Everything is changing again.
It’s the end times here. I know it may not seem like such a long time to anybody reading this – I haven’t exactly been industrious with my writing these entries while BOOK remains priority number one – but I’ve been living in the bush for over three months. I got here on the 29th of July, and today is the 6th of October: holy tits. That’s a long time in Dan world. It is time to move on once again. It’s always the same feeling – when the time comes to leave, it falls upon me with an inescapable weight, and even if I know I’ll be heartbroken, there’s nothing I can do to stop the feeling. It is simply time to go. Once again I am excited, I am sad, I am a little confused, I am grateful. It’s been fucking mental, but oh, how wonderful everything has been.
I’m going to miss this place, I know, I know. Three months out of society; three months of solar-power that blacks out every few days. Three months with taps, toilets and showers that use only dam water and run out five times a week. Three months watching the grass for snakes and dark corners for spiders, and slamming the brakes on in the truck, skidding to a halt before a bounding kangaroo, completely oblivious.
It’s been a quarter of a year wearing hats against the lancing sun, and hugging everybody when we get home from work, cooking together, drinking and smoking together, and all the smiles and the wine that has sloshed all over my clothes and ruined them. All the raging arguments and storm outs and teary make-ups, the shy greetings growing to bittersweet goodbyes, the romances and the breakups, wild animals running amok, fat pigs, dashing piglets and all the parties, music always and road trips and the air clean and freshest fruit piled high in roadside stalls. Three months packed with forest fire panics, drinking games and endless cards, ping pong and axe swinging. A dusty old town full oddball characters crashing down woodland roads in rusty yutes, jukebox nights at the pub with the good old boys propping up the bar and pool table defeats and always free beers from Damian the bartender. Nights down the butcher’s shop in Bonalbo, rodeo cowboys riding bulls, the battered white estate skidding around corners on dirt tracks in streaming sun in the bluest sky you ever saw and oh, fucking hell – it’s all so gorgeous, and this is gunna hurt.
Do you know something? I have never, not for one second, not for one fucking second felt numb here. I’ve never felt empty. I never felt like nothing. I am alive here. It’s been brilliant and it’s been terrible but I have lived, and now I’m leaving in five days and that’ll be the end of it. Losing Seth and Ben will sting the most, and Minh and Koen and Kata and Jeanne. They are best friends to me. Lachie and Antoine and Edie and Laurel and Brogan and Casper and Yonna and Ed and Hattie, they’ve all left already, shot off to far corners of the world to continue their lives. I’ve known nothing but their faces for so long. All day, every day, every night, together. It’s been something truly special. I think we’ll all be friends for a very long time. Man, I hope we will.
Christ, I’m listening to ‘In a Big Country’ and it’s getting me all choked up. Might as well throw ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ next. Ugh. Enough melancholia.
So we went to Byron Bay at the weekend; me, Ben, Minh, Jeanne. It’s three hours away, and we flew across the open country with windows down and music trailing behind our car, spilling out over the road and into the trees. Jeanne piled cushions in the middle seat in the back and took a nap. I stared out of the window at the blur of green and worked through a six pack of beer. We arrived after dark in the middle of a storm to find there were no campsites anywhere; it was the AFL grand final, the rugby grand final, half term, and a bank holiday all over the same weekend. We parked up in a black street as fruit bats the size of dogs flew overhead and sat calling two dozen hostels and campsites for two hours but alas – nothing.
Just as things were getting a little bit nativity, the final campsite we called gave us a number and a rumour of a rugby club holding a party who might have space. We piled down in the big old car that’s rumbling itself to pieces and roars like a motorbike because the exhaust has a hole in it, and we found the club. We paid 60 bucks between us and set up camp, and in the bar we found the maddest party: the ‘Los Wankas’ Scooter Club, come from far and wide across Australia for a rally. The band played Baggy Trousers and Eton Rifles, and everybody was clad in Harrington jackets or Parkas with Brothel Creepers and straight grey trousers, and everybody was English. There were a lot of flat caps. Stumbling upon such a congregation in the depths of Australia was very, very surreal. We drank a couple of beers outside the party like naughty kids at the high school disco, and I grew obscenely giddy with each new song that floated out to us. They played the Clash, man!
We headed into Byron after, and after all this time spent to the left of nowhere, it was daunting and dreamlike to be around other people. I have never before that moment felt wary of strangers. Society in their glad rags hitting the town on a Friday night felt oddly repulsive – all that advertising! Billboards and posters with photoshopped arse cheeks and surfer abs making you feel like you’re out of shape, special offers in red everywhere, discounts discounts discounts and chain restaurants! Everybody was wearing expensive jeans or pretty dresses, everybody had fresh haircuts, everybody looked great and wore aftershave. What is aftershave to a man who hasn’t showered more than three times a week for as long as he can remember? The whole thing began to turn my stomach – and it turned it all the more because though the bar was noisy and everybody was drunk and yelling in each other’s ears, I felt as though it was all fake excitement. It was a thousand people glammed up for a night on the tiles all waiting around for something to happen, boisterous and loud but just… a bit bland. Give me a campfire any day.
The four of us tried to be merry but something about the bar sapped our spirits, and conversation suffered. We sat in a square nursing our beers, each feeling glum but not admitting it, and after half an hour we fled. We headed to the Arts Factory, hippy hub of Byron. There we found Ed, former resident of our hostel. It was lovely to see him and we hugged for a long time, but it was peculiar to see him outside of our little universe. I suppose we are all quite different out there in the big wide world. I hope I don’t change. I like me now, I like this body, this brain, more than I have ever liked it in memory. I don’t want to lose that now that I’ve found it.
The next morning the British scooter rally cooked sausage sandwiches for us, and Ben and Minh went shopping while I sat with Jeanne in the drizzle watching the ocean. We went book shopping for an hour, and met up again for beers. As the afternoon closed in we took off for Brunswick Heads – next town up from Byron, similar in size, but with a twentieth of the tourists. We were stocked with food and booze, optimistic about finding a campsite, and stopped off for a little rest by a river mouth leading to the ocean.
We parked the car, crossed the grass, and sat on a jangle of sharp black rocks by the water’s edge, clung with oysters. Ben said the oysters wouldn’t be good to eat, being in a river mouth. Minh said they’d be just fine. I said that Minh wasn’t the best judge, given the fact that she ate a bad oyster literally one week before and shat her pants in the middle of the night. We laughed. Then Ben slipped backwards and landed on his arse on the rocks. He stood up and we all had a chuckle, then noticed he had slit his wrist to the bone on an upturned oyster shell.
It happened that fast. Laughing along then bleeding and silence. I remember it so clearly. The moments after were quiet but frantic. His arm began pouring blood. Ben is a hard bastard, his pain threshold is insane; I’ve seen him have his entire chest waxed without a flinch and watched him calmly stub a lit cigarette out on the back of his hand.
“Oh dear,” he said, as blood dripped onto his beige trousers. “That’s not good.”
Action stations. I asked if anybody had a belt; Minh took hers off and tied it around his forearm, which he held aloft as dark red blood ran down in winding narrow rivers. We ran to the nearest local we could find and asked for a doctor. He said the doctors were all closed, but the pub might have a box with some medical supplies. Minh brought the car around and Jeanne searched for hospitals on her phone.
“You’re going to be fine,” said Minh.
“I’m not stupid,” Ben replied. “I know it’s bad.”
We got into the car, threw out the ridiculous pub idea, and hit the motorway – the same motorway we’d come off just ten minutes previously. In another ten minutes we were back in Byron at the hospital. I couldn’t tell it at the time, but I’m sure Ben was in shock. He asked for a beer as we drove along, but Minh told him to stop being stupid – it would thin his blood. He held his bleeding wrist aloft in the car and scrolled through songs on his phone with the other, idly choosing songs for the radio – if you’d peered in the window you’d have thought it was any other drive. We got to the hospital and were met by the two most infuriatingly calm receptionists in the universe.
“Hello,” said Ben, approaching the counter, his tone light, “I’m afraid I’ve just lacerated my wrist.”
“I see,” smiled the receptionist. “And is it spurting?”
“Okay. We just need some information about you. Do you have any insurance?”
“And your name?”
“Great. And – just one second, the computer is loading – and what is your address?”
“Paddy’s Flat Road, Tabulam.”
“It says here you live in Perth.”
“I used to but I moved.”
“Okay, let me just update the system.”
During this interchange I watched the colour draining from Ben’s face. I whispered to him to tell them that he was bleeding a lot. He didn’t seem to hear, instead asking the nurse if he could sit down as he felt funny. I suppose the receptionists are trained to be calm – they must see arms and legs dangling off all the time – but come on, show a little urgency.
Ben was with the doctor for about an hour and a half behind closed doors. The doctor was a large man in a Hawaiian shirt, because Australia just doesn’t give a shit. After two or three anxious cigarettes in the car park, a smiley nurse came out asking if we were a German girl, a French guy and an English girl. We said yes, not bothering to correct her. We went through some double doors and found a much healthier-looking Ben sitting on a bed, bloodstained, smiling, a drip in his arm.
The doctors had numbed his wrist with a huge needle and were pulling out bits of oyster, but the cut missed the artery and nerves and tendons – by about a centimetre. The service was free despite his lack of insurance, because apparently the UK and Aus have a reciprocal free NHS thing going on – otherwise it would have cost thousands. But, sigh, our troubles weren’t over.
Ben told us the bad news: he had to go into surgery tomorrow, up in a larger hospital at Tweed Heads. So we couldn’t head home, and there was still the issue of every campsite being full to bursting. We left the hospital and drove through the night until we were 15 minutes outside of the city, and after trying and failing at the final campsite – turned away in our plight by surly Australian bastard without a jot of sympathy – we put up our tent on the beach. It’s highly illegal, but we didn’t have a great deal of options.
Ben and Minh went to sleep straight away; I sat up a while and watched the moon rise over the sea with Jeanne. I wandered to and fro on the silver beach, bathed under the stars and the roar of the black sea, drank some wine, and went to bed.
We awoke to sunlight streaming in in the morning and gruff Australian voices outside the tent. I crawled out, bleary eyed, and marvelled a while at the cerulean ocean ringed with palms before turning to see the inevitable: dune patrol.
The dune brigade told us we needed to pack up before the council arrived or it’d be a thousand dollar fine. For such a vast country, you can’t put a tent fucking anywhere in Australia without some jobsworth rocking up and telling you to clear off. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit awake on the beach all night, but the minute you fall asleep, you’re breaking the law. Blegh.
We were packing away the tent when the council rocked up. A lady watched me rolling up the tent, and asked if we had been camping there.
“No,” I said. “We were just about to put the tent up, but we have decided against it. We’ll be leaving now.”
We shot off and took Ben for his operation in the morning. Minh took him inside and didn’t reappear for about two hours, leaving me and Jeanne to grow awfully bored and crack open 10am beers in desperation. After a lifetime Minh rejoined us and as a trio we went to the beach for a few hours. Finally, some peace? No. There were high winds and sand was whipping everywhere. In the end, we napped on the sands and drove home in the late afternoon – minus Ben, who had to stay overnight in the hospital.
It was probably the least successful weekend trip of my life, and believe me I have had some horrendous weekend trips. But it’s a mad story to tell, and if nothing else it bonded us even tighter.
It seems it might take me a little while to readjust to life in the big wide world.