“I stood there and watched you drive away. You got out to open the gate, drove through, then got out again to close it. Then you disappeared, your car at the head of a cloud of dust as you drove down the gravel road. Then you were gone. So I just stood there not thinking anything in particular but with this feeling of loss inside me. I didn’t understand it then but I do now”.
Rusty looked at the woman sitting in front of him. Middle age had been kind to her. Sure, there were lines on her face and crowsfeet at the corner of her green eyes but he hadn’t really noticed them before. Maybe he had seen the woman-who-once-was rather then the woman-who-now-was, the woman there in front of him.
“And you were gone from my life”, she continued. “But I remembered you because, young I might have been, I felt this attraction to you down there on my parent’s farm in the Huon”.
“I headed up the coast after I left”, Rusty responded. “Exploring, looking for surfing beaches, camping on some of them. I had no particular place to be anytime soon, no particular place to go. Took a lot of photos, black and white… it was film in those days… photos of beaches and mountains and forests and old farm houses. Lost the negatives and most of the prints when I gave them to Frank for safekeeping while I was away. Or, rather, Frank lost them. Thought they might be in one of his storage boxes when he moved but he never looked for them and I didn’t follow up. So they’re probably still there mouldering away someplace.
“Yeah, I did think of you after I left the farm. And, yeah, I admit to feeling an attraction but didn’t dare do anything about it because, well, because I thought you too young and, yeah, also because your father kept and eagle-eye on you when the pickers were round.”
If there was a word to describe Rusty’s goals then, it would be ambiguity. He had no idea what he should do in life so he drifted on the currents of opportunity and chance.
“I was a bit lost in life and I was like that for the next couple years until I started working for that news agency and that overseas opportunity came up and somehow I landed it.”
“Opportunity?”, asked Yvette, tilting her head as if trying to size-up something, a tone of curiosity in her voice.
“Like that”, Rusty responded. “I’d returned to Sydney after taking a couple months to wind my way back up north from Tasmania. I’d worked for a month in Melbourne, at a bookshop. That plus what I earned picking on your patents’ farm gave me enough money for a couple weeks further along the coast at Apollo Bay. I just felt like a break by that time, after travelling in Tasmania then crossing to Melbourne, and when I met some people in a pub they offered my a place to pitch my tent near an old farmhouse they were renting, a decaying old wooden building close to the beach is all it was. It was more of a surfers’ camp as there were a few others camping in their vehicles or tents there too.
“So I got back to Sydney, spent a couple weeks with my parents until a room in Dave and Ginger’s Chippendale terrace became available, then applied for a few jobs which I didn’t get. It was when one of Dave’s… I don’t know if it was a friend or some associate connected to the university… said they were looking for someone who could work a photo filing system and do other jobs at the news agency he worked at said I should come in and talk to the manager. So that’s where I ended up for the next year and that’s how I got to go to South Vietnam.”
Yvette looked up. “Uhh… wasn’t there a war on over there then”.
“Yeah”, said Rusty. “That’s how I came to be there. One of their photographers based in Saigon was to take a break and they had no-one in-country to replace him. So I put up my hand and volunteered. They more or less ignored me until they realised they couldn’t get anyone in to fill the gap in time. I’d shown them a portfolio of my photos and the picture editor had said they were alright — that was a complement as he never used any more exuberant term to describe what he thought was good.
“So, the assignment was for three months, which grew to six months. They gave me a Nikon F and a few lenses from the equipment pool and I would be supplied with film over there. I was based in Saigon as they had staff photographers more experienced out in the field and were reluctant to put someone my age into potential danger. But this was 1969 and the war had come to Saigon and the city was dangerous enough.
“So that’s why, when I came to Sydney, I couldn’t find you anywhere”, said Yvette. “I tried the contacts you gave me when in Tassie and got the same story, that you were working overseas temporarily and would be home soon. That was a long soon, it turned out”.
“Yeah, I guess so”, responded Rusty. “That time in Saigon, it changed me though I didn’t know it at the time. I still felt the same, more or less, and it was only later when I returned to Australia that when my friends said I had changed that I came to realise it.
“I felt that edginess while there, that sense of threat, of uncertainty, but it didn’t make me paranoid or anything like that. Sure, I photographed some gruesome scenes for the agency but I could always switch off my reactions and just get on with the job of photographing.
“I guess when you came to Sydney to go to uni, when you looked for me, I had gone on from Saigon to San Francisco. That was on a whim. My assignment ended but instead of coming back to the humdrum life of the agency’s Sydney office I packed the job in and went to the US. None of my Sydney friends knew of that so that probably accounts for their vagueness about where I was when you called.
“I met this woman journalist in Saigon, an American, and we hooked up when I got over there, to the US. Started off in just a friendly way but soon became a romantic entanglement. We spent a good amount of time together, she had few friends… and it just sort-of happened. She was a few years older than me and a bit like me… a bit shaken by her experience in Vietnam and with a vague, undirected sense in life, more a sense of dislocation on returning home… that’s how she described her mental state to me once. Drifting, she said. It was like… like ordinary life was too empty, too humdrum, too… ordinary. We both felt this restlessness. Our relationship was a bit accidental in the way it started, just two lost people sharing their sense of being lost in life. So it wasn’t much of a basis to build a long-term relationship on and inevitably, as I thought we would, we drifted apart. The trigger was her moving to Los Angeles for a new job.
“We maintained contact after that, meeting up when one-or-the-other was in one-or-others’ city, but those meetings became less and less frequent and just faded away.
“I lost contact with her after that. Last I heard she was still doing journalism and was back in Asia, then she just faded from my life”.
Rusty looked over to Yvette and she lifted the wine glass to her lips. In a flash his mind traversed the years and he was back with her after returning from the US. She was a uni student then, living at Dave and Ginger’s terrace house in Chippendale, just down the hill from the uni. Rusty had given her the couple’s contact details when he was working picking fruit on her parents’ farm in Tasmania, just in case she ever did slip the expectations her parents held and had foregone the usual path of marrying a local, having a family and buying a house.
It had not taken long for them to become involved on his return to Sydney as they both acted on that sense of attraction they had felt for each other all those years ago on the farm.
“I thought we would last a long time when we got together“, said Yvette. “But I started to have doubts when you would go away for weeks at a time, when you loaded that old malibu board into your car and took off up or down the coast. You just couldn’t live a settled life, I realised. Those escapes were too much a temptation, too much a part of your life that you had been doing well before we got together that even a relationship wouldn’t make you change.”
“Well, you’re right”, said Rusty. He looked at her and lifted his glass for a draught of the chilled white wine they were now into their second glass of. He noticed she still had that soft angularity to her face and that her blonde hair had turned a darker shade than it had once been and that it contrasted well with the black Tshirt stencilled with ‘Surf boards by Donald Takayama’ over her left breast. Her shirt hung loosely over jeans faded to a light blue through many washings and years of exposure to the North Coast sun.
“I was kind-of lost. I was looking for something I suppose. Had been for some time. For years it seems. But it was nowhere to be found. So I kept on looking. I was confused, no idea what to do in life, and one day I called you in Sydney and you said something about if I couldn’t sustain a relationship then it wasn’t worth keeping on going. That ended it.”
“And that really hurt”, Yvette said with a firmness in her voice.
“So, what did you do then?”, Rusty asked.
“I continued at uni”, said Yvette. “Eventually I graduated. I spent a few months after that back at my parent’s farm, then returned to Sydney to look for a job.
“I ran into Peter, you remember Peter? Sure you do. You had some strong words with him when we were together. Said he was like a bad smell that no matter how much you try to eradicate it, it just won’t go away. That was because he liked me and hung around me even when you were nearby. I like to think that you got jealous but you usually hid your emotions so I don’t know if that happened, but I like to think so. I remember telling you I could never have anything to do with him.”
“Ahhh… Peter!” responded Rusty. “Oh, yeah, I remember him. And his reputation for chasing women and, yeah, I did notice he was more-than-commonly-interested in you, and, yeah, I did get jealous. That’s why one day it just became too much and I had those words with him. Wonder what became of him?”.
“I know what became of him but that’s for another time. So despite having feelings for me you ran off just after that incident”, Yvette said.
“You had gone from my life. No idea where you were. I moved to a sharehouse in Woolloomooloo and found a job with a publishing house. Routine and somewhat boring, but it paid well. I remade contact with friends we had known — people like Tim and Helen and Mike… and Peter, though that was an accidental encounter… all of whom had been regular friends when we were together. I enjoyed life in the city as it was at that time. It was an invigorating place then, lots happening between our friends and events around my work.”
“Did you ever think of us?”, asked Rusty.
“Less so as time went on and I came to realise were were has-beens. I made new friends but kept in contact with those we had known when we were together. I became involved with someone and eventually married him. We were happy for some years and lived the life of an urban working couple. Then he one day up-and-left but that was after we had moved up here to the North Coast. We had a house at Lennox Head.”
At this, Rusty looked up as if startled. “You mean… you were living here while I was more or less down the road at Byron Bay?”.
Just as it had been many years since Yvette and Rusty had parted ways, so it had been some years since that encounter with Yvette and that conversation. Unbeknown to each other they had lived in towns not that far apart yet their lives had never crossed. This puzzled Rusty.
It was some time after Yvette and her husband had moved to Lennox Head that Rusty had met Carol and they had set up house together. Here, his and Yvette’s lives were to follow a parallel stream.
First, Yvette’s husband left. After getting over the shock of his departure — she thought their relationship was firm although she noticed his becoming more distant in the months leading to his departure — she sold their house in town and bought a small, old weatherboard house up on the hill.
Not all that far away in Byron Bay and not all that long after Yvette’s marriage collapsed, Carol informed Rusty that their time had come, too, and that she was moving up Tuntable way with a guy who lived there on an intentional community. That was sudden and as equally unexpected as Yvette’s breakup, though like Yvette noticed with her partner, Rusty noticed something had been troubling Carol and that she became less-communicative in the months before their split.
Now, in their separate but close towns, they started to live their lives alone.
“It was strange seeing you there at the farmers’ market,” said Yvette. “I wasn’t sure it was you, so I stood there looking. Then you glanced my way and I saw that, yes, it was you. You were staring at me too.”
“That’s because I realised who you were”, said Rusty. “I noticed this woman looking over at me and she was a bit familiar, like when you see someone you know from times past but don’t recognise them at first. And that’s exactly what it was. Then I realised it was you”.
Yvette leaned closer and in a soft voice said, “And that was a shock for me too Rusty. You had long gone from my life and then… suddenly… there you were again.”
That conversation was now months in the past. In that time they had met on several occasions and in those meetings had learned each others’ story of how their lives had unfolded since they had parted all those years ago.
But not everything. Rusty related his story about life with Carol. Now he was to learn about Yvette’s life with her partner. And in doing so the story would reach back into their shared past and reveal something unexpected.
“So, you married and moved up here?”, Rusty asked Yvette. “How come up here?”.
“Well, the guy I married was like you, a surfer”, she responded. “He wanted to move up Byron way and we had enough to put some money down on a house because we both had well-paying jobs in Sydney before we left and had saved, and because he inherited money when his mother passed away and the house was sold and the money split between he and his two sisters”.
”So, Lennox?”, Rusty asked enquiringly.
“Well, when we moved up here we rented for awhile then I found a job at the adult evening college and he found one with a building company. Then the house in Lennox came onto the market so we bought. And Lennox does have a good point break out on the headland”.
“Yeah, that I know”, said Rusty. “I lived for awhile, when I came up here, on a multiple occupancy on top of the ridge at Broken Head. Nice, we had our own shacks around the main house but too many mosquitoes, pythons and green tree snakes, but what else should you expect when you live in a rainforest?.
“That’s when I met carol and we seemed to get along really well at first, for a long time really. I had been living here for maybe three months when I landed a job with the Echo up in Mullum. Stayed there years. Would probably still be there if we hadn’t broken up.
“Here, there’s one thing you haven’t told me, never mentioned his name. Who did you marry all those years ago in Sydney?”.
“Uhhh… okay”, Yvette said hesitatingly as she looked down as if trying to avoid having to tell.
“I sort-of didn’t mention it deliberately. Didn’t know whether I should because you know him, or I should say you used to know him. When we were together he sort-of hung around.
“And I guess this is the string in the tail for you. That guy, that person I married, that person I said I would never have anything to do with, was none other than Peter, the same guy you had those words to”.