After I returned from Canada late last year, I house sat in a small town in Queensland. There, I was reminded of everything I love about Australia which I had previously overlooked or took for granted.
An infusion of sea salt and chlorine envelops the bakery as wet backsides wobble in to join the queue . They’ve been to the packed beach nearby or chose the backyard pool instead, either way the vibrant colours of new swimwear will start their takeover of the streets in this small town near the coast; Its Christmas in Australia. “‘Goin ?” “Yeah good mate…You?” “Yeah mate..have a good one” “Mate” Seasonal greetings in a land where each day formalities are shed with the climbing temperatures, words stripped from conversations like layers of clothing or the bark of a tree. Behaviours are shortened too, Local drivers summon the index finger salute instead of the full hand wave when passing on the road, carelessly parking over the lines and leaving the car running to keep the aircon on while nipping in to the shops. The main street of the small Australian town is elegantly lined with Royal Poinciana trees which were planted by the town elders for their filigree lime green leaves and soft orange flowers. From residents’ gardens along the side streets where shoppers park their cars, the potent fragrance of old roses and boronia merges with the tang of ripe mangoes and yellow peaches from the fruit shop on the corner. Its a sensual cornucopia in a land and at a time when Christmas marks the seasonal entry into high summer. Located at the end of Main Street is the statue of a lone soldier painted in fungus resistant white. Dressed in the uniform of the ANZAC forces, the statue marks the war dead of the small town, a concrete tradition of remembrance started after the First World War which decimated the future of all small towns throughout Australia. In the midst of an iridescent parade of shorts, swimmers and tees, “We are in death. Lest we forget.” Within cooee of the soldier stands the RSL Club. Positioned at the river’s edge it provides members and visitors-most of whom have not returned from an overseas war-with views of the ferries, houseboats and pleasure craft, while they watch the cricket or dine at the restaurant, occasionally catching that foetid mangrove smell on the breeze. The chaos of informal dress stops at the club door where patrons are reminded that certain standards must be upheld. Remaining shirtless and wearing thongs will produce a stern rebuff from the club staff with an offer of a loan of acceptable clothing for those who apologise and seek to comply. All others are promptly dismissed. This building is embraced by the shade of the powerful Morton Bay Fig tree, a multi purpose and ancient fellow which continues to provide fruit, now eaten only by bats after sunset, deep shade in its glossy leaves and the capacity to strangulate any obstacle, sentient or not, in its path. Its protective coolness is valued by many retail sales workers at lunchtime during the post Christmas sales, and over-imbibers from the club taking shelter from the relentless sun. Occasionally, children will play in its roots and the more adventurous climb its branches, preferring this natural adventure playground to the Council constructed one nearby. Once it was a meeting place for local indigenous women who picked the ripe figs for food and medicine and used its bark to weave dilly bags for themselves and fishing nets for their men. A relative of the Banyan and Bodhi tree, its sacredness seems to have evaporated in the modern day Australian climate. A tall man in a large brimmed hat stands beneath the tree. “When I was a young lad,before that building was there, I used to come down here on the hot afternoons-we had some stinkers then you know- and hoped that I could grow one of them from the seed so that when I married my kids could play in its branches and roots. Best shade ever in the best spot; you caught the river breeze see. I’ d just met Doris you see and knew she was the girl for me-was going to propose when that war broke out…had to do it quick like. Reception was at mum’s, a knees up alright then shipped out next morning. Five years later I met m’ son. ” Reg will tell anyone that takes the time to sit under the tree;shop girls and local teenagers know the full story. Most are kind, give him the time to get to the final bit about his sons dying in the horror car smash and Doris’ cancer ten years ago now. Christmas delivers a high tide of tourists, both interstate and overseas, bringing fresh eyes, holiday bonuses and insistence on having fun. The colours of the town change yet again as brazen hot pink tank tops meet city linens and leathers of neutral and natural hue. The locals don’t mind the influx, they’re proud of their place and besides there are not as many incomers as on the coast. The town, though busy, resists being inundated and Main Street retailers-there are only four shops off the shopping strip-welcome the opportunities for increased transactions. Surprisingly during this time,older townsfolk still keep up their weekly ritual visit to their favourite café after doing the groceries. The local shoe store advertises its sale”Up to 50% off” but the locals aren’t taken in, they know the owner’s Scrooge-like ways and have seen the same yellow and orange sandals on sale for the past three years. Still,the tourists are pleased and never question the box labels for the “Italian ” footwear. Holiday-brown feet leave the shop, walking along Main Street getting acquainted with their new coverings and feeling satisfied with their new look, a souvenir that may last as long as their memory of this time. For those with less to spend after the Christmas binge, recycle shops have their own sales. Entrepreneurial volunteers organise their racks according to iconic surfing brands,Billabong, Ripcurl,Quicksilver, Mambo; plenty to choose from for the canny shopper. The tropical climate used to ensure a daily storm or if not certainly a downpour. Some of the older locals could predict the time through the swelling of the finger joints or other means. When its twenty eight degrees at seven thirty in the morning, the expected change is an unspoken promise of the season. But the climate, like the town, keeps changing and some days remain dry. The persistent cough of frogs as they come alive after the rain is absent and even the base note of summer, that cicada tinsel chorus, seems lackadaisical and drowsy. The rain eventually comes and the storm season starts to brew again, but the locals will tell you its different;wilder, unpredictable and strangely more vicious. Three tourists are hit by lighting on a crowded tourist beach. “Crikey, hear this June? They had never seen anything like it! White sheets out on the ocean, next minute, two of them are thrown into the air, found metres away…bloke in the middle was burnt to the ground. A goner, the others in hospital. Reminds me of…” Laurie and June seated at the outdoor café, generously share memories of past storm traumas with their waitress and tourists nearby. The pattern of life in the small town by river and sea is changing somehow, locals can’t put their finger on it but its there. Being only ninety minutes from the state capital means the town has been spared a sacrificial exodus of the young people- which towns to their west know well. Of course the youngsters move away but for a short time and regularly return.When they come back families learn a new language, less of the “mate” and more of the “guys” the universal franca lingua of youth. Still, they soon drop their city ways after a bit. No, its something else. Always busy, the town on the river enjoys continuous prosperity. Businesses come and go over the years, but most remain and some have a continuous commercial lineage back to the 1860’s. Only Reg and Laurie and June and Miss Colleen and some of the other long term residents know that the life of the town is changing, but can’t quite tell how or why. Yet should they be asked and if they ever cared to say, it would be something like the colours are changing.
Copyright Kate McManus