Here’s the first part of ‘Cipher’, my story in From the Indie Side…
The children were watching cartoons when I left. Over breakfast I’d told them I’d see them at lunchtime. They’d been keen to come with me, but I had a lot to get done and I didn’t want them slowing me down. I didn’t kiss them or say goodbye, as it would only draw attention to my going and result in me fielding another round of complaints. Instead I tiptoed toward the door, with Graeme close behind me. He was trying to tell me something irrelevant about the state of our lawn, which annoyed me, as it didn’t feature on my current list of priorities. “Talk to me later,” I hissed at him, and felt only relief after I’d pulled the door closed on his irritated face.
I needed to see my dad, but the word “escape” kept springing to mind, as though I were a prisoner, held captive by two small children and an exhausted G.P.
I had no idea.
I drove toward the highway, spending the first fifteen minutes listening to Elmo and friends before it clicked that I was really alone, then I turned the radio on instead. I spent another ten minutes twisting the dial, unable to find a station. Now and then I heard snatches of words, distant and disconnected, surfacing briefly before being swallowed up by static. A mixture of English and other tongues. No music at all. I tried to think back, see if I could remember a signal problem here, but usually we’d had the kids’ CDs on. In the end I gave up and settled for silence.
Dad had worried me for a while now. He and Mum had moved two hours north of the city three years ago, to grow wine and plant trees. Dad’s dream of retirement. It was clear that Mum had been reluctant at first, but Dad had worked hard all his life to look after us, she’d said, and he deserved this. After two years of the two of them struggling to get their place up and running, Mum had a heart attack while out in the vineyard.
“If we had been closer to the city?” Dad asked when we were at the hospital.
And the doctor had shrugged. “Maybe.”
A wicked truth thrown like a flame from a stranger’s mouth, and my father’s body sagged against the wall as his dreams withered. His plan had never included being alone.
Now Dad hadn’t picked up the phone in over a week. I was exasperated with him as I drove, but I always loved heading out here. The quiet roads made it easier to breathe. The sandy verges were punctuated by dull green bushes and the occasional grasstree, long leaves exploding from the tops like fireworks. But there was nothing really to focus on except my own thoughts. And they were the same as always when I made the long drive this way. I needed to persuade Dad to move back closer to us. Even though I couldn’t imagine him cosseted in the suburbs, I needed to be able to keep an eye on him, and I couldn’t keep driving out here, not with so many other commitments of my own, never mind shuttling the kids to and from school and extracurricular activities and…
Me, me, me.
Eventually I reached the old steel gate that marked the entrance to the property. Dad kept it carefully closed and bolted, and I always found it tedious having to leap out of the car twice to open and close it. A dirt track wound up to the summit of a small hill, and as the car crested the top I took back all my thoughts of persuading Dad to move. How could I fail to appreciate the view from this singular summit? Spread below me was a tiny matchbox city, the tallest towers shrunk by distance so that my outstretched fingertips would surely tip them over like toy blocks. I thought briefly of the children over there somewhere, wondering if Graeme had persuaded them to get dressed yet. Then I turned to face the house.
Usually Dad heard the car approaching and had already emerged onto the wide veranda by the time I parked. Not today. Not even Jefferson, his old dog, had bounded across to see me. I walked around to the back of the house, and looked in through one of the small windows of the garage, to find that his car was gone. What should I do now? I hesitated, surveying the spindly rows of vines that Mum and Dad had spent hours nurturing, persuading them to cling to their thin wooden posts with the same tender care with which I had eased toys into my babies’ chubby fists. The leaves flapped gently in the breeze, and I was heartened that the place still looked so tidy and tended.
I knocked on the door, not quite knowing why I was doing so. If Dad was home he would be out here by now. I had a moment of panic at the thought of him lying somewhere inside, perhaps needing my help while I meandered around. That spurred me into a brisk return to my vehicle, and a hunt through the glove compartment for my spare key.
Once I was inside I went through the house, calling out “Dad! Dad, where are you?” At the sight of each empty room my relief intensified. It was obvious he wasn’t here, and it was only to be thorough that I decided to check the cellar. I was cursing myself as I went—why hadn’t I called ahead? I was so used to him being home, but of course he would have to do the occasional grocery run at least. Perhaps he’d even made a few friends out here. I was happy at that thought, even if it would make it harder to get him to move back to the city.
The cellar keys were hanging next to the door. The cellar was one reason Dad had fallen in love with this place. Wine was Dad’s hobby. He didn’t produce enough to do more than a few boutique local sales, but the cellar was filled with rows and rows of the bottled fruits of his labor. He always gave me at least a dozen when I saw him. I hadn’t been to the bottle shop in quite some time.
I unlocked the door and switched on the light, beginning to count the steps as I went down—a habit ingrained since childhood. Now it was a game I played with my children, and it was so instinctual to me that at the same time I was wondering what I would do next, not really expecting to find Dad down here, part of my brain was idly rolling out numbers. Seven… eight… nine…
I was oblivious to the final seconds of a countdown taking place somewhere, a few lives redirecting the course of countless others. But somewhere there must have been.