A single piece of fine wire roped off the roads, keeping the cattle in their place. When I decided to take my bike off the dirt road and into the paddock I found myself on the ground, strong-armed off my bike by the almost invisible force of the single wire. The bike lay across it. I grabbed the handle bar and felt a deep throbbing into my body. Electricity. I left the bike and ran back to the house.
My parents were friends with their parents and we went there on weekends sometimes and stayed overnight. We loved the sloppy joes made by their American mother – mince cooked in tomato sauce and served on white bread – and we loved the river. It was wide and made no discernible movement toward the sea, 50 kilometres away by river, less if you drove. We thought it must be deep. We wouldn’t swim in it, we didn’t know what might be in there. I saw my legs kicking and swirling with kilometres of water underneath, nipped by catfish and eels.
My brother and I fancied we’d catch something in there. The river was so big and so full of possibility. I got the feeling my father never really liked fishing, or perhaps it was just that he didn’t like fishing with his five kids in tow. When we got the chance to fish at the farm it was special. We had once caught a crab and a bream off a small wharf at Ballina. My brother caught a catfish at a local creek. We talked about these catches for months. This river would surely deliver us something that would outdo these.
We went to a part of the bank that was flatter than most. Us kids had hand lines and they didn’t really work through the grass and rocks at the side of the river. We moaned about needing a boat but I knew if we had one I would be nervous about it tipping over. My father had a long beach rod. It was maroon with little loops of yellow along its length. There were two big round handles on the simple reel, neat and perfect wooden mushrooms.
The meal we were going to eat when we caught our fish! Mum was going to be surprised when we bought the fish back. Dad would be happy and we’d go fishing again after he saw what we could catch. We threw our lines out and dragged them back in almost immediately. Got snags. Had some of the food packed in the picnic basket. Got no bites.
Until something bit Dad’s line. We could see the rod bending right over, the line running off the reel really fast. It must be HUGE. Dad struggled with the reel and wound it and wound it and bent the rod from this side to that side and then flung the rod back violently behind his head. The catch arched up and sailed through the air and back onto the bank, some way up the hill behind us. We ran to where it landed to see what it was. An eel was flinging itself around in the long grass. It was almost green and had some spots near its tail and sort of wings that ran along its body. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen.
This is a small, surfing town. Groups of teenage girls and boys wander from the beach to the convenience store, hanging around, girls sometimes in only bikinis, boys without shirts. I often catch myself marvelling at the boys’ bodies. The effortless muscle, lean and supple. I rarely went to the beach when I lived here as a teenager. It is pretty obvious why: it’s the body thing. And I was skinny. Effortlessly so. I didn’t know this at the time but putting in so much effort now for little result makes me realise how good I had it. I wasn’t comfortable in swimwear and I was frankly a little scared of the girls who did hang out on the beach. I had read bits of Puberty Blues and I was pretty sure these girls were the same and I wasn’t having a bar of it.
I gave up surfing when my family moved here, in the 80s. I had tried for a number of years to surf when we lived further north. Mum and Dad would fill up the Kombi and drive us to Byron Bay every weekend. I really loved surfing at the Pass. On good days the waves rolled gently for miles down the beach. When the tide was full they didn’t come straight into the beach but rather went alongside it. On those days I could catch a wave and have it take me softly along, without much speed or violence, until I could ease myself off it down the beach. Paddling back wasn’t too much of a chore. I lost my mother’s signet ring at that beach. I’ve never forgiven myself for it.
When we moved here I was 13. I lost all my confidence in the water. I lost interest in surfing because my fear didn’t allow me to continue. It’s come as a surprise then having moved back here, I have granted myself a little window of interest again. My son has become fixated on surfing. He badgered my brother for a board, knowing he had four or five of them lined up in his front room. They stand there like boards in a surf shop. As a child my brother would have wet himself with excitement if he knew one day he would grow up to have his own RACK of surfboards. The little pieces of wood that stand perpendicular to the wall between the boards are even wrapped in foam to protect the fibreglass.
On the second last day of the school term my brother brought learner’s softboards around to our house in his newly-purchased 1969 Ford Galaxie. I couldn’t believe he bought the car, and from e-Bay no less, but I secretly admire his ability to ignore practicality for the sake of owning such a incredible thing. On the night of the school Christmas carols he picked up Dash and I and we rode along with his wife and their three kids in this hulking, low, pale blue beast as he crawled it through the streets. It’s so big it has the unearthly air of a train. My brother borrowed the boards from the high school so Dash could spend some time learning to surf over the holidays. There is one short red board, for Lou, and a long, blue board, for me. One day I had mentioned that I might like to give surfing a go again when the waves were small and rolling. My brother didn’t forget I had said it. I had fantasies of catching waves in a clear ocean on a day when there is no breeze. I conveniently forgot there would be 50 other people trying to do the same thing, and they could actually surf.
Once Dash has an idea in his head he doesn’t allow anything else to jostle with it, he spends all his time thinking about that idea and verbalising the thoughts most of us keep in our heads. It drives me crazy. Surfing is his current idea and until I took him out on that board he wasn’t going to shut up. As soon as my brother delivered the boards he wanted to go. I tried to explain it was too late, the morning would be best. I promised to take him the next day. This didn’t really placate him but the fact that it was soon going to be dark meant he couldn’t really argue anymore.
The next day I packed his board into the car, sliding it from the boot, through the back and in between the front two seats. We went off to the headland to check the best place to get into the water. It was pretty windy at home and remembering that as a child we spent many hours agonising over wind, hoping for still days, I knew that the beach was probably going to be un-surfable for a small, skinny boy of six and his overweight mother. The tide was also at its peak. The waves would be full and lacking sufficient, even break to provide a satisfying, safe ride. When we got onto the beach my fears were confirmed. The wind lashed us from the north-east and the waves were scraping at the beach from various directions. This was not a good day for surfing, we should come back later. He wasn’t having this. I saw him tear up. I wasn’t going in the water, it would be a disaster. I told him we’d come back in a couple of hours, when the tide had gone out a bit. I promise. Somehow I managed to get him back in the car.
Of course, two hours barely made any difference and the waves were pretty much useless for learning to surf. He caught two or three, me pushing him onto the waves as they came through, and promptly the nose of the board dived down and he slid, legs splayed on each side of the board, off and under the water. This put the fear into him. He refused to come out again and stood in the shore break, battling to keep hold of the board.
The next time we went down to the beach wit both the boards and he did the same thing. He stood next to the board and wrestled with it as waves broke just ahead of him. I tried to get him to paddle out but he was not doing it.
I shouldn’t point too much at his fear, it took me an age to get the board into the water. When we first got to the beach we went towards the spot where there were a lot of surfers. Most of them were on long boards as the waves were small and full-ish but had a good form. They were graceful on the waves. Some of them would walk up to the end of the board and back as they rode just below the crest. The blokes on shorter boards would smack their rides up and down trying to generate some kind of speed. It was not one of those days. It was a day for longer, slower boards. Just the kind of day I had wanted.
There was no way I was going out there. All it would take was for me to break one of the rules and I would be done for. I also knew my limitations. I hadn’t surfed for more than twenty years. I took Dash up to another corner of the beach where there were practically no waves and no other surfers. There was a bloke in the water having trouble balancing on his expensive-looking board and I didn’t really want to have people looking at me in the way I was looking at him right now.
Putting the board in the water felt ok. I leaned on either side and pushed it through the white foam. A whole heap of physical memories came back. They took me by surprise. I heaved my bulk onto the board that had looked well wide enough in the shed but now felt narrow. I was trying to balance a sausage on a pin. I paddled and immediately realised how strenuous paddling can be. When you watch a bunch of surfers meander about in the water beneath the headland it all looks so easy. The effort felt good. I paddled out until I felt I probably couldn’t stand. My boobs pressed hard against the board and it hurt. I tried to lift my upper body off the board to give them some space but trying to keep your shoulders elevated with several kilos of fun bag strapped to them while laying on a slippery board is not easy. I sat up on the board, almost involuntarily. Where did that come from? It just felt like the obvious thing to do. I had to work hard with my legs to stay balanced. I swirled them around underneath myself in small circles, working to keep everything the right way up.
I knew the waves weren’t really there for catching but I didn’t honestly want to catch them as I didn’t know what I would do when I did. I need to work on paddling and balance. In the end I just had to give it a go. I paddled hard trying to catch some but they were too full, not close enough to breaking. I could hear Dash saying “Go Mum, go Mum” as I worked my arms hard through the water. I turned the board around and waited. Finally. One came through that I could catch, even if it was only going to give me a short ride. I paddled hard, hard, hard, and the board was moving at the speed of the wave. I felt the wave take over. I was on it. I immediately grabbed the rails and made to stand up but thought better of it. I focused on not nose-diving the board and managed to stay on it. I landed on the sand, beaching myself, as it were, but I hadn’t fallen off. I looked up and my partner was sitting on the beach laughing. I started laughing. I picked the board up and headed back out and I didn’t care who was watching.
We went swimming two days ago and it was actually quite pleasant. Unbelievable for this time of the year. There were more people swimming today and I would have gone in had we had the required attire.
I have always fancied becoming a ‘winter swimmer’ but have always found something to stop me. The water temp is currently hovering around 20 degrees celsius so I have no excuse, especially when we get to 24 degrees during the day…
I knew I was taking a chance when I moved out of the city. I have been and no doubt will continue to be, in love with the city. The idea of the city offers me infinite potential. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere and not be aware of humans and their detrius. Not even in places like the Harbour in Sydney and its beaches. When I lived in Coogee I used to float in the water and look back at the buildings. The juxtaposition seemed to give me hours of endless wonder. I was outside looking in, if only for a moment.
But like a lot of things in life, there comes a time when you have to move on, for the sake of your own sanity. When I think of the city now I think of suffocation. I think of dirt. I think of stress, nerves and worry. I think of cramped spaces and people bumping up against each other while pretending the other doesn’t exist.
Walking home after dropping my son at the school bus stop this morning I looked up at the sky and listened to the quiet and realised I have made one of the best decisions in my life. I haven’t given in, I haven’t wimped out, I haven’t run away. I am starting to believe what others have told me, I have made a brave decision that, for once in my life, has paid off.
When I first came to Sydney I was shocked by the amount of graffiti in public spaces. In fact, I felt a sense of unease whenever I went into an area heavily graffitied, it seemed to indicate that there was some kind of underworld and I it found vaguely threatening.
Now I sit in the back yard and listen to the shake knock shake knock of a spray can and the pfft of paint heading for our back wall. It still gives me a little frisson of excitement knowing there is some stranger out there painting our fence, but now I don’t feel threatened. I go out the next day and photograph it. I then put it on Flickr, submit it to groups and share it with others.
I’ve spent that last couple of days in Brisbane. Apologies to my friends at LP but this was a visit where there was no time whatsoever to do anything but the defined purpose of the visit. Believe me, I only got to visit a book shop this morning on the way home and that was with my father and my son sitting in the car waiting, tapping their fingers.
Being in Brisbane I felt I should buy some Andrew McGahan. It’s on the list to read after I’ve finished Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. I’ve decided that the next three months is going to be dedicated to Australian fiction. And I’m well up for it. Having finally finished The Vivisector, I’ve been perusing my mother’s not-to-be-sneezed at OzLit collection and am creating one of those dreaded piles.
The short visit didn’t give me much time to get a real feel for Brisbane, my only remark is that it deals with the environment much better than Sydney, (although that that may be changing). It seems to crouch in the trees, hiding from the heat.
This weekend, quite exceptionally for me, I left Sydney and spent some time in Melbourne. I’ve been guilty of some Melbourne-bashing in the past and to be honest, I have often found it difficult to see its charms. I have to hold my hand up now and say I have been converted. Perhaps, just perhaps, I may have even been taken right over to the Melbourne-shits-all-over-Sydney side. Yes, the dark side.
Although I grew up in the country I have been in Sydney for almost 15 years so it’s been a long time since I’ve lived anywhere else. I have never lived in another city and have not travelled widely. Pathetic, I know.
I always felt Sydney just had too much going for it in terms of physical beauty, diversity, population size and sheer bloody gall for me to start casting come-hither looks the way of Melbourne.
And then I found myself spending a lazy Sunday afternoon in a pub in St Kilda, after having been on and off trams for the past two days, darting hither and tither around Melbourne’s surprisingly grid-like streets.
Unlike the pure organisation of Canberra, there is a certain looseness to the Melbourne’s streets that allow the city to hold some charm without the rat-hole feeling Sydney can give. Canberra’s anally organised grids and perfect circles emanating from their venerated centre lead to confusion and a sense of panic as landmarks for visitors are passed on any number of roads several metres apart.
As I sat in the pub and watched people walk past I definitely knew I wasn’t in Bondi, or Coogee, or any other Sydney beachside suburb. (Ok, so I’ve always scoffed at the fact that St Kilda is called a ‘beach’ but I will explain my ability to put this sort of thing aside later). And I liked it.
I was accompanied by someone who had lived in Melbourne before and my companion did their best to talk up Melbourne at every opportunity. At first I was resistant but slowly my defences were worn down.
The main point of my companion’s argument was that Sydney was always trying to compete on a global scale and that Melbourne just did its thing. Sydney is always wondering what others think of her. She dresses in the latest fashions, even when they don’t suit her. She has rare innate beauty but isn’t sure about how to feel comfortable in it. She uses it as she thinks others feel she should. She wants to make a big impact now, stuff how she feels tomorrow. Conversely, Melbourne dresses herself up for her own enjoyment. She doesn’t give a toss what other people think. She knows how to have fun but won’t be told how to do it. In essence: Melbourne is for the people, Sydney is for show.
A very basic example is the public transport systems. Why Sydney ever thought it would be a good idea to get rid of trams is beyond me. As a Sydney-sider I am always in awe at the ability of trams, cars and pedestrians to share the same space. The rules seem to be less rigid than in NSW, (who allows people to stand in the middle of four lanes of traffic to catch a tram? It’s bloody dangerous!), but it works.
Which, I guess, is like a lot of things in Melbourne. Our public transport is very much separate from our traffic. Car drivers and buses fight a daily battle to gain supremacy. You’re either a driver or a public transport person. In Melbourne you just go with whatever is easier and the public transport system, in both convenience and price, makes it easier to go without a car (hell, I even saw Barry Jones on a tram). In Melbourne it seems, to the outsider, transport all works seamlessly. In Sydney we have rules, we have inconvenience, we have the privilege of driving and we have inadequately planned and expensive public transport.
Victorians deign to allow alcohol to be sold in cafes and in even convenience stores. We in NSW are being saved from ourselves with licensing laws that treat us like children. There seems to be a level of trust between the law, the government and the people. Like their seemingly laissez-faire attitude to road safety, their attitude towards the idea of community is far less bound by laura norder and much more faith in the desire and ability for people to just get along.
Of course, I may be overstating things, I may be just blinded by a trouble-free weekend as a tourist with nothing to do but follow one’s whims. There is though an undeniable difference in the two cities that has less to do with sheer beauty and more to do with an idea of people and society. In Sydney we’re always being saved from ourselves, we are taught to ‘keep things for good’, for when the cosmopolitan relatives come to visit. Melbourne just gets on with living their own lives in a way that makes them happy. Hence Sydney seems more akin to the searingly beautiful but grasping and unconfident one, Melbourne the ‘cool’ and confident one who does her own thing and plays to her strengths. In the end, the one who doesn’t give a toss is always the most attractive to the outsider.