A little thing created in a day in the Blue Mountains in February. No plans, just a great desire to run away from my heartache and chase beauty. Thank you Nicole for dancing around in the cold & thank you Ella for letting me create something with your music.
I’m in Perth and it’s the last place on earth I want to be. The only person I know here is the one person I can’t see. I’m supposed to be letting go of this love but where is it supposed to disappear to? I have been carrying it for most of the past year now, growing used to the weight.
I am sleeping on stranger’s couches where I wake from nightmares forgetting what city or whose house I’m in. I’m going through the motions of life without really feeling any of it. Alba’s Papa has moved to this isolated city now. I will too, for Alba, but I feel so far away from everything and everyone I know.
I go to the sea. As I dive into the waves I am stripped of all weight. I am nothing but now. I remember what it is to feel whole, to not be sad. I swim out far enough that no one can hear me. “Why the hell are you being like this?” I demand of myself, “There is so much more to life than him. Look at how incredible this world is. You’re alive and healthy and tomorrow you’ll see Alba. Stop wasting life being sad when there’s so much to be happy about.”
I’m wrapped in a towel watching dolphins jump through the same waters that had just held me. There are birds in the trees above drowning the world in song. Everything is bathed in the pink, orange and purple of the setting sun. This city doesn’t seem so bad right now. For the afternoon, everything is just fine.
I wake up to a hopelessness so great I can hardly leave the bed. I don’t want to feel like this but the misery seems so much bigger than I am. I am supposed to meet this landscape photographer, Chris Beecroft, for ice cream today. I found him on instagram when a photographer I follow posted that he was Perth’s hidden gem and I knew he had to be special. But I cancel and say I’m too heartbroken. He offers to cheer me up but he’s a stranger to me and I just want to be alone.
When I was a child I used to do spells. Just little rituals I made up. I write down my wish to feel happy again and for my heart to heal. I burn it along with a sacrifice; a special page from my journal.
I am sitting in the backyard and the wind is throwing the trees to and fro. The paper is slowly eaten up by the fire. It feels like something immense is happening. My gut tells me it will take 3 days to work. 3 is my lucky number.
My skepticism battles with the faith I’ve put in the spell but my faith wins because it feels better to believe something might change. The heaviness has lifted. And besides, could I be miserable when Alba is the most brilliant little girl I’ve ever known? Not in the way that I am her Mama and I have to think so, but genuinely. She tells stories all day long, lost in imaginary worlds. Even when she’s wild I have to admire her spirit.
Then the third day comes to a close uneventfully and I realise I’ve been naive to think something would happen. That my heartache would just magically disappear because I’ve burned some paper. I feel like an idiot. A child discovering magic isn’t real after all. As the shadows threaten to close in on me again I say to the girls I am staying with, “Let’s do something. Let’s go somewhere.” I am running away before I’m swallowed up again.
We catch the bus to a place called Little Creatures. We get dinner and drink cider. Alba is playing with her newfound friends and I’m smiling as she coerces them into playing animals on the floor. I’m forgetting all about my heart beating broken in my chest or the spell I burned days ago, in fact it all seems rather dramatic and silly now.
I check my phone and I have a message from Chris (I’ll call him Bee from here-on in, it became his nickname in the beginning and it’s how I know him). I barely know anything about him but I have the sudden urge to meet him. I figure I should make friends here if I’m going to call this city home. He says he’ll come. My friends are going to the city to play a gig and they leave as he arrives.
So often it’s the unexpected beauty that hits me the hardest. Like watching a black bird lift its wings to take flight and seeing the brightest red feathers flash beneath them, or seeing a single flower growing amongst tangles of weeds, or glancing up at a glittering night sky in the middle of nowhere after months of blank city skies.
This is what happens when I see Bee. His beauty doesn’t seem suddenly or conventionally obvious but it does hit me. There is this brightness in his eyes, this wild and curious spark that says the child inside him has never grown up. He has messy blonde hair to his shoulders and he dresses like no one I’ve ever met. His voice is deep, part Australian and a little British.
He asks me a million questions. The kind of questions your best friend asks you at 2am. Questions ordinary people don’t bother with. He listens to each of my answers like I am the only person in the world. Then he speaks about his projects just like I do, fervently, like every word can’t come soon enough.
Alba’s sleepy and so I say I’d better get home to put her to bed. Bee walks me to the bus stop while I carry her. I tell him about my heartbreak quite seriously and the moment he makes me laugh about the whole sorry situation I think, who the heck is this boy that can make me laugh more in one night than I have in weeks? We are talking and laughing so much we miss the street and then my bus.
“Let me drive you home,” Bee says. There’s a carseat in his car that belongs to his nephew. He speaks about him so affectionately it has my thoughts running away from me. While we drive I get a text from the girl I am staying with letting me know I can’t stay the next night. It’s our last night in Perth before we visit family in Sydney. I’m worried and I say so and Bee says, “Stay with me, I live in a big house with two sweet Jazz musicians, you will love them. I’ll set up a room for you and Alba.”
When I get home and tuck Alba into bed I am glowing. That is the only word for it. I can’t stop smiling. This connection seems so sudden and unexpected. No one in my life makes me feel the way he does and I barely know him yet. I fall asleep as day three comes to a close and I don’t even realise that my wish has been answered. Coincidence or not.
His house is old with wooden floorboards and a big botanical illustration on the wall. He’s borrowed a box of toys for Alba to play with and we all make music together. I think about how if it wasn’t for missing that bus the night before I wouldn’t be here. How so many little things lead to big things.
Bee speaks like he is caught in the wrong decade. All ‘shall’ and ‘nonsense’ and ‘rather’ and words I’ve never heard anyone say aloud before. His roots are in England but he’s spent half of his life here. I keep watching him when he isn’t looking. He’s got a red mark across his nose where it’s broken and his cheeks flush in the cold. I think he’s beautiful.
Bee has a big collection of film cameras and when Alba sees them her eyes light up. She announces to us all that she has a camera shop. Bee’s friends come over and she sells each of us cameras. She calls herself the camera lady and she is very serious about her business. Everyone is laughing.
I put Alba to bed and we all play board games. Midnight arrives and they leave. I sit on his couch feeling small. I am longing to know how warm his skin is, what he smells like, what goes through his mind late at night. I want to hear all of his stories, even the terrible ones. I like him, but I’m not sure if he likes me. I worry that maybe he’s just friendly or maybe he won’t think of me like that because I am a mama.
I am quiet, just sitting there, but my mind is frantic because it’s getting late and if I don’t say something soon the moment will be lost. I’m not usually this nervous. Then he’s going to bed and my moment is gone. I’m about to leave too when he asks me where I’d like to sleep and I know just what he means and I play it cool but oh, inside I am grinning like a maniac.
One side of his room is just keyboards and music equipment. It smells like my favourite incense. He has lots of plants. Being close to him like this must be the best thing there is. His eyes hold little blue galaxies and his smile reaches the edges of his face. He makes me laugh so much I have to laugh into the pillow so I don’t wake his housemates. I feel so lucky to be there, hearing him whisper into the dark, feeling his fingers draw across my skin.
He tells me about the time he made animations every day as a child, the time he made his living playing drums in a cover band, the time he studied architecture, the time he made a business out of drawing chalk murals and how he funds his photography adventures with odd jobs like delivering pizzas and graphic design. I tell him I’ll never see pizza boys the same way. He tells me a story about the time he almost died on the peak of a snowy mountain in New Zealand because he hiked up wearing very little and I tell him he’s stupid but I’m laughing.
I kiss his eyelids, his broken nose, his cheeks and then he holds my face and kisses me back. An ocean rolls over me. The sun begins to rise. I crawl into bed with Alba. In my journal I write: “I want a lifetime of sleepless nights with you. Yesterday you were a stranger, tonight you were my world.”
He takes Alba & I out for gelato before our flight. Alba picks flowers as we walk, as she often does. She hands one to me and one to Bee. He’s different with her than people normally are. He doesn’t treat her like a child or try to make her like him, he treats her like a friend.
When we’re walking through the airport I imagine we are actually going somewhere exciting together rather than parting ways just hours after connecting like this. It feels unfair but I don’t say so, I don’t know yet if this is anything more than just a night.
I replay last night over and over during our flight and our train trip. My niece picks us up from the station. It’s a steep, rocky drive through the bush and I like being thrown around. We get out at her house at the top of the hill and it is so peaceful. The air is so clean I could drink it. Around us is green forest, a miniature city and an ocean disappearing off the edge of the world.
Every night in this peaceful place is the same. Alba falls asleep to me reading to her and I slide out of bed into the cold night, slip on my jacket and make my way out the back door. I stand on the dewy grass of the hill outside, under the stars so sharp and bright out here in the bush, and I call Bee. Those first few rings always drip with anticipation. “Good evening Nirrimi Joy,” he says, in the loveliest voice I’ve ever heard and I disappear for hours.
We ask each other question after question as though we’re studying one another. The more I learn about this boy, the harder I fall for him. This distance and the taste of our one night together makes our connection seem almost unreal.
“I think I might have a crush on you,” I eventually tell him, holding my breath.
“Well I have a crush on you too.” he laughs, as though it doesn’t need to be said at all. My heart skips like highschool all over again.
Bee is driving north to a place called the Bungle Bungles. The journey will take him weeks and for many days at a time he won’t have reception. We talk all through the night before he goes, both of us already feeling the weight of the silent days to come.
Alba spends most of her day playing with her second cousin Seth and I’m editing image after image by the fire. The tour and campaign left me with mountains of editing work and tight deadlines. Sometimes I look at my to-do list and feel ill. When I finally finish I scoop Alba up into the air and we dance in celebration.
We visit a waterfall and Alba sits on my lap as we watch. It is the same water that fills her bath each night. We see ponies in a nearby field and she reaches out a timid hand to stroke their noses. Every day she reminds me that the world is still full of wonder.
My family talk about building a cabin up here where me and Alba can live and I’m touched by their love. But our home is already decided. I watch the flames dancing in the bonfire late at night and my soul is still, more still than I can remember. I can feel all the good to come and it fills me up with hope. Heartbreak feels distant now.
I’m stranded in a hospital in a city where I’ve never been before, where I know no one. I am still shaking from the car crash. I feel like I’m existing in an alternate reality. I need to get out of here.
I think of a girl. A calligrapher who emailed me days ago. I email her back and I know it is a long shot but I ask for her help. Our story begins with her driving over an hour on her birthday to rescue me. Rain beats against the car windows and she buys me a hot coconut chai that warms my fingers. Her name is Emma.
She takes me to a house in the hills. My room has a big, cosy bed and I feel as though I’ve never seen anything so wonderful in my life. I hide beneath the covers of my cocoon; I am safe here and nothing can hurt me.
Emma invites me along to her birthday dinner. I want to keep hiding but I wonder if distraction is better. After all, I am alive, I should embrace life. We catch the bus into town and I write in my journal.
“I’ve realised something. I place too much importance on romantic love. But love is more than that. Love is a girl I’ve never met picking me up from the airport with flowers, love is my daughter thanking me for being her Mama, love is my best friend saving me the last piece of chocolate, love is the way I treat my body and the way I follow my heart.”
I’m surrounded by strangers at dinner. The crash plays over and over in my head. If I close my eyes I can feel it all over again. I mention it and it sounds so insignificant put to words but it feels devastating. I can’t pretend I’m fine. I disappear into the bathroom for a long time and I sob. I don’t understand why I’m being like this, people are in car crashes all the time.
On the way home Emma takes me into a place called The Garden of Unearthly Delight. I am plunged into wonderland. Trees drip with fairylights, we sit together in an old double-decker bus and there are so many market stalls with delicious foods. It’s like a switch has flicked inside me. Suddenly I’m euphoric. Life is so beautiful that it is almost painful. “I’m so happy I am alive to see this,” I tell Emma.
But later the fear returns. The car headlights blare behind my eyelids and I am hit over and over, thrown like I am nothing. I call the boy who occupies my heart and he talks to me until the sun comes up. “I’ll put a spell over you to protect you,” he promises, telling me to be quiet for a moment. “All done, you’re safe now,” he says. It makes me laugh and I imagine it’s true.
The very next day the media is buzzing with rumours about my friend Belle Gibson. Firstly that she lied about donating to charities and secondly that she never had terminal cancer, that it was all a lie. I remember sitting on her couch in tears because I was afraid she’d be gone soon, leaving behind her boy not much older than Alba. My calendar is still marked with the months she’d asked me to housesit for her book tour across America. The whole thing hurts me so deeply I become obsessed with it. I read articles, newspapers and watch people discuss it on television. I don’t know how to feel. With the car crash and the news, my mind is a scary place.
Emma’s presence is my solace. She has another desk across from hers in her workspace that becomes mine and there are moments where I lose myself so deeply in my writing that I forget anything else. But it’s been a few days now and I can’t take any more days off. I have to fly to Melbourne and throw myself back into working, ready or not.
When I’m shooting everything in the world feels just fine. There’s an invincibility when I am behind the camera. I don’t feel pain or cold or hunger. In some ways I’m hardly even there. I give a talk at a community centre to a group of aboriginal kids from broken families. They gather around me when I am finished, hugging me and thanking me. A girl says, “It’s inspiring that you started from nothing and did everything you have. You made me realise what I could do.” And I’m smiling genuinely for the first time since the crash.
Belle asks to see me. I still don’t know how I feel or how I’m supposed to feel, only that it must be right to go and help. Her house feels very different. The energy here is frightening. She is holding my hand and crying. Everything is falling apart. I don’t ask her if she has cancer or not, or why she would lie. Instead I share what’s been playing on my mind.
I tell her I think she should write a brutally honest open letter. To not be defensive but truly vulnerable and share, even the ugly parts. Especially the ugly parts. It’d be the hardest thing to do but ultimately the best thing. We are all human. Ultimately people just want to understand. I leave feeling good, like I have made some difference. I’m not sure I did. I leave at 4am to catch a flight to New Zealand.
I am staying in a mansion on a peninsula. From the great big windows I watch the sea spill in and out of the inlet each day. It’s like a painting out there. For three days I don’t leave this house. A shadow takes my place. I feel broken by the crash, by betrayal, by unrequited love and by my immense longing for my daughter. I feel so alone out here. I barely move, I barely eat and I barely exist.
On the fourth day I run out into the sunshine and stand on the hill above the water. Days were empty and now they are full of meetings, shoots and editing. I’m left with little time to think and it’s better this way. I stay with a girl called Ally. We drink wine and walk to a park late at night. We lay back against the grass beneath the stars and I listen to the slap of a basketball on concrete. I remember what it’s like to be young and to notice everything. To not be so lost inside my own head.
My journal is mostly about him. I am strong but he makes me weaker than I’ve ever known. I hardly recognise myself. My unwavering confidence wavers. Maybe I’m not beautiful enough. Maybe I’m not successful enough. Maybe I’ve ruined everything. I want to forget him, but he’s there in my thoughts more than I’d like to admit.
I board the smallest plane I’ve ever seen to a little town in the south island called Blenheim to shoot a campaign. I think about how he must have been on many planes this small and then I curse myself for bringing everything back to him. From the clouds I write in my journal.
“I think one day I’ll look back on this time and laugh about how crazy I felt about him. Maybe I’ll be with someone who shows me what healthy love is, someone truly good for me who makes me realise this pain wasn’t all for nothing and that everything will be okay. Or maybe I won’t and I will realise it anyway.”
The founder of Paper Rain is Indigo. She has bright long red hair and a contagious smile. She drives me through endless vineyards, engulfed by mountains all around. We stop by her orchard-turned-workshop where she screenprints with her lover, then by her friend’s house in her small hometown. I get this weird feeling that everyone we meet is just an actor and the houses are all sets. After a series of big cities this tiny town gives me the strangest feelings.
I have my own little studio. When I arrive there is a crate filled with gifts and a handmade skateboard engraved with Alba’s name. I get the inkling that I may have the best job of all. It is brilliant to be working with a small label, one that puts goodness above profit. Founders who become friends.
Every day begins in the cold, silent hour before sunrise. We all eat breakfast together. There are big bowls full of sweet ripe figs, apples and fejoias from nearby orchards. The food is all made with love. The locations are familiar to everyone else and startlingly beautiful to me.
In the middle of the day the sun is high and I am in my little studio selecting images. These are the quiet times my heartache waits for. When it gets bad I go outside into the garden and listen to “Stay Gold.” As the chorus rushes in I throw my body around, fists clenched, unthinking. It’s energy I cannot contain and when the song ends I fall to the ground with my heart racing, feeling better.
“What if to love and be loved’s not enough?
What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold.”
The whole campaign is one big adventure. We have a picnic by a river and I dive into the cold water where my ears ring with silence. We eat breakfast on a boat headed to an island at sunrise and seals wave to us. We watch fog roll over the land from atop a mountain. We roadtrip in a van to a forest with the biggest tree I’ve ever seen. We have our last dinner inside an abandoned barn.
The end of every campaign is a little hard. I begin to fall in love with the routine. Waking up before sunrise begins to feel exciting instead of hard. I fall in love with the team and they fall in love with me (even in spite of my terrible jokes and annoying fake New Zealand accent). And then I go.
I spend my last day in Auckland. I eat blueberries as I walk down the street. It’s a simple, little thing and it makes me happy.
Then I’m in Sydney and I’m delirious. All of the sleep I missed on my tour is hitting me hard. As I get off the bus a boy trips over my suitcase. It seems like a sign to befriend him so I launch into a deep conversation as though we’ve known each other all our lives. We sit together on the ferry. When we say goodbye he tells me he will never forget the advice I’d given him. I wish I was always brave enough to break through the barriers of strangers.
Dylan picks me up from the wharf. I’ve never met him before but I recognise him from a television show I used to watch. He has freckles across his face and sun-bleached hair. He’s really cute and sweet and he calls me ‘Nirri’ so I can’t help but crush on him a little bit. The sleeplessness has filled me with this manic energy and I talk all the way to Faith’s house.
Faith is sewing samples for Dylan’s clothing label. He sits on the floor drawing and I am pacing around talking and talking about all of the adventures of the past month. It’s past midnight and I should be sleeping but life feels too full of adventure and my arms are wide open.
A few nights later Dylan comes over again. I’m sitting on the couch playing guitar and he watches me for a little while, memorising the chords. My cheeks burn. He takes my guitar and plays. It’s a love song by Bright Eyes and we’re both singing together. He pulls me onto his lap and holds my hands and I embrace the fleeting love because it makes me forget I’m heartbroken.
Then my path crosses with the very boy I’m trying to forget. It is painful to be around him. To have him close enough to touch but not be able to any longer. Things are different between us now. The air is thick with the words we can’t say. We cover up our feelings with jokes. Once upon a time we thought things would work out between us. We loved each other and then we hurt each other. Now we’re here and we can’t go back.
We are both flying out on the same day. We hold each other for a long time at the airport. From his shoulder I ask, “do you think things will ever be okay between us?” and he says, “someday they will be.” But I don’t know. All I can do is hand him the letters I’ve written him that contain my heart and soul and say goodbye.
Then the loudest silence of all. The realisation that some chapters don’t have endings. Sometimes they just stop in the middle of a sentence and it’s up to me to turn the page.