A Way Out – Short Story
A Way Out – Short Story
My sister’s hands looked just like Dad’s and gripped the steering wheel with the same fervour. A couple of grey hairs had begun to appear in her brows and a determined crease sat between her faded eyes. The skin on her arms was dotted with a landscape of freckles like a satellite map seen from afar. A younger version of me. Genes are something so completely part of one’s own soul that we had little chance to look any other way. Except towards one another. I’d not sat that close to her in a long time.
I looked away and across the dashboard at the roadside strewn with pieces of old rubbish and chunky curls of liquorice-like tyre. Lonely cows lifted their heads as we passed. And the horizon watched us approach.
“We must be nearly there.”
Our quietly spoken lawyer had given us the maps and property documentation. He was Dad’s friend and holder of his secrets for many years. He’d come to the funeral with a faded photo of the two of them, their arms cheekily folded and chests puffed out. Two lads with the world around the corner from their suburban front-lawned houses before life presented its crossroads, decisions, journeys and goodbyes. My sister and I had looked at many images of that young man when putting together the memory board for his funeral. I wished I had known him before he became a father. His zest for life uncomplicated and unbounded. A man who charmed and cajoled a movement of people towards the common focus of rights in the workplace. A man who wanted others to realise their potential and uniqueness.
The photos were of a person who looked like he would live forever. Dad seemed old from the moment I had been born, and even older when my sister came bursting onto the scene.
His diagnosis all those years later caught us by surprise and without Mum to hear his sighs in the darkness, he withdrew and became sad.
We were determined to bring him into the sunshine. And did for a while. But the lawyer was his only visitor in those last few days.
Afterwards he summoned us into his sparse office and handed over a folder of papers and deeds. A life reduced to a few A4 pages finished with his characteristic scrawl.
I’m not sure Mum even knew about this place. Although Dad had quietly owned it for many years.
“Mum would have packed us sandwiches for a trip this long.”
“Ham, cheese and soggy tomato.”
“With an Anzac on the side.”
We’d found it increasingly difficult to allocate time to make the first trip to this place. Rainchecks and crossed-out dates and rough plans had flicked past in the pages of our diaries. Work and family became the constant noise in both of our lives. Her husband had once tried to convince her to join him in Berlin, but instead packed his suitcase and opened it with her in their new Australian suburban life. Their children appeared suddenly and loudly, not like mine who seemed to sneak up on me as I filled in another page of my tired journal. The cousins fell over each other and fought and embraced like siblings.
But getting together became less frequent as the winters rolled in. More bills arrived and the arguing intensified as her marriage began to dissolve. Just a rough patch, she insisted. But his suitcase lay open on the spare bed, ready to be packed.
After one complicated evening, where my sister sobbed into her phone and my ear, we both determined to get away together. Just we two. Just a day trip.
I heard her car coming down the street before I reached the front porch. Proudly, she refused to travel in any other vehicle but her own battered family relic. We waved to our sleepy dog and the small hand flickering in the front window and set off, Dad’s legal documents and mud map in hand.
“This is the gate. The blue gate, it says here. Drive to the end of the track,” I ordered.
“In between two old gums. Yes, this must be it!”
“It looks kind of abandoned.”
Her reluctance and my enthusiasm had often clashed. And not always to anyone’s satisfaction or resolve. She took after Dad in more than appearance, it seemed.
At the end of the pot-holed road was a tiny hut with a rusted corrugated iron roof that was once a deep red. The bricks, like coarse pock-marked skin, fused together underneath a crooked verandah that held the entire structure on shaky posts. Despite its rough appearance, its heart and character were strong.
We parked the car near a struggling apricot tree and unlocked the solid door. After we’d opened and closed all of the cupboards, and dusted off the furniture, we lit the fire, ensuring the main room was cosy, and then opened an expensive bottle of red that she’d purchased from an obscure wine shop. Saving it for a special occasion or rainy day – whatever came first.
“No wine glasses. We should have brought some.”
“Looks like we’ll be going rustic then. Dad would have approved.”
“You think he approved of us?”
We raised a couple of old coffee mugs into the damp air and looked into each other’s eyes without speaking. Such a depth of knowing and not knowing lay between us.
“Do you think he came here to forget?” she said after a little.
“That he was sick. I don’t ever want to get sick. Not like that…”
She looked at the fire and I thought she was going to cry. It didn’t take long for the bottle to be consumed as we recalled funny stories and memories about Dad and our growing up and even more we’d never shared with one other. She told me she’d dreamt about being a singer, and I disclosed my desire to climb a mountain. We decided that it was too late and we were too full of wine to drive back home. ‘Just for the day’ had become just overnight instead.
“Send them a text to let them know you’re staying here. Then turn that stupid phone off. No more messages or checking your emails. We need to have a real break. Get some balance,” I said.
The fire had dwindled to a small glow when I went outside to collect some more wood. The sun had wandered away and the light in the sky was a pale rose colour. My favourite time of day. I was grateful to discover a woodpile, like a defiant pyramid, against the old unsteady fence and reached from the bottom where the small logs were tough and dry. When I returned with the soles of my shoes coated in fine dust and bindies, she was standing at the small gas stove stirring a saucepan. The tinned beans on the dusty shelf had not reached their due date, but I was still slightly nervous.
We opened another bottle of wine that sat beside the beans in the dark cupboard. Dad’s cleanskin. Then we began renovating the hut, knocking down walls and rebuilding others, laying paving and creating more rooms, all in our minds and alcohol-encouraged imaginations. We planned holidays and adventures to exotic locations, sought respite and solace in valleys and caves, and swam in lush warm water. And I climbed that mountain. Our other lives seemed a long way away.
The fire had nearly gone out when we fell into the saggy bed in the bedroom, snuggled together under an old travel rug from her car, and slept. The wind paced outside and twigs scratched the windows. I felt safe.
Later the next morning, as we drove the long stretch home, clutching watery coffees from the petrol station, we knew we’d found something wonderful. Dad had shown us how to find our way out. My sister spilt her coffee onto the gearstick and I tried to replace the lid on my foam cup. Our clothes smelt of smoke and baked beans and red wine and old things. We knew we’d be subject to detailed questions when we returned. I hoped her husband’s suitcases would be put away. For her sake, at least. I looked across at her, trying to drink and drive, the crease still there between her brows, but a smile in a warm embrace over her face. I smiled too and watched the cows raise their heads again as we rumbled past. Her phone began to ring, its tone angry and insistent. I fumbled for it amidst her handbag but it stopped as I reached it.
“Maybe it was a wrong number.”
“Maybe,” I said, unconvinced.
“Or maybe Dad’s checking up on us.”
“I think he probably heard everything we said last night.”
“Even the bit about…”
“Yep, even that bit.”
We were still laughing when she stopped outside my house. The kids spilled out of the front door and down the driveway. They seemed happy that I was back. Quietly following them was their dad. Looking relieved. He had flour across his shirt like something had exploded. In fact, the whole kitchen had exploded like a crazy science experiment. Later as I was tasting their rock-hard scones, I was reminded about something my sister had said about substance being less important than mindfulness. At least there was sweet, sticky jam.
I called her that night. She’d returned to a very different situation than me. His suitcase had been packed and was gone, along with him. Her kids sat quietly with their paternal grandmother.
“I just keep thinking about Dad,” she said.
“What about him?” I asked.
“Why do you think he kept that place a secret?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s not right. To be so secretive.” She was fierce on the phone. It was as though something was pushing her, demanding she fight things that were no longer within arm’s reach.
“There’s two issues here,” I ventured.
The bliss of last night was gone. Buried, I suspected, within the walls of Dad’s hut.
“Do you want me to come over?” I asked. I watched my kids fall over the sofa like lion cubs play fighting, and my husband outside with the dog watching on as he tried again to resurrect the backyard veggie garden that had been started three times now.
“It’s OK,” she said, unconvincingly.
“Why did he go?”
“To get some inner peace. Because he thinks he can survive without us. Because he’s unable to communicate properly.”
It sounded like she was talking about Dad, but it was a fresh wound that hurt her now.
“You want to come over for dinner? Bring the kids. And the mother-in-law if you really want.”
“I took some of those tinned beans from Dad’s hut,” I added.
“No. But it’s my turn to cook, so you might prefer the beans.”
She didn’t come. A week went past before we spoke again. I was tempted to message or send her something, but a tiny image on a phone seemed pathetic or just too easy.
When we eventually talked, it was as though things were broken between us. The way out that we’d discovered at the hut looked impossible and insurmountable. Again, work and family became the constant noise in both of our lives and time lurched forward. The mud map and its precious history were lost.
I couldn’t go back to that place without her and despite my efforts, we never did. Years later, we eventually put the place on the market.
I heard through our lawyer that a beekeeper had bought it. Hopefully, Dad would have approved.
AUTHOR KYLIE McCORMAC
Kylie McCormack lives in Cairns, Queensland, just a salty breath away from the Coral Sea. She has worked in arts administration for theatre companies and as an English teacher to refugees and migrants. Her short piece responding to COVID-19 featured in a temporary walkway installation in Nillumbik Shire, Victoria. She enjoys crafting and honing words on a page and is currently working on a few writing projects.
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