We are somewhere in the Pilliga – that million acres wild – when it appears:
Alice, Please call Search & Rescue
A silent automated message on the screen of my mobile phone.
(We’ve been loading firewood, the children and I, all gloved and farm-clothed and John-Deere-capped. A cold front is coming in over the weekend and their daddy’s a thousand miles from home. He’s a thousand miles from anywhere, almost: he and his brother in the red outback.)
But I can’t call anyone from here. There’s signal enough for my phone to receive text, but it’s still half an hour’s drive through this uncooperative country before there’ll be service enough even to make a phonecall.
My tall girl has handed the timber-cutter a parcel of her homemade Anzac biscuits, and I have handed him cash. We’ve climbed into the ute and waved our thanks and goodbyes. As I’m navigating the rutted track back to the old man’s front gate, the children have already forgotten his arthritis and his red-dusted collie and they’re wanting to know who the message is from.
I tell them it’s a secret and thank my boy for getting the gate, and when he questions my speed and reminds me about the trailer I try to conjure clever red herring excuses; and I will my voice to flow quaverless across my parching lips.
I am speeding towards phone service and I know I’ll have it when I get close to town, and somewhere in mental recesses wild like the million acres of scrub in my rearview, the thought appears that it would be safer to drive in the opposite direction; to find a track leading to oblivion – surely there is one? – one that will never lead to a town. In that moment I discover why JFK’s bride tried to climb backwards out of that Dallas motorcade. Because I am heading inexorably towards what can only be bad news and isn’t that the opposite of survival instinct?
It’s a long way to town and neurons fire lightning fast and by the time I reach the 50k zone I’m deciding to be intentional about where I will stop to call.
I want to be on the outskirts and I want to be near the bridge and I cannot think of a single sane reason why.
I cannot find a place worthy of the news I might receive. I cannot find a picture I want engraved on my memory as the altar of my initiation into widowhood. Because I know this man, and I know his strength, and I know this is no accidental signal. I know this is only life and death.
By now there is voicemail and it’s Southern in accent and when I return the call he tells me, between the Yes Ma’ams, that he’s in Texas, that he’s a US Marine. He reads me GPS coordinates and I’m surprised when he pronounces Oodnadatta and he tells me they know nothing more but will let me know when they do.
The next message is from the capital and I hear words like Search and Aviation; the voice is kind and professional until – just for a millisecond – he cannot mask the surprise when I finally explain that I am the wife. (There’s never been a definite article in front of that title before, my subconscious points out to my barely conscious self, so something dreadful must have happened indeed). I have answered questions all calm and cool control and if he can’t hear my teeth or my knees he might indeed be impressed. I remember details like model numbers and helmet colours and birthdates and first aid kit contents, and I list Spot Tracker options and I rattle it all off like I’m reciting a memorised poem.
But my body is shaking uncontrollably and the fear, it must out somehow, even when the heart remains deceitful above all things.
It’s another half hour’s drive home to the farm and my mind has nothing to do now but run.
I think of my grandmother widowed at my age and I know in that moment I will never remarry and I will never remove this wedding band.
I think of my neighbour so recently widowed and as I pass her farm gate I want to ask how she lives it out with such grace.
I think of my friend widowed young and still beautiful and how her own farmer left her four children and a farm.
I think of my bed and the shallow emptiness there has been beside me this whole week long, and I wonder how deep it will grow when it’s forever.
I think of churches and burials (town cemeteries, farm plots).
I think of the bagpipes we didn’t have at our wedding, and I wonder if he would would like those.
I think of Jackie Kennedy and the riderless horse and the poignancy of the honour. I think, how very much I want to honour him.
I think of a prayer recently offered on our behalves, and how that man said, “YOU are the One writing this story.”
(Later when I try to read my hastily scrawled words on a notepad by the phone, I find they are illegible. My shaking has been wild.
But I can feel You, the Author-Narrator, under and over and beneath the whole tale. My lasting impression will be of that impossible peace.)
There is a question ranging uncertainly in the back fields of my mind, and every now and then it catches my eye from a distance. When it does, I’m not sure whether the words are black or white: If death has separated us, wouldn’t I somehow feel it?
But there’s no room in this wilderness for less-than-worst-case scenarios; it’s a drama but the stage is impossibly small. The idea does not suggest itself that anything less than death, and the death of him, has occurred, and I wonder if that is a mechanism designed for our own good?
Because when, five hours later, I sit the children down, and communicate the first of any of it to them, I announce to them that I have just had some very good news.
(I have instructed them to unload the firewood, feed the animals, do the chores – while I make some important phonecalls in Daddy’s farm office. I must not be interrupted, I explain. And after fielding calls from the State Police regarding fixed wing aircraft and missing persons, and from the International Emergency Response Coordination Centre in some distant bunker about satellite beacons and next of kin…I have lived out my whole long future in five short hours. And it is amazing how elastic a lifetime can be.)
With one last phonecall, all that has been borrowed from me is rapidly returned:
‘We have made ground contact. One of them has a severely injured leg.’
I deliver the news to the children with a smile: “Either Daddy or your uncle has broken his leg.”
They look at me like I have lost my mind.
“Mummy,” frowns the youngest, “that is not good news.”
“Yes it is,” I assure her. She has no idea her father has just been resurrected. “Yes it is. It is very good news.”