December 4

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The First Signs

By Victoria Clayton

December 4, 2020


January 2009

We seemed to find the restaurant all right; it was the getting home that was the trouble.

We headed for the blackened sky; a sky that took me back over thirty years to the Ash Wednesday Bush fires. Then, we sat in the science lab of my eastern suburbs school and watched the topsoil and ash come rolling in from the Mallee. It had been a bad bush fire summer. Our fear was at arm’s length, fascinating and exciting in that way scary things are when you don’t really believe you’re going to be part of it. We wondered if it would roll right over the school and on to the city.

Now it was happening again. It was Black Friday, that wave of ash from bush fires darkening the sky; a thick band of black, like a burned destruction layer in an archaeological excavation. We drove towards it. As long as the dark horizon was in front of us we were heading in the right direction. We resolutely headed east to the Chinese restaurant where we were meeting the rest of the family for dinner to celebrate my cousin’s wedding.

The ceremony was lovely, the bride look gorgeous in red, the happy couple danced for us and the food was wonderful. Then we started for home.

I sat in the back seat, where children usually sit, Mum next to Dad in the front passenger seat as is normal and right. It was when we were driving over the eastern arterial road instead of entering it that I knew something was wrong.

‘Dad…I think we’re meant to be on that road down there…’ I started.

It’s funny because at that moment I was eight years old, ten years old, perhaps fifteen years old. You don’t tell your Dad where to go when you’re that age. Dad had been driving all his life. He knew the city like the back of his hand.

But suddenly my Dad didn’t know and aged thirty-eight going on fourteen, and filled with unexpected foreboding, I had to tell him. Using the road map of the city I guided him onto the arterial and then he knew the rest of the way home, the blackened sky now all around us.

About eight months after my cousin’s wedding, I moved to China to be an English teacher.

China was not a country I’d had much interest in previously but jobs seemed plentiful and it would a new experience, a clean slate and a new start. I began reading job discussion boards for teachers who had taught in China and quickly learned the good, bad and ugly of applying for and working for Chinese schools and universities. In the end I opened the atlas and shutting my eyes, twirled my finger above the page, dropping it down randomly. It landed in Inner Mongolia.

I had two magical years in the capital city of the Autonomous Province of Inner Mongolia, Huhahaote. The campus was on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The summer was hot but the winter bitterly cold and ridiculously long. I wore a duck-down coat with fur around the hood and layer upon layer beneath. It was 25 degrees below zero and walking to the teaching building the dribbles from your nose froze into tiny icicles. I vowed I would not do another winter in Inner Mongolia and in February 2011, went home for a holiday in the Australian sun. It was the coolest summer on record.

 It had been nearly a year and half since I had seen my parents. While I was in Melbourne I went to an eye specialist to see about the pterygium that had started to develop in my eye and to organise a return visit in August that year to have it removed. During those to visits, February and August 2011, Dad’s ‘mild cognitive impairment’ seemed to be turning into something else


February 2011

During my February visit, I spent a short time with my brother in Central Australia. The airport is right in the desert; the red earth inches its way towards the airport terminal. This time I had told Dad I would take the airport shuttle bus to the city and a local train from there, which I did.

A few days later I had an appointment in the city. I took the train to and from the CBD. I tramped down the ramp from the platform and pressed my ticket to the turnstile. Walking through, I saw Dad waiting in the arcade which led to the street.

‘Oh hello Dad! Out for a walk are you?’ I greeted him.

‘Yes, did you have a nice time?’

‘Oh well, it was ok, just a boring appointment’.

‘Where’s your luggage?’ Dad asked.

‘Luggage?’ 

‘Yes, well, I came to help you with your suitcase’.

‘Oh Dad, I’ve just been to the city! I came back from Central Australia two days ago’. I was shocked that he could have forgotten this. ‘Not to worry!’ I said brightly, despairingly. ‘Let’s go home and pop the kettle on, shall we?’

And so it went. Dad making mistakes, me trying hard to hide my shock, me trying to make light of it and hoping it wouldn’t happen again.

August 2011

Dad drove back to the airport to see me off on my final year in China. I had moved to Xian, in the province immediately south of Inner Mongolia because I felt like a change and Xian was an ancient city, the eastern end of the Silk Route.

We had a cup of coffee and ate chocolate brownies at the airport. Dad looked so lost; he barely spoke. I don’t remember what we talked about; that silly, ‘trying to put a brave face on it’ type of conversation you have before doing the thing you don’t want to do, say goodbye.

I do recall a real sense of foreboding and looking at Dad with such dread in my heart. I remember thinking, ‘He’s so frail looking, so scared somehow. I’m worried about him. My dear old Dad’.

I remember walking through the big automatic doors to clear security and looking back at them. Standing there side by side. My parents. My old-looking parents. Bravely waving and smiling. I wanted to rush back to them, to tell them it was going to be all right. 

August 2012

Its late summer in Xian. The students have been doing their washing and have hung their towels and bedsheets on the shrubs around the dormitory building to ‘bask’. There’s a knock at my door.

‘Hiya!’ I greet Tammy, the teacher from New Mexico, the one who is still speaking to me.

‘Hey!’ She replied. ‘I have gin, do you have any tonic?’ She wiggles the bottle at me. Her round freckled face is covered with a broad smile.

‘Ahh…’ I open the fridge. ‘Yep, one tonic. I also have orange juice?’

‘Ok, bring that too…’

It’s fun in her apartment immediately across the hallway from mine. Her window overlooks the basking towels and sheets. That’s what the students called it; not drying, basking. I feel like basking in the late summer sunshine too. I saw the sun so rarely during that twelve months in Xian.

Tammy prepares strong G and Ts and we settle in for a chat. We’ve known each other for just a few months but during this conversation she tells me about her childhood in New Mexico, her family and how she got this job. She casually mentions that her teaching certificate is a fake and she has no teaching experience. Tiddly with gin, I giggle. Later, this annoys me, this faking of certificates and experience, but that evening it just seemed amusing.

‘Let’s try gin and orange!’ She bounces off the couch and grabs my glass. There’s music playing. I think its salsa.

I don’t know where the second gin goes but suddenly we’re drinking gin and cranberry juice from her fridge. We’re up and dancing. I’m spinning around the room, drunk and happy. Until I start crying. The tears are torrential, uncontrollable. I excuse myself and rush back to my apartment, falling into bed fully clothed.

I wake the next day with a massive headache and small smear of vomit on my pillow. I drag myself up and realise I’ve left my flip-flops in Tammy’s apartment. I knock on the door and she looks as dreadful as I feel.

‘Think I left my flip-flops here…’ There’s a pause. ‘I cried a bit last night, didn’t I?  Was it about my Dad?’

She nods.

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