Off track

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe young woman was wandering like a lost dog, scowling at something she held up to the sky, then bringing it down in front of her face, then holding it up again. Her clothes were unlike anything Bodhi had seen before, but they were clean and bright. If she was lost, she had not been lost for long. Somebody was probably available to her not far away, perhaps on the track down by the river, where the less timid adventurers sometimes found their way.

It was not prohibited to speak to strangers, although it was discouraged. Bodhi’s father had resolutely shunned them unless an emergency dictated otherwise. Some members of the commune were more outgoing, but this was something that they had to apologise for later. Bodhi would never have spoken to a stranger in front of his comrades, but he was alone, so he decided to speak to the girl. She looked harmless. She was pretty, too — he could not resist the yearning to speak to her.

He moved away quietly so that he could approach her from a distance. Even so, when she saw him, she was startled. She turned away from him quickly, catching her hair on a lawyer vine so she was forced to stop and untangle herself. He stayed well back.

jungle2‘Are you lost?’

‘No. I’m with friends.’ Not quite true. She looked at him like a wary cat.

‘The track is down that way — about 500 metres. There’s nothing up here.’

‘500 metres?’ She appeared shocked. ‘That way?’

‘Which way did you come? You’re not on a path.’

He could see her calculating her odds. It made him sad. He hoped she could see that he was not threatening. If he was dangerous, she would be history already. He smiled.

‘Just come away from that, it’ll spike you.’

She was already sucking her finger. Bodhi stepped forward enough to hold back the vine.

‘I can’t get a signal,’ she said, once she was in open space again.

‘There’s no radio station near here.’

‘No, phone,’ she corrected him, looking at him strangely. He frowned.

‘There’s no phone til you get back to Cooktown, far as I know.’

‘I have a phone,’ she said, waving a little red rectangle at him, ‘but there’s no signal.’

He shook his head, not knowing what she meant. After a pause, he made some suggestions about the best way back to the track. He could tell that the sound of his voice encouraged her to trust him a little.

‘Do you live round here?’ she asked.

He nodded, returning her a little trust. She had a beautiful face, just like the teenage girls at school when he was a boy. He did not think she would send the police to find the commune. All the same, he would not say anything about that.

‘In the bush? Like a hippie?’

‘Sure.’

She said something that he did not quite catch, but it sounded admiring. He offered to show her the way. She thanked him, and he took the lead.

He kept to the ridge at first, looking to find an animal track that would take them down through the jungle. It was slow going. The girl did not know what she was doing. She tripped often. The light under the canopy was soft and green, but the heat of the afternoon was intense.

‘I’m surprised you managed to get so far off the track,’ he said one time, when she stopped for a rest.

‘Me too. How long have you lived here?’

‘Long time. Years.’ He did not want to say how long — she would think he was old. He hoped that without information, she would continue to think he was… what? Not so old. He really wasn’t so old. His body was fit for anything, and his mind was still the mind of a boy.

‘And you make your own clothes?’

‘What’s wrong with em?’

‘Nothing! They’re amazing. But they’re homemade, yeah?’

He was annoyed, but could see no better answer than to explain, proudly, his snakeskin belt, his hemp daks and shirt, his kangaroo satchel, his grass moccasins. As she grew more interested, he abandoned caution and admitted that he had not done it all himself. She said she could tell. Who had done the weaving? The sewing? The leatherwork? He found himself praising the diverse skills of the commune members, whom he called only, ‘my people’, except that he singled out his mother for special praise for making his shoes.

‘Your mother?’

‘She makes everyone’s shoes,’ Bodhi said, although in fact his mother seldom finished a pair any more. 

‘How many of you are there?’

He could not answer that question, and should not have invited it. ‘Come on, let’s keep going.’ He changed the subject. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Sydney.’

He snorted. ‘Get out of there.’

‘You don’t like Sydney?’

He snorted again. ‘Don’t like cities. First to go when the bomb drops.’

‘Yeah?’ she said, then walked on a few steps. ‘Do you know Sydney?’

‘I was born there. We left in seventy-six.’

‘Seventy-six!’

Why had he said that? She told him that was twenty years before she was born. Now she thought him ancient. Disrespect relaxed her. She asked even more questions.

He admitted that he had never been back to Sydney, or in fact to any town. With his parents and others, he had escaped the city and had spent his life hidden in the bush, becoming one with nature and preparing for the day when nuclear war destroyed the world.

She said no-one worried about that anymore. He said people always were stupid.

She said the bomb was still there, but people were more worried about climate change. She had to explain that to him. He always knew capitalism was destroying the environment, but it was weird comparing notes. Things he worried about she had never heard of, and vice versa. Still, the general picture was as desperate as he would have expected.

‘That’s why we dropped out.’

‘Except, if we don’t stop it, there won’t be a world for anyone.’

‘You can’t stop anything from inside the system. You only keep the wheel turning.’

That was the old argument. She did not want to hear it. She was oddly optimistic for a woman who expected the world to burn.

‘I couldn’t live out here,’ she said. ‘I like cities. If we think smart, we can have green cities, and organic farms, and renewable energy and live sustainably.’

That sounded ridiculous to Bodhi. As they argued, he became aware that she was referring to things he had never heard of. A Facebook? Google? Trump? Well, Trump was a US President, that awfulness made sense, but the other two lived on a thing called the Internet, which sounded like a fantasy.

‘I’d show you, but there’s no signal,’ she said, taking out her little toy again.

‘What is that?’

‘This — oh my god — this is my phone. Let me show you — but it’s not working. What can I show you?’

The little box came to life, one side a glass screen showing colours. She flicked and tapped it, and the pictures on the box flashed and flew.

‘How is that a phone?’

She showed him, all the while apologising for its failure to work.

‘What can I show you?’ she asked herself again. ‘It all needs a connection. I know! I can show you my photos. Look, that’s me earlier today, with my friends.’

 The screen showed a picture of four youthful faces looking goofily into the camera. She flicked it, and the screen showed young men walking beneath trees, a girl laughing, a flying bird.

Bodhi was amazed. The pictures moved for a second, and then froze. They were bright as little jewels. She explained, but it made little sense to Bodhi. She showed him a short movie of her friends crossing a stream.

‘That’s incredible.’

‘A lot of things have moved on since you left the city. Let me show you Sydney now.’

She fidgeted with the device, then put it in his hand and showed him how to move from picture to picture. He saw the Bridge and the Opera House. It was a shock. They were bolder than he remembered. The cars were strange, the clothing on the people, the colour of the crowds, the buildings. Even the things that were normal looked strange on this bright little screen.

The photos showed several pretty girlfriends. Women’s lib had succeeded, he sensed.

She became excited, telling him about life in Sydney. It was not all good, she said, but she seemed to love it. She herself worked as a media buyer — never mind what that meant — but it meant cities, and parties, and life in strange offices, working with flat TVs. It meant calling people with her ‘phone’, and ‘texting’, and meeting boys ‘online’. Whatever the hell it all meant, Bodhi was excited too, and confused, and more than a little pissed off.

‘Silly.’ He said that once, and liked the sound of it. This was all silly, surely.

She agreed, but wanted to tell him it was good. So good. One could ‘google’ anything (when one had a signal, naturally). Google the temperature in Cairns, the history of sugar, the pub gigs tonight. Anything you want to know. Buy anything you want to buy; have it delivered. Talk to anyone anywhere anytime.

He didn’t believe her. She assured him, ‘No, yes, really, it’s amazing,’ and in the next breath she admitted that it wasn’t all that great. There were ‘trolls’ and crazies everywhere, lies and scams, ‘Fox news’ and ‘Trump on Twitter’, which was the worst, worst thing, the sure sign that maybe they would all die in a war.

‘Exactly,’ Bodhi said, seizing on this idea. But she veered again and said it was not that bad, and Trump was just a shit and wouldn’t win. The future could be so bright. She was young and full of hope, he could see that.

They arrived at the track, and were dawdling indecisively when they heard a yell.

‘Rachel!’

‘They calling you?’

‘Yep! Thank god. Come and meet my friends?’

Bodhi said no. Rather pointlessly, he told Rachel his name. She said it was amazing to meet him. He agreed. He wanted to touch her, he could tell she could tell, and she offered her hand. He took it and leaned forward to kiss her cheek, which was awkward for both of them. Then he fled far enough into the bush to disappear, and turned back to watch her meet her friends.

There were two young men and another young woman, and they were, like Rachel, bright and neat in their modern clothing. The men had beards unlike Bodhi’s, cropped close to their sleek faces, and hair cropped short like soldiers. They greeted the return of Rachel casually, unaware that they had almost lost her forever. When the girl told them about Bodhi, they looked up, alert but not alarmed, and saw nothing. She told them her adventures, and they laughed.

daintree_palmsBodhi went his own way. He should have returned to the commune, but felt he could not yet. The strange device that the girl Rachel had shown to him continued to play upon his mind. It was strange to think of Sydney, way down south, pulsing and growing without him all this time. Five million people, Rachel had said. He could not believe it without feeling something like panic.

He had an empty sinking feeling in his heart that he had abandoned the city for life, but that life had not abandoned the city with him. At thirteen, believing his parents, he was terrified that the end of the world would be announced in a flash of light, followed by flames and then by the slow ulceration of all remaining flesh. How wise it seemed to leave and build a commune in the hidden jungle, despite all loss and foregoing. He had left all his friends, all the budding girls, the milk bar, pinball machines, Jim’s hotted up car, the library with all its books, the cinema. He had left a backyard with a shed, a treehouse, a hidden bottle of bourbon. They were precious, but less precious if they were the chains that bound you to death.

But death hadn’t come to the city. He had gambled, giving away nearly everything, and it was not possible for him to say that he had made the right bet. He would have traded his grass slippers for Rachel’s shoes, if such a thing was possible.

There were eleven people in the commune, three fewer than they had started with. People left or died faster than they were born. The commune had been a struggle from the beginning, and now it was drying out, losing its colour, its original purpose hardening into ritual. The hopes of its founders made no sense if the city refused to die.

He could have left. Many children born in the commune did. Instead, because he understood the dreams of his mother and father, he had waited. Now he knew he was old and that the understanding on which he had based his life was flawed. What he could have had, he had missed, and now it was too late.

© 2020 Craig Bingham

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One comment

  1. Between the extremes of their homes, the story might be a metaphor for those who abandon everything in retirement and go to live where they’re not known.
    The penultimate paragraph was poignant.

    Like

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