I’m on the other side of the world from my hometown of Brisbane, which is currently, as I type, under a whole bunch of shitty brown water. Watching my hometown being swallowed by an internal tsunami has put me in something of a weird mood. I’m told it’s a lake the size of France. The flood, that is, not my homesick funk, which is probably only as big as me. I’m pretty terrible at geography but I know how big Queensland is and most of it is drowning.
When I was really little we lived in the North of the state, in a place called Ingham: a sugarcane-farming town populated by generations of Italians. If you’re looking at a map it’s a bit west of Townsville, which is considerably north of Brisbane, where we moved to a year or so later. From all the stories I’ve heard about the place no one ever seems to die of natural causes. People are run over by tractors, sucked into machines in sugarcane factories, shot by furious farmers, cracked open at the base of waterfalls, drowned, eaten, disappeared and lost. At best you’re chased out of town at high speed in the night. It’s my mum’s birthplace – the place she fled (of her own rebellious volition) at the age of twenty to move to London, where she found a penniless Glaswegian artist, married him and squeezed out yours truly. In the depths of homesickness she returned to her small country town four years later, with me and my Dad in tow. He was added to Australia’s growing collection of refugeed British men who have been snagged by Australian women. They find each other in faux Irish pubs, where together they specialise in looking awkward in shorts.
I didn’t realise how odd a place Australia is until I moved away from it. I’d never noticed the questionably named Coon Cheese, which pretty much has the monopoly on the cheese aisle, nor the fake snow sprayed onto shop windows in preparation for a hot Summer’s Christmas Day, or even Bert Newton: these are apparently things the rest of the world lives without. It was a regular nightly occurrence to watch hundreds of enormous fruitbats flying so low that you could hear the flap of their wings, and see the moonlight shine through their wingspan like a lightbox, allowing you to clearly identify the spidery veins that held them together. I thought nothing of the fact that you could look out the kitchen window at dusk and see the black grass undulate, nor did I see anything weird about running through the garden to disturb the thousand cane toads that blanketed that grass, just to see them leap in unison. I still chase pigeons in Trafalgar Square, only I wouldn’t pick up a Trafalgar Square pigeon and give it a kiss.
Below the age of six I wore underpants almost exclusively, by which I mean I wore them exclusive of everything else. With my hair styled with blunt scissors by my five-year-old neighbour Heidi, I looked like Mowgli. The astonishing array of bruises on my shins, and the ever-changing cast of excellent knee grazes and stubbed toe guest-stars were not because I was exceptionally clumsy, but because I got up to all manner of shit that didn’t involve playing with dolls. I squeezed through spaces in fences and discovered an abandoned chicken coop that hadn’t been touched since the 1970s. There was an open vat of black tar, still liquid, into which I dropped sticks and stones and watched them slowly disappear, like doomed Woolly Mammoths. I even sunk a My Little Pony I found in the park, a low-budget remake of that scene in The Never-Ending Story. Those few times we went camping I would crush red rocks from the river, mix the powder with a small quantity of water, and paint myself with the results, before leaping boulder to boulder in search of waterfalls or bits of cow. Inevitably I would convince myself that a log in the distance was definitely, unmistakably, indubitably a massive man-eating crocodile and would either hide (for hours) or, if it was close to dinnertime, run for my life, all red and screaming.
My memories of growing up in Australia involve a lot of dirt. I think, despite my Mum’s efforts, I was probably a vague smudgy brown colour for my first few years.
The last big floods to happen in Brisbane were back in 1974, long before I was born. By the time I arrived, floods were not Natural Disasters. They were just temporary, excellent things that filled your garden with a surprise swimming pool that all the adults told you not to go in. For a kid who spent many a stinking hot afternoon sitting on the back steps overlooking next door’s unused crystal-blue pool, this was not a suggestion that was likely to be taken on board.
Our garden flooded yearly in the wet season and would usually get to about waist-height on me. One year, before it disintegrated in the heat, or got lent to someone who took it camping and destroyed it in a creek, we were in possession of a bright yellow rubber dinghy. Every Australian kid knows that rubber dinghys are merely things to transport you to the deepest part of whatever body of water you happen to be near, so you can jump out or get pushed in. I remember that flood being one of the better ones, but my overexcited leap from the boat was not. The floodwater always stunk the same: it smelled of mud, rot and the damp underneaths of things – and so did I, when I eventually emerged. Swimming around me was all manner of detritus; worms, crisps packets, newspapers, branches, and the ubiquitous bit of rope that would instinctively entwine itself around a stray ankle, the owner of which would barely touch the water’s oily surface as she sprinted full pelt back to the house, screaming “SNAAAAKE!”
I doubt it ever got so bad that actual sewage made it into my brown backyard pool but that seems to be the case now. It’s surreal watching things unfold on the news – it doesn’t feel like my city. The stuff about a bull shark swimming through a street, the aerial view of Suncorp Stadium looking like a bubbling cauldron: it’s more like one of those disaster film posters where they do a different version for the city they’re advertising it in. But still, it doesn’t help it make any sense to me. I cannot compute. So I’ve switched to following the #QLDFloods hashtag on Twitter, preferring to see people twitpic-ing photos of what they can see from where they’re standing: their flooded backyards.
I understand backyards.