Growing Up in Australia’s Backyard

You’re 8 years old. You’re home from another tough day at primary school learning about ancient Egypt and you’ve got no ice left in your water bottle. It’s 40 degrees.

You burst through the door, throw your school bag in the corner of the room and kick off your black Payless lace-ups. Noni and her sunflower pants are talking to you from the television, but you don’t feel like Playschool today. Your friends are already outside riding their bikes.

Mum yells “be home when the street lights turn on!” from the kitchen as you race past, picking up a handful of pikelets and jam on the way.

You hobble over the grass as the bindies prick into the soles of your feet. You spot lizards and snails and caterpillars everywhere. Where were they hiding when you built your shoebox mansion for them last weekend? You yank your bicycle from the retaining wall and kick off, hoping your neighbours down the road will let you swim in their pool.

It’s summer time, which means it’s two-minute showers and recycled laundry water running through Bunnings tubes in the garden. Bath water must be scooped out with a bucket and poured onto the pot plants. Can’t waste anything now, can we little wombat?  

On the weekends, you sit in the back seat cradling your bucket and spade. Mum’s already swiped zinc all over your nose and your rashy seems tight around the arms. Mum just looks over and says “you’re getting so big now!” but doesn’t let you take it off. Dad smokes a ciggy from the driver’s seat. 

At the pink ice-cream truck in the carpark overlooking the expansive sea, you clutch a choc-top between your hands. It’s dripping down your arms, down your legs, down into your thongs. “Run along to the shore now” says Mum. “Clean your feet in the shallows - leave your shoes here!”. Over the hot cement you run. Hot pavers. Hot feet. Run, run, run you little barefooted creature! The sand is no refuge- head to the ocean, quick smart!

The siren sounds; there’s a shark not far away. The people mill out of the water begrudgingly. Kids grab hold of their beach balls, lovers pause their canoodling, Dad puts down his little yellow spade and counts his children who lost their enthusiasm for sand castle building a long time ago.

Sandy-haired surfers take their time padding to shore, trying to catch a glimpse of the fin, sitting in the shallows with their boards until a lifeguard yells through a speaker to get out. You can usually only drag a surfer out of the water if you promise them a choccy milk and a burger with the lot. Pineapple and beetroot? Of course, are you crazy?

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The drive home takes a long time. Everyone is tired and grumpy, despite the bucket of shells collected for the crafts you’ll never finish. You build a wall of pillows between your sister because you don’t want her touching your side of the car. In fact, you want to make it impossible for her to even get a glimpse out your window. You both throw punches in the safety net of cushion and scream at each other. Mum and Dad sigh a lot, too exhausted to interfere. 

Someone needs to go to the toilet, really badly, despite being 15 minutes from home. Dad pulls off at the next rest stop and someone runs to the bathroom to pee, holding their nose and taking a breath before rushing into the drop hole toilet cubicle. Don’t look down, you don’t want to fall in!

When you get home, Mum says you have to do jobs. You pull the towels off the hills hoist, letting the pegs fall to the ground, and hope this is enough to secure your gold coin pocket money at the end of the week. Last you heard the newsagent had been re-stocked with ghost drops.

On school holidays, you go on road trips. It seems like the right thing to do. There are more pillow walls and nose-holding drop toilets. There are Vegemite sandwiches and blackcurrant Life Savers and “I’m thinking off an animal starting with B”.

In the car, your Mum hands over a paper map of the coast showing you where you’ve been. You realise the 5 hours of driving you’ve just sat through has barely left a dent. Australia is big, but you can’t comprehend the size just yet. To you, Australia is the whole world.

Your parents pitch a tent. They manage to argue about it in low voices even though you’ve watched them successfully pitch the tent hundreds of times before. You spend the afternoon collecting firewood, fearful of brown snakes lurking under logs, trying to stamp your feet as hard as you can because, turns out, snakes are blind. It’s all about the vibrations. Stamp, stamp, stamp. 

The kookaburra sitting in the gumtree laughs while the family gather round the fire, pushing potatoes wrapped in silver foil into the embers and toasting marshmallows on long sticks. After dinner, Dad leans back into his fold out chair and announces he’s “fuller than a state school bike rack”.

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You spend the days at the beach again. Collecting more shells, building more sandcastles. Mum reads a lot of books and Dad naps. You find other kids to play with and all the parents smile at each other, thankful for the break. The kids are finally old enough to play on their own. 

On the last day the sky is turning a dark grey, so you start packing up the tent. Dad tries to hustle everyone along and says “come on kids, we’re not here to fuck spiders” and Mum looks at him with wide eyes while she’s folding the beach towels. You don’t really know what fucking spiders means, you just know that ‘fucking’ is something you shouldn’t say when Mum’s around.

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The summer storms in Australia are big and bold and scary. The dogs always run away and the sky is always black. Dad makes you run around the house and turn off the computer and switch off all the plugs, just in case. You flop on the couch and yell to no one in particular that you’re bored. Mum tells you “only boring people are bored”. You tell her you don’t mind being a boring person, you’re still facing the problem of being bored.

Sometimes, when it hails, you run outside and gather the biggest piece of hail you can find and wedge it in the back of the freezer. You always forget about it until it’s your turn to haul the box of Sunny Boys out on the next 40-degree day.

Then you turn 9. 10 comes around quickly too. Then 11, 12, 13. Puberty arrives. You don’t go outside as much because you’re nervous about your new lumps and bumps and hair. Soon, you’re a teenager, and now you’re, well, you’re you.

You’ve grown up. You’re no longer that 8-year-old kid. But it’s almost summer in Australia. There are 8-year-old kids all over the country with faces ready for a smear of zinc, feet ready for salt water kisses and fearful eyes ready for stormy black skies.

Are you as excited as I am?

~

1 | brotherfish, 2 | yourpaleocean, 3 | debrismeetsthesea