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.