I’m sitting next to Tim in the van, daydreaming, hands cradling my rounded belly, the baby lulled quiet by the engine and the gentle rhythm of the road. In the back, the children are asleep, mouths wide open, red hot faces and damp sticking hair. When they wake we will stop for lunch and after lunch we will move on again. We’re not going anywhere in particular, just meandering, letting one thing lead to the next.
After months on the road our days have formed a regular rhythm. Sometimes the children cry and grumble and the van fills with a sharp tension. Sometimes they play happily together and Tim and I spend time savouring long conversations. Often we sing along to children’s tapes, songs and nursery rhymes, played over and over. But there are also quiet times like now, when the children sleep or just stare out. Then we pass hours moving through flat landscape with low bush, termite mounds for as far as we can see, dry riverbeds, the occasional car … Regularly we see kangaroos, usually dead on the side of the road, their bodies swollen with the heat, or carcasses half devoured by Wedge Tailed Eagles who rise into the sky as we pass. The monotony has its own sort of beauty. There’s something hypnotic about it, something about the vast expanses that makes us look inward.
And backwards, back to the sticky heat of outback Northern Queensland. Six, seven months ago when the line unexpectedly turned blue on the thin strip of litmus paper I was holding. We were staying with Greg and Kerry Jonnson at their organic cattle station. It was hot there, hot and sticky, clouds building up and up, and time slowing down, as we waited for the wet season to begin.
‘You’re pregnant,’ Tim had said the previous night, certain he could read the signs.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I replied.
But the next day I was less certain. One of Greg and Kerry’s daughters, Michelle, wandered over looking terribly ill. She sat with me for a few minutes.
‘God, I feel awful,’ she said. ‘I must be pregnant.’
Then later, Tina (a daughter-in-law) mentioned that she too might be pregnant.
‘Me too,’ I said without thinking.
Within minutes Shane (the eldest son) showed up and looked me over.
‘You pregnant?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, nervous now and feeling uncomfortably like one of his cows.
‘I’m driving into Townsville tomorrow to pick up tests for the others,’ he said. ‘I’ll get you one too.’
I nodded, aware that underneath my embarrassment was a strong sense of relief. It was out of my hands.
The next afternoon the children slept, naked, with arms flung everywhere in the heat. I opened all the windows to let in any stray breeze, but there was nothing, hardly enough oxygen to keep breathing. The atmosphere was getting heavier, even more humid, and so still I could feel the tension in the air. My head was throbbing, filled with pre-storm positive ions. It was almost certainly going to rain. But when? .
‘The dust is coming,’ shouted Kerry, her words breaking through the heavy silence and startling me into motion. In the homestead doors and windows were slamming shut. One resounding bang after another. Looking out, I could see a disturbance of some kind on the horizon, a red cloud coming this way, fast. I raced to close the windows and zip up the door, not quite making it before a huge roar and an immense gust of wind stopped me in my tracks. The tent heaved to one side and then righted itself, but the children didn’t stir. I still had to close the windows and that meant going out there again. For just a few seconds dust swirled in the atmosphere, stinging me with its ferocity. Then came the rain, big heavy drops, plopping, almost sizzling, on the hot earth. Steam rose from the ground, a glorious smell, like the freshly ironed clothes I wore as a child. There was no time to savour it because the wind was fast becoming ferocious, pushing the tent one way and then the other. Back inside there were already puddles on the floor and the table and chairs had been knocked over by the heaving canvas. But the children slept on. I slid their bunks away from the sides of the tent and prepared to sit it out. Moments later the first pole broke and I knew we’d have to move. So I unzipped the front, letting the wind fill the tent like a balloon. God, I thought, imagining us flying across the outback, now it’s about to take off. Quickly, and with a strength that only comes with emergencies, I tucked one sleepy child under each arm and ran over to the homestead, thinking as I went, that if I was pregnant I really shouldn’t be doing this.
The temperature had dropped fifteen degrees in a few minutes, and I left Nikita and Freda wet and shivering in the house, while I went back to get clothes and towels and secure the tent. The storm exhausted itself quickly, turning into a slow drizzle and then drying up altogether. I was a nervous wreck. Stop, I wanted to shout, I’ve had enough, but after a five year drought the Jonnson family were ecstatic and wanted to play, like kids in the mud. Everyone piled into four-wheel-drives and set out to inspect the property, driving much too fast, sliding all over the road, ploughing through dips and over bumps. I sat in the back seat, with Nikita on my lap, a fixed smile on my face and the horrible wet taste in my mouth that meant I was going to be sick at any moment. Once again the thought popped into my head that if I was pregnant this wasn’t a very good idea.
Back at the tent, we mopped up and waited nervously for Shane to return from his 700km round trip and distribute the pregnancy tests. It was just getting dark, when I finally slunk off to the toilets, clutching my conspicuous packet. Not willing to share this moment, I stood in the cubicle waiting for the line to turn blue and when it did all I felt was the heavy weight of certainty settling inside me. Back outside, I was red faced and shell shocked, but there was no escaping the others. We were all positive. Three women on a remote cattle station. I laughed along with the ‘something in the water jokes’ but deep down I was worried. The timing really was appalling. We were only two months into a twelve-month trip. Was it safe to carry on, with the intense heat and rough roads and all the physical strains that camping entailed? Could I do it? I was already experiencing the debilitating lethargy of early pregnancy. Would it persist? How could Tim and I juggle work and the children? What about my writing? I knew from experience how scatty I get when I’m pregnant. How could I write and travel and be pregnant and be a good mother? And if I could do all that, could I do any of it well?
‘We should have been more careful,’ said Tim.
‘Now what are we going to do?’ I asked.
He shook his head.
‘How did it happen?’
‘Oh come on, you know exactly how it happened … and when.’
It was that bottle of wine, wasn’t it?
I laughed. Working out the dates pulled everything back into perspective for us. We realised this baby was conceived six weeks ago, at Undara — a very special place at a very special time.
‘What a wonderful thing,’ Tim said and suddenly I understood what a gift we’d received. Our baby had chosen us, it had chosen its time and it was very welcome. We agreed to carry on. It might not be the practical thing, but it felt right.
* * *
And now so many months later it still feels right, I think, scanning the horizon for a tree, just a little shade to shelter us while we eat our lunch. There are no trees. By mid afternoon hunger forces us to the side of the road. The temperature outside is in the high thirties and in just a few minutes the temperature inside rises to the mid forties. Tim starts the engine again and leaves the air conditioning running. We sit huddled inside, eating our droopy sandwiches and drinking lukewarm water, surrounded by a vast dazzling heat which makes the air wobble into luscious mirages.
‘I need the toilet mummy.’
Stepping out into the sunlight I stretch painfully, relieved to feel the heavy ache in my womb lighten a little. I inhale and gasp as hot air burns all the way down. Holding Nikita so she doesn’t wee on her clothes, I watch the liquid darken the ground, sending steam and dust rising, before disappearing altogether only a few seconds later. The ground is littered with bones, bleached white by the sun and glistening. Bones. A landscape of death. It seems to me that this is a world entirely without sentiment, a place where death is inconsequential. I shudder and walk a bit further from the car, my hand moving involuntarily to the new life forming inside of me. Standing in this impossible heat I feel the baby move. Now that I am uncurled, it is playful, free to kick and toss inside the sheltered wetness of my womb. Just a few thin layers between out here and in there.
I’m relieved to be back in the van, it feels safer in here, another wall to hold things at bay. Tim tells me that it is my turn to drive, but I feel dreamy and distant, a long way from this narrow straight highway. I am becoming vague about things, but this time I know that eventually my thoughts will sharpen again and I don’t feel the need to battle for lucidity. I look down at my belly wedged in tight behind the steering wheel. There’s a little girl inside, almost ready to join us. And for a moment the imminence of it all makes me panic because we don’t have a name, nothing, except Harry and we can’t call her that. I think about the ultra sound, how I lay back on a bed as a nurse rubbed gel into the cold metal instrument that would trace my baby’s movements. We were all there, Tim and Nikita and Freda, watching our baby on a television screen, seeing its tiny little fingers curl and uncurl. I expected to feel something, but there was only irritation because my bladder was full and the nurse dismissive and I was suddenly repelled by all this cold clinical science around me.
‘It’s another girlie,’ said the nurse, and I detected a note of triumph in her voice as she wiped at my greasy belly with a tissue. She turned away then, already moving on to the next patient, unaware of how casually she had taken the magic from us.
‘She’s spoilt it.’ I said to Tim, wiping tears from my eyes. ‘I didn’t want to know.’
‘Three girls,’ said Tim, shaking his head. ‘I’ll be way outnumbered.’
We left the hospital, clutching a few blurry photographs of our new baby and the sure knowledge that we were having a girl.
A girl, I think, glancing back at Nikita and Freda, busy tearing an entire box of tissues into spaghetti strips for dinner. I like girls. Looking ahead again I see something and slam on the brakes, slowing just in time to watch an immense goanna plod across the road, oblivious to us and to its narrow escape from death. Just as I am beginning to relax again a road train approaches and I tense up, grasping the wheel harder, pulling slightly off the road to avoid the awful vacuum it creates as it passes. Unexpectedly something hits the windscreen and fine cracks spread from the point of impact. I duck as another stone hits the glass.
‘Jesus, what was that?’ asks Tim, waking up with a start.
‘A stone,’ I say, ‘lucky it didn’t break … I really don’t fancy driving without … Oh God!’ We have lost all visibility as the car plunges through a plague of locusts. Within seconds the windscreen is splattered with the insects, the wipers ineffective against this onslaught. Then just as suddenly they are gone. By this time my knees have turned to jelly.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘your turn. I’ve had enough.’ I pull up by the side of the road and feel the wheels spin in the dirt. We’re bogged. The baby tosses and turns, reacting to the fear that surges through us both. I feel very vulnerable and want to cry because the baby could come at any time and we are a long way from anywhere and I don’t want her to be born out here. I don’t want to squat in this dust, surrounded by locusts and bones and the stench of death. I don’t want to watch my waters break and flood around me and evaporate in seconds. For the first time I’m afraid. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my baby to die.
As Tim digs us out of the dirt I stand watching, unable to help. I’m big and helpless and frustrated and I’m remembering all the advice we’ve had.
‘Stop,’ people said.
‘Rent a house, have the baby, then decide what to do’ …
‘You’re mad’ …
‘It’s dangerous’ …
‘Think about the baby … ’
Back then I felt strong enough to shrug off the weight of other peoples opinions. Now, stranded on the side of an empty road, brushing flies out of the children’s faces, wondering just how much water is left … now I am not so sure. Maybe they were right after all.
‘Yay!’ shout Nikita and Freda when Tim finally pulls the van onto the road. We are ready to set off again, but my hands are still trembling as I strap the children back into their seats and then haul myself up into the front. And by evening my sense of panic still hasn’t subsided. We are living inside this little metal box in the middle of nowhere and the whole thing seems absurd. What are we doing here? The atmosphere is awful. It’s still hot, but we have the windows shut because there are mosquitoes and I’m trying to do the dishes, but my belly is too big and everytime I move in this tiny space it knocks something over. Up top the children are fighting and Freda screams in a way that pierces my ear drums. Tim tries to get past me, looking for pyjamas and toothpaste, but there’s no way, so I have to climb outside to let him through. I can feel a hard heavy rage rising inside me and soon, I know that something’s going to give. But finally the clatter of the dishes is over and the children are asleep. A deep ringing silence fills the space around us and I can breathe again.
Later I brave the mosquitoes and stand outside, letting the cool and the dark embrace me, feeling my unspent rage subside. Looking up, all I can see are the vast expanse of stars, the rich, thick milky way smeared across the evening sky. I wonder about the stars, if this baby is written up there somewhere, in a language I can’t read.
In the van I lie on my back, pressed down by the weight of the baby. There are stars inside too. It was in Undara that we made our own map of the sky, sticking a fluorescent galaxy on the ceiling of our van, so that the stars would accompany us everywhere. Undara National Park in the Gulf country of Northern Queensland. A park filled with massive volcanic tubes, formed 190,000 years ago. We nearly missed it. What then I wonder? What would have happened to our baby? But at the last minute we turned and followed the signs and I was suddenly overcome with a sense of having arrived, not home, but somewhere we were meant to be. I remember the feel of the stone, the 300 million year old pink granite, how special it seemed. Good, or maybe just benign. Somehow wise. And the incredible tunnels, pitch black and cool, etched with extraordinary patterns by the flowing lava. And overriding all of these things was the sense of rightness at being in this place. Then, while the children slept above and the rain pelted around us, our baby was conceived. And now, thousands of kilometres, later, in the far south west corner of Australia, we are soon to meet.
* * *
In Albany everything is suddenly wet. It is raining. The rivers flow fast and wild and there is grass; green and soft. We find the house within an hour of arriving. It is one of those meant to be things. After nine months camping rough, this space is an extraordinary luxury. There are things we had stopped taking for granted. It is strange to have running water, a bath, a comfortable chair, a bed that is long enough, a fridge – things that give life a soft padding. Television is strange too, bright and intrusive, a white noise filling up the echoey silences of this house. Tim and I walk around tentatively, as if we have forgotten how to stretch our limbs. But Nikita and Freda have no qualms. Whooping with joy they race around and around, laying claim to their new space. The rain outside is not important anymore. We are dry and there’s room to move.
Now there is time for leisure. I sit at the kitchen table watching the Southern Right Whales, resting or playing just off the shore. Or I take the children the short walk to the playground or the beach where they build sandcastles while I daydream. I eat voraciously and the baby grows, stretching my belly bigger and tighter. My mother arrives with her suitcase full of presents. She sits with me at the kitchen table, knitting booties for the baby. They’re blue and I’m irritated.
‘Mum,’ I say. ‘It’s a girl.’
Soon I feel the restlessness and the need to walk and know that the baby is on its way. In the morning I walk around the coast, a slow painful waddle, punctuated with rest stops. I see seals basking on the rocks, dolphins playing amongst the breakers and immense whales sitting further out. That evening my waters break. I shower and dress, timing the contractions. Already they are strong. We haven’t got long, I tell Tim. I kiss my sleeping children and shut the door behind me. Tomorrow everything will be different.
The labour is short, the contractions intense, but still I have a sense that everything is in slow motion. First there is the head, black hair, wet and matted, a purple face because the cord is wrapped tightly around its neck. Then there are tiny pink shoulders and in one great heave our baby emerges.
‘It’s a boy!’ I scream this out loud, so that the words fill the room, escape, travel down the corridor into other rooms and everyone knows. Tim looks up startled, eyes searching for what I have already seen. I am suddenly greedy.
‘Give him to me, give him to me.’
I forget everything, the contractions, the stitches, everything. I just want to hold my baby tight. My little baby Harry. I look at Tim, at the tears streaming down his face and his smile. I cry at how happy he is. I am laughing and crying.
‘He was suppposed to be a girl,’ I tell anyone who might be listening.’
I look at him, his little face squeezed up against the light. He stretches his arms out, surprised at the absence of walls and I see the alarm on his face at this frightening new freedom. Then I wrap him up tightly again and offer him my breast, watch his instincts at work as his mouth closes over my nipple. A boy. Conceived amongst the lava tubes and ancient pink granite of Undara. Formed on the road, to the rhythm of the engine and long slow days and dry dusty heat. And born in wet, cool Albany while the whales dance and sing in the ocean and rainbows hang in the sky. A boy.
And now we are five, I think, holding our little Harry tight. I feel a strong sense of completeness. Soon we will pack up and squeeze everything back into the van. Then we will set off again, up the west coast of Australia, into a landscape softened by spring. Through vistas of flowers growing from the deep red soil of the Pilbarra region. Daring colour combinations, reds and pinks, so many shades of purple, yellows, white … the wind blurring the colours. To exotic Broome where we will see Chinese Dragons and Thai dancing and eat Japanese noodles, and to Darwin in ‘troppo’ season, with its impossible heat and colourful markets. And finally to the very heart of Australia and Uluru with its breathtaking serenity and strong presence, that no photograph could ever capture.
And then, a new home … somewhere. We will let it find us.