At the fork in the road, Jean yanks the cord. When the driver hits the brakes, passengers lurch forward. Coconuts and bananas spill from baskets. A chicken frees itself, squawks and flaps. Feathers fly through the air. A monkey screeches from the luggage rack.
Freeing her backpack, Jean picks a path through the spillage, scrambling between passengers packed along the aisle. ‘Sorry, sorry… excuse me.’
For the past hour, locals have thumped their fists on the ceiling, their signal for the driver to stop. But Jean thought it might be impertinent for a westerner to do the same. She wishes she had.
Dense with bodies, humidity, and the pungency of Northern Laos, she is desperate for air. Her cotton dress has stuck to her skin. Too bad. No showers for the next few days.
The driver mumbles a price. With no idea if she is being ripped off, and not in the mood for haggling, she places a small pile of foreign coins in his hand.
He claims the lot, exposing toothless gums.
The bus coughs black fumes, and is soon swallowed by the lush vegetation.
Alone on the potholed road, aware of the din of urban life still clamouring in her brain, competing with the stillness of the jungle, noisy in its own way.
She wills her crowded mind to be quiet. She needs to find her bearings – not just of her immediate surrounds, but of all those years ago when she was here.
Exhausted to the bone, it occurs to her that life is a slippery slide into perpetual exhaustion.
I’ll rest when I’m dead, Peter used to say.
Her sigh escapes in a series of shuddery exhales. Everything aches: her scapula feels as if they have fused into her skull. Her back spasms from three days of relentless travel. The hollow feeling in her chest, now taken up permanent residence, like a squatter who won’t budge.
Thirty-two years since Jean was last here, in the jungled regions of Luang Probang. With Peter. The highlight of their overland trip; they had been together seven months; still a budding romance.
Blink and you’re old. Blink and you’re dead.
She reminds herself that there will be no falling apart.
Tightens the straps of her tent and bedroll. Swings the lot onto her back. Sips from the flask, and then returns it to its holster at her waist.
Sets out on the narrow track that splits from the road, instantly dwarfed by rainforest, so cloying she gags for breath.
Her backpack and the sickly heat make the going hard. She can’t remember it being this challenging. It is not even particularly dense, yet. Definitely should have done more training.
Peter always teased her for her independent streak. Only now she appreciates the vulnerability of this self-imposed isolation.
Again, she resolves not to give way to fear. She will see this through.
What if she has missed the path? The entrance is sure to be overgrown. The signpost, obscured. She might have got off the bus too soon.
A rumble of engines cuts through her thoughts. Ears pricked, Jean considers hiding.
Too late. Four mud splattered trail bikes appear, their riders’ identities obscured by bulky jackets and space-like helmets.
She stands aside for them, and they vanish quickly.
From deep within the jungle, the noisy engines fade.
Jean spies the opening to her track. The rotted signpost, worn to a stump. Water hole, once written in Tai-Kadai, long gone.
Freshly turned soil and tyre marks, indicate that the bikers have stayed on the main path. A huge relief.
Thrilled to have found the path, she parts the dark foliage, and then enters the canopy of green which instantly claim her. There is the richness of fungus and mulch. Fronds and vines tangle through the lush undergrowth, in a bid to devour the path. No choice but to consent to their wet caresses.
It is cooler inside the rainforest. Droplets fall onto her face and arms. Trickle inside her dress, down her back and between her breasts, rivulets mingling with her sweat.
She surrenders to it all, lets the forest own her.
Slap. A leaf slides across her face.
‘Madness!’ her friends had warned. From her brother: ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘Please don’t go Mum,’ chorused her children. Each debating her options – solutions for her future. It was the sterile glossy brochure that clinched it: Scope Lifestyle Village: A New Way of Life. She scowled, and they knew to back off.
She is not ready to think about her future. She needs time. Precious time. One thing is certain: this trip is for her, and Peter. Full circle.
A few hours in, Jean is maintaining a good pace. Her twice-weekly Thousand Steps are actually paying off.
She strides effortlessly, pleased by her progress. Soon she will set up camp. Night falls fast here. She plans to rise early, and then tomorrow, arrive at their spot.
Ahead, a ceiling of grasses and overhanging trees: the perfect shelter for her first night.
Removes her pack, pitches the little tent, and then prepares a light meal of rye biscuits, sardines, dried fruit and nuts.
Discovers six glistening leeches have attached to her flesh.
Hears him say, Don’t pull them off.
Jean upends her pack, searches for the lighter.
Hands trembling, burns the horrid suckers. One by one, she watches them shrivel and die, leaving puncture marks as calling cards.
She finds the slithering culprit inside her undies. It is attached to her vulva, its head burrowed in. Resisting the urgency to yank it, she holds the flame to its body, and then the critters drops. Laughs at the smell of burnt pubic hair. Imagines Peter, his face crinkling with amused delight.
Jean drizzles water over her legs, scrubs them hard; smears a thick layer of repellent. Should have done that, before.
She scouts for other nasty creatures, before spraying inside the tent.
Curled up in the dark of night, infinitely small – an intruder amidst this majestic jungle. Thoughts lap at the edges of terror. It is only the sense of Peter’s presence that prohibits madness.
In the morning, she lies perfectly still, alert to the dawn chorus; Peter’s favourite time of day: Wake up Jean… they’re saying ‘good morning.’
She lets the bird’s greetings pierce her. Soon, her heart rings out like the harmonics of a Tibetan singing bowl. Then she weeps: a trickle at first, and then loud gushy sobs, deep inside her sleeping bag.
According to her pedometer, she has hiked seven kilometres. At this rate she will be arrive by three – the perfect time of day to catch the late afternoon sun. Assuming there is still a clearing.
She nibbles a handful of nuts, her mind busily flicking past scenes from her life: a life once brimming with Beth and Sean, like you could never imagine a time before children, and there was never a moment to yourself. Quick as a wink, they are gone, and then, just Peter. Now, only Jean.
When they visited this place, she was twenty-five – same age as Beth, their youngest. Daddy’s girl. For weeks Beth has argued that if Jean is determined to go through with this thing, then she would come too. For once Jean wasn’t open to negotiation.
The spot is instantly recognisable. Soft moss carpets the forest bed. A ragged rocky outcrop rises to the height of several men – at any other time of day it would shade the entire area. Through an opening in the canopy, a shaft of sunlight illuminates the waterhole, about twenty feet in diameter, clear, and deep.
Just the way she remembers. Magical.
She ditches her backpack, unlaces her boots, and then strips: socks, trousers, underwear – all of it a sodden mess. Dips her dimpled legs into the water, and then immerses her entire body. Feels her thin greying hair fan the surface. Arms, legs and body, surrender to the watery cushion, like a baby uncoiling in its first bath.
Floats in the coolness, absorbs the warmth of the sun on the water’s surface.
A smile appears as she wraps her legs once more around Peter. Her body enfolds him. Her breasts flatten against his chest. Her pelvic bones fit snug against his belly. She ducks her head beneath the water, cherishes all of Peter.
Breaks the surface and spurts a spray of water.
Away from the waterhole she stretches out on the mossy ground; soaks in the last rays of sunlight, her arms and legs spread like a star. Watches small white clouds drift across the sky, easy to imagine they are snow-capped mountain peaks. It makes her dizzy, deliriously so.
She closes her eyes and lies still.
Later, Jean opens her backpack. She has remembered a story about a wife who scattered her husband’s ashes on a windy day, his friends and family spitting bits of him as he flew downwind.
There is not a whisper of wind, today. Peter will be hers, and only hers.
She twists the urn, lets a handful of ash fall into her hand. Feels his texture, gritty in parts, soft and fine, in others. A bit like he was in real life.
Until now, Jean had imagined tipping his ashes in the waterhole, where they would absorb like blotting paper, and then sink. Now this feels incomplete.
She pours his ashes onto the mossy bank, trickling them until the urn is empty.
Lies on top, first rolling one way and then the other, until her sweat-damp body is coated.
Rubs ash into her face, into her hair, her arms, across her belly, and then into the cracks and crevices. Slowly and gently.
Gaining vigour, she screams into the forest.
The shaft of sunlight begins to vanish. Goose-bumps prickle her flesh. Her sweat has absorbed the ash. A crust has formed.
Jean dips her body into the waterhole; lets Peter float free.
About Full Circle. This story won the 2007 Leader Darebin Short Story Competition. It was also Commended by The Society of Women Writers Victoria Inc. At the time of the Leader Darebin Short Story award night, I was travelling in India, so my daughter Chloe bravely stood in for me and read Full Circle to a large audience at the Northcote Town Hall. Later, I read Full Circle at The Society of Women Writers general meeting.
Full Circle was my first winning story and first short fiction to get published. The anthology in which it was published, Around the Block: Our Darebin Community, saw poor management attract a furor from the writers who had submitted stories which were then published without their consent. The competition criteria had failed to state that stories, whether shortlisted or otherwise, would be selected for publication. This of course is a contentious issue for writers who submit to competitions, hopeful for a place, for once a story has been published, it can no longer be submitted in other competitions.
Given that a short story can take months or years to craft, this indiscriminate publishing of stories landed with a thud. Sadly, the inaugural competition never saw a second year.
It was a great shame, not least because the competition and its future anthologies had enormous scope for highlighting the myriad talented writers in the Darebin community. It was also a dreadful outcome that my first win was somehow mired by controversy. However, I was and am still thrilled to have won.
An article in Crikey addressed this issue: http://www.crikey.com.au/2007/11/20/ruperts-minions-rip-off-young-writers/?wpmp_switcher=mobile&wpmp_tp=0
And this wonderful review from Whispering Gums: http://whisperinggums.com/2015/01/17/julie-twohig-full-circle-review/