The narrow unpaved road cut a contour through the ocean shrub-land. Snaking along the side of the headland it gave spectacular views of the turquoise ocean below. The road was barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles side by side and small lay byes had been cut into the road at intervals to allow them to pass. The rough track the only access to the weekend fishing shacks and a handful of permanent residents with dwellings nestled along the rocky shore. There were no more than a dozen properties along the 20-kilometre eastern shore; local development rules had severely restricted development on the island. All the properties were off grid.
It was thirty years since I had been on the island, our family had started to disintegrate when we lost Dad and I was the sole survivor of our once happy family. Mum passed away 10 years earlier and my older sister, who never married, a few years after that. They had both succumbed to breast cancer. Mum had insisted on living in the island house after we lost Dad. They had lived in a van on site for many years as they painstakingly built their isolated Eco hideaway. Beside the emotional attachment she felt it would be a sense of betrayal to move on, hanging onto a thread of hope that Dad would return one day.
Ruth had stayed on after Mum passed and had become a recognized potter with an established customer base on the mainland. Dad had made some shrewd investments and had left them with a modest income stream.
I had moved to California after graduating and always had the best intentions to return for a visit. Whenever I mentioned returning both Mum and Ruth would put me off by saying it wasn’t a good time or make some other lame excuse to put off any travel plans.
My life became demanding starting up and running an IT business. We were a busy family with three children to take care of. Taking time off and going all the way to Australia was a long haul and I eventually lost the desire to make the journey.
The house was not visible from the road above; it had been deliberately planned that way. To reach it there was a steep driveway a short distance from the last bend before the turning circle at the end of the road.
I parked the Jeep Wrangler on the side of the road next to the overgrown entrance. The driveway was in poor condition with large wash-aways and deep potholes and would be impossible to traverse even with the most rugged of vehicles. A short walk down the rocky embankment and my heart skipped a beat as I caught sight of the iron roof seemingly protruding out of the rock face, I could see that rust had taken hold and as I got closer the stone walls of the house came into view, lichen covered the surface like patchwork and wild vines had taken hold.
Stone steps led up to the flagstone paved veranda which stretched along the entire front of the house. A series of French doors opened into the various rooms.
There were two sets of double doors that opened into the living areas. The glass panes in some of the doors were missing and others were cracked, the paintwork had been weathered down to the wood with peeling paint waiting for the next weather event to shake it free of the woodwork. I pushed on one of the doors and it grudgingly opened as it scraped along the cedar floorboards.
The muffled sound of the pounding surf on the rocks below grew softer as I entered the living room. The afternoon sun created shafts of light fighting its way through the grimy skylights in the cathedral ceiling above the kitchen and dining areas. Momentarily I could see all of us around the center island concrete bench top as we prepared salads, drank beer and each chose a lobster from the bucket of fresh water. Laughing and joking with each other as we did so as there was always a debate when the lobsters were cooked of which one belonged to whom.
We would all carry the food out onto the veranda and sit at the long roughly hewn table that Dad had made from planks that he had salvaged from the shoreline and others that he had cut from raw timber. I noticed that the table still stood where it had always been.
The smell of wood-smoke hung tantalizingly in the air.
We had burned driftwood in the large stone fireplace during the colder winter nights and I remember the comfort of the large sofa which almost swallowed you when you sat in it, the orange flicker of flames reflecting off our faces as we roasted marshmallows and played board and card games.
Could I smell the wood-smoke now or was it my imagination? The house had been unoccupied for more than two years’ lying silently on its sturdy foundations.
I picked up the tin cup lying abandoned on the bench next to a battered enamel plate with a bold flower pattern. I smelt it... coffee! How long since someone had been in the house? Two years at least I thought, well that’s what I had understood from the solicitor representing the estate when they had arranged for anything of value to be cleared out of the house as I had requested soon after Ruth passed away. Clearly the cup had been used recently and the smell of wood-smoke told me that wood had recently been burned or was it the smell of the small black log that lay in the fireplace?
I looked down the long gloomy passageway that ran from the living room in a straight line to the end of the house. Several doors led off the passageway. Bedrooms on the right-hand side and bathrooms and utility rooms on the other side. As I walked down the passage, I noticed that the top half of the stable door at the end of the passage, leading into the side garden, was ajar moving slightly in the breeze that was coming off the sea. The first bedroom, the larger of the four, had been my parent’s room, the door open and in the corner a bundle of blankets, a pile of faded newspapers and an old brown suitcase. That explains it: a vagrant had been using the house sometime in the past and left some of his belongings behind. The tin cup, plate and now the dirty bedding on the floor. I used my foot to flip open the case and the stained inside was empty, a couple of cockroaches scattered away as I disturbed the bedding and newspapers.
I had a feeling of disquiet as I moved through the house glancing into all the rooms as I quickened my pace heading to the door at the end of the passageway and out into the garden.
The large iron water tank streaked with rust and covered in ivy making its way over the iron roof of the generator shack next to it. I glanced into the low roofed shack and startled a couple of skinks who scurried away.
Apart from growing our own veggies in tubs around the back of the house we had allowed a natural garden of coastal vegetation to thrive. This had now become severely overgrown, but I instinctively knew where the pathway went down to the shoreline.
The small horseshoe shaped bay a few hundred meters wide, had a white sandy beach flanked on either side by large rock formations running into the sea providing a sheltered breakwater and calming the waves to small swells making the sheltered beach a haven for swimming and snorkeling.
I sat on a large flat rock, one that I had been on many times in the past. At high tide it remained protruding above the water. Dad had wedged a rigid steel fence post between the crevice at the water's edge to berth the dinghy. The post was still there, weathered and badly rusted firmly held in the crevice. A faded length of ski rope knotted around the base.
I looked out over the turquoise sea lulled by the gentle sound of the waves rolling onto the beach, my earlier uneasiness had lifted. The bay faced toward the mainland, the lighthouse on the headland stood as a brilliant white sentry against the cerulean sky.
The day was much like that when we lost Dad. He had been in the bay diving for most of the day. I had left him there early in the afternoon when I had carried the day's catch up to the house. He said he wanted to carry on diving and would be up later. As the sun set Mum asked one of us to go and fetch him. Ruth and I went down but there was no a sign of him. We shouted and called and scrambled over the rocks to see if we could spot his diving buoy. The empty dinghy was bobbing in the water. I told Ruth to go and fetch Mum as I started the small outboard motor and skirted the rocks on both sides of the bay while Mum and Ruth stood on the shore shouting out for Dad. The sun had set, it was getting dark as we attached the large searchlights to the battery pack moving the strong beams of light over the water, the sea calm, he must be there somewhere we thought.
Dad was the local volunteer ranger, we were equipped with a shortwave radio and called up the police on the mainland and a couple of island residents who turned out to help with the search. Over the next few days, a police patrol boat traveled up and down the shoreline but had to conclude eventually that he had either been taken by a shark or had drowned.
We were all overwrought with the loss. I was 18 and remembered Dad telling me that if anything ever happened to him, I should be strong for Mum and Ruth.
I am not sure what triggered the outburst from both Mum and Ruth but soon after they began to blame me for the loss of Dad. I was trying to steer us on a course of recovery and had taken over many of the things that Dad did around the property like tending to the generator, making sure there was a supply of food for the table by fishing most days as well as doing all the maintenance jobs.
I had cooked fish on the barbecue, Ruth turned her portion over with her fork and pulled a face saying that it wasn’t cooked the way Dad did it. Mum looked at her portion and said the same, pushing it aside and saying that she would only have salad as she scraped the fish off her plate. Often, I caught them huddled together talking softly and stopping when I came into the room.
They both turned on me then saying that if I thought I could replace Dad it was wishful thinking. I would never be a patch on Dad, and everything was my fault. I should have stayed with him and waited until he came out of the water before coming up to the house with the catch. I shouldn’t have let him dive when I knew that he had a couple of beers with his picnic lunch on the beach.
The months went by, and the smallest incident opened me up to criticism from either Mum or Ruth. They had both started drinking heavily and often I would have to coax them to bed after a particularly heavy session. I began to feel hopeless and desperate and couldn’t see a way out. I was embarrassed that they were behaving this way but reluctant to report it to anyone. I felt I was letting Dad down by not handling the situation and in any case, I was sure they would come around to seeing sense. On the odd occasion that we had visitors I would try and steer the conversation away from any reference to Dad but somehow Mum managed to turn the focus onto him and then get in a dig about how I did not watch out for Dad the way I should have.
A close friend of Dad’s, the solicitor handling our affairs, asked me to visit him in his office.
He told me that there were sufficient funds in the trust account to look after Mum and fund my education. He had detected that the family had been severely split by the tragedy.
I should think about moving on, he told me.
Now sitting on the rock, I thought about all that happened and if it could have been avoided. I now owned a rustic island home and had no idea what I was going to do with it.
There was a polite cough behind me. ‘Hiya mate. Can I join yuh?’ The rugged old man said as he climbed on the rock and sat beside me.’My name is Russel, you must be Rory’ ‘I knew your old man and I know what happened to him. He asked me to look out for yuh. He said you would come back one day.’ I looked into the man’s deep set brown eyes which sparkled under the large wiry bushy eyebrows matching the scraggly beard and generous head of salt and pepper hair. He smelled of wood-smoke.
‘I saw youse growing up’ ‘Your Dad and I were good mates, he had respect for our land and the sea, he helped protect this land from development, we had no voice in those days. He stood by our mob and fought the greedy rich folk who wanted to take our sacred land away and build resorts and golf courses. He helped protect this land for our people who have lived here for many generations. But he paid the price!’ I wanted to interrupt him, but he held his hand up indicating that he wasn’t finished. ‘They were going to kill him and threatened that if he didn’t stop supporting us that they would kill you lot. He had to disappear to save you all. He faked his death and we helped him. We looked after him after that and kept our eyes over your Mum and sister as well.’
The old man got up off his haunches with the aid of his long wooden pole and stood looking out to sea. ‘He was a good man...a good man!’ ‘He was of our blood, and nobody ever knew that.’
He had taken something out of the sack over his shoulder and handed me Dad’s diving watch. ‘He asked me to give this to you when you returned.
He wouldn’t talk after that despite my pleading. ‘One day’ he said as he walked into the thicket and disappeared.