Celebrating 40 years on this earth
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[Reprinted with my own permission from Subteranean Homesick Noos]
Long has it been since I saw your chiseled face and ochre teeth. Is it 2 years? 3 years even? So, here I am. At 30,000 feet. Coming back. Back to you, Australia.
The drawls of the Qantas flight attendants wield and soar about the cabin until they slam into my ears like sledgehammers. It’s not an altogether unpleasant sensation. These accents shocking, yet soothing. Foreign, yet familiar. Ah, that’s it. They’re normal. I grin and my cheeks bobble with love.
The flight attendants converge in a huddle behind me, talking cricket and football to the ‘I’m-traveling-alone-at-11-years-old’ child. I grin like an idiot as they give him hell—quite rightly—about being a Collingwood supporter. Oh, the voices of my people. Strong, casual, confident. Happy.
Are their accents really that strong, or is it just so long since I’ve heard a bunch of Aussies together? Does Qantas hire them for their ocker-ness? When I talk at work, surrounded by Americans, do I sound like that?
I stretch out and wriggle my toes in my complimentary in-flight socks. Still grinning. I’m coming home to visit you, my darling, Oz. It’s all I’ve talked about for the last two weeks, and now, after winging my way across the USA to Los Angeles, I’ve finally boarded my flight. Six hours down. Fourteen to go.
The flight is pretty empty. I have three seats to myself. When lunch comes around, my first thought is to ask about beer. They have VB. Flashes of university rush into my memory cinema and flood the screen. Ah, Victoria Bitter. Not my favorite, but I ask for one for old time’s sake. I sip and roll it around my palate.
Yep, that’s how I remember it.
I still don’t like it that much, but there’s something about drinking it that makes me happy in this moment. I take a photo, polish the little blighter off, and then ask for another. After two, I switch to red wine. Then stop. Must be sensible. I don’t want you to see me legless, Oz. I don’t want you to think less of me.
I can’t sleep either. This isn’t gonna be good for the jetlag.
With much love,
My dearest Oz,
You know I’m not a terribly emotional person. I have noticed lately, however, that the older I get the more likely I am to mist up over weird stuff. Stuff that never would have got me going before. Not me. Hard as nails me. Nut-you-in-the-head-as-soon-as-look-at-you, me. But as we touch the ground in Sydney, I rubberneck out the window and look at you, my love. I feel kind of funny.
‘I’m back,’ I think. ‘Back home’. I yearn for you to embrace me.
I have a stupid grin as I escape the tin-can plane. The same stupid grin I was sporting before when I first heard those flight attendants. The same stupid grin I wore when I first tasted that VB out of the plastic cup at lunch. I get the feeling it’s not the last time that grin will show itself. Oh, there it goes again. When I walk through customs I see it. You posted a giant sign, just for me. ‘G,day,’ it says. ‘Welcome home.’ I am hewn sideways with the strangled trachea feeling.
Exiting the terminal, I finally breathe you in. Australia, what is it about you? Is it the weight of the air, the taint of eucalyptus? The ambiance of casualness? You’re just…different than anyone I’ve met before.
It’s 8:30pm. And even as I watch the meter in the taxi tick over and over and over, ripping me off like a Band-Aid from an ultra-hairy arm, I grin. For I have returned to you, Oz. I traverse your Sydney streets and arrive in Bondi Junction. It’s 9:20pm, and I am at my lodgings. There they are. Andreas and Tina. I’ve missed them.
It’s hot. My skin is pale. I am a ghost, crafted by a New York winter in a kiln of jagged air and sunless glaze. The pallor of my skin bounces sharp light in their eyes, I can see it. I look at them both, nut brown and healthy. Glowing. Smiles and easiness ooze from them, their auras look me up and down, puzzled. I look like a ghost and I know it. But I wing it with my grin—it gets me by.
“I can only drink two beers,” I say, shuffling further inside. “I have a flight to catch in the morning.”
Andreas agrees to this plan. But I catch it. The glint in his eye. I recognize it. There’s trouble ahead.
So much to talk about. Look at that, listen to this. And on and on. I’m so excited I interrupt my own stories to start new ones. Just too much to share. At 3:30am it is decided that it all must stop. Sleep calls me again, and finally—finally—I listen. Oz, you lull me to sleep with your promise of tomorrow.
See more of you soon,
Dear Down Under,
Have you warned my mother? She doesn’t know I’m coming, you see. The original plan was to just turn up in Tamworth and say hello to her. But there was some concern about unprepared hearts and fainting spells, and not enough smelling salts to go ’round. She hates surprises, my Mum. So I call her at work, just before I get on the plane to fly there. It’s an hour away.
She answers in her office voice. I proceed to give her the low-down on my sneaky, commando-raid arrival. There is absorption of information through the telephone line. And then her first reaction.
“What? Did you lose your job?” she asks. I am thrown.
“No,” I squint and puzzle. Then move on.
“You sold the farm,” I say. “I thought I’d come home and say goodbye to it.” This makes sense to me. They’ve sold the place of my childhood. A bush crèche that you made for me, Oz. Remember?
She asks, quite reasonably, why I didn’t warn anyone that I was coming.
“Dad knows,” I say. Oh, dear.
“Oh,” she says, “Does he!” And I know he’s a goner. We’re secretive blighters, my Dad and I. I’m grateful that he’s the one to cop the earful of rage. I shall just get love. All love. When you’re away for long enough, that’s all you will get. And you can’t really fault me anyway. The prodigal child. Returned from the front. Sneakiness forgiven. Hands clean. You don’t hate me do you, Oz? For not telling you I was coming? I meant no disrespect.
There is happiness in her voice. My Mum. I can almost hear her brain processing what I’ve said. That I’ll be there in an hour. The teeter in her speech, the hesitation of thought. I say goodbye quickly and hang up. There will be plenty of time for emotion in 60 minutes. Well, you know, Oz. You’ll see it when I land.
Look forward to flying over your expansive plains and gum-covered mountains soon.
Love and kisses,
Much has happened since last I wrote. A reunion of family. A reconnection. A return to old. Beer and cheese. And a steak. A giant steak, fattened in your fields and hills and valleys. I liked your steak. You sure know how to fatten a steer!
Days pass and I slip back into the quiet of life on the farm. Memories swim around me, but are not ready to settle yet. I sit on the front verandah for maybe the last time, catching some rays. Trying to convince the sun to permeate a few layers of the dermis and defrost some platelets and corpuscles. I need some color before I return to Gotham. I’m reading a book in the glare. All of a sudden my brain pokes me in an optic nerve.
“Hey, Bozo,” it says. “Pay attention. Pay attention to your surroundings. This is the last time you’ll see this.”
I close the book. I seek out my moment of Zen and take a good hard look at you, Oz. And all you contain.
A magpie is warbling his little guts out in the gum tree over the fence. Really angling his throat and opening up the pipes. I’d forgotten all about magpies. I notice a breeze, fresh and lovely, gossiping through the grass and leaves.
A pee wee sounds and flies across the scene. Crackling insects-supercharged dragonflies I think-zap through the long grass. A willy wagtail jumps around on the lawn. I’m noticing it all now. The breeze stills. A dog yap echoes in the valley, and then I hear the buzz of a crop duster. I absorb. I sponge. I drift. And then I’m gone. All these memories march in to my brain without even ringing the door bell, knocking ornaments off my sidetable and making a right mess of it.
Substantial memories. Sentimental memories. Of a house my parents built from a kit, foundations, rafters, cement tanks. A bathroom cabinet mirror broken by squabbling siblings. Of gravel, pink huts, pig pens and sheds. A roll call of cats and dogs and animal graveyards. Dusty roads, leeches, creeks roaring with foam after a storm. Cubby houses, secret trees, favorite rocks and nooks and crannies.
Memories of my brother. Do you remember getting lost in that paddock? How about bike jumps made from car bonnets? Paddy melons and Land Rovers? Climbing on the roof, playing under the house, matchbox cars? Pushing me into a blackberry bush?
I remember lifting sheets of corrugated iron so he could hit rats with a shovel (not very precise with his aim). Of watching him fix his car. Of following him as he rode away on his bicycle. Of following him down to the swamp. Following him to the shed. Following him over to the sheep yards.
“Where are you going, Michael? Where are you going?”
Follow, follow, and follow again. I go further back. I remember. Thistles scratch my legs as I follow sheep. Grass seeds infect my socks as I follow the milking cow. My horse snorts with contempt as I follow the herd. Follow, follow, and follow again.
I sing as I follow the lambs. I talk to myself, tell stories, make up future ‘Noodle in the World’ scenarios. I follow the ewes. I stop and smell some chocolate flowers, clutch their purple petals in my hand as I follow my Dad so he can smell them too. He seems surprised that I was right, that they actually do smell like chocolate.
You interrupt for a moment and point me in a different direction in my memory quest. I look over from my position on the verandah and see where the chook yard once stood. And think. Of collecting eggs in the skirt of my school uniform. Of roosts, and the sway-backed hen—made that way care of being stepped on by a pig, if I recall correctly. Of my screaming and being chased by that damn rooster. Of Dad showing me how to stand up to it, though I was happy when he gave that red-combed devil away.
Slumber parties, 2-man tents, BMX. Danger, danger—don’t swim in farm dams. Turtles. Wild pigs, nanny goats, spotlight night. Screen doors slamming. Of Dad planting me in strategic paddock positions, saying, “When the sheep come this way, shoo them that way.” Of my dumb nods and thoughtful gum leaf chewing. Planted. Waiting. Making up secret worlds of bark people with mossy lawns and rocky kingdoms. Oh, shit. Here they come. Shoo! Go that way!
Rabbit trapping, racing across the front paddock as Plovers ‘ack-acked’ and dive-bombed, spurs at the ready. Turning to see my brother throwing a rabbit trap up in the air to try hit one. Ack-ack! Run, run, run!
Memories. Of finding Mr. Jones’s skeleton in Trough Gully creek. Of holding up his sun-bleached skull to my mother. Of her horrified face and the ‘put that down now!’
The Zen door cracks opens now. I can feel that I’m nearly there. Memories collide and congeal. Memories.
Of lying in the wool in summer, the vibration of the shearing shed beneath me, the smell of stencil ink in the air. Snoozing on a bale of wool with Jill the dog. Of Mum, throwing out the fleece, skirting the wool. The old crank-arm bailer. My brother working it and me, useless me, sweeping up the dregs, hanging out for smoko and chocolate cake and tea and shortbread cream biscuits. And quiet.
Between them, my parents have built almost all the structures on this farm. As for me, I’ve walked, driven, cycled, ran, and ridden over it. I’ve climbed your trees, explored sheep trails, looked for your caves, walked through spider webs, sprayed weeds, chipped burrs, ploughed one paddock, fenced, dug holes, chopped wood, collected rocks, and a hell of a lot more. Of the 2,500 acres, who knows exactly how much I’ve seen.
This farm has been my crucible. And even though sometimes I definitely feel half-baked, I know that without this geography, without this environment, I’d be a completely different robot.
And finally, with thought, I reach my nirvana. I have my Zen moment.
Later on, I stand out near the machinery shed and look at your hills surrounding me. It’s quiet. The air is still now. Space. Sense the space. Vast. I am struck suddenly with a feeling of emptiness. Of stark contrast between where I’m standing now and where I will be standing in a week. Back in Manhattan. Back in New York. Away from you. Away from you, Oz.
At this very moment—today—there is no one looking at me. Stillness rules with a mute fist. The only potential for human contact, for someone to actually look at me, will occur in one minute when my Dad reverses the ute out of the shed and we go for a drive. And later, when Mum comes home from work.
There are no people eyeing me when I’m here with you, Oz. No one pushing me out of the way so they can steal my cab. No one asking for change. It’s just calm and lovely. But I know I must close this life chapter. It must end and sign off. Like Elvis, it must leave my building. So I say, goodbye farm. Goodbye, crucible.
Love always and forever,
Previously, when I’ve flown over your Sydney approach, all you do is open your dirty trench coat and flash me with your red roofs, trees, and swimming pools. But this time was different. This time you pried open your chest and showed me your pulsing heart.
That flight path was a stroke of genius. You forced me to look down upon the glistening shells of your Opera House, the long arc of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Winking harbor, ferries, the CBD. You made the pilot do that, didn’t you? Just for me. And just before we landed, you made the pilot take me out to see. To see your sea. To see the bluest ocean. Out and out, and so far out that I thought we might be going to land on an aircraft carrier.
But then we winged a lazy right and turned and came back. You showed me long beaches, and that your ocean palette also contained a greeny-blue in shallower, rockier places. I felt like I was seeing it for the first time. For a second, I realize just how near I am to leaving you again. There is a big lump of nothing creeping into my being. Like liquid into this chalk. Why is it so?
For two days, I stay with Andreas and Tina again.
There is a dinner party. My stomach is a witness to the ecstasy of Andreas’ famous ‘Brown Meal’. Roast pork, sauerkraut, dumplings, and onions. The only hint of green; flecks of herbs in the dumplings. Tina actually cooked it, so really she was the heroine and Andreas just a hanger on. But still. It’s my memory lane I’m ambling down here, and the brownness of it was everything I remembered it to be. It might even be browner.
People come ’round to share. One person, Bunker, drives all the way from Canberra to see me. At least, that’s what he said. But we all know why. It was for that brown meal.
It’s another late night, with stories and Australian drawls and just good company. I reflect, for that’s what this whole trip has been about. Wallowing and reflecting. I see it. Lives have carried on. We’re all growing up. Things are getting simpler. Wine in the afternoon, bacon and eggs on the BBQ in the morning. Lazy days, languid nights. You offered me another serving of this life for 10 days. Thanks for that. Just to taste it again—it was nice.
On my last day in your company I walked from Bronte Beach to Bondi Beach—you did a good job on those two creations. In that atmosphere, with that sky, with that beach, with that breeze, with that environment, with those people, with those sounds, with those sandstone cliffs. Even with the seagulls. You could have shown me a dog turd on a footpath and I still would have said you were Eden.
My forehead advertises its pale canvas and you paint it with your sunlight. My freckles recharge and wink. You inject a dose of manna straight to my soul.
I pack my suitcase. Tina and I went souvenir shopping. Now I have to try fit $50 worth of Aussie chocolate and Tim Tams, plus a haversack full of stuffed marsupials and canned wombats, into my bag. I plan to distribute these marsupials and chocolaty goodness throughout my office back in Connecticut. As a side-note: marsupials are expensive. If you ever want to know. I know you’ve got them scattered all over you, Oz. And I guess they didn’t cost you a thing.
The farewell isn’t as emotional as it should perhaps be. I will see Andreas and Tina in August in New York, anyway. They will stay in my shoebox on 78th Street. It will be cozy. Just us three and the pigeons on the fire escape.
At 6am, I walk inside the Sydney International terminal. I walk away from Tina, still snoozing back at the flat. I walk away from Andreas, getting back into his car at the airport. And I walk away. Away from you, Australia. Again.
I won’t lie. I’m about an hour out of New York, and I’m really looking forward to being back—I don’t want to say it—but back home. In my apartment. In Manhattan. With the cockroaches you can saddle and ride. Well, maybe not those exactly. But it’s a long flight, and I look forward to lying down in my bed. Sans cockroaches.
If anything, this trip back has made me—apart from more soppy—love you more than before. You are this preserved ‘perfect thing’ in my mind. This untarnished ‘God’s country’. I don’t have to deal with the irritating people, think about tax, or feeling small. I don’t have to remember normal day-to-day life there. All I am dealing with are the sensory perceptions, and the visual brilliance of you, and whatever else straps you in to that pleasant corner of my memory. You are the idealized version of my upbringing. You are the perfect, perfect place on earth. I just ran up and tagged you: you’re it. The sanctuary.
And I hope and pray that the Americans never find you. Or they’ll all be living with you.
Until next time,
Love and non-sexual kisses,