At the time, I’d wondered whether I was at the wrong wedding. It was surreal to watch my ex-wife marrying a different man. This was the woman that I’d worshipped, loved, shared intimate secrets with for more than a decade of marriage. Yet, after ten years she’d discarded me like a used tissue, then moved on quickly. Told me I’d been sucking the oxygen out of our relationship and she was suffocating. I hadn’t seen it coming, and it felt like a grenade had exploded in my chest when she left. When she re-married, she’d invited me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was sympathy, guilt, friendship, but knowing Sally like I did, it was more likely a parting poke in the eye. I shouldn’t have gone along because I was still grieving. I hadn’t been able to let her go.
Her quick sense of humour and mischievous outlook on life had attracted me initially. We were in our mid twenties when we’d wed, and life was a rollicking series of experiences and hilarity. Sally often fired off a guttural riposte of “Sucked in!” to those on the receiving end of her frivolity. Our friends began referring to her as “Sucked in Sally.” Before she’d lobbed the grenade of separation, I’d thrived on the excitement generated by her witticisms and had probably become dependent on her, rather than myself, to make me feel worthwhile. I accept that in hindsight.
I never saw her again after her new marriage. I’d heard she’d moved interstate with her new man before I lost track of her. So many new states to experience her wicked sense of humour, so little time. In the interim, I’d moped around coping with bouts of depression and funk, broken-up briefly by a couple of short-term, unedifying relationships.
I’d worked casually in a variety of mind-numbing jobs and travelled a lot with a beaten-up old Kombi stuffed full of camping gear. That cobbled together piece of German engineering had become my home for the past few years and it was where, on a chilly April dawn in a van park in Mallacoota, Victoria, my brother had phoned. Said he’d just found out that Sally had died a couple of years ago and asked if I’d known. Thought it was an illness but was unable to elaborate further.
I was stunned. How could such a huge personality suddenly not exist? There’d be a lot less mirth and laughter in a world without Sally. Trust me, I’ve known that acutely for many years. I needed to think clearly, get my head around this phone call which had arrived with a sonic boom. Rugging up quickly, I stumbled from the Kombi and began walking aimlessly along the coastal walking track between the Mallacoota sea cliffs and the Betka River. In my head, I was reviewing scenes from our personal movie which had been ten years in the making, and was still housed at the front of my memory vault. Like a cinema tragic, I was a regular viewer of that movie.
After thirty minutes of wandering and reflection, and oblivious to the stunning sunrise beyond the rocky seacliffs and Gabo Island, I became aware that I wasn’t alone. The coastal track wound through quite dense heathland, and it would have proved a difficult task to deviate from the defined path. I hadn’t seen any other walkers as most sane people would probably still be smugly cocooned in the warmth of their blankets. A small eastern spinebill had emerged from the heath and landed on the track about 10 metres ahead of me. Twitching and dancing around on the spot, it grabbed my attention with a flickering display of black, white and cinnamon plumage. I continued walking towards it, and as I neared, it quickly flitted another ten or so metres further along the track. This happened repeatedly for perhaps 200 metres, and I pressed the pause button on the movie I’d been watching in my head. Why doesn’t it fly off into the security of the thick heath and away from me?
The mind is a fascinating thing, particularly when issues haven’t been satisfactorily resolved. I’d suppressed a lot of emotions in the years since Sally had cut me loose, but suddenly ridiculous memories bubbled to the surface. I recalled that Sally had told me, in happier times, that she’d always be near me. If she passed away, she’d come back as a bird and watch over me. Like having my own pet vulture she’d joked. It was probably a perfect storm of my emotions, lack of resolution, and the phonecall, but I began to imagine that this small bird was actually Sally. She’d crossed over as a bird to watch out for me. To comfort me.
Up ahead, the small spinebill performed a coquettish dance on the track then it turned away from me lifting and shaking its tail feathers. Sally had often done that to me in her underwear when I’d walked in while she was dressing. My mind was spinning in freefall. This was Sally. She’d recognised the hurt she’d caused me and was seeking forgiveness. The bird abruptly flitted from the path into the heath for a few metres. I could just make out the cinnamon of its underbelly through the shrubbery.
“Please. Don’t leave me again, Sally!” I shouted aloud, and plunged headlong into the coastal heath totally unaware of the gaping stares of a pair of grey haired, early morning walkers who at that moment had encountered me on the track. They retreated after seemingly having their morning ruined by the delusions of an addict. Sally continued flitting away from me each time I neared but I blindly followed, crashing roughly through salt encrusted branches. My chest heaved with anguished sobs because I feared losing sight of her. Finally, Sally rested on a thin branch about 2 metres up and let me approach. I gently reached upwards with both hands, yearning to touch her.
“I’ve always loved you Sally,” I soothingly cooed to the bird and took a tiny last step. That was the step that plunged me spread-eagled over the hidden embankment of the Betka River and into the chilly waters below. Spluttering to the surface, and shocked by the unexpected jolt of cold water, I scanned frantically upwards towards Sally’s branch. She was still there.
“Sucked in. Sucked in,” the small honeyeater trilled, twitching its tail feathers and releasing a thin dollop of birdshit. Then, with a flash of cinnamon, it abruptly flew out of my life seeking further blossoms to plunder.