Not A Homecoming (2003)

Beach track, NSW, Australia. Photo by Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
 They have to take you in”

Robert Frost, from The Death of the Hired Man

I rented the house the way I did most things back then — remotely. I Googled real estate agents in the beachside suburbs north of Sydney and found illustrated listings of available properties online.

There was an older-style, white clapboard, two-storied house overlooking the south end of Palm Beach: two flights of sandstone steps led down from it to the seawater rock pool next to the beach itself. A reasonable rent for the winter was agreed via email, and I wired an advance for a month along with a fee for a weekly cleaning and linen service. The key was left above the front door-frame, a copy of the rental contract slid under the door.

The house was what the agent called a duplex: actually half a house, separate, self-contained, with its own entrance. I had the lower floor; the landlords, an elderly couple who, the agent assured me, used the house no more than a couple of times a month, had the rest. There were two bedrooms, each with a queen-sized bed and a side table, a small living room with a cane two-seater settee, two armchairs and a coffee table, all of Seventies vintage, and a narrow galley kitchen next to what used to be called a breakfast nook in which there were a linoleum covered aluminium table and four vinyl-upholstered aluminium chairs. The decor was chintzy retro, faux-tropical-Fifties-resort-lounge-meets-American-truck-stop-diner.

But there was the view: from the glass sliding doors that opened onto a terrace running the width of the house, I could look out along a kilometre of beach to the lighthouse atop the high, rocky knuckle at the far end of the peninsula and beyond, the national park and beaches on the coast further north, and from north-east to south-east, several miles of uninterrupted ocean horizon.

The house was as temporary and impersonal as a hotel room, and that suited me. It was not meant to be a home. In a couple of weeks, only a little more of me would be visible there than when I first arrived.

I sat in one of the cane armchairs and allowed myself to unwind, to accede to the idea of arrival, however provisional, and of actually being somewhere other than in transit. My circadian rhythms were still stuck in a time zone seventeen hours behind here, and I craved won ton soup, kung pow chicken and fried rice.

* * *

This was not a homecoming.

‘Home’– or even the sense of place, of belonging, which passed for it — had nothing to do with it. I was born about 10 miles from this house but I grew up everywhere else. If I ever had a home, it was one that I had invented — and I had invented so many over the past forty years that the whole idea of ‘home’ no longer had any meaning for me. The same could be said of a lot of things in my life.

Three days ago, I was waiting for a taxi on the front lawn of the large house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I had bought for my wife during one of those infrequent times when I was making a lot of money. I had lived in it with our three kids and her for three years, off and on, without trying to pretend it was our home. Now she wanted me to leave. “What can I believe anymore?” she asked. “I’m so tired of your secrets.”

She had come across some old emails from a Japanese girl whom she had suspected of being my lover. I had last seen the girl at the departure gate at Tokyo’s Narita airport before I boarded a flight for Los Angeles three months ago. “There’s been so many secrets, so many things you’ve never told me — and it hurt so bad,” the Japanese girl had told me then. After she had left me at the airport, she went back to an apartment I rented in Nishi-Azabu, another non-home, and packed her belongings. The secrets she referred to had nothing to do with my wife. I suspected the secrets my wife referred to had nothing to do with the Japanese girl. There was just this continuous white noise of confused or contradictory indications, punctuated by resorbent nulls; it was as if I was trying to elude substance, to become a ghost. Prolonged exposure to it had exhausted them both.

I flew coach on American Airlines to Los Angeles via Dallas, with the thought of staying for a while in a city that sustained itself through its transients. I took a cab to Sunset, and checked into a large room on the third floor of The Standard hotel, overlooking the pool. Young bodies were arranged around it like MTV extras, sprawling on white plastic lounge chairs scattered across an expanse of blue astro-turf. One corner was taken over by a photo shoot, and chain-smoking assistants arranged a tripod, lights, battery packs and reflectors as a model, dull-eyed, barely a teenager, suffered the final touch-ups to her make-up. Loud hip-hop and a visceral human hum reverberated within the walls.

I phoned a woman I used to date when I lived in the city. Blonde, in her late twenties, she had played a bit part as a stripper in a Nicholas Cage movie; now she was married, with a nine-month-old baby, her ambition to be an actress fading. We met late that night at a sushi restaurant on Third Street and afterwards, fucked on a silver beanbag in my room. The hotel was now quiet, except for the occasional creak of beds and floorboards in other rooms. The lounge chairs and Astro-turf were empty. An old, ornate, red neon sign atop a Spanish-style apartment block nearby flickered against the starless sky: Mirador.

When she left, it struck me that staying any longer in Los Angeles would be a mistake. It was too easy to re-invent yourself for the moment there; no-one questioned it, and you could forget in an instant who you really were. I had already crossed and re-crossed the fine line between delusion and lie too many times to risk it again.

It was the beginning of the rainy season in Tokyo, sticky and hot. In the eery, pre-apocalyptic stillness that precedes dawn in Los Angeles, I thought of Sydney.

* * *

Despite the years I had been on the move, I still found it hard to remember time zones in a conventional way. I relied on short-cuts I had first come up with as a kid being dragged around the world by my parents. If you asked me if Tulsa was sixteen hours behind Sydney, I would tell you something like “It’s eight hours ahead, the day before.” Or “It’s four hours behind, at the opposite end of the day”. It was easier, somehow.

It was midday in Palm Beach, eight in the evening, yesterday, in Tulsa. The kids would be getting ready to go to bed. I wondered whether I should leave it another day before trying to negotiate the trip-wires of my wife’s anger. As in every war, hot zones flared, then subsided into uneasy stand-offs as each side dug in and assessed the attrition. My wife would not attack again, not for a few days; we were both worn out from the last fight, and maybe she was as nervous as I was about pushing the slim chance for peace over an ill-defined brink.

She picked up after several rings, and waited for me to say hello first. I might have been wrong about the possibility of attack.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I’m here. Just arrived.”

“Yes, but where?”

“Still at the airport. I haven’t figured out what to do yet.”

And there was another of my inexplicable deceptions. I didn’t know why, but I was not ready to tell her about the house, or about my plan to stay for a month or so. She sensed the secretiveness, and it irked her.

“Will you stay with your mother?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call you later and let you know what I’m up to.”

A long pause.

“I’ll get the kids,” she said.

My daughters, aged four and ten, were used to pretending that the harsh words they heard their parents exchange had not happened. They chirruped happy goodnights, and made exaggerated kissing sounds into the handset before passing it to my eleven-year-old son. He was on the verge of tears.

“Hi Dadda. Where are you?”

“Are you OK, son?”

“No.”

“I’m so sorry. I really am.”

“Mum says you’re going to Australia.”

“I’m already here.”

“Are you going to come back?”

“We’ll see each other soon. And I’ll call every day. You have my mobile number so you can call me whenever you want.”

“It’s so hard.”

“I know.”

“Does it have to keep being this way?”

“No. We’ll get through this. Just know I love you, OK?”

“I know. I love you too, Dadda. But come back soon. Please.”

There was nothing more I could say. I had told enough lies for one day.

* * *

My body was sticky with the accumulated grime of a long day’s travel. I found an old, two-bar electric heater in a hallway closet and set it up to warm the air between my bedroom and the bathroom before I showered and changed my clothes. A faint chemical odour rose from the elements as they reddened.

I studied myself naked in a full-length mirror behind the bedroom door — a brief physical audit of nearly forty-nine years of self-indulgence and neglect. I was morbidly obese. My skin was still elastic, even where it hung in a fold over my hips, but pale and discoloured with age. My cock was receding into a fattening pubis; I could no longer see it over my stomach, except when it was erect. My ankles and knees were swollen and there were striations of cellulite beneath my buttocks. My hands were misshapen with arthritis. My hair was cropped close to my skull but it had become so grey and patchy that it resembled the mottled flesh of a corpse. The rest of my body was overtaken with hair and benign growths. My teeth were yellowing and there was an after-taste of decay beneath my tongue. My eyes were bloodshot, a combination of tiredness and high blood-pressure, and my sight was failing. I had to wear glasses to read anything smaller than 14-point.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the real me. Like someone with a heart condition who monitored their blood pressure each day, I was disciplined about reality checks. I got a compact camera from my backpack. Still naked, I stood in front of the mirror again and pointed it at my reflection, holding it one-handed just to the right of my chest, my thumb on the shutter release. I exposed three or four frames in the cool, diffused daylight that filled the room.

I printed very few of my photos, although I started taking photographs several years ago to keep track of where I had been, and with whom. It felt, somehow, more reliable than writing a diary and in some ways, it turned out to be a more accurate reflection of the way in which I assembled memories: not so much as a structured narrative but as a collage, or a series of random snapshots. I proofed each roll of 35mm film six frames by six on 10” x 8” glossy paper which I stored with the negatives in large ring binders organized by date. I had left the binders at the house in Tulsa. I was not a photographer, but the images were a way of keeping track, of corroborating what I remembered: this is how it was then.

I showered then dried myself, shivering, in front of the heater. I put on a fresh, black t-shirt and underwear and the same jeans I wore on the ‘plane.

Barefoot, I took the sandstone steps down to the beach.

* * *

A surfer was paddling seaward on an outgoing rip at the south end of the beach. Clear of the surf, he turned northwards, paddling parallel to the swell to bigger waves peaking on an offshore sandbank and breaking left. He sat upright on his half-submerged board to gauge an incoming set.

A wave rose beneath him and just as it was about to rushed past, he turned, pulled his board back between his legs and let buoyancy slingshot its nose down its face. The wave began to hollow and break. The surfer sprang to his feet and with a slight repositioning of his body, drove the board across its throat like a blade. The board slashed through a foaming lip as the wave collapsed. The surfer arched back and kicked the board through an arc of empty air to regain the face. White water tumbled beneath him. It looked like the ride was over, but he rocked the board up and down, pumping it to sustain some momentum until the wave rebuilt over an inshore bank. He rode it to the beach without flourish.

I walked towards the lighthouse, keeping to the damp, compacted sand below the high water mark.

I sat atop the dunes at the far end of the beach, and watched the transmuting surface of the sea. On calmer days, it heaved and undulated like the body of a prehistoric beast at rest, drawing slow breaths, but now its long, sinewy swells thrashed at the fractured reef and high cliffs below the lighthouse as if it was trying to erode the stubborn solidity of the shore.

“There are places you always come back to,” a psychiatrist once told me. “They’re like a refuge or a hideout, somewhere you feel safe.”

Seventeen years ago, I rented another white clapboard house above the ocean. It faced northwards towards this same lighthouse, but from a headland sheltering another beach just a couple of kilometres to the south. I lived in it with another wife.

The real estate agent who showed it to us had warned of its notoriety. A year earlier, the previous tenants, a pair of local drug dealers, had been shot dead on the front doorstep. The walls had since been re-painted and the carpet repaired — but not replaced — where stray steel loads from a 12-gauge shell had torn up the pile. Otherwise, the house had been left untouched. The exterior paint had begun to peel and the garden was overgrown with lantana.

But there, again, was the view, and the sibilant rushing of the surf against the sandstone ledges below the headland. The patches of decay could be ignored, along with the ghosts of the murdered dealers.

Even then, I had already lived in more houses and apartments than there were years in my life, and that wasn’t counting the houses in which I had spent my childhood years with my family, or the distant boarding schools to which I had been consigned before I was a teenager. I had owned three houses, in three countries. I’d rented the rest and each had been as different as the seven or eight countries in which they were located.

I had never thought of any of them as a ‘home’. A few were the loci of disjointed recollections, like the rundown old house on the headland, but my occupation of most of them, including the houses I had owned, had been deliberately transitory and unsentimental. I rested in them. I re-grouped, recovered or re-invented myself in them. I worked, slept and ate in them. I used them to store my books and clothes. But I rarely ever lived in them.

I just didn’t get the idea of settlement. I didn’t get the emotional investment in structures and furnishings and decorations that, together, were supposed to support the idea of ‘home’ with an illusory impression of permanence — for me, all they did was absorb the corrosive residue of the everyday into their surfaces. Yet I did understand how geography could exert a spiritual hold. It was true: there were places to which I always returned, although not always because they were refuges or hideouts. My migratory patterns were as constant if not quite as predictable or sacramental as those of a traditional nomad, and because I was disinterested in being a tourist, I might re-map those patterns occasionally, diverting them to add a new waypoint or to eliminate an old one, but I didn’t often wander far from them. The slow, unceasing circumnavigation that had occupied my life could be plotted with a series of long rhumb lines from one familiar destination to another.

Which is not to say I was incurious about the rest of the world. It was just that my experience of it was measured, with each place in my personal atlas having a meaning or purpose even before I found my way to it.

Ever since I came back to Australia in my adolescent years, and again in my early twenties, I had been trying to figure out the meaning to me of this small part of it, this long, gnarled finger of suburbanized sub-tropical forest, rock and sand stubbed into the sea. When I was younger, when my days were shaped by surfing, and with it a sensitivity to the mutable, wind-driven swells and the semi-diurnal ebb and flow of the tide, I would paddle my board out beyond the break, and sit up to survey the shore behind me as the rising sun turned the tangled scrub, tall palms and crooked eucalypti beyond the beach the same orange as the sand. And as I floated there, I imagined that I was tethered to the shore by an improbable length of polyurethane, not unlike my leg-rope, that would pull me back not matter how far I drifted out to sea. I could never make up my mind if the idea consoled or frustrated me.

Either way, there I was again, with faded images of my past replaying in my head like the shaky, over-exposed home movies on Kodachrome Super-8 that my parents used to project onto a wall.

* * *

An overcast sky diluted a fleeting twilight as the black hills inland eclipsed the sun.

Watery shadows flooded the house. I considered whether it was too late to phone my wife again. She would probably be irritated and I didn’t have the stomach for a fight. I resolved to call her if jet lag roused me in the early hours of the morning. I sat at the computer on the linoleum-topped table near the kitchen, the gritty chafe of coral sand was still on the soles of my feet.

There was an email from a close friend, David, an English telecom-marketing savant who sold his company for several million in cash to an over-confident internet services group at the apex of the dot.com frenzy. When he retired a year later, in his late thirties, his first impulse was to free himself of every obligation and become a gypsy; I had grown used to receiving his sporadic, rambling notes from Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam or Barcelona. In recent months, the rootlessness and random incidents of self-revelation had gotten to him; depressed, he had flown to London to re-boot. His latest note was subdued and contemplative:

“With regard to the idea of returning home, I found that coming back to England was the right thing for me to do and the past eighteen months have been about re-charging and re-examination. It can be good just to get back to the familiar, to slow everything down a bit, and to leave the high-adrenaline lifestyle alone for a while. Part of the process for me (and I think I detect some of this in you) has been to let go of my own expectations of myself, as well as the ‘I shoulds’ — those insidious bits of self-perception which lead to a lot of unhappiness because they are, typically, someone else’s perspective or belief which you have imposed upon yourself.”

How could I explain to him that I could not let go of anything? Not while I picked among the debris of this psychic crash site, looking for hard facts from which to reconstruct a life.

Massive claws of cold, grey water rolled in from the southeast to tear at the beach, air blasting from the crumbling surf to hang as a sticky, saline haze above the sand. The house was cold, and the rooms had a whiff of briny dampness that clung to the skin.

This was not a homecoming. However, it was a return to the beginning. Whatever I thought I knew or understood about myself was moot — too many irresolvable fragments and jagged shards of half-remembered incident — except this: by the simplest definition, my life started here, on this narrow peninsula, even if it continued (and parts of it were abandoned or lost) somewhere else.

This, at least, was reassuring to me.

© C.C. O’Hanlon 2003

First published in Griffith Review, Australia, 2004