And then I see him, a black shape against the stormy sky.
Hope blasts away the cold grip of fear, but the feeling is fleeting: he’s standing near the edge and I know he’s committed to jumping.
‘Wait!’ I scream, but the sound is snatched away by the wind. I lose my footing and stumble to my knees. Gripping hold of the slippery rock with ice-cold fingers, I push myself back up.
I’ve come so far: from the driest, flattest of lands to the soaring peaks of windswept mountains. I’d go to the ends of the earth for him – and beyond.
I still don’t know if I stand a hope in hell of changing this tortured man’s mind, but I had to try, whatever the cost, whatever the consequences.
God knows how I’ll make it down from here alone.
Drawing as much air into my lungs as I can, I open my mouth and give it everything I’ve got…
If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
I was thirteen years old, the first time I asked that question. School had just broken up for the summer and my best friend Louise and I were lying in the cargo tray of her dad’s ute, staring up at an ink-black sky glittering with stars.
‘I dunno,’ Louise replied with a shrug. ‘Adelaide?’
‘You’re always going there!’ I exclaimed. ‘And it’s not even out of the state.’
‘I like it,’ she grumbled. ‘It’s “green”.’
When you lived in a part of the country that resembled Mars and the moon, colour was everything.
‘Come on,’ I urged. ‘If you could go anywhere? Anywhere at all? Use your imagination.’
‘I told you, I don’t know. Where would you go?’
Now that she’d asked… ‘France, Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Spain.’ I reeled off the list I’d memorised, glad I hadn’t stumbled.
It was only later that I learned I’d been mispronouncing ‘Czech’. Kerzetch.
‘You’re just repeating the countries stamped on your mum’s passport,’ Louise sniped. ‘How is that “using your imagination”?’
‘I’d go anywhere,’ I stated, piqued that she’d caught me out. ‘Anywhere but here.’
‘Why would you want to leave Coober Pedy? It’s the opal mining capital of the world,’ she parroted.
This much was true. It was also in the middle of nowhere.
If you type Coober Pedy into Google Maps, all you will see is a vast mass of orangey-beige land in the middle of South Australia, riddled with the cream-coloured wiggly lines of empty creeks, gullies and ridges. It looks like a slab of marble or a medical diagram of blood vessels in the human body.
Click to zoom out once and you’ll see more of the same. It’s only when you zoom out twice that the names of other towns begin to appear.
There’s Oodnadatta to the north, William Creek to the east and Tarcoola to the south. Tallaringa Conservation Park is to the west and that’s it. Of the towns, William Creek looks the closest, but it’s actually a six-and-a-half-hour drive away. It had a population of ten the last time I checked.
All these years later, Coober Pedy is still the opal capital of the world. According to the 2016 census, almost 1,800 people live here, but Louise isn’t one of them. She and her family moved to Adelaide when she was seventeen, but she’s long since given up asking me to visit.
And I’ve long since given up asking the question:
If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
It repeats now on a loop inside my head. I must’ve asked it a hundred times as a teenager and been given a hundred different responses in return.
I had planned to see the world, travel the same tracks as my mother and make new tracks of my own. But I’m twenty-seven and I’ve never been anywhere; never so much as stepped out of the state in which I was born.
All that is about to change and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.
Nan’s hand is cold in mine. I used to be able to transfer my warmth to her, but nothing helps now. Her skin is unbearably fragile, paper-thin and peppered with liver spots, and her white hair has thinned to such an extent that each and every follicle stands alone. She has shrunken away into a different person altogether, a pale imitation of the mighty woman who raised me.
If you could go anywhere…
Stop thinking about it! I don’t know where I’d go! I don’t know anything anymore! I’ve been anchored to this place since the day I was born and soon I’ll be cut loose, but all I feel is numb.
A hand covers my shoulder. ‘She’s gone, Angie,’ Cathy, Nan’s nurse and now my friend, says gently. ‘I’m sorry.’
I lean forward and rest my forehead against my grandmother’s brittle hand. Relief swells inside my chest, squashing the grief I know I’m supposed to feel. It’s like a bubble, expanding and expanding, until, POP! A needle of guilt stabs me through the heart, exploding my relief and filling me with shame.
I can go anywhere now. I’ve never felt more lost.
Heat engulfs me as I step outside, like a gust of hot air from an oven turned up full blast. We’re supposed to be coming into winter, but the desert is defiant.
I can’t imagine a world in which people go to saunas, but it happens: people actually sit inside small wooden cabins and ladle water onto searing rocks to create clouds of hot steam. Then they take off their clothes and sweat. On purpose. For pleasure.
Aada told me about it, and Laszlo too. Aada is Finnish and Laszlo is Hungarian, just two of over forty-five different nationalities that live in this multicultural town of ours.
I used to find the knowledge of the people who had travelled here fascinating. I would hang on their every word, soaking up the tales of the places they’d come from and the things they’d seen. I used to think, One day I’ll see these things for myself. That was when dreaming didn’t hurt me, when it didn’t make me ache from the inside out.
A cabin made out of wood! Even the thought of a wooden building is alien; trees are so few and far between here. The first tree in Coober Pedy was fashioned out of scrap iron and planted up near the lookout so the local kids would have something to climb. I burnt my hands once, trying to climb it in the summer.
Why am I thinking about metal trees and saunas? Am I in shock? It’s not like I haven’t had time to get used to the idea of losing Nan. Alzheimer’s stole her from me years ago, after a mining accident robbed us of my grandfather.
They were the only parents I’d ever known – the only family I had – and now they’re both gone.
A screen door squeaks on its hinges and my neighbour, Bonnie, comes out from the shelter of the veranda. As soon as she sees me, she knows.
‘Oh, Angie,’ she murmurs. She enters my front yard via the gate that no longer needs to be locked and gathers me into her arms. ‘I’m so sorry. Come over to mine? I’ll make you a cuppa.’
I shake my head, the weight of responsibility still pressing heavily on my shoulders. ‘I can’t. Cathy—’
‘Go,’ Cathy interrupts.
I don’t know what I would have done without her these last few days. She understands death in a way I don’t think I ever could.
‘I’ll wait for Bob and see him inside,’ she adds.
The funeral director.
He’s coming to take Nan away.
A sudden, desperate urge to flee overpowers everything else. I can’t imagine how I’ll bring myself to step inside my home ever again. I know I’ll have to, but right now I want to run. Mumbling a thank you, I dazedly follow Bonnie next door.
My neighbour fills up the kettle. The clock on the wall says it’s half past eleven. Mick, her husband, will be home soon for lunch.
I’ve known Bonnie and Mick my entire life – they were good friends of my grandparents and are now good friends of mine. In their early sixties, Mick is as tall and as thin as a post with a shiny bald head and a bushy handlebar moustache. Bonnie is shorter, and a darn sight cuddlier, with rosy pink cheeks that flame red when she’s had a few drinks. She used to work at one of the pubs in town but leads a quieter life these days, while Mick shows no sign of retiring. He still seeks the addictive rush that comes from mining and not without reason: he’s done well out of prospecting over the years – well enough to buy his own home and help his two grown-up children buy theirs.
Less than half of the population in Coober Pedy live in ordinary above-ground houses, while everyone else – Bonnie and Mick and myself included – live in ‘dugouts’, which are caves carved out of the rock.
The outback temperatures are severe – bitterly cold in the winter and often soaring well past forty degrees and even into the fifties in the summer – but below the earth it’s consistently cool. Coming home after a day in the hot sun is like stepping into an air-conditioned room.
Our dugouts are carved out of a hill so entry is on flat, level ground with the kitchen on the left and the bathroom on the right, set back under a veranda that keeps the rainwater out. Deeper into the hill is a warren of rooms – a dining room and a living room, off which three bedrooms lead.
It’s been over thirty-five years since Bonnie and Mick emigrated from South Africa, but their interior still pays homage to their homeland. African masks and woven baskets hang from burnt orange and ochre-painted walls, and colourful throws, cushions and rugs adorn the sofas and floor. Bonnie’s collection of miniature elephants sits in pride of place in the various nooks and crannies carved out by Mick with a jackhammer.
Mick also put in the electricity, stringing wires directly over the rock, and a warm glow emits from backlit shelves and up-lit walls. All the rooms are arched and roughly sculptured spaces, and as there are no windows, they’re also completely dark and soundproof. Many of the hotels and motels are underground too: the tourists who come here to see if we really are modern-day versions of the Flintstones often say they’ve never had a better night’s sleep.
Although the layout of our two dugouts is similar, Nan’s home is far less exciting with its white walls, antique furniture and kitchen décor that is firmly stuck in the 1950s. I’ve always liked it at Bonnie’s – it’s the one place I dared to escape to on a whim when Nan was napping, although I never stayed long in case she woke up and I wasn’t there.
She’ll never wake up again.
A memory of my grandparents hits me: Grandad’s blue-brown eyes twinkling with merriment and his smile half hidden by his crazy, out-of-control beard, and Nan, on her hands and knees, pulling brightly wrapped Christmas presents out from under our silver tinsel tree. Her hair was short and white, the way she always wore it, and when she glanced over her shoulder at me, her bright pink lipstick was still firmly in place.
It’s the way that I try to remember her, the way that I want to remember her and, at that moment, it consumes me – grief – bubbling and boiling out of me like black ants pouring from the anthills in the desert.
‘Oh, darling,’ Bonnie says, putting down the mugs so she can comfort me. ‘You were the best granddaughter she could have wished for. The best daughter,’ she adds fervently, hugging me hard as I shake with silent sobs. ‘We’re all so proud of you, love. You know that, don’t you? You couldn’t have done more for your nan.’
Bonnie was one of many who used to urge me to put my grandmother into a home.
‘We hate to see you wasting your life away!’ I remember her saying once.
But I couldn’t abandon Nan. Nor could I take her with me if I’d wanted to move to another part of the country. The first would have been a betrayal of the worst possible kind, something I never would have forgiven myself for, and the second was, quite simply, impossible. Nan had spent most of her life in the outback and she hated change. She refused to consider leaving the desert after Grandad died and her anxiety only worsened as her dementia took hold.
Bonnie and other friends tried to ease my burden, encouraging me to take holidays or even day trips. But Nan panicked when I wasn’t there and I couldn’t bear to put her through hell for the sake of a few hours of respite for myself. I only dared to leave the house for short periods when she was asleep and someone was available to sit with her. I even work from home, doing the laundry for one of the motels.
Before my ex-boyfriend lost his sense of humour about my circumstances, he told me that I reminded him of ‘a fairy tale princess, locked up in a castle’.
‘Don’t you mean dungeon?’ I replied, casting my eyes around the windowless room.
I was in the laundry room at the time, pressing pillowcases, and he was leaning up against the doorway arch, watching me.
‘Soon you’ll be free,’ he said with a smile.
I didn’t like his comment, or his tone of voice – it felt disrespectful – but I let it slide because I didn’t want another argument.
He was right, though. It might have taken another three years, but now I am free.
I barely remember what my life was like before this. I’d been hurtling towards my eighteenth birthday, desperate to stretch my wings and fly like my mother had at my age. I’d unearthed Mum’s passport years earlier and seeing those stamps from around the world had stirred something in me.
Nan had taken my travel bug personally, as though my longing to see the world had been a personal slight against her and my grandfather. She had been like that with my mother too. Bonnie told me about it once, about the arguments Mum and Nan had had in the lead-up to Mum leaving. Nan hadn’t wanted Mum to flee the nest either, but Mum’s wings couldn’t be clipped.
Grandad’s sudden death forced me to put everything on hold.
Losing him devastated me, but it destroyed Nan. I couldn’t desert her until she was back on her feet, but as the months stretched into years, her general forgetfulness developed into something altogether more sinister. At first, unable to fathom why she couldn’t set a table correctly or put an electrical plug into a socket the right way up, she thought she had a brain tumour. She’d forget things that had happened earlier that same day and struggled to grasp words she was looking for in conversations. She was constantly misplacing her car keys and even walked out of the supermarket a couple of times without paying. It was confusing, worrying and frustrating for her, and upsetting for others when she’d make hurtful or inappropriate comments or forget birthdays and important anniversaries. But it was all manageable, much easier to deal with than what came later.
She forgot how to wash…
She forgot how to dress…
She forgot how to cook…
She forgot how to eat and drink and go to the toilet…
She forgot how to talk…
She forgot me.
‘Don’t you ever put me into a home,’ she used to say darkly, even as we were leaving the care home in Adelaide where her own father had resided until his death at eighty-nine.
The irony, it seemed, was lost on her.
When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she begged me to stay in Coober Pedy. And I promised her again and again that I would.
Some said she never should have asked such a thing of me, but I understood. I was all she had left. She had raised me like a daughter, hoping to fill the gap left by the one she’d lost.
Three days after giving birth to me, my mother had developed an infection that led to septic shock and multiple organ failure. She’d been only a few weeks pregnant when she’d returned to Coober Pedy after being away for almost two years, travelling first around Australia before heading overseas. According to Bonnie, she’d rarely called home in all that time, preferring to send letters and postcards rather than endure her mother’s wrath over the telephone.
Nan couldn’t bear the thought of me taking after my mother.
But it hadn’t always been that way. When I was a child, she and Grandad used to find the similarities between us heart-warming. I remember countless times, growing up, when they’d glanced at each other with delight and exclaimed that I looked ‘just like Angie’, or sounded ‘just like Angie’, or done something that Angie would have done. We even have the same name, Mum and me: Angela Samuels.
Personally, I couldn’t see any comparison – from the pictures I’d studied, I didn’t think I resembled my mother at all. Where her hair had been long, glossy-straight and dark, mine was a mass of frizzy blond curls. Where her eyes were the colour of a sunny daytime sky, mine were more of a milk chocolate. Her complexion was fair and freckly while mine was honey-hued in colour. She was taller than me by three inches: five foot seven compared to my five foot four, measured against the markings on the kitchen wall on our respective seventeenth birthdays.
Our likenesses, my grandparents had insisted, were in our smiles and in our actions, in the way that we spoke, danced and played. None of these comparisons were tangible to me, but I welcomed every one. I was glad my grandparents could see my mother in me; they said they knew nothing of my father.
There had been one night, though, when I’d questioned the truth of that claim. It was New Year’s Eve and I was ten or eleven. I’d been speculating out loud about whether my father might be out there somewhere, waiting for me to come and find him. Nan had had a few drinks and she’d muttered – I’d heard it as clear as day – that he was a ‘bad man’. I’d jumped to my feet in shock, demanding to know what she’d meant, but she’d immediately denied saying anything at all.
But I couldn’t forget those two words. They chilled me to the bone. And although I’m still curious about my biological father, part of me wonders if I’m better off remaining ignorant about who he is and where I came from.