Dad’s number is 0412 195 957. Mum’s number, obtained in a different year and from a different phone company, is separated from his by only two digits. For years their numbers were almost the same and then Mum put Dad’s mobile through the wash and now Dad has cancer in his blood. The doctor’s stopped the chemotherapy because it wasn’t working, but not before it turned their home life medieval. He had radiation, hormone treatment, then the magic pill. He will be dead before I ever get home.
Dad has a close friend from childhood called Ian, not the Ian in this picture. They were lifesavers together on the Gold Coast. Tonight I heard that Ian has inoperable cancer in his lungs. My brother sent me a photo of Ian coming out of the water at Little Burleigh looking hale and strong: he sent a photo of the four dozen young men lined up in their wrestle suits. This is how men were built in those days, I thought: before McDonalds. As I lay down and closed my eyes a strange calming image flooded me. I was thinking about the two friends who now have known each other longer than they’ve either of them known anybody else, just about; so many people have died. Their generation is at the wall. Their bodies are crumbling. I knew Ian was in town for a while to spend time with his children, our playmates on the long summer holidays at the beach, and I thought: what if someone could bring the two of them together, if they both wanted; and then discreetly disappear; so they could have a beer or a cup of tea with no one fussing around them and being social; and face the horizon as it approaches. Dad told me once years ago how when they were lifesavers they were both out on their boards beyond the breakers, where the water is green and tilts; a huge shark went cruising past his feet. He said he wasn’t scared. It was just a part of being in the water.
I always thought once you step into the ocean, you are in their territory. They know the places we cannot map and can eat the things we are. They have no mercy, so far as we can understand it. They maybe don’t even have fear. But once you leave the sloping beach and paddle out past the breakers you are out of the reach of land and you have stepped into the wild.
My father was born during World War Two. It’s hard to imagine he minds being deprived of his mobile phone, the constant connectivity that keeps us bobbing on the surface of our minds like so much trash.
For the first time now the living outnumber the dead, things will only get worse; it is a strange and insecure world we have made, top heavy and crumbling fast, like a breaker. We are a web on the surface of a world we have ruined and let ebb, and filled its clear salt waters with our junk and emptied them of all life using nets the size of dead cities. We are a glinting and reflecting shifting roof of plastic bottles for the endless ocean which needs no roof.
When I went to buy a futon in 1996, my father had the only mobile phone I’d ever seen. He lent it to me, so that he could call me later to come and pick up his car. I shoved the phone in my bag and forgot it was there.
The futon I chose was so comfortable after I lay down on it I fell into a sound sleep. A strange blaring noise woke me, repeated and insistent like a tiny tugboat. People around the shop were stirring and saying to one another, I think your mobile phone is ringing. That’s what we called them in those days, two words. I said when asked, loftily, Oh no – I don’t have a mobile phone. Then, mortified, recollected that I had, and this was my father, ringing me on it. His phone and his car were in my custody.
I bought this week a German sim card, after a year and three months here without one. I am wary of giving anyone the number. I think of the life I had, once I had slipped its leash, as like telling the household I’m just going out for a walk. Unless you take your phone along – no one can know where you are. No one can call to say Stop for milk or You are late, and so you can browse and forage and glean and sift through your thoughts like hot sand that sparkles neverendingly and forever through your fingers which are dry and brown. It makes me sad that my father doesn’t have a phone now and that it seems hardly worth replacing it. It makes me proud for him, and happy, to think of him slipping the leash, gazing at the sky, listening to the birds.
On his verandah with his afternoons all to himself he can see the horizon from his long cane chair which curves like a Malibu board. But the chair is so low and Dad struggles to get out of it. He cannot make it to the landline in time if I call him from my strange time zone in another season; efforts to reach him seem futile. From his supine position the verandah rail is his horizon. It has snuck closer in his sleep.
On the far side of the world where the water is cold I stare and stare towards the south but it’s slipped round the curve. I hear nothing, and I see nothing, and I get these occasional emails. My father who then was the love of my life with his fearless innovations and his steady carpenter’s hand has stepped off the coastal shelf now, he is out for a walk and he may be some time, he is going where we none of us can follow and I don’t believe he will ever meet us there; he’ll be gone; he has stepped into the wild.