By Sarah Dunwoodie
Illustration by Lisa Vu
On Christmas Eve 2015, I was in New York. My then boyfriend and I had waited in line for two hours to see the Rockefeller Tree, squeezing through tourists on the Manhattan streets, teeth chattering, unable to acclimatise to the bitter cold that is the Northern Hemisphere in winter. We’d only ever experienced Christmas in Australia – the Southern Hemisphere scorchers and Christmas Day beers. Because I’ve seen The Holiday and Home Alone too many times, my brain had been flooded for months with images of snow falling outside our Brooklyn apartment window, never taking off our novelty Christmas sweaters during our entire holiday (not even when we were showering) and blisters from ice-skating in Central Park every day. Maybe it was because it didn’t snow for us, and instead we spent our month in New York laying in front of an air conditioner as the heating in our Airbnb couldn’t be turned off by individual tenants. I found myself feeling not as grateful as I should have been to be in New York, the ‘city of dreams’. The Rockefeller Tree was an inextinguishable forest of light from which I could not look away, but all I wanted when I stood on the steps of The Rock in the December drizzle was to be in my hometown with my best mates at our local pub, like we had been every Christmas Eve since we turned eighteen.
I graduate and leave my parents’ house the second I sign a lease in the outer suburbs of Melbourne – a greyhound snapping at the gate, obsessed with chasing the mechanical hare. Everyone tells me Melbourne will be better. My Year 12 English teacher says I’ll thrive at uni. No one gets it here, but everyone will get it there. Made for you, she reckons. Those of us heading to Melbourne laugh at the kids who instead opt to continue their education in Bendigo, an hour away from where we grew up.
“As if you wouldn’t want to go to Melbourne,” we say, unable to understand why they’re willingly missing out. But no situation could be more dire than that of our classmates who have no intention of going anywhere, of leaving the town only every six months for a weekend away in what they refer to as The Big Smoke.
“They’re mental,” Josh says, rolling his eyes.
We all nod our heads in agreement.
When I’m there by myself, my hometown doesn’t feel like home. I realise this somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, and it probably has something to do with going back and having no one to visit. By now, everyone has left. The place feels like a house you lived in as a kid that you can never return to, because a new family lives there now. Even if you asked the new owners to have a look around, the feelings it evoked before wouldn’t be there anymore.
On their ten-year anniversary, my sister married the first boy she ever kissed. He grew up where we grew up. When I was sixteen, I thought the only things he was good for were buying me Smirnoff Double Blacks and driving me around when Mum was at work. He had a fire of red hair on his head, a tattoo on his shoulder of a gecko that looked like it was dying, and a southern cross sticker on the back of his ute. When they were twenty-one and my sister had to take him to the hospital to be treated for alcohol poisoning, I vowed to stay away from hometown boys.
On their wedding day, I helped the groomsmen get ready in my mother’s house. My soon to be brother-in-law reminded me of a Golden Retriever, sitting around the table with a smile spreading across his face. I asked him why he wasn’t nervous. His response was exactly what it should have been.
“Why would I be nervous? I fuckin’ love your sister.”
Sometimes I’ll be watching a play in Melbourne on a Wednesday night and I’ll think about how enamoured I am with this city. I could spend hours looking at the architecture of the ceiling dome in the State Library. There is nothing more affecting than watching someone scream into a microphone during a protest on Swanston Street, their mouth dry from an overabundance of passion, veins in their neck slithering under the skin. The way the traffic lights reflect on the asphalt on Punt Road when it rains late at night makes me think of Christmas lights. These things don’t happen in rural country towns. In small towns, you sit next to someone in prep and bond because you live one street away from each other. You blink, and then sixteen years later you’re talking shit about them in a speech at their 21st.
They are places in which you are considered rich if you own a swimming pool. Holden memorabilia dominates the corrugated iron walls of the backyard sheds. The bar fridges are always stocked full of Canadian Club. I spend as much time in those old sheds with my friend’s parents as I do with their children. These are the people who took me into their homes every night after school, an adopted child, always insisting that I may as well be one of their own. These are things that only happen in small towns.
My primary school was knocked down last year, but not before a bunch of us wiggled our bodies through the broken glass windows of the assembly hall in the summer, Sharpies in hand, drunk on nostalgia (and Carlton Draught). We wrote our names and the year we graduated from grade six on the walls and sprinted through the corridors. Some of us ended up on the roof, the tin still hot from the day’s sun burning our bare feet. The same thing happened to my high school. The campus sits on the perimeter of the town, just after the welcome sign that has been replaced about three times since I’ve lived there. Population: 6,000.
Someone told me they tore down the wing that housed our Year 12 area, and the classroom where I first read Macbeth. I can’t look at it when I drive past.
Gary Lyon grew up in my hometown. So did Brett Deledio. Small towns breed athletes, tradies, and dairy farmers. Teachers tell us we can do anything we want to do. The socio-economic climate whispers that we can do anything we want to do, as long as we don’t dream too big. Some people find ways to get out. Some people want to stay there forever. I thought I knew the side of the line on which I fell.
As a kid, I wanted to be immersed in the culture that soaks Melbourne. I envied the kids who grew up catching buses and trams with people of different nationalities, every day experiencing diversity and perspectives different to their own. I knew in Melbourne there were bands that played every night at bars that sold $10 jugs. I wanted to go to the National Gallery and look at the mammoth paintings every week. I wanted something different, something new. Something more than a place that required us to drive for half an hour just to get to a proper cinema.
What I got instead was a graduation ceremony in the school hall that doubled as the gym for P.E., bongs made from Coke bottles, and an unparalleled ability to scull from a goon bag hanging on a clothesline. In the city, I thought that no one would ever draw pictures of dicks on the walls of public toilets, or put dye in the local pool because they were bored and there was quite genuinely nothing else to do.
A strange thing happens now when I go back, though. The last time I went to my hometown, I got kicked out of BWS by the manager – a guy I went to primary and high school with – for drinking a VB, and one of my mates drank too much and vomited in a bag of chicken chips. I felt grounded.
Joan Didion once wrote, ‘You have to choose the places you don’t walk away from.’ I’m not sure I’ve made an explicit choice.
I still don’t know how I feel about my hometown, but I do know how I feel about my friends who came to me because we all happened to be in that town at the same time.
Didion got one thing wrong. You have to choose the people you don’t walk away from.
I went home for Christmas Eve last year. It had been about six months since I’d been there. Something was different. The roundabout in the centre of the main street had been revamped; a promise that even in a place like this, things can get better. Where there was once soil that hadn’t sustained life since I was in Year 9 now stood a fountain that didn’t look half bad. I imagined all the local farmers writhing at the sculpture on which all their good taxpayer dollars had been spent.
As I got closer, I saw the colour of the water: an unnatural shade of blue, like regurgitated jelly sprung from the stomach of a kid at a fifth birthday party. Bubbles frothed on the surface, heavy foam restricting the flow. I walked into the pub on the corner, making a beeline for the bar. The girl behind the counter was in the year above me at school.
“Hey Josie! What’s the deal with the fountain situation going on out there?”
I was already slurring my words, the Furphy’s I had drunk on our walk from my friend’s parents’ house kicking in.
Josie snorted and revealed the cheeky grin I remembered from Year 11 Legal Studies.
“Some dickheads put bubble bath in it the first day they turned it on!”
I walked back over to the mates I’ve had since we finger-painted together in kindergarten.
Good to know some things never change.