by Lesley Synge
When I stood in front of the community noticeboard outside the Big Love Café at Chenrezig, a centre for Tibetan Buddhism in the foothills of the Blackall Ranges behind the Sunshine Coast, and read the ad about a therapist getting into the counselling business, I knew what I had to do.
It was the year I found out how exhausting looking after a seven year-old solo is. Sole parenting was not the only factor pushing me to the brink – it was also the past. The years of dealing with Alaister’s turbulent personality; the girlfriend crises; the financial crises. And since separation, his escalating nastiness. My mind was a mess of agitation, obsession, and numbness. The therapist was one of the lama’s senior students and charging an introductory price. I started going to her garden studio on the other side of town for an hour a week.
After each session, I felt a stronger connection to my feelings about me. Saw that in striving to reach a more ‘spiritual’ place and always prioritising ‘poor Alaister’ who – I’d finally figured out – was suffering from a terrible, terrible, illness of alcoholism, I’d repressed a natural anger about my situation. An instinct started, deep in my guts. I became conscious of being called.
It was Minjeeribah, better known as Stradbroke Island, a sand island, east of Brisbane and a short voyage across Moreton Bay. Here I’d developed a friendship with the indigenous poet and teacher Kath Walker – or Oodgeroo as she preferred in later life, just as she preferred to call Stradbroke Island by its Noonuccal name, Minjeeribah. I remembered the high school kids I brought over to her camp, Moongalba, the name she gave to her ‘sitting down’ place on the sheltered side of the island. I remembered the wildflowers Kath had gathered; the fish she’d turned into a stew to feed the crowd – her loaves and fishes. She had died – so it wasn’t her calling me – it was the island. She had helped me to love it, to belong.
‘Poor Alaister’ came back from the Solomon Islands to write up a geological exploration project report. He had his own place now, a granny flat. I was relieved when he promised to take care of Flann for a week to let me take a break. He isn’t all bad, I told myself, only 80% bad. Or 90%. In my mind sat the image of an open door – all he has to do is to walk through it, find Alcoholics Anonymous, find recovery, revive our love, and reunite our family.
I rang a real estate office on the ocean side of Stradbroke Island and booked a place. When Alaister came over to see Flann I proposed in a rush, ‘Stradbroke is at its best in spring. We could all cross by barge and you two could stay a night.’
When we’d first fallen in love – fifteen years ago – we’d gone camping on Stradbroke Island a few times with my friends. It was soon obvious that Alaister detested camping so those particular weekend getaways stopped. ‘I’ve rented a place not far from Point Lookout,’ I reassured him. ‘A house.’
‘What do you think Flann?’
‘Be a dream come true, Dad.’
So Alaister accepted the offer.
A few days later, he reneged. Agreed. Reneged. Agreed.
When I informed the therapist that I’d be skipping a session, she was instantly on my case. ‘Are you involving your ex-husband in this holiday plan?’
‘No-o,’ I stuttered disingenuously. ‘He’s taking care of Flann, here.’
She shot me a suspicious smile. ‘Tell you something,’ she said. ‘I was once in an abusive marriage. I know how hard it is to get away. I know most people you meet can’t understand what keeps you there, but I know what it is. It’s addiction. Clinging. You have to stop having sex with him. There’s no other way.’
I’d recently heard the Tibetan lama and various other teachers at Chenrezig warn against ‘clinging’, but at the time, the concept did no more than float around the gompa, as intangible as incense smoke. I bent my head to avoid the therapist’s eyes and muttered, ‘See you in a fortnight.’
Alaister had hired a four-wheel drive for his sojourn in Australia so we packed it up and crossed to the island by vehicular barge. Together. The three of us. He drove to the ocean side and I ducked into the real estate office to collect the key. As he’d done on the phone, the proprietor warned me that the rental property was only a shack. ‘Dunno what it’s like. Might be a bit rough. First listing. Woman owns it – Clarissa someone.’
‘I asked you for something cheap and unconventional. It’ll be fine.’ The upmarket resorts of the Sunshine Coast that Alaister now took his girlfriend to, had never appealed to me. Fishermen’s shacks were once the norm on Stradbroke and I enjoyed the nostalgia and simplicity of olden times.
I instantly liked Tuore Russo, the red house. It was set back from the Point Lookout Road, above Deadman’s Beach, a fibro shack perched on short stumps with a tin roof and front door painted red. A huge Moreton Bay fig towered behind it. Stradbroke Island is characterised by flowering shrubs but large trees sometimes flourish in the sandy loam. Still, the enormity of the fig was a surprise.
I ducked under wind-gnarled banksias that sheltered the path. The key turned in the padlock and I drew the bolt back. The first room of the hideaway was a small sunroom with a divan. It opened into the kitchen. There, everything was spotless: pottery bowls awaiting fruit; neatly stacked crockery; a row of jars, one full of welcoming tea, the others clean and empty. Nothing op-shop.
In the living room, an old piano stood, its piano stool crammed with sheet music and stamped with the name Zoe. Books on timber shelves, higgledy-piggledy, like old friends confiding in each other. The two bedrooms were small but on their walls were framed oils and watercolours. It wasn’t a rental property – it was a home away from home.
Flann ran in, lifted the piano lid, and began plonking the notes of Go Tell Aunt Rhody. His teacher was into a method involving playing the same tunes repeatedly. I’d heard it denounced as the Stewed Orange method; finding a better teacher was on my list.
I re-entered the kitchen and began to unpack the groceries that Alaister was ferrying in from the hire car. I pictured Clarissa unpacking her groceries onto the kitchen shelves. I saw her daughter Zoe tossing the latest sonata she had to learn onto the piano top before flopping down to read.
Love. There’s so much love in this humble place, I thought as I unpacked. The owner is a beautiful woman, transparent in her love. Family, friends, herself … everything is steeped in it. But why do I sense that everything she’s taken for granted is on the cusp of vanishing?
It had initially appeared with the therapist that I could come every week and cry while she pushed a box of tissues across her desk at me. But recently our weekly appointments had turned into work. ‘I’m concerned about your children,’ the therapist had said. ‘They need a happy mother. How will they grow up properly if you’re not happy? You’ll never be happy with him. You know that, don’t you?’ Her eyes, once so compassionate, had turned bulgy and bossy.
I could barely return her gaze. She’d consigned my relationship with Alaister to some sort of Tibetan hell realm, I realised. While I clung to – What is it I cling to? I’d asked myself. Hope? Or delusion? I remembered that, when I’d attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous – in one of my many attempts to understand the challenges Alaister faced – that the hairs of my arms stood up at the words some unfortunate people are unable to make a recovery. It had hit me then that Alaister might not recover. ‘I’m not ready to give up hope,’ I replied.
I sorted the kitchen first then took the bags to the bedrooms. I fished out a small wooden carving of the Buddha and put it on a shelf in the main bedroom, cushioned by the cotton sarong I’d folded around it to protect it. Lantana canes scratched against the windows so I opened one and picked a few pink and yellow flower clusters. I scattered these at the base of the carving.
Once I was done with moving in, I shoved the empty bags and cardboard boxes under the divan in the sunroom. There I discovered geological survey maps of Stradbroke Island gathering dust. On a windowsill above were rock samples. My mouth twisted with sorrow because I was instantly certain that Clarissa’s husband was a geologist and they, too, were divorcing.
She’s hoping not to have to sell their weekender, I imagined out loud. She says to him: if you want the maps and the rocks, come and visit us one weekend. But he doesn’t.
Flann was rattling the dice for a solitary game of Snakes & Ladders in the living room, so Alaister and I snuck away and had sex. When the bliss wore off, he sat up in bed and sneered at the temporary shrine I’d set up. ‘You dragged that over with you? Mad. Mad,’ he jeered. He dressed quickly and poked at the carved Buddha as he stormed out. The flowers fell onto the floorboards.
‘After you sleep with him,’ the therapist’s words returned, ‘you say he is immediately cruel. Yes? Can’t you see that your actions contribute to his creating this bad karma? You don’t have to sleep with him. He is locked in a hell realm but you are not because you have heard the message of the dharma. Buddhist thought makes sense to you – he doesn’t have that good fortune. Every time you have sex with him, you present him with another opportunity to create bad karma. Do you see that? Out of compassion for him, if not yourself, stop offering him this poisonous opportunity.’
I dressed and rushed after him. ‘Look!’ I said, digging out the survey maps from the sunroom. ‘And see this – a bottle of coloured mineral sands. I found it on the windowsill. Isn’t it beautiful?’
He stood at the kitchen sink. ‘Bean sprouts!’ he scoffed. ‘Bean sprouts but no coffee. How could anyone “forget the coffee”?’
Everything he’d once tolerated about me, he now mocked. He hated me. Why? After fifteen years together – why? His anger erupted at random, seemingly causeless.
I made lunch while he stretched out on the floor, near to where Flann was occupying himself with board games. He farted carelessly. Snored. He looked ugly these days, always scowling. And his gut is growing big.
‘Lunch is ready.’ I made myself be encouraging. ‘Glad you’re both staying tonight.’ Flann kissed me but Alaister shrugged resentfully.
The therapist again. ‘You say you feel sorry for him because something is keeping him trapped. There’s compassion and there’s idiot compassion.’ Until then, I’d only heard the Tibetan lama on his decorated pedestal speak about compassion compassion compassion. ‘Think about it,’ the therapist emphasised. ‘Idiot compassion.’
Alaister’s mood didn’t improve. While organising the trip at home, I’d believed that the island would do something for us. But he was as immovable as a monolith from Easter Island. That night, we slept together uneasily.
In the morning, I discovered that the property wasn’t only a woman’s. It was a snake’s. The woman had the shack; the snake had the Moreton Bay fig. I was in the bathroom washing my face when I looked out through the louvres and saw it – enormous, glistening, as thick as rolled maps. It was stretched out on the grey fibro roof of the downstairs laundry which jutted out below. A crazy, carpet-patterned cigar of tapering flesh, luxuriating in sunshine. While it snoozed, something in its belly rippled helplessly.
Flann joined me, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. I pointed to the curvaceous snake and we grinned at each other, eyes popping in wonderment.
When Alaister awoke, he packed up their overnight bags ready for their return trip while I organised muesli bars and water bottles. Having a four-wheel drive meant we could explore the freshwater lakes in the interior. It was Oodgeroo who’d first shown me these lakes. They were deeply spiritual places to her people. Alaister drove us to Brown Lake, followed by Blue Lake. To reach Blue Lake, we had to walk on a long track through flowering banksia. Rain came in, soft and intermittent. The three of us were happy, hand-in-hand.
‘Let’s buy fish and chips,’ I suggested when back at the car, ‘and eat them on the headland at Cylinder Beach, on the ocean side. Leave for the barge from there – I’ll walk back along the Point Lookout road.’
Alaister agreed but churlishly. Why now so churlish? No reason.
On the sandstone headland of Cylinder Beach we lent against the aerial prop roots of a ribbon-leaved pandanus and ate our late lunch. The Pacific Ocean – the South Coral Sea to be exact – rolled and boiled at the base of the low cliff, impossibly blue. Azure. I leaned against my separated husband, as if to say, It’s my love that finds places like this for you.
He shook me off. Tears welled up in me. He liked that.
Flann scouted around, throwing wary glances our way as he called out about lizards and small crabs. Then – ‘Sea eagle!’ His voice was triumphant. Wherever we went, he manifested an amazing ability to spot an eagle or a kite. Today’s bird hovered above us, its wings wide and their tips splayed and delicate. It pivoted its head this way and that, alert to fish-silver.
‘And look over there!’ shouted Flann. In the blue, another sea eagle hovered. ‘It’s caught one! It’s caught one.’ It was true. Silver shone from its talons.
‘The eagle is definitely your totem, Flann,’ I declared, hoping he hadn’t seen me crying.
‘Totem!’ Alaister pulled a face. ‘What bullshit.’ He stared furiously at the ocean swell but without seeing it. ‘We’ve got to get going, Flann. I’ve got work to do, a report to write. I’ve already wasted enough time. Say goodbye to your mother.’
‘Stay tonight if you like.’
I couldn’t help it.
‘No.’ He pulled a face.
The car doors banged. I waved to my son – his soft sweet eyes held mine as his father drove away in a blur of enmity. I remembered that the Tibetan lama had once pronounced, ‘Anger is an illness.’ He’d clowned about, as if selecting a card from a news agency, wobbled his head from side to side as he pretended to read it, and in a comic tone in his heavily accented English, said, ‘Get Well Soon!’ Yes, get Well Soooon! he repeated. The crowd in the gompa had hooted with delight.
I started back along the Point Lookout road. It hit me that Alaister hadn’t used alcohol or marihuana for two days. Two days. No wonder he was grumpy. But I knew I’d made a mistake, asking him to come. Clinging. I’d read that when Jews needed comfort they whispered the mantra God is good, God is good. I let the words dictate my walking rhythm: God is good, God is good.
That evening, I took down The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama from Clarissa’s bookshelf. I didn’t get far before I fell into a dull sleep. At midnight a storm blew up. Canvas blinds flapped, banksias scraped against the exterior walls. The front door burst inwards. He’s storming in, was my first thought, what’s upset him this time?
I flicked on a torch and swung out of bed. Serrated banksia leaves and sandy rain danced into the shack. There was no way to fasten the door securely against such a wild wind except to wedge something against it. I dragged in a kitchen chair, tipped it against the door, and willed it to hold. Returning to bed, I pulled the blankets up around me. Outside the thin walls the wet night surged around me.
On my first day alone, I washed my face, registered the snake, and ate breakfast. I dressed in my swimsuit and wrapped my red and blue sarong around me. Crossed the road to a sort-of track, and scrabbled and slipped down through the dune vegetation to the beach. It was deserted because most people visited the island at weekends.
There’s nothing to stop you from crying and screaming if you want to. You can be yourself, I instructed myself in an internal conversation. Yes, on this island you can be yourself.
The creamy foam of the waves tickled my feet. You’ve been coming here ever since you were twenty or so and now you’re a woman of forty-four. Didn’t Oodgeroo teach you to believe you could belong here?
I recalled bringing both my sons over to the island for a tribute to her, one organised jointly by the Queensland Writers Centre and the Brisbane Writers Festival. That was four years ago, in September 1993, six months after the poet had died. Writers from all over the country had gathered to acknowledge what an extraordinary champion for indigenous rights she’d been. A poet and leader for all Australians.
I left the waves and made for the shelter of a dune. The wind flung sand particles at my ankles as I went, half-jumping with the pain. The sting of it shoved Alaister out of my mind, but only now and again. I found a hollow to snuggle into; lay flat on my belly, palms by my sides to face the sky. Let my chin half-bury itself.
I felt numb, bruised. In time, my hands began to move, to register the silky surface of the sand. I grabbed handfuls of it. Sand, sand.
After a while I made myself return to the glassy waves. Breaking, breaking. I dived in, and for a few moments the water shocked me into registering its physicality. Cold, cold.
I returned to my hollow, collected my sarong and I wrapped myself in it. Bowing against the wind, I found a track leading up. It was sandier than the one I’d used to descend and I had to dig my toes in, hard. The scrub rang with cicada noise, making my ears throb when it rose like a scream.
On the top, I stood puffing and casting my eyes about for my bearings. There! Clarissa’s cool quiet shack under the Moreton Bay fig. God is Good, God is Good.
I showered off the salt, lunched, curled up and returned to the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. He’d written it in India in 1962, shortly after his escape from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. He described his early life, laughing gently at himself for his fascination for Rolls Royce motor cars. He’s nice, I thought. He’s my therapist’s teacher. Maybe he is Clarissa’s. It’s possible. But somehow I don’t think he’s mine.
Later, I walked along the main road to Point Lookout to do the North Gorge circuit. I let the wind push me along the cliff-side circuit. She-oaks whistled so melodiously they were almost singing. Below, the waves lashed the rocks and a blowhole threw up vapour with a smack and a hiss. Leatherback turtles swam in the deep waters of the small gorge. I stood and watched a pair of sea eagles scanning the waves of the surf beach to the south.
From the public phone booth in front of the take-away café I dialled the number of Alaister’s flat. Don’t ask about his love life, I warned myself. He’ll deny that he’s reconnected with his girlfriend; don’t believe a word he says; ignore everything about her. Just tell Flann about the sea eagles. There was no answer.
Back at the shack I assembled dinner, ate, and carried the autobiography to bed. Your mind has been at ease for many moments today, I congratulated myself, patting my upper arms approvingly. You noticed that a dune flower was yellow. You felt the smoothness of yogurt as it slid down your throat.
I had several more days like this. Mind usually flapping like a madhouse of disturbed birds, squawking and flapping in a damned racket – but moments of stillness. It was damage, not just from Alaister but from my troubled childhood, working itself out. That old need: wanting love from an angry person who’s too damaged to love. Trying to force them into it.
Your failed belief system, I said to myself, that a miracle must happen. Miracles are under no obligation to grace those in need of them. We must make the effort to free ourselves. Let go. Let go!
At the beach, whenever I laid myself down on the sand, I let it slide through the gaps of my fingers. Feel it! Feel it!
On the second-last day – squalls of rain. No snake on the laundry roof. I imagined it coiled in a basin made by limbs, dry as a kitten in a basket by a fireplace. Down at the dunes, I sat cross-legged on grassy tufts under my rain umbrella. How many more times will you choose pain before you learn that you are no longer a trapped child? I asked myself. That you can be free from someone else’s tyranny?
‘Stradbroke, Stradbroke,’ I intoned, then laughed at my stupid maudlin melodrama. As if calling on the British aristocrat after whom the island is named would help!
I remembered Oodgeroo on the other side of the island, telling me to dig my toes into the mangrove mud and to stop being a sook. The feel of that mud! The banishment of my terror.
Minjeeribah, I whispered. That sounded all right. Sounded good.
On my last morning, I farewelled the snake, slipped the autobiography onto the shelf in the living room and ran a respectful finger down its spine as goodbye. Packed up; closed the red door of the shack; returned the key to the real estate office. Caught the bus that connected with the water taxi. Moreton Bay was full of chop.
I trained it through the bayside suburbs of Brisbane to Central, then north. At Landsborough station, I boarded another bus to ride up to my mountain home.
Alaister flew out, back to the Solomon Islands. ‘Well?’ the therapist pressed me during my next appointment. When I admitted I’d invited him to the island to join me, her eyes bulged with surprise, and when I confessed that we’d had sex (and that yes, that he was immediately horrible again), she turned her face away and let her grey-blond curls wobble with annoyance.
But I’m almost there! I wanted to say. I felt it but couldn’t convey it. I’m almost there. I had no fear of the carpet snake; I had no fear when the wind blew the door open in the night. I’m over the line. And I’m going to apply to go back to uni. Yep, I’ll study again.
The words were bubbling up, like foam rushing over sand, but a big sigh from her pouty mouth stopped them. I noticed her eyes glaze with distaste.
I’m done with your judgement and dislike, I thought as, in turn, I glanced away. The garden through the open door of her studio came into focus. Clarissa the shack owner would understand; our dreams were identical – once. We’re both learning to let our geologists go, our men of the earth who’ve turned to stone. And Minjeeribah understands me. Whether its sand was underfoot, or singing in the wind, or whipping my arse – it understands me.
Our eyes met. I reached into my bag and extracted her fee. ‘Thank you very, very much for your time,’ I said, and left.
Lesley Synge lives in Brisbane, Australia. Her most recent books are: Cry Ma Ma to the Moon , an e-novel with paintings (available from Amazon) and the poetry book, Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them.