How to differentiate reality and fiction? Reality is constant chaos, fiction has its perceived order.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, in late 1946, the Earth experienced a near miss with two large metallic objects from beyond the solar system. A collision would have seen Earth’s total obliteration. This was blissfully unnoticed at the time, due to the limitations in the astronomical observatory equipment of the day and the extreme speed of the objects.
Someone once questioned, could the flap of a butterfly wing in Africa affect a tornado in Texas sometime later? Such phenomena could be common; the idea that a very small change in initial conditions could create a significantly different outcome. Chaos theory suggests it can and does, but in unpredictable ways.
Now, here is a story I would like to tell you; it was triggered by the simultaneous occurrence of two unlikely astronomical events, plus a dose of Earthly chaos. When the story is finished, there may well be evidence to support the theories of parallel universes and the associated strange behaviours of time and place.
What is going on?
Walked into the park, felt the green grass like a sponge under my feet. There was no one around; I was alone in the open space. Like so many times before, I stopped in front of the big oak tree, the tallest and bulkiest tree in the park. It looked robust, strong, muscular and adaptable. There was no other tree within 30 metres. One end of the park had some shrubs and dwarf plants between the park and the adjacent house. The other end was a kilometre away with a brick wall fence, separating the park from a private high school.
I put my arms around the trunk; another two of me were needed to circle the trunk. The skin of my face rubbed the bark, the scaly ridges showed its mature age. I loved its strength and resilience. The majestic branches covered a large area; it was the very best that nature had to give to the park.
Sitting on one of the exposed roots, all negative thoughts seemed so ridiculous. Just like that, the state of my mind improved. I felt calm instantly. It always had the ability to put me in a proper frame of mind and stabilise my mood.
The whole area was peaceful; a flock of birds flew by in the sky without a sound, an old lady was walking with a small dog in the distance. As far as I could see, I had the whole park to myself. What a wonderful feeling that was.
Without any warning, suddenly a shock wave and bright light appeared, almost like they hit the back of my head. I felt a split second of darkness or unconsciousness, followed by a smoky smell. Before I could look around to find out what was happening, I was knocked down to the ground, like there was some kind of force upon me.
While I was still on the ground with my hands touching the dirt around the roots, I noticed the sculptured landscaped surrounding and many people moving about. My first thought was that I had been killed by some sort of disaster. But what was this place? It was not heaven as I was still under the big oak tree. I knew, even though I was still under the big oak tree, it was not the same park I had been in minutes ago.
I was deeply puzzled. What had happened? I had walked into a basic urban park and within the blink of an eye, it had turned into a community activity area. Where had those people come from? How had the landscaping happened? How could the park have changed so quickly? What was going on? All these questions hit my brain at once; I had to find the answers. Quickly picking myself up from the ground, I tripped over one of the roots again.
For many people, turning 30 years old is a significant milestone. Same for me, it was the next chapter of leading a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I spent most of my 20s exploring my inner world, identifying my passions and interests, seeking a sense of purpose and establishing a career. I’m not saying that I didn’t eat and drink like I had a fully paid and unlimited magical credit card, spending money with reckless abandonment. Booze and adventure? Absolutely – I had been knee deep in both. Those were intense years for me. Turning 30 was the grand entrance to an unknown future. I wanted to do myself a favour and enjoy the ride; leave my totally moronic days behind and ride into the new decade with maturity and a clear mind.
Three months prior, my father’s golf buddy, Andrew, went on an around the world trip. He asked my father if I could house sit for him. I couldn’t turn down the extra tax-free money he offered. All I would have to do was stay in the house every night, feed 5 cats each morning and night, clean their litter trays, brush their fur once a week and mow the lawn every 3 or 4 weeks. The condition was no parties were allowed.
To my surprise, Shannon didn’t object at first to my taking on an extra job. She might have seen the benefit it would bring.
Andrew’s place was close to where I worked but too far from Shannon’s office so she stayed in our rented flat during the week and came and stayed with me on the weekends in Andrew’s house. I didn’t mind picking Shannon up after work on Friday, grabbing something to eat and then heading back to the flat to fix some trouble she had with her computer or to do little jobs around the flat before going to Andrew’s house.
A week later she started to complain about our arrangement. There was nothing I could do, the agreement between Andrew and I was for 7 months. I had given him my word; it was too late to change my mind.
Shannon and I had been together since our university days and living together for years. A few days before my birthday, she casually asked me what my plans were for my big day. I told her that I preferred to stay the weekend on my own for a change.
Birthday parties were for children. They needed them to be reassured their growing pains were worth the suffering. They were definitely and especially not for a grown adult like me, a computer nerd and an instrumentation engineer. I was happy to work with microelectronics and quality management systems anytime and anywhere but felt awkward being the centre of a social gathering. Put it this way, I had no time for pretentious behaviour. Even 10 minutes of fake smiling and verbal diarrhoea were too much for me. Of course a meaningful discussion would be totally different.
Shannon agreed but said she wanted to come over to Andrew’s place on Friday and would bring my favourite takeaway food with her. She would leave me alone after dinner.
It was difficult for me to understand Shannon. To save time and energy, the easiest way was to agree with her. For some reason or another, I preferred to see her in our flat. Andrew’s place had become sort of like a private retreat for me. I enjoyed staying there on my own, away from Shannon’s indecisiveness and two-faced personality. Although I was attracted by her intuitive understanding of the fine arts and charming exterior, beneath she was really a self-centred individual. I was tired of her, of the way she insisted on everything being her way. She had a good enough education, a respectable job and a notable appearance but somehow her inflexible mind and headstrong attitude choked my feelings towards her. It had gradually built a wall between us. I was much more content being on my own than being with her. Leaving a partner was one of the trickiest and most important decisions for anyone. According to my intuition, I was expected to follow my feelings. Instead I chose to do nothing, my emotions sabotaging my chances of fulfilment. I left everything to the chaos of the universe – as if it would take care of insignificant me.
I often thought of how I ended up living with Shannon. It started because we made an excellent financial fit. I liked her bathroom etiquette and attitude to punctuality. I settled for convenience. My excuse was I was young and stupid.
Shannon often talked about “love”, like if she talked about it, it would grow stronger. In fact, “loving” and “being loved” are two very different things. Often I had to explain myself at length as she frequently struggled to catch my drift. She couldn’t hear what I said, her mind clouded with celebrity worship, froth and bubbles. There was no room for her to love anyone. How could I love a woman who was so shallow?
As I cleared my dejected thoughts and stopped the car in the driveway on Friday, I could hear loud music and the sound of a big group of people issuing from Andrew’s house. It took my breath away. What was going on inside the house? Who were those people?
The door opened before I could use the key in my hand. Shannon and her large circle of friends and acquaintances filled the whole house, along with the strong smells of alcohol and cigarettes.
I was stumped.
Who had given permission to hold a party at Andrew’s place? How had they got in the house without the only key which I had?
The answers were very clear. They only made me distrust Shannon further. She knew very well that Andrew wouldn’t approve of what she had done yet she had done it anyway. Her actions were not just disrespectful to Andrew but to me too. After all those years, she should have known better. That was a total turn off for me.
“Happy birthday Joshua.” A tall and heavily made-up lady came up to me at the front door. She grabbed me on both shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks. Her breasts almost popped out from the low neckline of her dress as they pressed against my chest. For a second, I thought she was a hired stripper. That thought made me very uncomfortable. Subconsciously I pushed her body away from mine. She backed off when she sensed my coolness and I took the chance to get away from her.
A couple of steps away from the front door, a bottle was lying on the hallway floor. I bent over to pick it up. A platform high heeled shoe deliberately knocked my hand. I looked up and saw a pair of faded tight jeans with holes and hanging threads. Above the skinny legs were unusually large breasts and a little higher, a catlike face smiled at me. What was that? Was I walking into a cosmetic surgeon’s party? Or had I fallen into one of their patients’ reunions? I had learnt a lot from Shannon’s “little procedures” over the years. She had had her eyelids remodelled, her nose restructured and her lips pumped. She looked very different to when we first met.
In the lounge, a couple were showing their sexual appetites in the open. He was on top of her like an animal, regardless of people’s presence. She was receiving him like an animal except there was a glass of red wine still in her hand; she was kindly sharing it with the couch and the carpet.
“Look, I found a bottle of Grandfather port,” an unnatural faced man shouted in the kitchen. I rushed to him and took the bottle from him before he could open it.
I had had enough of the whole thing and told Shannon to ask her guests to leave, otherwise I would do so myself.
Shannon in her usual way acted like a spoilt child, trying to do what she wanted. Not this time, Shannon, enough is enough. I am a man of my word. That is that, no room for negotiation at the expense of my integrity.
I switched off the music, sent everyone out the door. Shannon was mad but not as mad as me though.
Taking the key that she had secretly copied from mine and ignoring her sulking face, I was rather surprised and proud of my own courage. I couldn’t have made clearer Andrew’s condition of my staying at the house, how could she not respect it? Her behaviour had compromised my credibility, affected my reputation. My feelings told me clearly enough that I had reached the end of my wits with her, right there and then I knew I had to leave her if I wanted a meaningful existence.
In an extremely disappointed mood, yet with surprising relief that an important decision had effectively been made, I fed the cats.
Aimlessly walking out of the house, I desperately needed some fresh air to clear my mind. I was angrier at myself than with Shannon. The more time I spent with her, the more I knew she was not the right life partner for me. Why had I let myself down for so long?
It’s true that she had a strong sense of justice and fair play. She was calm and collected, in charge of a situation, good natured and loving. She enjoyed talking to people.
It was also true that she had little regard for the value of money. She drove a luxury sports car that was devalued so quickly. She bought designer products that weren’t required for any occasion. She wore expensive clothing that didn’t lift her looks. She was always seeking a party to have fun that didn’t mean anything the following morning.
She liked to be seen as a beautiful woman and would rather risk her life to alter her face by cosmetic surgery, instead of enriching her mind and allowing an inner beauty to shine. She wanted to be seen at trendy places, to dine in fancy restaurants. She travelled overseas to shop, not interested in learning about the country, people nor culture. As long as she brought back some new stuff, published the photos on Instagram and showed off to her friends, she was happy.
After working many years as a scientist, her bank balance struggled to stay in four figures. Worst of all, she weighed and balanced all matters, always trying to get an advantage. She wouldn’t give an inch unless she received more than an inch first. She wanted to be ahead all the time, didn’t want to lose out. Easy with fashion, impossible with matters of the heart. How could anyone measure affection? Feelings have no length, height nor mass.
We had had a lot of fun together, little more than teenage foolishness. Her brightness and unusual charm had faded away when she started pushing me to tie the knot. It started me questioning, were we compatible? To move in together was easy, sharing a bed was easy. Stepping into marriage was not, everyone knows that!
Now on my 30th birthday, she had shown me that she didn’t honour my promise, had no appreciation of my quality. The people she mixed with were superficial, they had empty lives and all they cared about was the surface.
There was no future for us. I had to put a stop to our relationship.
With serious thoughts on my mind, I walked into the park at the end of the street. There was no one around; I was alone in the park. I stopped in front of my big oak tree and put my arms around the trunk. As far as I could see, I had the whole park to myself, what a wonderful feeling that was. Right now I needed that feeling.
The Perfect World
Without any warning, suddenly I felt a shock wave and a bright light appeared, almost like they hit the back of my head. I felt a split second of darkness or unconsciousness, followed by a smoky smell. Before I could look around to find out what was happening, I was knocked down to the ground, like there was some kind of force upon me.
While I was still on the ground with my hands touching the dirt around the roots, I noticed the sculptured landscaped surrounding and many people moving about. My first thought was that I had been killed by some sort of disaster. But what was this place? It was not heaven as I was still under the big oak tree. I knew, even though I was still under the big oak tree, it was not the same park I was in minutes ago.
I was deeply puzzled. What had happened? I had walked into a basic urban park and within the blink of an eye, it had turned into a community activity area. Where had those people come from? How had this landscape happened? How could the park change so quickly? What was going on? All the questions hit my brain at once. I had to find the answers. Quickly picking myself up from the ground, I tripped over one of the roots again. I heard a couple of people giggling with amusement and then saw two people smiling at me.
“How long have you been hiding behind the tree?” one asked.
“I was sitting….” I stopped talking when I saw a large patch of roses a metre away from me.
It hadn’t been there when I was walking in the park earlier that evening. It hadn’t been there when I first stepped into the park three months ago.
They were waiting for me to finish my sentence. I couldn’t speak because I was confused. The vegetation in the park was different, except for the oak tree, nothing else was the same.
“Sorry, I don’t feel too well, maybe the fall…”
“Are you OK? I’m Scarlett, my house is nearby. Can you manage to walk?”
For a moment, I thought I had been killed by some sort of disaster, then, what was this place? It was not heaven; I knew that much. It was not hell either, otherwise I wouldn’t mind being in this hell.
The next moment I thought, what kind of place was this? How come the people are so friendly, willing to invite a stranger to their house to help them?
“I’m Alex. Let me help you.” I was surprised to hear Alex’s feminine voice.
At first, I had thought Alex was a man. She had very short hair and was dressed pretty much like a man.
Both Scarlett and Alex put their arms through mine, one on each side, like the three of us were best of friends.
“Hey, all we need now is a yellow brick road to follow,” Alex said cheerfully.
“You can be the clever and well-mannered Alice, we don’t mind, do we Alex?” Scarlett said joyfully.
“Just call me Alice. I don’t mind having a break from Joshua,” I said.
Thanks to the English author Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice in Wonderland. Although I hadn’t fallen through a rabbit hole and there were no peculiar anthropomorphic creatures, in some way my fantasy world had started just like Alice’s.
Scarlett’s home was on the same street as Andrew’s house which did give me some comfort. Somehow the street looked different too. The footpath was paved with reddish bricks. All the trees on both sides of the street were in perfect shape, luscious with branches and green leaves. Where were the disfigured trees? I couldn’t see any overhead power lines. As we were walking and talking, I noticed that the roofs and parts of the walls of all the houses were covered with brownish coloured solar panels; mostly flat rectangular shaped, with some curved. Something had happened; I knew this was not the same street.
We stopped in front of a new house. It looked slick and modern, with a very nice landscaped front garden. I definitely had never seen that house before; I would have remembered a house like that.
Alex lived two streets away.
The door opened as we approached the house; it seemed to be operated by some sort of sensor. A bright-eyed little boy ran happily towards us. Scarlett bent down to hug him.
“How are you Johnnie, did you have a good day?”
“I held onto the monkey bar for three swings.”
“Wow, what a strong-armed boy you are.”
“Yeah, I am a strong-armed boy.”
Two brightly dressed tall men stood at the end of the hallway, with grins on their faces.
“Hello guys, this is Joshua, he had a fall under the Perfect. James, would you please check if Joshua’s alright?”
Scarlett introduced the two men as her brother, George, and James.
James, who had a meticulous haircut, led me to the lounge. A large oil painting on the wall caught my eye; it had a big oak tree in the middle with nothing else in the painting but grass. That was the oak tree I knew. I was so glad to see it, almost like a lost child seeing someone he knew.
“Wow, that’s the oak tree!” I meant that’s the oak tree standing in the park that I knew.
“My grandpa painted that while looking after my mother. He called it Perfect. That was a long time ago,” George, Scarlett’s brother, said with pride.
“If my grandfather is Richard Carrey, I would be proud too.” James said.
I had no clue who Richard Carrey was. James’ name dropping was wasted on me.
“You’re not a local, are you?”
The last thing I wanted at that moment was a man with a sharp mind. I was desperately in need of some smart answers to cover myself. If I were to be straight forward and tell them what had really happened, they would think I was a nut case.
“You’re not a local either,” Scarlett said as she joined us, holding little Johnnie. “Your dish in the oven is ready. Shall we have dinner?”
James took a particular interest in me, although not in my physical condition nor my wellbeing. My guess was that he was interested in Scarlett and my presence was a threat to him. If only he knew how uncertain and unsettled I was, he wouldn’t be as anxious. Poor James, I didn’t blame him for having his eye on Scarlett. Look at her – smooth and glowing complexion, radiant and dazzling eyes, vivacious and lively personality and a transparent character, not to mention that she was so lovely. Well, maybe she already had someone in her heart; I wouldn’t rush to make any judgement. James on the other hand was falling head over heels for Scarlett; anyone could see that clearly. Although he didn’t have a wedding ring on his hand, little Johnnie did call him Dad.
“If I was a local, would you let me and Johnnie stay in your house?” James asked Scarlett.
“If you were a local, you wouldn’t need to stay in my house, would you?”
I liked Scarlett’s sharp reply. Well, a lady with a sharp mind was worth at least two ticks.
“I did stay at your house when I was a local, don’t you remember?”
Wow, stop flirting in front of others, James, isn’t it too embarrassing for you?
“You were a boy then; this was not my house then either.”
Nice to see a lady not intimidated by the man; she had all the answers to his forceful approach.
James led us to the tastefully decorated dining room. There was an antique long dining table with matching chairs in the room. The crafted details were extensive and beautiful. I could not help feeling the texture of a chair back.
“This is the Louis XVI style.” James couldn’t help himself.
“It’s a reproduction, nothing special. I love light coloured furnishings. Dark colours depress me,” Scarlett modestly added.
“Was that the reason that you didn’t want to stay in my place?” James asked.
“Hardly! It was for work; I like to stay near the office. In fact, I might be going back to the Adelaide office soon.”
“Did you hear that? Johnnie, we have to work on some new recipe to impress Scarlett!”
“Don’t waste your time. I never have much free time when working outside of Victoria. I always eat on the go. If I’m lucky I might get enough sleep.”
George poured some wine and raised his glass. “To hard working Scarlett! And to our new guest, Joshua.”
A robot quietly moved into the dining room, skilfully serving us dinner. When it served Scarlett, it politely said: “Hope you like the garlic, I ordered Australian grown garlic instead of the imported ones. I know you don’t like them much, you said they didn’t have much flavour.”
The robot was in the shape of a human, about 160 centimetres high, a slim build with a male’s voice. The most advanced robot I had ever seen. Whoa! Where was I really?
“Thank you! I’ll let you know how my taste buds feel. I like the idea of buying local produce anyway.” Scarlett thanked it with a smile, like she was talking to another person.
James was a good cook. I paid him a compliment. I thought he needed it; after all, it was written all over his face that he badly needed reassurance.
“It’s boeuf bourguignon. It originates from the Burgundy region in France. I used red burgundy, not just any red wine. I chopped the bacon into small cubes so it produces the flavour of the bacon but doesn’t overpower the beef. I purposely chose small mushroom cups, so we can taste the whole mushroom; it won’t fade away in the dish.”
What a speech from James; I could understand why Scarlett was not interested in him. He would make a good trophy husband for some women, working in the medical profession and knowing how to cook well.
“What do you do for a living Joshua,” James asked, with a superior look on his face.
“I’m an instrumentation engineer.”
I saw Scarlett’s and George’s faces light up; James’ was disappointed.
“I’m a magnetic material physicist, Scarlett is a software engineer. We have lots to talk about,” George said.
George requested the robot open a battle of champagne. We talked, drank and laughed. It turned out to be a wonderful birthday for me.
“Your birthday?” Scarlett said in disbelief.
“You’re two years younger than I am.”
After spending many hours together, this was the first time I could really notice Scarlett’s face without being rude. The brownish wavy hair sat nicely on her shoulders and it framed her face well. Her eyes were radiant and dazzling, sparkling with intelligence. She wore a simple dress; it looked feminine on her. She seemed serene, peaceful and confident.
“You have two more years of wisdom than me.”
“Well said, Joshua. Mature men like older women. Older women are smarter, know life better. Our grandma was three years older than our grandpa. They had a great marriage. Before Grandpa was able to earn enough money to support the family, Grandma worked to pay the bills. Grandpa painted and looked after their only child, our mother.”
“It’s common in my office. Alex for one,” Scarlett said.
“It makes sense that her spouse stays at home with the baby. She’s an accountant, right?” James asked.
“Like my grandpa, she works from home.”
Scarlett noticed the puzzlement in my eyes. She explained to me that Alex and her spouse are both Agies; short for Androgynous, partly male and partly female in appearance.
“They were the couple who lost their first child?” James asked.
“That’s right. They chose an environmentally friendly burial – the child’s body was buried in a simple and biodegradable bag under a tree, without building a tomb stone so it didn’t occupy any land, especially farmland.”
“Good for them! As a human, from birth to death, our body is constantly taking from the environment for survival, like inhaling oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide, the foods we eat. After death, the sensible way to bury our body is in the ground in an environmentally friendly way,” James said.
“When our body is decomposed it becomes fertiliser and part of the soil. It is part of a virtuous circle linking humans to the environment. Natural earth burials not only meet this traditional belief but also make a lot of sense ecologically. Natural earth burial is a better way of continuing our life after death. What could be better than becoming a tree after death?
The essence of a tree is to penetrate deep into the soil and draw life from the depths, to build the strength and solidarity of a trunk and to display its fullness against the sky through its branches and foliage which benefit the kingdom of animals including humans by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.”
“Just look at the Perfect!” George said.
We all raised our glasses and George made a toast to the Perfect and the power of nature! “To the power of nature to comfort, guide and inspire our lives. What can the lives of the plants and animals around us teach us about sustainable design in our urban lives? How can we better integrate the natural world into our busy lives? How can the sheer scale of our natural world lend perspective to our everyday concerns?”
“Nature makes us feel small in every sense of the term. If approached with courage, this smallness can be quite soothing. We are, after all, part of a remarkably beautiful and unbelievably complex system. Whenever we do seek to explore the outer wilderness we are in fact struggling to steer our inner wilderness. Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” I said, copying Albert Einstein’s words.
Scarlett looked at me like she was laying her eyes on me for the first time. I saw affable sparks in her eyes. James must have seen that too as he quickly changed the subject.
“Life isn’t fair. In fact, it’s fundamentally unfair. We have delusions that if we work hard and lead decent and honest lives, nothing bad will happen to us. But this isn’t the case. Adversity can strike at any moment, to anyone. No matter how long we lead problem free lives, the truth is that no one gets through their given time on earth without a few shattering events.”
“Exactly, something, somewhere, will go very wrong.” I guess it must have been Scarlett’s approving eyes that gave me the encouragement to speak up. Before I finished my sentence, a bright smile on her face developed, almost like a time lapse of a flower opening to a magnificent bloom in a David Attenborough documentary.
“Not potentially, or incidentally, but necessarily, because of our appalling exposure to error, accident or illness,” I continued. “We have an array of tools to lend confidence with the inevitable difficult moments.” I had to believe what I said; I had no other choice.
“It sounds very daunting.” George looked at me. “Nevertheless our inner confidence would help us to cope with difficulties.”
“Today’s world is wonderful in many ways. The price we pay is also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high level of anxiety and widespread depression,” Scarlett said. “Resilience is the ability to endure or improve difficult situations. Knowing we can bounce back means we’re more comfortable with risk and uncertainty. We’re likely to be more effective. And, to live life to the full, despite the hard hits. But more than this, resilient people arise from adversity stronger and more resourceful. Maybe we should step outside our day-to-day existence and discover our strengths and weaknesses, readjust our values and priorities and control our future aims and goals.”
I had never known anyone with such a keen intellect as Scarlett. I could understand why James was so captivated by her.
“Johnnie,” James said. “When you grow up, get into computer science in university. After you graduate, get into the same company as Scarlett’s and work on the flocking vehicle system. Remember all that?”
“I want to be a doctor, like you, Dad.”
“No, no, not a doctor, a flocking vehicle system specialist.”
“You want to be like your father,” Scarlett softly said to Johnnie, “look after sick people and make them better.”
I could see why Johnnie loved Scarlett so much; she treated him as an equal, not a kid who knew nothing.
“Private practice is not easy; the regulations and restrictions from the government are too complicated for anyone to have a clinic.” James didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps.
“They’re to protect patients and limit medical practitioners’ mistakes,” Scarlett said.
“You are in the right field, James. The promotion of preventive medicine and healthy living is encouraged by the authorities. Health, disease and disability are dynamic processes which begin before an individual realises they are affected. Preventive healthcare consists of measures taken for disease prevention, as opposed to disease treatment. If I were a doctor, I would like to be in your shoes, trained in both clinical medicine and public health, working in a community clinic as a specialist. You will do well, James!”
“Thanks George, you are a good mate!”
The unusually meaningful and revealing conversation almost made me forget I was in an altered world. The world was set up pretty much like the world I was living in, but the ambience was different. I didn’t know how I got here; worst of all was I didn’t know how to get back where I had come from.
Nonetheless, I was among strangers with intellectual minds, having a high standard home cooked meal, drinking good quality wine, and the hostess sitting next to me was an unpretentious lady. Adding all of those things together did sound a bit like a fantasy land.
Little Johnnie was tired. James didn’t want to retire to bed just yet, but his son had tired him out during the day. Although unwilling to make a move, he lifted his son up in the air.
James and Johnnie left while we were still laughing. As soon as they left the dining room, George moved close to me. He lowered his voice, like he didn’t want anyone outside the room to hear what he was going to say to me.
Scarlett seemed to know what George was going to say. I guessed that those two were close; sometimes a few words or an expression is enough to pass on what one is thinking.
“You’re from another place, aren’t you?” George asked.
“I don’t really know what happened.” I searched very hard to find the right words to express myself.
“Try. I am open-minded. Scarlett and I both are.”
I told them that I was actually from that place, Andrew’s place. That it was very different to “now”. That maybe my brain was affected by an unpredictable force. My emotions may have been playing tricks on me, and I may have found it quite hard to deal with reality. However, my description of my experience must have impressed both George and Scarlett for its genuineness.
“You know, two points can be connected to create a line segment. Two parallel line segments can be connected to form a square. Two parallel squares can be connected to form a cube. Two parallel cubes can be connected to form a tesseract. There is a possibility that we have parallel worlds here; something no scientist has an answer for just yet.”
I didn’t know what to say. George’s words seemed the answer. I certainly could not make any more sense of the situation than him. If so, what had caused me to enter another world?
George led Scarlett and I back to the park. I could see that it was the same street as Andrew’s on the way there – the space, the age of the trees and most of the old houses. Only something was quite different but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
There was an old house right next to the park. It looked pretty much the same as I remembered. The unusual crescent shaped building was one of a kind. It had been built before World War II. Andrew had told me that the owner had used Lancefield green stone and what is believed to be meteorite material to build part of the house. When the green stone is freshly broken, it looks greenish but with weathering turns brown within a few years. Where did he get the meteorite materials from? No one had a clue. After he died, his daughter inherited the house. She never married. After her death, the new owner modernised the inside of the house but couldn’t live in it. Andrew told me it was haunted. No one dared to touch the house.
I had looked around outside the house many times, fascinated by its mysterious qualities. I didn’t believe in such thing as ghosts. I would have liked to buy the house to renovate, if the price was right. To own a big house in that area, complete with a refreshed historical outlook and modern indoor comforts, was one of my hands on dream projects.
When we walked passed the house, George said, “I remember Mr. Wilson was a weird person. He often strolled around the park, sometimes with his female companion. She was an architect I’ve been told; don’t know what kind of architect she was though. After Mr Wilson died, the house was vacant for a very long time. The new owner was a teacher; I saw him a couple of times. A rumour was he and his wife broke up, the property went on the market for sale again. Never did see any “For Sale” signs though.”
Ahah, interesting! It was vacant in both worlds, I wondered why?
George continued, building on his theory: “Each year, around this time, for a period of about ten days, the Earth passes through the orbital path of a cluster of asteroids. This can result in meteor showers. When a meteorite falls on Earth, if it is near this house, the crescent shape may focus some of the considerable energy. The unusual construction materials and their arrangement may have some influence. Plus, the old oak tree nearby might modify the electro-magnetic fields. Whatever the case, it appears the normal chaos of the universe becomes momentarily organised and becomes somehow conducive to a time-space event. At that particular place at that particular time, it is very possible that you can be swapped to another parallel dimension of the world – a much hypothesised parallel universe. I know of a physics professor who has been working on a project for awhile now. He apparently has evidence to support his theory that our world split in two, shortly after World War II. In 1947, an iron-based meteorite landed in Russia, at a place called Primorye. Weighed about 23 tons from memory. It was not the heaviest meteorite ever, but it landed after many terrible catastrophes. The world had seen much worse, but maybe that was the way the universe tried to correct itself! When the world split, one of the worlds experienced wide spread loss of life through earthquakes, fire, tsunamis and famines induced by reduced sunlight. Strangely, the other world was left largely unaffected. The parallel worlds kept going as individual worlds. Does that make any sense to you?”
Oh, yes! George’s explanation was good enough for me. For now at least, unless I could come up with something better, which I couldn’t while my brain was still overloaded by my experience.
It was a strange feeling, as I stood in the park, talking to two people who may not have existed in my world. They were so real and I felt so comfortable in their presence, like I had always known them, like they were part of my life.
“If this theory is right, you only have five days to get back to the world that you came from. This meteor shower usually peaks on around April 22; that is the day after tomorrow, your chance to get back should be greatest. If you miss this period, you may have to wait till next April.”
“I would like to stay longer, but it won’t be fair to the cats, there are five of them – I’m cat sitting for someone.”
“Interesting! In that case, I would suggest that you should try as soon as you’re ready. In case it doesn’t work, the more you try the better chance of success.”
I liked George, he seemed competent and experienced. It was hard to believe that James was his best friend; they were like chalk and cheese. Maybe James saw me as a threat and put up a front, ready for the game. There was a saying that love matters are like a game; the better player wins, doesn’t he? Poor James, if only he knew. When a man is interested in a woman and there is an ocean between them, not many men have the endurance to make it to the far shore. When a woman is interested in a man and between them is a little puddle, a big step is all that is needed.
“I would like to know a little more of your world. I’ll try to get back tomorrow, just in time to feed the cats.”
Scarlett immediately said to her wrist watch, “BB, please prepare for Joshua to stay over. After he has gone to bed, get all his clothes cleaned, ready for tomorrow morning. Thank you.”
BB was the robot; it did all the boring jobs around the house. Its master could give orders any time or from any place; it was all wirelessly connected. We might call it the internet of things, but it was far more advanced. It didn’t need wages, sick leave or holidays and it was available 24/7. All it needed was an annual maintenance checkup. You didn’t have to worry about a personality clash nor character flaws. It rarely broke down (but could have occasional software bugs) and was always more reliable than humans. Apparently, they were commonly working in factories, serving in fast food outlets and working in aged care.
Some advanced robots were able to keep an intellectual conversation going, making a good companion to some well-read thinkers. Some were programmed to play with children, some could teach like teachers. It seemed robots could do just about anything and had the ability to learn and adapt as required. Humans programmed the earlier robots, including their ability to learn into their systems. From there, robots could learn from one another and make more sensible decisions as their technology evolved.
While we were in the park, I saw a group of young people sitting on the benches around the table. A spotlight from a nearby gazebo shone on the table. It was a mild autumn night. They were having a good time, talking and laughing, but were well behaved – there were no alcohol or cigarettes in sight.
What were the young people doing wrong in the world I lived in? They didn’t want to be who they were; they wanted to skip the growing up process. Being an adult came with responsibility; drinking alcohol was not one of them.
Why didn’t the people from the world I lived in have any pride? Women’s formal clothes hardly had enough material. Platform high heeled shoes looked ridiculous and dangerous, not to mention they were unhealthy for the feet and bad for the posture.
Our fashion made us look short and stocky; our diet made us fat and repelling. People in this world were much trimmer, dressed respectfully, had happier expressions on their faces and looked much healthier.
We detoured to a nearby shopping street, but most shops were closed at that hour. Through some of the glass windows, I could see robots doing the cleaning or stocking the shelves. Several eating outlets were filled with customers. A couple of specialty shops were still open; they had robots helping with the chores.
We passed a lady, who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. She had very long, straight dark hair and was wearing lots of jewellery around her neck, in her ears and around her wrists. She pointed at Scarlett. There was a mysterious look on her face. “The current stage is quite mobile; you will constantly need to move from place to place to achieve the result.”
Scarlett smiled and politely thanked her. We continued our walk.
Looks like this world had fortune tellers, just like us. What a load of baloney. A month or so prior, Shannon and I had bumped into one. We were walking around the Southgate precinct when a fortune teller stopped us. She said I would see my grandfather and my uncles soon. I had laughed and walked away. My grandfather on my father’s side had died 13 years ago. My mother had lost her father when she was very young. Both my parents were the only child; I didn’t have any uncles or aunts.
Scarlett had the same idea as me; she didn’t take any notice of the fortune teller. There’s no science behind it. It may be fun for an amusing party game. Some people try that on vulnerable and gullible minds, to reap monetary or other benefits. I certainly wouldn’t mould my life around what some psychic had told me.
On the way back to Scarlett’s house, we passed Andrew’s house, number 39. It was built in the early 1900s, in the Victorian era, a defining feature of most houses on that street. The influence of the Queen Anne style was evident, adapted to local building materials and customs. Tudor style woodwork and elaborate fretwork were utilised, replacing the Victorian taste for wrought iron. Verandas were usually a feature, as were the images of the rising sun and Australian wildlife plus circular windows, turrets and towers with conical or pyramid shaped roofs.
Those magnificent houses were listed as historical sites in the world that I lived. You could renovate the inside to be as modern as you liked, but you were not allowed to change the outside of the house. To repair or maintain the outside of the house was often too costly; only the well-to-do people were able to own such properties. In this “perfect” world, the government would take over any house where the owner was unable to keep up housing loan payments or maintenance. In many cases, people continued to live in the same place, paying the government rent. No one was homeless. When the owner of the property died, remaining family members who lived in the property could stay for up to five years or, if later, until they finished their education. No one was able to inherit another person’s property. Scarlett bought her grandfather’s property when he decided to move into a retirement community. Her ownership would terminate if she sold the property or died.
The house at number 39 looked pretty much the same as Andrew’s house except for a large wind chime hanging on the veranda which gave a clear and crisp sound in the soft breeze. There were many pots of flowers lined up under the window sill. A large and muscular Persian cat, with a luxurious white coat, slowly moved its chubby body and short legs, along the veranda floor. That was Fluffy; it lived with a family of five – a couple with three young children. They were both teachers. With the government reward system, they had bought the house a few years ago.
The government recognised that education was the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits. It was about more than an individual’s value, personal development and establishment of an occupation. It was about emphasising the potential, forming a cultural identity, promoting autonomy and society’s general economic development.
A good education system basically needs good quality educators. In this world, only the top high school graduates were able to take the educator’s university entrance exam. They had to pass written and psychological tests. Those who were accepted were not guaranteed to graduate – it was a tough five year course and the most sought after by high school graduates.
Teachers earnt very high wages, plus they received a high level of health insurance and funds to subsidise their housing. They were highly respected people. Society had very little tolerance of their wrongdoing. Job training was ongoing throughout their career.
Philosophy and entrepreneurship were taught as well as the usual subjects like biology, science, physics, history, maths, economics, geography and literature. After one graduated from the compulsory 12 year education, one could choose to do further education. The first university degree or vocational qualification was free.
Taxpayers’ money won’t help those who refuse to grow up or who simply won’t focus on education. Nor would it help anyone who studied one degree after the other; professional students paid their own fees. The system helped those in need, not those looking for a free ride.
Back at Scarlett’s house, when I turned around in front of the fence, I saw Fluffy was following us. Once we stopped, Fluffy came to me. She circled my legs and rubbed her face against my pants. I was surprised; no cat had ever taken such an interest in me before. None of Andrew’s five cats ever showed a liking for me, not like that. They did purr but only when I was brushing their fur. Maybe this Persian cat was much more affectionate than the others.
“Don’t be surprised at just how sharp the senses of a cat are.”
“Hemi told me that, one day out of the blue, Fluffy turned up on the veranda. Where did it come from? Maybe from a place like yours?”
Maybe Fluffy could smell the scent of the other cats on my pants; cats are curious creatures, aren’t they? Could it have come from the same world as me? Why not? I was there, wasn’t I?
I bent down to touch Fluffy. Its fur was long and felt beautiful. There was a noticeable small brown patch on the tip of its short tail. It had a large, broad head and a set of large, round, expressive eyes with a short nose.
“The feeling is mutual, Fluffy,” I said, with an almost apologetic voice. A cat’s hearing range goes up into ultrasonic frequencies. Their nose is extremely sensitive to scents. They have odour sensitive cells in the nostrils. Sometimes they use the nose as a medium to communicate. While they are intelligent creatures, without language, I was not able to get the message from Fluffy.
BB had done a good job to prepare the room for me. The robe, slippers and cleaning and shaving tools were all disposable ones. The room had an ensuite. Next to the basin was a large pot of dracaena; it was bright and healthy. In the bedroom, next to the window, were a couple of pots of mother-in-law’s tongue.
By any standard, Scarlett’s home was outstanding. She must have been very good at what she does; otherwise how could she keep a place like that.
As soon as my head touched the pillow, I had no recollection what happened afterwards. It had certainly been an eventful evening for me. There was so much to take in. I was totally exhausted, physically and mentally.
When I woke up in the morning, my clean clothes were ready for me. Through the window, I saw a cloudy autumn day. Those clouds would clear away by mid-morning; the rest of the day would be sunny. Just the normal weather pattern that I knew, from the world I was born in.
I joined the others in the dining room, where BB was serving breakfast. It was the biggest breakfast I had ever seen – roasted chicken, grilled fish, roasted vegetables and freshly baked bread.
“What a beautiful looking breakfast,” I cried out.
“Thank you,” BB said. “I hope you like the taste too.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said. “How colourful that vegetable platter is.”
“Red pigments found in plant foods protect human blood vessels, cartilage, tendons and ligaments from damage. They have anti-cancer properties. Yellow plant foods contain a large number of antioxidants. Chlorophyll is present in all green plants. It has anti-cancer, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties. Blue plant food is extremely high in anti-oxidant compounds that protect the human body from the damaging effects of free radicals. The indigo and violet plant pigments contain an abundance of natural health promoting compounds. Dark blue and indigo foods can reduce premature aging. The human body is really complicated; great care is needed to maintain it well. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”
I was impressed to see the advanced artificial intelligence could perform useful reasoning, thinking with its electronic brain. BB could serve at the table and at the same time give me nutritional information, without any hesitation or delay, just to be friendly to a guest.
On seeing my surprise, BB continued, “I downloaded all that information a while ago to assist with the cooking. Anything you need to know, just ask.”
The food was delicious, although untouched by human hands. As BB explained, the dinner the previous night was French cuisine and the breakfast this morning was Australian cuisine. I gave my compliments to both chefs. What I didn’t say was the French food was delicious and the Australian food was morish. They were both good.
While we were having breakfast, Scarlett asked Johnnie, “Do you miss kindergarten?”
“I do. Can’t wait to get back. I like question time.” Johnnie’s eyes were bouncing with joy.
“Who asks the questions?”
“Everyone. Sometimes Miss Whitehead, sometimes the girls and boys.”
“Who gives the answers?”
“Anyone who knows the answer.”
“Tell me one question that you like the most.”
“Why can’t we fly like flies?”
“What’s the answer?”
“Because we don’t want to be swatted.”
“Was that your teacher’s answer?”
“No! That was David’s answer. I liked his better than anyone else’s.”
I was surprised at how well three year old Johnnie could speak. He spent the whole day in childcare, so his father, who was a single parent, was able to work.
After breakfast, little Johnnie took a bag of cut fruit, prepared by BB. He and James were going back to Adelaide and George was going back to Sydney; they were going to the airport together. It had been a pre-arranged get–together; more for the guys than Scarlett.
Scarlett needed to visit her office branch in Brighton. “I won’t be there very long. Normally I don’t go to the office on weekends, only when there’s some issue. I’ll be free after the problem is solved. I’ll show you around for the rest of the day.”
“How come you never take time off to show me around?” James jokingly complained.
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”
How I wish I could have a quick mind like Scarlett. Often when I thought of an answer, it was too late to say it. I missed many opportunities to have a say. I thought it might have been because I had been working with electronics for too long; I had lost the skill to mingle with people. Scarlett proved to me that I was wrong.
Before departing, George shook my hand and looked into my eyes. “Pleased to meet you. Good luck with everything. Hope we’ll meet again.”
“What did I miss here?” James looked at George, then Scarlett, then me and back to George again.
“Did you ever miss anything?” Scarlett raised her eyebrow.
“That’s true, nothing escapes me.”
Phew, that’s settled.
I took the opportunity and asked Scarlett to drop me off on North Road, somewhere near Booran Road. Scarlett handed me some money, she said in case I needed to buy a drink. The notes were a similar size to a credit card, in bright colours, easy to spot and keep in the wallet or pocket.
Scarlett pressed the button on her wrist band and said, “Corner of North and Booran Roads please”. Almost immediately the car automatically reversed out from the garage. The car was tiny; I was surprised at first glance. A classy, skilfully designed interior took my breath away. I was amazed by the cabin space once I sat in the low, sculptured seat.
It was Saturday morning, the busiest morning of the week. Scarlett had no trouble joining the peak hour traffic.
Most of the cars on the road were small electric vehicles. Some “drivers” were reading, doing their makeup, talking on the phone – all unbelievably crazy. Even Scarlett was tapping away on her wrist band; her eyes not looking at where the car was going. My anxiety settled within a couple of minutes when Scarlett explained that it was what James had talked about, the “flocking vehicle system”.
It’s called autonomous drive, part of the major road flocking system. It cut down driving frustration, road rage, traffic jams and road accidents, improved energy efficiency and at the same time provided a guaranteed travel time. The vehicles use sensors, such as cameras, mini-radars and, where possible, communication with other vehicles and road side infrastructure. This enables cars to select and merge with a flock that is heading in the right direction and then to leave the flock or transfer to another flock as required. Amazingly, flocks don’t seem to ever stop – their speed is adjusted to ensure different flocks are kept well separated. The travel speed is probably only about 55 kph maximum but because they have a clear run the journey time seems short, especially while browsing the news! Shortly before leaving the flocking system, drivers would receive a warning signal, indicating some attention may be required.
The gaps between flocking cars were very small compared to my world, maybe 500 millimetres maximum with the occasional light nudge to be expected. Small cars pay a minimum annual fee; large cars are charged according to size.
The car ride was smooth, quiet, comfortable and relaxing. There was a slide-bench, which you could pull out from the dashboard to use as a desk or dining table. I was told the steering wheel was optional, but most cars had a small joystick on the armrest. An information panel provided journey, climate control and other data for those interested. All in all it was pretty impressive.
A soprano singing some opera songs was on the radio. I had never been an opera fan. Listening to anyone singing in a foreign language was not my cup of tea. My one and only experience with opera was attending La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago. I wanted to experience it in one of the most famous modern opera houses in the world. I enjoyed it at the time but, afterwards, I knew I wouldn’t miss not seeing it again.
“This is Clovy Presley. She is so talented. She was discovered by an Italian opera singer who took her under her wings.” Obviously Scarlett was an opera fan. She suddenly stopped talking when she sensed her companion was indifferent. The subject very quickly switched to the singer’s family background.
Clovy Presley was Elvis Presley’s only daughter. Her mother was a celebrity chef who Elvis met while working in Las Vegas. They called him the king of racy rock. No doubt someone as talented as he was would make it in any world, no matter what. He was still performing at public events as a guest star at the age of 85. A different lifestyle and environment certainly had different results.
The car had already left the flock and pulled over to let me get off at the corner of North Road and Booran Road. Seconds later, Scarlett’s car was in the flocking system again. I was really astonished.
I looked around, trying to find some evidence, hoping to see any connection at all. My grandfather’s house was no longer there. It had been an old house. The site had become part of commercial shops. It was a prosperous business precinct. There were a chemist, boutiques, stores selling shoes, underwear, childrenswear, menswear and many more.
The street size was the same as the world I came from, but now it looked far more prosperous.
The mannequin in the window of the menswear store wore burgundy coloured pants and a cream coloured long sleeve shirt. Different, I thought.
“Would you like to try them? They would be nice on you; navy blue is too heavy for you. Good to lighten up a bit.”
A lady poked her head around the doorway. So early?
“I have other colours. They are new season stock, came in two days ago. Our own Australian designer. We have it before the rest of the world. Parisians couldn’t get enough of our stock; we’ve sold more in Paris than any other city.”
“People must love Australian designs.”
“More than just love, they are absolutely nuts about it. I remember when I was a young girl, I saw the news on television and people were queuing up in the department store in New York to buy the first arrival of Australian designed clothing. That influenced me a great deal.”
“Are you a fashion designer?”
“As a matter of fact, I did design a few of the pieces here. Come inside, I’ll show you.”
“Next time, when I need to update my wardrobe, I’ll remember your shop. Now all I need is a cup of coffee.”
She smiled graciously. “The other side of the street has a café; they have the best coffee.”
I thanked her and continued strolling along the shopping strip.
At a hair salon, there were three framed photographs in the window – a red-haired lady, a fair-haired man and a dark-haired face which could be either female or male, that’s Agie. Inside the salon, four staff were working on four different customers. One customer walked out as I walked past. I heard someone say, “Thank you, see you tomorrow.”
There were many buckets of flowers in front of the florist shop. A slim man gave me a blue rose stem.
“They are paid for – two dozen blue roses. She told me to give away one at a time, to men only.”
“Thank you, what a nice lady.”
“Nice is not the world I would choose. She ordered them for their anniversary. She called this morning, said she doesn’t need them anymore. I sensed the hatred in her voice. Watch out when a woman is full of emotion, no matter what kind of emotion.”
“You sound like an expert.”
“Three ex-wives only proved that I am an idiot. Soon to be a groom again proved that I’ve learnt nothing from my own experiences. Expert? Far from it.”
“I have never known a man who has had three divorces.” I shook his hand. “You must finally have found your match!”
“Because I don’t know you, I can tell you the truth – I never once wished to marry any of those women. I like to be free, do whatever I like. Marriage suffocates me. Yes, I loved all those women, each one of them, no one was more important than the others. Women are a different kind of creature; you can’t live with them, but you would be dead without them.”
“Why did you propose to them?”
“Are you joking? I propose? I am not that stupid, they proposed to me! If I had said no, they would have walked away from me immediately.”
“I can see your dilemma.”
“I knew you would understand me.”
He reminded me of a guy I knew in university, a real playboy who fell in love with every girl he came across. OK, maybe not every single one of them but pretty close. I suppose playboys can’t be too choosy; how could they be a playboy otherwise?
Two doors down was a bakery, with a small coffee bar. I thought I had better take the lady’s advice and give the best coffee a go.
While I was passing a vet clinic, a young lady rushed out, running up to me. I turned around to have a look. She was disappointed when she saw my face. I guessed that she thought I was someone else. Sorry that my face disappointed her.
A large shop front caught my attention. It was called “Coliseum franchise chains”. It sold posters, books, gadgets and clothing. A short and slim lady with a theoretical style of clothing welcomed me as I walked into the shop.
“You are new in this area; are you from outer space?”
For a moment, I was stunned. I tried very hard to search for some words to say.
She waved her hands and laughed out loud. “I’ve never stepped out of Victoria in my whole life. Anyone from interstate or overseas is no different to me than someone coming from outer space.”
What a relief.
“Nice shop,” I said.
“Yes. It’s my daughter’s. I’ve been working for her for the past 12 years.”
“She’s lucky to have your help.”
“The other way around; I’m the lucky one. I never had her strength. Twenty-five franchise shops in Victoria. Now she’s even thinking of expanding interstate.”
“Clever business lady.”
“Are you married?”
“No, I’m not.”
Her eyes opened wide. She held up her hand, giving me the signal to “wait”. I watched her walk away to the back of the shop, her tinsel wig flapping in the air. It was nice to see her agility for her age. Looking around the shop, I saw all different coloured tinsel wigs, similar clothes to the one the woman wore and even similar costume jewellery. There was a large poster on the wall of a young singer shouting and dancing. The shop lady was copying her image, wearing what she sold. Celebrity worship is not part of my nature. I had a strong feeling that I would walk out of that shop, as soon as the shop lady returned.
She came back with a photo, handing it to me with a big hopeful smile. I saw a sophisticated lady looking at me.
“What do you think?”
I was thinking that if I saw the shop lady on the street, I would think she’s not a full bottle. She would blend in in the world where I was from. Old ladies wore tight leggings to accentuate the shape of their legs, which were better off covered up in every case. They displayed their wrinkled and freckled low cleavage; pretty degrading to the old ladies’ dignity. Even with young ladies, a bit of modesty goes a long way. Leaving things to the imagination is far more attractive then unsubtle seduction.
“She’s in Sydney at the moment, will be back tomorrow night. You two can have a drink to get to know each other first.”
“She seems really nice, but I’m leaving tonight.”
“Ah, when are you coming again?”
“I don’t know.”
“I really like you. I am intuitive; I know you would be good for my daughter. Every good marriage I know of was a result of matchmaking by the parents. Parents know their own children’s strengths and weaknesses, they are not emotionally involved, they can see clearer.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more; it’s my loss.”
I couldn’t leave fast enough from Coliseum. Matchmaking may be the best thing for marriage in that world but it certainly was not for me. The pressure from Shannon caused a negative vibe; no way would I back down any sooner.
There was a crossover bridge, in between the two sets of traffic lights, for all pedestrians to cross the street.
On the bridge, standing above the traffic, watching the flocking system working peacefully, I felt strange and odd. There I was trying to look for my grandfather’s old house, to search for some sense of identity. I was hoping that the old house would give me some indication, some sort of evidence of what had happened.
I didn’t know how to spend the next two hours before the time Scarlett had promised to pick me up. I could sit down and drink some coffee or walk around to exercise my legs, take a good look of that world and see what the differences were compared with mine.
“Hello Jerry.” A man walked towards me. “How are you today?” As he got closer to me, “Oh sorry, I thought you were Jerry.”
That’s interesting. I looked like a man named Jerry.
I got to the other side of the road. At the end of the staircase was an electronic and technology shop. I couldn’t help myself; I walked in with enthusiasm, really keen to find out what this world had to offer.
The best finds were gadgets which were operated by voice, saving the time and trouble to remember passwords. I didn’t know how many times I had tried to remember a password, ending up with a frustration that I didn’t need.
They called mobile phones “handy phones”; you could activate an alarm that only allowed you to handle the phone. If anyone else tried to pick up your phone, it would send out an electronic shock to stop the unwanted hand.
A wrist watch could sense the body’s needs through skin contact. It would warn you if you were dehydrated, stressed or tense so you could take a break from whatever was causing the problem to give your body a chance to relax.
I stopped browsing. I thought that I’d come back to the shop after I looked around the place more and had my coffee.
I walked towards the café that had the best coffee in the area. Saw a group of people, mostly older, sitting outside the café. One of them spotted me; they all turned around and stared at me. Yeah, I said to myself, they all think that I look like Jerry. I gave them a smile in acknowledgement.
Just before I entered the café, one man spoke to me. “What’s your name young man?”
“Brown, Joshua Brown.”
“Come and sit with us, Joshua.”
“Alright, let me get a coffee first.”
“Come and sit down, I’ll fix that.”
The man was the youngest around the table; he might have been the one who spotted me. He pulled a chair up. I sat down, right next to him.
“I’m Ralph.” He shook my hand. “These are all my family; we are Brown too.”
Ralph introduced the man sitting next to me on the left as his Grandpa Alan. He had a dark patch on his right ear lobe. Oh yes, there was no mistake, he was my grandpa too. To be able to set right next to my grandpa, to see him still alive in this world, how wonderful was that? I held my tongue, tried to maintain a level head. I didn’t want to say a wrong word or upset anyone, although I did want to hug him; that was what I needed the most at that moment. I took an unconventional approach, in that unconventional situation. My emotions were on edge and the slightest wrong move may have caused a problem. I tried my best to keep my cool; emotional stability was the key to concentration in my state of mind.
Did Grandpa feel something or did my expression give me away? He extended his hand and held onto mine. “Where did you come from Joshua?” He had a firm grip. My throat was dry. I held his hand with both of mine.
I didn’t know how to answer Alan’s question. I was worried about the consequences and focussed on his hand shake. A very powerful current of understanding and harmony flowed between the two of us. Almost like it was reinforcing the strong bond that already existed between us. There was tranquillity and pleasure. I felt so privileged to be holding his hand.
Ten years ago, in my world, a drunk driver without a licence hit and killed my grandpa. As a child I had spent a lot of time with my grandpa. He had taught me how to kick a football, how to throw a basketball. He was my instructor when I was learning how to drive a car. He showed me lots of carpentry skills. He even let me have my own vegetable patch in his backyard. Two years later Grandma died from loneliness. I lost my nursery singer, a peace maker with a positive and happy outlook.
Right there and then, how I wish I could hold onto Grandpa’s frail body, and tell him how much I missed him. Dad and Mum both worked, so their busy lives brought me closer to my grandparents. Who needed siblings? I had had my grandparents.
“You can let go of my hand; I really like you too.” Alan calmly pat me on the shoulder.
I always loved Grandpa’s sense of humour. There were tears in my eyes when I laughed.
The coffee arrived. I quickly reached for my cup to cover my emotion.
Across the table, I saw my father Don. My heart beat so fast, almost made me spill the coffee. His eyes were half closed, and his eyebrows were raised. It showed that he was wondering who I was. He looked pretty much the same to me. Maybe a shirt size smaller, with more hair on top?
A lady walked out of the café and went to Don. She started talking to him but suddenly stopped when she spotted me.
“Well, for a second I thought…” She didn’t finish her sentence.
“You thought Jerry was the only handsome boy around!” Alan said.
She laughed in a nervous way. Maybe my presence had stunned her.
“I’m Don, Alan’s first born. This is my wife Joy. On my left is my next brother Peter; on my right is my youngest brother Tom. This café is our family business.”
Joy’s appearance was pretty much like that of my mother: ladylike, well groomed, a tidy dresser, soft spoken, big eyes with a gentle smile.
“Ready to go.” A lady’s voice came from the gadget on the table, amongst the cups and mugs.
Peter and Tom got up from their chairs and walked into the café. Joy walked behind them.
“A bit early this morning, got a big order?” Alan asked.
“Patterson’s CEO’s daughter is getting married today. It’s a garden party, a big order. I dropped most of the food to them early this morning. Tom is going to send the rest of them by IADS.” Don turned to me. “We love IADS, couldn’t do business without it.”
I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Don, noting my ignorant look, signalled me to follow him. We walked into the café. Inside could easily seat about 50 or 60 people. A couple of tables were occupied by customers. Behind the front dining area, there was a huge kitchen. Many people were working; it was in organised chaos.
Don led me to a room, fitted with computers, screens, cameras and electronic systems. Peter and his son, Hermon, were busily working away.
“They are organising the delivery with IADs. IADs stands for Instant Aerial Delivery System. It consists of a small fleet of helicopter drones and the gear in this control room. There’s some good engineering behind it that I don’t really understand. We can load up to five kilos of product per flight and it is delivered to the customer’s drop point up to three kilometres away. Occasionally we have problems, but by and large it has been very dependable over the last six or so years we have been using it.”
“The system navigates the drone to the customer’s drop point and when close, the drone’s cameras look for a target marker that identifies the customer and the precise location to leave the goods. The customer can print the reusable marker or we can send them one when they register with us. The customer receives notice on their handy phone of the exact arrival time. We have had problems with dogs attempting to eat our goods, so we prefer the customer to greet the drone. IADS also connects to the customer via camera and microphone so staff here at the café can easily communicate with the customer, and keep an eye on the process. The sensor on the drone helps it to avoid other objects when flying. We can send many drones in the same direction without worrying about collisions.”
Don was obviously very enthusiastic about IADS and continued: “They save man power and travelling time which means less stress and more time for leisure and recreation. It’s a win-win situation for both our customers and the business.”
Alan had three sons, three daughters-in-law, six grandsons and five grand-daughters-in-law. There were three computer software experts amongst them; the rest of the members could handle computers very well too.
I asked if they had all taken special training in computers.
“They don’t need special training; what they learn from school is good enough. Hermon and Eugene are the same age. They started to build their own computers when they were boys. Janet is different. When she was working in our café during the school holidays, she and Ray became good friends. She picked up computer science in university. Ever since then she’s contributed a lot to our system.”
A large part of Brown’s Cafe’s business was supplying shops, markets and stores. Pastries, cakes and bread were their specialties.
I was very impressed with their set up, even more impressed with the whole family working together and supporting each other. Their success not only created a successful business but a close knit family.
Mary called me to the outside table and gave me another cup of coffee and a plate of sliced bread. “You can look around later. First, have something to eat. If you like it toasted, I’ll toast it for you. But it’s best to eat when it’s so fresh. Why don’t you try it first?”
That’s my grandmother alright, always looking after everyone’s wellbeing. Made sure everyone ate a proper meal before going out or after coming in.
I gave Mary a big hug and thanked her. Her eyes were full of joy. “You are welcome; you are so much like my grandson Jerry.”
“Even the mannerism,” Alan added. “You and Jerry look like brothers.”
“Strangely enough, I feel like you are one of my own,” Mary said.
How I wish I could tell them who I was; maybe one day when I was able to figure out what was really going on. At that moment, my mind was very alert, and my intuition sharp and accurate. I knew if I said anything wrong, I would lose them. I had to keep the good vibes going.
“You must be a good cook.” I had to say something, anything to move the subject away from my resemblance to Jerry.
“My mother received many gourmet chef awards in the prime of her life,” Don proudly said.
“You do look like a lady that’s very good at everything she does,” I said.
Don laughed. “Well said, Joshua. This bread is one of many of my mother’s ideas; pomegranate and blackberry with yam. It’s one of our best-selling breads of all time.”
“It’s a really good bread. Hard crust, spongy centre with a bite to it. Tasted a hint of the pomegranate’s sourness and the blackberry’s sweetness. Looked very inviting with red and black dots in every single slice.” I meant every word I said.
“You even talk like one of us,” Peter said.
“I can smell the mystery.” Ralph, my supposed cousin, who was sitting on my right-hand side, looked at Don and lifted up his chin as if to say “see?”
Again, Don had one eye half closed, one eyebrow raised. I knew it showed that he was thinking. I stood up before he started to ask me any questions and thanked all of them for their hospitality.
“Don’t be a stranger, come and see us sometime,” Alan said.
“I’ll try,” I said to Alan. Mary handed me a loaf of the bread that I liked. “Come back to see us again, would you?” She put her hand on my shoulder, gave me a little pat, like she did every time I said goodbye in the past. I turned around and gave her a hug. I did not dare to hug her as strongly as I would have liked. After all she would be a centenarian in another two years.
If I was able to return, hopefully I could tell them the whole truth. I would have liked to spend lots of time with my grandparents and to get to know all my uncles and cousins.
Unwillingly, I left Brown’s Café, with a feeling of more than just happiness. It was an unbelievable experience; to see my deceased grandparents again gave me that “on top of the world” feeling. I wanted to shout aloud, “My Grandpa and Grandma are here!”
As I walked away, many times I turned around and looked at them. They were looking at me too. We waved – that was a “wish I could stay” sort of wave on my part.
When I was on the pedestrian crossing bridge, I stood there for a few seconds. I could see clearly that Alan and Mary were standing side by side, holding hands, facing my direction. They must have felt something deep inside their hearts like me. I lifted my hand in the air as a goodbye and whispered to myself, “Please Grandpa and Grandma, wait for me, I’ll try to be here again.” I saw them raise their hands in the air too. Tears were running down my face. I wasn’t feeling sad, really, I was deeply moved.
Standing at the corner of North Road and Booran Road, I tried hard to pull myself together. I didn’t want Scarlett to see me overwhelmed by emotion. There were so many theories and unknowns that needed to be solved. The last thing I should be caught up with was my personal feelings.
I noticed many electric recharging stations on the street. The atmosphere was much cleaner, the surrounds less noisy. I couldn’t see any petrol stations anywhere.
Shortly, Scarlet arrived and picked me up. Before the automatic seat belt was fastened, she asked, with a big grin on her face, “Exhilarating experience?”
“You could say that.”
Respecting my reluctance to talk, she restrained herself from further questions. What a well-mannered and appropriate lady she was. That set me at ease.
Scarlett looked at the Brown’s Café’s paper bag I was holding and smiled sweetly. “You haven’t even been here for a day, and already you’ve got your hands on the best bread in Melbourne.”
“Is that so? It tasted great. I’ve never had bread made from yams before today.”
“Yams are common here. Would you like to see one of the yam farms? In the past 10 years, they’ve become a tourist attraction. Yams have been an Indigenous staple food for thousands of years. Now, they are using their handed-down experience plus modern technology to become a big business.”
“Is it a government project?”
“Oh no, they’re totally private enterprises. All the yam farms in Victoria are owned by Indigenous families, but not everyone working on the farms is Indigenous. Alex, my friend you met yesterday, she’s one eighth Indigenous.”
“I couldn’t tell she has Indigenous blood.”
“We’ve been friends since high school. Often people mistake us for sisters. She has two brothers. One is married to a full blood Indigenous, another one is engaged to a Dutchman. She works for the yam farm we are going to as an agriculture specialist.”
The Indigenous people have been treated fairly well in “the perfect world”. The government pays the fees for private tuition if students need it, from as young as kindergarten up to university. Living quarters are connected to school by public transport. Some have 24/7 supervisors keeping an eye on the young students. If the family is willing to move to be closer to the school, the government helps pay their relocation expenses; in some cases, even providing accommodation. They have hands on job training for the parents. Students have the same privileges, regardless of their ancestry. Schools provide free health and medical services. The government recognised that education is the key to preparing future generations; providing help in places of need is the way to solve the problems.**
Earthbound Farm had a bright and colourfully wild entrance, with Indigenous art on the double gates. A sign read: “We do not own the land; the land owns us.” The car turned and drove through the gates. Both side of the driveway had native plants – Kangaroo Paw, Fairy Bells, Aussie Mates, Silver Princess, Banksia…. behind them were fences covered with Indigenous paintings.
“I thought Indigenous people don’t believe in fencing,” I commented.
“This farm is about 1,000 acres. It sits near an urban area, is surrounded by other farms, has walking tracks and is open to the public. To protect their produce, fencing is a must; not only to keep unwanted people out but animals too.”
That made sense! In the perfect world, the Indigenous people had the same opportunities like all others. They had the chance to learn that it was necessary to protect themselves like all of us.
Three hundred metres away stood a group of dome-shaped buildings, covered with grass and a mud like building material, with native plants dotted here and there, forming a neat and tiny village. The buildings were used as an information centre. Next to the village was a car park that could easily park 30 to 40 cars. It was about noon and the car park was half full. Between the car park and the village, a sign read: “The land is food, our culture, our spirit, and our identity.”
The information centre had lots of different videos covering many different subjects, like Indigenous history and philosophy, the local land and yam farm history, yam farming and harvesting procedures. I could have spent a few days there going through all that they provided for the visitors. Visitors were able to plug their handy phone into some of the videos and copy the information, but they weren’t compatible with my phone. There were some simple cartoon style drawings for the young ones who couldn’t read and some photos for tourists who couldn’t read or understand English.
There was no entrance fee, nor sales of any kind. Every weekday around 12pm, the information centre provided hot roasted yams for visitors, which showed the owner’s sharing spirit towards the public.
A tall, trim and muscular Indigenous man came over and said hello to Scarlett. He was the son of the owner. I told him of my admiration of the yam farm. He was most happy to tell me that if I visited the Top End, not to miss the Plum Spring Farm up there. Its main plantation was Kakadu plums.
“Kakadu plums are abundant in the eucalypt woodlands of the northern open country. My people have valued them for thousands of years, for its food and medicinal properties. The phenomenally high vitamin C content in Kakadu plums is 50 times more than oranges. The rise of international interest has resulted in opportunities for Indigenous owned businesses.”
“How many farms do your family own?” I asked.
“This yam farm is the only farm our family owns. One of our workers is looking for a suitable place somewhere in Victoria; he and his family want to start their own yam farm. Once it starts, I’ll go and give them a hand. It would be good for a new farm to be established from scratch.”
We had so much to learn on many levels from the Indigenous people; sharing in such a way is what humanity desperately needed in “my” world.
Entry to the walking tracks was through the information centre; they called them “song-lines”. Long before Europeans set foot on the Australian continent, hundreds of clan groups that extended across the land were linked by networks of song containing aspects of cultural heritage, mythology and identity. It could be interpreted as a network or a dreaming track. It offered an insight into the life and culture of Indigenous Australians, as important to the daily existence as the ceremonial trade routes and the stories that described the Australian landscape.
Visitors have to agree not to walk off the song-lines’ tracks before being able to open the gate. The gate was unlocked by holding your palm against a sensor and you left in the same manner. It made it easy for the farm’s staff to track who came and went.
I wanted to look at how they managed the crops without having a degrading impact on the environment, without fertilisers or pesticides, and without the need for irrigation. Indigenous people have the attitude of “leave the land as you found it”. They grew yams by using stone tools to minimally turn the soil and highly functional machines to plough, plant, harvest, separate grades, wash and store the yams.
Walking on the song-lines would have to wait until my next visit. My mind was still anxious about how to get back to the world that I belonged.
Scarlett was most understanding about my anxiety. We headed back to her home.
“Where I come from,” I said, “across most of the world, ecosystems are in decline, particularly in areas with high human population density and extensive habitat destruction. I would like all Australians to appreciate the care given to our land by those who value it, the benefits we all gain from that care, and to support those who seek to maintain our natural inheritance. We can’t live well on the land unless we understand it and value it.”
“Society is moulded by the people living in it; it’s been re-shaped again and again, deliberately or unintentionally, skilfully or incompetently,” Scarlett replied.
“You have an incredible, analytical mind.”
“Shall I take that as a complement?”
“Absolutely,” I cried out. “If I am able to get back to my world, I might never see you again. I know I shouldn’t but I want to tell you how I feel. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to let you know that the best thing I got from coming to your world was getting to know you, because you lift up my standards, you showed me the best qualities of humankind.”
Scarlett stopped the car on the road side and turned and faced me. She held my hand. I saw tranquillity in her eyes, a serene smile on her face.
“Joshua, those are really kind words, thank you. What I want to say to you is this: how I wish you and I were living in the same world.”
I felt peaceful. Strangely enough I thought falling in love was supposed to raise the heartbeat, shorten the breath, make palms sweaty and one lose their calm. None of those happened to me. I guess they are basic animal mating instincts, only a shallow physical reaction. Instead I felt emotionally secure. It must have been because of Scarlett’s transparent character. What I loved the most was her unpretentiousness.
She put some pressure on my hand and said, “We have to get back. You better have something to eat before you go. Your brain needs fuel to help you to think and to make the right decisions.”
Her warmth immediately wrapped around me like a cocoon. In that instance, I almost wanted to stay in this perfect world. Then I thought of my parents, the project I was working on at the office and the duty I had taken on to look after the cats. I knew I had no right to stay, no matter how much I wanted to.
“There is clearly no room for sentiment right now. I’m trying to maintain a level head in all directions. I need to be realistic and understand that there are limits that I can’t cross. I know I’m not invincible.”
“Loosen your harness a little; that could do wonders for you!” Scarlett always knew what to say and always hit it on the spot.
It was difficult to comprehend at that moment. I didn’t know what would happen to me. Was I able to get back to the world that I came from? Would I be able to see Scarlett again?
That was not the ideal time for me to think of anything but focus on how to get back. I was judging my situation, trying hard not to withdraw into myself in order to find solutions, and not to look for help from outside.
After a bagel sandwich, I thanked BB for looking after me.
“You are welcome. Would you like me to prepare some snacks to take with you on the road?”
“No thanks BB, I’m fine.”
“I hope so.”
Scarlett put her hand on BB’s shoulder and facing it said, “Oh, BB you are worried about Joshua.”
“I can sense his anxiety.”
I thought I was pretty calm and handling everything very well. Obviously I was not. I looked at Scarlett; she looked back at me with a smile. Without a word between us, we walked out of the house together. It was time for me to try to get back.
“If I can, I will try to come back.” I held onto her hands.
“That would be lovely.” She gave my hands a squeeze.
I asked her to go back home. I would try to see what I could do. Watching Scarlett walk away, I felt warmth in my heart. I called out “Scarlett!”
Scarlett turned around, her mahogany brown hair bouncing on her head and shoulders. She looked so lovely under the afternoon sun. I knew that I would never be able to get that exquisite image of her out of my mind. She ran to me. We gave each other a big hug, again. I wanted so badly to say to her “I am going to stay.” Instead I insisted she leave me in the park alone.
It took me a while to settle down emotionally. Once Scarlett was out of sight, I strolled under the Perfect. Every now and then a few people walked in the park but no one really took notice of me. When I got tired of standing and walking, I sat down on the roots of the Perfect for a while. Nothing happened. I don’t know how long I was there. I was pretty bored, thought maybe I should pay the unusual crescent shaped house a visit.
It was a solid building, well built. Definitely uncommon. Extraordinary? Yes! Strange? No! Rare? Yes! Abnormal? No! Oddly, I really liked it. It was spacious, had high ceilings, three unusually large living areas and three double bedrooms; the smallest one was bigger than the lounge in our rented flat. The updated kitchen and bathrooms were much nicer and far better than the flat’s too. Clearly someone had renovated it years ago. Everything was still almost brand new. After a thorough dusting and mopping, it would make a very roomy and comfortable home for some family. The fact that no one was living in it was a pity. What a waste of a good property.
I heard a noise from the kitchen pantry, almost like a strong wind blowing, but outside it was a mild autumn day. The leaves hung on the tree branches without any movement, enjoying the last days of sunshine before their final call to fall.
Odd, I thought. I opened the pantry door, couldn’t believe what I saw. Except for the pantry door, the pantry was as old as the building itself. Some shelves were missing, some shelves were rotten and an old fashioned light bulb hung from the ceiling. I was puzzled; why would a renovator leave the pantry out? It was an unusually large size for a pantry. Like the rest of the house, it was pretty roomy and spacious; unlike the rest of the house, it was run down and in ruin. Not a big deal, I thought. If I owned the place, I would replace all the shelves myself and give the pantry a coat or two of paint; it was only a weekend’s work. That would lift this place, I was sure.
Walking into the pantry, I put my hand on a shelf. All I felt was thick dust. My mind was running faster than I could concentrate. I stepped under the light bulb in the centre of the pantry. Suddenly I felt an intense cold all over me, a radiant cold, like radiant heat from a roaring fire, but in reverse; it sapped my energy and mental capacity so quickly I felt the need to lie down on the floor or even better, to step out of it! Pop, I willed myself to step forward but all I managed was to fall on the floor before me.
Back to my world
I picked myself up. Phew, I had got my energy and mental capacity back. It had been unlike anything I had ever experienced; it had all happened within a short second or two. I didn’t want to go through that bizarre occurrence ever again. Trying to avoid the centre of the room, I carefully walked close to the shelves until I reached the door.
When I turned back to face the room, I couldn’t believe my eyes once more. It was a totally different pantry, not the one I had walked into moments ago. This one had been partially renovated with laminated shelves. Half of the room was bare; it looked like an unfinished job.
Unexpectedly, I realised that I might be out of The Perfect World, but was I back to my own world yet? Could it be yet another world?
Quickly, I walked towards the front door. After opening the door and seeing disfigured trees and messy overhead electrical wires, I knew I was back to normality. Oh boy, did I feel good.
Once my concerns eased, I took time to look around the house. The structure and setting of the house were the same. This one was dated, although still in a pretty good condition. It just needed some tender loving care because it has been vacant for too long.
Walking back to Andrew’s house, I saw Shannon sitting on the fence, not a welcome sight. What did Shannon want this time? I had had enough. All I needed was a rest before I could do anything else. I didn’t want to think about anything, I didn’t want to talk about anything; I certainly didn’t want to deal with relationships, particularly with Shannon.
Oh Shannon, Shannon, stop your pretentious act. Go and bother some other guy, I am not in the mood, please leave me alone.
“I’ve been calling you, why didn’t you answer your phone?” she asked.
“I was in another world, unable to answer.”
Shannon is the kind of person who would never believe anything you said, so why should you tell her the truth? She wouldn’t believe you anyway.
“Where were you anyway? What have you been doing the whole day? Where did you go?”
There was still some dried food left in the bowls. I felt better, at least the cats hadn’t been hungry. Andrew had told me to leave more dried food in their bowls, just in case I couldn’t get back to feed them on time for the following meal. Good advice indeed.
After I fed the cats, I took a rubbish bag and started to clean the house.
“Talk to me, Joshua!”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“Today is Saturday. We always spend weekends together, remember?”
She had forgotten that she had agreed to leave me alone this weekend. I had no intention to talk to her, so I said, “You can clean up the mess you and your friends made. I’m going to bed to have a long sleep.”
“You can’t go to bed to sleep, it’s Saturday night. Let’s go out. How about we go someplace to have a nice dinner?”
“I’ve already eaten. I’m not hungry, just tired, I need my sleep. You can do whatever you like, but first clean up the mess you created.”
She followed me to the bedroom. “What’s wrong with you? Being bull-headed again? Are you trying to test my patience again?”
My emotions were somewhat out of control, like a forest on fire. Luckily, I was still able to retain a certain degree of reason which was restraining me from bursting out in a fit of anger. She was the kind of person living an adventure without a tomorrow. I, on the other hand, liked to put my time and energy to good use in order to construct a sincere and solid relationship.
“I have had to compromise and make concessions for you, and it turns out to be full of frustration for me. You have no respect for rules and the truth. If you can’t have your way, it’s because I am bull-headed.”
“Don’t be a baby. Come on, let’s go somewhere and have a nice dinner, you’ll feel better.”
Shannon hadn’t heard a word I was saying. She didn’t really care. She thought that if she was in denial about something, no one could blame her for doing it. I could no longer stand her lack of courage and honesty. It prevented an open discussion. Instead, my lips were sealed and my questions left buried inside me. Gradually my subconscious mind had built a wall to protect myself by detachment. Romantic encounters with Shannon proved to be deceiving. I realised that this situation needed my foot on the brake!
Turning 30 and travelling to The Perfect World had transformed my hesitation into positive action. I must turn my back on an unhappy Shannon and close my eyes.
I woke up around 2am with a refreshed mind. The first images that popped into my mind were of Grandpa and Grandma. I could still feel the hugs from Grandma. It brought a feeling of contentment.
Hold on a second. My grandpa passed away 13 years ago, Grandma passed away two year later from loneliness. Was I hallucinating? Had I experienced a seemingly real perception of The Perfect World which did not exist? Was I going mad? Yes, I missed my grandparents. Had I really seen them still alive? My mind must have been confused.
Unable to sleep again, I poured myself a glass of water and walked into the study. Andrew was an old timer, and had not adopted new technology much yet. Bookshelves occupied all the walls without a window. I had spent most of the time in that room ever since I had moved in. There was no doubt that Andrew was a well-read man; maybe that’s why my father and he could be friends.
In addition to the books, Andrew kept lots of photos. On his desk, there were photos of his children and grandchildren. On the bookshelves, in front of the smaller books, were photos of cats. I had never taken any notice of these photos. If you’ve seen one cat, you’ve seen them all right?
Now, after my 24 hour adventure, my brain seemed to be working a little sharper, or should I say that I was more aware of my surrounding now than ever before.
A photo of a little girl holding a Persian cat caught my eye. The cat looked like Fluffy; it had a luxurious long white coat, a chubby body and short legs. It had a large, broad head, a set of large, round eyes and a short nose. I found a magnifying glass and, looking very carefully, I saw a small brown patch on the tip of its short tail. The cat was Fluffy! Yes, yes and yes, I was not the only one who had travelled to the parallel world after all. The realisation slowly sank in.
The joyous sensation caused my imagination to bubble with ideas, which helped me to think up some ingenious solutions. The situation that I was in would soon put me in a kind of gridlock, but this won’t necessarily be unpleasant. I would be obliged to change my life path whether I liked it or not. In any case, I would undeniably want to! It would provide an excellent opportunity to rid myself forever of the burdens people were trying to make me carry in this dimension. This was definitely the way to move my own interests forward. I had the energy and the motivation to accomplish wonders.
Morning came with enthusiasm, inspiring me to spread my wings and take on more personal challenges, an approach that was sure to pay off. I would carry myself steadily along the road towards my ambitious goals, with results that would prove fulfilling.
I felt like a big breakfast; a couple of eggs and sausages, a few strips of bacon, grilled tomato with a basil dressing and a thick slice of fresh yam bread would fill my need. But the fridge only had a small packet of rocket, half a cucumber, a packet of beef mince and two bottles of white wine left by some people from Friday night. So I decided to cook spaghetti bolognese.
Before the spaghetti bolognese was ready, Shannon walked into the kitchen. Confidence is a skill and she had buckets of it. Self respect is a quality everyone needs to be a good human being and she didn’t have any.
“Good morning Joshua, what are you doing? Cooking at this hour on Sunday? Do you feel OK? Are you sick or something?”
“Would you like some for breakfast?” I asked nicely.
“Oh please, pasta for breakfast? Are you crazy? After eating the pasta, how can you have brunch? We’re having brunch with Andy at 11.”
“We met last night. If you had come with me, you wouldn’t be asking me that question now.”
“What did you do last night?”
“As I said, if you had come with me last night, you wouldn’t be asking me that question now.”
I sat down by the dining table to eat my big breakfast.
“Did you hear me? We are going out for brunch.”
“I’m not going.”
“Of course you are going. Andy, the American guy, is loaded. He has properties all over the world. You’ve got to meet him. He’ll show you what good living is. If you learnt a trick or two from him, you wouldn’t be so restrained and reserved, such a bore.”
I always tried to avoid subjects that cause annoyance; otherwise it would create a lot of pointless arguments. Why did I choose to be stuck in this unwanted relationship? In fact, I wanted to explode out into a brand new way of life, break free from the chains that tied me to my current shallow and superficial life, which had me rooted in daily disorganised and chaotic activities. On the one hand, I felt as if I was indeed making progress in this mundane world, but at the same time, I longed for a giant release.
“We need to talk.” Calling on my tender and sympathetic nature, if there was any hope that Shannon would listen, I wanted to be fair with her. “We both need to get it out in the open and to resolve the problem once and for all. Things are stirring us both up.”
“I can see your emotional world clearly, with detachment,” Shannon answered back. “Watch out! It may collapse on you, then you may be running around in all directions. But I’ll stay cool, to filter out whatever doesn’t sit right with me.”
I pulled the chair to let her sit down.
“Joshua, don’t muck around, say what you have to say. I don’t have much time to get ready.”
I was feeling rather discouraged and apathetic towards her because of her attitude. This time I refused to shut my feelings tight inside myself like a box again, hoping that once I unfolded she would take part and we could solve whatever obstacles there were between us together.
“Have you ever wondered where our relationship is actually going and what our motives are for being involved in the first place? Some careful thought on the subject may be of value.” I chose my words carefully.
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” Shannon replied. “You enjoy being with me because I encourage you to have a real sense of fun and optimism. You feel relaxed with me. Having me by your side, you are ready for whatever the future holds! I need all my energy and forcefulness to shake you out of the insecure state of mind you’re caught up in; it’s really exhausting. You are dominating; everything has to be your way. You are boring, too careful about silly things; you have no sense of fun. You are so jealous, you can’t cope when men are attracted to me. You are too nice to the people who mean nothing to you, wasting your time and energy. You love animals, nature and unimportant things, not just wasting your own time but wasting my precious time too. Do you know how frustrated I am?”
“That’s no good for you to have to compromise and make concessions all the time.”
“I have had enough now. I don’t care if you like it or not, I’m going to brunch. I’m warning you, if you don’t come with me, I’ll find myself a new man.”
“I know you can!”
“I’m not joking!”
“I know you’re not. I’m not blind, lots of men are waiting for you to break up with me, so they can make a move.”
She loved what I said, it boost her ego. Slowly she lifted her chin up in the air, then turned her face and walked away from me. Some might say that I had opened a trap door for her that would allow her to make a cataclysmic leap into the great beyond. I rather think that I was seeking balance in all things, with my current tone of sureness.
I knew too well that talking to Shannon wouldn’t improve anything, but I was glad that she had told me that she was exhausted and frustrated with me. Now the relationship was able to end positively for both of us.
Shannon was dressed up like a hooker ready for business. I wished her luck and hoped she was able to hook up with someone from the bottom of my heart. I did bite my tongue, not telling her what she should wear. Sometimes a little modesty goes a long way. Women who show too much flesh give out the wrong impression to men; well, maybe just men like me, what would I know? I’m only an engineer, so I kept my mouth shut.
After Shannon left, I couldn’t help but quickly walk towards the park. I stopped when I reached the crescent house. Looking at the house from the street, it looked unloved and weary, desperately in need of some tender loving care. I would have loved to be the person to renovate it. First of all, I would plant evergreen tall trees with dense small leaves along the fence adjoining the park, to create some privacy for the people who lived in the house. The building itself was still sound. There were no cracked walls or movement in the window frames which showed the foundations continued to stand solid, which was a good sign. The house was not the problem, the problem was when would I be able to save up a deposit to buy it?
I walked into the park in deep thought. How strange I felt. Yesterday I had been walking among the colourful flowers and shrubs before reaching the oak tree, now I was walking towards the oak tree with only patchy green grass under my feet.
I gave the oak tree a big hug. “Do you know your name is Perfect in another world?”
Of course, there was no answer or response from the oak tree. Under my breath, I gave an answer on behalf of the oak tree: “I am in this world, this is not Perfect’s world.” Quite right, indeed, this is not The Perfect World.
Sitting down on one of the roots as I did two days ago, it was difficult to comprehend the moment. I needed some time and space to think through a few things. It was hard to deal with the experience of a strong force, pushing me into another dimension of the world. I asked myself, could it be just an instance of a misinterpreted perception of a sensory experience?
Why was The Perfect World pretty much the same as this world? In this world, the big oak tree was standing alone amongst the grass. If there was a lake beside the oak tree in The Perfect World, what would have happened when I arrived? Would I be under water in the lake gasping for air? What about if there had been lots of cactus plants under the oak tree? Would they have poked through my body when I arrived? What about the grass? Would they have pricked my skin when my palms touched the ground? What if there had been a deep hole in the ground when I arrived and the oak tree had been chopped down? While transferring between the two worlds, would I have disappeared from both worlds and arrived to another new dimension of a third world?
Question after question, and frustratingly, there was no way to find the answers.
The course of the past two days’ events had had a profoundly positive effect on me. I felt strong and energetic enough to move mountains. I promised myself not to ignore the plenty of opportunities in front of me, just take the opportunity!
I walked into the crescent house, the front door unlocked. Except for the crescent shape of the front of the house, this house was not much different from most of the old houses built in the same era. Spacious, high ceilings, solid brick walls; it was built to last for generations. The person who had the heart to build it obviously had visions for their offspring, but now it was a home for spiders. They had built their webs in every corner of the rooms, windows and doorways.
The tree branch from the front yard did a good job to clear a way for me, the sticky spider webs easily shying away. A huge dining dresser was in the dining room, a gigantic solid dark wood bed frame was in the large bedroom and an enormous sized desk in the study; all that well made furniture must have been constructed in the house after the house was built. I could see the delicate craftsmanship in the details of the furniture; those were the signs of wealth of bygone days. Some French polishing would bring their formal beauty back to magnificent glory again.
I carefully checked the remaining furniture. I couldn’t help feeling it was a pity that they were made to serve, and I was sure they were the best in craftsmanship in their time and even more so nowadays. What a shame they had been left unused and unvalued all this time.
Surprised, I found a bundle of paper in the bottom drawer of the desk. They were unusually long drawers. When people were clearing the drawers, undoubtedly, they missed the very end. I was holding “Whispered by Elizabeth Jones” – what appeared to be a manuscript for a novel or story in my hand. It was neatly typed on A4 paper. It couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, that’s for sure. I must read it later.
Back to Andrew’s house, I got on the internet to start researching the house prices around that area. If a house had been vacant for a long time, no one would want to touch it; it would be a chance for a bargain for the buyer. If it became my property, I may have an entrance to The Perfect World almost whenever I desired. Yeah, I was restless, my brain working overtime, but I loved it.
Whispered by Elizabeth Jones
I was 14 years old when Mother disappeared. It was a very sad day for me. In fact, that very day I had had very good news to tell Mother after school, that my story had been chosen by the teacher to put in the school bulletin. Mother would like that very much. She would say to me, “My darling daughter, you’ve got your father’s brain. We will have another reporter in the family. How clever you are.” But I was disappointed; Mother wasn’t home when I ran all the way from school. After I caught my breath, I searched room by room but couldn’t find Mother.
“Mother, I have good news to tell you, where are you?” I shouted out loud, as if she would show her face if she heard me, like when we used to play hide and seek. This time it didn’t work. No matter how I tried to shout or cry with pouring tears, I never saw Mother’s face again. She vanished without a trace. That very morning was the last time I ever hugged Mother. Without any warning, I became a motherless child. Poor old father had lost his young wife.
Father suffered a great deal. It was much more than just missing a companion; hurtful rumours tried to destroy him.
“He must know something. When a wife is not happy with the husband, the husband always knows.”
“Something is wrong. Just look at them, an old husband and a young wife never works. He’s such a fool.”
“With the big age gap, what else is there? Hope the new man is better than this old man.”
“He killed her, no doubt about it. He might have suspected something was going on behind his back. Would you blame her?”
“Imagine being married to a man older than her own father. He must have had something to hold over her; no woman would willingly marry such an old man.”
Often I cried when I missed Mother. Father would comfort me with his hugs, strangely, never with any words. From a man who earnt a living writing, it was quite odd.
One day, soon after Mother was gone, Father emptied the pantry and put a lock on the door. I asked for the reason. He said, “It’s only you and me now. We don’t need such a big pantry…less dusting to do.”
I accepted the answer, never questioned it.
Father was 30 years old when Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Like the rest of the enthusiastic Australians, Father became one of the 416,000 enlisted men who pledged full support for Britain. Less than one year later, he returned to the homeland as a wounded soldier; that actually saved him from being killed, gassed or taken prisoner. Before World War I, Father had been a newspaper reporter. After fully recovering from his injuries, he went back to the same newspaper. He was sent back to Europe as a war correspondent. After World War I ended, Father built his dream home with Lancefield green stone.
Father then found out from the workers that the builder’s wife was unwell with kidney stones, had been in agony for months, and needed money to undergo surgery. Father was pretty comfortable so he gave the builder money for his wife’s surgery. To return the favour, the builder didn’t charge for the meteorite materials he had used in the building. He told father that the meteorite materials came from his father-in-law’s farm. Father liked the look and feel of the meteorite materials, so did I. That’s how we ended up with a unique building to live in.
I never saw Father cry, but I knew he lost his zest for life. Not too long after Mother disappeared, he retired from work. Maybe I should say he retired from society. He stayed at home most of the time, working in the garden without keenness, having meals without any appetite, basically living without enthusiasm. Within a short time, he became a really old man, often staring into the distance with no expression on his face, shuffling his feet like he didn’t want to go anywhere. I watched him slouch in front of my eyes. I was too young to understand what was in his mind.
We went to an expensive restaurant for my 19th birthday. I ordered deep sea scallops for my entrée, a country style chicken pie for my main, macaroons with cherries for dessert and a sweet cider to drink. Father ordered a leg of mutton with caper sauce for his main, angel cake for dessert and a glass of red wine. I loved every bite of my dinner; Father couldn’t finish his.
That night Father suddenly became a chatterbox.
“You’re just like your mother!” he said.
I was very happy to hear that; often I had wished that I could grow up to be like Mother.
Father continued: “She’s a wonderful lady, smart, beautiful, kind. If her stepmother hadn’t stopped her education, she could have been in any profession she liked, architect, accountant, lawyer…she has the brain and she knows what’s good or bad. She has no time for fools. Poor dear lost her mother from pneumonia at the age of thirteen. Years later her grandfather on her father’s side died. Her father inherited a small fortune. Soon her father brought a stepmother home. She stopped her education because the stepmother thought it was a waste of money to educate girls. She worked as a tea lady in an accountant’s office because her stepmother said it would mould her into a lady.”
What did that mean?
“She was an old fashioned thinker. If not, she was definitely a mean spirited woman, wanted to keep the money for your mother’s education for herself. I met many ladies during my younger days. They were either after money or sex. I knew too well not to get involved with those women. Women who love money are like leaches sucking on men with money. Once the money is gone, they are gone too. Women who love sex probably have venereal diseases. There are no effective drug treatments for those diseases. I don’t want them to be my children’s mother…. Time passed me by. I had already given up hope of meeting the right woman to have any children with. By the time I was 48, I had not dated for years. I would rather be on my own for the rest of my life then be with the wrong lady. One cold and rainy day, while I was walking down the street, I saw in the distance an old man get knocked down by a bicycle. The rider didn’t stop but kept going. A lady put her umbrella down and went up to help the old man. When I reached them, it was nice to know the old man wasn’t hurt. The lady who stopped to help him was very young. They were both soaking wet. I called a taxi, took them both back to their homes before they caught a cold. That young lady was your mother, a selfless, kind-hearted lady. We became friends. Although your mother is 28 years younger than I am, we have a similar sense of humour and comparable values. We both have a positive attitude towards life. Most importantly we wanted to be with trustworthy people.”
I miss Mother terribly.
“I know you do, I miss her too. Tonight, your dinner dishes were all your mother’s favourites.”
I know, they were all my favourites too.
“Sorry I didn’t go and find your mother and bring her back home. I have a suspicious feeling about the pantry. It might be the entrance to a mysterious place. If it wasn’t for you, I would try to go in there to search for your mother. It’s an unknown situation. If I got lost in it like your mother did, unable to get back here again, you would be left here all by yourself. I couldn’t do that.”
Is that the reason the pantry was locked?
“Something is not quite right in it. I can’t explain it to you because I don’t really know. I noticed since the day your mother vanished…. For some reason or another, it started to build up unknown forces. What were the forces for? Where did the forces come from? Why did they start in our pantry? I haven’t got a clue. I am so, so sorry that I couldn’t find your mother for you. You are a young girl. You need your mother with you….”
Don’t blind yourself father, I am 19 years old now. I am able to look after myself.
“When your mother had a hard time from her stepmother, I told her she could marry me. I could give her a good home. She would still be quite young after I’m gone. She could re-marry and continue to live a good life. She didn’t have to put up with anyone’s pity.”
It was great that Father was opening up to me and bringing us closer.
Father’s words were racing around in my head. From soaking wet Mother to the locked pantry, from happily smiling Mother to lost soulmate Father, from my tears to Mother leaving behind her clothing. They seemed so real, until I woke up in the morning and realised they were just dreams.
I couldn’t wait to run into the kitchen to tell Father about my dreams. The kitchen hadn’t been fired up yet – no boiling kettle, the toaster not on the table. Father may have slept in like me. I ran into his bedroom. I went to kneel by his bed but before my knees touched the floor rug, I knew something had happened to my father – he had died in his sleep.
There was no light in his eyes, no life in his face, his body was already cold. Though I had never seen a dead person before, when I saw Father lying in bed with wild, open eyes, I knew that I had become an orphan.
Although I was an only child, my parents had never treated me like a useless child. They had taught me things like I was their associate. They both believed that if you talk to your babies like they are dumb, they would grow up to become dumb. I couldn’t let my parents down, so after Father’s funeral, I thought of my future with my tears still running. Women might have had the vote since 1929, but for most, that was the limit of their equality. Working women were paid much less than men and despite the responsibilities many had and the sheer grit they had shown in wartime, they were still regarded as submissive and inferior beings.
Many teachers and parents had narrow expectations for girls whose destiny was to be marriage, a home and a family, with work just an interim measure between leaving school and walking down the aisle, rather than a career. Father was a man with vision. He hadn’t wanted me to marry any man who came my way just because all other women my age would, to run a home, parent alone, make all the household decisions, and wait on the husband, bringing meals to the table when he came home from work, the pub or football.
Father was a good provider. He left me plenty to survive well. He had shown me what he had and how I should manage them to keep my head above water if the economy went downhill again. In other words, I had no financial worries. Not wanting to fall into tragic circumstances like the women in my generation, I should focus my energy on my education. I loved the house in which I was born into the world. Father had told me his idea and passion when he built it, so I thought that I would like to be an architect.
In the year 1952, Australia had a population of 8.64 million. At that time, 29,641 people were enrolled in university, 19.7% of them were female. I was one of them. Sixty-nine years earlier, in 1883, a lady named Julia ‘Bella’ Guerin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, becoming the first woman to graduate from an Australian university. I am glad that she started the tradition for the rest of the Australian women to follow so we didn’t have to fight with the conservative ruling council for admission.
I am not saying female students had an easy run! Some male students were constantly trying to provoke their female counterparts. The idea of equality for both men and women scared them stiff. They couldn’t handle their female colleagues actually having more brains than them. Those who had a better upbringing had a more flexible attitude; they tended to respect women instead of throwing their male chauvinistic arrogance around.
It was easy to study a subject that I had liked all my life. Having my father’s introverted personality, I rather enjoyed spending time on my own after classes.
With no one to talk to at home, I started to invest time in cooking and baking. Once I got the hang of it, there was no stopping me. Before long, I turned to the locked pantry. I needed to put all the different ingredients on the shelves, to let the benchtop be a working area only.
I remembered Father’s words. If anything were to happen, it would only affect me, no one else. I didn’t mind taking the chance. What would be, would be. At least the kitchen would look tidier.
While I was standing in the doorway of the pantry, I could feel a strong draught, but where did the draught come from? The pantry did not have a window; the door was the only opening, facing the kitchen. The kitchen was as calm as always, no draught, no breeze, no gust.
I took a Lego “duck on wheels” toy out of a storage box, to let my childhood playmate show me the reason that Father locked the pantry door. Gently I pushed it into the pantry. I heard a “whoosh” sound and felt some sort of current in the pantry. Before I could figure out what was going on, within less than a second, it stopped. The draught remained but there was no sign of my Lego toy.
I stood in front of the pantry, my mind running in all directions. Was that the reason Mother disappeared? Where did Mother go? Where did my duck on wheels go? Would Mother see my duck on wheels? If I walked into the pantry, would I see Mother and the duck on wheels?
Five minutes or fifty minutes passed? I didn’t have a clue. How I wished Father was still here, then I could talk to him. Two brains thinking are better than one.
Suddenly, I heard a “pop” sound and a sense of strong energy. Within a blink of an eye, there was a man inside the pantry trying to balance himself while holding my duck on wheels.
I was really thrilled to see my duck on wheels return, but I held my excitement, because standing in front of me was a strange man.
“How did you get into my house?” He asked with a shocked expression on his face.
“Don’t ask me my question,” I said. “How did you get into my pantry?”
His eyes looking around for a few seconds, he suddenly burst into laughter.
“That’s not a funny question,” I said.
“No, not at all.” He handed the duck on wheels to me. “I believe this belongs to you.”
“Thank you.” Was I glad to get it back. “It’s mine. Not that I still play with it; I was just using it to see what would happen. I don’t play with toys anymore, I’m a student, a university student….” Stop, Elizabeth, what are you talking non-stop for?
“What’s your name young lady?”
“Relax, Elizabeth, I’m not going to take your toy away.”
I realised that I was holding the duck on wheels tightly to my chest.
“I am William Wilson. I’m a lawyer.”
We shook hands, then we talked and talked, like two good friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time and had so much to catch up on.
After that first meeting, we both agreed to keep everything to ourselves. The last thing we both wanted in our lives was to get labelled as lunatics.
It was so crazy to find out that we were living in two different parallel worlds, wasn’t it? Maybe there was another explanation, which was…? Alright, how about we imagined it – easy to believe in a 19-year-old student but what about William? He was 15 years older than I was, a mature aged lawyer who had spent six years fighting in World War II for his country and who returned home with an injured leg. While still in the rehabilitation centre, an earthquake destroyed his home and killed his parents. A man like William was not the type who would let his imagination go wild. Come to think of it, neither was I.
We visited each other from time to time. The pantry was our pathway. We had no way to call each other on the phone, nor send letters through the post; the only way was to show up in the pantry.
We guessed that in 1947, the world was split by the forces of nature. William’s world had had many natural disasters, like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, floods, droughts, avalanches, wildfires and earthquakes. It wiped out lots of people in his world. The world I lived in didn’t show any physical damage but there may have been the disappearance of some people. Was my mother one of them?
William met my mother, Susan Jones, in the law firm where he worked as a lawyer. Susan thought that she had lost her husband and daughter in the earthquake. There was not much for her to do so she found a job to fill her time. She worked in the law firm as a typist for three years. One of the firm’s clients, John Even, had his eye on her for a long time. Before he went back home to England, he asked Susan to marry him. Susan by then had already given up hope of seeing her husband and daughter again so she agreed.
It’s comforting to know Mother found happiness again. William told me that John Even’s long-time friend told him that he is a gentle and generous man, a natural born leader and had a big heart, was always straight forward and optimistic, confident on the outside and sensitive on the inside. He sounded like my father. I hoped they would have a long and happy marriage.
William bought the house from Susan. Her advice had been, “Don’t use the pantry. Something weird happened after the earthquake.” William’s work kept him very busy, and soon after he moved into the house, he started to date Jennifer, so he had not had a chance to investigate the noise in the pantry.
One day, when he was in the kitchen fixing a drink, he heard a popping noise in the pantry. He opened the door and saw the duck on wheels. Without thinking, he went into the pantry and picked it up. That’s how he ended up in my pantry.
Jennifer was the lady who took over Susan’s job in William’s office. He was always polite towards her; no more and no less than he was towards any other lady working in the office. On the night of the Christmas party, she asked him to take her home afterwards. Since then, they had been to the movies or dinners once in a while.
“What do you mean once in a while?” I asked William.
“My work is full on. When a client wants something done, they want it straight away. I don’t have a lot of time to socialise, young lady!” William answered.
“Don’t call me young lady. I’m an adult now. I’m not just a student, I’m also a housekeeper, finance manager, gardener, handywoman….”
“I call you young lady to remind myself that you are so young. Sometimes it is easy to forget how young you are. You are the most capable lady I know, like your mother Susan.”
“Don’t change the subject. Let’s talk about you and Jennifer; let your best friend help you to solve your problem,” I said.
William smiled. “Nice to know we are best friends now.”
“We spend so much time whispering together, it’s about time we call each other best friends, don’t you agree?”
He laughed, “Oh, Elizabeth, my young Elizabeth, you have the ability to make me laugh. Sometimes when I think of you, I start to smile. No one, no one ever made me feel the happiness you do. How I wish you are older…”
“No, I like my age. I don’t want to grow old too quickly,” I protested. “Same as I like you at your age. I don’t want you to be my age…. Back to our discussion – if you like the lady, dating once in a while is not the right way. You’ve got to make some effort.”
“Look at your face.” William smiled. “You look so serious. Are you trying to be my love life adviser? Tell me your qualifications first.”
“I am a woman – that’s my best qualification.”
“Well said. You should be a lawyer. Jennifer is hunting for a provider; anyone who can provide a comfortable life for her will do. I don’t remember ever laughing in her company. She likes expensive restaurants and orders food according to their price, not the taste nor the flavour. She has no intellectual mind. We have nothing to talk about. All we have is a little chit chat. I couldn’t spend my whole life with her. It would be too painful. We are incompatible.”
“Oh, poor William!” I put my hand on his shoulder.
He put his hand on top of my hand and said, “I want to hold you, but I won’t. I’ll wait till you are 22. Once you turn 22, if you feel the same way as I do, I will tell you more.”
“Tell me now!” I wanted to know more.
“You have to wait. I have to wait. Good things come to those who wait.”
“Why 22?” I asked.
“Because 23 is too far away and 21 is too young to know what you want.”
I didn’t need him to spell it out. I knew exactly how he felt because that’s how I felt.
Life was good to me. I was three years into my studies. An architectural advisory service company’s founder came to our faculty to tell us about the job opportunities at his company. I showed interest, so shortly before I got my bachelor degree, I already had a job in front of me.
Our company offered the prospective home builder a range of standard plans regarding layouts, materials, construction or aesthetics, selected to suit each individual and specially prepared plans drawn to the client’s specific requirements.
In 1949, the Labor government in my world had concentrated building efforts on public housing to make up for wartime housing shortages. The poor standard of housing in the inner suburbs was gaining attention in the 1950s. Some homes had no running water or adequate sanitation. They attracted tenants who could only afford minimum rents. Large, three storey blocks of flats went up in a few suburban areas, and the former Olympic Village was converted to public housing. A concentration of low income renters often gave the stigma of humiliation for the individual and created unnecessary social problems for the area.
In William’s world, natural disasters in 1947 destroyed lots of buildings and houses and killed almost a quarter of the population. The 1950s were the first full decade after the end of World War II and were remembered as a prosperous time of recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s. Everyone collectively breathed a sigh of relief. They rebuilt the world, reconstructed countries, recreated cities and towns, restructured political systems, improved living conditions, upgraded public transportation, amended international diplomacies and developed social welfare. The government had concentrated on rebuilding the whole nation and welcomed large migration from overseas. To attract migrants, they built many houses in different suburbs, in different styles and quality, for migrants to purchase or rent. If the owners or renters faced financial difficulties, they were able to negotiate with the government. Solutions included selling the property back to the government and renting the property instead, delaying payments, cutting down payments or simply moving to another lower value property. If anyone had health problems and were unable to work to support oneself, the government would step in to help the family until the situation improved.
Architecture was booming in both worlds. By the late 1950s, deprivation from the effects of World War II had faded. By the end of the decade, my world had marked divisions between the Catholics and Protestants as well as those who lived east of the Yarra and those to the west. This was most evident in the divide created by the private schools.
William’s world had a different attitude towards education. All schools were run by the government. Only the best students were able to get into teacher’s courses. With people of the best quality as teachers, education levels were easily lifted. Educated people are more productive, flexible and are able to take advantage of progressive change. They taught students to be more co-operative than competitive. Military service was part of the education, to train the brain how to think and handle difficult situations, at the same time, toughening up the physical body. Experimental science was a big part of school teaching as was entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are skilled at recognising possibilities and unmet needs, turning everyday obstructions into prospects. To generate innovative profitable ideas, they sample ideas to test functionality and market potential with practical skills. Entrepreneurship is about much more than just a pursuit of profit, it is a way of thinking that hopes to make the world a better place through improvement and commercial discipline. With equality in education, every student is brought up the same way as others. No one is superior, no one is less fortunate. What a wonderful society they created!
When my world was proudly showing the ICI House at East Melbourne, one of the first free-standing fully glazed curtain wall skyscrapers in Australia, William’s world was focused on people, going through a complete change. It started from the bottom, through education. School was compulsory for 12 years. Schools provided uniforms and lunch; even breakfast was available if wanted. Aides were provided for students with learning disabilities. Students who were not up to the required standard were unable to move up to the next grade. Schools would provide boarding facilities for Aboriginal students living in remote and rural areas or, if the family wished to be together, the government would provide accommodation for the whole family and help the parents to find suitable jobs. The first university first degree was free for everyone. Students needed to study however. Those using university as a husband hunting ground would be disappointed; compulsory working for at least three years after graduation was part of the deal. I liked that their teaching system focused on building a self-reliant character not dependent on others.
“For many Indigenous Australians, the countryside is a place of belonging; it provides an acceptance and a sense of place, a location in which life can be meaningful. It’s wrong to force them to leave their environment, don’t you think?” I asked William.
“To correct the early white settler’s wrongdoing, the Aboriginal people have been using their own systems as well as ours. Those who wish to remain on the land are free to do so; in many areas the land has already been handed over to the original owner. Those who wish to take advantage of the white fellows’ education system have the upper hand. They already have intimate knowledge of the country and with the strengths of land management based on western science, the benefits are unlimited.
To understand a mutual dependency between land and people is the first thing; to recognise the unique challenges of the management of complex vast distances is next.
Education is the way to allow urban Australians to see and feel the country through the eyes and hearts of those who are immersed in it.”
People in my world largely didn’t learn anything from the two world wars. Some countries’ conflicts of the 1950s began in the 1940s, and some of the wars of the 1950s continued on into the 1960s or beyond, not wanting to end. There was fighting amongst countries and civil wars. Invasions, fights for independence, border conflicts, power struggles, dictators, revolutions, uprisings, revolts, rebellions, religious conflicts and drugs – they are all here to stay. They have cost millions of lives. Australia was involved in the wars of other countries; luckily it didn’t have a civil war. During the height of the Cold War, one of the most shocking events of the 20th century was the assassination of the American President, John F. Kennedy, in 1963. Five years later, America again mourned for the assassination of the civil rights activist, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The cover-up of a botched robbery led to the American president’s resignation in 1974. Protesters, terrorists, hostages, kidnappers and serial killers increased in the 1970s. In the 1980s, racial tension was added to the long list…. If William’s world could achieve reconciliation, peace and harmony, why couldn’t mine?
Once again, I felt so lucky to have William in my life. I knew we couldn’t get married and raise children together, but without him I knew I would be miserable. Through our communications, I learnt what to value, how to approach disagreements, what to get enthusiastic about, what to tolerate, and what we could be reasonably furious about. My feelings told me clearly enough that I had reached my destiny, and rather helplessly I rode the love currents.
Oh, we did have so many good memories in spite of the unsettled world. Things we did together seemed so memorable. On 22 November 1956 in my world, we were amongst the 103,000 people who filled up the Melbourne Cricket Ground to take part in the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. The air in the MCG was filled with pleasure and excitement. It was so nice to be amongst enthusiastic faces; it made our participation even more enjoyable. People began to line up outside the MCG gates at 3pm the day before. That night the city was paralysed by a quarter of a million people who had come to celebrate. The MCG had been largely rebuilt for the Games, including construction of the Olympic Stand. Apart from athletics, the stadium was also used for the soccer finals, the hockey finals, the opening and closing ceremonies and an exhibition game of baseball, which a crowd of 102,000 attended. It was a world record for a baseball game.
Sidewalk cafes, outdoor dining with an international flavour and small specialty eating outlets were everywhere in William’s world when I first met him. The first sidewalk café opened in my world in 1958; they were closed down by police two years later. We dined out frequently in William’s world.
“Why are there so many new migrants opening up eateries in your world and not mine?” I asked William. “You have lots of specialty shops but we have lots of migrants too.”
“Our government has a special scheme to help new migrants. If they borrow money to start a business, in the first year, the loan is interest free plus the government provides free advice and assistance. During the next two years, the interest rate is very low. After that, you are on your own but most businesses are well established after three years.”
“That’s why your world has lots of small businesses….”
“We also had migrants who came with money; they started manufacturing businesses.”
We spent almost all of our free time together. We went to Port Melbourne on Port Phillip Bay to watch the drama of departures from, or new arrivals to, the wharves. We caught the train to Healesville, Warburton or Ferntree Gully for holidays. We caught the tram to the city to visit St Patrick’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and St Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican church. We went to the “Skyline” drive-in theatre which opened in Burwood in Melbourne in 1954; it was the first of 300 built around Australia in my world.
William’s world had better live theatre programmes – there seemed to be a non-stop supply of ballets, stage plays and opera performances. The Comedy Theatre had shows on almost every day of the week. People seemed to enjoy live performances much more than in the world I came from.
Swimming pools, football fields, cricket grounds, tennis courts and sports centres were dotted along residential areas in William’s world. Sports were encouraged as something to participate in, not just as a spectator’s event. I liked playing tennis and William liked to swim, so we did both to keep fit.
Politicians in William’s world mostly lived a modest lifestyle, they drove Australian made cars and wore Australian made clothing. They were proud to work for Australians and be Australian.
How I wished I could stay in William’s world. We could get married, have a couple of children, fly to England to visit my mother; there was nothing in my world to keep me here. However, in his world, I was recorded as having died along with my father in 1947. How would I explain to the authorities that I actually came from a parallel world?
I thought maybe I should forget about William, get to know someone in my world and build a life together. That would be much simpler and easier to live with. I was the only female architect in our firm. I could feel a few single architects behave quite tensely around me. On the odd occasion when I received a hint, I gave it deep and thorough thought each time but the conclusion was always the same – I didn’t want to be with anyone but William.
He made me feel secure enough to talk freely, he understood me without my needing to say anything. He was the only one who was able to answer my emotional needs, understand my non-negotiable characteristic traits and strengthen me for the hard tasks of my life. I loved his maturity and sometime child-like cheekiness, his mellowness yet sometime impudence. Most of all he was kind and good to me. I absolutely and completely accepted everything about him.
Time flew by. After four decades together, we knew each other so well that sometimes a simple look between us meant more than words.
It was a cold winter morning. William cooked a sausage and egg breakfast. Since he had retired, at the age of seventy, he had taken an interest in cooking. We talked while eating our meal; we always had so many things to talk about.
“That’s why I love to be with you so much,” William said “You are a thinker; you don’t talk rubbish like most people.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” I said. “Especially from a retired lawyer.”
“I remember you were so young when I first lay eyes on you. You were holding onto your wooden duck like a little child.”
“You remember my duck, how nice.”
“How could I forget? You were the most beautiful lady I ever laid eyes on.”
“That was 43 years ago.”
“The years have only added more beauty to you. You are even more attractive at 60 then you were at 19.”
“Aren’t you sweet!” I was very touched. “Why are you so sentimental?”
“Although you know how I feel, I think saying it out loud will give you something to think about when you are not with me.”
“Maybe it is time for us to travel again? How about we travel to Western Australia to see the living stromatolites? Remember a couple of weeks ago I told you about the article I read?”
“In Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay!”
“Yes, the real significance of stromatolites is that they are the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth. The oldest known stromatolites have been dated more than three billion years old.”
“I like that; it would be a meaningful trip for us to see single cell cyanobacteria together. I can’t find any tours to go there; maybe we can hire a car in Perth, drive the 600 kilometres to Shark Bay ourselves.”
I laughed; he had already checked it out. What can I say? That’s William, he took notice of what I liked or disliked and acted on them. What a special man he was.
“I think I’m going to lie down,” he said.
Holding his hand, I walked with him to the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed, and indicated for me to sit next to him.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. He seemed a bit odd.
“Let me look at your beautiful eyes.”
We looked at each other in silence for a short while.
“I’m so tired,” he said softly.
I put one of my arms around his shoulder. He lay against me. I could feel his weight suddenly on me – my dear William died in my arms. I knew soon or later parting would occur. He had prepared me for it, organised his will, let me know what I should do but it was still so hard for me to face. I cried and cried. Tears didn’t change the fact that William was no longer with me. Now I understood how Father had suffered after Mother disappeared. What was I going to do with the pain in my heart? Please stop pumping, let me go like William, I don’t want to be here anymore….
Every day was the same as the last. I talked to William as if he was still with me, cried when he didn’t respond. Often I woke up at night because I thought I heard him arrive in the pantry or I thought I felt him touch my hand fondly. Reality is so cruel…. Hold on, living and dying are a part of life. We can’t change it. Maybe adjusting was better than fighting against nature’s way.
I pulled myself together and looked back on my life. I did not regret choosing William to be my lifelong companion. Our emotional connection, compatibility, similarity and familiarity had built the strong foundation for our friendship. Knowing each other intimately and our open communication, approachability, awareness, tolerance and individuality helped us maintain our blissful romance over the decades. We had had a good life together. There was nothing more we could have asked for. I bowed to the universe, thanking it for the parallel world.
I asked myself, if I had left this world before him, what would I have liked him to do when he was left alone? To fill the days with activity, definitely not sorrow and pain. I believed that was his wish for me. My tears stopped when I put my memories down on paper. While I was typing the words, a smile appeared on my face because the memories brought the happy times to me again.
I am not alone
I was delighted to know that the crescent house’s passageway to The Perfect World had been frequently used in the past. The sooner I bought the house the better.
I was even more delighted to received Shannon’s selfie. She didn’t realise that behind her a naked man had been caught in the corner of the photo. Thanks Shannon for setting me free.