It’s a funny thing how you can create a perfect picture of something in your mind, built up from references in stories and people’s experiences, things you’ve seen on tv and pictures in books. I spent a lot of time throughout childhood imagining Australia. Every letter that came from the other side of the world and through our letterbox with my mother’s name handwritten on the front filled me with awe. I was hooked from the first time this penfriend sent us little gifts with mystical animals on them: bookmarks with strange jumping creatures that couldn’t possibly exist, and an odd thing that looked a bit like an otter with a duck’s beak. They’re real, my mum insisted. It might have been the first moment that I realised there were other landmasses in the world, not just things that lived inside the tv. Not just us and the impoverished nations where you sent your bring-and-buy sale money. There was a land which looked a little like our country, sounded a little like it, but was totally, absurdly otherworldly.
For the remaining years of my childhood, I would nurture a quiet enchantment with this country, not quiet knowing what or where it was, nor with the ability to gauge exactly how far away it was. A large part of this was fuelled with what the tv fed me. If my generation in particular seem to be more intrigued by Oz, it would not surprise me in the least given our tv selection. My favourite shows were ‘Round the Twist’ (Australian), ‘Funhouse’ (hosted by Pat Sharp and 2 beautiful Australian twins), and ‘Lift-Off’ (Australian). The kids’ shows coming out of Oz were the kind that stuck in your mind too. They were totally weird and wacky, and sometimes unnerving. They contained families that lived in lighthouses who were visited by aliens and ghosts and to whom disgusting things would always occur; fantastically catchy theme tunes which I could still sing now; faceless baby dolls in office blocks and talking frilled lizards. It seemed to be especially powerful when you didn’t have a clue what was going on. Aside from the children’s billing, every weeknight after the kids’ programmes finished the set stayed on for neighbours. It showed a world of sunshine, suburbia of a different kind to the gritty sort we had in the UK, and a neighbourhood of people with eternally golden skin and hair. It was enticing to say the least.
Mum’s penfriend was called Sandra, and she was a great source of information. She sent us pictures of her family in the garden amongst flowering trees we didn’t recognise, told us about what the children were up to now, all of them with interestingly un-British names, moved around to different areas with different houses, each one with a pool, just like something off the Neighbours set. I think I felt that she lived somewhere in the future (time and space being easily confused at that age); the world that she inhabited was so fresh and new looking, so free from the historical stone buildings we had at home, and so neat and square and sharp. When Mum lost contact with her it was a huge loss to us all. She sent several letters, all with her return address at the top in case Sandra had misplaced it and couldn’t respond. We never heard from her again. This was someone who had been in contact with Mum since they were both in their teens. They had even met in person once. And now she had vanished from our lives.
I didn’t go to Australia to find Sandra, but I did go in the hope of finding the world that she, and the little tv in our lounge in the Midlands, had gifted to my imagination, and which I had embellished further with time and longing. I got on a plane and I flew to Australia. And I didn’t find it.
I didn’t find it because the place I was looking for doesn’t really exist. I found traces of it in-between towns, heard snippets of it on the wind, and smelt vague wafts of what I thought should be there, but the actual place is a fantasy, not altogether tangible now I’ve seen the real thing. Like watching the film after you’ve read the book, aspects of the original picture have been overlaid with time and reality. Although I can still see the world I thought I would one day visit, it is like a memory of a place I did go to a very long time ago and haven’t been able to find my way back to. And that’s ok.
I can live with the fact that it’s a fiction of my own making, because in the search for this land down under, I have discovered a completely different, wonderfully real one. I could not have foreseen the generous people I have had the chance to meet, and the honour to stay with like family. I could not have known the magic in the air that lingers over Byronshire, the smells of rainforests, the feel of the squeaking sand, the endless miles of empty plains and the sheer scale and difference that marks this country as vast. I have plucked alien fruit fresh from the branches of countless trees, poked the tail of a possum, ploughed a Ute into a plantation, slack-lined in a back yard in Sydney, visited the actual lighthouse from ‘Round the Twist’ (that bit was real), and amassed such a wealth of warm memories that I will always feel glowing inside me in my darkest times. I may not have found what I thought I was looking for, but I definitely found what it turned out I needed.