Memoir

Home truths

WE DIDN'T WANT to go. The Gold Coast was a place for holidays, not living. Annual baths of intense bone-warming sunshine had been enough for even the coldest of my acquaintance.

I loved Queensland, but I had never been a big fan of Surfers – or ‘Sufferers' Paradise' as Dad used to call it in the '60s. I had been resident for several weeks in 1981 while making a movie called Goodbye Paradise and had recorded my observations for the Sydney Morning Herald. During the filming, I lived in a glamorous new high-rise right on the sand. By early afternoon the shadow thrown by my building plunged the pale cream sand into deep blue shadow.

I called the article ‘God's Waiting Room'.

I don't remember ever sighting one young, tanned, bikini-clad surfing god or goddess. At the time Surfers seemed populated by fragile geriatric joggers (admittedly many of them tanned) reading On Death and Dying. This was reasonable. It was the world's best-selling book.

More disturbing than the thought of old folks being taught to ‘rage against the dying of the light' was the idea that some of them probably weren't that old – they just looked it. The sight of them lying under the pulsating blast of the midday sun was unforgettable. Apart from money, these men and women all had one thing in common: solar-powered, oil-basted crackling they called skin. The beach resembled a working tannery, with them staked out like lizard skins waiting to be processed into something useful like a handbag. Even their apparently empty homes resembled mausoleums that were too big for their plots and surrounded by lifeless canals and treeless lawns. Grass so green and manicured it could have been Astroturf.

In 1981 I couldn't find a florist. I had never thought of going back.

WE WERE HAPPY in Melbourne. Good fortune found us in Middle Park, a wonderful surprise package of an old bayside suburb. A small rectangular grid of wide streets, big trees and narrow lanes wedged between St Kilda and Albert Park. Once a working-class area, it is now firmly in the ascending grasp of the middle class. Restored facades of large brick and small wooden, Edwardian and Victorian houses disguise their renovated, extended interiors and often exotic back gardens.

After six years we knew it well. On weekends we cycled along the edge of the Bay from Port Melbourne to the St Kilda pier. Most mornings we walked clockwise, or counter, around Albert Park Lake. We welcomed new generations of swans, ducks and geese and eagerly awaited the annual mass arrival of pelicans. Within minutes they would form a giant white hoovering wedge and move methodically from north to south. Up and down the lake, like a team of office cleaners, until it was spotless, fished clean.

The seasons change in Melbourne.

In response to some hidden signal, Donovan's restaurant alters its décor from summer to winter. Forgotten spring bulbs – crocuses, grape hyacinths, daffodils, lilies and bluebells – miraculously re-emerge at exactly the same time, in exactly the same place, every year.

Most of Middle Park is shaded by old palm trees and equally gigantic plane trees. In autumn, the footpaths are hidden by enormous piles of torn brown paper leaves. Riding or kicking your way through them instantly takes you back to some moment in childhood. The rejuvenating effect is instant and a lot cheaper than surgery.

We shopped for everything at South Melbourne market. Our birthdays were deliciously celebrated at Donovan's. We made great friends and were regularly invited to dinner, and weekends at the beach. We were asked to join book clubs and local sporting clubs. Within a short walking distance in either direction, there were thirty really good to terrific restaurants – from Japanese to pizza. Crammed into a square kilometre were several choices of every kind of shop, café and amenity including an award-winning bookshop, cinemas, a theatre, sports clubs, football and cricket grounds, a golf course, an Olympic swimming pool, music venues, bars and pubs. It was possible to live a really full life without crossing the boundary streets.

Best of all, we had Greek neighbours. Loud, loving, ridiculously generous Greeks who had lived in the area years before it had become fashionable. Their double backyard was a seasonal market. The front garden was crammed with potted cymbidiums and shaded by a gigantic lemon tree so laden with fruit that boughs would occasionally snap. We were given so much fruit my son Joe and his friends used to sell homemade lemonade out the front of our house.

Yes, it was a little Stepford Wives. Hair was brushed and lipstick did seem to be automatically applied before contemplating a cycle to the shops. The streets were very safe. My son and his friends delivered papers at five in the morning without a problem from their point of view, or a qualm from their parents.

IT RAINED THE day we left. Twenty friends and neighbours came throughout the day to say goodbye. We helped the removalists load our stuff – an odd couple they were. Col was tall and loud, full of matey confidence and moving-disaster stories. Romeo was younger, painfully shy, heavily tattooed and apparently mute. It was difficult not to wonder whether there had ever been a baby more inappropriately named. He took a long time to warm up. When he smiled for the first time, he blushed and clamped his hand over his mouth. Six teeth in the front and the corresponding bottom teeth were missing. It looked as if he'd copped a Brett Lee ball in the chops. As it transpired, the culprit was wielding something more along the lines of an iron bar.

Once the ice had been broken, Romeo was curious about our reasons for moving north.

‘Me favorite food's fish 'n' chips – can't do 'em in Queensland – they got shit potatoes and shit shark.'

With that, he slammed the door and our stuff was on its way. Our destination was the Gold Coast, or more specifically the bogan burbs of Southport. We were resigned. There was nothing much we could do. It was the consequence of ‘family matters': an eighty-four-year-old-mother, a large reversal of fortune, a genuine chance to recoup and her unwillingness to pay double tax. ‘Do you think I am senile? If I live there for a year I don't have to. The tenants are gone. I'm going. You can do what you like.'

She could hardly go alone. And that was that.

 

AS WE STEPPED on to the tarmac at the Gold Coast airport in Coolangatta, the heat and humidity covered us like a blanket that couldn't be kicked off. The sky was amazing: a cloudless, Madonna blue, ozone rich and endless. Momentarily, it was possible to understand the concept of space.

We were the only people not wearing thongs. To be fair, there were some chic examples, but most were rubber. We drove in silence, hair curling damply, too hot to talk. The air was thick and squeezed our lungs. The drive was long.

Mum's co-joined units were at the end of a mean horseshoe called a cul de sac. This is simply a fancy way of describing a dead end – and in this case, particularly apt. The short street was deserted. Any passing traffic would have taken a wrong turn. If anyone lived there, they were out – or out of sight, or lurking behind honeycomb security grills. It was hard to imagine what was worth stealing.

The units were grouped in pairs; a concrete drive serviced two attached garages. There were no front fences, pavements or street planting. Struggling water-restricted lawns swept to the curb, suggesting a larger front yard.

By a great stroke of fortune, four old trees dominated our front lawn. A huge palm and three melaleucas had managed to survive the land clearance. Whatever happened here hadn't taken the developers much time. They were never going to live in these houses.

We ripped up the carpets and painted everything, including the floor, white. Curtains, blinds and honeycomb screens were wrenched from the windows. We discovered a wonderful plant nursery and bought eight large, pale terracotta pots, two stephanotis, three standard gardenias, a standard white bougainvillea and three white flowering mandevilla vines.

Our mini-renovation took one long, hot, miserable, short-tempered week, at the end of which Col and Romeo arrived. We squashed, shuffled and hung as much as we could. The interior space was alarmingly small. Half our boxed belongings, including five hundred books, stayed that way in the garage. They joined the fridge, two oil heaters, our bikes, Joe's toys, the washing machine and the clothes dryer. We didn't bother plugging in the dryer. Towels dried as stiff as boards before you had time to peg them out. That night we switched on the lamps, lit mosquito coils and stared at each other.

Fifty-one weeks yawned like a maw.

THE SUN ROARED up at 5.30 every morning with growling ferocity. The relentlessly blue sky was so solar-charged that hats and sunglasses made little difference. Squinting became a reflex like breathing. Feeble ceiling fans whirled uselessly day and night.

The local shops were an exposed twenty-minute walk away – a thriving and eventually fascinating Aldi supermarket, a dying Chinese/hamburger joint, a sad newsagency that managed to get The Courier-Mail by mid-morning, but didn't stock interstate newspapers, ‘no point – who reads 'em?', a fish and chip shop specialising in Chiko rolls, deep-fried Mars bars and ‘shit shark', a video shop, a miserable, frequently unattended corner store, a real estate agent and a bottle shop selling a wide range of beer, one red wine and two different whites.

To get to a reasonable shopping centre in Southport required a car or a journey on the fabulously unreliable bus service. I grew to love the air-conditioned comfort of Woolies and spent hours examining the shelves. It didn't take me long to join the ranks. I gave up blow-drying my hair and let it frizz. I stopped applying makeup because it slid off. I started wearing Joe's t-shirts and schlepped around the supermarket in thongs. There's nothing quite as comforting as the soft, rhythmic slap of rubber thongs.

Joe enrolled at the local high school, a thirty-five-minute bus ride north. He was fourteen and due to start Year Nine. During his interview, the charming Welsh headmaster informed me that Joe would be better off in Year Ten. This decision had nothing to do with age or scholastic ability, merely his height, sense of humour and impression of maturity.

ON THE FIRST bus ride to school, we were joined by half a dozen fourteen-year-old Paris Hiltons, wearing variations of the same uniform. Their long golden hair and equally lengthy brown legs were headed in the same direction as my little boy. Joe was transfixed. Girls! Homesick memories of his Melbourne private school, paper round and blood brothers were erased in an instant.

One morning I noticed a magpie sitting at the end of the street. The following day, armed with a small ball of preservative-free mince, I held my hand up in his direction. He zoomed in, ate the meat and flew off. The next morning he brought three friends. Twice a day, four of them would swoop to the curb and walk across the lawn. If the door wasn't open, they'd knock like woodpeckers, line up like chorus boys and chortle their heads off.

Suddenly the air seemed thick with fabulous birds: kookaburras, parrots, finches and some we'd never seen before. I bought a terracotta birdbath on a pedestal, put it in some dappled shade, hung seed balls from the trees and waited for them to call. They came in waves. Small squadrons of different groups flew in at particular times, from dawn until dusk. I changed the bath water five or six times a day and fed the kookaburras in the backyard.

They were endlessly fascinating and beautiful. Joe said I had become ‘a crazed bird lady'.

Eventually I even grew to tolerate the local ibis. He'd turn up every afternoon and shove his enormous, dirty body into the bath. After a few weeks, he started to look a lot cleaner and slightly more attractive. The Gold Coast council was obsessed with the ibis ‘infestation' and their low-rent appearance. I decided they should fill shallow pools with water dyed bright pink and transform the subsequently tinted birds into a tourist attraction, rivaling the flamingos in that other glitzy beachside paradise near Cuba.

On the first of February, I started writing my second book.

THE HUMAN NEIGHBOURS were invisible except for four small boys aged from six to ten who kicked a footy up and down the street, before and after school. Their parents peered through blinds, or zoomed off, eyes averted, in metallic green utes, or backfiring Toranas.

One evening, I overheard the two old bats next door discussing the would-be football stars. ‘Those effing kids, they're gunna break a winda. Remember those effing boongs kick, kick, kick – non-stop – and the effing slopes up the shop, just the same?'

The following morning we invited the boys to kick their ball up against our garage doors whenever they wanted. They'd already made friends with Mum's pug Stella, who was finally living up to her name. A true ‘star', she was the only dog for miles.

The Test cricket season was in full swing so I suggested the boys might like to swap the footy for tennis balls and take turns with Joe's extensive collection of bats and ‘essential' equipment.

They would visit before and after school every day and at weekends. We quickly got used to the incessant, rhythmic, banging, the triumphant shouts of ‘six' and ‘four' and the yells of dissent. I made them sandwiches and stocked fruit juice iceblocks, provided Band-Aids, comforting words and cold water. They sat on the couch and asked about writing. The only books I'd manage to retrieve from the boxes in the garage were both volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The boys brought word lists from school and we'd look them up. They took my first book to school for ‘show and tell'. Sometimes they'd just sit and watch without speaking. They were great company. One day, one of them arrived with a small book on local birds. He'd noticed it in the bookshop at Southport and saved up. We started bird spotting.

I never met their parents. Some worked very long hours. Most tried to survive on various forms of government help. In our tiny economic ghetto, this ranged from allowances for parenting to invalidity and age. My family's position wasn't much better. We didn't rent like everyone else, but there was no possibility of even menial paid work. Centrelink told me not to bother. I joined the single mums and we lived on the fortnightly payments.

The boys didn't have to be told to go to school, or home to dinner. No one seemed to care that they spent so much time with us. Our houses faced each other and if the mothers had been concerned, all they had to do was look out of their kitchen windows and call.

Within weeks, it was clear we lived in a gardener's paradise. The mandevillas had covered our small house with massed white, yellow-throated, bell shaped flowers. The gardenias had quadrupled in size and their magnificent scented flowers were the size of side plates. The stephanotis had snaked itself around every upright post like an enormous white flowering garland smelling of heaven. The bougainvillea looked as if it was covered in a huge dump of snow and the garden was full of butterflies.

The boys said our house smelt good and that they came out some nights just to look. ‘You can see inside and all the lamps and flowers and stuff make it beautiful.' They couldn't see it was identical to every other place in the street.

My book was in the shops on my birthday, the first of October. The kids loved being driven around the block in the hire cars sent by my publisher. They felt they deserved a bit of spoiling as they'd been part of the process.

A year passed. Mum sold the units. As promised, she'd doubled her money, which set her on the path to financial recovery.

We were off. When the removalists arrived, the boys stood in a line and cried. I gave them Joe's outgrown bike, books, Xbox, toys, shoes, cricket stuff and clothing. I donated the birdbath, six months' supply of seed and frozen balls of mince to my bird-watching friend. The gigantic white flowering vines were carefully detached and reapplied to his house. Three boys were given a gardenia each and the fourth the bougainvillea. They shared the orchids. They knew how to look after them.

IT HAD BEEN a strange, simple year. It reminded me of my childhood in a similar suburb. We had a happy time, despite money being tight. Life was a lot less complicated. Dad was a geologist and spent nine months of the year in the bush. Mum was an artist who raised the five of us as a married single parent. The neighbours must have thought she was an alien. She had a six-foot pink brick wall built around our place and covered the small house with rampant roses. Several local kids used to scale the wall and join us as we watched her paint and draw. This year reminded me of all that and ‘some' very simple truths: if you are defined by your possessions, you don't really exist; where there is life there is genuine hope; and you are never too old – or too young – to do anything.

We returned to Sydney after an absence of seven years. The local birds are wary. The shops are great. But I miss the boys.

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