In his ‘novel of ideas’, Bruce Chatwin draws on his studies of nomads: ‘Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room…Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?’ At one point he settles down in the Outback to go through his real-life notebooks on the subject, in which this is an entry:
On the ferry back from Manly a little old lady heard me talking.
‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ she said, in an English North Country accent. ‘I can tell you’re English.’
‘So am I!’
She was wearing thick, steel-framed spectacles and a nice felt hat with a wisp of blue net above the brim.
‘Are you visiting Sydney?’ I asked her.
‘Lord, love no!’ she said, ‘I’ve lived here since 1946. I came out to live with my son, but a very strange thing happened. By the time the ship got here, he’d died. Imagine! I’d given up my home in Doncaster, so I thought I might as well stay! So I asked my second son to come out and live with me. So he came out…emigrated…and do you know what?’
‘He died. He had a heart attack, and died’.
‘That’s terrible,’ I said.
‘I had a third son,’ she went on. ‘He was my favourite, but he died in the war. Dunkirk, you know! He was very brave. I had a letter from his officer. Very brave he was! He was on the deck…covered in blazing oil…and he threw himself into the sea. Oooh! He was a sheet of living flame!’
‘But that is terrible!’
‘But it’s a lovely day,’ she smiled. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’
It was a bright sunny day with high white clouds and a breeze coming in off the ocean. Some yachts were beating out towards The Heads, and other yachts were running under spinnaker. The old ferry ran before the whitecaps, towards the Opera House and the Bridge.
‘And it’s so lovely out at Manly!’ she said. ‘I loved to go out to Manly with my son…before he died! But I haven’t been for twenty years!’
‘But it’s so near,’ I said.
‘But I haven’t been out of the house for sixteen. I was blind, love! My eyes was covered with cataracts, and I couldn’t see a thing. The eye surgeon said it was hopeless, so I sat there. Think of it! Sixteen years in the dark! Then along comes this nice social worker the other week and says, “We’d better get those cataracts looked at.” And look at me now!’
I looked through the spectacles at a pair of twinkling – that is the word for them – twinkling blue eyes.
‘They took me to hospital,’ she said. ‘And they cut out the cataracts. And isn’t it lovely! I can see!’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s wonderful!’
‘It’s my first time out alone,’ she confided. ‘I didn’t tell a soul. I said to myself at breakfast, “It’s a lovely day. I’ll take the bus to Circular Quay, and go over on the ferry to Manly…just like we did in the old days.” I had a fish lunch. Oh, it was lovely!’
She hunched her shoulders mischievously, and giggled.
‘How old would you say I was?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Let me look at you. I’d say you were eighty.’
‘No. No. No,’ she laughed. ‘I’m ninety-three…and I can see!’
–Bruce Chatwin, English, 1940-1989