This is my non-entry in the Townsville City Council Short Story Competition on the theme “My life in the North”. Just because I’m not eligible to enter doesn’t mean I can’t write something.
The fan whirred.
Click. Click. It’s uneven. A wobble each rotation.
I can’t remember the last time I slept in silence.
A splat outside.
A frog jumping off a rafter onto the tiled patio. Must have spotted a cricket. I can hear one chirping under my window. A solo movement in the symphony of the night.
They’re peaceful sounds. Broken occasionally by the mournful cry of a curlew. People think living out of town is quiet. But quiet doesn’t mean silent.
Not like back home. Back home the nights are silent. The occasional car, but little else. It was only at the height of summer we’d have a fan running.
In the morning I feed the ducks. The grass is so dry it crunches beneath my feet.
I let them out for a run and watch as they waddle in time. Left, right, left right. A feathered ballet across a stage of brown. Shaking a tailfeather.
The weeds have gone to seed, but I don’t care. No such thing as lawn on acreage. Lazy grass-keeping attracts the wild birds. Cockatoos munching on the tall stalks in the morning light greet me with a “raaar!”
I know better than to say it’s hot. If I think it’s hot, it’s because I’m Not From Here. Never mind that everyone around me thinks it’s hot as well. Accusing me of not handling the heat when I’m not the one with my air-conditioning running 24/7 on 21 degrees.
Fans, but not air-con. That’s what Rachel said. She moved to Darwin, she’d know.
“It’s people who live in air-conditioning who can’t handle it,” she said. “Don’t use the air-con for your first wet season unless you really have to, and you’ll be fine.”
I figure I’ll be fine anyway. I survived a wet season in Vanuatu without even a fan. The sea breeze my only respite. Townsville can’t be as rough as that.
I know that come “winter” I’ll get cold. The embarrassing side of acclimatising, when anything less than 25 degrees you’re in a jumper. Less than 20 is freezing.
Maybe that’s why people live in 21 degree air-conditioning all year.
I find a ballet class. Two, in fact.
Their vibes are completely different. I don’t know where I fit in but I’m full of optimism.
“I love how the houses on those UK real estate shows have mud rooms – you have them in Geelong, don’t you.”
It wasn’t a question.
“I don’t know anyone with a mud room,” I say.
That’s not entirely true. I did gymnastics with a girl from one of Geelong’s richest families and her house had a mud room. But it was one of the city’s early houses, it doesn’t speak for this century. Or even most of the last. And I haven’t spoken to her since I was eight.
“But isn’t it always cold and raining?”
“I grew up in a drought,” I say.
The same person thought I’d be excited by mudlarks.
“We have them back home too,” I say. “They’re found all over the country.”
She was shocked.
“Queensland is an island in the middle of the Coral Sea,” said Cathy when I told her I was moving here.
No one spoke to me at ballet tonight. Not one. They talked among themselves, but not to me. Not even when I talked to them. Not even the teacher.
I find a moulding tomato in the back of the vegetable crisper and throw it in a pot. Now I have 34 tomato seedlings. It’s the only time in my life I’ve successfully grown anything.
Mum and Dad are visiting for the Easter long weekend so they help us reclaim the vegetable garden from years of neglect.
Mum and I tackle the weeds first, then move on to digging trenches and building mounds. I now have celery, carrots, beetroot, corn and, of course, tomatoes.
I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just winging it.
I killed succulents once. In my defence, it was Melbourne’s weather. Rains more there than it does in Geelong.
Dad and my husband work on the new irrigation. They soon finish with the veggie patch and set off on an archaeological dig to find the old irrigation for the whole yard. The original owners put a lot of effort into irrigating this place, but the owners in the middle let it go.
They walk around with a hose and test random pipes in the ground to watch where the sprinklers pop up. Mum and I join in, walking around the yard to find where it’s sloshy under foot because the sprinkler heads have gone.
I get excited watching everything grow and start to flower. But I need more discipline with my weeding.
I feel alone in a new city, still trying to find my groove.
People don’t seem to like newcomers here. In a transient city, what’s the point in making friends with new arrivals if they’re going to leave? What’s the point in staying if the locals don’t want to be friends?
Back home if I was having a bad day, I’d go to ballet to find support. Now if I’m having a bad day, I avoid class so the isolation doesn’t feel worse.
I try calling Townsville home. Train my brain through repetition.
It feels like a lie. It is a lie.
There’s no such thing as cold water.
If I want to wash my hands I have to use the hot water tap before the hot water kicks in and hope I can get all the soap off before the water starts burning.
What do you do if you have a burn and need to run it under cold water for 10 minutes? It takes that long for the cold water to come through.
It’s exciting when it gets to “winter” and there’s actually cold water in the pipes.
The beetroots died. The carrots are bitter. And the neighbour’s horse ate the corn. Shorted the electric fence to reach it. But the celery is happy and I have tomatoes coming out my ears.
I notice the pot plants by the bedroom window are starting to struggle with the changing season.
It’s a Monday. I’ll move them into shade on the weekend.
But they’re dead by the weekend. The weather turns in an instant.
We’re on cyclone watch.
We go to IGA after work. The aisles are empty of bread and water. But that’s not a problem because we’re here to take advantage of the cheese marked down to clearance prices.
We spend the next day taking down the shade cloth, moving the pot plants inside, tuning the transistor radio, filling the bath, filling bottles, creating a duck hotel in the shed.
A neighbour also spends the day tidying up. Another doesn’t. I look at the horse’s un-tethered float only metres away from the duck hotel.
The sunset looks like fire. It’s the kind of sky you want in wedding photos.
We check the tracking map and go to bed hopeful.
The cyclone passes south. We didn’t even get a splash of rain.
People say we over-reacted with our preparation.
I did enough cyclone coverage when I was a journalist to know we didn’t.
We see the damage where it hit and know we didn’t.
I worry about complacency when a cyclone does come.
My husband is told to speak English. I’m told to pronounce Castletown “properly”.
I discover word variations that don’t cause outrage on Twitter.
In Australia we have wars over the name for a disc of fried mashed potato but I’m more confronted by the locals calling the tip the dump. Sounds like someone being vulgar about bodily functions.
My heart gives a leap when the SBS On Demand ad says demand in my accent. It’s like a hug from home.
My two classes are chalk and cheese.
I start to feel a belonging in one but not in the other. It’s almost a relief when it’s raining so hard I skip class for fear the road home will go under.
I stick to it out of dedication.
Now we’re on flood watch.
Well, not us. We’re higher than the dam. But the rain doesn’t stop and the backyard is a lake.
The ducks think it’s amazing.
I still lock them up at night, comically chasing them through the ankle-deep water while they glide on top. They swim in their pen.
Flooded-out colleagues call for help with washing. We don’t have a dryer and the clothes horse, already full with our towels, barely takes a full load. I can’t help.
We have spot damage from water ingress. Our neighbours’ house is declared uninhabitable.
I stop going to one of my ballet classes. I’m not feeling it anymore.
The federal election is brutal.
I didn’t particularly identify with being Victorian until moving here. I’m not proud of it, I didn’t work hard for it, it’s just something I am.
I find no regional solidarity. The north-south divide is stronger than the regional-metropolitan one.
People think I come from a suburb of Melbourne. And dig their heels in when I tell them otherwise. It’s like an erasure of my identity.
The hostile north.
I am the enemy because I am a southerner. I open the papers to read about how horrible people like me are. There are bumper stickers about it.
“You need to come home to your people,” says Julia.
I hear there’s a new ballet teacher. I go back to class.
I think I’ve turned a corner.
The air conditioning is set to 28 degrees, and only in summer.
I wear ugg boots around the house in winter and sit under a blanket to watch TV.
My Thursday night ballet class has a performance.
It happens to be a weekend when my parents are in town. Mum can’t believe she got through my childhood without attending a dance concert, only to do it when I’m in my 30s.
I’m so terrified I cry during a rehearsal.
The world suddenly stops.
The decision is made to cancel a trip home. I cry at work.
“Isolate the North!”
I can’t believe I agree with Bob Katter.
We’re sent home from work on a Friday afternoon. We don’t know when we’ll be back. The car park is full of sombre farewells and people carrying office plants.
I’m glad. I was sick of decontaminating every time I came home. Sick of washing my hair every afternoon.
Going for a swim is the best lunch break.
Running in the evening separates work from home.
My Thursday night ballet class moves online.
A window into lounge rooms, patios, and garages. Seeing their kids. Their dogs.
They’re a lifeline. They’re proof there are other humans out there.
I desperately want to hug everyone.
“They are making the decision that that two weeks and that cost is worth it to get out of Victoria,” says the deputy premier.
Apparently, anyone leaving Victoria is trying to escape. Separated families don’t exist.
A woman is bundled into a divvy van after arriving in Townsville from Geelong, where she was visiting her daughter in hospital.
“It was done in good faith,” says the police commissioner.
“I felt like a criminal,” the woman tells the local paper.
Ballet goes back before work does.
One of my friends touches me on the shoulder to say hello. It’s the first time someone outside my house has touched me since March.
I successfully don’t hug anyone.
Borders are still closed.
I’m separated from home by thousands of kilometres, thousands of dollars in quarantine, and my non-participation in the trauma of a stage 4 lockdown.
At ballet I have the confidence to lead.