He just disappeared.
How does someone who’s not in your life disappear from it? Just like that.
Bailey, the mutt, insinuates himself into my twitching leg, and I rub his eager, leaning head. He continues to lean hard. My leg continues to twitch as I tap awake my iPhone and click into WhatsApp. I’m sitting on my bed as I do this, and already I am filled with a kind of dread, and a kind of longing, both.
Scott’s name is at the top of my list of favourites. I open the chat and take note twice in short succession of the last time he’s checked in. 15:36, to my 15:39. 15:43 to my 15:53. Then I wait it out, lying on the bed, phone in hand, specs on, watching over and over two PJ Harvey numbers on YouTube. I do this till 17:15, when I check again, but he’s not been back since 15:43.
This is how we communicate.
I feel possessed by this knowledge: that despite a disappearance that must surely have been coerced or bartered, we’re sending each other smoke signals. It’s 1.15am in Western Australia; but surely he isn’t asleep? If I were rational, I’d stop checking. But I don’t. For how long can this muted conversation go on? Indefinitely. I’m in it for the long haul. I draw up a table, label it Smoke Signals, pop it into Dropbox. Meticulously, I make a note of every time I check into my phone, and every previous check-in of his. Like a code breaker, I examine this chart of figures, dazed in my attempt to decipher the intervals, the correlations. I must get to grips with this jagged communication, for communication it is. Every check-in of his is proof to me that his obsession is symmetrical with mine. I know it is.
I am waiting for a man to return to me. I am waiting, like Penelope, like Ariadne. Not so much the wifely patience of the one, but Ariadne! I can see her sleepily rousing herself, feeling for her lover in bed, only to discover that nullus erat. Pithy, that Latin: no one was. How do I even know nullus erat, when obviously I read Ovid’s story in English? Ever the student, ever the teacher, I Google define: nullus. The words Nullabor Plain spring to mind: plain where no tree is. I Google Nullabor Plain to see if that was where we drove to, all those years ago, but no, we didn’t get that far east.
We’d set off from Perth at dawn in a borrowed ute and driven along the Great Eastern Highway, straight into a blur of early spring sun. At Mundaring, we turned off the highway and kept apace with the Perth-Kalgoorlie pipeline. He told me the pipeline had made gold mining much easier: water had previously been transported by camels. Before hitting Kalgoorlie, we’d stopped at Coolgardie, once boasting its own gold rush. It felt like the sad set of a parody photo-shoot. He told me about the Canning Stock Route from Kimberley to Wiluna, the movement of cattle to markets, the wells, conflict. Always conflict around water. I Google Canning Stock Route now, read about the reprisals, the vandalised wells. He’d said: We must go to Kimberley one day, it’s beautiful up there. Wild. I’d thought: where we are, we don't make plans.
My recollections from that stretch of the journey coalesce with moments enamelled in photographs, memory and image alloyed into a single substance. That batch of photos is bathed in a green light that spells Agfa, turning the dry landscape into an aquatic dream. I was wearing jeans and a grey jumper, under it a black T-shirt with a pattern of starry constellations. My hair was still long and unruly, I captured it in the side mirror, fanning up behind me in the breeze as the endless road dwindled in the puff of dust we raised in our wake. Ahead, the road was a zip, gathering together the folds of a landscape that looked uncharted and unchanging, though of course it was neither of those things, forming part of a heritage trail, for goodness sake. I remember wondering if the landmarks were too subtle for me to understand: milestones in another language.
In one photo – in my memory – afternoon light is slanting into the ute, I can see his lit profile as he swigs from a Coke bottle, one hand light on the steering wheel, gaze set at middle distance. Adam’s apple. Sandy hair and pale, fathomless eyes grant his skin the appearance of a light dusting of freckles. That enviable confidence of someone for whom the car is a prosthetic extension of his own body: to my mind, so manly. He’d have been scarcely older than a boy then. Twenty seven. I had just turned thirty nine.
Seventeen years elapsed between that brief and tender fling and his name popping up as a friend request on Facebook. I’d not given him much thought after my flight home to England. A whole lifetime had passed, it seemed, of photographs taken, edited, matted, rejected, published; of classes taught, of being outdistanced in the career sprint by students, of meals cooked and countries visited. I’d become an orphan, a property owner, an aunt for the third time, a wife for the second time, a divorcee for the second time. I was four years shy of a senior citizen’s rail-pass, but I was doing yoga and eating raw greens. I’d mostly given up smoking.
A prickle of delight as I clicked confirm. Instant access to a cover photo of mind-numbing banality repels and fascinates me. Clearly him, but thickened, coarsened, wearing a Panama hat too mannered by half, terrible knee-length shorts and the kind of sunglasses people use when they want to look sharp. With him, in what looks like a public garden, are two limber boys, comprehensively sun-kissed, gazing impishly out through wind whipped hair. There are three skateboards in the photo.
OMG! He must be in his mid forties and he skateboards?.
Me: Hey! What a surprise! :) OK, so two children. What else? Lovely to bump into you.
His first response is visual. I note with pleasure that he’s pretty consummate with smartphone snapshots. My board (aerial shot of skateboard); my job (packed van), my beer (crate), the van (side view, logo). Me. Sliver of a pic, red filter, only the incandescent eyes.
Him: U 2 kids? Me 2. I was thinking about you the other night, thought I would have a hunt, found your blog, found your facebook, etc. You look flat out as ever. Cover pic of me and spawn.
Me: great seeing you. Skateboards? Oh, I meant you two kids, not me. How old? Me, none. Who’s the mum – same girlfriend you had? U still in Perth? You look the same hunk, only with beard.
I wasn’t sure I meant that, but soon enough I would come to.
A later selfie shows him close up. Tired, a bit dissolute, grizzled stubble. Teeth stained, bad. He’s lost one too, and when, much later, we begin talking on Skype, he covers his mouth with his hand till I ask him not to. But his light eyes are still searing. He’s wearing one of those blue Chesty Bond vests I photographed back then in my series Down, Down, Under Me, and he looks nicely made: bone, muscle, sinew, flesh, skin, all of it strung together in a fairly sexy package. Here I could take cover, I think. He’d smell sweet beneath the sweat and beer and cigarettes. My friends would think he’s a bit of rough. But I can see he’s a bag of gentle. I would be shy, his arms would encircle me snugly and he’d nuzzle my ear. Later he’d pour into this same ear dirty words in that soft lilt. He would have strong thighs. I can almost remember his body back then, leaner, his pale, capable thighs. He was hairier than you’d expect. And recollecting the shape of him from a shady, solitary tent pitched on the edge of a vast plain of salt pans, I remember the clean, minty taste of his balls.
Him: Eleven and twelve, the boys. Luke and Dylan. Me and Angie together, not married. No, she’s not the same woman.
We met when I was halfway through a three-month residency in Perth. I was luxuriating in the flexible remit, the reduced teaching duties; missing very little of my bruised London life. I’d run into the stranger that was Scott on a suburban train. He was edgy but softly spoken, reserved. We spoke a lot. He’d worked for years, and was now studying design part time. He was interested in the way images and words worked together. I’d loved that. He had a girlfriend with a diminutive boy’s name –Jamie or Sammy – but that didn’t matter much to me, since there was no question of a lasting partnership.
Now, I ask about Angie.
We’ve been together fourteen years. Been to the wars together.
Him: Well, drugs together, later, rehab together. I had to give up design school when she got pregnant with Luke. Coming to live in this back of beyond so as not to grind into temptation. It’s hot and dry and mean and nasty here. You?
Me: Still the same. Photography. Digital now. Teaching too. Was married for ten years. We moved from London to the countryside in the East Midlands. I stayed on after the marriage broke. I got the house. The room I’m now in looks over the small garden: sending a pic of the ash tree, it’s a survivor.
I snap the naked tree, the wintry back garden, its trellised view to the paddock beyond.
Him: Oh, that’s cool. You lucky cow. Someone’s got to keep it real.
Him: We rent a fibro shack.
Him: Don’t you find it amazing that this can happen? A telegraph. A studio in the palm of your hand.
Me: So bloody amazing. Then I add: Bit problematic that i can’t see screen without specs. Wear glasses now for reading and writing.
Him: glasses R hot.
He offers more evidence of time travel: I have a bit of a belly.
Me: Bellies are hot.
Then I say: Hey, I will scan you a great photie of us on that first road trip.
Over several days of punch-drunk exchange, back and forth across seasons and time zones, and in the particular idiolect born of tapping tiny keyboards equipped with inbuilt predictive text and a readymade range of hieroglyphs standing for the full range of human emotions (though not, I later note, one for devastated), he describes how he lives: small town on the Wheatbelt, we may have even passed it on our way to Kalgoorlie, godforsaken, hottest place on the planet, cultural asshole of the world, social and engineering project gone wrong. However, we attempt to endure the best we can.
Then he tells me: I ended up few yrs ago underground, gold mining, fairly full-on stuff but some really interesting times. Images zoom in on the scars on his body, trophies of danger and forbearance. I’m a train wreck.
Me: What happened to that job?
Him: Mine was shut down, safety issues and lousy management. Spent the last two months smoking synthetic weed and taking photos.
Me: What happened to the photos?
Him: Sad story. Lost my iPhone somewhere between Kal and Southern Cross, drunken dash home. 800 photos still floating around the ether somewhere.
Then softer jobs. Delivering parcels to bored housewives, you should see them, they’re all up for it; taxi driver dodging punch-ups on Saturday nights, streets running with beer and piss. Gets unhinged when drunk. Gets unhinged. An alien intruder in my world of Beaujolais-sipping, genteel liberals, he posts local agit-prop on his Facebook page, slogans about power, invective against police corruption in WA. He lobbies, he writes letters, he antagonises people, works up a head of rage. Fulminates about foetal alcohol spectrum disorders born of historical trauma, children without plan or prospect. He skateboards with kids less than half his age, boys. They look rough, but weirdly gormless.
Skateboarding is pure economy of movement: vehicle, body and mind coalesce into one supple, alert instrument, coursing high on the unadulterated drug of adrenaline. It's also politics. He dreams of a democracy in the shape of a huge skateboard park for underprivileged local kids, needing communal boards, very fucked up community. More than once, he describes streaming across town late at night, slicing through the air with the wind making a parachute of his shirt, flirting with police thuggery. Maggots, he writes. I suspect, in sudden pockets of silence that he later describes as epic, that from time to time he’s briefly hauled in.
I never ask where Angie is, though sometimes I act like the sensible one, telling him to be careful. Be careful at home, I write, sanctimonious. He says nothing in response. Instead, he finds where I live on Google Earth. You live in a beautiful part of the world, he writes.
A couple of weeks in, he asks if we can change from Facebook Messenger to a more private app. He suggests Snapchat, which quickly erases all content, but I’m sentimental, I’m already nourishing a future nostalgia: I want to be able to keep the photographs, keep the words. I wonder if there’s been a domestic security breach on his Facebook page. I tell him let’s change to WhatsApp, it’s only accessible on your phone. And then I wonder if Angie is the snooping type. She can’t like this, her man constantly distracted by his phone. I imagine her as dark-haired, wan, lovely. Young. A woman made thin by addiction, a mother of two. I scour his Facebook photos for an image of her. I find one, presuming she’s the person he’s enfolding with casual possessiveness in a group shot of a barbecue. She’s blonde; pretty of course. Jealousy electrocutes me. I blow up the image to its pixelated extreme, trying to fathom her magic, wondering if she’s seen pictures of me.
Him: We been chewing through the apps.
Then he says: We should go low tech, am fairly sure there are migratory birds your way that make it all the way to Perth.
Me: Awwwwww what a thought <3
Him: Good morning sweetie!
Me: Need get up soon. Coffeeeee please!
Him: On to it babe.
Him: I do feel a little ashamed of not keeping in touch, things got crazy for a while, the smack habit was fairly demanding for years, long climb back out and no time for me. And he adds, as though for years there’d been an un-kept obligation of intimacy, a promise not honoured, I have so many funny stories to tell you.
Then he says things like: I like your selfy, you sexy thang.
I write back: heheh, old bag
Him: You and me both, baby:)
Then he writes: You may have a few more miles than me, but I have copped a thrashing, so hopefully we’re sitting about right!
The photographs we exchange are calling cards from the unimagined lives of strangers. I am parsimonious in the selfies I send. I prefer to capture snippets of the life around me. The pictures that come from him are artful. They’ve been composed and reworked with digital filters, sometimes with a smattering of stencilled letters, his initials, occasionally mine, the date, a number in a series. Two ears of wheat on a sunbaked skateboard. Lavender in a haze of summer light. His feet up, early morning mug on table, telescoped against a latticed porch. A room where almost all is plunged in darkness, the kind of minimal image I would love on a gallery wall. A street with a sign reading XXXX Gold. The door of a small bakery, hunched sleepy in the midday glare. Kids bombing into a pool.
I write: Your bits are beautiful. Then I correct it: Boys, not bits. Bits too.
I send him more scanned photos from back then.
He says: of course I was smitten by you, hot, smart, educated, talented, confident. And real.
Me: Flatterer! all that in one me-package? I wish I’d have known :)
Him: I wish I’d have said something, wot a dope.
Me: You took me into that countryside.
Him: I loved showing it to you. Can you remember walking into that salt pan in the dark by yourself and watching the stars slide off the horizon?
I do remember. We’d been driving all day. I was breathless with the hush, the transparent night air, the scale of the dried salt lake, the snowy plain of it lucent under a cold moon.
After Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, we’d headed south-east. I had rolled those place names – to me exotic, evocative – in my mouth. We’d found the turn-off after the fourth cattle grid. My notes for Down, Down, Under Me show I was already thinking of ‘outback’ as an invented notion, a construct. I was photographing ‘Australianness,’ its icons, its clichés, its surprises. Construct or not, I was still in the thrall of a romance with the idea of wilderness: there we were, right in the middle of it. Clearly, we had dovetailing agendas for the adventure of our several road trips. For him, a sense of ownership of the land, together with humility at its intransigence. Showing it to someone he’d soon fuck had something virile about it, but also tender. For me, an urgent need to have someone embody this scarily huge place, inhabit it, be it. I was flattered by how young he was. I was also in love with the accent. He looked the part: troubled and cool in equal measure. I suppose we used each other: he was my portal to wildness, I was his access key to the possibility of a world where people could live by writing words and making images.
There we were driving into the landscape and simultaneously, I was watching us driving: two strangers in a road movie, the whirr of the Toyota and of sexual promise in the air between them. Between us. The unmarked cobalt sky skated past; sparse, stubby trees and glaucous shrubs puncturing the uncompromising red earth; hummocky tufts of grass dwindling to infinity. A blossoming unease as I realised the landmark he was looking for was nothing more auspicious than a cattle grid. And there I was in the middle of nowhere with a stranger.
He could be an axe murderer.
The next morning, I took a photo of him in a shimmer of light outside our tent, wielding the axe he’d brought to chop logs for our campfire. Axe-arm aloft, he’s smiling broadly: he looks very young.
Remember the axe murderer? I ask
Then he says things like: Hey, R U there?
Yes I am!
Him: How is your day going, sweetie? Mine has been fairly lucrative. Killed a cat, that was sad, kicked a mean drunk into the road, that was fun, can’t wait to shut down, fuck me this town is dead. On a positive note, Big moon rise…
Then he tells me that dancing away to Bjork Big Time Sensuality makes me think of us.
Our lines knot together, ever tighter.
I ask him if we should stop this now, it’s starting to feel tricky.
Me: Well, should we?
Me: I guess there’s no danger of us smooching in real space-time…
Him: What never? :(
Me: eheeheh, not at this moment.
Him: This is pretty damn fine though.
Then he asks: Hey did you hear that a piece of light was stored as information just recently?
Me: no…. what does that even mean?
Him: the sky is not the limit
Him: The body isn’t the limit.
Then, a bit cheesy, me: But the body sets limits. We get into trouble for bodies.
It would be nice to be with you now, he writes, in our bodies.
Me: That gave me a jolt of the real. In a nice way. In a longing way.
Him: Baby, teleport yourself to me now, squeeze your way through this body-mind gap.
Me: Really I should back off now.
Him: Wot? U crazy?
Then he writes: I do think that if we want to continue we may have to start considering a plan?
Me: Plan? What plan could we possibly make?
I am not certain this enchantment is translatable into the world of material bodies, smells, irritations, love’s fallout. Money. There is no overlap in the moorings securing each of us to a world. But still, immediately, I’m transported to a dusk-filled hotel room someplace distant; I’m looking out of a large window onto a noisy, muggy city perhaps in Southeast Asia, and he’s behind me, his unknown breath on my clammy neck.
Him: You think not?
Me: I think maybe not, though right now, there’s nothing I’d like more.
Him: We can swing something.
I ask if we can talk about it later.
I prop my phone on a table and take a close-up that cuts out half my face. He flatters me with his words. I send him views from my windscreen, glamorously decked in a spangle of raindrops. I send him pictures of my meals and ask to see what he’s eating. I send him freesias in a jug in my kitchen. I send him Bailey looking winsome. I send him the foyer at the Barbican Centre as I’m entering to watch a coveted production of Richard II. He writes Send Wills my love, perhaps to show me he knows. I send him the stained sky of an early winter sunset, the sparkle of a clear day. He sends me selfies in a van, more close-ups of seed heads, piles of skateboards, graffiti. He sends me the sun sliding high behind a pepper tree. A field of ripe wheat. A table on a veranda. A neighbour’s dog, the worse for wear. Heat emanates from his photos, like drowsiness. He drives to the place in Perth where I had stayed, all those years ago; frames himself lopsided, pointing up at what had been my window. The photos are clothed in brief words, but their truncated syntax evokes a whole world.
He writes: I breathe you. My own breath catches. He tells me he can’t sleep. I tell him I can’t sleep. He asks for snuggle shots; I send him a picture of my hot water bottle.
Him: Your hottie. you cold?
Yes I am.
I can hear he likes that. The idea of warming me.
He asks to see me now, now, pleeeeez. I comply. Too close, the nose looks big, the eyes smudged in grainy darkness. You can just see my shoulder, but I’ve managed to cut out the arm securing the phone for the photo. The light falters, catches my hair, arranges itself moodily on my face. Weak light, flattering. Almost erases the bar code of fine lines above my lip. Good, I think before pressing the send button.
Send me you, I write.
He writes: Things feel on a knife edge here, concerned about external chaos interfering.
He won’t explain.
Then some days later, I have him to myself again, now under a tree at daybreak, stippled in roseate light. He’s wearing a white singlet, his jeans are unzipped, and spot-lit in his able fist, that beautiful, scary cock of his.
This is when we start to Skype. Our motions are underwater-slow, out of sync. We whisper, and we laugh. We each put our fingers up and touch a screen, imagining touching each other. I message him: Keeps cutting out. We send more text messages from bed, me not yet risen in the early morning, him taking time off in the afternoon heat.
Where are Angie and the kids? I don’t ask.
So we are in bed together, um ah, he writes.
Yes we are.
Getting your hands warm. What are you wearing?
White smock, longish. Not naked, hah. Better or worse?
You’re in it, I love it, he says.
Yours hands are warm. Still breathing? This is me to him.
Only just, he writes. You’ve stayed with me, all these years he says. Just brushing the fine hairs on your skin.
With your lups?, I write. Lips, I correct.
Lups if your Scottish. I remember your lovely lups.
Later, every time I re-read I remember your lovely lups, I want to cry.
I’m not going to cry about losing someone in the ether.
Because, well you’ve guessed: one morning, long before daybreak, I’m fully under the duvet, and he tells me Angie and the kids are coming back later.
Where have they been? I ask. Panic freezes each of those words.
They went to her sister at the beach, near Perth. Too hot here, he says, and then adds, with the feigned shrug of a throwaway line, she didn’t like that I was writing to you all the time. I told her this was about me, not about her, but she was cut up. I’m missing the kids, though. I asked her to come back.
I dive, I plummet. I fake it: I act grown up.
It’s 5am my time. We Skype.
Then I write: You go be good.
Then I write: You have to do the right thing. Be happy to have them back. The boys. Angie as well.
Back tomorrow, give me 24 hrs, he writes.
No worries, thanks for letting me know.
Can’t wait. You are darling, thanks, U dear and special to me.
U2me. Have a calm day, xxx, I write
I will as you will. Go back to sleep. Dreams sweet heart zzzzzxxxxx
And that is it. Those are the words we exchange before the deafening silence crashes in around me. I am in a vacuum pack of waiting. I check into WhatsApp on average thirty times a day. He’s checking in too. We’re flashing at each other via the Morse code of the Age of the Internet. Three days in, I write: Sweetie…? Scott? Are you there? Missing you.
The following day, I write: Are you OK? Is everything alright? Boys? I fantasise disaster, death.
Two days later, I write: Scott, what is going on? You last wrote six days ago, can’t imagine U not having one moment in all this time just to let me know how things are?
Two days after that, I write: So was the deal you cut with Angie no contact at all with me? None even to warn me that there would be no contact?
The next day, I write: Fair enough. I think nothing else, nothing in our actual communication, explains suddenly cutting me out. Ah well. Go your own way. My feelings unchanged. Hope all ok.
Three days later, I write: Out into the vacuum again, me to you, with what is left of my belief in telepathy.
The following day, I write: Well fuck you, sneaking into my life like that and then changing the terms. I didn’t ASK you for this.
The day after, I write: Woke up in disarray. Forgetting what I need, do YOU need to hear from me, or do u prefer me to play dead? The smoke signal thing is hard to translate into English, my intuition is failing me here.
Two days after that, I write: Don’t need to chat, just want to know if you’re OK.
That same day, I write: Can u tell me what the fuck is going on?
Then I resign myself to watching the signals, ghostly blips of presence that leave tiny digital footprints. Making precise note of the times he checks in gives structure and purpose to my days. The more random the check-ins appear, and the closer together in time mine are to his, the more convinced I become that we are working with synchrony and extra-verbal communication.
Finally, four weeks and five days in, the ESP has worked. It’s a bracing, bright day and blue air is filling my kitchen. The kettle’s on and I’m talking myself out of lighting up. Bailey’s being ingratiating around my calves, hoping for a light snack. I shield the phone screen from the glare and tap into my chat with Scott. Ha, “chat”, now there’s a conceit, I say to Bailey.
And then, all at once, an event of divine synchronicity. There, on the miniature screen, and thanks to a God-given intervention, to my inspired clairvoyance, to universal simultaneity, there he is online, with me, in real time. Online, it says, under his name. I smile at the genius of all things, the convergence of the virtual paths of two humanoids with 9000 miles of real space and air between them, suspended, each looking at a small and luminous mechanical object. I am awash in magic and optimism as I tap: Scott? Hi!! Speak?
Then I add: pleeeeez.
Scott is typing, the app tells me.
Hey… he writes. I am caught in a gluey medium that makes everything, all movement, decelerate and come to a standstill. I wait an infinite moment.
Listen, the letters appear like ticker tape on my screen. Get your filthy claws out of my man. We are a family. Now piss off, you old, old bitch.
That comma undoes me.
Here’s what I think: his life might have followed another track, though perhaps it was never going to, not really. He’s a man with many plans, I tell myself, and no way to realise them. What was I dreaming anyhow.
And me? I still sneak into his WhatsApp profile to see if he’s been there. But no. I harbour the furtive sense of a universe minutely readjusted, briefly and twice. And sometimes, even now, I close my eyes and allow myself to drive with him towards that salt lake, breathing at last the oxygen of change.