There was a part of the road he never remembered. The first time it happened he panicked.
It happened like this. Work took him up and down the Hume to Sydney every week and most of the road was vaguely familiar. He always took the M5, loving its fast and smooth escape, once he’d got off the suburbia around Bexley Road, all those low hills and ugly flats, and tight little houses with their windows lashed tight with material like roller doors, long streets so contained and limited. Once you were on the M5 you could be anywhere. There were signs, of course, this and that Exit, careful gradual warnings of approaches but they slid by and vanished in the rear vision mirror. This was an anonymous road made for fast travel, not a road that followed a ridge or the curve of a river. There was just the monotony of carefully chosen mass highway plantings along the verges, and winding along the centre massed bushes almost trees so the headlights coming the other way wouldn’t bother you. By then, no decisions or turns to be made and nothing to do except wonder about the stranger in the car in front.
Leaving Sydney was always easy. He usually couldn’t wait to get away. Leaving Sydney meant taking off his tie, leaving the working week. There were the outskirts, then signposts to the M7 and to Camden Valley Road, leading to godforsaken places like Prestons and Casula, and then there was the easy rolling green of Campbelltown. After that, you were out in the country, the stretch through gorges, rocks and then over Pheasants Nest Bridge, over the Nepean, a high wind area that, and the car likely to be buffeted about a bit. Not a good place to overtake, at least not to overtake a semi. There were sinuous trees at this point, thick bush, trees with pale trunks like the limbs of children, lost in a thick jumble and steep drops among the rocks. He’d remember his geography teacher then: how did Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson cross the Blue Mountains: they followed the ridges. The teacher used to drum everything into them, especially that. No point in going down into all that dense undergrowth, country where you could wander for a week and never be found. The Hume would follow the ridges where it could and where it couldn’t, the blue metal soared above and over them in a flash, everyone on modern sleek bridges. You didn’t have time to even see the creeks, or catch the glint of water.
Pedal to the metal. Just keep the foot down and escape Sydney’s outskirts, escape Sydney. He hated it, the city where he led what he termed to himself (never to June) a sub-existence in a twelfth-floor studio, where he never pulled back the curtains after his first night there, since they only looked out to another tower block, another seventeen floors of studios filled with shapes that might be people behind blinds. He worked twelve-hour days and waited crouching at the back of his soul for the project to be completed. He ate take away, threw down the odd can of beer, and watched TV, and then turned out the light and disappeared under the doona, until the alarm woke him next morning. Trouble was, the project was dragging on. And that kept him in Sydney and kept him driving up and down.
There was another story that always came to mind here when he crossed the Nepean. Years ago, a story he had read and never forgotten, a story he couldn’t place in time or detail, but still a story he never forgot, that never went out of his head. A film producer had crashed here, in a light plane, killing himself and his passenger. He was showing off, flying along the Nepean through its defiles and narrow gorges, and the plane had crashed killing him and the young man, a young actor full of promise, who’d been the only passenger. The producer had been doing something silly, flying under bridges or some such to impress the young man. The producer was years older—it all came out in the end at the inquest—and had planned something heart-stopping in order to impress the young man. Make him an easy conquest, more like. Well, it had been heart-stopping all right: for both of them.
Then there was the slow climb to the southern highlands, the greener fields and taller trees, and all the Tourist Drives. He’d never taken any of them. But that was the best bit of road, well-made and smooth where you’d hear the air begin to sing under the tyres. That brought Ken to mind, younger brother Ken who’d been a rower (escaping the family, to boarding school on a scholarship) and rowed in the Year 12 Eight. The family, he supposed, must have been a bit more open by then; his own fate had been the local high school. Ken had told him how the air sang under the boat, when everyone was in sync and rowing well. He’d always been the clever one, and good with words, Ken. He had loved the idea of that as Ken told him: the boat singing as it slipped over the water. He’d never rowed himself of course. He wasn’t strong or athletic: more the runt of the litter. About that point on the journey home to Canberra he’d turn on a CD, something like to take his mind off work, and then he could enjoy it all the way down the long stretches to Goulburn where you could see for miles and sometimes have the only car in front a good three klicks away. Not that there was any trouble about speed: he’d always have cruise control for that part of the trip.
He’d be nearly home, swerving left to take the road to Canberra, not the right fork that led on down to Yass and Gundagai. The choice always made him think of home, being home with the children and June in Canberra. The noise and music of their voices and the chaotic meal with the warm light on their flushed competing faces, each one trying to get him to listen, such a contrast to the dreadful order of the studio in Sydney where he slept four nights of every week. His own home hadn’t been like that. What he remembered most was the coldness. And dad’s voice, after he himself had gathered together all his little boy’s voice to try to begin to tell. I don’t believe that. He didn’t try again. It wasn’t a family where the children talked much.
He surfaced again somewhere on the approach to Lake George. The first time it happened he wondered if he had taken another route. Nothing was familiar. Had he ever driven this way before? And this after hundreds of trips.
He always remembered Lake George. How could anyone forget it. To him that flat dry mystery was one of the most beautiful things along the whole road. He was old enough to remember when it had water in it, could remember the water being choppy and dangerous, cold above the surface and raked by winds the way his father raked the garden beds before he planted the winter crops in their little wooden house on the flat in Lyneham. He learnt years later that the flat soils of Lyneham were hopeless, bad top-soil, irredeemable. Could be yesterday when he thought about it: his father angry as always, spade in his big fists, he, beside him, trying to help but somehow always in the way, the stained earth, choppy with frost, winter days, and his father planting cabbages and broad beans. They always seemed such awful things to plant. No one liked to eat them and around the table he could see his little brothers chewing dutifully and trying not to retch. All those years ago and yet still so awful.
Lake George, of course, had been a treacherous stretch of water: cadets had drowned out there. And yet they must have been so familiar with it all. Years later, when he understood the shape and structure of the world, had risen through it like a man swimming upwards to the air with vigorous strokes, he realised shallow water was always far more dangerous than deep. He understood by then: there was nowhere for the violence of the shallows to go.
The counsellor had told him not to try to remember: trying too hard would drive the memories away. All he could recall was the eyes and the laugh, that terrible laugh. That was what came back first: all those years ago, appearing every night by the door, the face by the door, those dark eyes and that terrible laugh. Always on the edge of sleep, when he was only just here and not here, in and out of sleep where everything at all would be soon blissfully forgotten.
When the face appeared at the door in his head, a long chill prickled his neck and went all the way down his back. That chill had been coming back for years but he had never mentioned anything to June, never would.
You came upon Lake George mile by mile, the road curving in a long arc these days—beautiful bit of engineering that—past Ryan’s Lagoon, and the hint of a mere or marsh, and then the elaborate long sweep with the fencing—that was new too—black posts that shot past, post by post, the car a motif travelling horizontally on a long generous largo, all the while, its progress marked as in music by the bar lines of the fence. And then there it was: a vast flat absence open to the sky. It never ceased to amaze him. A flatness defined by the hills that rose all around it. In the old days a broad swathe of water, as much reflection as sky, silver-plate on a grey day, holding the light longer than he’d think possible as the dusk came on. Not only the lake was dangerous, the road in the old days had a bad reputation too, and there were lots of fatalities before they made it a dual carriageway. Somehow, though it was drained of water, the shape left still caught at him every time. The engineering works along the edge had meant that water was collected sensibly and logically in between the quoins instead of pouring down and filling the lake, but his memory saw always the choppy water and the little kiosk where boats were moored and available for hire to the foolhardy.
He liked the absence of something so definable, the way the vast saucer, grass a dull colour almost the hue of button grass, stretched away and fudged the littoral of land and hill. The land was flat and covered in grass but it seemed to say, turn away and remember. Remember, I am a space for water, I am made and shaped by the water I hold, all that lake that was once there defines your eyes’ recollection: I am an idea of something you can no longer see.
And what did he miss in that part of the road he never remembered? He missed ordinary paddocks and low scrubby country, indifferent soil and forgettable low rises, never really making it as hills. He missed a row of pine trees on a ridge, a farm for sale, a flock of sheep dotted across a paddock like pale boulders, and a tin shed exposed to the winter torrents and bent forever along with the wind, leaning its head against the wind’s shoulder, that memory in the sheets of corrugated iron, separated from the wooden uprights, nails banged into air, rattling their holes even on the stillest summer’s day. The scream of a small voice.
All he wanted was to be home in bed with June, his head on her breast, and the children dreaming and innocent in their beds down the hall, the two little ones crammed into the same small room together (they still hadn’t been able to afford the extension) but everyone with washed hair, that damp skin smell he loved.
He supposed that was probably one reason for so many accidents on the road past Lake George: that everyone knew that home, Canberra, wasn’t far off at that point. That could make you impatient and impatience could make you careless. It was dark now, and he put his foot down, the lights in the distance so full of comfort and promise.
He would have done anything to make the man stop smiling. That was the worst part, his face with its curves and black eyes coming closer, and closer until he was imprisoned, held down with his head and shoulders pressed into the table with one hand. No way to keep his trousers from being yanked. And all the time that smile.