16. Paradise Found
Matthew certainly felt changed by marriage. Even now, after only three days of being married to Elspeth Harmony, and sitting in the Singapore Airlines aircraft as it curved an arc over the East Timor Sea, he felt a very different person from the person he had been before. I’m a married man, he whispered to himself; a whisper unheard over the background noise of the great engines, that half-hushed hissing that makes the white noise of a jet cabin. He glanced at Elspeth in the seat beside him, asleep under the thin airline lap-rug, a shaft of high altitude sunlight falling across her forearm, making the skin warm and gold. Such smooth skin, thought Matthew, like that of a nectarine. Ma petite nectarine, he thought; something that the French might say, with their taste for culinary endearments.
He had been in no doubt that he loved her. He had believed that from their first meeting, even though he knew that it was absurd that one might love another whom one did not really know. Or was it? Could one have a generalised love for humanity, something between agape and passionate love, a state awaiting transformation into full-blown love when the opportunity arose? This meant, of course, that at least part of the love one felt for one’s beloved was of another origin, came from somewhere else, and merely settled opportunistically on the chosen person; but that, he thought, was inevitable.
Their time together, as husband and wife, an expression so much richer, so much dearer, than the anodyne, soulless “partners,” had convinced Matthew that in proposing to Elspeth he had done exactly the right thing. They were happy, entranced with the leisurely discovery of each other, fulfilled in a way that Matthew would never have thought possible. Eros himself had sent a vision in the hotel room in Singapore in which they had spent the night half way through their long journey to Perth; he had appeared to them in Raffles Hotel, no less, under the swirling fan of their room overlooking the courtyard. And Matthew had lain awake and thought how pale an imitation of erotic delight was anything that he had experienced before. This was love with commitment, and that, he realised, made a profound and unmistakable difference. How shallow, by comparison, was mere physical dalliance; how empty!
The journey from Singapore to Perth took barely five hours. From the window of the plane, Matthew watched the coast of Western Australia reveal itself below; a long line of brown on the edge of the steely blue of the sea. A thin lacing of white on the edge of the brown marked the littoral divide, and then, behind that, a nothingness of both land and sea. From up there the world looked neatly laid-out, like a map, with well-behaved expanses of brown, blue, green, all in their place. Their height made the landscape look easy, though he knew it was tough, waterless, unforgiving of anyone who found himself cast upon it; a place where unfortunate sailors had died on the shores and cliffs or had wandered off into the interior and never been seen again. Australia swallowed people; sucked them into its great emptiness.
Elspeth woke up just before they dropped down towards Perth itself.
“Down there,” said Matthew, and pointed to the forests of eucalyptus coming into sight beneath them.
She looked. The tops of the trees were swaying gently in a breeze; they were like a silver-grey sea in motion. A road cut through, die-straight; the top of a white truck could be seen moving slowly along it. And then the outer works of the airport, the perimeter fence, here as much, surely, to keep this great extending wilderness and its creatures out as to exclude human malevolence. Matthew took Elspeth’s hand. There is something significant about this landing, he felt; and yet we are here for only two weeks. Imagine arriving here knowing, as so many new arrivals had done before them, that one was going to stay, that this was where one would grow old and die.
They took a taxi to their hotel, a small private hotel in Cottesloe. It was morning, and they passed by people going to work, sitting in their cars listening to the morning news from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, looking in their mirrors, scratching their heads, looking up at the sky to see what the weather had in mind. It was all so ordinary, but so different.
For the rest of that day they did very little, other than to take a walk along the beach that was only two blocks away from their hotel. This beach stretched for miles, a broad sweep of sand, its surface broken here and there by outcrops of rock. Along the beach, atop the sand dunes that kept suburban Perth from toppling into the Indian Ocean, a long coastal path was the haunt of walkers, runners, exuberant dogs, the sea breeze in the hair and lungs of all.
And there was sun; everywhere there was that sun that painted everything with slabs of light, impasto thick.
“I had no idea,” said Elspeth.
He looked at her. “No idea of what?”
“Of all this,” she said. “It’s like discovering a parallel universe.”
He pondered her words. He knew what she meant, he suspected, because he had been thinking much the same thing himself, but had not found the words to express it. Perth was a world away from Edinburgh, but was not, because in many ways it was so familiar, so redolent of some distant idea of what Britain once had been, but was no longer. The signs of this were sometimes subtle, like the echoes of a familiar tune that one heard a long time ago; at other times they were obvious and arresting. On the drive to the hotel, from the back of the taxi, they had passed a school, and he had seen ranks of boys outside what looked like a school hall beginning to march into assembly. The boys wore khaki shirts and shorts and swung their arms like soldiers on parade; the morning sun shone upon them, benignly. The sign outside the school proclaimed its name: Scotch College.
“It’s very nice,” said Matthew. He felt a momentary guilt, embarrassment perhaps, that he should think such an old-fashioned thought, but it passed. There was nothing wrong, he reminded himself, in appreciating a bourgeois paradise when every other sort of paradise on offer had proved to be exactly the opposite of what paradise should be.
Why do people like Australia so much? he asked himself. And an unexpected answer came to him: it’s because everything that has been destroyed elsewhere, in an orgy of self-hatred, still survives here.