I was born in the June of 1994 in Redcliffe Hospital, a building constructed from the bricks and mortar of stolen wages. Sucking in my first breath, I expelled my first cry in the peninsula that had been Queensland’s first European settlement. A peninsula where famed French archaeologist Désiré Charnay had set forth in the late years of the 1870s to burrow into the ancestral remains of ‘the dying race’ to showcase skulls in Paris. Not unlike now where people pluck mollusc shells and sun-bleached bones of coral from the shores of Suttons Beach to display on their glass cabinet.
This was the world I inherited as I left my mother’s womb. But in that first light, I could have sworn that this was the state of sunshine.
In 2010, December drenched the ground with rainfall, electricity tormenting the aether with summer storms, whips and cracks, the ricochet of fractured trees. The peltering lasting days. It was only the year before, in September, when the sky blushed with a smog of dust, leaving us smothered in sepia dreams, blanketing the earth with rust and dirt.
But by the January of 2011, the Bremer River breached its banks, spilling into the lawns of suburbia towards the weatherboard house I called home. We had watched the engorged creek behind our back fence, fed by a drain pipe piercing the ground of a nearby hill, and we saw no omen of ill will. I recall the light on the streets outside, gaudy colours bleeding through the lace sheer curtains, the knock on the door.
When you are told to evacuate, you have little time to take what you need, to box prized possessions in cardboard, to fill plastic bags that split at the seams. Ipswich is a city of floods – its history is an impasto of river mud. Many cried wolf in the preceding days, but we did not take the rising water in earnest until we were packed into the green Holden Gemini, stationed on high ground, trying to find sleep against fogged windows.
Roads became cut off, but a thousand residents had to be evacuated before tides peaked at 1 am. Many found refuge in makeshift evacuation centres. To save his thirteen birds, the caretaker of Ipswich Heritage Lodge had tenants fill their pockets with budgerigars. Both human and animal had to get to the ark.
When you are told to evacuate, you have little time to take what you need, to box prized possessions in cardboard, to fill plastic bags that split at the seams.
Waking to a crystal morning, we stood upon the hill before our street, gaping at the brown water that engulfed the houses. The old man who lived on our street with his wife and black Maltese terrier, the old man who would give Mum a lift to the train station when he saw her walking, met us on the hill and sobbed silently; he asked us if we were okay. I stared down into the water before my feet and saw broken twigs and floating spiders.
As the roads started to clear, the disaster tourists with homes on higher ground bustled in, intent on surveying the collapse and chaos they did not have to endure. We drove to the house of my Nan who still lived in Redcliffe. When we arrived, the lounge was lit by TV, the voice of reporters filling the room. We camped there for a couple of nights, while my father returned to face the carnage. When he waded into the house, he discovered it filled with snakes.
In the weeks following the flood, I listened intently to the quiet of the streets, supine on a mattress on the floor. Everything felt renewed. And with a lick of white paint, it did seem that way. The air was scented with disinfectant, though still spiced with the malodour of mildew and mud. Houses were ghostly, vacant boxes. If there was any sound, it was the murmur of trucks, the spray of pressurised hoses. I can’t recall the sound of birds at that time. Trees had been uprooted. The earth was poisoned, encrusted with debris and detritus; strewn interiors exposed to sunlight.
We had to dispose of our ruins. Clothes, shoes, beds, linen, curtains, carpets, couches, tables, chairs, cutlery and crockery, appliances and electronics, food, toys, bills, letters, certificates, books, photographs – anything soiled by dirt and floodwater was discarded.
Part of the hollowness of capitalism is its insatiability. We create nests out of plaster and surround ourselves with morsels of things we do not need in order to resist the emptiness that threatens our lives, that taps its fingernails at the window. I felt liberated by what I had lost. I cracked open windows and played with the echo of each room.
To some extent, the flood was a product of the environmental effects of consumerism. As prominent scientists such as Kevin Trenberth have inferred, it was human-induced climate change that incensed the monsoon rains that bore the flood. Over the state of Queensland, the atmosphere suffused with the vapour of heating waters, fuelling the easterly winds into a deluge that swallowed towns and cities. Premier Bligh, although at first not detecting the imminent cloudburst, eventually choked the Bremer River by relieving the Wivenhoe Dam of its capacity days before the flood reached its zenith.
In the weeks and months after the flood, I contemplated the nature of water. How it gives life and how it takes it. In the torrents of its fury, the flood claimed houses and the lives of thirty-five people across South-East Queensland.
In the weeks and months after the flood, I contemplated the nature of water. How it gives life and how it takes it.
As if by folie à deux, years later my parents moved to a cul-de-sac much closer to the river that almost undid us. The back verandah tenders a vista of its breath and sigh. At times in my walks I would pass, at a distance, the back of the house that once contained the silt of childhood memories, the stains of a former domestication, the voices of our past selves. Now it was silent, staring back at its elevated height in new hues, a new back door and new windows. Gone were the flower beds that we had sown – Mum’s carnations. A sedan was parked in the driveway. A window left ajar. New concrete was laid; an alien permanence. Here was Theseus’ ship.
Moving to Brisbane, I learnt the smell of possums. I can’t remember ever chancing upon these nocturnal animals back home in Ipswich, but finding myself at Yumba hostel near Orleigh Park, nights were perfumed by the musk of fur, rattled by heavy footfall.
Returning from university each evening, I caught the 199 bus at the Cultural Centre and become immersed in the dalliance of colours, scents and sounds of Boundary Street. I felt in community with this twilight moreso than with the people around me, though faces became familiar. Those nights in West End always seemed warm and musical. At Yumba, I met musicians, actors and performers – students of the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts who also boarded at the hostel.
The roads seemed more circular here than in Ipswich. The move to Brisbane marked the arrival of my first boyfriend and I became versed in these roads in his little red car as he took me to Palace Centro on James Street in the Valley almost every Friday night to watch vintage films flicker on screen, moths to a burning flame. When that flame was snuffed, I stopped writing poetry, encountering too many line breaks in heartbreak.
You can be blak in the city. Blakness is not a sole characteristic of those living in rural towns, regional divisions, or former inland missions. You can be blak in the city, because this urban heap was once the ‘outback’. For the city was home for the people now known as the dispossessed. The land beneath the concrete tells a history longer than the spires of stairs in the skyscrapers casting shadows on the river. The earth you walk on responds to another name. It answers to Meanjin.
City paths led me to fervent circles of protest, the cries heard from King George Square that stop traffic, the fire in Musgrave Park that burns always. Mop and the Dropouts sang about the Brisbane Blacks, a tune that spun in the stereo as a child. And now I spin in these circles, lending my voice until it cracks.
You can be blak in the city. The land beneath the concrete tells a history longer than the spires of stairs in the skyscrapers. The earth you walk on responds to another name.
In 2014, British philosopher Alain de Botton travelled to Brisbane to speak on the virtues of news, caught a glance of ‘the brutal cross city expressway and chunky stained brown office blocks’, and deemed the place ugly. You do not need to live here to know that he is right, but those who do live here know that that is part of its charm. Brisbane does not pretend to be anything else; it has no pretensions. It just is.
There is beauty in its ugliness – a fine balance needing to be struck. A question of whether to demolish a heritage-site for a 27-storey residential tower, or to build a casino by the seats of government. Brisbane embodies a modernist malady that is wary of the old. It wallows in the cheap vanities of novelty, delights in the sublime paradox of its brutal aesthetic, while unconsciously exposing its weak foundations on stolen land. Here cement becomes elastic and tomorrow comes with the promise of history.
Yet time is slow. Slower than the pulse of Melbourne or Sydney, time here flows akin to the river. On the boardwalk, you can gaze into the melded pastels that gyrate with evening lamplight and cascading fluorescence and think you have been granted extra time to become someone or something in a city that is yet to discover itself.
Lax in a ferry at night, a different Brisbane emerges still, opening itself up in a darkness, as in a boat down a river piercing through a dense jungle. I have reflected on the nature of water, and now this water reflects me. I have boarded this ferry many times, inhaled the salts in the effervescent sigh of the wind against my cheek, its fingers through my hair, but I think I lost myself someplace else. On some corner, some intersection.
I am afraid I have lost track of time, and I must be going.