The river was one of the things that she would miss the most. Not the murky water, and certainly not the polluted banks, but the part the river had played in most of her daily activities during her stay here.
Almost every day she had crossed this river, one way or another. Some days, if the weather was kind, she would set out on foot, walk across the Common, meander around the pond, and wander along the jogging paths (carefully side-stepping the fitness crazies), until she came to her favourite bridge, the one that linked the north and south side of the city, the one with the footbridge that allowed her to continue her walk all the way to her place of employment.
Mostly, though, the weather was bitter, so it was more often she hurtled over the bridge on the No 35 bus, and from her seat she could look out over the grey River Thames to the hazy London skyline in the distance – and each day she would have to pinch herself and remind herself that this city was the place she had called home for almost two years.
By the end of each day, she had probably crossed the river at least once or twice more – sometimes via a walk back to the park as she tried to find ways to keep the little ones occupied. Sometimes, if she worked late, it would be a taxi or Uber ride at night (because even at 28 years old, and after two years of living abroad, she still cannot ignore the promise she made her mum and dad not to walk home across the Common late at night.)
And of course, the river would often form the backdrop of long, leisurely Sundays with him. A sleep-in, then a walk, perhaps a riverside pub lunch and a pint or two, then home again. Sometimes, when they suddenly remembered that they lived in one of the most exciting cities in the world, they would spend the day exploring, which would mean crossing any number of the thirty or so bridges over The Thames, on their way to countless tourist hot-spots situated along its course. She knew that no matter where she roamed in the years that followed she would always love this place – its history, its grotty streets, even its unpredictable weather. Well, maybe she wouldn’t miss that.
And while it was true that small-town New South Wales, Australia was a long, long way from London, the River Thames always made her think of the beautiful Clarence River that coursed through her home-town, and she had recently decided that the ebb and flow of a river was the metaphor of her life: the love of family and her need for stability, challenged by the desire for adventure and the sacrifices she would need to make in the name of love. Yep, ebb and flow – that’s life, she had come to understand.
Her connection to the river was not surprising – for as long as she can remember she has been drawn to water, to rivers, to the ocean. She always felt calm and happy in water or near it, and she cannot ever imagine living a life where these elements wouldn’t play a part. Every childhood memory that she can conjure involves the river or the ocean: family camping holidays, long summer days spent at the beach swimming, fishing, and crabbing, walks with her dad over the bridge to the other side of town, watching boat races and rowing regattas, and being scared, yet strangely excited, every time the river was in flood.
She remembers learning at school that her home-town street name was the local Aboriginal word for the Clarence River: Breimba. She loved that. Yet another connection.
So, she chides herself at the memory of just two years ago, of driving over the bridge on her way to the airport never once thinking about, or taking a final glance, at her town or at the beautiful river below – she was too focussed on getting onto the plane that would take her to him on the other side of the world. Two years ago! Such a short time in reality, but in many ways, it feels like a lifetime.
And now that her time here is coming to an end, if she’s truthful, she is scared about the re-entry to her old life. Everything will be so familiar, yet she is so changed. She is dreading the well-meaning but shallow quizzing she will get from old friends and acquaintances. “So… how was it?” they will ask. And she will want to shout from the roof-tops: “It was terrifying and challenging, and amazing and life-changing!” but she will probably respond with something like: “Oh, yeah, it was awesome!” because deep down she knows it will be like when you share your holiday photos with others – not many people will actually give a damn. They weren’t part of the journey, so they will never understand the journey, and their interest will be polite, but very limited.
She is sure that most people would never think her move overseas was difficult – “You’re moving to LONDON? How exciting!” So how could she ever explain that she spent the first six months stressed and sad as she learned how to survive in a strange city with few friends, limited income and forever struggling with that bloody rotten weather. She constantly worried, back then, that she might never fit in. Yet here she is now – anxious that she will never fit in anywhere else and afraid that regardless of where she lives in the future, her sense of belonging will be challenged by feeling like a visitor. Unlike her parents and their parents, who mostly were born and then died in the same town, she was of the generation that was encouraged to be global citizens, to travel and to explore the world. The payoff (apart from being broke a lot of the time) was a feeling of uncertainty.
So, she thinks that this is what going home will feel like – a sense of relief and familiarity tempered by the fact that part of her will be yearning for another time and another place. And she worries: will parts of her thrive, while other parts quietly wither away to live on only in memories?
She recalls a story she read recently about this very thing – the fact that life for her might forever feel like she was the proverbial round peg trying to fit into a square hole. The author likened expats like her to a ‘triangle’ – not round, not square – so therefore not quite completely fitting into one place ever again.
However, despite her anxiety and the “not knowing” of what the future will bring, she has accepted that she should be like a river: she needs to start at her source, give in to the currents and trust that she will flow in the direction she is meant to be heading. She will gently weave her way back through well-known landscapes and re-discover the magic in the familiar; she will change direction if there are obstacles; and mostly, will need to be patient for a river will always eventually reach its destination.
Her thoughts are broken by the friendly chatter of the lady settling into the window-seat beside her.
“Are you going all the way through to Australia? I’m only going to Singapore – thank goodness!” 56A exclaims.
“Yes, all the way to Sydney,” she says with a half-smile. “Then another flight and a car-trip after that.”
“Oh! Are you going on a holiday, love?”
For a moment she considers this, unsure how to respond. “No”, she finally replies. “I’m going home”.
As she looks out the window, she is thankful for her late-evening flight – for although she can picture him standing in the departure lounge staring sadly at the retreating silhouette of the plane, she won’t be able to see him. Perhaps that is best. And although she will be able to spot the twinkling lights of the city, she won’t be able to quite make out the river, but she knows it will be there, keeping its course, winding its way through the city, and through the lives of people like her who will always have a part of them that will call London home.
“Oh, it’s such a long way for you to go, isn’t it?” 56A says sympathetically.
As her plane taxies down the runway, she closes her eyes and she whispers, “You have no idea.”
(Note: this short story was first published as part of a collection of stories for ‘The Long Way Home – Stories from the Clarence Valley’ writing competition).