It had been a year since my great-grandmother’s stroke, and while she was doing okay, she needed constant care. It was time to think about moving to a climate that wasn’t so unforgiving on septuagenarians. My great-grandfather (“Dard”) asked her if there was anywhere she’d rather be. “I want to go to Tin Can Bay,” was the reply. So off they went. My grandparents were pretty involved in looking after them by this stage, so off they went too. Mum, Lauren, Tommy and I needed very little convincing to attempt to give escaping Dale another shot, so off we went as well.
Four generations of a family, all pulling up stumps together and heading for the coast: It was like an Amy Sherman-Palladino TV show ten years ahead of its time.
A sleepy seaside town, Tin Can Bay was a world a hundred worlds away from Mount Isa. It was so beautiful. The ocean was close. The salty air was everywhere. Milk was still only $1.89 (as opposed to the whopping $2.24 it was in Mount Isa, which is the price you pay for being an 11-hour drive away from the nearest major port). And with the right antenna you could pick up FOUR WHOLE CHANNELS ON YOUR TELLY. Not two, FOUR. We didn’t have said antenna, but just knowing it was possible was enough.
(I’ll give away my bias right now: of all the places I’ve lived, Tin Can Bay is in the top three. And until I got to Brisbane [at this stage, still another seven years away], or to Melbourne [nineteen years away], it was hands-down number one.)
My grandparents and my great-grandparents ended up on a five acre property ten minutes out of town, while the rest of us found a small flat in Marlin Way, which: I mean, if you’re going to live in a town where all the streets are named after fish, you’ve pretty much struck the jackpot with “Marlin Way”, haven’t you?
We lived in the house in Marlin Way on a temporary basis only. It was a sort of emergency housing. Why a town of 1500 or less had “emergency” housing, I don’t know. What kind of emergency could Tin Can Bay possibly have that extra housing was required? I can’t see the Cooloola Coast Flower Show being that big. But they had it, and it gave us somewhere to stay while a suitable rental presented itself. We were only there two and a half weeks.
I enrolled about a third of the way through grade six at Tin Can Bay State School.
Now, the same thing happened every time I started a new school: On the first day I was stared at silently, and any time from day three to day ten I was assigned my role by the student hivemind: weirdo, nerd, or sissy. But what of the days in between? Oh, they were a giddying, wonderful period—a blissful time of dreaming, where I was considered exotic and new. For up to two magical weeks the other kids would admire and revere me like some kind of dashing explorer from distant lands. I was John Smith, and they were all Pocahontases. (Pocahontasi. Pocahontodes. Pocahontae. Whatever.)
For some, “exotic and new” is synonymous with “desirable”. Which is why, half way through my second week at the school, Vivienne came over to my house. Vivienne was in my class, and also lived on Marlin Way. Out on the footpath, at some time between 6pm and 6:30pm (I remember because the news was on), Vivienne handed me a note. The note read:
You are the cutest boy. All the girls want to go out with you but I want to the most. Will you go out with me?
YES | NO
Now, I had had a girlfriend when I was in grade four. At Central State School in 1989, Sheridan L. (whom I’d actually met in grade two at Happy Valley State School in 1987) and I spent an entire big-lunch kissing in the beehive-shaped jungle gym. But that was a brief period of free love: I may have started early, but I had stalled not long after that and had long since pruded right up.
By the time 1991 rolled around I had no idea what to do with a love note written by a girl standing right in front of me. Which is why I flung the note over my shoulder and ran around the house in a panic. I’m not being poetic, I literally sprinted a lap of the house, which unsurprisingly led me right back to where I started: standing in front of Vivienne. Only now I was panting. The note lay on the grass between us, where I had flung it. Vivienne, either polite to a fault or slow on the uptake, looked at me expectantly and asked “Well?”
As maturely as I could, and with as much diplomacy as I could muster, I half brayed, half whinnied “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” and ran inside, slamming the door behind me.
You will be unsurprised to learn that I was quickly assigned the dual roles of “sissy” and “weirdo”.