How does a child thrust into the post-boom suburbia of Western Australia find a new language with which to tell and imagine stories?
Early one afternoon, late in the summer, as sirens sounded throughout the neighbourhood and the sky hung low and red, like the drooping sheet of a blanket fort, my brother crept into my room and whispered, ‘Get your bike!’
That was all I needed. I didn’t know what we were about to do, but it was probably something we shouldn’t. It usually was with my brother, and it was always exciting – I never took much convincing.
We snuck out through the garage, butt cheeks clenched at the thought of Mum hearing us, and walked our bikes quickly to the end of the cul-de-sac. From there, we could see two police cars blocking off the street, one to our left and one to our right. In addition to those on the payroll, a string of emergency service volunteers were working their way methodically from one door to the next, telling concerned residents to remain indoors.
We observed the pattern of their movements, and then, sensing a dead spot in their collective surveillance, ran to the bush. When no one demanded that we stop, we hopped on our bikes and thrashed along the sandy trail, putting some distance between us and The Grown Ups. When it felt safe – safe in that we wouldn’t be caught – we stopped and tried to decipher the direction from which the smoke was coming.
This was difficult. Though it was just after midday, the sky was an apocalyptic dusk. To point out the sun would have required a guess. We could hear the flames tearing at the fabric of things, and helicopters mincing the thick, smoky air, but we couldn’t see anything. Nothing to help orient us in the direction of the fire, at least. No singular pillar of black smoke climbing high into the blue sky like the totem pole of a fast food chain, letting us know, I am here! So we navigated by ear.
Distant yelling, the thud of a car door being shut hard, and the gurgle of a generator-driven pump percolated through the trees. We pushed towards the sounds, bushwhacking when necessary, as they grew louder and clearer, until we were almost upon them, and the bush began to thin out. Then we stopped. Through the trees we could see the ruffled skin of a body of water in tumult. Choppers hovered like dragonflies over a pond, their tail propellers whipping up fine mists that corkscrewed through the air.
We hid our bikes in the bush, and moved to the water’s edge. Then we lay on our backs as the mechanical insects buzzed above us, dropping their proboscises into the lake, and sucking up bellyfuls of greeny-brown water to dump on the cellophane flames.
Around the time I started high school, right after my parents divorced, my brother, my mum and I moved into a small house in a new suburb, ‘just 30 minutes from the centre of Perth’, if you believe the developers’ billboards. Like most kids my age, I felt that my life now sat on a fulcrum. Behind me was my childhood; out ahead extended the wobbly plank of adolescence. I was in a rush to outgrow the naivety of childhood that had kept me on the outside of things.
The house itself had just been built. Yellow sand spread like margarine where the lawn would later sit, and the dirt where the walls met the earth was flecked with off-white paint.
In time, my brother and I would re-fleck this sand an eggshell tone. We’d knock out indoor planter boxes, experiment with hammocks, submerge a trampoline, piss in the yard when we came home late and couldn’t wrangle our keys, break sprinklers parking first cars on the front lawn, chip golf balls over the fence (and hide behind the Solahart water heater as perturbed neighbours investigated the sound of golf ball on tin roof), and bring nervous girls home to meet Mum.
Yellow sand spread like margarine where the lawn would later sit, and the dirt where the walls met the earth was flecked with off-white paint.
But all of that was to come. For now, we kicked a ball around the brickie’s sand and contemplated our new home. This was where we would pick our lives back up, or where we would start over, depending on which way you combed it.
From above, the streets spread in a nodal pattern, like the copper network on a computer chip, and our house, being at the end of a cul-de-sac, was a dead end.
At first, there was bush all around, with housing confined to patches. But gradually, blocks appeared – sometimes overnight, it seemed – and the bush vanished. Roads were set into the sand, the network spread, and movement became more and more prescribed. The trails that cut angles through the bush lost their utility as traffic stuck to the roads, slingshotted by the roundabouts, moving up or down, turning left or right, possibilities reduced to binary.
When it came to the houses, the options were hardly more varied. Roofs were grey, silver or gunmetal tin. Occasionally, there was an ochre or maroon tile. Driveways were paved with red, cream or navy bricks, all laid in variations of the same design. Gardens represented a narrow vogue, and the meals being prepared in the kitchens approximated the trends of reality TV.
Before long there was no more bush, only suburb, apart from one small patch of virgin scrub at the end of our street, standing in contrast to the swatch-book housing all around.
This virgin bush remains off limits to developers thanks to a rare orchid that grows underground (in what sounds like a brilliant sleight of hand perpetrated by a greenie who has infiltrated the bureaucracy of the Planning Advisory Board disguised as a flowerologist). A sign at the perimeter reads:
DUE TO THE PRESENCE OF AN ENDANGERED SPECIES OF FLORA, ACCESS TO THIS PROPERTY IS PROHIBITED. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
Then, underneath this message, scrawled in black texta:
Now that the bush is all but gone, the fire season has lost its ferocity, and the firebreaks all seem a bit pointless. About 10 metres from the road off of which our cul-de-sac stems, is one such firebreak.
If you step through the spiny shrubs, bending yourself around knobby acacia branches and wild ferns, you will reach it, now mostly disused aside from the occasional tinny blast of motorcycle or freewheeling Datsun. Continue beyond the firebreak, and you have bush, just as it was fifteen years ago, before the suburb materialised. And, just maybe, as it has always been.
I would walk through the bush every other afternoon when I was a kid, stepping over plants with soft feet, trying not to flatten anything, knowing that this land had dealt with ice ages and fires and droughts, but not with sneakers. On one such walk, I came across a little pile of trash – a coke can, a porn magazine, some crudely cut hosepipe – and I realised that, well, I don’t know what I realised. I just kept walking, my thoughts a little less grandiose in their implication.
I accepted the suburb for how it was, without clumsy intellectualisations, or forced attributions of meaning.
The first day that I walked through this bush I made a discovery. I was heading for the green phone tower, intermittently visible through the thin canopy of the acacias, when the bush dissolved into a mini clearing. In the centre of this treeless circle, like some shitty, Mad Max Stonehenge, were two rusted-out car bodies. Around them, the bush was totally undisturbed. Knowing that, before the suburb arrived 10 years prior, there were no roads here, I decided the cars must’ve been dropped from above.
As a kid, I saw things differently. I accepted the suburb for how it was, without clumsy intellectualisations, or forced attributions of meaning. Nowadays I wonder how Mum saw the suburb in those first years. I wonder whether, to her, everything felt bleached and sterile. I wonder if that was what she needed: a place that didn’t remind her of anything.
To my brother and me, the concrete and the curbs and the cut away bits of bush, the man-made lakes (always near empty, skeletal bikes stuck in the quicksand sludge) and the trees gouged by fire, all fed our sense of adventure.
There was, of course, a period of limbo, when I was neither simply experiencing my life, nor trying to figure out what it all meant. I was too busy being 15. Too preoccupied with how much everything sucked. It was hard work to keep track of it all. I had to allocate carefully the hours of my day, so that I could, with proper attention, give each sucky thing its due.
During this time I thought very little about my surroundings. I would have been that teenager on the family holiday to Venice – the one in all the movies – who opts to stay in the hotel room playing Gameboy and being miserable.
If only we went on holidays to Venice. If only I owned a Gameboy.
Instead, I read books.
The way I saw things started to change. Soon enough I developed a terrible case of Self-Narration. It’s a malady that hits young readers like chicken pox hits normal kids. To some extent, I still carry the scars.
I was drawn to books in which the protagonist was not just the protagonist to us, but also to herself. And the story was about the protagonist trying to tell the story. I’ve never figured out whether it was self-importance, or just loyalty to the genre, but I started to see everything around me for how it added meaning to my story. I saw my life as if it were printed on a page.
Only, there was a mismatch. Something didn’t sit right. My story, it seemed, lacked the appropriate setting. I was reading Hemingway and Heller, Dostoyevsky and Sartre, as I caught the bus past Muzz Buzz. My backyard opened up to the view of a thousand identical rooftops, little patches of AstroTurf with enclosed trampolines, and the hum of a million TVs spewing A Current Affair into one communal airwave.
There was an irreconcilable difference between what I was reading, and what I was living. I could never, for example, write a scene in which one character sent another a text message, because I couldn’t imagine Nick Adams doing so. I felt that all this modern stuff was tacky – the mod cons of capitalist suburbia a regrettable fashion that only removed the timeless – and that I must write my own narrative around it. But how could I exclude the suburb that was so irremovably a part of my story?
I kept reading, but never anything new, never anything Australian, and never anything funny. Art was serious, to me. My story, if it were going to pack any punch, needed to be as dreary and offensive as the suburbs could be. But how do you express the cheap and ephemeral in a way that is timeless and of worth?
Maybe such stories can’t exist here, I resigned.
Not for a thousand years, at least. By then, all that is now new will be old. Everything will have been scuffed and reappropriated, humanity growing with each digression from the original plan, bush overtaken by suburban sprawl. By this time there will be towering buildings like in Blade Runner, a mishmash amalgam of hundreds of years of habitation.
And there will be old men leaning out of satellite dish windows vaping e-cigarettes.
By the time I reached university, I’d formed an idea of myself that was inseparable from its setting. My suburb was a place where nothing seemed to happen, and my story was confined to it. All the excitement I read about in books seemed to happen elsewhere. Or maybe it had all happened in the past. So, misreading the past as a foreign country, I pushed off, dropped out, and went travelling.
I’m not sure whether I thought I’d find any answers. I’m not even sure I knew what questions I was asking. But whatever illusions I held, they didn’t last long. The people I met on my travels were like funhouse mirrors: in each of them I saw myself, distorted by all my contradictions. Part of what I wanted, what we all wanted, was an individuality of experience, but such a thing is only maintained at the exclusion of others, and, it seems, only draws its value once flaunted.
All the excitement I read about in books seemed to happen elsewhere. Or maybe it had all happened in the past.
A trope of every travel story is the attestation that ‘this one is different!’ The teller always finds a place not in the guidebooks, meets a local who shows them how things really are, stumbles across a sighting that is validated by its rarity.
I grew tired of listening to it. The tips and tricks, the bits of advice, all so well meaning (if subtextually boastful, often unsolicited, and always self-serving), gifted me by my fellow travellers.
For months, I sleepwalked from airport to airport, and found it weirdly existential. They are the same wherever you go.
At a big, white warehouse in Munich, you get on your plane, throw a couple pills down your throat, slam a Heineken, donate your unused currency to some smiling child on an envelope who, given the right opportunities, could be just as happy as you are, and you wake up 14 hours later, in the same big warehouse, only now you’re in Hong Kong. Do it again and you’re in Johannesburg, or Buenos Aires, or Oslo.
At each arrival point, there is someone waiting – a fixer, a taxi driver, a guy who knows a guy – to lift the ropes surrounding the place. But authenticity vanishes as soon as your presence has been anticipated, and a souvenir stall set up.
Sheepishly, I returned to university and enrolled in some optional units. I took Environmental Law, hoping to meet some other students who weren’t intent on becoming politicians. In the first class, we went around the circle introducing ourselves, and patting each other on the back for not being in Mergers and Acquisitions. Then the professor stood behind the lectern:
‘No matter what we do – be it multilateral governmental efforts, private or NGO campaigns, litigious blockages…no matter what – the Great Barrier Reef will be completely dead within our lifetimes.’
‘What about a mass suicide? I say.
No laughs. Not something to joke about, I guess. But then, how should we respond?
A few weeks into another unit, Indigenous Peoples and the Law, we had a guest speaker: a young Noongar man named Clint who spoke to the class about relationship to Country. Clint was cheeky and eloquent. He had a strut about him.
He told us how he, as a proud Noongar man, but as someone who operates very much within a western society, has to work twice as hard. He feels compelled to keep faith with his ancestral roots, but he must also play the game. He must work to pay his land rates; he must study at a formally recognised education institution where knowledge counts once it is stamped, not once it is told. And he must do it all while smiling his way through the added ironies he experiences daily as an Indigenous Australian. If he objects too loudly he is accused of being divisive. But he mustn’t retreat. He must stay strong and true; he must speak from the heart, and he must remember.
I felt both empathetic and envious of Clint, and wasn’t sure whether either of those feelings were valid. I emailed him afterwards, mostly to say thanks, but also to tell him – ‘with all due respect, and without ignoring or diminishing the price that accompanies the position, or assuming to even understand it’ – that I wished I could feel such an attachment to the place I live.
Sometimes I feel disconnected, I told him, like a transplant appended to a hostile host. I wish I had someone to teach me, to tell me the stories about where I fit. I pass by things without noticing them, things that, according to Clint, sing to him.
I caught the bus home that day, into the suburbs, and felt that with each block I was moving farther and farther away from something, a sense of belonging, perhaps. But it was Clint’s sense of belonging. What bothered me wasn’t so much that I was moving away from something, but that I was moving towards nothing.
At some point my thinking changed. Perhaps it was when I realised that I wasn’t Hemingway, and that my story wasn’t Nick Adams’. I mostly stopped envying the tragedies and glories of others.
I began to long for those days, riding bikes around the neighbourhood with my brother. For better or worse, the concrete footpaths of the suburbs are the cobblestones of my story. They’re my rue de San Michel. My Mississippi. My Cloudstreet. They are where I grew up; it doesn’t matter that I never passed Notre-Dame on my walk home, or that from my window the Golden Gate Bridge couldn’t be seen piercing the clouds.
Sometimes it can feel like the world has been stirred through. That uniqueness has given way to ubiquity, and all the wild frontiers have surrendered to suburbia.
Is this good or bad? I’m not so sure any more. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe we’re in a teething period, a necessary phase that must play out before the next. Before we can develop a new pallet to colour our stories with – a new vocabulary. Before we can reconcile where we came from with where we find ourselves.