© Julie Boyd
‘Hey, mate, can I ask you a question?’
‘Yes, miss. How can we help you?’
It was 2am and I was lost in the middle of Sydney. I’d just spotted two young cops standing on the street and pulled over beside them. Too tired to even bask momentarily in the unlikely compliment, I replied ‘Yeah mate. I’m trying to get home. Which way do I go to Newcastle?’
They were the first vaguely friendly faces I’d seen since Merimbula. Everyone else on the road had seemed determined to tailgate us or run us off the road. I try to drive at the speed limit, while other cars and trucks fly past, often abusing us as they go. We’d been in the car for 15 hours, driving up the coast road from Melbourne, and the signs to Highway 1 had vanished outside Frank Sartor’s electoral office. I had no idea where we were.
Already a fairly eventful trip, it felt like it was about to get a whole lot more exciting.
Our first stop had been at Sale. The lake there is full of mossies on one side of the road with none on the other. This was a familiar old stamping ground. I used to ride my bike that way on the way back to the convent from the boys school, where I was the only female student, when I was trying to dodge Religious Instruction lessons. A few bites were a small price to pay for not having to learn who I could take as a slaves, or how much I could sell my daughter for, according to the bible- but it hadn’t taken me long to figure out which side of the lake to ride on. The TAB was also on that side so I could drop the Brothers bets off for them. There’s a new public toilet where the old TAB used to be- somehow that struck me as ironic.
The roadhouse at the Maffra turnoff where Mum and Dad used to take my brother and I for dinner before we had to go back to boarding school gruel has been bulldozed and is now a housing estate. As we drove past, I wondered if the new owners knew they were living on contaminated soil.
Bairnsdale always gives me a shiver. You drive in past the hospital, and lots of people I love have spent time there. My last remaining uncle and an old school friend battling brain tumours are there right now. Then down the main street, where I remember my grandfather cruising in his beloved old Kingswood right up till the day he dropped dead on the banks of the Mitchell River. He taught most of the locals to either drive or fish, including the cops, so everyone used to just move off the road as he sailed though at 9.00 sharp every morning, on his way to his favourite fishing spot, before heading back at 4.00 sharp for a sherry or three at the local.
I used to turn left at Bairnsdale to go home to Swifts Creek- a gorgeous drive along the Tambo River. Roaring up there on a boyfriend’s Harley when I was at uni as we headed home to my ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ village for a weekend. We’d pass through a bend where my grandfather crashed his bullock cart when he was young, fly past a swimming hole where Brendan Richards broke his neck when he dived in and hit the bottom, slide around the fallen trees that my old school friend, Leon Walker, hit while riding his motorbike and carrying a gun for roo shooting. He blew half his brain away when the gun accidently discharged. Swifts Creek was home then, not now.
Turning right at Bairnsdale, takes us, instead down through Lakes Entrance past the caravan park my cousin Jimmy owns at the Nicholson River. Jim grew up with the worst stutter I’ve ever heard, with a mouth that would make a sailor blush, my Nan used to say. We used to get him to say fffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuukkkkkkkkkkkk just because it sounded so funny. He has a heart of gold and married a champion squash player called Sue. Their son Josh’s first words were four letter swear words. They haven’t changed a bit- any of them.
Jorge-dog could smell the ocean at Lakes Entrance before he could see it. Me too. From his penthouse perch on the shelf up behind the seats of my tiny red sports car, his little wet nose planted itself on my shoulder as we came over the hill. I never tire of the ocean panorama that unfolds in front of you at that point. Down the hill we sailed, to the inlet where we have a favourite spot to stop where he can go for a swim, and I can stretch out on the grass, with my face to the sun for a few minutes. I hadn’t counted on a new drain forming since our last visit.
By the time we reached Orbost an hour later, the smell from the drain where Jorge had rolled, that was emanating from the penthouse, was a bit overpowering. The gumtrees I used to play among, and a wash in the mouth of the Snowy River was just what the doctor ordered.
I pulled off the road, opened the door and Jorge leapt out – uncharacteristically straight into a patch of long grass. An odd wave of a few blades made me instinctively yell ‘Jorge, wait’, the one command I know he’d obey instinctively. That command had saved his life when we’d used it to stop him from being run-over in Adelaide when he was a puppy. He froze, as a copperhead snake as big as a python, raised its golden head to his eye level, and with a hiss worthy of Cleopatra, slid right past his nose. Had he been bitten? Would he make it home? I was panic central. The old bushmen who had been my playmates as a kid in the logging camps spoke to me from the ether. ‘He’ll be ok, love, just wash him as much as you can’ so I tipped every drop of water I could find in the car over his small, precious body to get rid of the sticky stuff that may, or may not have been venom. I couldn’t find any puncture marks, his coat is so thick as he’s on his way home for a haircut, and there is no vet in Orbost on a Saturday so I drove on, praying to every god I could think of- none of whom I believed in- to keep my little fluff-ball of a companion safe. While my kids had been travelling overseas for the past few years trying to find their own versions of home, my dog had been my constant reminder of what really matters to me.
It was only two days ago that we’d been to visit another of the places I consider home. It belongs to my friend Fae who has just had to have her old dog Phoebs put down, and who was full of a story of how her dead sister’s adopted out daughter had just turned up and she didn’t know how to tell the young woman her mum had committed suicide. Jorge had gone wandering in the huge farm garden looking for bones Phoebs might have left behind, and he must have been bitten by a spider, as he vomited all the way home. Today, after his close encounter with Cleopatra, he vomited and frothed all over me and my tears washed it away, again, the smell sensors in my brain turned off as he dodged yet another bullet. I think he’s now used up 8 lives in his ten years with me.
Past Merimbula for another quick ocean wash, then to Eden with its dirt beaches and smelly port. And so on to Sydney.
I’d missed the turnoff to the Hume Highway. It’s just past Woolongong. You’d think they’d have a huge sign up saying ‘if you want to circumvent Sydney- go this way’, instead of the piddly little thing you’re past before you know it. But there’s no turning back- you have no choice but to keep going, heading home.
So here we were in Sydney. It really is a different country. They certainly do things differently there. As I spoke to the young cops, a couple of aboriginal kids appeared around a corner. I saw them in the rear view mirror. Before I could say any more, a couple of full cans sailed through the air. One cop was hit on the leg, the other on the head, and the cans bounced onto my car, chipping the duco. I didn’t get beyond ‘I’m trying to get home’ and the cops took off like Benny Hill in a B grade movie. Covered in dog vomit, no idea where we were or how to get out of there, watching cops chasing kids while the Benny Hill theme was rolling around my brain seemed a bit bizarre, and I wasn’t even conscious that Lola and Luda had appeared at my window. ‘You wanna play with us, love’. ‘No, ta girls, but do you know how to get to Newcastle’? ‘Honey I can take you to heaven.’ ‘I’m sure you can but I’d really rather get to Newcastle.’ ‘Oi , Randy, the lady wants to know ow to git to Newcassle. Ain’t it somewhere near Ryde?’ From the corner of my eye I saw a huge shadow fall over the boot of the car. I floored it- figured if I had to talk to Randy then maybe three times wouldn’t be lucky.
Another fifteen hours, and many more close encounters with trucks, we’d passed three cars and one campervan, the turnoff to Hastings Point reared up in my line of sight. I’m sure the sign had doubled in size as if to say ‘make sure you don’t miss this one.’
We’d stopped briefly for a snooze at Buhladelah, another of our favourite river stops, but as soon as we opened the door we were set upon by a gaggle of geese. Angry at being disturbed so early, it was like a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The birds’, as they hissed, spat and pecked at the car, and us.
Another brief stop at Maclean convinced me that I was hallucinating. Where else can you see tartan lamp posts and kids having to walk through four cemetaries on their way to and from school, accompanied by the mournful sound of bagpipes.
I’ve always known that I’m home by the feeling of blissful contentment and deep relaxation that sweeps through me. I used to get it flying over Bass Strait, and down the Tamar river into Tassie when we lived there and I was coming back from working overseas. I also got it when hitting the ocean at Pottsville when I first moved to Hastings Point. Now- the monstrous buildings that dominate the entrance to the village fill me with a sense of dread about how our community, and our culture is self-destructing.
Pulling into my driveway, the door opened and my daughter and her boyfriend flew out to greet us. They only came home from a trip of a lifetime through Europe and South America a few weeks ago. It seemed a lifetime ago since I’d seen them. In fact it was only four days ago in Melbourne, where an indelible memory will be of seeing my daughter reading a book with a glass of champagne in her hand, sitting in the backyard of her own cute Victorian terrace house, where they are making their first home. Now here they were welcoming us home after our marathon drive. They had flown in.
As I struggled to hold the tears back it struck me yet again that home for me has never been a place. Rather, it’s the people I care about, the weird experiences that make life so unpredictable and the memories we make that are precious. For me, home is truly where the heart is.