Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rural Legends

For the last four days I've been laid low - some allergy or virus - who knows. And let me tell you, it's no fun being unwell in New York. Four whole days and almost no human contact. The anchors on CNN are starting to seem like my friends. Even Obama started to look like a friendly face. I saw McCain had a new band-aid and was saying melanoma wasn't so bad. "Right on", I called out to his sad TV face. As for Nancy Grace, her warmth and empathy fairly burst from screen.

I have had about five phone calls. Three from my husband who is 12,000 miles away in Bass Straight, Australia. But they've been brief and full of static - Australia's Telstra is not known for its reliable connectivity. Two calls from work. And yes, that's it. I started to wonder what would happen if I died. I took to cleaning the house at night in case I was found dead the next day - I have my pride! I went to bed each night worrying what the discoverers of my body would think if I hadn't stacked the dishwasher. I remembered my mum warning me always to wear clean underwear, "just in case".

Tonight, as I made my first meal in a hundred hours - a cheese omelet, I pondered my life. What if I became really sick? Would I stay here, in Manhattan? Surely I'd "go home". But the "home" people hadn't called either. They think of me as a "successful New Yorker", an "American" who has betrayed her country. My children have their own lives. My husband is working on a boat.

Perhaps if I was resident in Australia. Perhaps then. I thought back. And suddenly, out of the blue I remembered a day - a day and a night and half another day, actually.

One Sunday. Bendoc, Victoria - a one-horse town on the border of New South Wales. A few houses belonging to the policeman, the teacher and what was then called "The Forestry Commission". A few locals. And a one-teacher primary school where my husband was the teacher.

It was a Sunday. I was eight and three quarter months preggers. Our first child. So we - Philip and I decided on a drive - perhaps our last before the baby was born. It was the beginning of winter. We set off down the winding dirt Bendoc - Orbost Road and took a turn into a side road somewhere or other. The side road deteriorated the further we went. After six K we stopped to turn back.

In turning, the car bogged. It was almost six p.m. and getting dark. A sign nearby warned of wolves.

We were city people. No one was around. We hadn't passed a building in miles. We started to walk, back.

When it was almost pitch dark, we decided to stop. I was getting stomach cramps. Philip remembered a hut he'd seen on the turn-off as we were driving. We walked on.

We found the hut. No insulation, no warmth, no electricity but it did have a door so we could lock the wolves out.

"Don't worry", he said, "when school starts in the morning they'll see we aren't there, they'll see the half-drunk teacups on the table, the door ajar, and they'll send a search party".

I believed him. So did he. We were both wrong!

The sun came up. "Let's walk", he said. "We'll meet them coming toward us".

And so we did. We walked and walked and walked. I was fortified by memories of newspaper reports about the Australian "digger" spirit, country hospitality, the way people in the country actually care for their neighbours, unlike the unfeeling "city folk". What would they think when they found their teacher and his pregnant wife missing when school started that Monday morning?

Well, nothing actually. No one came. We walked, and walked and walked. Even when we came to the town, there was no one waiting at its borders. We got to the school house. Children were playing in the school yard. I collapsed. Then slept. Philip went over to his classroom.

"Why are you so late?" the kids asked. "Why did no one look for us?" he answered.

Yep, maybe New York is not so bad. Country Australia, urban America, viva l'indifférence!

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