Ten things you should know about Australia
We spoke on the phone at least twice a week. A long-distance call. We were close like that.
‘You’re writing about here?’ My twin sister’s voice always went up at the end, even if it wasn’t a question. It pitched even higher when she was excited. ‘You’re coming back?’
‘No.’ I’d made up my mind. ‘I’m not coming back.’
I’d lived in Scotland for twenty years and rarely set foot on my native soil. In general I avoided writing about Australia. Too many bridges crossed. Too many exes. Not to mention my mother.
‘Then how can you write about it?’ I could hear she was disappointed. ‘You’re not going to call it Oz are you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Or Down Under?’
‘Promise. But you’ll have to help me.’
‘I’ll try.’ She sounded hurt and was trying to push it down. Our family specialty.
‘I need an idiot’s guide to Australia,’ I said. ‘For an in-flight magazine. Ten facts.’
‘Depends,’ she said. She was stalling. Making me work. ‘What Australia are we talking? It’s a big multicultural joint.’
She was making it complicated.
‘Whatever happened to White Australia?’
‘He’s in power. He plays cricket. He mouths off. The world has heard enough about Him.’
‘OK,’ I said. My twin was a Linguistics Professor. Gender was her thing. She thought my travel writing glib and Bryson-lite although she never said this to my face. She was always trying to edge my work towards the deep. Back in the day, I’d fancied myself as a lyricist in the Chatwin mode. Or fashioned myself after Sebald – all back-weighted German sentences, all that melancholy. In truth, though, I was an entertainer. I knew this about myself. I didn’t like to disappoint. I was a clown. I preferred laughter to tears. There was nothing deep or complex about my work, the words came easy and I liked it that way.
‘Let’s narrow it down,’ I suggested. ‘Melbourne – third largest Greek city in the world…’
‘Is it still?’ My sister was unsure. ‘You need to get your facts straight.’
‘That’s why I called you.’
‘OK,’ she sighed. ‘I’ll check it out.’
‘After Athens and Thessaloniki,’ I went on. ‘Any Greek will tell you.’
‘OK. Fine.’ she said. ‘Ten things you should know?’
‘Numero Uno: Asylum seekers. We lock ’em up, we throw away the key. Separate them from their kids. Build internment centres in the desert. Watch while they go on hunger strike, sewing their mouths shut with bits of wire…’
‘I don’t think…’
But my sister was on a roll. ‘How about this: Our myths are all rural but our reality is urban?’
I sighed. ‘Look, really. No one wants this kind of stuff…’
‘Then there’s the drought. A farmer tops himself every four minutes…’
‘Look,’ I said again. ‘You know that won’t wash. It’s a bloody in-flight magazine.’
‘Or this…’ I knew she was winding me up. ‘Aboriginal Australians… why can’t we say sorry?’
‘Who do you think I am?’ I said. ‘The Guardian bloody newspaper? ‘Jesus! Give me something good. Nothing political or disturbing.’
‘That’s very Australian,’ she said, with a smile in her voice. ‘To preface a remark with “Look”.’
‘OK, Professor.’ I knew she’d forgiven me for not coming back. ‘Give me something I can actually use.’
‘Right,’ my sister said. ‘I get your drift. You want the simple stuff. But not too simple. You don’t want to sound like Bryson do you? Please say you won’t go for the easy laughs. Please don’t mention the term “Down Under”.’
At the mere mention of Bryson, my sphincter tightened. ‘No way.’
‘You want the stuff that reinforces what the reader already believes. You want to know the latest lingo and the non-threatening ways of White suburbia at the barbie?’
‘In short, the same old shit.’
‘It’s how I’ve made my name.’
‘You could write something good one day.’ She disapproved of light entertainment.
‘But would it pay the bills?’
‘Well,’ I could hear her reluctance. She wanted to lecture me (yet again) on wasting my God-given talents. What she didn’t realise was that I was actually playing to my strengths. I made a good living, got to travel the world. Meet some pretty women. I was a natural-born coward and happiest in my comfort zone. Why shake things up now?
‘Let’s start with the abbreviations,’ she said. ‘Any word of two syllables,’ she paused, ‘even a word of one syllable, can never survive in this country. Everything is abbreviated. Everything. Afternoon becomes “arvo”, breakfast becomes “brekkie”, sandwich becomes “sanger”.’
‘Got it.’ I scribbled it all down. ‘A glossary.’
‘If you came back once in a while,’ her voice was suddenly full of reproach, ‘you’d remember these things.’
I pretended not to hear. ‘What else?’ I was writing long-hand and holding the phone under my chin. ‘How about the flora and fauna? Brits love flora and fauna.’
‘I thought it was pets.’
‘They think it extends to all animals.’
‘OK. We’ve got it all sewn up. Everyone knows. The Great Whites off-shore; the killer sharks in Sydney harbour. The marauding jellyfish and the Bluebottles. We’ve got killer crocs and fresh-water crocs that also kill.’ She tapped the phone. ‘Only now they tell us. About the fresh water… And we thought they were friendly…’
‘With those teeth? Go on.’
‘What about the snakes? The Tiger snakes. The King Browns. The Pythons. Not to mention the Taipan. Then there’s the spiders. Funnelwebs in Sydney. Red Backs in Melbourne. God only knows what else. Then the blow-flies, the mosquitoes, the ticks and the leeches. The sand flies…’
As she said all this I had a flash-back. A trip to North Queensland many years ago. My leg full of purple bites that became ulcers. Up North, the air hummed and buzzed and everything was always eating everything else. I still had scars from those bloody sand-flies. Jesus, I thought, you’d be mad to visit some of these places. Grown men dodging jellyfish, swimming in stocking suits, bottles of vinegar on shore as antidote. Who knew what could get you? It all came flooding back: Australia was a crawling, heaving, nightmare of dog-eat-dog. Dog-eat-baby, if we counted the dingoes.
My ex mother-in-law had once kept a special supplement on Australia from the Scotsman. It was a map of all the dangerous animals, insects and plants. Where to go. What to avoid. She never went. She avoided completely. She despised all things Australian. This became acute after I separated from my Scottish wife of fifteen years. I’d like to report that my ex and I remained best of friends and that I didn’t put her mother off all Australians for life, but I’d be lying.
‘Something’s always out to get you,’ my sister said happily, interrupting my thoughts as if she’d read them, which maybe she had. ‘All the development now – up north and in the west. It’s boom-time on account of China. Selling uranium and iron ore like there’s no tomorrow. Like a new gold rush. Even the locals are out to get you…’
‘Have we covered things that bite?’ I asked, a little impatient.
‘I think so. We should move on to survival. Over here it’s all about survival.’
‘It is?’ I’d forgotten about survival. I’d lived too long in a place with no sun, no mosquitoes, no flies, no killer jellyfish or venomous snakes, no hole in the ozone. I’d forgotten what survival meant.
‘All the way to Sydney. Signs everywhere. It’s all about water, sunscreen, bushfires, fruit fly, the works…’
‘Fruit fly,’ I muttered. How could I have forgotten? All those childhood road trips interstate, our parents smoking all the way with the windows up, choking us in the backseat. Me and my sister munching through bags of grapes and oranges, apples and bananas, making ourselves sick the closer we got to the border, munching as if our lives depended on it. Men in blue uniforms and caps giving the car the once-over – a stray apple core could be your undoing. Australia was strict like that.
At every border, they were on the ball. They never let up.
The airport was the worst. On my last trip, the sniffer dog at Tullamarine had nailed a pack of Bombay Mix – half-open – completely forgotten in my hand luggage. I’d been grilled at customs for an hour.
I realised that there was a thesis here that could never be developed in an article for an in-flight magazine. There was obviously something about contamination and contagion, some rampant virus in the White Australian psyche worth exploring, I thought. The need to contain a perceived menace with penal settlements, or refugee camps, fruit fly inspections and sniffer dogs at airports. It occurred to me that the War on Terror had been part of the mind-set for years. I wondered if the Qantas stewards still sprayed unsuspecting passengers – to fumigate them, to deodorise them – to what, exactly? It had always been a mystery. Just when you were at your most vulnerable before touch down, two stewards would stalk the aisles, aerosol cans in hand, no warning, and spray right through you.
There was something deeply unsettling about it all. But because I wasn’t a Chatwin or a Sebald I’d never see this thesis through. I knew that my shallows had hidden depths but I had to stay focused or I’d never finish this damn article.
I’d brooded over two hundred years of White settlement in thirty seconds and brought myself back to what my sister was saying. I’d zoned out because my twin was now talking about our mother. ‘She just doesn’t know how to be kind to me,’ she said. I could hear the familiar despair in her voice.
This was so true, and I’d heard it so often, I was always lost for words. I’d been born ten minutes ahead of my twin and this seemed to have made all the difference. My mother never took to my sister, simple as that. I was the good twin and my sister was the evil one. I’d spent my life defending her from our mother’s strange and unpredictable onslaughts.
It was my sister’s favourite topic and I was a little weary of it, to be honest, but I indulged her out of a sense of Catholic guilt. Knowing I was the favourite child. Knowing that my mother felt upset at my divorce. Knowing that she’d never bonded with my twin. All I knew was that my mother loved me so much I’d felt compelled to put continents between us. Meanwhile, my sister, always dutiful, stayed close, put in an appearance every week and got dog’s abuse. My sister had always longed for affection and sought it in a series of disastrous men who treated her exactly like our mother. Unfortunately, she’d married the last bloke and had a child with him. The kid was very sweet, but the last time I’d seen him he was five. Soon he would be fifteen.
My sister shifted her attention from our mother to her soon-to-be-ex-husband. She was going through what could only be described as ‘an acrimonious divorce’. Did divorce come in any other form? I was curious, having just been through the process myself. Love turned into its opposite so quickly. The minute the game was over it was as if there had never been any game, any play, any good times at all.
‘How’s it going?’ I sighed to myself, wondering how I would ever get off the topic of her divorce and onto my article.
‘Think of two suicide bombers in a market place,’ my sister said. ‘Both detonating at the same time.’ She paused. ‘ That’s how bad.’
‘How’s Stevie taking it?’ Stevie was my little nephew.
‘He seems fine. One week on. One week off. Every second weekend with his father. It’s been nine months. He’s getting used to it.’
‘You must miss him.’
‘I hate his guts.’
‘I meant Stevie.’
‘Of course. I miss him. But it’s also good, to have the space. To think about my life, y’know? Like, if I don’t feel like eating, I don’t have to…’
My sister had a fraught relationship with food. She’d been a plump child and our twig-thin mother had taken it as a personal affront. Packed my sister off to WeightWatchers at the age of twelve. On the few occasions we’d spent together as adults, on holiday, say, or when I was back in Australia, my sister would push food around her plate at meal times but in the early hours of the night I’d hear a strange rustling in the kitchen, and the fridge door slide open and shut, and in the morning I’d notice certain items gone – a litre of milk, a half a pound of butter, a packet of cheese, all the leftovers. I never confronted her about it. I mainly worried.
More to the point, I worried about the effect this weird eating behaviour would have on young Stevie. I hoped he hadn’t inherited the worst of both parents – his mother’s eating disorder and his father’s everything else.
His father worked for the Foreign Office. I’d always suspected that he worked for ASIO, the Australian Secret Service, under cover of the Foreign Office. Anyway, his father, my brother-in-law, was a pain in the arse. Every conversation was a battleground. It was bloody exhausting. You’d say something off-the-cuff like, ‘There’s a child born every three seconds.’ Mr Foreign Office would snort, ‘More like 2.5.’ He was always contradicting, always competing, and it got on my goat.
My sister was going on about Mr Foreign Office. I interrupted. ‘Enough about you. What about me? I’m working to a deadline here.’
She laughed. ‘OK. OK. I’ll give you a whole list: Always swim between the flags. Don’t go out in the mid-day sun. Never run from a house during a bushfire. If a shark attacks, punch it on the nose. If a wave dumps you, keep rolling. If you get caught in a rip swim with it… any Australian knows this stuff.’ She took a deep breath. ‘And finally – put everything in the fridge.’
I’d never questioned the wisdom of this last point until my ex-wife drew attention to it. On our first trip to Australia together we’d stayed in the family home. She’d complained constantly (to me) about the ‘O’Casey bread.’ She’d almost lost a tooth, she said, biting into a slice. ‘Your mother’s bread is frozen,’ she said. ‘And if it’s not cold, it’s damp.’ My mother kept everything in the fridge. To defrost, she’d put everything in the microwave for ten seconds. I don’t know whether I could generalise from this to all Australians but I did notice that the majority put most items on ice. Butter and bread. Honey and Vegemite. Tomatoes, mushrooms, bananas; the works. Everything went in the fridge and came out like it’d been to the Antarctic.
‘Any more advice?’
‘Sunscreen and a hat,’ she said. ‘And always reapply. The only people with tans are tourists…’
Just for the hell of it, I thought I should generalise about the national character. I made the mistake of saying this to my sister.
‘Friendly? Open? Big smiles? You live here for long enough and you realise we’re the same pack of selfish bastards you see everywhere – only we’re more laid-back about it.’
‘A colonial myth. Blokes in the bush. Women-folk in the kitchen. If Germaine didn’t exist, we would’ve had to invent her.’
‘Is that all?’
‘That’s about it. Nothing political or disturbing, right?’
I’d almost finished my article way ahead of schedule, but all this talk of Australia was getting to me. It was mid-winter in Edinburgh and we’d hardly had a summer. It was my first Christmas since the divorce and I guess I was feeling lonely. More than that, I was starting to think I’d made a big mistake. The woman I’d been seeing had stopped returning my calls. I’d left my marriage for her and now I was wondering why. Then my sister got on the blower and said I ought to come for a visit. Ten years was too long, she insisted. I hadn’t been back since our father’s funeral. Mum hadn’t been herself lately, and it would soon be Stevie’s birthday. And so I did something I’d sworn off doing for another decade: I booked a ticket to Australia. I booked Emirates because of the leg room and the 500 channels and the decent in-flight food. Even if the other airline was paying for my article, on a long-haul they were always crap. Any Australian could tell you.
It was true what they say. Jet lag got worse as you got older. The Melatonin tablets made no difference. When I finally came to consciousness, I’d been in Melbourne almost a week. I’d noticed that everything was big and sunny, and that was just the people. I’d been eating and drinking like a king (very cheaply) and then sleeping and waking at odd hours. I’d been forced to repeat whole phrases in restaurants and supermarkets on account of my accent. My speech patterns were all over the shop. In Scotland they knew I was Australian, but over here, in cafes and bars, on the trams, they just thought I was some Pom with weird ‘r’ sounds. I felt as if my head were being shaken up and rearranged. As the days wore on though, my speech started morphing into something else altogether. I was starting to sound more Australian than all the Australians around me. More specifically, I was starting to sound like a bloke from the 1950s. I was starting to sound like my father. It had to be more than the jet lag. I was even starting to think in old-time Australian words and phrases. ‘Have a go, ya mug,’ I wanted to shout at the Prime Minister doing his election spiel on television. ‘Streuth,’ I found myself saying. ‘Crikey.’
At the end of that first week, feeling just about human, I came down to breakfast in my sister’s house at a reasonable hour. My nephew, who’d been on school camp for a few days and then at his father’s, was sitting at the table eating damp toast with marmalade. I hadn’t seen him since he met me at the airport. I gave him a big hug.
‘So,’ Stevie said, patting me on the back. ‘You divorced Aunty Jean, right?’
I couldn’t believe it. ‘Good morning to you too.’ I said. ‘Teabags?’
‘In the fridge.’ The kid sounded indignant. ‘You gave mum the idea…’
‘What are you on about?’ I said.
‘She left Dad.’
‘She wasn’t happy.’
‘Is it because you’re twins?’
‘It’s because your father was an arsehole,’ I said. I couldn’t help myself.
‘Aunty Jean was great,’ he shot back. ‘You’re the asshole.’ He said it in an American accent. The kid had been a lot sweeter at age five, that’s for sure. He sat there, full of hostility, his teeth sinking right through the toast, right through the half-melted butter. He finished his toast in silence and started spooning frozen yoghurt straight from the tub. He ate four tubs of full-fat yoghurt a day, my sister said.
‘Mate,’ I said, surprising myself, because I never call anybody mate, ‘don’t take it out on me.’
This seemed to calm the kid down. Or maybe it was a calcium-rush. ‘You say “yo-gaht”, don’t you? Like the Queen,’ he said, licking the spoon. ‘Emphasis on “yo”,’ he said. ‘But Australians say “yow-gert”.’
The kid was obviously an amateur linguist, following in his mother’s footsteps. A little bit of a pedant, after his father. ‘I guess.’ I felt confused, all of a sudden. How the hell did I pronounce anything? But I saw an opportunity to break through the bad vibe. ‘Hey. I want to run some words past you.’
Stevie looked suspicious and indifferent all at once. The way only a teenager could look. ‘OK.’
‘How about “dag”? Do kids still say, “What a dag!” or “How daggy!” or, “You look like a dag?”’
My nephew looked blank. ‘Dag?’
‘As in stupid or unattractive or, if said affectionately, to mean: “What a character!”’
‘Um.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘No.’
‘How about,’ I persevered. ‘How about – drongo, shonky, galah?
He shook his head at me and rolled his eyes as if I’d spoken Mandarin.
‘How about, if something is really great you say, “It’s grouse!” ’
‘ “She’ll be right mate?” ’
‘ “G’day?” ’
‘Only if you’re old. Or on Neighbours. We don’t say any of that shit.’ My nephew snorted, exactly like his father. ‘We say cool, and dude and doh and way to go.’
‘You speak like an American.’
‘Everyone speaks like that. It’s. Like. Cool.’
Stevie sounded vaguely American, now I knew why. It was deliberate. I felt a moment of sadness that all the old words were vanishing. Had all Australian kids become high school sophomores trawling malls, looking for prom dates?
‘How about “To wag school? To go for a root?”’
‘Je–sus,’ said my nephew, in his quasi-American voice. ‘A root? That’s having sex, right?’
Then he leant back in his chair and went a little green around the gills. He’d munched his way through half a loaf of damp toast and two cartons of full-fat yoghurt. He gripped his stomach and then gladdened my heart by using an old expression that even I’d forgotten.
‘Uncle Ro,’ he said, ‘I’m feeling pretty crook.’
I stayed in Melbourne for a month and saw my mother twice. On my first visit she said, ‘Your sister’s put on weight.’ We avoided all talk of my failed marriage and my ex-wife, who she’d never been keen on. She scrutinised my outfit. ‘That shirt’s a little loud,’ she said. ‘You must be doing well for yourself.’
Occasionally she would mention her grandson, Stevie, but without any enthusiasm. ‘He has his mother’s figure,’ she sniffed.
‘He’s a good kid,’ I countered. He was driving me up the wall, but I didn’t want to give her any ammo.
‘He could be.’
She didn’t have a good word to say about anything. Not even about the election result, which I thought would’ve pleased her.
‘At least the Liberals are out,’ I said.
‘It’s a country of drongos,’ she shook her head. ‘Idiots.’
On my second and last visit, the day was hot and humid and I noticed she was a little breathless.
‘It’s that bad north wind,’ she said to me gasping a little. ‘You know that wind?’
‘I think so.’
I knew that what she really meant was: ‘Do you even remember what it’s like here? Why did you go so far away?’
‘The hot wind,’ she repeated.
‘Uh-huh.’ I remembered the wind, but I’d always been lousy with direction.
‘Anyway,’ she coughed. It was a dry, high cough that seemed to afflict her on days like this. Something I did remember from childhood. ‘I knew I had something to tell you. The Cutter’s house. Behind us. You remember?’ She gestured out of the kitchen window. ‘Well, it’s gone. Bulldozed. Two days it took. And I feel upset, Ro… every time I look out.’
I followed her gaze and it was only now that I could see the level space behind the trees at the back fence.
‘They left those damn trees,’ she said. ‘Who knows why?’
‘Bastards,’ I said. Which seemed to please her.
‘One day it took. Then the next day they got a bulldozer. And I felt… I felt really sad. Y’know? Developers bought it. From W.A.’ She’d always despised the neighbours and I thought she would’ve been glad to see the back of them. My sister was right. She obviously wasn’t herself.
She paused and I could see she was trying not to cry. My mother was always on the verge of tears but never giving in. Since we were kids she’d been like that. It’d always been my job to distract her from herself. Make her happy. Only now, for some reason, I didn’t feel up to the task.
She sat with her hands in her lap. She looked down at her hands twisted with arthritis. Then she looked up. ‘I felt life was finished,’ she said and her voice cracked a little. She shrugged, trying to be light-hearted. But we both knew that she was never light-hearted. There was always something sticky and heavy and unsaid underneath. She frightened me now because she was so direct. I was used to oblique and jagged conversations on the phone, waiting to cut myself on a stray comment, usually about my sister. My mother seemed suddenly very pale and old.
‘You better go and have a glass of water. A lie-down,’ I said to her, trying to soothe. ‘It’s hot. Maybe you’re dehydrated.’
‘Well, your Uncle Den had a turn yesterday.’
There’d been a dinner at my uncle’s house that I’d managed to miss.
‘On account of the heat. He was fine one minute. Next thing you know, he keeled over.’
‘Who knows? It was embarrassing. But what do they expect?’ Her voice suddenly went hard and angry at the seams, her familiar voice. ‘What they don’t realise is. They’re all old. All of them over seventy. Why stand on a hot day? They should be sitting down…’
‘No one saw me standing.’ She seemed very proud of the fact.
My mother would soon be eighty. Somehow, she always managed to blame the victim. Next thing she started up about some cousin’s wife who had tickets on herself, but what she really meant was the cousin’s husband. She was sounding confused. She looked chalk-white. I was glad that she was sitting down.
‘Mum, I think you need to…’
‘I’m feeling a bit…’ she conceded.
‘I’ll just get you some water. Lie down.’ I surprised myself by sounding authoritative.
She lay down. I got a face washer and put it in cold water and placed it on her forehead and held her hand while she stretched out on the couch and this was the first time I could ever remember looking after her in any way. And it was a strange sensation, for both of us.
‘Are you really leaving tomorrow?’ she said. ‘So soon?’
I didn’t answer, but I held her hand and made soothing noises and watched unfathomable tears slip down her cheeks, under her glasses, and soon she was asleep and I sat there a long time watching her. There was a framed photo of my father on the mantelpiece that I tried to avoid.
I let go her hand and moved to the sink to get some water for myself. Through the window I could see the blank space behind the fir trees and the beginnings of what looked like a block of flats. I was conscious that if I’d been a different kind of writer I could maybe have explored all this in a different way. All these changes. But I was an entertainer, for God’s sake. I was a fricking sad clown. I stood at the sink, compiling every fact I’d ever known about Australia into a definitive list. Wanting to finish that damn article. Weighing up everything I’d ever thought about the place. The words came heavy. I could feel hot ugly tears building at the back of me but I fought them off as I got my mobile from my pocket and walked out into the backyard.
The day was blue and close and the north wind bore down. A cockatoo screeched high through the fir trees and right into the marrow of me as I dialled my sister’s number and waited for a signal, impatient to make contact, wanting to get through.
Meaghan Delahunt was born in Melbourne, Australia and now lives in Scotland. In the Blue House, won the best first book category for the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific region and the Saltire First Book Award in Scotland. She is currently carrying out an Asialink residency at the Sarai multimedia centre in New Delhi and working on her second novel, The Prayer Wheel.