"Another Time and Place"
I hate human intimacy. The airport security guard’s hands run down my thighs and brush my breasts. I resist the urge to flinch. The feeling is fleeting, then she nods me on and I walk the belt-barrier maze to wait for boarding.
As a child, I travelled a lot. The motions of checking in, security, waiting in taciturn terminals and boarding were like living out a memory. It could have been my father’s back in front of me, his hands tight around the leather satchel containing everything from our passports to multiple foreign currencies.
Since I became an adult, I developed an aversion to travel and limited my trips to one yearly journey. Usually, I reserve that trip for family, but this year is different. My reason for travelling is a twenty-year-old promise: a promise constructed by someone who is no longer me, to another imposter of time.
An announcement. White noise.
I watch the digital clock count towards my imminent departure and am consumed with a spreading sadness. A pressure builds in my chest and ears, and I have to find a memory that will allow me to breathe.
My uncle and father sit across the table from me. I stretch my toes, feet sore from walking all day and my cousin kicks a table leg, bored. We’re looking at menus, choosing dinner. I want whatever smells so good it blocks out the stench from the boggy drains and can make me forget the toddler I saw squatting,and pissing over the gutter as we left the hotel.
Rolled eyes from my father who knew what he wanted twenty seconds after opening the menu. My uncle is going to take his God damn time to decide. A whine from my cousin. I ignore him, staring up at the lights strung around the open air food court. The wiring is shoddy but the glow is provocative in the absence of stars.
‘Are you going to order?’ Father says. Another waiter approaches the table.
Uncle umms. He ahhhs. My father places his order and mine. Finally, my uncle points at the image of a suckling pig. He almost rubs his round belly. The waiter smiles, understanding this simple exchange, and walks away. My father examines the menu, a frown sinking his features on his face. It makes him look older.
‘Is something wrong?’ I ask.
‘This is what you ordered?’ Father points to the picture, addressing my uncle.
‘Yes. It looks good.’ Uncle says.
‘Do you know how much it costs?’
I re-read the menu and do the currency conversion in my head. I cover my face and the smile spreading across it.
‘You’ve bought an entire pig. That’s eighty dollars.’
They call the waiter back and cancel the order: even my cousin is sniggering. The waiter looks disappointed, perhaps not as much as my uncle, but he asks what we would like to order instead. My uncle picks up the menu. I watch my father sigh and drain the last of his beer.
We all have stories that never fail to brighten a day, cause a discreet grin when in public, and always reappear, seemingly, for no reason. Memories of my uncle always make me smile. This one calms me down enough that I can take my seat. Earphones plugged in and The Lord of the Rings in the background puts me to sleep.
My neck wants to splinter in half when I wake. People shuffle around with lethargic movements, stretching, yawning. Phones buzz as they turn back on. I untangle from the headphones and stagger into the aisle.
At immigration, I go through an electronic booth, squinting at the screen while it digitally analyzes my face. Customs lets me, and my single carry-on bag, pass without scrutiny. I step outside into the blustery cold and hail a taxi. Even though I’ve arrived in Australia, it is still a long way to my destination. The taxi drops me off at the train station and I rush to catch my train.
Beyond the window, the landscape is so flat it ambles by. After living in large cities for so long, it’s odd to see an untainted landscape. Just trees and bush. Branches spread free, skywards, no restraints, roots tucked into a bed of leaves and scrub. Occasionally, there is a sign of human life in a lone chimneystack or a coil of rusted wire looped around a rotting wooden fence.
The train station in town is two blocks from the foreshore. I can smell a different kind of fresh air. One that has pushed off the Antarctic waters. It isn’t as windy here and I walk towards the beach. The town is a little different to my recollections. Larger buildings have replaced beach shacks. The wooden railing that separated the road from the beach is now an ugly concrete wall. Much of what used to be grass has returned to scrub and sand dune.
But the spot I’m looking for is how I remember it. My bag clips my heels as I drag it along the gravel path. The tiny hill, topped by a small park, was a favorite secluded place for teenagers. Judging by the beer bottles, cigarette stubs and used condoms it still is. I take a breath of sea air, so different from Singapore’s smog.
I sit down on the bench, my favorite place to hang out when I lived in this town. And, by sitting down, I have fulfilled my part of the promise. I am here, on the day agreed, three minutes early. But I know I’ll be alone until sunset. Ford won’t come, despite the pact we made twenty years ago, and even though I’ve allowed many moments to slip through my memory, Ford’s words that night will always remain.
My knees are drawn to my chest. Sobs strike my body with offbeat convulsions. The bench was as solid beneath me as the oncoming night.
‘Kerry. Is that you?’ I look up to see Ford walking towards me. He’s wearing a wetsuit and carrying a snorkel mask. I wipe my damp face. ‘I haven’t seen you since you got back from overseas. How was your trip with your cousins?’ He pauses. ‘Are you okay?’ He sits down beside me and wraps an arm around my shoulders. Damp seeps into my shirt but I don’t care. Ford is too innately good for this town. Too good to be my friend.
You smell like shit,’ I say, nose crinkling.
‘Sorry. I was diving with my dad. We just stopped ‘cause it was getting dark. Don’t avoid my question. Are you okay?’
‘No... Maybe... I don’t know,’ I say.
His body emits a comforting warmth. I breathe through my mouth to avoid the seaweed stench.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
I lean into his shoulder. It takes me a moment to consider his words, process my thoughts. I feel wrong inside, all jumbled up. My fingers shake and I need to know what it means.
‘I was at Pete’s. I was telling him about my trip. His parents weren’t home and he wanted to… You know, I was… I couldn’t do it. Is something wrong with me? I’ve never felt like that about Pete.’ I stammer, trying to tell Ford without words. My hand closes into a fist.
‘Well, he’s a terrible boyfriend and a jerk. There’s nothing wrong with you, Kerry. You’re perfect.’ It makes me feel a little better but he has an inflection in his voice that means he is as unsure as I am.
‘You really think so? I thought teenagers were supposed to want to get into everybody’s pants.’
He gives me a soft squeeze.
I exhale. ‘We were going to have to break up anyway,’ I say, ‘Since my dad’s posted.’ Ford was the first person to know. But he acts as if there is no such thing as the future.
We stare at each other’s faces for a moment and Ford leans towards me. Part of me wants to keep going, let the moment continue. I move back.
‘What about Jessica?’ I say. Ford blushes and looks down at his feet.
‘I don’t know. She’s nice but it never feels quite right, you know?’ he says, ‘Shit. Why are we so fucked up?’ Ford bites his lip.
‘Way to ruin a moment,’ I say, ‘What do you want me to say? Because we’re teenagers and live in a dumb town with even dumber people and we are supposed to get screwed by the world.’ A pause sits heavy in the air. I can’t help but think about the fact we almost kissed. The restraint it took to stop. I miss my fun conversations with Ford.
We both try to speak at the same time.
‘You first,’ Ford says.
‘Why didn’t we end up together?’ I say.
‘Because we’re friends first. In another time and place maybe.’
I sigh. A breeze pushes through the tree tops, whistling. I hear a wave hit the sand.
‘We won’t see each other again once you move, will we?’
‘No,’ I answer truthfully. He is my best friend. But I’m moving too far away. When you’re not directly in someone’s life those bonds snap and fade. I’d grown up with this fact.
Ford pulls himself off the bench and holds out his hand. Eyebrows raised. ‘Let me show you something.’ He grabs my wrist and drags me to my feet. I follow as he slides down the hill into the dunes. We skid across sand and drop into a dip hidden from the road by brush.
A burnt out fire pit sits in the bottom. Black charcoal and driftwood. We squat on the sand. I kick a beer bottle away from me.
‘What’s so special about the party pit?’ I say.
‘Not the pit. Look up.’ As Ford says this he leans back and flops onto the sand. I feel grains of sand flick my bare ankles like little midges attacking my skin. I fall onto the dune.
The sky is dark enough I can make out the stars. I spot the only constellation I know, the Southern Cross.
‘You aren’t going to have clear skies like this in the city. Too much light pollution. Appreciate nature for once.’
‘This doesn’t make me any less heartbroken.’
He rolls his eyes, ‘Let’s make a pact. A promise–’
‘–A blood oath–’
‘–a promise to meet back here. Like in twenty years or something.’
‘Another time and place.’ I say.
‘Exactly.’ He grins and I hit him softly on the arm.
It’s too dark for me to feel safe in the party pit anymore. Twenty years have passed since this was my place, imagining what my life would become. The dreaming of a teenage girl did not involve running away to Singapore to recapture the magical adventures of childhood; fake stars that shone brighter than anything real, and more persistent than any form of romantic love I’d known.
I dial the number for the one taxi company in town as I walk towards the carpark. The sounds of tipsy teens reach me. Tomorrow will be tough.
I dress the next morning in a room that smells too much like mold, after showering in a bathroom that smelled too much like gas. I pull my tights on and adjust my skirt.
When I arrive no one recognizes me. The only empty seats are at the back of the room. A woman sits with two small children in the front row. She shakes like a leaf loosening from a branch, teetering on the line between holding on and letting go.
I don’t cry, but at the end, after everyone has left for the wake, I wander into the graveyard alone.
Ford’s name is inscribed on the newly laid stone. Our reunion at last.
This is the last time I’ll ever come out on Ford’s family’s boat. My parents gave me a break from packing to say goodbye. His dad sits by the outboard, sunscreen slapped across his face. I’m wearing Ford’s sister’s wetsuit and it hangs loose around my hips and shoulders. Ford rubs sunscreen into his freckles. The buzz of the motor vibrates up through my legs. It’s too loud to talk.
One hand clenches the tinny rim as each wave impact threatens to bounce me out of my seat and the other grips the rubber end of a snorkel tube. There is no cloud cover and I can feel my skin melting underneath sunscreen.
After fifteen minutes Ford’s dad cuts the engine by the rocks around the cliff base.
‘Ready?’ Ford says. He briefly looks at me, but his eyes are drawn to the water, with a look I recall seeing in my uncle’s face. This is all Ford needs.
‘Good.’ He gives me a shove and I fall into the water. The cold finds me and I’m thankful for the wetsuit.
‘Hey,’ I splutter.
Before I can grab the rope dangling over the edge of the boat, Ford splashes down beside me. His head breaks the surface and he grins, salt water leaking from the corners of his mouth. Ford’s dad is silent but he’s watching.
I watch Ford take a deep breath and sink beneath the waves. He is a stronger swimmer than I am, and I find it hard to follow his refracted image. I breathe in and dive. Ford is already so far below me and I realize that we will always have a distance between us. Any affection we shared was as much an illusion as the reflected rainbows on my skin. Ford was going to live in this town forever and I would be left floating – unable to be pinned down – haunted by what I could never have.
And this is what it came down to, Ford lying under tonnes of earth. Distant.
What would have happened if he hadn’t developed a melanoma and a tumor which rode his lymph system to his brain? Would Ford have deserted the woman he promised his life to? Proclaimed enduring love for me as ridiculous as that would be?
As I stood there I knew I would have rejected him. No matter the hypothetical circumstances I would have rejected him. I was better off alone, without the stress over aspects of a relationship I could never fulfil.
‘You said another time and place, Ford. But we were happy as friends. I’m sorry I never saw you again. Maybe it was for the best,’ I cringe, ‘Who knows. Maybe we’ll meet in another life. Not like I believe in that shit. So…’ My words drift off.
I pull a plastic flower from my purse and lay it on the grave. There is no sense of completion. I walk away, the same person I was when I got off that plane. Stuck in this time and place.
Emilie Morscheck is the Australian author of several published short stories including "Astraea's Wish" and "Firestorm". In 2019 Emilie received an artsACT grant to edit her YA fantasy novel, These Cursed Waters. She was a 2020 Anne Edgeworth Fellow, receiving support to develop her second novel, The Selkie Curse. Emilie was shortlisted for the 2021 Text Prize and an inaugural recipient of the Steph Bowe Mentorship for her novel These Cursed Waters. She is a fan of kelpies, selkies and watery graves.