Once when I was small, Mum and Dad took me to Palm Beach. We looked north to Broken Bay and Lion Island, and Dad said:
“That’s Brisbane Water over there.”
“Is that where Auntie Barb and Uncle Ron live?” I asked, and everyone laughed.
“No,” said Dad, “they live a thousand kilometres further even than that.”
Brisbane, as my sister keeps pointing out, is a great big sleepy country town. It’s tropical here, so a lot of the houses are beautiful old timber Queenslanders on stilts, with trellises and wrought iron verandahs and corrugated iron rooves. Trees grow lush and are festooned with flowers: jacaranda, bougainvillea, flame tree. I can hear at least five different birds singing – a mourning dove, a currawong, a mob of cockatoos, a honeyeater and a lorikeet. It’s overcast but steamy and hot. Insect dreaming. Ants found Claire’s gripewater and feasted. No colic for them.
Barbie and Ron live in St Lucia, near the University of Queensland. Barbie’s my father’s sister. She has a degree in botany and used to be the audio-visual librarian at the university. She’s small and round and quiet and immensely droll. At our wedding, Barbie and Jeremy’s Auntie Jan got talking and realized they’d known each other as children, on the huge cattle stations of northern New South Wales.
We Chalmers women marry men just like our fathers, and although he’s not a blood relation, I think of my uncle Ron as a Chalmers man. He and Barbie met in the botany department at Sydney University. He worked for the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO, for many years, studying crops for arid regions. He’s brilliant and cynical and political and funny, and he’s always found me completely ridiculous, a quality I value in an uncle.
Ron’s very ill. Heart. We’re dropping in for lunch tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it, because Barbie’s a wonderful cook. We’ll sit on the terrace under the lush ferns that grow on the cliff behind their house, and if we’re lucky, the resident goanna will drop by.
(The kingfisher who lives in Sarah’s garden just made a bombing run at the window.)
You only get one life and you have to choose where you’re going to spend it: Sydney, Dublin, San Francisco, London. I’ve been to Brisbane every year or two for the past decade and a half, but it’s not enough. Years trickle away while my back is turned. Kelly and Ross grow like monkeys and learn to read and write. Baby Ely goes to university. Barbie’s hearing starts to fail. I drift in and out of their lives like a recurring character, like a comet, like a ghost.