The ribbon of bitumen that dresses the hilly countryside of my childhood stretches out before me as I traverse the back road, heading towards my destination.
It is green here. It always has been...for as long as I can remember. The pasture still looks as good as it always has - lush and vital. The climate remains favorable here. The soil is the kind that you would kneel down before and hold it in your hands, taste it on your tongue and draw the impeccable fertility from it. There is a sweetness to the air - it is moist and earthy. In the morning, the dew that settles on the grass locks in this sweetness and, as the sun rises over the hills, it's beams caress the earth, the dew vaporizes and releases it into the air.
Oh to be a cow...
Has it been this long?
James Taylor's "Fire & Rain" plays on the radio as I drive along and I find myself a little misty-eyed listening to it. It's funny - that song always seems to play on the radio whenever I travel here, to this place of my early childhood.
The bitumen that winds and meandered it's way along the gentle spur of the countryside straightens out now, and I see the outskirts of the town up ahead.
It is a small town. It seems much smaller now, in my adulthood, than it was years ago when I was a tear-away child, with not a care in the world. The rural hamlet held me in it's bosom. I went to school there, rode my bike in the bush on the outskirts, played cricket in the park with my brother and the local kids near my house.
We were a rambunctious bunch for sure.
There was my brother, the youngest but definitely the most energetic of us all. Despite the lymphoma that afflicted him at the tender age of just four, he possessed an indomitable drive that left his contemporaries in the dust.
There was Roger, who lived down the street. A funny kid who used to wet himself a lot and run home mortified but not before ensuring that he'd knocked up his century (in cricketing parlance). He also used to like to imitate characters from "Hey Hey It's Saturday" - an old school variety show on TV, that we all loved to watch. It used to be a kids show but it transitioned into a prime time show that liked to run the gauntlet of bad taste often.
There was Danny, who - I swear - had the best collection of Star Wars figurines and vehicles I ever saw and who guarded them with his life. His Mum, a teacher at the local school had a funny accent - but I was to realize much later that it was only because she was Irish. Much later, Danny got sick - really sick - with some sort of auto-immune illness that nearly killed him. He was never the same after that.
And there was Brendan - the human equivalent of the Warner Brothers cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil. He always looked as though he had been playing in the dirt. He was messy, unkempt, a little devious. But he was pretty handy with the bat.
Whether it was playing sport, pretending to be The Famous Five, riding our bikes on the old BMX track, down the old main road, we were a tight bunch then.
I have no idea where Roger, Danny and Brendan ended up.
The town is situated on a hillside that dips down into a valley of sorts, a continuation of the spur. Slowing considerably, I descend the hill into the town from it's western fringe and I can see not much has changed...it has just gotten older.
The old Scout Hall, which looked as though it was close to being condemned back in the day, still looks that way now - except someone has mown the grass surrounding it. It looks neat, tidy, incongruous in the shadow of the old hall. But it somehow fits.
The old butcher shop up ahead, on the left, causes me to flinch with shock and, with an almost automated response, I pull the car to a stop in front of the shop. It has been boarded up. The glass windows that I used to peer through and squint at the butchers plying their trade, tending the fresh carcasses on the hooks, kicking up the sawdust on the floor, presenting customers with beautifully presented meats and small goods in the refrigerated display cabinets...
Gone now, behind rusted metal panels and wooden palings that have been hastily tacked over the expansive shop window and door. The once proud signage that sat proudly up the verandah was gone too. Just a suggestive imprint is all that remains. The tell-tale of some sort of arson stains the shop front. It is dilapidated and rather pathetic and I am, inexplicably, overwhelmed by sadness.
Slowly I drive on, leaving the mortal remains of the butcher shop behind me.
My old home is still there, a few hundred yards away from the butcher shop. I have no idea who owns it now but it still looks the same. My mother's experiment with an elaborate cactus garden, complete with fish pond and patterned scoria beds is but a distant memory. I'm not sure how I ever felt about that garden. It was hard playing 'The A-Team' with my brother whilst constantly getting barbed by an enemy cactus plant.
So many memories...
Dad got up one night, ran a bath and went back to bed, back to sleep and flooded the hallway. It would have been a disaster I guess, but Mum got new carpets out of it, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
We saw our first video cassette here in this house and that one momentous event touched off many a Saturday night 'movie night' which became legendary.
We grew here...my brother and I.
The town's singular Pub - The Rossmore - stands in the nominal center of the township. The red brick and tiled roof still stand proudly if a little drably. There was a time when this Pub was renowned for it's bistro meals and people came from far and wide to drink here and dine here.
There's an old local legend that my grandfather held a record - that still stands apparently - for eating the most sausage rolls in one sitting at this Pub. A questionable achievement perhaps but one that I still chuckle about.
The Pub is quiet now. I'm told they don't serve meals anymore and now the nearby power station doesn't employ the way they used to, the front bar doesn't get as many workers drinking there after their shifts anymore.
Further on, past the houses with their aging but still neat front gardens, the Church on the corner that looks across to yet more rolling hills and green pastures, the main road dips down once more and I slow - looking for one more landmark that I often call upon in my visits back here.
The little house stands, unassuming, neat, quaint even amongst it's younger neighbors. It is one of the oldest houses in the township and can be seen in some of the earliest photographs of the townships - dating back to pre-WW1.
It is a single fronted cottage nestled on great timber stilts which have been concealed cleverly by lattice and garden beds. Over the years it has been clad in a variety of materials, first timber, then a kind of faux brick work - which is how I first remembered it. It stands now, looking tired but somehow still noble.
This was the house of my maternal grandparents.
Nana's garden was her pride an joy and was indeed the envy of many with it's pretty rose bushes that routinely burst into color at the right time, the camellia bushes which were also stunning, any number and variety of ferns which dotted the garden. The seemingly endless variety of fuscias were irresistible for us children who took great joy in popping the buds whenever we could - much to Nana's chagrin. There was so much more that adorned her garden beds on the hillside of her property but I can't remember all of them. What I can remember is that you could easily get lost in there.
There were chickens that produced eggs for Nana. I remember my grandfather plucking the feathers of a freshly killed bird when I was very young - one of the few things I can remember of him before the stroke that robbed him of his faculties.
The old Vauxhall sedan that sat parked in the drive way, dormant for years after Poppy ceased driving it, is gone now. But I still have a November '79 "Herald" newspaper that I found in there once when my curiosity got the better of my Nana's warnings not to go near it.
Nana's cooking prowess was legendary back then. I was forever amazed that she could still cook like a machine whenever there was a power failure (I'll let you think on that one). Her Cornish pasties seemed to be the size house bricks and tasted indescribably wonderful.
So many memories...
The house was sold off years ago when it became apparent that it was too much for Nana to handle on her own. It was sad in one way but I'm sure it was a relief for her. So many memories were tied up in that old house...and not all of them good.
There was damage there...
I turn away from the house and slowly drive back the way I came, turning left up by the Uniting Church on the corner, passing by the old Hall - the site of many a school concert or 18th or 21st birthday party or any other manner of community function. I turn right past the kindergarten I attended - a life time ago, it feels like - left again past the fire station - where the ladies auxiliary bingo mornings were legendary for their ruthless competitiveness...
My destination is a small, detached unit at the end of the street that runs off to no-where. Though the house is different altogether from the one I have just come from - the bountiful garden is unmistakable. Even though she is well into her 80's, Nana's enthusiasm for her garden is no less now than it was when she was a young bride. Her knowledge is encyclopedic.
She is waiting for me on the porch as I pull up and step out. She seems tinier every time I visit but I know that is just a trick of my mind. If anything, her hair is just a little grayer - but that indomitable Maltese spirit burns just as brightly now as it ever did.
As we embrace, I see she has left her bloody hearing aids out again and I laugh in spite of myself. They're too finicky to handle - she'll argue. Somehow - we'll muddle through. We usually do. The kettle is on and Nana has already cut some cake and arranged it neatly on a fine china plate.
The visit is always too brief but it will sustain me until I travel back this way again...