you can go home again, while you can

It’s been nearly a year, I realised. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I was scrolling through podcasts and checking cruise control and I thought, It’s almost December. It had taken me twice as long as I’d planned to return home, and even then, I wasn’t really returning home, because my parents had sold home and found another building with a driveway and a garden and a deck and named that “home” back in April. I’d only seen photos. Heard stories about the wildlife in the paddock next door. Listened as my mother explained plans for renovating, and failed to comprehend the scope. But I hadn’t seen it. Which made me the minority in my family.

It’s always a spontaneous decision. Never premeditated. I spend an evening considering the drive, calculating the cost of fuel and the time involved – totally non-committal, no particular reason – and the next morning I can’t not do it. It’s all I want. Like I’m a wind-up toy, something in me unfurling so slowly I don’t notice until it isn’t, can’t feel it until it stops. And that’s it. I pack a bag, bring the washing in, fuel up and go. It takes half an hour, if that. I remember my charger, razor, slippers. I’ve done it too many times to leave anything behind.

I pull a jumper out of storage and find a coat I haven’t worn in months. I think about packing my Rossi’s, but didn’t. (I regret that now. I knew I would). I wonder if it will rain as I drove into town. It does that with such consistency – starts a downpour, however slight, the moment I pass the airport some ten minutes before city limits – that I’m convinced I could arrive in January and break a drought by doing so.

I’d forgotten just how long, how dull, how frustratingly necessary the actual journey itself is. Waiting for overtaking lanes and wondering when 110km/h started to feel insufficient. Driving past a series of signs advertising road works and speed limit reductions, and getting pissed off at clueless tourists who actually obey, not realising the road works are long finished and the signs just unclaimed relics whose only remaining purpose is to torture regular commuters with their redundancy.

I’d also forgotten the feeling. At first, it’s anxiety, pure and simple. This weird, small, isolated seaside hometown has never inspired anything less than a complicated reaction from me. I’ve claimed to hate it. I’ve claimed to love it. Mostly, I fluctuate between the two, and I know I will never quite decide, no matter how much a definitive ruling would put me at ease. But the more distance I put between myself and my adored, thriving metropolis (so-called by me, at least), the more this bizarre, calm feeling moves in on anxiety’s territory. It’s so damn vast out here. It’s just paddocks and trees and shrubs and gravel and a thin strip of bitumen splitting it all in two. And sky. You can’t forget the sky even if you wanted to. It’s two-thirds of anything you look at. There’s something reassuring about it. Something constant.

But the anxiety circles back soon enough, and it’s not so much for the place as it is for my place within it. Every time I leave I am changed and every time I return I am different again. I can’t help knowing this. I’m a fucking writer, the most self-aware of the self-aware, second perhaps only to actors, bless them. Growing up here I was painfully shy, totally void of the confidence post-schooling life permits us when we stop trying to define ourselves by using our equally uncertain peers as yardsticks. I catch myself regressing into this person at a speed directly proportional to my proximity to the offensive, colourful cinema that sits on the outskirts of town. I’m aware so many of those peers still live in this place. That my odds of running into any one of them on the street are high. Very high. That I don’t know how to tell them I’m not the same person I was at school. That I don’t know why I care whether they know that or don’t.

And then the airport passes on my left and a thick forest on my right and the temperature is low and the sky is dark and there it is. It starts to rain. Right on cue. Just like I thought it might. Just like I knew it would. And the only thing more predictable than that, more reliable than this ridiculous, contrary, infuriating, loveable rogue of a place that keeps bringing me back no matter how many times I swear to never make the trip again, is my reaction to it. My eyes go watery. I feel like an idiot, but I’ve known this place for too long, spent too much time with it, that I can’t help but prescribe some greater meaning to everything it does, deserving or not. And I can’t mistake the rain for anything other than what I know it to be, deep down. I want to ignore it because I feel like I don’t deserve it, but I can’t. I’m being welcomed home in the same way my mother will welcome me in a few more minutes. With the knowledge that I won’t stay, but I can go, because it won’t mind, and when I fail to come back when I said I would, it will wait, and when I’m ready, it will be exactly where I left it, patient, warm and overjoyed to see me return, as if I never left at all.

On the main street, I see my old geography teacher – who walks with a stilted limp, courtesy of a motorcycle accident many years earlier – crossing the road. I watch my old boss enter the building I used to have a desk in (he’s still there, of course), pass the restaurant where I got my first payslip (different owners, now), and when we arrive at dinner, I recognise one of the bartenders. We worked together at another restaurant, years ago. He moved to Perth, I thought, became an accountant. But he’s back, too. It seems this place has a way of doing that.

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Broome Dispatch: Life on Mars

At some point during the flight I realised I’d spent the better part of the journey with my window blind closed.

This was deliberate; my brain is far too hyperactive to accept the fact that a 40-tonne tube of metal, carpet and wiring is not incapable of dropping out of the sky at 37,000 feet without reason or rhyme, so my coping strategy is to do all within my power to convince myself that I’m not hurtling through the air at about 1000 kilometres an hour but am instead sitting on the ground, at most doing repetitive loops of the world’s longest runway, and miraculously we end up where we’re going without even moving. Like that episode of Get Smart where Kaos blindfolds Max and 99, locks them in a parked car for ten hours and tricks them into thinking they’ve crossed the globe.

On this occasion I decided I could do with breaking precedent and taking off the blindfold. This is what I saw:

I know, it's like I'm holidaying on another planet.

I know, it’s like I’m holidaying on another planet.

It’s Broome. Well, about ten minutes out from descent into landing in Broome, anyway.

I’m not a huge fan of revealing my location here (my apartment is absolutely not empty right now and my roommate will probably beat you with her huge cooking pot (not a euphemism) if you put one toe over the threshold) but it’s necessary. It’s necessary because I am one hundred per cent a Southern Girl. I’ve never been further north on either of Australia’s coasts than Geraldton until now (worst. school camp. ever) and I didn’t particularly want to. Canada, that’s north. That would be nice. Overseas, that’s where I’ll go, where we all really want to go – somewhere other than Here, than Now, that’s the real point of a holiday really, isn’t it? A break from the routine, the familiar? Everything a hop, skip and far cry from whatever we’re used to, so we might reinvent ourselves and our lives and our way of thinking, just ever so slightly, just between airports.

But here I am, impossibly, and I’m realising that not only is the world infinitely bigger, stranger and more beautiful than we might think, but so is our own backyard: the places we hear so much about, the ones we feel so close to that going there feels redundant, the destinations that would make our list only after many others, if at all.

The first thing when you step off the plane is the heat. Bam. A wave of it, thick and stifling, buffeted by a wind that seems to have tangibility, that is basically a solid. You breathe it in and it seems to be suffocating you, so you want to stop, but that’s a quick way to pass out, but so is continuing to breathe hot, thick air. So that’s interesting.

The second thing is arguably the world’s tiniest international airport that reminds me of the one from my old hometown, but smaller. I think it once may have been a series of shearing sheds that somebody paved around and repurposed. At the baggage claim, 10 or 12 ceiling fans wobble perilously above our heads circulating that hot, thick air so it’s less like being in a sauna and more like being in a warm mini-cyclone. No air-conditioning. We stand around in a huddle waiting a very long time for very tanned and very overweight men to run around the tarmac with a golf cart and a trailer to get our bags.

All the rental cars are four-wheel-drives and somehow we end up with the largest, most obnoxious of them all. There are a couple of Priuses but I can’t imagine why anyone would want one of those in a place like this. The roads here have all survived the ’30s, are long and single-lane and bordered by scrawny scrub and rocks and gravel, and nothing else. There are hardly any streetlights and you can’t drive anywhere without feeling like you should’ve brought a packed lunch and a few litres of water. The town and its surrounds are plotted so that no matter where you start out, you’ll pass about four roadsigns reminding you how far you are from where you’re going before you actually get there. Cable Beach 7. Cable Beach 4. Cable Beach 2. If the town planner wanted to make Broome disorienting enough to befuddle any potential foreign invaders, they had a damn effective strategy.

Amidst our haphazard points and calls of I-think-it’s-this-way, we realise that none of the houses have gutters. None of the new ones, at least, and there are a surprising many of those. When it rains here, it rains harder than any gutter system could probably hope to deal with. They’re also all on slabs, these houses, all a bit raised from the ground and all square. No fancy brickwork, no elaborate gardens, just square windows, glorified Colourbond metal exteriors and matching triangular roofs sloping towards the sizable, undercover, not lockable carports. It’s as if most residents are fully aware that for eight months of the year a storm could hit without an hour’s notice and their entire lives would get washed away. I can’t see myself bothering with a vegetable patch and fish pond if that were my reality, either.

Next is the red.

There is an incredible amount of red.

It’s not the primary colour, either – this red is both secondary and third. It has a dimension all of its own and even while you stare at it, it seems to change. Is it red or brown? Orange, maybe? Can it be all three at once? Ochre, that’s the name I find most fitting for it on a bunch of levels. I’ll try to describe it to people when I get back and they won’t quite get it. I’ll take pictures of this red and no combination of camera and printer will do it justice. The red dirt is ubiquitous and fine enough to get anywhere. I anticipate finding it in my apartment for weeks after I get home. 

Then comes surprise at discovering the shopping centre actually has things like a Sanity, and an EB Games, and a Jay Jays, when I expected it to have neither. Their Woolworths is open for like 12 hours, seven days a week (take that, Albany) but the receipts come with liquor store vouchers because there’s nowhere to use the usual fuel vouchers.

There’s air conditioning in our little rented unit and to cap it off, an outdoor shower. With four walls and no roof. There’s one of those hotel-style clotheslines – a rope that pulls out of one wall and hooks into a hole in the other – on one side and four large outdoor pavers arranged in a pattern on the ground, with large smooth pebbles filling the gaps between. No table to put your clothes so they go on the ground, and it’s not unclean at all. You walk over those, stand on a slightly raised square of timber decking and all of a sudden there’s a shower head above you and a tap in front of you. A little glass shelf between the two to complete the illusion and absolutely nothing else.

A bug crawls its way up one of the walls, which are those fancy, deliberately-painted-to-look-rustic kind. I finally realise that I am showering outside and it occurs to me that a snake/lizard/gigantic spider could crawl its way out from under the damn decking I’m standing on – ACTUAL WOOD WITH ACTUAL SCREWS IN IT – and I would have no idea because 1) it’s dark and 2) my glasses are on the floor (ground) with my clothes. Not good. Don’t look at the ground, Liz. Look up.

So I do.

And I see stars.

Millions of them, so near yet so far. I am going to miss that when I get home.