“Why are you here, Amira?” asked Thomas. “This is not your year level.” It was the ten-year reunion of Maria/Amira’s graduating class. Everyone was now twenty-eight. The problem was, of course, that although Maria would have been twenty-eight, Amira had gained twelve years in terms of biology and demeanour during her Homeland transition more than two years ago. That made her forty; the same age as Gabriel and Charlie. It’s not that she necessarily looked forty. She had a relatively ageless appearance. She didn’t look in her twenties but neither did she seem approaching middle-age. However, her demeanour was, certainly, not that of a younger adult. She was told in the Homeland that those who had previously known her would, gradually, forget how old she was supposed to be and relate to her as she was now. That is what had happened. Understandably, Amira was reluctant to go to the reunion and remind everyone of her birth age but her classmates were anxious for her to go. In the end, she felt that as she lived in Waldmeer, she didn’t have a viable excuse not to.
“This is my correct year level,” said Amira to Thomas. He looked confused but then told himself that he had been there so long that it all rolled into one and he didn’t think about it again.
One of those attending was Mary, Charlie’s partner of the last five years. Charlie didn’t come. Mary took the opportunity to visit her family who owned Maclary Diary just outside of Waldmeer. Although Mary’s conservative parents initially found it very difficult to accept her relationship with Charlie, time had done its job and it was no longer a problem. Mary’s twin brother, Harry, was also there. Harry had been a bully at school and afterwards and, in fact, Charlie had been the brunt of his and his mates’ jokes for many years.
“Wow, a blast from the past,” Harry said to Amira. “I haven’t seen you for ages. I must tell you that ever since you sorted me out about bullying Charlie, I had a crush on you.” Amira smiled and recalled how he would, occasionally, send anonymous flowers to her mother’s cafe for her. She would recognise his handwriting from school.
“What are you doing these days, Harry?” asked Amira.
“I went to Uni. as a mature-age student and did teaching,” said Harry. “Now, I work in the city at one of the state secondary schools. It’s a rough area but they say I’m okay with the kids,” he said in an understated, country-boy way. Amira surmised that he would be terrific with the kids having just the right combination of toughness, no-nonsense authority, and understanding wrought from personal experience.
“That’s wonderful, Harry. Congratulations,” said Amira. They both knew that she meant, Congratulations on coming such a long way from the bullying idiot that you once were. Harry then looked at Amira intently.
“It’s peculiar,” he said, “I always thought you seemed so young and innocent but now I look at you and you feel more like my mother.”
Amira laughed and said, “Thanks, Harry. You look great, too.”
Teresa was cleaning Josephine’s bedroom not long after the girls had left for school. She would wave to them from the balcony and then the girls had an idyllic walk along the path next to the ocean and up the hill to school. Teresa felt that the fresh air and ocean had a good chance of sweeping away at least half the cares of a school girl before they even started the day. After waving them off, she would do some housework before opening the shop at nine-thirty.
This morning as she was vacuuming Josephine’s floor, she noticed a big pile of paper in the waste paper bin. It looked like many drafts of something. She could see that one of the papers on the top was a letter addressed to her father. Not one to overstep the boundaries of a teenage girl, Teresa, nevertheless, looked more closely at the letter. Due to the escalating court troubles she was having with Arthur, she wanted to make sure that he was not manipulating the girls with false information or intimidation. In this particular case, he wasn’t. It was Josephine, herself, who initiated the letter. Teresa sat down and read the draft.
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you but there is something I want to say. I have a friend named Christopher. A FRIEND, Dad. Not a boyfriend!! Anyway, last weekend, I went with him to see some of his relatives in the back hills of Waldmeer. The relatives are called Clinkers. They are a bit like gypsies. Don’t worry, they aren’t going to steal me. There is a main guy there who seems to run all their ceremonies and Christopher told me he is magic and that he can see things. I’m not sure what he sees. Christopher doesn’t really know either.
After the ceremony, I went to the magic man and asked him if he could see anything about me. I thought he would say no but he didn’t. He said, ‘ One day you will be a very influential person in the financial world. You must pay attention to your studies as you will need them. Also, you must remember to be brave and live by your highest beliefs as that is what will give you your success. You chose your mother and father because you need your mother’s emotional intelligence and your father’s business acumen to fulfil your function. Also, you will learn from his mistakes.’
Sorry about that last bit. I haven’t told Mum but I thought I would tell you because it would be nice if we could all be friends seeing as I picked you both.
Love from your daughter, Josephine.
Teresa sat on the bed holding the draft in her hand. She was shaken for numerous reasons. Finance was, probably, the last field she wanted her daughter to enter after her experience with Arthur. However, more than that, she suddenly felt that the fighting was so irrelevant to what really mattered. With all Arthurs faults, he still had good qualities. Otherwise, why would she ever have married him? And regardless, Josephine had, apparently, chosen him for good and bad. It was, indeed, sobering.
Teresa never mentioned the letter to Josephine and Josephine never mentioned it to her. Teresa was not even sure if Josephine ever mailed a final version to her father. However, Teresa’s attitude to Arthur had significantly softened. She no longer felt the anger that had been welling up inside her for months. It had disintegrated. Replacing it was a sense that everything could work out without anyone being hurt. For whatever reason, Teresa never received another letter from Arthur’s lawyers. No one ever spoke about the court case or getting sole custody again. The whole thing vanished into thin air as if it never even existed.
The next weekend, when Teresa was walking with Bryan along the sand, she tried to explain to him how her feelings towards Arthur had changed. She couldn’t mention the letter because that was an issue of Josephine’s privacy. However, as Bryan had made it so clear that he wanted Teresa to share her life with him, she tried to talk about what had happened inside herself. Bryan could tell that the anger towards Arthur had been replaced not only with understanding but, perhaps, even some affection. He said all the right things but the conversation remained with him uneasily. He started to worry that Teresa may reconnect with Arthur. Although he knew it was unlikely, he didn’t seem able to stop the stream of thought. I can’t compete with him, thought Bryan. He’s used to winning.
Over the next few weeks, Bryan started to withdraw from Teresa. Normally, he slept at Teresa’s flat and then travelled to the family farm early each morning. However, he was increasingly staying at the farm overnight. He told Teresa that the days there were so long, at the moment, that he needed to be there at the crack of dawn. Teresa felt him pulling away but couldn’t do anything about it. It scared her. It scared her in a different way to what Arthur’s court case had done. Arthur had scared her into protecting her children’s well-being. This was scaring her at a level deep within her own being.
Of course, Clarice was very pleased to have her son back again. She would make little comments like, “You, always, have your own room here if things don’t quite go to plan. Sometimes, things happen for a reason.” Bryan would get angry with her and walk outside.
One morning before opening her bookshop, Teresa called into the Op Shop. She could see that her rich-clothes were fast disappearing.
“We have lots of happy customers who are loving the clothes you brought in,” said the shop manager.
“That’s terrific. I’m glad they are feeling loved,” said Teresa.
Sensing that Teresa looked a little glum, the shop manager said, “How’s that young man of yours?”
Teresa responded to her motherliness and said, “Actually, not that well. He’s back home a lot. I think he doesn’t trust me.”
“Of course he does, dear,” said the shop manager. “But, you know, when we put our heart into a relationship, we are very vulnerable. We make up things in our head because the other person has so much power to hurt us. Be patient and let him know that you love him. He’ll sort it out himself.”
That evening, the shop manager happened to see Clarice at the Country Women’s Association monthly meeting. She knew that Clarice would be elated at having her precious Bryan back home. After the meeting, she handed Clarice some cake and said as if it had only just entered her mind, “We have been very lucky with our marriages, haven’t we, Clarice? They require a lot of give and take over the years but we both still have our marriages and they are very respectable ones, if I do say so myself. We can only hope that our children have the same good fortune.” Clarice ate her cake in silence.
The next afternoon, Bryan called into the bookshop just before closing. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” he said.
Trying not to look surprised Teresa said, “Great.”
“And then we can have an early night,” said Bryan.
He must be staying the night, thought Teresa. “That sounds lovely,” she said.
“Maybe, even have a bit of a cuddle,” said Bryan smiling. Teresa then knew he was back. She didn’t know why he was back. She didn’t care why. She was simply relieved.
That night after their “bit of a cuddle”, Bryan turned out the bedside lamp and said in the dark, “This morning, my mother said something very peculiar to me.”
“What did she say?” asked Teresa.
“She said that, although, she loved having me home that you, probably, missed me and that as she wasn’t the number one woman in my life anymore that I really should be getting back to you before you run off with someone else.” Teresa was more stunned than Bryan had been. Bryan reached over to Teresa, pulled her to him, and said “I don’t want you to run off with someone else but if you ever did, it would have still been all worth it. I would not regret a single instant.” He rolled over and went to sleep peacefully. So did Teresa.
Gabriel had started dating again; male and female. He didn’t sleep with any of them. These days, he was too old to imagine that one can sleep with another person without paying the price. He wasn’t willing to pay that price; so he didn’t. Amira had explained to him about her upcoming trip to Los Angeles. In a week, it would be school holidays. She was going to take Marilyn and Bianca with her to the States so that they could see their father. Everything had been arranged.
“My Eraldus lease is coming up for renewal,” said Gabriel to Amira when next he was in Waldmeer. Since Paul moved out, there was only Gabriel in the house. “The house is way too expensive for me on my own but I don’t have any clear idea of where to go next.”
“The girls and I will be gone by next weekend and we’ll be away for a month. Why don’t you stay here for the month? You can take over the house with your work and we’ll sort it all out when we return.” With no better alternative, Gabriel agreed.
Other than to briefly tell Gabriel about the publishing contract and trip, Amira hadn’t mentioned anything else about it to him because he didn’t seem to want to discuss it. However, she felt that she should try to air the topic. She had purposely left her manuscript on the lounge room table so that he could look at it if he wanted to.
“Have you had a look at my book?” asked Amira.
“I hate reading. You know that,” said Gabriel. He did try to look at it several times. He tried reading the first chapter but didn’t even get to the bottom of the first page. Another day, he tried another chapter thinking he may have more success. He didn’t do much better. He only ever read it at night when everyone was asleep. He was a night person. Amira was a morning person. The girls, as they were children, were early risers. It gave Gabriel more space from them whenever he was there.
“I looked at it,” said Gabriel one morning not explaining what he had looked at. Amira knew what it was.
“And? Did you like it?” she asked.
“No. I don’t understand it. The words are too big.” He said it as if it was the fault of the words for being difficult to get along with. “And the ideas are too complicated.” Although Gabriel spoke dismissively because he wasn’t exactly thrilled about Amira’s new life direction, there was some truth in what he said about the book. Amira looked at her manuscript as one would look at a family member when incriminating information about them has been blurted out by another family member.
On the Line
A few weeks had passed of Gabriel living in Waldmeer. He had crossed paths with numerous people that he hadn’t seen for quite some time. This morning, he was standing behind Farkas on the line for bread at the bakers. They nodded to each other as men do. Ide and the baby had softened Farkas. He was more settled, although, settled and Farkas were not words that easily went together.
“You at Amira’s while she is in the States?” asked Farkas.
“Yep,” was the extent of Gabriel’s reply. Having second thoughts, Gabriel decided to pursue the conversation further. “What do you think about Amira’s book contract?”
Farkas looked surprised that his opinion was being sought and then answered, “She was, always, going to do well.”
“Yeah?” said Gabriel.
“I have known her for a long time,” said Farkas.
“How long?” asked Gabriel realising that he had no idea how Farkas and Amira first met.
Farkas paused, “Longer than I can remember.”
Thinking that wasn’t a very informative answer, Gabriel said, “I remember you knew her already when I first met her at Waldmeer Corner Store and Cafe.”
“Back then she was just a girl,” said Farkas. “Not anymore.” Farkas smiled and continued, “You have to be brave to take her on now.” Gabriel didn’t know how much of that was a joke. “I’m brave. Not that brave,” said Farkas. Gabriel still didn’t know.
“I don’t think so,” said Gabriel.
“Don’t think what? That I’m not that brave or that she is trouble?” said Farkas stirring him up. Gabriel didn’t reply. He didn’t want to enter either of those conversations. Farkas’s face relaxed. Perhaps, he sensed the struggle in Gabriel. “She is not the sort of person that can be controlled,” said Farkas. Gabriel shrugged as if it was of no relevance to him. “She doesn’t even control herself,” he continued by way of elaboration. That was the end of his advice. He glanced towards the counter to see how far the line had progressed.
“Oh my God,” said Gabriel. “This line is ridiculous. It hasn’t even moved.” With that, he left. There was only one person in front of Farkas.
A few days before Amira was due to return home from the States, she received a phone call from Marilyn and Bianca’s father, Peter. Amira thought he would be ringing to confirm where he would meet her at the airport so that she could collect the girls.
“Hi, Pete. How are you?” said Amira.
“We’re all good, thanks,” said Peter brightly. Amira surmised that his month with the girls must have gone well.
“I’m glad,” said Amira.
“Actually, I’m ringing to let you know that I will be returning home on the same flight as you,” said Peter.
Home? thought Amira. I thought here was his home now.
After a pause, Peter continued, “I might as well tell you because it will affect your life as well as ours that I’m going to try and work things out with Melissa.”
“Oh, okay,” said Amira. “I hope it does work out.”
Peter and Melissa were sitting at an outside table at the Eraldus cafe. “It feels good to be back here,” said Peter. “Thanks for coming to talk with me. How are the girls after their long flight?”
“Exhausted,” said Melissa. “They are still asleep.” She looked at Peter who was fidgeting in an uncustomary fashion. He had, always, held most of the cards in their marriage. She added, “They said that they had a lovely time with you.”
Peter smiled and lightened a little. “I forgot about the incomprehensible and unpredictable weather we have here,” he said pulling up his collar. “Why, on earth, is it cold at this time of the year?”
“Well, you didn’t dress appropriately,” scolded Melissa in a good-natured way.
“Nonsense!” said Peter. “It’s the damn weather that is inappropriate, not me.” Melissa laughed and was happy to hear one of his old jokes. Somehow, it seemed funny again. Nothing he had said for the last year seemed even remotely funny. After their breakfast and a chat about incidental things, Melissa stood up. Peter watched her. He had not mentioned anything about his plan to return.
“Well, I think the girls will be awake by now,” said Melissa. “They have become so used to seeing you every day that you better walk home with me so that they can talk to you.”
After paying, they headed for home. Peter brushed a finger against Melissa’s hand. He was terrified that she would pull away. It was one of the most important and frightening moments of his life. She put her hand in his and said nothing. In fact, nothing was ever said about Peter’s time in the States, his relationship with the woman or his return to Melissa. It was not necessary.
Although Gabriel enjoyed having the house to himself and, also, enjoyed being in Waldmeer, he missed Amira. He missed her more because he didn’t know how much she would even be in Waldmeer going forward. He got a lot of work done without the distractions of the city. He was pleased with that. He was less pleased with himself. Reluctant to admit it, he was affected by his conversation with Farkas. Everything seems fine, thought Gabriel, and then things can start unravelling on their own for no rational reason. He decided to be more honest, after all, no one could hear him but himself. Who am I kidding? I push Amira away, myself. It’s easy to be nice to people who don’t mean that much to us. But if something matters to us, we will fight to make it work in our favour. Do we even know what is in our favour?
He walked outside and listened carefully for the faint sounds of the sea at the bottom of the hill. He watched the kookaburras eyeing him off for food. Yesterday, one of them had swooped down and grabbed a whole sandwich out of his hand. Their beaks are strong. He yelled out to the kookaburra, “You won’t get me again, you thief. You missed my face by one centimetre!”
“I have something for you, Gabriel,” said Amira the next evening. She had finished a quick unpack and took out, from her luggage, a pile of papers clipped together.
“Another book,” groaned Gabriel. “I don’t want it. I didn’t even like the first one.”
Undeterred by Gabriel’s off-hand manner, Amira said, “It’s not a book. It’s only two chapters.” She left it on the kitchen bench knowing that if he was going to read it, it would be late at night.
The next day, Amira said, “You haven’t asked me about my trip or the children. Haven’t you noticed they are not here?”
“Yes, of course, I noticed. I assumed they were still in the city.”
“Peter and Melissa are, most likely, reuniting and the children will be returning to their old Eraldus school. They won’t be here anymore,” said Amira.
Gabriel looked at Amira. She looked somewhat sad. He suddenly thought that she, probably, really liked having the girls because she didn’t have her own children. “Oh, I’m sorry. But it’s for the best. They need to be with their parents.”
“Yes,” said Amira always knowing that their stay was temporary.
“You still have me,” said Gabriel.
Amira smiled. “Bianca doesn’t need her room anymore so you are welcome to it for as long as you want.”
Gabriel stood up. “I’m going back to Eraldus this afternoon to deal with some work stuff. I’ll stay with a friend. I’ll be back in a few days.”
As he was leaving, he said, “Your new book is a story. I read it last night.”
“Yes, it is. Did you understand it better than my other book?” asked Amira.
“Yes, I did,” said Gabriel.
“It made me think but, at least, I knew what I was supposed to be thinking about,” said Gabriel.
“I’ve had a whole month of thinking, Amira. Way too much thinking for me.” Gabriel gave her a hug good-bye and said, “See you in two days.”
The forest was shining with soft, wavering light. It was a pristine, sacred morning. Perfect, thought Amira. Although she had seen Erdo a few times in town during the last two years, she had not driven out to see him in the Leleks since before her Eraldus days. Erdo was waiting on the other side of the old walking bridge. Amira saw two splendid, black swans on the lake and wondered if it was the same pair she, often, saw there years ago.
“Yes, it is,” said Erdo. For the same reason that Erdo knew she was coming unannounced, he knew her thoughts. “Swans mate for life, although, occasionally they get divorced if things don’t go well in nesting. Otherwise, they work with the bonding that they have made.”
Amira sat on a decaying tree truck and watched the lake which, always, seemed to have a special enchantment. After about ten minutes, she said, “I haven’t told anyone yet but I didn’t sign the book contract.” Erdo nodded. She wasn’t sure if he knew or not. “The first two weeks in the States were a whirlwind of meetings, interviews, bookstores, lawyers, and experts.” One of the swans suddenly departed but the mate stayed. Amira waited to see what would happen next. Nothing happened so she continued, “I hated it. I hated every minute of it.”
“Is that why you didn’t sign?” asked Erdo.
“I started to dream of Alamgir,” said Amira. “I kept expecting to see him but I never did. I would, certainly, know that dark malevolence anywhere. I was a little anxious that, maybe, I would see him here today as I did one other time.” Erdo put his hands in the air and pointed at the tranquil surroundings to indicate that he was not there. “They organised a whole month of engagements for me but after two weeks I had made my decision. I told them that I wasn’t their guru. They were rather stunned and tried to talk me out of it. When they couldn’t, they aborted mission, returned my manuscript, and that was the last I heard of them. After that, I spent a few days wandering the beaches and parks and meandering through the shopping centres and streets. I tried not to think about anything in particular. As it was a new and interesting environment, it wasn’t hard to do.” The swan returned and its mate swam over and circled it with effortless fluidity. It was all grace and poise. “And then,” said Amira, “I started to write something new; something different. So, I knew it was the right decision.”
“I’m an old hermit who lives away from the world. I know nothing of publishing,” said Erdo.
“Yes but you have sources;” said Amira, “inside information.”
“It was the right decision,” said Erdo more seriously. “The seduction of success and fame is great and treacherous.” Amira nodded. “Besides, the publishing industry is in the process of a massive dismantling,” continued Erdo. “Hope Publishing will have dissolved within the next ten years. Some of it will be caused by the nature of the world’s changing communication systems. Books will become a small part of the whole. There will be so many other ways to communicate freely, extensively, and creatively.”
Erdo wandered over to the edge of the lake and threw a stick into the middle of the water. He watched with satisfaction as wave-rings extended out from the landing spot to the lakes edge. “It is not all romance for the swans,” said Erdo. “The benefits of together-forever have a practical element. In raising clutch after clutch of cygnets, they learn from their successes and failures each time. The learning opportunities of togetherness are not only practical but precious for us all.”
He returned to his place next to Amira and continued his previous discussion. “Some of the Hope Publishing failure will be brought on by itself. It sells itself on the basis of its interest in the spiritual well-being of the world’s citizens. Although this has been true at various times in its history, of more recent years it has been primarily driven by the desire for financial rewards. We cannot have two masters. They will never agree.”
Amira had one last, pressing question, “But what of Alamgir? I still haven’t seen him and he, always, comes to me if I start dreaming of him.”
“Oh, you saw him,” said Erdo. “You saw him many times when you were away. You just didn’t recognise him.”
“I’m sorry that it didn’t work out how you wanted,” said Amira to Teresa. “It might be every author’s dream but I don’t dream about such things.”
“Do it your way,” said Teresa in a resigned manner. “However, I do wish we had something we could give to people. Right now, we have nothing.”
“We have hope,” said Amira. “A hope that will not delude or deceive and will include everyone and disadvantage no one.” Teresa nodded. “The world is changing rapidly,” continued Amira.
“Did Erdo tell you that when you saw him?” asked Teresa.
Amira didn’t answer Teresa’s question but said, “I may have no dreams of fame but I dream for the world. We will soon understand each other’s languages without having to learn them and we will then develop a universal language. Communication is everything. We will look into each other’s lives and see more of ourselves than we knew was possible. Never again will we have a major war, although, the minor ones will, unfortunately, persist for some time yet. People have much internal conflict to resolve.” Feeling a little out of her depth, Teresa ran her hand along one of the shelves as if trying to make something more concrete materialise in her safe, little corner of the world.
Amira touched Teresa’s hand and said, “And we have these.” She pulled five books out of her bag. In her last two weeks in the States, Amira had her manuscript made into some paperbacks without the help of the publishers. Given something more tangible, Teresa’s expression gladdened. She took the books and made a space on the shelf.
Looking up at Amira hopefully, Teresa said, “We have all come this far together. Together, we can go further.”