84. The Germans

WHEN HIS GIRLFRIEND ASKS Felix to move out, he considers renting a bachelor pad. He even spends a few evenings online trawling through the real estate sites. But the thought of living in a tiny apartment in a part of town he can afford depresses him more than the fact that his marriage is over. So he buys a van instead, on a whim, or an impulse, knowing it is the kind of thing a man of a certain age does after a divorce, but compelled by a force greater than his fading sense of social obligation. He buys it from a German couple who have just cut short a touring holiday and are in a hurry to sell the van and go home. The van is fully equipped for a life on the road, and the Germans have decorated it in their own idiosyncratic way. On the fridge, a magnet holds onto the fridge door a postcard of the historic centre of the city of Ulm, which, they explain to Felix, is their city. He asks them what happened to cut their travels short, but they have barely begun telling their story before the girl begins to shake, and then sob. Her boyfriend takes in his arms and comforts her in German. He looks to Felix and tells him that the Australian outback is heaving with madness, as well as unhappiness and despair and solitude too, solitude above all. The German tells him that while the outback is well worth visiting there are certain places that are best avoided. What places?, asks Felix. Tilmouth Well, the girl says bitterly, before collapsing into another round of sobs. And that is all they tell him. So begins his nomadic life, showing at work, eating breakfast and lunch at the work cafeteria and buying an extra sandwich at lunch to eat in the evening. He realises that when you strip a man's life down to the bare essentials, there really isn't much to it. On weekends he drives to the beach or goes into the countryside and stay in a caravan park or even by the side of the road. And life continues, with its share of happy moments and unhappy ones. One morning he's called into the HR manager's office and is told that he cannot continue to live in the carpark. He takes offence at her tone, the conversation escalates, and he resigns with two weeks' notice. Inevitably, in the course of those two weeks, he has moments of panic. What has he done? What will he do next? He makes another appointment with the HR manager and asks if he can change his mind. She says no. A humble lunch is organised for his last day of work, but he cannot stomach the thought of it and he calls in sick on his last day. Over the next few days, he drives from the city to the beach to the countryside and back to the city. He begins to feel a certain disaffection building up inside him and he interprets it as a sign that he needs to move, to travel. He buys a map of the country and spend hours studying it, the rudiments of a journey beginning to emerge in his mind. He thinks of the Germans often, as the van is full of signs of their previous presence. He has never been to the outback before. He looks for Tilmouth Well on the map and finally finds it in the middle of the Northern Territory. He often wonders what might have happened to the Germans, but he finds nothing on the internet that anything of note has recently occurred there, to Germans or to anyone else for that matter. He often has occasion to study the postcard on the fridge door of the historic centre of the city of Ulm, with its cobbled streets and fine architecture. The sky over the city of Ulm is blue, and the leaves on the linden trees are green. It is summer in the German city of Ulm, and on the cobbled stets of its historic centre, outside the cafes and restaurants, colourful umbrellas provide shade for the patrons enjoying the warm weather.