London, England, 1992
It's a chilly winter morning, and the central heating has barely warmed my flat.
I'm rugged up in a jumper and Ugg boots, and the kettle's boiling. There's a knock at the door, and I know who's there without checking the peephole because I mark events on a calendar to help me remember things.
"Hi, Steve," my younger cousin from Perth greets me with a smile, her foggy breath from the outside cold billowing into the room.
"Jenny," I respond, "it's good to see you again." Although I recognise her, my cousin looks different from when we met at Gran's funeral two years ago. And it's not my dodgy memory or that she's more rugged up than me, in a parka and beanie, with her backpack still slung on her shoulders. Jenny's freckled face is thinner and, despite the smile, careworn.
"I'm sorry about the heating," I apologise. "It's a cheap flat. London's expensive."
"So I'm learning," Jenny says, shrugging off the backpack and removing her beanie to reveal a shock of close-cropped fair hair. "And I've only been here a few hours." We laugh, and her expression lightens. While Jenny visits the bathroom, I pour two mugs of tea.
I left Perth in 1987 for a gap year, planning to work part-time and travel. But I landed and stayed in London, returning home just once, for Gran's funeral. Jenny's also embarked on a gap year, taking a break from her Law studies. She wrote to me for advice, and I offered my sofa while she searched for a job and accommodation.
Jenny returns and pauses to browse my bookcase. "l've read this," she says, pulling out my secondhand paperback copy of The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. "Have you read his earlier book, In Patagonia?"
"Maybe, I'm not sure," I respond, and Jenny flushes red.
"I'm sorry," she says, and I realise she's thinking about my memory problems.
"There's no need to apologise," I reassure her. "I'm not good with names, places and dates, unless I jot them down," I laugh and tap her name on the calendar. "However, for some reason, I've got a good memory for books. Or at least the theme and how I felt about it, if not the title and all the details." Jenny laughs, too, and we sit on the sofa to drink our tea.
"What did you think of Songlines?" I ask, hoping it will ease her embarrassment.
"I liked it," she says, cradling the mug to warm her hands. "But I was surprised and disappointed to learn later that Chatwin described the book as nonfiction and fiction. I thought it was a true travel story about Aboriginal songlines and culture."
"Yes, me too," I agree. "But in fairness to Chatwin, his book was my introduction to the extent and diversity of Aboriginal nations and languages in Australia. And how their songlines can thread through dozens of languages across the continent." I chuckle and add, "See, I remember some details."
Jenny and I laugh again, and then she asks, "I know it may be a stretch, but do you remember that day at Gran's place when we climbed her old tree?"
"Yes," I nod. "We sat on a branch together, listening to our dads at the BBQ. And afterwards, you raced me to the top of the tree, and I couldn't catch you. I also recall that I couldn't remember your name, but it didn't matter."
We smile at each other, sipping our teas and sifting through childhood memories.
Jenny breaks the silence. "I recall your Dad talking about Aboriginals and their connection to the land."
"And how they go walkabout," I add.
"You remember?" Jenny says, and then looks embarrassed again.
"Of course," I chuckle, "the afternoon was like a book." We laugh again, and I add, "But from what I've read, Dad wasn't quite right about why Aboriginal people go walkabout. It's more than being on their land. It's a rite of passage for young males."
Jenny cocks her head. "Have you read many books about Aboriginals?"
"A few," I nod again, "I inherited some of my interest from Dad. But during the Bicentennial celebrations back home in 1988, the BBC over here broadcast documentaries about colonisation and Aboriginal dispossession almost every night. And they inspired me to learn more. So I searched for books by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal writers."
I pause to sip my tea and collect my thoughts.
"And it's one reason why I haven't returned Perth, except for Gran's funeral. I don't like what I've learned about the true history of Australia." I pause to sip my tea again. "And sometimes I wish I could forget it, like I do with other things."
"I know what you mean," Jenny says with a sigh. "I haven't forgotten what you said in the tree about the Aboriginal girl at my school who disappeared with her brother, and how they might have gone walkabout."
It's my turn to flush red. "Oh, that was a stupid suggestion, sorry."
"You didn't know any better back then," Jenny reassures me. "I'm specialising in Aboriginal legal studies for my Law degree, and I've been researching accounts of the Stolen Generations. And although forced removals officially ended in the 1970s, it's possible the girl and her brother were fostered out at the tail-end of the program."
Once again, we sip our teas, digesting our thoughts. And then I ask, "Why are you taking a gap year?"
"Because," Jenny sighs again, "what I uncovered about the treatment of Aboriginals shocked me. It made me angry and led to arguments with family and friends, seeminly stuck in a 1970s mindset about Aboriginal people. And so," she pauses and finishes her tea, "like you, I need a break from Australia."
I return Jenny's tight smile and collect our empty mugs. "Well, you're welcome to join me here in exile and use my sofa for as long as you need. But in addition to the English weather and exorbitant costs, you'll have to get used to drinking lots of tea. So let's have another mug and chat some more."