He’s sitting in a hospital carpark waiting to visit a friend who’s given birth to her first child, a son.  The carpark has been hacked away from a large stretch of remnant bushland, so he sits in the mid-spring warmth, the window down, and begins to read The Catcher in the Rye.  He’s not read this novel before.  How a private-school boy from Sydney’s North Shore has made it into his forty-first year without reading this is anyone’s guess.

He always arrives early to an appointment because he hates a lack of punctuality, and hate is the right word.  On this morning he looks up every few minutes to check the dashboard clock, but his eyes get distracted by the bushland outside.  Scribbly gums and kangaroo grass: all those white vertical lines against the blue sky, and the spiky dark-green tufts covering the ground.  Despite the fact that Holden Caulfield has already grabbed his attention (and memories of his own school days are returning at a rate of knots, though he was a quiet watcher, not an antagonist), he can’t help being transfixed by what’s on the other side of the windscreen.

With the novel now in his lap he remembers the day before (the day his friend gave birth), climbing a local hill and finding a tucked away tract of bushland just like this, and how he’d thought at the time that the bush heals him.  Then, from almost thirty years ago, he remembers picnic trips into the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, sitting lazily beside creeks with their cool little ponds; the family would see Spotted Pardalote flitting around creek-edge branches and they felt special because of it.

His mind shifts to the west and he recalls teenaged day-walks into the Blue Mountains, purposely going off-track to feel just a bit lost, climbing rock outcrops to get a better view (there was always a better view), not worrying about where they were or weren’t because miraculously he and his brothers never failed to find their way home.

But then a car, a stationwagon, pulls up next to him.  Out steps a man in a uniform and baseball cap, an identification lanyard around his neck.  The man begins to clean out his car; maybe he’s killing time, or shirking his duties.  And then the man tosses something into the bush: a soft-drink can.  And then he tosses away another soft-drink can.  And then he tosses away something else.

What is this scene, what is its meaning?  Ahead is this remnant bushland: amongst the trees and grass the hospital’s patients, some physically impaired, others with obvious mental illnesses, look for respite or peace.  But to his right is this man who’s mindlessly ridding his car of detritus as if at the garbage tip.

Though he’s still getting to know the main character in Salinger’s story, he, the watcher, wishes he could be more like Holden Caulfield: that boy wouldn’t have stood by as a man disrespects an oasis of nature as much as this, he would have found something to say, even if he was a self-declared liar, he would have done more than nothing. But he isn’t Holden Caulfield.  He’s just a man on his way to visit a friend who’s given birth to her first child, a son.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 14 November, 2009)

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