Return to Country

Return to Country

 

Dad’s already nodding off in the back seat by the time we reach the ring-road. Silver head bobbing gracefully in the rear-view mirror.

 

He was Terang’s answer to Tom Jones back in the day. Woolly, curly hair, side-burns, tall.

 

I’ve seen a grey photo of dad in his early twenties maybe, leaning against a ute with mates, squinting into the sun, lake in the back ground. Part handsome, part goofy.

 

Dad was boarding at St Pat’s, Ballarat, when he became sick and was brought home. After his convalescence, Pop put him to work in the butcher shop full-time. He was fifteen. Jock and Adrian, dad’s brothers, were about the same age when they started.

 

Just gone 79, Dad reckons he’s the longest-living Starkie, although I reckon Jock might outlast him in the end.

 

Mum’s beside me in the passenger seat, already planning the next trip to Melbourne. With restrictions lifting, they’ll return in a fortnight for my niece Zoe’s First Holy Communion, followed by Eloise’s, the next Sunday.

 

Mum’s life sources: grandkids and Catholicism.

 

Dad likes to boast they first met when he fell out the front door of The Middle Hotel one Saturday night. Mum was teaching at St Thomas’s at the time.

 

I haven’t been through Terang in years – I prefer the Hamilton Highway to the Princes – but last I knew, the shop – on the left-hand side when entering town from the west – is a take-away. BUTCHER still carved from stone in the front façade, above the big window.

 

You can see the family home when travelling through on the train. From memory, weatherboard, white, compact on a big block.

 

Mum and Dad have been in town for the week. They couldn’t get in the car quick enough once restrictions started lifting. That bloody Dan Andrews.

 

Mum drove to Bannockburn and left the car at Aunty Helen’s, her last surviving sibling. My sister Anne collected them and drove the rest of the way to Melbourne. It’s been a week of chasing the kids, Dad’s birthday, and nephew Luke’s Year 12 exams.

 

Mum’s family, the Clearys of County Clare, brought God, Ireland and sheep to Elaine, near Meredith, where they built the first church. At the final parish mass about a decade ago, a Vietnamese priest delivered the sermon, Uncle Tom read, and afterwards, the congregation drank tea and ate slice and triangle sandwiches in the local hall. Green and yellow balloons hung from the walls.

 

It’s been a wet and dangerous spring. Reservoir looks like it’s been turned upside down. Trees were uprooted and snapped in half by the winds earlier in the week. The clean-up has started: yellow tape wrapped around the fallen debris. There are weeks of work ahead.

 

When we pulled out this morning, the temperature was already nearing 30 degrees and an ominous northerly cut across the wetlands. More rain is predicted for later.

 

The Melbourne-Geelong Road is usually barren and spiritless. Today, the paddocks are a washed green and even the You Yangs, which always remind me of Dad – big, reliable, back from the road – have life in them.

 

At Aunty Helen’s, we check out the new fridge and sit on the veranda.

 

Aunty Helen and Uncle Rob’s house used to be the last on the Warrnambool side of town. Once empty paddocks are now housing estates and a Prep-12.

 

With Mum and Dad in front, we convoy west along back roads, through Shelford and Teesdale. Paddocks are full of growth, and fat, spare raindrops explode on the windscreen.

 

We stop for sandwiches at the Blue Yabby Café, Lismore. The rain has passed over and dark clouds slip away to the north. As always, the further south-west we travel, the temperature drops and we’re met by a stiff south-westerly.

 

We crest Mortlake Road hill and Warrnambool stretches reassuringly in front, the Southern Ocean beyond. I leave one world temporarily and enter another.

 

Mum and Dad down-sized into the middle of town two years ago. A few blocks from everything: bowls club, coffee, doctor, beach, the street.

 

Dad walks to the newsagent each morning for the papers. He hasn’t been able to play bowls since his stroke, but sits and watches the mid-week pennant.

 

I catch up with mates and learn about the plans for a new surf club. Rumour has it, over a game of golf, the local federal member whispered to get the bid for funding in by March. Any later is too late – we’re going to the polls.

 

I stare out at Lady Bay: perfect half-moon shape, concrete breakwater to the right, misty, sloping coastline of the Great Ocean Road far away to the left.

 

At St Pius X, West Warrnambool, we show our vaccination certificates in the foyer and spread out in the pews like a scene from The Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks’ historical novel about the black death of 1666, and wave across the church during the sign of the peace.

 

For dinner, we eat silverside and vegies with mustard sauce; left-overs in sandwiches for lunch next day.

 

I hear who’s died, who has dementia. I visit a neighbour, retired dairy farmer, who has just buried his mother. We sit in his front room and watch the racing channel with the sound turned down. The silence has a weight to it. I can feel his loneliness.

 

The nights are quiet, except for the ghostly Melbourne train as it pierces the darkness.

 

In the morning, I’m loading the car when Dad starts talking. It’s getting more difficult, he says. Maybe we should move to Melbourne.

 

You can’t, I tell him in a mild panic, as much for myself as he and Mum. You’re Warrnambool people. Country people.

 

So am I.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Daryl Schramm says

    Andrew. Some of the place names are unfamiliar, but the story is engaging. I enjoyed the read considering I’m feeling a melancholy at the minute. We are all getting older. Thanks for posting.

  2. Observations. Events. A narrative without a conclusion. More questions than answers. Just like life.
    Thanks Andrew. Keep on keeping on.

  3. Glorious stuff, Starkers.

  4. Evocative. Engaging. A beautiful insight to people and place. Well done Andrew. You had me with you on that journey. And the ending just nails it.

  5. Thanks Andrew thoughtful and certainly asks plenty of questions-ironically opening the borders has caused far more problems here in SA confined to home today now it will certainly be a weird Xmas day )

  6. Peter Fuller says

    Andrew,
    Thank you for this piece. It evokes many memories for me. I’m a few years younger than your father, but would guess I saw him play when I was a young tacker in the Colac district. My memory of the Terang bloods was that they were a ferociously competitive team, punching well above their weight – as a small town team.
    Catholic faith was also central to my childhood so those references have special meaning also.
    After 55 years in Melbourne, I’m now back in a version of the western district, although Torquay these days is virtually suburban Geelong, which in itself is just about an extension of Melbourne. Our re-location is enabling me to hook up with extended family in Colac and beyond. As my wife’s family have Mortlake connections, I’m also familiar with the road trip you describe.

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful Andrew. You can take the boy out of the country.

    The Blue Yabby Cafe is a beauty.

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