My mother who recently finished her treatment for breast cancer slipped on a rock at a beach while bushwalking and broke her ankle. She was in hospital for a month and during that time I flew home to Tasmania twice with Avery. While I was in Tasmania an ash cloud breathed from the depths of a Chilean mountain drifted into the atmosphere and Qantas and Jetstar stopped running flights to the mainland. For a day or so I was stranded (not sure how long my exile would last), and I was reminded of how islanded Tasmania is. When the apocalypse comes I suspect Tasmanians will be safe from everything but their own isolation, and perhaps each other...
It is a strange sensation, like time has slowed down and I am adrift from my normal life. It is not unpleasant, a little like being haunted by the landscape of my past, by my own past self - though Avery, a constant companion, is a talisman of my adult life. Looking down on me the whole time is the mountain of my childhood and adolescence, a thing of sun and shadow, of cloud and stone, a creature of contrasts. That mountain, there in the sky, all the time...benevolent? Distant? Yes always distant, though close too, intimately so. A living landscape, once a shallow sea, but then rock piled on rock, rock surged up and made something solid. Though, from the distance, blue and hazy, its solidness is disputable. It could be an apparition. Indeed some days it is not there at all, entirely wrapped in clouds, a ghost mountain, a palpable absence. It is as if one day the clouds might lift and reveal...nothing.
While I am in Tasmania, Una drops my favourite bowl, one my aunt bought me for my twenty-first, in the last days that I lived in Tasmania. ( It was a deep purple, one of the mountain's many colours.) It shatters in a million pieces. Una is bereft, she cries so much, Martin says, that she is white and shaking, he thinks she might be afraid of my reaction so he forewarns me. When I talk to her the next day I console her. She admonishes me for not being more upset, she wants me to be angry, to rail, to grieve. I do grieve. But the bowl is far away in a life I am temporarily severed from and I can hardly believe in its existence or the loss of it.
I spend the days with my ageing father, running back and forth from the hospital, or driving their car to Medicare and the supermarket running errands. A woman from the low vision unit come to see Dad who is slowly going blind. She shows him various magnifying glasses, looks at the light he uses. She talks about bringing him a bookrest, like a music stand. It sounds awkward. Dad has read three books a week for years. I say "isn't there any way he can sit on the couch and read?" She gives him a lecture. She implies he can no longer read like that not just because he is losing his sight but because he is old and lacks the capacity for concentration. I am more offended than he is. Watching him hunched over his newspaper in the mornings with his giant magnifying glass fills me with a bitter blend of emotion, I grieve for him and what he has lost, but I am proud of him too, for persevering. Not once does he say "why me?"
For that matter neither does my mother, who is impatient with hospital life but nervous too of what it will mean to come home. She has a trial visit and it doesn't go as well as she hopes. She can't hop over the awkward front steps, which are at a right angle from each other, and has to enter on her bottom, then get herself up from the floor. The occupational therapist, not Mum's usual one, is doubtful about mum coming home on schedule. The shower is a problem. As there is a question mark over me going home due to the ash cloud, there is a question mark over mum going home. In the end she too is delayed only by a couple of days but they are long days. She is moved from her room with a sensational view of the mountain's changing dayscape to a room that overlooks drab hospital buildings. She is upstairs from the Gibson ward, where she received her chemotherapy, and treatment for the early dangerous complication. Now we all know the hospital's switchboard number by heart.
I pop in on Zoe, my oldest BFF. We eat lunch together, and then sit on the couches to breastfeed our babies, which is a long way from pounding through a chemical night at Earthcore, or playing that we are wild creatures who feed on school children in her domed house on Mt Nelson when we were nine years old. I remember how, a year or two after we moved to Melbourne Zoe took the white pages and drew a line around the cover image of the Melbourne city skyline - it was the same shape as our mountain.
At the airport I am interviewed about the ashcloud, asked my story, with Avery peering out from the sling and that night my dad rings me to tell me I made the six o'clock news. I don't have the presence of mind, as the camera records, to say the ash cloud is the manifestation of my own ambivalence about arriving, departing, about living far from what will always be, in some primal sense, home (I wonder if they would have aired this).
As I fly into Melbourne just after midday from over Port Phillip Bay, looking down on the city from an angle I haven't seen before, the northern sky is eerily orange on the horizon, like a premature sunset, like a bushfire sky, like the residue of either natural or human violence. Was this the last of the cloud of ash that had bound me to the earth, the cloud that had travelled all the way from the other side of the world, such a long way from home?