I’m sitting in my cosy flat in southwest Qld and the most exciting thing that crossed my desk in the last half an hour was a tiny black spider. But I am chomping at the bit, adrenalin coursing through my body keeping me awake long after I should have snuggled up with my pillows.
Today’s jaunty eagerness is not a new phenomenon out here in the bush. Instead of some city folk’s prediction that life without Turkish restaurants would be dull – and some people still ask me how we fill a newspaper every week – I find this quaint town teeming with hair-raising stories and excitement.
The curious aspect, and please bear in mind that I now have little idea what other people think is curious or fascinating, is that my enthusiasm for the tiniest events has skyrocketed.
A blowfly could miss a wing beat and I’d wonder why. Perhaps it would be something to do with the new flour they’re using at the bakery. Or it could be connected to the power pole that fell down on Saturday night and took out the power to my rival paper’s office.
As I roamed the streets of Charleville today, searching in vain for a person on a bicycle so I could take a photo of them to go alongside a riveting article I had written on bike racks, I realised my mentality had shifted from curious photographer to ruthless hunter. I might as well have been searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, for the enthusiasm I had for seeking out non-existent bikers was consuming, uncontrollable. And then when I saw a kid on a bike I rushed for the camera as if someone had bought out a block of dark chocolate after a night with Shiraz. I snapped away at the scruffy bikers, who wore their pants around their lower thighs with pride, as if I’d just been ordered to take a few snaps of Hugh Jackman with his shirt off.
I’m finding my enthusiasm for things is often disproportionate here.
My heart flutters a little when someone talks about anything with the tiniest bit of controversy. Five palms fronds came down a storm on Sunday and I maintained eye contact with the fallen branches for longer than I would with a man I wanted to bed. Maybe there’s a story in that, I always wonder about these trivial events, with a slightly depraved sense of desperation. Then I catch myself. Were you really counting those palm branches on the road, Penny?
Tonight I saw a man my own age in the bar and my clenched grip on the bottle of Jägermeister I was purchasing slipped slightly. I wonder what would have happened to the bottle if we’d made eye contact.
I love this child-like development. It’s made me happy. And sometimes I catch myself staring out the window at the utes cruising past and I feel terribly contented.
I reckon it’s the connection with people that makes me so fascinated by the little things. Life certainly works at a slower pace here and I’m coming to terms with my dearth of perspective.
The only concern is whether I’ll wet my pants when I arrive in Birdsville tomorrow for an event is definitely exciting. This is an event that would, even under pre-Charleville conditions see me running around in shirtless excitement
It’s the Birdsville races, the Melbourne cup of the outback and one of Australia’s most iconic calendar events. I’m going there. Tomorrow.
In a helicopter. And I have not been this excited since I found out the price of rice liquor in China.
I’ll be sleeping in my mate’s pink swag under a chequered blanket of outback stars beside a creek. There will even be backpackers there!
I have dreamed of going to these races since I was a child and my current mood would rival a gaggle of hungry geese.
I’m hanging to see 6000 people flood into a town with just one pub and a usual population of about 100 people. And I’m keen to see whether the crowd can get through 10,000 pies. The boxing tent should be a ripper and watching the revellers try to get through 30 tonnes of liquor should be a riot. I heard a whisper today about yabbie races and naked camel races, which interest me enormously. There’ll be some horse races, too.
But most of all I cannot wait to see just how excited this little journalist can get.
We all nostalgically talk of the good old days. More emotion is lavished on the thought of a paddle pop costing 20 cents than is put towards the fundraising efforts of the chocolate-selling scouts. I reckon people are more excited about remembering a time when excess sun exposure was good for you, rather than being less socially acceptable than smoking than they are about the next beer-swilling session at the pub, unless they are planning to balance their wine glass while they talk about days gone by. Living in the past is rampant.
Fear not, living in the 90s is still possible. In fact, I am doing it. All it required was an intrepid long-haul, kangaroo-killing roadtrip to the edges of the Aussie red centre.
At the end of the long stretches of nothingness a paradise of melancholy opens up. In the shops you can still put purchases on an account and pay at leisure. Most things are more relaxed here in the 90s. If you happen to be caught in a traffic jam – please note having four cars in front of you is akin to a 30km Sydney snarl – and find yourself tardy by about 20 minutes, there is a good chance that you will still be early.
Meat is not bought from the supermarket. Instead you can grab half a sheep from your friendly butcher for $60. And on your way out the door of the shop the butcher will pull on a home-made genius rope and pulley contraption that opens your door. From behind the counter! It’s the Harry Potter of twenty years ago.
If you want to go to boot camp here, it’s not going to be the hit on your back pocket that it is in the city. All of the I’ve-paid-90-bucks-this-week-on-an-arsehole-trainer-that-hurts-me-so-badly-I-can’t-pick-up-a-coffee-cup incentive is removed when you pay just $10 a month. Sausage sangers are still just a buck.
If you choose to take the faster route to the 90s, a twin-engine 36-seater dash eight that feels as if it is gliding along with the assistance of an air current will drop you down. Getting on the plane you’ll be given a hand-written boarding pass. The airline hostess takes your tea order on a piece of paper. It feels so personal!
If you choose to take the slow road, the clanking train that is less smooth than the beast you would find in Bolivia, then a farewell crew that includes a few local lads at band practice will send you off at the station. I almost imagined myself in a long dress with a corset setting off on a stately journey to the east. At 17 hours it felt like a bloody stately journey too.
We shouldn’t get too excited about the time warp. The coppers have kept up and their speeding-catching technology is far too savvy for my liking. And the town even has a website to tell all and sundry about their rodeo dates.
But the dating service is far-removed from the modern less-spontaneous-than-a-splinter internet-based offering that you get in 2012 in the cities. Out here the lovely lady at the classy boutique will put a good word in for you with the cockies. The publican will also watch out for any lads that aren’t consuming their ute-weight in XXXX. These ladies have not yet found me a cute bedfellow, but it’s still acceptable to wolf-whistle at a lady as she scrambles down the street eager to get out of a thunderstorm. And a wolf whistle does wonders for the ego.
People still send letters in the post and, importantly for me, they read the local rag. I’ve even started borrowing books from the library again, which, alongside the money I’m saving on boot camp, is very handy for my bank balance. My inherited issues with getting books back on time is still an issue, even though I live within strolling distance to the book depository, but I’m sure the barcode-zapping ladies will show some old-time compassion with late fines.
In Charleville you will still find chickens roaming the streets, parading their pink flesh and it’s perfectly reasonable to find brains on the menu. Sometimes we go back further than 20 years to find horses trotting down the street. Vegetarian and gluten-free fussiness is barely heard of and, I assume, not really tolerated.
But it’s none of these things that make the town special. The time warp is completed by the lengthy phone conversations where a request for the spelling of a name turns into a family history lesson or an in-depth discussion on the footie. Those conversations usually end with an invite to dinner.
The broad brimmed hats that bob across the wide streets always carry a wave and a smile below them.
If you need a ride to a place three-hours away it is very likely you’ll find someone that will share their ute with you. The woman at the petrol station will help you figure out what sort of fuel your mower needs. And when you need to get the newspaper down to Cunnamulla – a two-hour drive along well-patrolled roads – then people will help you find someone to take the rag south.
The friendliness is further down the scale than even the Nepalese. The all-encompassing genuine, no-bullshit nature of the people in this place make me feel engaged, interested. My constant quest for that community feel is satiated.
At times I struggle to remember that there is a world out there that’s bigger than the Warrego Watchman, my town and my blissful time warp.
Sometimes I wish my ute would break down so that I can watch the reactions of the folk in my town. Today, the run-around-like-an-emu-on-heat deadline day, was not a time when I thought about indulging in whimsical anthropological experiments.
But my Nissan fancied some fun.
It happened as I approached the busiest intersection in town. I stopped obediently at the give way sign and was mid-glance, needlessly checking for traffic, when the engine shuddered, coughed, spat and died. It was an all-over sensation for my truck, which rocked from side to side like spring-loaded pretend sheep in a children’s playground. I know Alfred street, Charleville is no Champs Elysees, but it’s still the busiest intersection in town and there were plenty of folk kicking around to stare at my cranky car.
It was a fine moment, people everywhere, a useless ute and a deadline hanging over me as a badly cut fringe would.
Luckily I have been in this situation many times before. I have a deep-seated history with mechanically inept cars.
I should have known better, frankly. The same incident happened last Tuesday, in the same car, but on the second-biggest intersection in town. Last week I had called my mechanic brother in a fluster when the ute conked out. It was a Tuesday last week too, as I struggled with the same deadline that causes the bags under my eyes to sag like the bottom of an old cossie. My brother Rob works miracles with cars. Just being on the phone to him last week cured the issue with the choke and the car rose from the dead.
I believe in miracle fixes. It’s part of my mechanical knowledge – problems go away if you give them time. And never go to the mechanic before you have to, that’s another of my favourite car adages.
But despite the fact that I was sitting in a defunct car in the middle of an intersection, this situation really shines. I flicked on the hazards, alerting the handful of other motorists that I was in trouble and watched them cruise past me at a snails pace, checking out all the gory details as they passed. I could tell my ute’s mechanical failures would be laughed at over a bottle of Pinot for many afternoons. I adopted a maniacal laugh and desperately tried to start the car again.
There was no aggression from the cars I was inconveniencing. No one honked their horns and most cars waited behind me for at least two minutes before they even bothered to lazily reverse and move past. As they were checking me out a few said ‘are you oh-kay’ with wide mouths. It was quite touching.
I reckon a gang of scooters would have mowed me down if the same thing happened in the city.
Someone even opened my passenger door and asked me if I needed a push around the corner. Of course I don’t want a bloody push, I want this thing to drive around the corner, I would have taken the bike if I wanted to push something, I quietly ranted in my head.
In fact I had been within a whisper of taking the bike when I realised it has an over-inflated front tyre and that was all the excuse I needed to avoid saddle soreness. If I had of tried harder to recaptur the love of riding I possessed when exploring the karst mountains in southern China I would not have ended up at the corner of Alred and Wills streets with a crowd of onlookers thanking their lucky stars that they weren’t me.
The idea of calling my Jesus-like brother occurred to me again, but I defied the thought in a moment of determined independence, recalling how I had fixed the issue with the battery the week before last without consulting either of my brothers.
Although my oldest brother is fairly useless mechanically so he would have only been good for telling me it’s ok to break a detox in times like these.
I worked the key again, flogging the starter motor while I provided a little comedy show for the crew gathered in the main street. Finally, after a 15 minute interval that passed slower than an ice-cap melt I spluttered around the corner and moved down the street with the ute’s revs bouncing about like a camel being chased by a kangaroo.
As I shuddered up the street the blokes outside the barber’s shop clapped and cheered as if I was approaching the finish line after a gruelling triathlon. I mentally bowed to them, feeling as if I’d contributed a street-theatre vibe to the quiet Tuesday streetscape. I honked the horn for good measure, in case any of the local businesses were unaware of the local journo’s mechanical issues.
Next time I’ll take the bike and I’ll let you know how the town reacts when I fall off and graze my elbow.
Eat some dirt, my mate Annie told her daughter on the phone on Saturday night, after she’d called up, complaining about the flu. “Get out in the cow yard and eat some shit,” she said without an inch of sarcasm. She’s talking about the importance of getting enough germs to keep your immune system kicking, but I see the instruction as the perfect illustration of way country folk adapt the English language.
It’s rare to find a sentence without some form of poetic lyricism injected. Metaphors and similes are bandied about with bull-charging enthusiasm. Long-ish words are shortened, every time. No one would dare call me Penelope here and I’m lucky to get Penny. Most people cut my name to Pen, which I find very affectionate. Conservative becomes conservo.
But a brief explanation will always be extended. You don’t simply fall off your motorbike out here. You go down in a shower of shit. Sometimes you’ll be spitting chips too, whatever that means.
The creativity and humour behind this communication style have me enthralled. Fair enough, sometimes conversations, and I’m particularly referring to pre-footie rouse ups here, lack any meaningful expressions except the most basic swear words. That’s still amusing in my book.
I’ve encountered a swag of different terms out here in the past six weeks. Yesterday the helicopter pilot who was taking me on a quick trip over town explained a few technical points to me in case things went “shit-shaped.” I struggled to grasp what was happening with the clutch but I understood the consequences of an un-flicked switch pretty clearly. “If this one isn’t turned on we’ll go down like a greasy crowbar,” he told me. I imagined a mechanic dropping the tool with a clang and then mimicked the helicopter doing the same. It was a powerful language tool, I reckon.
These are not isolated events.
At the council meeting the other day the CEO was talking about a letter he’d received that he was a bit unhappy about. “All they’re doing is teaching us how to suck eggs,” he said. I think he meant that the writer was pointing out the bleedin’ obvious.
If a bloke thinks he might get lucky with you that’s called jumping into your cot. And of course the g is left off the end of every word possible. There some exceptionally dirty expressions too, but I’ll leave those to your imagination.
The style is as infectious as the laidback lifestyle. Occasionally I catch myself stretching vowels like a fat man straining the joins on a trampoline. I lament the money my parents spent on voice coaching. For now I’m joinin’ in and looking for a creative way to add colour without always relying on cursing. That said, the swearing out here is impressive and my potty mouth is blossoming. But I’m yet to tell anyone that they should eat some shit. I’ll give that a few more weeks.
Imagine if you could guarantee that your day would be flawless. It would be so perfect that when you think of person the phone buzzes instantly with their call. This is a day when you make all the right decisions, see sexy single people in the street who wave to you and when the temperature is deliciously balmy in the day before a ripping sunset steals the show. There are plenty of gourmet cheeses kicking around, too.
The day is very easy to attain.
All you need to do is open the fridge, extract a bottle of ale, open it and tip towards the lips. I’m talking about the breakfast beer, a fine tradition that replaces horrid morning-glory-killers such as stress, bags under the eyes and inhibitions, with a hazy happiness. And I am not just taking about a hair-of-the-dog on Sunday, the breakfast beer is ideally consumed during the week, in the middle of your white-picket-fence routine.
Wednesday is my post-deadline chill-out day in Charleville. I had planned to strap on my sneakers this morning and go for a sneaky run along the river before lying on my picnic rug in the backyard with my book.
But those plans ended up heading into a stubby cooler when I turned on the tap and found out my water had been politely disconnected by some boogie man in the night. I’m not sure what happened to the water, I didn’t bother finding out. Instead I took charge of my day and opened a Peroni.
It has been an extremely pleasant day.
Firstly, the brew put a magnificent grin on my face. Then, it relaxed me, which is what any doctor would have prescribed after putting the paper to bed last night. I believe if you put yourself in the best mood possible in the morning there is little room for disappointment to seep in like a bad odour moving across a classroom.
My morning reminded me of a place in Cambodia that had a creative menu, including a rockstar breakfast comprising a shot of whiskey, a packet of cigarettes and two cups of coffee. All for $3.50. Unfortunately I am not a smoker, so the meal was not at all appropriate. However, one of my mates had enough stamina and a filthy nicotine habit, so he showed that combo meal who was boss. He made some great decisions that day.
It would have suited my dad’s old mate, Pete, a flamboyant drinker and fan of the brekki beer. He’d down a brew or two on the way to work to keep his colleagues guessing.
The trick with the BB is that you still have to be able to operate machinery and conduct yourself without drooling, slurring or laughing in a high-pitched fashion. Unless it is a Sunday it is quite important to stick to one beer in the morning, two at most.
The thing I love most about drinking in the morning is the feeling of decadence and naughtiness that comes with flaunting a societal taboo, shunning tea for alcohol. Bucking that routine felt gloriously liberating. Still, I’ll justify it for the naysayers by saying I had a quiet weekend, tucking myself in before ten on Friday and Saturday like some sort of nun. My behaviour had to be rectified.
The worst thing was when the last dregs of the beer were finished and the realisation dawned that the lawn needed to be cut and I had no water. Luckily, by the time I’d downed my beer the water had been mysteriously switched back on. Perfect.
Combining work and pleasure is a perilous thought for some. The concept often alludes to sordid, debaucherous situations which result in awkward, meaningful looks being snuck at co-workers as hangovers and embarrassment jostle for priority.
I’ve found a more innocent way to bring hard yakka and hedonism together, as is true to my nature.
It’s my Sunday office. I can feel the sun seeping into my back while I write about yesterday’s footy game with the same enthusiasm I’d muster for rehashing a date with a mate. A cold Peroni is the icing on the Sunday-afternoon-work cake. It’s even low-alcohol, although that was definitely a dim-lighting-in-the-liquor-store error.
For the record, I completely endorse combining work and pleasure in other, much guiltier ways.
If I had been given the choice, I would not have meandered down to the Charleville bowls club on Sunday afternoon. If I was offered to choose between bowls and, say, staying home to clean the scum from behind the oven, I would have tossed a coin. If a cold beer was in the offing there would have been no chance of getting me on the green. I would have missed out.
The inherent beauty of my inseparable job/life combo is that I’m forced – and not in a torturous, shoving the broccoli in my mouth kinda way, like my mother did when I was a horrid fussy-eating kid – to attend events I would definitely sidestep if the story-hunting imperative was not present. And, I’m finding that these activities, bowls, for instance or visiting the historic house and chatting with a bush tucker expert, often leave me with a broad grin.
When my expectations and assumptions are pushed aside, there is a bounty of quirky stores waiting to bring cheer to my world.
Let’s start with bowls. Mick Molloy had a good dig at making the sport popular in 2002 with his Aussie film, Crackerjack. But, the sport has struggled to woo me as a spectator. It hasn’t been actively trying, I admit, as most bowlers and indeed anyone that spends their days rolling weirdly-weighted balls along freshly-rolled turf, are self-assured enough to dismiss pesky spectators.
As I walked to the bowls club, I spotted a few ladies resting their horses at the quieter end of the main street. I adore those country moments – they give me a great sense of adventurous pleasure.
The action hotted up when I strolled onto the bowling green. One bloke was walking onto the green, casually doing up his baggy white pants when his mate told him the local journo had popped around to take a photo of him. “Aw not now, I’ve got a burning ring of fire,” he announced to all and sundry. “Yeah, he bloody does,” his mate added. “I just heard him in the shithouse.”
For a moment I realised the similarities between the hostel bathrooms in Beijing and the Charleville bowls club. An excellent incongruity.
A few seconds later I was introduced to a bloke with a broken arm, who one of the cheeky lads informed me had injured himself in a masturbation-related incident. “Yeah, he was watching at the window,” the broken-armed man told me.
The dirty jokes continued. Most of the bowlers were rather merry by the time I arrived in the early afternoon, beers nestled firmly in their palms. A few even managed to lodge their cigarettes in their mouths while focusing on their bowling with the sort of concentration Steve Irwin used to employ when feeding crocs. I left the green about an hour later feeling like I’d been welcomed into a community of people I could definitely share a smutty joke with.
The journo job here is intense. It’s a lifestyle. The constant search for information, gossip and quirky tales permeates my consciousness and takes me to places I would normally never venture. It is incredibly rewarding.
The footy has become the highlight of my week. It’s a pants-wetting event in Charleville. For the record, I have loathed the sport with venom all of my life.
The colourful language that comes off the sideline is a show in itself. It’s littered with hyperbole and fuelled by a passionate love for the footy that I have come to grudgingly respect. Occasionally it’s so rude it makes me blush, and that’s not an activity I partake in often.
I’ve developed a Sunday ritual with one of my lovely mates out here where we yarn away about Saturday’s game. I reckon our analysis, which I heartily enjoy, would put most of my footy fiend mates to shame. It’s certainly a shift from the latte-swilling girly gossip sessions I used to take pleasure in in Brissy. And it’s a long way from the beaches of Cambodia where whisky and coffee was an accepted and celebrated breakfast tradition.
But, back to the game. I’m captivated by the tackles, the penalties and exceptionally disappointed when the teams manage to rein in their aggression and avoid brawling. Of course, I run up and down the sideline like an chicken in a goose’s cage, feeling desperately out of place and constantly asking the linesman, the coaches, the players on the bench, the loitering kids, anyone, what the bloody hell is going on. I love the action. The feeling of being out of my depth and learning a skerrick more each week is as rewarding as managing to make a block of chocolate last a whole week. By the way I have just made a block of chocolate last a whole week.
It’s not just sport that is blowing my expectations away. I will concede that I am a tad lonely out here, but the biggest surprise has been how much I enjoy living in a small community. Last week as I walked down the main drag I was stopped about four times by people wanting to have a yak. In fact, it’s rare that I don’t find someone to have a chat with anytime I leave my home.
I know the name of my neighbour and I’m on a first-name basis with the postie, who honks his horn and waves at me sometimes.
On the other hand the lack of anonymity is distressing at times. Yesterday, for instance, I thought I’d bite the bullet and get some worm tablets to deal with my digestive system’s Chinese hangover. Of course, the high school vice-captain was waiting to assist me. And the tablets were behind the counter, out of my grasp. I swallowed my embarrassment and asked for some worming medicine. Tracey helpfully told me the chocolate square were the best. She spelled out a few instructions to me as I stood there and indulged in a moment of small-town-gossip paranoia, wondering if she’d tell all of her friends at the high school.
Ah, she’s the least of my worries, I thought, realising that it’s going to be a bigger issue when summer comes around and my skinny dipping cravings kick in.
For now, I love that my life has changed extraordinarily in the last few months. I cherish the adventures every day. And I can tell more of my useless expectations and judgements will be smashed into tiny pieces of appreciation.