The house did not look the same. Dragan had been sure, of all the things, the house would look the same.
He closed the car door and advanced on the property; the cradle of so many of his childhood memories. The old-fashioned wort-iron fence and gate had gone, but the entrance still held a familiar shape, an orientation that he recognised and welcomed.
The sun was waning, and the house appeared in a hazy grey silhouette. A light breeze fluttered around, bringing the scent of the sea. Dragan closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It was good to breathe fully and without reserve. He had been in the city too long.
"God damn," he exclaimed.
He ran his hand across his scalp, where hair had been six months prior.
Dragan walked up the path and noted that most of the original shrubbery had gone; only a small lemon tree near the front of the house, below the study window, remained from his dulled memory. Most of the beds were overgrown with weeds, and the grass lay unkempt and was heavy with wild dandelions and buttercups, all pretty but unwelcome.
He came to the end of the path and examined the front door. It had been painted a dark purple. A colour too modern for the old weatherboard house. He remembered that the wooden door had been stained red and reminded him of a barn; but before he left, his father had whitewashed it and it looked like a barn no more.
Dragan felt for the brass key in his pocket, then pressed it into his palm with the tips of his fingers. The metal was cool, and the hard edges bit into his skin. He withdrew his hand, leaving the key in his pocket, and turned from the green door and skirted around to the back of the house, past the little lemon tree below the study window.
He had taken two days by car to arrive in the small town of Pūmahara. He had left his sister, teary-eyed, in the city. It had been a long six months for her, and although she had been a well of caring, he had started to feel burdensome. She was a good woman, and it was in her nature to care for others, but he knew how much she had given up for him. She had put her life on hold for her little brother.
"I'm out of the woods Hess," he had told her. "It’s time that I moved on."
Hess protested angrily when he told her that he was leaving. Her face reddened like she had been slapped. He had felt terrible, but he was adamant, the time to leave was now. She made soup that night. Dragan hated soup. They had it for dinner for three days straight. Her compassion returned on the fourth day. They had sausages, his favourite.
"I let you down," she pleaded with him. "Please stay on, just for another month." But he could not be swayed. He would be gone at the end of the week.
Dragan rounded the side of the house and made his way along the shingle path. Large cabbage trees and flaxes bordered the property on the left; set on the rise just below the house, they blocked the view across the bay. He wanted to look upon the sea.
He excitedly walked to the end of the garden where there had been a bench. He remembered sitting on the bench with his Mum, as they watched storm clouds and rain banks roll in from the south, brought in on the back of the cold southerly.
His mum had never liked the wind. It did nothing to help her disposition and she became sullen and moody when it blew.
"This place would be a better place without that wind," she told him. "It ruins everything."
The bench had gone, but the stone pavers where the bench had rested were still there, hard underfoot and covered by tough grass. Dragan stood on the pavers and looked out to the sea.
A mass of cerulean blue slumbered before him, like a sleeping giant. Its white-tipped waves heaved and sighed, drawn long and shallow in muted rage. The wild rhythm of the waves captivated Dragan and he watched in awe as each surge fought its way to the shore, before withdrawing again to the embrace of the deep.
Before long, Dragan noticed a cold southerly had sprung up. It stung his face and numbed the tips of his fingers, and he smiled as he thought of his mother. He turned and retreated to the shelter of the cabbage trees.
It was the wind (or something equally as ephemeral) that eventually drove his mother out of Pūmahara. She was happy to leave and to roam where she had once called home - back to the city, and all the old haunts; shadowy and windless. But she had been away too long, and the old vices wrecked her, for she was no longer young, and her new life had no time for late starters.
She did not last and succumbed to her want and her loss. Dragan had been away and did not find out the news of her death until he returned when her grave was green with young grass and the memory of her was already slowly fading.
Had he been a good son he asked himself? She, a good mother? Did it matter? It was what it had been and there lay no regret now, only emptiness.
He found the remains of the bench under the back porch steps, next to the washhouse. It was broken into an assortment of pieces. The wood of the seat had snapped, and one leg had come away from the armrest and it hung limp like a dislocated limb. He put his foot on the leg and pushed it until it broke away from the armrest.
“Ugh,” he grunted.
He was not sure if returning had been a good idea. There was nothing here but a vault of half-forgotten memories. What was he looking for? An answer? It had confounded him when the idea came to him. Against rational thought, it had made sense, but only as much as anything did these days.
He gripped the key to the front door in his hand and withdrew it from his pocket. Dragan made his way around to the front of the house, past the little lemon tree below the study window when he stopped, turned, and made a closer observation of the little tree. No, it was not the same tree. It looked identical to the one that he had remembered. But how could it? It had been over twenty-five years. Surely, it could not be the same. No, it was not, he decided. He took a few steps back from the small tree.
He turned and walked away from the house, returning the key to his pocket. He ambled down the path, through the neglected garden and out the new gate with its matching fence. He did not look back. He closed the little gate and traipsed across to his car. The wind whipped around Dragan in little zephyrs of salt air and memory.
Dragan huffed again and dropped his shoulders. He rubbed his bald head with his free hand but found no comfort in the action. Dragan felt tears pushing up from behind his wrinkled lids. He caught sight of his reflection in the car window but avoided looking directly at himself.
"Oh Father, where have you gone," he moaned. The wind swallowed his words as if he had never said them, for no one near or far, cared that he felt this way.
He opened the car door and bent his long frame to squeeze himself into the driver’s seat. His joints creaked with age and arthritis, and he made sounds that only old people make when moving. He closed the door and was happy to receive the familiar odour of his car; a musky mix of ocean spray air conditioner, Oddfellow’s and stale coffee. His doctor had warned him off coffee but, Dragan mused, he quite liked coffee.
He turned the ignition and the rental hummed into life. He pulled the car onto the road and started to drive away from the house. He was not sure where he was going but the road was straight, and he had the inclination to go somewhere new.