The bus from Adelaide city now goes on large highways through suburban centres of shops and houses where once it went over creeks and through fields where the farmer ploughed, curling red dust into the bright sky.
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He has little chance of finding her again but he must look.
It was here that he got off the bus from school in the city. He daily walked past the empty primary school fields on a dirt path through long grass, battered by freezing wind and rain in winter.
The high timber fence was creosoted dark brown and the white wooden letters at the gate spelled “The Pines”, behind which a large clump of these trees brooded. These were his comforting prison walls for four long years.
Now he barely recognises the house only when he is next to its front door, and only then because of its large rough-hewed ancient sandstones. He is standing in a university parking lot full of cars, where fragrant gnarled roses used to grow in an overgrown garden. Through the house windows he sees desks and a computer. The sign says “Student Counsellor” at the door.
At this spot years back, with his hair combed back like Elvis and his black shiny pointed Beatles boots on, Aswin balanced on top of the high timber fence, strummed his guitar and sang pop songs to the empty streets and houses and to the vegetables in the fields.
This was where he first saw her.
As he played his guitar, the curtain in the house diagonally across the street opened a fraction. A beautiful face of a young girl was framed in it, her large dark eyes looking, her wide lips smiling shyly. Then it was gone, replaced by other laughing faces of other girls.
Then a huge Aboriginal man with a beer belly that bulged over his crumpled trousers came through the front door. He nodded, without smiling.
Aswin had been watching the teenage girl about his age going out for a walk with her brothers and sisters and their little dog. He loved to see her shiny skin, as dark as a moonless night, her lovely face, arms and long and graceful legs. She walked like a free spirit that she was.
One dead Sunday afternoon, Aswin gathered all his courage and pretended to casually walk past the school field where the girl and her brothers and sisters were usually hanging around the metal fence at the desolate schoolyard. They were the only people in this world.
“Hi,” he said, flushed in the face.
The girl looked at him and smiled.
“What’s your name?,” he asked.
“Nell. What’s yours?”
“You Chinese or something?”
Her laugh, a magpie’s morning song.
“Can I take you to the movies?,” he asked finally, astounded by his own courage.
“Guess so. When?
“Tonight? We can take a bus.”
“Righ-do. ‘Ave to tell me mum.”
The movie theatre was full of swanky people all dressed-up: it was the opening night of “My fair lady.” The only seats left were right on the front row, which meant that they had a long walk through bristling hostile stares.
Aswin grabbed Nell’s hand for the first time and did not let it go during the entire movie, even when the hands became sweaty.
On the way home they sneaked into the Pines’ rose garden and found a grassy corner where they huddled together. The landlady’s bedroom light was off. The roses smelled sweet in the cool evening air. Nell waited, her large eyes bright in the night, while Aswin mustered all the courage to kiss her.
It was his first kiss. He had dreamt of it often enough but it was much better than he thought possible. After the first gentle searching touch, Nell’s mouth was strong and direct, pushing, retreating, teasing. They had to break for breath.
“Oh God, Nell!”
“Yeah, mate, what about him?”
They held each other close now.
“We’re going walkabout. You want to come?” she asked.
An Aboriginal needed to frequently return to the land of his or her birth to spend time to be in touch with the spirits that live there. To the Whites, they go “walkabout” and would return to their jobs if and when they were ready.
The beauty of the desert folded around Aswin in an eerie welcome as he walked on it, self-consciously a guest from far. In the clarity of the air, the deep blue sky and the blood-red earth became his body. Everything, shrubs, twigs, rocks, was sharp and alive, as were bird songs and rustling eucalyptus leaves. All was clear, nothing was hidden.
Nell led the way, holding his hand. Fierce heat pulsed from everywhere. A billabong was hidden behind a shady stand of gum trees which stood naked with their smooth, bare and shapely trunks painted flesh-pink and white.
Nell at once slipped her dress over her head, threw it away. She slipped quickly into the water and squealed at Aswin to join her. He did, with a silly smile on his face.
They raced each other to the middle of the pond, flailing furiously in the water. There they held each other, limbs entangled, struggling to keep afloat. Aswin kissed Nell again, clumsy and wet.
“I love you, Nell.”
“I know, mate"
Their laughter disturbed a big flock of small green and gold cloud of budgerigars trying to drink. The birds rose as one with a deafening screech and wheeled into the sky, broadcasting the joyful scene that they had just witnessed.
That night the lovers sat on the sand by themselves near the dying campfire. Above them, a billions stars and Nell’s many ancestors smiled down to them.
“My folks have decided to stay here and not go back to Adelaide,” said Nell, very quietly.
It was in the trees behind Nell’s house that they said goodbye to each other, holding onto each other until dawn and not wanting to let go even then.
“Come back to see me,” Nell said, tears glistening on her perfect face, a vision that Aswin had treasured ever since both awake and in his dreams.
The bus streaks through the desert like a hunting spear. A heart is waiting in that barren land.
It's nearly 10 years now since their parting. Nell and her family had moved on and Aswin, just finished his university studies in another state of Australia, doesn’t know where to start to look for her.
At the familiar corner of market street near the bus station in Adelaide yesterday, an old Aboriginal man lugged his belongings. Incredibly, he knew Nell from her name and the only small photo that Aswin had and told Aswin where she may still be.
Getting off at the dusty bus station, Aswin asks direction at the pub and is now sitting in the fierce noon sun on the back of a utility bumping along the dirt track. An asbestos fibro house with a rusty roof stands on its own under a big gum tree. Noises of children and a dog come from the backyard.
Aswin rattled the fly-screened door.
The face approaching through the dark corridor through the wire screen is what Aswin has been waiting to see all these years.
It is still stunning.
Nell’s eyes open wide, much to Aswin’s joy. They hold hands and hug, Nell not letting go.
“Come on in, luv.”
“Thank you, Nell.”
They move to the back porch and Nell makes tea.
“Billy’s still at the police station.”
“Yeah. He’s good bloke too, a good father.”
“I come to see you before going back home. I’ve finished my studies, you see.”
“Oh, yeah? Well done, luv. You are a clever man. I always knew that.”
“Actually, I thought that you might want to come home with me,” Aswin says with a wry smile, glancing around.
“As you see, I am otherwise occupied.” These sensual wide lips had smiled at him during countless nights over the years. He could not help reaching over now to put his hand on them. Nell kissed his fingers then his mouth tenderly for a long moment.
It was as if he had never left. He smelled the ancient roses in the Pines’ garden. He heard water lapping the sand and buzzing cicadas.
“Oh Nell. I’ll miss you.”
“I know. I’ll miss you too, luv. Live well. Get married. Think of me sometime.”
“I have no choice in that matter, Nell.”
She squeezed his hand harder. “I know, mate.”
She calls out to the kids to come to meet uncle Aswin. All come running at once, thrusting their smiling faces at him: three boys and a girl, the youngest. The handsome eldest boy is somehow different from the others.
“Aswin, meet Aswin Junior,” says Nell, smiling. “He’s the eldest, turning 10 next month.”
Aswin senior turns quickly to look at Nell. She looks back at him for a long moment with all the tenderness and love that he remembers. She still holds his hand and squeezes it tighter.
“And this is Billy Junior, Doug and Susan, our baby!”
“How ya all goin’?” asked Aswin.
“You Chinese or something?,” asks Aswin junior.
“Ask your mum,” said Aswin senior.
Nell’s children laugh and run off again, chased by the barking kelpie.
Aswin watches them in an afternoon that should have gone on forever. While at play, Aswin Junior looks back frequently. Nell stays beside Aswin, their bodies touching as they lean on each other. She steals another long tender kiss when the kids are not around.
Nell’s hand is in his like on their first night out together to the movies. He wishes that life, and his own courage, had allowed him to always keep it there and not let go, before and now, as he must in the fading light of this afternoon.