by John Marsden
I came home when I was sixteen. Ralph picked me up at the station. It was a high step into the Range Rover. It looked like Ralph had cleaned out the front by chucking all his stuff over the seat. It was a mess back there, a jumble of jackets and tools and wire, a chain saw and an oil drum.
At first I thought Ralph was the same as he’d been in Canberra, but as we passed the 80k sign on our way out of Christie, I started to realise he was nervous.
Nervous of me, I mean.
For one thing he was talking too much. The more people talk at me, the more silent I get. Maybe that’s one reason I make some people nervous. They don’t know what I’m thinking when I go quiet.
What would the Robinsons have told Ralph about me? I could guess some of it. ‘Wilful. Headstrong. Won’t take no for an answer. Wants her own way all the time.’
Knowing them, they’d probably have gone further. ‘Never thinks of others. Spoiled and selfish. I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but...’
I sighed and leaned back, closing my eyes. How come you can’t escape people’s voices, even when you’ve left them for good? I thought I’d got rid of the Robinsons, but there they were again, in my ears. The trouble was, this time they were coming at me from the inside instead of the outside. It was worse.
We left the flat country, the paddocks of nothing, the barbed-wire fences running like stitches on bare skin. Gradually we started winding up into the hills. The turn-off to Warriewood was on a sharp bend. We swung right, onto the dirt, and drove down less than a kilometre to the front gate.
I so wanted this moment to be profound. I wanted to stand at the gate and drink it all in, gazing at the stone pillars and the spaces for the coach lamps, at the long drive lined with rhododendrons and hydrangeas. I wanted to see what had been just wisps in my mind, and bring the vague dreams and memories back to life.
Ralph didn’t hesitate though; he turned into the driveway with one easy swing of the steering wheel. We passed the homestead and the barn and the little yellow cottage where Grandma used to live, and went on up to the manager’s house. It all happened so quickly that we were there before I had time to notice anything.
Sylvia came out of the house, wiping her hands on a tea towel. ‘Well, well, well,’ she said. ‘Here you are, back again. After all this time. I wouldn’t have known you. I would have walked past you in the street.’
Sylvia was trying to be cosy and friendly but lukewarm was the best she could do. Ralph was softer than Sylvia.
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘I’ve put the kettle on. But I don’t know, are you a tea or coffee drinker? Or would you rather have cordial? I have to keep cordial in the house for Ralph. He’s got such a sweet tooth.’
At their front door I stopped. I suddenly felt that if I went in there I’d never come out again. Not literally of course. I mean, they weren’t going to murder me. But if I started off going straight into their house, their territory, I’d be trapped. I felt I had to start strongly, more strongly than this.
I didn’t feel strong. The train trip had taken nine hours, with the change at Exley, and I hadn’t slept for more than a couple of minutes. But I called up all the energy I could find. I felt my fists clench.
‘No thanks. I want to go and look at the homestead first.’
‘Oh you don’t want to do that. Not after such a long journey. There’ll be time to explore later.’
She was already turning to go inside the house, assuming I was following. From behind me Ralph added: ‘A cup of tea’s what you want.’
I felt the pressure. It was like a tractor pushing from behind, and a tow truck pulling from in front.
‘No,’ I said. I spat it out. Not only my fists were clenched now, but my teeth as well. ‘No. I’m going to look at the homestead.’
They both stopped, like I’d sworn at them. Sylvia couldn’t meet my eyes. I’d acted in such a bad-mannered bad-tempered way that they were embarrassed for me. My face was hot.
‘Well,’ Sylvia said. ‘Of course, if that’s what you want.’
She looked over my head at Ralph and a message seemed to flicker between them.
‘I’ll go with you,’ Ralph said from behind.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I want to go on my own.’
I knew the strength had ebbed out of my voice. My words sounded weak, even to me.
‘I’ll have to come,’ Ralph said. ‘The keys are hidden by the woodshed. You’ll need me to show you where they are.’
He’d won the first set, but at least I’d got it to a tiebreaker. In spite of that I felt like a little child as I followed him meekly down the hill. It was nearly six o’clock, and not much daylight left. We crossed a stone bridge over a small dam. Above me was a wisteria, just bare brown branches now. To my right a blackberry snaked along the bridge, looking for another patch of soft accommodating soil where it could put down roots. To the left the water was black with mud or decayed leaves, I wasn’t sure which. A single white Muscovy duck sat on a log, looking at me with friendly interest. I hoped it was friendly anyway. I felt like nothing here could be taken on trust.
We turned right and walked down the slope, under the avenue of elms to the homestead. Although no-one had painted it in a long time, the white was strong enough to stand out. Apart from the white walls and green roof, it was just like the photograph, the one that had sat on my dressing table all these years.
But with Ralph right beside me I couldn’t feel anything. No, that’s not true, I felt a lot. But I couldn’t show a hint of it to him, and because I couldn’t trust myself to hide it I couldn’t let myself feel it. I set my mouth in a hard line and waited as he scrabbled among the firewood before pulling out a bunch of old keys.
‘Here we go,’ he said.
Because Ralph had been so friendly at the station, I didn’t say what I wanted to: ‘Get out. I have to do this on my own.’ The best I could manage was ‘I’ll be OK on my own’, but he ignored that. I’m not sure if he heard it even.
I felt a little sick as we approached the house. The main door into the homestead is kind of the back door, because it gives the easiest access to the woodboxes and the laundry, the sheds and the paddocks. The official front door opens onto a nice wide verandah but it’s a steep walk up the hill to get to it. There’s a white gravel path and a set of steps if you’re coming that way.
We stepped onto the back verandah. There were pools of water all the way along and I nearly put my foot through a rotting floorboard. Ralph was sorting through the keys and didn’t seem to notice.
‘How long since anyone lived here?’ I asked him.
He gave me a startled glance. ‘No-one since you,’ he said.
He seemed so surprised I didn’t know that. I was angry I didn’t know it, didn’t know nearly enough. That’s the trouble with stuff that happens when you’re little. People assume you know it but most of the time you don’t.