My descent into hostage-taking begins with a hire car from the airport.
Forty hours in trains and airports – then ninety minutes by road gets me to Scarlett’s farm. Wrought iron gates creak open with the code 3242. Imprinted on a tired mind: 18.104.22.168.
3. The number of lives I’ve ruined.
2. The number of my plays I wish I’d never written.
4. The number of children I always thought I’d have.
2. The number of times I’ve gotten away with murder.
I hold my breath to the grinding protest of the gates. The words of my counsellor return; ‘keep breathing and notice what is outside of you’. OK, when I get through these gates, the long curving driveway will be lined with old ornamental pear trees planted mid last century by Scarlett’s mother. Even looking through a windscreen grimed by insect death, they’re showing signs of spring: the old limbs are shooting off perky green shoots.
Fitting for new beginnings.
The forced long sigh has my back sinking into the car seat, yet my foot pumps the accelerator, making the car inch forward in jumps as the gates take their usual time to open.
Just past the first curve, a blue-tongued lizard is either sunbathing or lying dead in the middle of the driveway. I stop the car and get out as the sun emerges from behind a cloud, dazzling me, forces its way into my eyes like the accusations of the bad cop.
I peek through a gap in my fingers at the immobile lizard. Fatigue is making my body sway. My legs fold involuntarily under me, and my backside lands on the stone driveway. I’m too tired to even yelp.
I’m practically on eye-level with the lizard now. It has pale lids and a long grim expression and its torso is, nearly imperceptibly, expanding and contracting. Maybe breathe with this ancient indigenous creature. What did the counsellor say? Five seconds in, five seconds out. Regulate your nervous system - the lizard has this sorted.
It’s my first contact with Australian wildlife in a long time. I touch the lizard’s cool scaley back. It wakes and gives me an eye roll before moving across the driveway, and disappearing into the safety of the long grass.
The sunshine, though bright, has little warmth in it. Dizziness returns as I climb to my feet. I lean on the car and gaze out over the farm. Deep green hills as gentle as the childhood memories they evoke. Scarlett’s mum’s scones and her big hearty smile. She’d hug me and then look into my eyes so I wouldn’t squirm or giggle, to solemnly declare how happy I made her and her daughter.
A teardrop has run down one side of my face and I catch it’s salt with my tongue. No woman, including my own mother, ever made me feel important, so worthy of love. Imagine having a smart, happy, loving, sober mum -what sort of person would I have been with a parent like that? Well, I’d be Scarlett: sane, successful and on sabbatical with a long-term partner. Not exhausted, washed up, and more than a little panicked about ending up back here.
Yet Scarlett’s farm is as familiar as my panic. That alone can soothe me. It has to.
As I drive carefully around the next bend, unused to driving on gravel, the second paddock is revealed, the gorge paddock, the one that leads out into the state forest. It is called the gorge paddock because there is a sudden rise of rocks and a dangerous steep fall into a gully. Presumably there was a river there once, to have carved it out, but none of us had ever seen the river.
Memories of the gorge threaten to flood my already addled brain. Breathe, breathe, stop the car again. Five seconds in and five seconds out - something the counsellor said about the vagus nerve. Was it vagus? - to regulate anxiety – Don’t think about Theresa, about the ledge, the thinnest of paths made by nocturnal wildlife. But why did I stop protecting her?
I trumpet blow out my lips and shake my head as much as practical in the car seat and drive on and turn my head to see the guilty gully. I see Theresa. She’s is walking along the ledge. Impossible. Has jetlag and a guilty conscience tricked me into transposing the past into the present? Theresa is there again walking along the ledge. I squeeze shut my eyes hard and open again. There is a woman there! A real woman. And a horse: a horse? Is this jet lag? Or has my anxiety upgraded to hallucinations? No- there is an actual woman and a horse walking along the forbidden ledge.
I get out of the car and start walking through the paddock, to see if I am really seeing what I’m seeing. No, no it’s too dangerous to do that! And they disappear. The woman and her horse have fallen. Or they have jumped? “Christ.” A cry leaves my jammed-up throat. I run back to the car, wrench the wheel, and accelerate towards them. It’s soft underneath but, with a steady pressure on the accelerator, I should get there…
Fifty metres in, the wheels are spinning and start to sink.
I’ve bogged the car, the rental bloody car.
And there’s no woman in sight.
I get out and run, little cries escape my throat as broken back creatures struggle in agony in my mind. I trip onto my knees, cold watery mud seeps through my trousers. Scramble up again and reach the beginning of the ridge to crawl along to the point where human and horse were last visible. In my constricted chest, I try to take in a deep breath, before looking to see what no one wants to see.
I look down.
There is nothing, nothing but rocks and an old rubber tyre feed-bin way below. “Hello?” My voice bounces back to me, sounding ludicrous. Crawling further along the ledge, I call again “Hello? Is anyone there?” A new horror fills me - have I truly hallucinated? Am I actually going cuckoo?
Crawling back to a safer place, I stand up and take loud large gasps of air as the adrenaline leaves my body. I’m cold now, my feet and legs soggy. OK, so there’s nothing to see here but a bogged hire car in the middle of a muddy paddock. Christ, the Hyundai’s wheels have sunk down right to the rim.
Can’t even open the bloody car door; fortunately, my suitcase is in the boot. I carry it for a bit before resorting to dragging it across the muddy paddock, my city shoes squeaking from moisture and mud. Sweat forms on my back even before I’ve reached the driveway. And there is still half a bloody k’ of driveway to walk!
‘What an idjit!, my Irish friend would say to me. Bugger, I’d forgotten about that steep final hill in the driveway. Once conquered the farmhouse is in view behind a copse of trees. Sitting on the suitcase, I breathe heavily but much more easily. A dog barks and a second dog joins in; they run down the driveway stiff backed - both curious and furious. Calling to them in a soft doggy friendly voice has the smaller dog running straight at me with a wagging tail.
“Hello little fella.” The smaller dog has hurled herself at me, offering her whole body. My fingers glide through fur on muscle. Soft coat soothes rigid limbs. The larger dog keeps his distance, eyeing me. Another creature is coming down the driveway. It’s huge and pinky-grey - as long as a motorbike. It’s a pig. Scarlett told me of a pig but I didn’t imagine a pig this big, this wide – this belly, this swaying two hundred kilo rounded pendulum heading straight for me.
‘Just smile get on their eye level and look them in the eye with a friendly expression was Scarlett’s advice in approaching all farm animals.
The pinkie grey mass stops abruptly at my nose where I let out a nervous laugh of relief. The plate sized snout has a good old snorty sniff, then explores my suitcase as I tentatively scratch a wiry haired back. The other dog still keeps his distance. Another creature canters down. It is a perfectly proportioned three-foot high equine of chestnut and white. Her long silvery white mane and tail is from a fairy tale as she stops and blows air through delightfully flared nostrils then she too sniffs me all over. Laughter burst forth from my throat as if it has been locked away somewhere. The pony nips the pig but the big dog then nips the pony and all seems sorted in their world as the pig, pony and small dog return to the very important job of sniffing me and my case and being rubbed. The whole scene feels unreal, as if belonging to some Disney animation. But at this moment, unreal is Ok.
“Ok guys,” I say eventually. “I need to unpack.”
Eighteen legs and two over-worked, mud-jammed suitcase wheels make their way towards the farmhouse. Twilight frames the house in a warm orange glow. It looks exactly as I remember it.
In idle moments in dirty, loud London I would imagine a different life if I’d chosen to live like Scarlett: just me, my lover and animals. I’d write racy novels instead of plays, working only with one editor instead of cash-strapped theatre companies, with their control freak directors who take the praise and leave you the blame, and actors who break your heart with their brilliance and their fickleness. Would I be a better person? Under differing circumstances, would I have written words that destroyed lives of people I loved?
‘Breathe,’ the counsellor said. ‘Each time a wave of self-loathing and recrimination arrives in your mind, note what is outside of your mind. Come back to your senses. What can you see, feel and touch?’
Ok so I, Tilda, feel the gentle breeze coming in from the surrounding mountains. They are changing colours as the light diminishes, and a dog is rubbing against my leg…
The entourage and I arrive at the back door. The smaller dog pushes it open and it seems all the animals have complete rights to the interior: hooves, paws and all. The interior is warm, familiar and mellow as always – though I note a vivid painting of embracing female nudes placed pride of place over the fireplace is new. On the kitchen table is a note, with a list of the daily tasks but, as the previous farm sitter left only that afternoon, I can happily just rest. Though the hens need locking up before sundown.
I shower in the bathroom that has images of the female form on several tiles – another Scarlett and Toula update. The blonde wooden floor is soft underfoot and, gleaned from the tag, Scarlett’s soft charcoal grey towels are organic from a women’s co-operative in India. In dry clothes, I sit on the covered veranda with an herbal tea – the first act of my plan to eat, think and drink only healthy things. No booze. For as long as I am concerned about my mental state, booze is off limits. That image of the woman and a horse… was it just a strange cognitive blip? Did my jetlagged brain manufacture a suicidal woman and horse from a combination of girlhood memory, too much wine on the plane and a wonky circadian rhythm? Why a horse? I had a horse once… in childhood - what happened to him? That heavy dampness behind the eyes…guilt no - don’t think, stop remembering, clear your mind of thoughts that aren’t useful.
It’s getting dark now and the farm is so very, very still. I listen for the absent traffic and instead hear the heavy breathing of a sleeping pig. The smaller dog jumps up beside me and places her head in my lap. The pig, taking up the whole rug, is sleeping at my feet. The pony is eating grass on the front lawn and the other dog is on a chair opposite eyeing me with a bit of wariness. An unfamiliar feeling enters my breathing. What is it? Could it be peace? Five seconds in. Five seconds out.
The events in London feel like a dream belonging to someone else.
I jerk awake. Is it morning or…? No, the last of the light lingers. It is still dusk, not dawn. The veranda has panoramic views; pink and purple has joined the orange hue above the mountains.
The herbal tea, grown cold, tastes mildly of eucalyptus. Must be the tank water.
Though buggered, my body is restless from being confined in a small seat for most of the last two days. I stand up to stretch.
Scarlett, or the former farm sitter has created a pile of logs neatly stacked next to the fireplace. I place a log on the fire and go outside. The Australian sun, though weak, is stubbornly still up and the ground moves under my feet like I’m still on the plane as I head out for the back paddock towards the state forest the farm backs onto. On school breaks staying with Scarlett and friends – we’d spend hours in what we schoolgirls baptized ‘the enchanted bush’. My head is woolly yet it is not at all unpleasant to be in the countryside. Clean air can only be marvelled at - it’s the unfamiliar taste of no car fumes mixed with eucalyptus. This time only the dogs accompany me- the smaller one has adopted me as her star human but the second one- the taller handsome male, comes along but with some reservation in his tail lowered stride.
In the distance, green lush paddocks are dotted sporadically with farmhouses, sheds and water tanks. It seems inconceivable that I left my tiny flat in a cobblestoned lane only 40 hours ago. There is no particular destination to head to, so I just walk behind the dogs who seem to be following an animal track to a heavily treed area. We walk through trees, and moist soil fills my nostrils and makes me shiver until the trees thin out to reveal an open space ahead. I sigh in what might be relief, but it is followed by a wave of heaviness that has me lean against a smooth white trunked gum tree. I close my eyes and wish for a device that could lock my knees so I could just nap leaning against the tree. I should turn back but two large figures in the clearing ahead catch my eye. It’s the phantom woman and the horse. So, I’m not insane!About 400 metres away, a woman and a horse are moving sideways in a dance – crossing their legs in front of each other as if in a chorus line. I’m transfixed. The dogs are running around them, keen to join in, but the woman and the horse carry on unperturbed. No halter or lead is being used, and yet they appear to be dancing in perfect harmony.
For the second time today, I cannot believe my eyes. I feel into my pocket for my phone and start shooting video as evidence of my sanity, zooming in as far as I can, the light is so poor, they’ll barely be visible – but it will be enough to know I’m not hallucinating. I stop filming when they move out of sight behind a huge clump of blackberry.
On the walk back, I stumble and the ground seems to be moving underneath me, like turbulence, but disconcerted feet manage to reach the farmhouse where the open fire glows.
Sitting by the warmth I watch the video on my phone again and again. Though blurry, it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve seen Fiona Shaw play Richard the Second for the Royal Shakespeare Company. From my unpacked bag I pull out the laptop. At the kitchen table, I write an email to Scarlett telling her all is well, animals all fine and ask her to watch the film and to please explain to me what I’m seeing. I also send it to Theresa and ask, yet again, when she will come up for a visit. Theresa’s email bounces back undelivered.
Scarlett’s welcome letter lies on the table alongside a mock-up of a theatre program she has made with photos and a short bio of each animal I’m to care for. In the letter, she tells me that I have a choice of three rooms in the five-bedroom house. I take the home-made theatre program with me as I tour the house and choose a room with the most windows. I lie on the bed and read about each of the inhabitants of Witt’s End. Each animal has a sad background - all rescued from hideous pasts. Scarlett has the saviour complex that is much maligned, but as a beneficiary of her kindness I want to lay prostrate at her feet. Instead, I lay on her bed and stare at the last streaks of light in the mountainous sky. It would be dangerous to close my eyes for I should brush my hairy teeth – then the smaller dog called Harper curls up into my stomach. I will not remember London. I will not have thoughts that don’t serve me. The dog curled in my stomach sets off a memory, no, no - forget what happened in London, which is my last thought before sleep.
I wake to my phone vibrating next to my ear.
“Is she installed?”
“What? What?” Did the voice say installed?
“Tilda? Is this Tilda?”
“Scarlett - what the fuck! I was dead asleep.”
“Now you sound like Tilda. Is she there? Has she… Is she OK?”
“What? I - um - who? They’re all OK…we are all fine.”
“The video you sent.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s beautiful, no? Who is it?”
“Please. Right now. Delete it.”
“But, I, err…”
“Oh shit, you haven’t posted it online? Have you? – Shit! Say no.”
“No, you haven’t posted it? Or no, you won’t delete it?”
“No, I haven’t posted it online.”
“Oh good - can you do it now? Right now?”
“Delete it now.”
“On the message to me as well.”
“Oh. OK… Jesus, Scarlett, this is all very… very… dramatic.” But I do as she asks, while placing her on speakerphone.
“No, really, it’s important.”
“Is she on witness protection or something?”
“Something.” Scarlett clears her throat before saying, “Look, if you see her again, don’t go near her, OK?”
“Is she dangerous?”
“No, no, just sorry, I can’t say. Look this has made me late - I gotta go – love to you and all the animals.”
“Scarlett.” I’m not sure why I’m continuing this call now she’s clearly in a hurry, but it has begun.
“Yes? What is it, Tilda?”
“It’s OK.” I put on my brightest voice and of course it reveals all.
“No, no, look I’m going to call you back.”
“No, don’t.” But it is too late. She hears my half sob, but not the urge to slap my pathetic self.
“OK, look love, I just need to delay my appointment and I’ll call you back.” Her softness and care sets me off. I put the phone down. Tears pour freely down my face as I get out of bed and make another herbal tea, though whisky is what I’m hankering for. My phone vibrates again.
“Scarlett – hi. I’m sorry; you didn’t need to… I’m actually OK.”
Tears flow down my face, betraying only to me, my upbeat voice.
“You’ve come from a dark hard place, Tilda.”
“I errum… Harper, she…”
“What’s wrong with Harper?”
“Nothing, nothing, she… she curled up into my belly.” I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Surprised by what the little dog has stirred in me. Scarlett waits. I’m choking a little bit. I’m choking on words, on describing what that feeling does - fur on my belly - warmth, affection, connection – fatal betrayal. Finally, I mumble, “I had… in London. It was my neighbour’s…” I can’t tell her.
“Go on.” Scarlett is good at this. She doesn’t hurry important explanations.
But I can’t tell her, I can’t tell her of all people, I can’t tell Scarlett how I killed a dog. I may have killed a man as well but that isn’t what is setting me off here.
“They put her down.” A sound emerges from the top of my throat - a sob?
“Who put her down?” she asks, still gently, but clearly exasperated. That sobbing sound again. The involuntary sound offends me. “Who is her, Tilda?” I take in a big breath. At least the sobbing stops and Scarlett asks again, “First tell me, who is her?”
I swallow. Really wish I hadn’t begun this – don’t want to go there. Don’t want to picture it – but it arrives behind my eyes: Lewis strangling Magid. His hands around her throat - her growling going hoarse, her growl, dimming, dimming away like her life. The bottle of wine in my hand - its cool neck in my grasp. The swing, the backswing as if I’m on the softball field again. I swing hard and accurately at his head - at Lewis’s temple. Magid is on the floor and Lewis. Lewis is on the floor. Then my neighbour Dimi in the room… he has heard his dog in distress but doesn’t see the droplets of blood on her lips. He doesn’t know his dog has only just been hanging from Lewis’s throat. Dimi is checking Lewis’s vital signs, as his dog looks on. My neighbour was a medic in the army - he gives Lewis mouth to mouth - Lewis’s neck full of holes. Holes from Magid’s fangs.
Later, weeks later, Dimi calls me, his gentle voice tight and strangled. The Islington council has sent him a notice. The dog must be destroyed. Court mandated. They want proof that the dog is destroyed.
She was protecting me. Magid was saving me from being raped.
“It’s Harper. She curled into my stomach on the bed.” Like Magid curled into my stomach.
“You can just push her off the bed, Tilda. Just push her off the bed.”
I laugh now. A small cough like laugh to cover myself- a pretend return to some lighter place. “No. I love it. I mean I think this is what is making me… I’m actually happy here. Just happy here.”
“OK let me get this right. I have just postponed an important meeting because my farm sitter is too happy.”
“You got it.” I can perform now, my non anxious self. “I know. I know Scarlett. I just didn’t think I’d feel so good here so quickly- there is something obscene about smiling, but I am- I am. It is as if you have rescued me from a wicked pervert’s basement and taken me straight to a fun park. It’s positive sensory overload.”
“Should you be on your own?”
“Yes, yes! I’m not missing people at all. I mean I’m glad you are not here.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
“No, I mean- the animals, I’m not alone. I have Harper, the farm, the quiet even the mysterious woman.”
“Don’t go near her!”
“See, even that is making me alive again. Scarlett honey. I’m saying that I’m OK and the tears are falling because I’m feeling that it is wrong to feel this OK, at this time, so soon…” I can’t finish the sentence, which would go something like- ‘so soon after the death of my two best friends.’
Scarlett scolds me in her wonderful dry manner. “Oh good, I’m late for my interview with an Emeritus Professor because my farm sitter is over happy? Now look, have you got all the research I’ve printed out for you and the books? I’ve got loads on Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, George Bernard Shaw and the vegetarian society of the 1800s. Have you read anything yet?”
“Hey, I just got here.” A new weariness, that isn’t jet lag, makes my eyes droop.
“Well remember you’ve got Sabine coming Thursday.” Her PhD supervisor voice is switched on now.
“Yeah I read half her biography on the plane. Impressive person.”
“She’s my hero. Now, this project is meant to be a low stress commission. OK- a romp. You will be preaching to the choir. Just write a short uplifting play about the vegan movement”
“A vegan romp. No drama.” and I can’t help but giggle at her unawareness of the impossible task she has organised for me.
“Not a fucking satire. OK? - promise me!”
“You’re not paying me enough for satire.”