IT'S 1979 AND I'm 15, fucked up and restless. My mother and I are living alone after years of domestic violence with her deranged or drunken boyfriends. Finally, everything is quiet. Too quiet. I've long left school, having refused to continue on the grounds that I have no need of a conventional education because I'm going to be an artist. I've killed time learning to be a secretary and a beautician, but am hopeless at both. I'm not going to fit into a job or mainstream society anytime soon. I pass aimless hours roaming the streets of Glebe, daydreaming in Jubilee Park, pondering my prospects and the problem of life, planning my escape, searching for a man with whom to lose my virginity. I'm itching to be an adult. It seems to me far better to be one than to be at the mercy of one. During the day, I visit grown-up friends, like the elderly gentleman around the corner who lets me smoke his cigarettes and drink his beer while we play cards, or the household of prostitute lesbians where I eat Vegemite toast and grill the girls about blow-job technique. I have few friends my own age.
Michelle Rutherford is one of the few and she's my closest friend. The youngest of a large Catholic brood, she goes to St Scholastica's. I've also befriended her brother Pete who lives and works in the district the family has left. He makes trips to the city from time to time. The oldest brothers, James and Jeremy, are legendary, larger than life, and absent. James is a journalist whose career keeps him busy and leaves little time for loitering around home, and Jeremy is travelling somewhere with someone.
One day I went looking for Michelle. The Rutherfords' door is always open; no need to knock and wait for a reply. I walk through the empty house searching for signs of life but find none. I reach Michelle's bedroom where I'm startled to see a tall, sandy-haired guy lying on her bed reading. It's Jeremy. He's just got back from his latest adventure. We talk. We start to spend time together. It feels like destiny. He's not the handsome surfer I've imagined as my chosen one, but to my 15-year-old eyes he is exotic and sophisticated. Most importantly he's available, and for a girl in a hurry that's everything.
Jeremy's not like anyone I've ever known. He's only 21, but he's one of those guys who has the air of an old man. He is bookish and aspires to write, a combination that leads him to imagine he is Humbert Humbert to my Lolita. He smokes roll-your-owns, mumbles and shuffles around barefoot in second-hand suits. His hair is a wiry mess and he drinks vast amounts of wine. I don't know if I'm awed by him or embarrassed by him.
I already understand the currency of sex appeal. I've spent years testing the ways that being cute or sexy or childlike or knowing or suggestive or playful can get me my way, learning the sly art of manipulation. But in my mind, I won't be a woman till I've done it. Overnight we are an item. Jeremy is charmed by my precociousness and promises to take me away.
WHEN JEREMY SPOKE OF HIS TRAVEL, two places stood out as special: Spain and Darwin. When he talked about Darwin it was not the place he waxed lyrical about, it was its mind-set, its experiential essence. He described a magical world populated by a loose-knit network of nomads who crisscrossed each other's lives and days in a cosmic ballet of interdependence and bonhomie. He favoured neither hippies nor punks. The people he liked were too unhealthy, dry and cynical to be the former, and too non-urban, relaxed and anti-fashion to qualify as the latter, although they all shared a contempt for wealth and materialism. The cardinal sin in Jeremy's eyes was pretension. For his generation, who grew up on The Catcher in the Rye, phoney was the worst thing you could be. Somehow Darwin became the symbol of this doctrine, the spiritual home of a tribe of outcasts. It was not a tropical paradise in which to find or lose yourself. It was simply a place to be.
I'm not sure why I latched onto Jeremy's idealisation of Darwin, why going there became an all-consuming mission. Probably it was because it was a vision, and I needed a vision. It was the furthest, most unimaginable site within reach, an irresistible destination.
OUR DEPARTURE IS PRESENTED TO MY FAMILY AS a fait accompli. I tell my mother she has two choices: she can let me go, in which case I'll stay in contact, or else I'll run away. My grandfather drives us up Parramatta Road to look at bombs in second-hand car yards. We buy a puce-pink EK Holden station wagon with orange nylon curtains for a few hundred dollars, throw a mattress in the back, pack it with boxes of books and hit the highway on a crisp autumn day.
The road trip begins sedately enough. Our relationship is new, we're still getting to know one another, or what little of ourselves we'll allow the other to know. I sit in the passenger seat with my feet up on the dashboard watching the world go by, probing Jeremy for his fascinating thoughts and feelings about me, helping make the practical decisions: where we'll stop, for how long and for what purpose. We amble through hippie country: Bellingen, Nimbin, Mullumbimby, stopping for a night of live music in a pub here or there, sleeping in the wagon parked in secluded spots where I practise my fledgling sexual skills and sleep with my underpants drying over the elastic curtain cords.
The car breaks down on a winding road deep in the hinterland of far northern NSW. The local mechanic takes pity on us and tows us to his garage where we live in the wagon for days on end waiting for a new engine. His wife kindly delivers food on a tray every now and then, and we sit in the front seat with a view of her Hills Hoist. I dip into the boxes of books and begin, for the first time in my life, to read. Jeremy has varied taste but he tends toward blowhard writers like J.P. Donlevy, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I discover the modernist classics: Dorothy Parker and T S Eliot, and later the Beat poets. I learn Eliot's ode to ageing, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I know I'm pretty and I have a nice body, but that's not good enough. I want to be painfully beautiful, impossibly smart, exceptionally talented, worldly, charismatic, famous and dazzlingly special. I soak everything up; forging and re-imagining my identity with the books my hand is drawn to, with the people I encounter, with the miles we clock up. I gaze out the window fantasising about my future. I know this journey is only the start, and that Jeremy is only the first. I like Jeremy, but even more I like the effect I have on him. I have to admit I'm disappointed in sex. It's not the earth-shattering experience I've been led to expect. I feel cheated. At first, Jeremy's lust for me was fun, but now it's tedious. I try to work out how much I can withhold and how much I must concede to keep the balance of power exactly how I like it. What I do love about sex, what I'm drunk on, is the way that once you hook a man with it, or with the suggestion of it, you can make him do just about anything.
IT WOULD BE ANOTHER FOUR YEARS BEFORE I'd fall in love with a man and sex. In the meantime, I focused on pleasing Jeremy because there was some satisfaction in that. Besides it was strategic: I needed him. The further north we headed, the more profoundly I felt myself in uncharted territory. Each mile pushed the familiarity of my childhood farther behind. The fact that I was utterly lost didn't bother me at all. My only fear was going back, back to childhood, to entrapment, to powerlessness. Anything else, any hardship, deprivation, misgiving or humiliation was tolerable, even desirable, so long as it did not send me back.
I didn't realise how unusual it was for a girl my age to be on the road. If I missed home and my family I did not allow myself to acknowledge it. I was bewildered most of the time but I willed myself to appear at ease. I played the part to convince myself. Always on the move, I couldn't anchor myself or weigh myself down to steadiness, and this was the attraction of the transient life I'd chosen. It was as if I believed I could outrun myself if I moved fast enough, could outwit the terror and grief if I kept one step ahead of it. I amused myself by playing mind games with Jeremy, who flattered me and stroked my endlessly needy ego while providing a small sense of security in contrast to our ever-changing landscape.
WE ENTER QUEENSLAND AND PICK UP TWO HITCHHIKERS, Frank and Danny, and their two small dogs. I'm already weary with play-acting at having a proper relationship and I'm grateful for new blood. Frank's Aboriginal, from the Riverland, on the rebound from a bitter break-up, and Danny's a light-hearted larrikin.
The four of us have longwinded sing-a-longs as we barrel down the highway. Jeremy likes to sing sacred songs (his favourite is Nearer, My God, to Thee). I listen to the rise and fall of his voice as he belts out the hymns, and watch his carolling profile with permanent bed-hair. Less Godly favourites are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. We smoke rollies and survive on a diet of flagon wine, middies of beer, fast food and soup-kitchen slops. On cheque days we enjoy our most substantial meal: a pub counter lunch. These are the halcyon days of social security: we have no fixed address and simply transfer from town to town picking up "counter cheques". When times are tight we beg on the street, pick through the car ashtray for decent butts, and syphon petrol out of parked cars in the dead of night, which has the added bonus of a rushy, headachy high. Personal hygiene is maintained in service-station bathrooms.
I feel an odd sensation when begging on the street or plucking butts from the EK's ashtray, but I'm not aware that this feeling is shame. I'm not aware that shame is so woven into me that I no longer feel it as separate and notable. It is a way of being that is normal. I am oblivious to it. I've reversed it into a point of pride. I romanticise poverty, suffering, dispossession and scavenging. So do my companions. Perversely, we feel that it makes us better than everyone else. We watch the plebs shuffle to work and back in their waking sleep, living their small conservative lives and feel in contrast to them we are truly alive.
QUEENSLAND WAS JOH BJELKE-PETERSEN'S TURF BACK THEN. I was intrigued by the lines up the middle of Brisbane's footpaths: those walking one way filed down one side, those going the other way up the other. It felt trapped in the 1950s: women in house dresses baking lamingtons and men in Akubra hats working outdoors.
The further north we went in the Sunshine State the surer the menace in the air. There were places we were unwelcome. Between Brisbane and Townsville we'd often sleep out on beaches and evenings were passed in parks drinking with local Aborigines. Once the police descended on such a gathering, Jeremy, Frank, Danny and I were told to move on. We moved. The next day we were told that two of the women were taken off to the cells and raped. In Queensland in 1979 we were ready to believe such things.
WE REACH TOWNSVILLE AND FERRY OVER TO MAGNETIC ISLAND. We park the wagon in the car park of the pub down by the wharf and spend the night drinking at the bar with a local man in shorts. I pass the evening in a blacked-out blur. I wake the next morning on the ground of the car park beside the others. The man in shorts is poised above me with a pair of scissors. He has sliced my dress open with a clean cut up the middle. He runs off when I wake and the others sit up stunned and hung over.
I am shaken to the core. For the first time I acknowledge the danger in what I'm doing. I allow myself to feel – for a split second at least – how vulnerable and young I am, how alien the people I'm meeting. I have the bone-chilling realisation that men can be as threatening in my shining new adult life as they were in my childhood, that the power I thought I had over them can, in an instant, be turned on its head. As the heat of the day gathers, I stand in a phone booth by the beach, crying down the line to my mother as the waves lap the shore. I don't say what has happened, or how scared and lonely I feel. I tell her only that I miss her and love her. She begs me to come home, her voice pitched between pain and panic. I refuse. I long to go home – to my mother, to comfort, to familiarity – but I tell myself I cannot. I have not yet reached my goal – have not yet made it to Darwin. Going home would mean accepting defeat, admitting that I'm a child and can't cut it in the world of adults. I won't give up, whatever the risks on the road.
DESPITE THIS CHILLING INTRODUCTION TO THE ISLAND, we stayed on, exploring its gorgeous nooks and sublime crannies; enjoying sun-soaked days lolling around on idyllic beaches with crystalline water in the perfect heat of a tropical winter.
I was not particularly attracted to Frank but once again he fitted the critical criteria: he was there. So we began an affair. Danny turned a blind eye, but when Jeremy made the inevitable discovery our little foursome turned suddenly sour. When I think back to this time I can't help but wonder why Jeremy took me seriously enough to be as affected as he was, given my obvious incapacity for real emotional connection or loyalty. But I tend to forget that despite his grand persona and impressive ramblings, he was little more than a boy himself.
Nevertheless we continued as a quartet, careening out of Townsville for the long, arduous trek north-west to Darwin with a furious, suicidal Jeremy at the wheel, flying down the numbing highway with only semis for company and the odd tin shed in the dirt with a cattle dog out front.
The border between Queensland and the Northern Territory is crossed on an incessantly dusty road, and nothing seemed to change, except it did. If Queensland felt oppressive and stuck in time, the Northern Territory felt exposed and forgotten by time. If in Queensland the heat of the law was your biggest threat, in the Territory being left to your own devices could do you the greatest harm.
By the time we reached Darwin I was exhausted. I was tired of being dirty, tired of being hungry, tired of the wagon and tired of Jeremy, Frank and Danny. I needed to recuperate. I checked into the local women's refuge the way most people check into a hotel. I spun some "he done me wrong" line to the well-meaning women workers to pique the sympathies of the sisterhood and justify my consumption of their favours. With no awareness that my own story was justification enough – I was, after all, a 15-year-old girl 3000 kilometres from home fleeing trauma in the company of adult men – I lied. By then, scamming had become habitual and I no longer knew where my real needs and story ended and my manufactured needs and story began.
I RECOVER AT THE REFUGE FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, listening to the constant stream of Joan Armatrading that pipes out of the speakers, eating regular, healthy meals and enjoying such strange normalities as watching television, taking regular showers and sleeping in a properly made bed. I hide from the men and the emotional complexities between us I don't understand or know how to deal with. But once rejuvenated, I grow bored. I remember why I've come to Darwin and I'm seized by the urge to penetrate the mysterious band of drifters I've heard so much about. So I leave the refuge with a wave and a thank you and go in search of the men. They aren't hard to find. The Vic Hotel, with its big overhead fans and balcony overlooking the mall, is a favourite of the itinerants, as is the Animal Bar on the Esplanade, and the Workers' Club. We live for the day, for the minute. I rarely know where my next meal is coming from or where I'll sleep. I tell myself this is freedom and that I like it.
LAMEROO BEACH HAD LONG BEEN AN ESTABLISHED CAMP, testifying to the roots of the nomadic network: the hippie trail to Asia. It filled up year after year in the dry with cliques of ganja-smoking, guitar-strumming youth, and tree houses remained as evidence of their initiative. There were mutterings about the nomads who, camped there on the night Tracey hit, were blown away and never counted as missing – to be counted as missing one had to belong in the first place. (But this is likely an urban myth. As Jeremy now points out, the fierce mosquitoes alone would prohibit camping there in the wet.) Even in 1979, Lameroo was a permanent party, and there was something notable about the drifter parties: there were hardly any women, and those who were there tended to be tough and working class.
THE WOMEN VIEW ME WITH DISDAIN AND TREAT ME like the middle-class princess I'm desperately trying not to be. I am dismissed because of my age and told more than once to "go home". It's delivered with condescending scorn and it only makes me more determined to prove myself by staying. The rejection, and not being taken seriously because of my age, is a source of disgrace. I want friendship and approval but have no clue how to win it. I focus on gathering allies where and how I can by flirting shamelessly with the men. I can't match my adult comrades in terms of wit and opinion, so I learn to observe. I pass long hours at their feet, watching, listening, drinking. Taking it all in.
NOBODY ENDS UP IN NEW YORK BY ACCIDENT and no one really cares where you come from or how you came to be there; being there says it all. Similarly, nobody ends up in the far north by accident and in the1970s no one was interested in personal history. Being there marked you. Though my age stamped me as different, I was not alone in trying to outrun bad memories and the past. We were united in our commitment to denial and bravado and we supported each other in a lifestyle fuelled by alcohol and financed by handouts and crime. This fuzzily defined kinship had a generous spirit: sharing resources detached from time. When one person's dole cheque arrived it was for all. When cash ran dry, a meal, cigarette or middy would appear. The EK became communal property. Jeremy never hesitated to lend it out whether he'd known the person for minutes or years. It might come back in two hours or two days. Amazingly, it always came back.
DARWIN ITSELF IS NOT PARTICULARLY PRETTY. It's a sprawling, relentlessly flat landscape, a town still recovering from disaster. I'm not disillusioned because it wasn't a pretty picture that had been painted. What did I come here hoping to find? I came for new horizons and because I want to belong, and I've found some of what I'm looking for: company passing afternoons fumbling with men on sagging single beds in run-down rooms; the joie de vivre of gatecrashing the locked-up YMCA pool in the small hours and splashing around the candescent pool; a glimpse of transcendence listening to Patti Smith's Horses for the first time in the windowless office of the boarding house on Knuckey Street while sharing a joint with the manager. It is, just as Jeremy promised, a town claimed by outsiders for outsiders: the outsider capital of Australia.
I'VE LONG LOST CONTACT WITH THOSE OUTSIDERS. I remember them, and the days and nights I shared with them, as if the film of this entire period is ruined and only select scenes or frames have been saved. The only one I've stayed in touch with over the years is Jeremy, now a social worker in the Red Centre.
After a short stay in Darwin I headed back to Sydney, then flew back to Darwin with an old school friend. For half a year I rushed around the country, picking up and discarding companions en route. The harder it was to outrun myself the faster I ran. I dashed back and forth between Darwin, Cairns, Sydney, Byron Bay, the Gold Coast, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and Broome. I travelled by bus, train, thumb and plane, occasionally with Jeremy, mostly with other men or on my own. I explored a pre-tourist beach in Cairns in a throbbing, tripping grass haze and enjoyed an excursion inland to pick gold tops and swim in a cool watering hole surrounded by the saturated reds and greens of wild tropical growth, but despite tranquil surrounds like these I was not at peace. The denial and bravado slipped, and I began to feel fear, or to acknowledge the fear I'd felt all along. There were interminable stretches rolling down isolated, pitch-black highways in the cabins of speed-freaked truckies. I watched for signs that suggested a psychotic serial killer, as if picking up on some signal would have helped me out there anyhow. I spent long hours on the side of the road waiting for rides, singing to myself, talking when I had a companion, sitting on my bag under the relentless sun. I slept overnight in the houses of locals who grew weirder by the hour. I relied on the kindness of strangers and was relieved when their kindness was uncomplicated.
Six months or so after Jeremy and I set out, I left for London, aged 16, with a suitcase of summer clothes and a few hundred dollars. I think back to that girl who left Sydney in the puce-pink EK station wagon and marvel. I marvel at her strength and will, at her foolhardiness, I marvel that no one stopped her doing what she did. And I marvel that she survived.