You can’t bring her back you know.
In the gloaming we queued, awaiting our deliverance from another week. The bus arrived just as the streetlights came on and I shuffled in behind the other commuters, their gloomy faces mirroring the darkening sky. I spied a seat half way along and edged my way into it, taking off my backpack with an expert twisting motion, honed from years of experience in crowded buses. As I bent down to put it beneath my seat I caught a glimpse of a long black coat and wild hair. Or perhaps I just felt it. From my seat I craned my neck around but with all the people now standing in the aisle, I had lost sight of whatever it was I saw. Or should I say, thought I saw.
It’s not her; don’t be stupid.
A wind gust rattled the frames of the windows. It had been blowing hard all afternoon and nasty looking black clouds had been blown in by the southerly. I wouldn’t be surprised if it pissed down later.
The bus pulled out onto the road and and I took out my copy of American Gods and began to read. I was doing a good job of casting her out of my mind. Not thinking of her much at all in fact. Not thinking of that cute gap between her teeth and the way she used to punch me playfully on the arm when she finally grasped the essence of the calculus problem we had been wrestling with for her homework. Don’t digress. Concentrate on the words. See what Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are up to.
As soon as we left the glare of the CBD behind the driver switched the interior lights off. Great. There goes my reading time. I pulled out my phone. Checked Facebook. One of my writer friends had posted. Cool. I read the comments for a while and toyed with the idea of adding my own, perhaps something trite, but when I typed it was cutting and hurtful and I didn’t press send and flicked through iTunes instead. I picked out George Michael’s A Different Corner which is a sad song for a gale, and set it on repeat and stared into the tenebrous sky and rested my cheek against the moist and still rattling window.
That’s better. Don’t look back.
At each stop the crowd of commuters thinned. At one stage I turned around and thought I saw her, at the back, looking out the window, dark hair masking her pale face. But I must have been mistaken and I watched a truck festooned with orange lights pass by then looked up at the suburban houses with their lights on and wondered about the people who lived in them and what their lives were like and the sound of George Michael’s voice soared into a starless sky.
Somebody got off at the stop near the oval and as the driver edged back onto the road he called out, “What’s your stop, mate? You’re the last passenger so I’ll head straight there.”
I told him and picked up my bag and got the Opal card ready. But then I heard the buzz of the stop button being pressed and the orange ‘Bus Stopping’ sign came on. The driver hit the brakes and came to a screeching halt and opened the door. As I turned to look at who could have pressed the button I felt this swish of air and sensed a shadow move past me.
“Hey mate, I thought you were getting off at the roundabout.” the driver yelled.
“I am. I didn’t press the button.”
“Don’t be a smartarse.”
The driver closed the doors and took off again. Looking back at the bus stop I clearly saw the girl in black. I couldn’t see her eyes because the wind had blown her hair across them, but her face was turned towards me.
“Stop, driver!” I shouted.
“Bloody hell, what’s the matter with you?”
“I need to get off and talk to that girl.”
* * * * *
Get back on the bus now!
I’m 500 metres up the road from where she got off. The wind is biting and the tips of my ears are ice-cold. Down the hill I think I see her standing under the pink-orange glow of a lonesome streetlight. I jog towards it but by the time I get there she’s gone.
Across the road from the streetlight is the Ironbark reserve, dark and uninviting. She must have gone in there. I stop for a second to catch my breath and look longingly back to where the bus was and feel a knot tighten in my stomach. Should I follow her in?
Don’t be a fool. You have to let it go. Go home to where it’s warm.
No, I must do this.
I try to turn on the light of my mobile phone but George Michael has flattened the battery so I take a deep breath and cross the street and plunge into the darkness.
I continue down a path that gets narrower and rougher the further it goes. I trip on a tree root and curse the world. The path finishes and there’s earth under my feet and soon I feel the crunch of twigs and dried leaves. All around me are the haunting forms of tree trunks and I realise I am now among the Ironbarks. The wind howls and rattles the branches, the leaves, the frayed edges of my heart. I stop and listen to the night.
The wind carries a distant dog’s bark. There’s a bus labouring up a hill. There is a sighing of leaves and great swishes of unseen branches being flung about. The bush feels like it is moving, a sea rooted in the earth. And now I sense her standing right next to me.
“Tania, is that you?” I ask the darkness.
“I knew it must be. This is so special.”
“It is for me too.”
“But why here?”
“The trunk of the Ironbark gets covered in sap, which protects the tree from fire. This is an ancient place of protection. It is the only place you can hear me.” Her voice sounds like branches sighing in the wind.
In the darkness, her face has a dull glow to it, an inner light. But I can’t make out her features because the wind is blowing her hair too wildly.
“Come walk with me,” she says.
* * * * *
She held my arm like she did when she was eight; her left hand holding my right and her right arm reaching across her body and clutching my arm at the elbow. Her grip, claw-like then, was now gossamer light.
I walked with her through the Ironbarks, letting her guide me in the blackness and the wind. She was my eyes and my feet and this time it was me who was dependant on her and I had never felt so proud. We talked for what seemed liked aeons in that ancient wood and I was convinced that only I could understand her sigh-words.
We came to where the trees stopped near the edge of a lake. My eyes must have become adjusted to the darkness because I could make out the black surface of the water, agitated by the wind. She stood beside me, her coat flapping and hair streaming across her luminous face.
She turned and said, “I’m tired now, Dad. I have to go.”
“Will I see you again?”
She moved her face towards me and I felt a tingling sensation on my cheek.
Her jacket and hair swished and made a clacking noise like ravens wings and she walked down the bank and right out onto the surface of the lake and she kept walking across it until I could no longer see her and then I heard a sound like a stone being skipped and just like that the wind stopped.
* * * * *