Chapter Zero: ‘Far from the Ocean’
The train deposited Alex in affluent suburbia. He walked out from the station onto a road lined with trees and hedges, behind which were substantial, mostly brick, early twentieth century houses. It was Saturday morning. The sky was a uniform grey. It was still early in the year, and bare-branched trees waiting for the spring to gather strength were filigree against the sky, black on grey; their ambitions to shade out the light just beginning to show, though it would be a few months before they were fully in leaf. It was cold, and it was damp. Alex had never really felt the cold much before, but today he felt it keenly. Maybe it was the jet lag. Or perhaps his body had acclimatised to warmer days.
He headed off down the road, walking briskly, trying to generate some heat. To his right, the houses were mostly semi-detached, their small front gardens largely turned over to hard-standing for cars; accessed via wide gaps in diminished hedges. There were a few tiny patches of lawn, some small trees and shrubs; here and there a narrow border for flowers. On the other side of the road, the houses were bigger, set back from the road, with more flamboyant planting schemes and larger trees. This was where the real money was, where the rich people who worked in Manchester lived. Showroom-fresh four-by-fours concealed their menacing bulk behind high hedges and expensive gates locked to keep out the hoi polloi. These shiny, showy vehicles wore a camouflage of reflections; of sky, of trees and of buildings.
At a wide road junction, opposite a care home for the elderly, Alex turned right, and within fifty metres it was pure suburbia, with expensive houses set in large, neatly tended gardens. It became much quieter as the sound of the traffic on the main road receded into the near distance. Further still, and the houses began to space out more, were larger still, and set back further from the road. The gardens were like miniature country estates, accessed through rustic five-bar gates. The house styles became more eclectic. Most played on a theme of reproduction; mock-Tudor, mock Georgian; mock the poor. Only a few were true to their period. It was peaceful – a place to live a calm life. Although, he imagined paying the mortgage on one of these houses wouldn’t do much for your blood pressure.
The exercise of walking warmed him, and the cold became more of a freshness; the smell of damp undergrowth, of musty earth. There was birdsong. He disturbed a wood pigeon; there was a startling crack as it took flight, followed by a smashing and clattering as its heavy body bludgeoned a path out through the branches, and then a steady pulsing of wings as it flew up and away.
It wasn’t long before Alex came to the house he was looking for. A long and as yet leafless hedge ran along the front boundary to the road. At the end of the hedge were not one, but two five-bar gates – one full size, for vehicles, the other smaller, for pedestrians. They both opened onto a driveway; a stretch of tarmac that cut a straight path down to a detached garage by the side of the house. The house itself was a large, partly brick, partly black and white mock half-timbered affair, with a complicated roofline, and standing alone in its own compact country estate. He wondered how she had come to be here in this treasure of the commuter belt. Had he got the right place? The house looked forbidding, and as he opened the smaller of the two gates and then walked up the driveway, past the large lawn, and veered off onto a path that led up to the front door, he imagined being met by a couple of baying Dobermans bounding round from the back garden, teeth bared, ready to see him off.
He reached the built-in porch unmolested, stepped under its carved stone lintel, and stood in front of a large oak front door that was punctuated at head height by an array of four small squares of coloured glass. He pressed the antique brass bell button that was set into the brick wall to the side of the door frame, heard the bell ringing, and then stepped back and waited for an answer. For a moment it seemed that no-one was in; that he’d had a wasted journey. But then he heard a voice from inside, and shortly after, the door swung back to reveal a rather severe looking middle-aged woman. She was dressed surprisingly smartly for a Saturday morning spent at home, in a white blouse and a black cardigan with silver buttons. Her hair, mid-brown but greying, was cut short. Her features were well defined but harsh; lean, the eyes cold grey.
“Hello. Is Maya in?”
She looked at him as if he were some sort of idiot. “There’s no-one of that name here.”
From Chapter Four
“So what are you doing here Alex; why are you in Perth? I’m guessing you’re not just here for a couple of week’s vacation; how could you bring yourself to leave your beloved Manchester?”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
“Oh, well in that case, don’t bother!”
Alex laughed. “It doesn’t have to be that long – I could paraphrase it for you.”
“You do that Alex.” She gestured for him to pass her the bottle, and he did, thinking that she really could do with learning some manners, and wondering whether he would be wasting his time if he told her this again.
“OK then, since you’re obviously short on patience, here’s a short summary for you. My life in England was going to hell in a hand basket. My marriage was failing and my job sucked. So I resigned from my job, left my wife and headed off on what, in days gone by, would have been referred to as a ’round-the-world trip’. I started in America. I managed to do the north east, work my way down the centre to the south and then across to the west. But before I got as far as the west coast I ran into this great Australian couple who took a bit of a shine to me. Probably a bit of a cliché, but I think they must have seen me as ‘the son they never had’. Although, they’ve actually got two sons, so that doesn’t quite work. Anyway, the long and short of it is that it turned out he owns a company, in Perth, and when he found out I was a graphic designer he offered me a job.”
“That was a stroke of luck!” “Yeah – phenomenal. Apparently, they had their packaging re-designed a while back, but weren’t happy with the results. It did mean I had to cut my world tour short. But I decided it was worth it. I was going to get to Australia eventually anyway. I don’t suppose it’ll turn out to be a permanent job, so once it finishes I can carry on travelling. So there you have it – the story of how yours truly came to be in Perth – was that short enough for you?” It was an extraordinarily brief summary of his recent history, with significant details missing. He was uncomfortably aware of one particular hole in the story. A black hole. Massive, heavy; a dark force, menacing with irresistible gravity, threatening to pull everything in, past the event horizon, never to return.