New Year’s Eve 2011, Dan and I are on a bus from Mount Barker to Perth. It’s full. People are already drinking, even though it’s not yet midday. Outside, the sun is vivid, passing through the window with ease, warming a narrow strip on my leg. I can smell the chocolate brownies I baked that morning, which sit in a paper bag at my feet. They are a gift for the friends we are spending New Year with.
Dan and I flew to Australia for their wedding a few months ago. We’d been at school with the guy who is now living in WA – working at Perth Royal, in the Intensive Care Unit. I’d only met his fiancée once before the wedding (when they came to the UK for their engagement party), but I could see how happy he was, so I loved her too.
Now, we know her well and can’t wait for the bus to arrive in Perth.
You guys have a way of landing on your feet! she’s always telling us.
It began the day after the wedding, with Dan and I in the back of the happy couple’s SUV, trying to be inconspicuous: it just so happened that the one place we’d planned to visit during our three-week trip to Western Australia was the same place they were going for their honeymoon.
Once they dropped us off at Dan’s uncle’s house in Denmark, I told them we didn’t expect to see them, but they were adamant we should come over for dinner three days later. Already by then Dan and I had been offered an empty house to live in. We worked out that by renting our place back in the UK we’d be able to stay in WA for several months, so we changed our flights.
You see! the wife said, once we gave them our news. Flat on your feet!
She already knew the story of how things had worked out for us in Mexico. I was forming a plan of setting up a brownie business. The only problem was that I needed to buy ingredients in bulk, which was going to be tricky on the bus, which didn’t stop anywhere near the huge supermarket I would need to get to.
After watching the sunset with a couple from New York that we’d just met on the beach, I asked if they wanted to come for dinner. Dan made quesadillas. As the night was falling into its deepest part, so quiet and thick and black, they offered me the use of their car so that I could stock up on all the supplies I needed.
It was a constant source of amusement for my friend’s wife – the eighteen months I’d spent in Mexico, selling brownies on the beach. After I discovered she made hers from a packet, I decided to share my recipe. I’ve only done that once before when a lady in Mexico got down on her knees in the sand and begged. For New Year, I’d decided to surprise her with a batch. When I told her that Dan and I were able to make it for the party, she said she’d ask around to see if one of her friends could put us up as they had family staying over the holiday.
It’s all right, I told her. We’ve met someone in Denmark who has a flat in Freemantle – he said we could use it over the weekend.
She laughed and said: sounds like you guys have done it again!
When we arrive for the New Year’s Eve party, one of the first things my friend’s wife says is: I’ve made your brownies and I think they’ve come out all right!
That’s great, I tell her, thinking she won’t want my gift now and trying to keep the bag hidden behind my leg – hoping she won’t notice the rich smell.
Dan and I laugh about it when we finally take a taxi back to Freemantle in the early hours, saying that we’ll just have to eat them all ourselves. It had been a great party. Our friend’s parents had been there from the UK. The last time we’d seen them was nearly four months ago at the wedding.
You’re still here! they said.
It was hard to describe how we couldn’t leave. Both Dan and I had been snagged on something we couldn’t articulate.
The following day, I go for a wander in Freemantle, giving Dan directions to the park near the church where he can meet me later. I check my emails and do a small search about a convict that escaped from the prison in Albany a few weeks ago.
On the prison website is a list of names with photos, beneath the heading: less than 5 years. There’s another heading – more than 5 years – which I click on. There are no pictures. In fact, there’s very little information at all: eye colour, height, distinguishing features. I notice a date of 1983 for an escapee. He’s home free.
I think of the prisoner from Albany. Since hearing about his escape, I have imagined him running through the forests along the coast – the freedom he must feel surrounded by so much land, and the trees as tall as they are, reaching up to the sky as if nothing could stop them. It’s a freedom Dan and I feel too, something we can’t leave.
I sit on a bench in the park by the church and read while I wait for Dan. He’s ten minutes late, fifteen minutes late. I decide to walk to the crossroads and look down the street the apartment is on. As I cross the park, I hear my name. Dan is jogging towards me. He has a queer distracted aspect.
Bad news, he says. I’ve locked us out.
I wasn’t thinking, he tells me. I’d just woken up. I’d been watching tennis, I was a million miles away, thinking about art, zoning out.
I’d actually given Dan the wrong directions to the church – one block too far – but, as it turned out, a lucky error. The road he turned down had a fire engine, cruising along. Dan flagged it down.
This is a long shot, he said to the man driving. You see, I’m completely screwed – I’m not from here and I’ve locked the keys into the apartment I’m staying in. It’s on the third floor, but the balcony door is open.
The driver thought for a moment and said: you didn’t hear this from me, but if you telephone 000, tell them you’ve locked yourself out and left the oven on, I’ll be the guy they send out.
We’ve got to get back to the flat, Dan tells me.
As we run down the street towards the apartment building, we see the fire engine coming the other way. There’s a father with a young toddler, watching.
Look, the father says. A fire engine!
But no fire, I think.
Two firemen jump out of the cab, one of them stocky, but broad, the other grey-haired and lean.
Are those the guys? I ask, but I can’t hear Dan’s reply.
By the way they greet him, I assume they must be. Two more men turn up in a smaller fire truck. They are younger and could be brothers with their identical, dark hair. We gather on the pavement. The firemen are looking up with grins on their faces.
Have you had to put out any real fires? I say.
When, today? the stocky man asks. He seems really moody.
Sure, I say.
He shakes his head and begins saying something to the ‘brothers’ and then all of them disperse, to their respective vehicles. A moment later the moody fireman comes back and explains that they’ve called a third truck with a longer ladder. He then asks if we would mind not alluding to the fact that this isn’t a serious situation.
Oh, god, I’m sorry – that was so dumb, I mumble.
He smiles and says: that’s okay.
The third truck turns up. It takes over ten minutes to make the preparations to lift the cherry picker. Dan is persuading the firemen to let him go up. Meanwhile, I go to the bar across the street to get a couple of six-packs for the firemen.
When I come out of the bar, I pass a cluster of people.
Locked their keys in, one of them says.
Hell of a lot of trouble, another adds.
Actually, I tell them, butting my head in, trying to look grave. The oven’s on…and the hob!
Oh, right, they say, looking sombre.
One of them points at the cherry picker, asking: but what good is that?
The balcony door is open, I explain.
That’s lucky, one of them says.
As I turn, I feel a sickening feeling. I’d gone out onto the balcony that morning. The door was unlocked from when Dan had been out the day before, but hadn’t I locked it again?
It’s too late now. Dan is in the cage, rising up. He’s waving at me.
Get a photo! he calls down.
All the while the cage moves up, I try to remember. Had I locked it?
Dan is now at the balcony, holding onto the rail and swinging his leg over. He moves out of view. Time passes. He’s taking too long, I think. If the door was open he would have given the thumbs up.
But then he appears at the balcony edge, grinning and cheering.
I tell the firemen I’ve bought them some beer, but that I’m sure they won’t want me giving it to them on the street. They ask if I would bring it to the station. I tell them Dan and I will be along in a little while.
I go upstairs to the apartment and see the bag of brownies on the kitchen counter.
Hey, I say to Dan. Why don’t we take those as well?
We make our way to the station with the beer and the brownies. The firemen don’t know what to say when we arrive.
You’d be surprised how few people bother with gifts, or even thanks, one of the firemen tells me.
I ask if they had any emergency calls over Christmas.
Boxing Day, comes the answer, but by the look on the man’s face I can tell he doesn’t want to talk about it. I feel a shiver of the dead then.
The firemen who look like brothers come in and the stocky one says to them: look what the poms have brought! One of the brothers takes a brownie and looks at me.
Is this what was in the oven? he asks.
Here’s to 2013 being a year for you all to land on your feet!