It was a late afternoon flight – the only one available – and daylight saving had ended the day before. The plane rode cloud cover all the way across Bass Strait and in just under an hour it came down out of the clouds and banked and frail dying orange light came into the plane as the sleety runway rose up and hit the wheels.
We climbed out of the rear of the plane and walked a hundred metres through light warm rain to a square terminal that seemed a lot bigger once you got inside. A trained beagle led by a uniformed customs officer greeted the passengers and pushed into someone's bag and pulled out an apple. No fruit admitted. I've seen this trick several times and every time the perpetrator looks guiltier than a terrorist. For some reason it always seems to be a well-dressed upper middle-class lady who has forgotten about the no-fruit rule. Bailed up by a beagle, hands in the air in dismay. Or just well-bred embarrassment.
I had wanted light so I could see where I was going. They had built new roads since last time I was here. But as we were heading north, I should be OK. No real easts or wests before you make the north/south decision. The airport is south of the city so I pointed the hire car north, across the river, and then north again alongside the river. It was completely dark now; the light had died with the contraband apple.
Next thing to think about was food: either divert into town and waste time looking for something or stay on the highway until about halfway where I knew a food store in the last small town would still be open: if I hurried, and if its website was correct. Closes 8 p.m. Mondays, it said. We'll see. It was seven o'clock. I had an eight year old, a twelve year old and a teenager on board. And two adults, counting me. Food. There would be nothing at our destination except a cabin and a key. If they remembered. I'd called twice, once to make the booking, the second time to confirm, but neither time did they ask for a deposit or a credit card number. I put it down to rural nonchalance, a quality that no longer exists, or at least the word doesn't.
The rain got heavier and the road narrowed as it wound north around hills. The river, a massive estuary, was below us off to the right but all you could see was blackness on that side. Rising away on the left were houses with sleepy yellow windows way up behind the trees. Half an hour of that in violent rain and then the 110 speed sign went down to 80. That was the halfway town approaching. Some lights were on in the main street, including the ones in the supermarket. I pulled over, right out the front.
'Stay here.' I opened the car door, letting in a few bucketfuls of rain, crouch-ran into the supermarket, gathered up some things from the hot bar and some drinks, and ran back to the car after paying the twenty-something behind the counter who could have known me half my life given her friendliness. Lightly freckled calcite skin, swept-back pale straw hair and a smile to launch a thousand small towns. The things you notice in ten seconds.
More hard rain. The windscreen wipers struggled, and the road ahead was a silver ribbon. No lights anywhere now. The river was still somewhere off to the right. It had to be. The car swished through another smaller lightless town, all tucked up for the night. Then another, just the same.
Twenty minutes later, the rain stopped just as the road ended, curving gently around to the right and narrowing down to a gravel bowl, one one side a closed shop and further around, an entrance: 'Green's Beach Caravan Park. Cabins.'
I could smell the sea. I walked around and looked for an office, found one and knocked. No-one home. I looked for a key. No box. Then a crunching sound. A dog emerged out of the darkness, leashed to a figure close behind. Could he help me? the figure asked. Yes, he could, I said. I had booked a cabin. Bit late, he said. Not accusing, just pointing out a fact. I said I'd told the lady on the phone we'd be here around eight. Not defensively, just stating a fact. We stated a few more facts just to be friendly in the darkness and then he said come over to the caretaker's caravan and we'd get his wife out and she'd fix everything. She came out and we had more pleasantries, and then we walked back to the closed office and she opened up and we examined the reservations book as if we were all detectives. She said the other people had gone a week or so ago, and they'd taken over and weren't sure about who was coming and who wasn't. Then she gave me the key and some milk for tea and pointed at cabin no. 1. I was right about that word that doesn't exist any more. It was right here on full display. They were the nicest people you could hope to meet but not a word of gushing city insincerity would ever pass their lips.
It was warm and clean and cosy inside, and the children destroyed the food and the drinks, and we opened the windows and the sea roar came in. They didn't even know how close the sea was, but I did. I'd been here before in a past life or what seemed like it. They would go out early in the morning, and they would run across the broad sand and shriek and climb the rocks and see the Bass Strait surf breaking and dancing on the horizon way out past the gentler waters of the semi-bay.