I’m in the car park.
My dads message beeps noisily as I step through the automatic doors. An overwhelming slap of heat takes me by surprise. I spent many years living under the sweltering tropical overhead of the top end’s wet season, yet today its monsoonal envelope embraces my shoulders so completely that it startles me. Sweat gatheres underneath my tight cotton shirt and I shrug away the pooling liquid that is darkening my back. The movement ruins my carefully fluffed hair, which is now beginning to clump together on my glistening cheeks. I am not tan enough to wear a sleeveless t-shirt, but it’s too late now to change my outfit. I should have worn the standard attire – oversized white linen shirt, denim shorts and hair pulled into a messy bun. My mistake is noticed by the gaggle of Japanese tourists walking beside me and I envy their casual safari gear and short, perfectly trimmed black hair. I look more a stranger to this land then they do.
Squinting my eyes tightly in the bright afternoon sun, I soak in my remembered landscape. The surrounding bushland is saturated in the deep leafy greens and dying yellow palms of jungle bushland. My eyes sting briefly for a moment so I lower my head as I tug my bag behind me. I wish I’d never left. It’s been too long.
‘So you made it!’ I lift my head to see my dad grinning over at me with an all-encompassing smile that reminds me of my childhood. His dark, curly black hair has greyed considerably since I last saw him.
I try and fail to infuse a degree of familiarity into my greeting. We hardly know each other.
‘Let me take that bag for you.’
I’d expected a half-hearted hug at least, but not the cold shoulder he presents as he reaches over for my large suitcase. My toes squirm nervously in my grimy sandals as I follow closely behind my dad. I am saddened to see that we are approaching a brand new four wheel drive. Where is the trusty red LandCruiser that once starred in our many outback adventures? I can almost see the wheels spinning in the choking red dust of Arnhem Land. My mother laughing as her face coats with a fine layer of red ochre.
I am firmly yanked from my memory as a bubbly, blonde haired woman jumps from the air-conditioned cab to my side.
‘Welcome to Darwin Emma!’ The woman pulls me over for a lung-compressing hug and I manage to mumble a greeting into her frangipani scented hair. I try to catch my dad’s eye but he’s avoiding me.
Why did he have to bring her along? What was he thinking?
I have a desperate need to talk to him in private.
My father has moved. His new home on the outskirts of Palmerston is nestled perfectly on ten beautiful acres. The one-story, cyclone resistant cement home has high ceilings and low hanging fans, the entire house tiled in expensive white marble or a well-made imitation. The many windows are covered with dozens of louvers and soft sheer curtains fluttering in the breeze. The space was created to be cool and inviting, but I am all too aware that this house belongs to a woman named Natalie and a father who has forgotten I prefer to be called Em.
My step-mother presses a cold class of water into my hand and I accept it gratefully as she prances around the kitchen
‘We thought we’d take you to Kakadu, get a bit of sight-seeing done. You don’t want to miss out on Ubirr before it’s closes for season. We could even take a day trip down to Litchfield Park, as you simply must see Bouley Rock Hole; it’s beautiful at this time of year.’
My insides churn miserably as I present a smiling façade to my step-mother.
No I haven’t seen Ubirr or Bouley Rock Hole before. No they aren’t some of my most favourite locations in the world.
I am the one who belongs, not this ditzy blonde woman from Perth.
‘But first, we’ll go out for dinner in Palmerston.’
This idea agrees with me and I watch with interest as Natalie dumps a plate of watermelon and strawberries in front of me. I can tell from her trim physique that there won’t be any cookies or cupcakes at this establishment.
The restaurant has undoubtedly been chosen by Natalie. The Salt n Peppa Café Ristorante overlooks the Palmerston Golf course, and a myriad of lakes glisten at us from the darkness. I remember the Thai restaurant at the Stokes Hill Wharf that my parents and I used to frequent. In my patchy memory the gaudy décor features smooth white tables flourished with red napkins and piles of wooden chopsticks, a vase of fake Orientals finishing the ensemble. As I think back to those days I see a clear image of my parents beaming faces and those of now long gone family friends. My heart aches for those days.
‘So Emma, what are your plans now that you’ve left school? Will you be taking a gap year abroad? Or do you think you might dive straight into uni? I suppose you can do anything you really want to now.’
I understand Natalie’s full meaning. The sensation of loss gnaws viciously at my stomach. Why is she doing this to me? Why remind me now?
The rest of the night plummets into a depressing silence only punctuated by Natalie’s endless prattle concerning her ‘flourishing’ business. She owns a boat company that takes unsuspecting tourists on trips down Adelaide River and she is looking to expand to Yellow Waters.
After the last gulp of wine is taken by Natalie we all stand to leave. Unsurprisingly, my dad disappears to the bathroom and I begin to move towards the sliding glass doors of the entrance. I feel a cold hand on my arm and Natalie pulls me back. Her sickly sweet smile is belied by her intimidating blue eyes. Something is wrong.
My alarm increases as she slowly pulls me towards the counter.
‘What is it?’
‘We thought you might shout us. It’s the polite thing to do you see, and your father would be delighted.’
I see behind her carefully constructed smile and my world implodes. She knows. Dad told her about my inheritance.
My face blooms bright red and I stutter at Natalie in disbelief. I don’t want to make a scene but I can hardly contain my murderous thoughts.
The words are vile and completely alien on my lips and Natalie’s corresponding gasp of shock makes nearby diners give us nervous glances. Their intruding stares feed my humiliation as it blossoms into a fuming monster, it flounders and flusters in the face of Natalie’s disgust.
‘What was that for?’
I turn around to see that my dad is back, and he looks furious. His cheeks are tinged red, his eyes wild. His expressions are a mirror to my own, and with our matching curly black hair, there is no denying who I am.
But I am already out the door.
I am thankful for the late night bus service to Darwin, the tourist coach already jam-packed with Hawaiian t-shirt wearing individuals. Some smile awkwardly as I shoulder through, while others turn away from my tear stained shirt in discomfort. They’ve come from Katherine and before that Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. You can spy the locals with a quick discerning eye. They seem embarrassed to be spotted on a tourist bus.
I am dropped off with a few other world-weary travellers at the closed information centre near the Darwin Regional Airport. I am almost back where I started. The other travellers are greeted by friends or family, and I am eventually left on my own. The darkness is sweltering, suffocating and no matter how still I stand, I cannot forget that it is probably still 30 degrees.
And then the panic begins to make itself home. I glance at the pocket where my iPhone sits. All I’d have to do is pull it out and make one easy phone call. But I don’t.
I have not forgotten that I used to attend a school relatively close to the airport, and so I decide a long walk to the Holmes Jungle Look Out is my best bet. Swiping off a few concerned taxi drivers, I am soon on the road out to my most favourite place on earth.
It’s a longer journey then I thought.
I curse my thongs.
I curse the heat.
I curse Darwin.
It takes me two hours to trudge all the way up to the Look Out. Even then I’m hardly sure I’m even in the correct place. There are no lamps to light the way, and the pebbled path makes me lose my balance numerous times. No one comes here at night.
Finally stumbling across a park bench that I may have played on as a child, I position my weary body in the middle of the green timber boards and gaze up at the stars.
Millions of tiny glowing specks are staring back at me. I instantly feel their protective blanket and allow them to lull me to sleep.
The steady glow from a pair of headlights interrupts the weak light of dawn and floods over my hiding place. As the truck pulls up I immediately recognise the red LandCruiser. My chest constricts with unshed tears as I gladly welcome back the love for my dad. It had been sitting in a seriously neglected corner of my heart for years. Somehow, my dad remembers how precious this place is to me and I feel instantly shameful as I blurt out the first thing I can think of.
‘I thought you got rid of Rusty.’ I call out.
‘Nah.’ My dad replies as he slams the driver’s door shut. ‘I couldn’t get rid of him mate. He stays at a friend’s place. Nat doesn’t like old and rusty.’
‘So… where’s Natalie?’
‘Nat thought she’d give us a few days alone. She’s back at her mother’s place in Fannie Bay.’
I nod thankfully and the two of us sit in companionable silence.
‘I think I want to move back here dad.’
‘Yeah.’ My voice carries in the wind and I steal a glance over to Holmes Jungle. The dirt road, snaking its way to the head of the trail, is barely noticeable in the dim grey light. I have a sudden desire to go down there.
‘It’s one of my favourite spots here Em. If you look directly where I’m pointing there’s nothing but bush for hundreds of miles. It truly is the beginning of the outback.’
My spine tingles as I gaze out over the paralysing scene. There is nothing more powerful than the hum of the unknown country, of a land so ancient it can impress and supremely rule your mind. I visibly shiver and my dad laughs in his usual loud and boisterous way.
‘I know dad, you’ve told me before.’
The sun is rising and I can tell my dad is also enthralled by the swell of vibrant colours splattering the horizon. The dusty pink above our heads completes the masterpiece and my soul gathers the images and tucks them deep within.
‘Do you think your mum would be happy if you moved up here? Away from your home and your friends?’
‘Um yeah… that’s the thing.’ I pause for a brief moment as I slurp in a thirsty breath. ‘Mum left me her entire estate under one semi-legal proviso. The lawyer assured me I could contest… but… it’s what she wanted. And well… it’s what I want too.’
My dad isn’t looking at me, but I can see that he is contemplating an idea as wonderful as it is meaningful.
‘And what was it?’
‘I have to spend at least one year in the top end, with my dad.’
The soft splutter of my dad trying to hide his sobs is only broken by the familiar cackle of a jubilant morning chorus.