldn’t see each other from three feet away, and of course the power was out, and you said, “Dave, I don’t think I can do this,” and to tell the truth, babe, at that moment I knew I couldn’t face it either. So I told myself we were leaving for you – but I was leaving because I was so scared I nearly pissed myself. Sorry, love, I should’ve told you that long ago, when you could still understand me.
We felt our way to the back door – I barked my shin on that frigging useless side table you just had to buy – and scrambled into the ute, and I drove up that long, long driveway as fast as I dared, with the fire behind us – would’ve been a crap time to get a flat tyre. Wished I’d dozed those trees along the carriageway – too late now.
We were lucky. We got away that night – some didn’t. I always thought we’d go back when it all settled down, build again if we had to – we were young then, in our thirties. But the fires went on and on, and the rains never really came, and the insurance told us premiums would be triple the price from then on, even if we rebuilt in fucking concrete…
You don’t remember any of it now, do you, sweetheart?
“It’s so green here. Why’s it so green?” you ask Derryn, as he fixes your pillows and pops the tablets on your tongue that keep you alive.
It’s green because the virtual space they’ve created around you doesn’t need water, honey. Those parrots, they’re not real, any more than the wattle by your bed or even the verandah you think you’re on, gazing out over the blue-hazed mountains of home. It’s green because there are so few of us now, clinging on in the cities, our world a seamless blend of reality and imagination. I miss our home, of course I do – but I guess it’s all for the best, really. After all, imagination was what we were really good at, wasn’t it?
Home. It’s beautiful now, honey, it really is. We thought that beauty could only exist while we were there to see it – like they say, it’s in the eye of the beholder, but we weren’t the only beholders, were we? Bet the potaroos have their own ideas about what’s pretty…
We thought we could live in the lap of nature, but she threw us out like overgrown nestlings, and we learned to fly. We thought that the forest needed us, but it didn’t: it needed us gone. I don’t mourn, darling – well, maybe a little.
“Thanks, Derryn,” I say, taking the cup of milky hot water that passes for tea in here.” Is there any sugar?”
Those first years, they were the worst. The cramped apartment living, the endless bloody summers, the fire and the drought, the deaths – the sheer fucking despair of it all. I thought that was probably it for us humans.
But you know, the old place, all that country, it hasn’t seen a big fire now for thirty years. Why? Because we’re not there. We thought we were the cure – turns out we were the disease. Oh well, you live and learn.
And we’re happy here, happier than I’d ever have thought, with our crops, our reticulated, recycled water, our virtual parks and our rooftop orchards – and our few, cherished children. Our footfall is so much softer now, Georgie, they can barely hear it out there, in the bush. You don’t realise how much noise we used to make, till you see how quiet it can be.
Derryn says he’ll take you down to the chapel now – you don’t understand the words any more, but it calms you down , helps you sleep for the afternoon. The pastor tells you that God loves us still, and that’s nice… but you know what I think?
I think, now, that Australia belongs to other gods than ours. The gods of fur and feather, of things that wriggle and things that crawl, things that glide and flitter and dig and pounce – oh and the gods of Derryn’s uncle, of the few mobs that wandered back, after we’d trashed the place. And now they’ve taken back what’s theirs, and here we are, camping out on their doorstep. All mod cons.
I always liked camping, anyway.
Photo by Britta Reimann on Unsplash