Fueled by a never-ending thirst for hardship, three months after I arrived in Murgon to live with my grandparents, we moved again. To where? Into an old house outside Proston owned by Don and Barb—they of the no-TV religion! Thirty-five minutes west of Murgon, fifteen minutes out of the town of Proston itself; a town of about 300 or so people.
Here’s some history: When Proston was first settled in 1910, it was almost impossible to survive. The land was rough and inhospitable, and there was no significant water source nearby. It wasn’t until the railway was built, thirteen years after settlement, that the town and its inhabitants had any chance of prosperity. Why did they stick it out for those first thirteen years? Where does “admirable tenacity” end and “bung-eyed stubbornness” begin? Well, that’s the thing: the grey area in between those two is the cornerstone of the Queenslander spirit. Small towns and I have never been the greatest of friends, but I have nothing but admiration for the settlers of Proston. They rolled up to a place that was impossible to inhabit, and decided to inhabit it anyway, because fuck the rules. It was an entire town of proto-punk rockers.
After the railway came the butter factory, but by the 1970s both had closed. And yet the town remains. See? Punk rockers. And good thing too, because otherwise we would have had to drive so much further to buy groceries or attend school.
The house we moved to had been built by Don and Barb many, many years ago. They’d built it without a lot of money, so it was a cobbled mish-mash of odds and ends. Everything was an off-cut they’d nabbed on the cheap. Bedroom doors were actually front door cast-offs: ornate, golden-hued timber slabs with big stained-glass panels in the middle of them (which did wonders for privacy). Every door was adorned with a faux-crystal knob: gaudy blocks of perspex made to look like old-European cut diamonds. The kitchen looked like something Molly Weasley would feel at home in, four years before J.K. even thought her up. Long-since discarded knick-knacks and books filled the shelves; 85% of them religiously-themed (if you ever want to feel SUPER depressed, try reading Mister God, This is Anna). The house as a whole was 30% time capsule, 30% haunted house, and 40% cartoon. It was actually preposterously charming; if I lived there under better circumstances, it would have been one of my favourite domiciles.
But I wasn’t living there under better circumstances: I was living with my grandparents. And worse than that? The thing that made living there a near-nightmare? THERE WAS NO TV AERIAL. Well, why would there be? Don and Barb had never had need for one. And my grandparents, still high on whatever fumes Don and Barb gave off, had no intention of installing one. It was decided that we as a family would live without the “idiot box”, and learn how to engage our brains and have intelligent conversations and be “real people”.
To recap: I was living on unused acreage fifteen minutes drive out of town with no TV. It was as close as you could get, in the mid 1990s, to living in Little House on the Prairie. I grew to understand why Mary Ingalls went blind in that show: for something to DO.
So we did jigsaw puzzles. We read books, even the depressing ones. We played that old table-top test cricket game, which I played about as successfully as I did the full-sized outdoor version (but at least the chance of running into savagely mating black snakes was lessened). And we would talk. That is to say, I would get talked at: usually about how horrible everything was today and how much better they were in the old days; back when Men Were Men And Women Were Grateful.
One evening, during one of our healthy and not-at-all-psychologically-stifling-to-a-thirteen-year-old’s-psyche conversations, I asked about Australia’s attachment to the Commonwealth. It was 1994, and debate about whether or not Australia should become a republic was savage and current. I was genuinely curious.
“Does the Queen actually do anything?”
From the reaction it elicited from both grandparents, you’d swear I’d asked the question while smearing my own shit on the tablecloth.
They were like monarchist sleeper-agents; triggered into action by my impertinent question. The lecture that followed was so intense, and so long-winded, that it broke the hitherto completely unbreakable 8:30pm bedtime by twenty-five minutes. They were so riled up that when bedtime did come, at the unheard-of 8:55pm, my grandmother even forgot to check if I’d done my pre-bedtime pee. And I hadn’t.
This wouldn’t be the first time my grandparents and I would find ourselves not quite on the same page. On some occasions were in fact in two entirely different books, possibly written in different languages.
Like the time the school conducted a survey.
I caught the school bus to Proston’s P-10 state school, which did a long, looping circuit of the surrounding area, starting and finishing with Proston-Boondooma Road. The bus was raucous anarchy, as it was only built to hold 64, and I’m pretty sure 750 or so kids crammed into that thing.
As we were on Proston-Boondooma Road itself, only fifteen minutes out of town, my options were to either be ready to catch the bus at 7:05am, when the bus started its loop, or catch it on the way back at around 8:30. Catching it at 7:05 guaranteed me a seat, but it meant waking up stupidly early, and it meant being the very first kid on the bus. Catching it at 8:30 made more sense from a morning-routine perspective, but it meant being the last kid on the bus, trying to squeeze myself invisibly into the nearest gap, avoiding the hateful eyes from 749 other kids who already felt cramped enough.
Neither option was ideal, socially speaking. Nobody wants to be the first on the bus or the last on the bus. Especially when you’re the weird new out-of-town kid, which was my default setting. Plus, as an added bonus, I still had a giant hole in my face from three missing teeth. (Oh yeah, nearly five months after Boat-Smash ’93, I still hadn’t been taken to a dentist to get my teeth replaced, even though it was covered by insurance, because HEAVEN FORBID ANY ADULT IN MY FAMILY PUT EVEN THE MOST FLEETING HINT OF EFFORT INTO TRYING TO MAKE LIFE JUST A TINY BIT EASIER FOR ME. Ahem.)
To cut a long story still pretty long, the bus was essentially a riot on wheels, every single day. It was bedlam. So when the bus driver threatened to quit after The Milk Carton Throwing Incident, school officials attempted to get to the bottom of the situation by conducting a survey, at school, of all the students who caught the bus. During an assembly, we were all given sheets of paper and told to write out what we thought about the school’s bus service: What was good, what was bad, and how we’d recommend making it better. I don’t know if they were actually trying to get our opinion on the bus or if they were just hoping we’d all anonymously rat each other out, but I took it very seriously. I thought long and hard, and wrote my very carefully worded opinion on the sheet of paper and put it in the box. With everyone’s opinions (or confessions, or alibis, or whatever) compiled, a group parent-teacher afternoon was planned after school, where the results would be discussed.
My grandparents went into town for the meeting, while I caught the devil-bus home and waited for them to come back. When they did come home, a little later than expected, they were all a-tizz with glee. Bustling through to the kitchen with bags of groceries, my grandmother exclaimed “There’s our good boy! It’s your favourite for dinner tonight!”
My favourite? OH MY GOD I WAS GETTING TACOS. But why? I didn’t want to look a gift Mexican in the mouth, but I had to know.
“Why am I a good boy?”
“The survey! Christopher, we’re so proud of what you wrote.”
“But I thought the survey was anonymous?”
“Oh yes, we know. Anonymous. But, you know, we were talking to Mr Finnegan [the school principal] and we found yours, you clever boy.”
Turns out all the survey responses had been laid out on a table for parents and teachers to peruse, like the world’s worst cake stall.
“I picked one up and I knew straight away it was yours. I said to Mr Finnegan “well this one has to be Christopher’s” and he agreed. You were the only one with any sense! Everyone was so selfish, but only you had any consideration for the bus driver.”
She brought a carefully folded sheet of paper out of her handbag and handed it to me. She’d already learnt it off by heart. I’d barely turned the page the right side up before she started reciting it, using the placement of taco shells on the metal tray as punctuation.
“Everyone [taco shell] is cruel to Mr Bruce, [taco shell] who is just trying to do his job. [taco shell, taco shell] I think everyone [taco shell] should leave him alone [taco shell] and just let him drive the bus.” [taco shell, taco shell, little clap of approval, taco shell]
“I didn’t write that.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t write that?”
“I didn’t write it. This isn’t my handwriting. It isn’t mine.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, halfway to the oven, tray of taco shells still in hand. She stared at me coldly.
“But that…was the only good one.”
“There are no ‘good’ ones. It was a survey. They asked for everyone’s opinion.”
“Then what did you write?” she spat.
“I wrote that the bus was too crowded and everyone mucks up because there’s not enough room. I suggested they get a second bus, to either run at a different time, or to split the route in two.”
She dropped the tray on the counter with just enough force to cause the taco shells to skitter off and shatter on the floor, “Well,” she sputtered, “I have NEVER been so humiliated!” Stomping out of the kitchen and into the lounge room, she flung herself into her recliner, snatched at her crossword book and began stabbing at one of the puzzles with such ferocity that the clues probably started trying to solve themselves.
(Look. I can’t exactly blame her for thinking I’d write something like that. I was an insufferable goody-two-shoes, after all. But even I have limits. And “humiliated?” What was actually humiliating was that I, the teenager of the house, was being schooled on petulant tantrums by a 56 year old.)
“How dare you,” she continued, without looking up from the book. “There we were, singing your praises to Mr Finnegan, and it wasn’t even YOURS. You made us look like FOOLS. What will he think of us!?”
At that moment, from somewhere deep within me, the tiniest whisper of a spine winked into existence, and started to grow.
“I never asked you to sing my praises. I never asked you to assume that survey was mine. You weren’t even supposed to try to identify them. Nobody would have written anything if we’d known the parents would all try to find out which one their kid wrote.” Gosh, that spine grew fast.
Miraculously, my grandfather didn’t immediately slap me across the face for talking back. I assume it was less out of silent support for me and more out of fear his taco dinner wouldn’t eventuate. My grandmother probably wanted to slap me, but she was on the other side of the room, committing to her role of sulking chair-bound crossword murderer.
“Why would you write something so stupid?”
“Because I wasn’t asked to write something smart. I was asked to write my opinion.” (Editor’s Note: Good self-burn, idiot)
“It was arrogant, selfish nonsense.”
“Look, I wasn’t asked to write YOUR opinion, I was asked to write mine. If it had said at the top of the page “write what you think will make your principal and grandparents happy”, I would have written something about the bus driver. But it didn’t. It asked what I thought. And I think the bus is too crowded.”
“Well, this is what we get for putting you up on a pedestal in front of your teachers. You deserved NONE OF IT.”
“Fine. Next time they do a survey I’ll bring it home and let you fill it out for me.”
“HEY. You just watch it,” my grandfather barked. Helpful, even-keeled and reasonable as always. Clearly the threshold of spine ownership had been reached.
Meanwhile, my grandmother buried herself deeper into the recliner. The conversation was over.
After about half an hour, my grandmother put down the battered crossword book, which by now was ready to give up all its country’s secrets, and stealthily returned to the kitchen to continue making the tacos (well it was more of a taco salad, as most of the shells were broken). It wasn’t because she felt any remorse, or because she saw my point of view; but simply because it was almost 7pm, and the nearest open shop was in Kingaroy, over 70 kilometres away. If anybody was to eat at all that night, it would have to be the food that was already in the house.
So I still got tacos. And I got a spine. We didn’t get a second school bus, but hey: two out of three and all that.