Where is his Nell?
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The Adelaide city bus now stops at one suburban shopping centre after another. The searcher recognises nothing. The daily school trips of the past were on a small green bus that slowly crossed creeks and ambled through fields being ploughed as dust curled into the bright Australian sky.
Then Aswin thinks he sees the place where the former school boy got off the bus each day, and quickly pressed the stop bell. The primary school is still there, larger now.
“The Pines” of landlady Mrs Thomas was diagonally opposite the school. The dark pines and high timber fence of the sandstone boarding house were both his cosy escape and prison wall for four lonely high school years.
All is now a university campus. Aswin stands next a wall of large rough-hewed ancient sand stones before he recognises his old bedroom. The sign on the door says “Student Counsellor”.
Aswin sees himself again perched on top of the timber fence, strumming his guitar.
He was Elvis with his shiny rocker hair combed back and black pointed Beatles boots tapping the beat. The blank windows of neighbouring houses and vegetables in the fields were his audience.
He first saw Nell from there.
A curtain of the house diagonally across the street opened a fraction, briefly framing a young girl's pretty face. Her dark eyes and shy smile encouraged him. An Aboriginal man with a beer belly came through the front door. He nodded to the suburban Elvis.
Aswin watched the lanky teenage girl about his age walk out with her brothers and sisters and their little dog. Her shiny skin was as dark as a moonless night.
On a usual dead Sunday afternoon, Aswin gathered all his courage and walked to the school yard where the girl and her brothers and sisters were hanging around.
“Hi,” he said, flushed in the face. The girl looked at him and smiled.
“What’s your name?,” he stumbled.
“Nell. What’s yours?”
“You Chinese or somethin'?”
Her laugh was a magpie’s morning song.
“Can I take you to the movies?,” Aswin at last managed to ask.
“Guess so. When?
“Tonight? We can take a bus.”
“Righ-do. ‘Ave to tell me mum first.”
It was the opening night of My fair lady and the audience dressed as if it was the opera. The only seats left left for the two were on the front row so they had a long walk through stares, some hostile.
Aswin reached for Nell’s hand for the first time and did not let it go during the entire long movie, even when those 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 sweetly in the cool evening air.
Nell waited, her large eyes bright in the night, while Aswin mustered all his courage to kiss her. It was his first kiss ever.
He had dreamt of it often enough but it was even much better than he thought. 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, what about him?”
They held each other close now and Aswin felt her small firm breasts through her formal dress.
“We’re going' walkabout. You want to come?” she asked.
An indigenous native needed to frequently return to the land of his or her birth to spend time with the spirits that live there. White employers know that the Black employees go “walkabout” and would return to their jobs, if and when they were ready.
The beauty of the desert now folds around Aswin in an eerie welcome. He walks on the baking sand, very self-conscious as an alien. Pure air, deep blue sky and blood-red earth become his body. Shrubs, twigs, rocks, rustling eucalyptus leaves and bird songs have a sparking crystal clarity.
Nell leads the way, holding his hand. A fierce heat pulses all the while. A billabong is hidden behind shady gum trees that stand naturally bare, showing off their smooth sensual limbs of flesh-pink and pure white.
Nell slips her dress over her head and drops it: she doesn't ever wear underwear. She wades quickly into the water and squeals at Aswin to join her. He gladly obeys, stripping with a silly smile on his face. It is his first time being naked in front of a girl but, with his Nell, it's so natural.
They race each other to the middle of the pond, flailing noisily in the water. They hold each other, limbs entangled, struggling to keep afloat. Aswin kisses Nell again, clumsy and wet.
“I love you, Nell.”
“I know, mate,” she says.
On the sandy banks under a low gum they give each other their virginity. Sweaty sinewy limbs push against each other as coarse sand cut into soft skin.
Their noises startle a green-and-gold cloud of budgerigars trying to drink. They rise as one with deafening screeches and wheel into the sky, spreading the joyful scene that they had just spied on.
That night the lovers sat on the sand by themselves near the dying campfire. Above them, a billions stars plus Nell’s ancestors smile down to them.
“My folks have decided to stay here and not go back to town,” says Nell quietly.
It was in the trees behind Nell’s house that they say goodbye to each other, holding onto fast until dawn and not wanting to let go even then.
“Come back to see me,” Nell says, pearls of tears glistening on her perfect face. Aswin had treasured that vision ever since, both awake and in his dreams.
The bus shoots through the desert like a spear. It‘s nearly 10 years now since the desert lovers' parting. Aswin, just finished his university studies in another state, is looking for his Nell.
At the corner of market street near the bus station in Adelaide yesterday, an old Aboriginal man lugs his belongings. Incredibly, he knew Nell from her name and the only small photo that Aswin has and told him where she may be.
Getting off at the dusty bus station, Aswin rushes asks direction at the pub and is now sitting in the roasting 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.
The face floats in the dark corridor to the wire screen is one that 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 doesn't let go.
“Come on in, luv.”
They move to the back porch and Nell makes tea.
“Billy’s still at the cop shop.”
“Yeah. He’s good bloke too, a good dad.”
“I come to see you before going back home. I 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.
“As you see, I am kind of occupied.”
These sensual wide lips had smiled at him during countless student 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 the buzz of 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 on 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 towards 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 and turning 10 soon.”
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 somethin'?,” asks Aswin junior.
The children laugh and run off, not in the slightest bit interested in his answer. The barking kelpie chased them.
Aswin gazes at the children in an afternoon that could have lasted forever. While playing, Aswin Junior looks back frequently.
Nell stays close, their bodies touching as they lean on each other. She steals another long tender kiss when the kids are not around.
Nell’s sweaty hand is in his like on their first night at the movies. He wishes that life, and his own courage, had allowed him to always keep it there and not let go.
As he must now.