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September 25, 2023


By Harlan Yarbrough

Roderick’s friend Jack flew to Queensland to visit for a month and to play a few gigs with Roderick. In the course of the visit, Rod decided to take his guest to Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. While Rod shopped at the local organic food co-op and Jack ran personal errands in town, Rod mentioned the planned expedition to Lily, a volunteer whom he had met at the co-op on previous occasions.

“That sounds neat,” Lily said. “I’ve been meaning to go out there for years but haven’t made it yet.”

“Would you like to go with us?” Rod asked, half joking but hoping she would.

Lily didn’t hesitate a moment and said, “Yes, I’d like that a lot, if you have room.”

“It’s just the two of us—or three of us, with you—in my car. I mean, it’s only a small car, but we’ll still have plenty of room.”

The two acquaintances-or-maybe-almost-friends discussed days and times and decided to make the trip the following Tuesday. Rod carried his groceries out to his car feeling encouraged that Lily seemed enthusiastic.

Roderick Jennings possessed limited caving experience; he had explored a couple of small caves in Virginia and a few more in Oregon and Washington, visited several tourist caves — Carlsbad Caverns, Oregon Caves, and the like—visited several sea caves on the coasts of North America and Australia and a plethora of lava tubes, and explored a couple of small-ish caves in Tasmania with an experienced friend, several small caves in New Zealand, plus wriggling through a couple of short and supposedly “spiritual” caves in Bhutan. Rod’s geological knowledge, because of his science background and his enthusiasm for learning all he could about almost anything that came his way, exceeded his hands-on experience in caves by a considerable margin.

Jack had visited the Hana lava tube in Hawai’i, the Blue Grotto in Italy, Postojna Cave in Slovenia, and Mammoth Cave, Luray Caverns, and Carlsbad Caverns in the U.S. Unlike Rod, he had never entered a cave without an official guide. Lily had never set foot in a cave in her life.

The trio set out in Rod’s Japanese compact just as local businesses began opening and arrived in Chillagoe ten minutes before a scheduled tour with one of the Department of Conservation’s guides. Rod bought three tickets, thanked the woman at the information center, and drove the one mile to Donna Cave. The three tumbled out of the car and did a quick march to join the handful of others waiting at the cave entrance. A moment later, the guide—who turned out to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, not DoC—unlocked the door and led the group into what looked to all like a real-life fairyland cavern.

The stalactites and stalagmites, large and small, and the massive limestone pillars and forms that looked like carefully-wrought sculptures captivated every member of the group, and especially Rod and Lily. Even the guide admitted he felt lucky to have a job that brought him to this beautiful place several times each day. “Do you ever get tired of it?” someone asked.

“Never,” the NP&WS man replied.

“How could you?” Lily whispered to Rod, who smiled at Lily and rolled his eyes.

Less than two hours later, the group found themselves back outside in the heat of the day. As the dozen or so visitors made their way back down the stairs and path to what Rod thought of as the desert floor—It isn’t a desert, I know, Rod thought. It’s a savannah, but it sure feels like a desert today—Lily and Rod held hands, to Rod’s delight.

Standing in the sparse shade of a scrubby tree in the parking lot, Rod, Lily, and Jack discussed their next move. Because Pompeii Cave, for which no NPWS guide was required or provided, lay nearby, Rod suggested mounting an expedition to explore that cave. He had brought half a dozen headlamps and several small but powerful flashlights, called torches in Australia, and handed them out to his guest-friends, and they walked the short distance to Pompeii and poked around until they found an entrance.

Both Jack and Lily urged Rod to lead the way, so he assumed that responsibility and insinuated himself into the cave. Smaller than Donna, and less spectacular, Pompeii Cave still wowed the three visitors. Once all three stood inside, Rod tilted his head back and pointed out to the other two the bats sleeping in crevices high up in the ceiling. All three also enjoyed seeing the occasional rock wallaby hopping from boulder to boulder. A wall of those boulders divided the cave so that the visitors climbed up and back down to reach the lower part of the cave, which contained more of the beautiful sculpted limestone forms.

As the visitors descended, Rod looked around, fortunately looking down—to keep his headlamp out of the others’ eyes—just in time to see Lily’s foot about to step into a gap between two boulders. Without thinking, he wrapped his near arm around her slim waist and supported her weight. To avoid being pulled off balance and allowing both of them to tumble onto, between, or beside the boulders, he pulled her to him in what in other circumstances would have been a hug. “I think it’s safe to put your feet down now,” he said, as he relaxed his grip.

Lily, in the meantime and with both feet firmly on a fairly level spot, had glanced down into the space where she had been about to set her foot. Before she could speak, Rod apologized for grabbing her and said he hoped he hadn’t offended her.

“You probably saved me from breaking my leg,” Lily said. “I’m not likely to be offended.”

Before Rod could say anything, she added, “Thank you.”

Rod thought how nice his arm around Lily’s waist had felt and wished for more of the same, but without the risk to her. He muttered something about noticing her foot not being above a rock and said he was glad he had looked down at that moment. Lily said she was, too, and thanked him again, and the trio continued their exploration and then made their way out and back to the car.

The three admired the Balancing Rock and then enjoyed two hours exploring The Archways at Mungana, ten miles further out along the highway. The explorations brought no further drama but a good deal of fun and a great deal of conversational sharing, especially between Lily and Rod. The conversation continued, with occasional contributions from Jack, all the way to Lily’s house, where Jack remained in the car while Rod walked Lily to her door.

As they stood, saying their good-byes and good-nights as dusk turned to night, Rod thought, Keeping secrets is not good for a relationship. He therefore said, “I only grabbed you, because I didn’t want you to get hurt.” As Lily began to say, “I know,” Rod continued, “I really liked the feeling of my arm around your waist, though. I hope that’s OK.”

Lily said nothing but put her arms around Rod. He responded in kind, of course, and the two shared a lingering hug. Lily rested her head on Rod’s chest and said, “I like that feeling, too.”

When she tilted her head up to look into his eyes, they shared a gentle, affectionate, and prolonged kiss, after which they hugged each other more tightly, and Lily asked, “Do we know each other well enough to be doing this?”

“I hope so,” Rod replied, although the last syllable got muffled as Lily’s lips sought his again.

Standing on Lily’s small verandah and aware that Jack sat waiting in the car, each told the other they wanted to see each other again soon. Lily then opened the door and hurried inside, wrote her email address and telephone number on a piece of paper, and gave that to Rod. After another hug and an abbreviated kiss, Rod hurried to the car and returned home with his overseas guest.

Electronic communication brought Lily to a show Rod and Jack and two other friends did in Cairns the following week, about which she afterward waxed enthusiastic. The three also shared walks to both Emerald Creek Falls and Davies Creek Falls and a somewhat anticlimactic climb of Mt. Uncle, and both Jack and Lily enjoyed a visit to the nearby distillery after their descent. Rod, who didn’t like the taste of even the best whisky (or the best whiskey, which he was aware was not the same thing), did not partake or feel he’d missed anything.

Lily attended one more performance of the other two, with different friends, before Jack flew home, and resumed and continued her praise of Rod’s vocal and instrumental skills. Jack insisted on taking the other two out to an extravagant dinner the night before his flight home, and all three had a good time.

After a great deal of affectionate badinage and a hug at the “Passengers only beyond this point” gate, Jack looked into Rod’s eyes and said, “You’re going to marry that girl.”

Rod felt surprised, almost frightened, but didn’t hesitate to tell his good friend, “Oh, Jack, I hope so.”

One more hug, and Jack disappeared into the bowels of the airport and Rod made his way out to his car. Used to making phone calls from his landline at home, Rod sent a text message to Lily asking, “When can I see you?”

She responded, “As soon as you get here.”

Rod made the hour-and-fifty-minute drive in less than ninety minutes, bared his innermost thoughts and desires—and later, as it turned out, his epidermis—to Lily as soon as they embraced, and spent the night demonstrating his ardor. She moved into his rural home two months later, and four months after that they proved Jack’s prediction correct.

Article © Harlan Yarbrough. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-07-03
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
01:54:30 PM
Excellent story! Not typical. Very well written and sweet.
Gretel Hochheim
09:57:31 AM
Superb storytelling. I'm going to seek out more of your work.
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