18) 1991-1993. 10 Osborne Court, Tin Can Bay (outskirts) QLD 4580

I don’t want to break the happy image of a sleepy, quirky seaside town so soon, but: Dale found us.

How? Well, sometimes a person like that can intimidate the information out of friends and loved ones. Sometimes a person like that knows their partner so well they just know, almost instinctively, where to find them. And sometimes a person like that has a sister who works for the Child Support Agency within Department of Human Services, who knowingly and illegally accesses government records so that their drunk, abusive brother—a repeat perpetrator of domestic violence—can track down his victim. Sometimes that happens.

[SIDEBAR: Think about the above paragraph next time you’re having a discussion about domestic violence and feel compelled to say, or even think, “Why don’t the victims just leave? There’s help out there. There’s always a way. If they wanted to get out bad enough, they’d find a way.” It’s not that simple. My mother did “just leave”. She “just left” over and over and over again. Every time, he found us. He found us because the department of the federal government that had the specific function of assisting and protecting children of separated parents failed. Look. You can run away in the dead of night. You can buy a cheap car in cash so there’s no record, and use it to flee to the other side of the country. You can dye your hair and you can change your name and you can run and run and run but unless you plan to live entirely off the grid like a doomsday prepper; if you want to maybe collect enough welfare to feed your children or pay your rent or hell, even pay tax on whatever job you manage to get, you have to tell the government who and where you are. And if, for example, your abuser has a relative within the government who will happily retrieve this information for them, then you can never hide, and you can never escape. My family’s story is just one example. ONE. There are a thousand scenarios in which “just leaving” is impossible. So don’t be ignorant. Domestic violence is a vile epidemic, about which not even close to enough is being done. And if you ever—EVER—feel compelled to lay even the slightest bit of blame for a domestic violence situation at the feet of the victim, know that you have just become part of the problem.]

Okay, hackles down; this story isn’t a Dale horror story. You just need to know that he found us and was part of our lives again, and was the reason for this next move.

See, sleepy quirky seaside towns don’t have a huge range of employment opportunities, so within a few months Dale started angling for us to move to Townsville. As I was in the very rare position of actually enjoying my school life (Justin had long-since transferred elsewhere and I’d learnt to carefully walk around every pine tree I saw), it was decided I would live with my grandparents, on their five-acre property ten minutes out of town.

Osborne

This one is all on Google. Their Street View camera didn’t go up Osborne Court, so this is as close as I can get. We were about two-thirds up the road, on the right hand side. Damon Stiller (one of the three coolest kids in school, mentioned in the previous story) lived at the very end. The one good thing about living here was that he and I became actual friends. The three greatest words in the English language: “cool by association.”

It would be good to experiment with some stability. Maybe stay put for just a little while. Try spending a whole year at one school, even. So mum, Dale, Lauren and Tommy moved to Townsville, and I moved in with my grandparents. My grandparents! Every kid’s dream, right?

Eh.

See, my grandparents didn’t want to spoil me. They wanted to “fix” me. What, exactly, was wrong with me? I think I know, but can’t really state it without drawing a long and hurtful bow. At any rate, what should have been a refreshing period of childhood stability, with the added bonus of full! time! grandparents! instead became an intense period of cult-like reprogramming, with full. time. grandparents.

For a start, I was plunged into pop-culture Siberia. I was, from a ten-year-old’s standpoint, cut off from the outside world. Afternoon TV was out (only “ferals” watched afternoon TV), morning TV wasn’t even mentioned, and weekend TV was simply an unfathomable concept. The news was watched almost exclusively from 6pm-8pm every night (the local news, then the national news, A Current Affair, and then over to ABC for The 7:30 Report), and then bedtime was 8:30pm; a rule that was never, ever, not ever, not even once, negotiable.

For a little while, I was allowed to watch reruns of Bewitched between 5:30 and 6pm. I adored Bewitched. But after recounting a dream in which I’d had magic powers just like Samantha, I was lectured about becoming “worryingly attached” to the show, and it was banned as well.

bewitched

Look, I’m not saying this would have worked, but if you hold secret fears your grandson will turn out gay, maybe DON’T cut him off from the only woman he’s ever been in love with?

It wasn’t all bad: my appreciation for British comedy, today fierce and enthusiastic, came from having zero alternative entertainment options available. Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life, two shows that aired on ABC in that giddy half-hour between the end of The 7:30 Report and the non-negotiable bedtime, are two of my favourites to this day. (Bewitched is also still a favourite: my love can’t be quelled so easily.)

But it also meant that for the next twenty years, I would draw a blank on any reference to TV, film or music from 1991-1993. Nirvana exists to me only as a thing I’ve read about in books, like Woodstock or the Renaissance. Ren & Stimpy escaped me completely. To this day there are still episodes of The Simpsons that are unfamiliar. I never found out what happened to NKOTB. I can’t claim a side in the early Sega/Nintendo wars. I was so out of step with what everyone else my age was doing, it took me years to catch up, which cemented my place on the outskirts of society for the rest of my adolescence.

Now, I admit that not keeping abreast of the cultural trends of the early 1990s is a small price to pay for some stability in life. BUT: I didn’t get that either. Within months of moving in with my grandparents, they’d started scoping out farms to move to in some of Queensland’s deeper recesses. The very reason I had moved in with them was at risk of becoming entirely redundant. Weekends were spent making trips to places like Murgon and Gayndah and Nanango, touring paddock after paddock of identical looking dry grass; inspecting run-down farmhouses that looked like they were only held up by optimism; and being forced to nod with acknowledgement at every shed, mill and workshop that was pointed out to me with the promise that it was there I would be “put to work” and “made into a man”.

“Made into a man.”

That’s what they were trying to “fix”. That’s the “long and hurtful bow” I’m hesitant to draw.

I may have still been 12-13 years away from realising I was gay, but I already knew I didn’t quite “fit in”. I didn’t fit in in country towns. I certainly didn’t fit in on farms. I didn’t fit in with the ideals of my grandparents at all, and I think they knew this. I think at least part of the reason they were looking at farms at all was because they could see a round peg in the making, and they wanted to cram me into a square hole while they had the chance.

All I knew is that there was nothing I wanted less than to live on a farm. Every one of those weekend trips made me feel sick for weeks afterward.

They tried to “fix” me in other ways, too. On top of being separated from the one constant in my life — my mother television — and having the threat of becoming a Nanango farm-boy hanging over my head, I was also pushed into a range of tasks and activities that would “make [me] a man”. I was put in the Scouts. I was made to watch a chicken get beheaded, which I then had to pluck and gut by myself. I was confirmed with the Church of England (even though I had been christened with Uniting Church, which my mother specifically picked because it was the least committal of all the churches. She had actually wanted as little religious indoctrination as possible, so this was also a total betrayal to her).

I was made to do various sporting drills in the yard, because I wasn’t “good enough” at sports. One time I was forced to race my grandfather across the yard, and was cruelly mocked when he beat me. So I had to practice running. Back and forth, across the yard. “Run until you’re faster.” Similarly, I was given cricket bowling drills: I don’t mean we played cricket, I mean I had to bowl the ball to nobody in the middle of the yard, retrieve it, and bowl it again. Over and over. I didn’t even like cricket.

During one of these drills, when I went to retrieve the ball, next to it on the ground was a red-bellied black snake. It was thrashing around angrily. I thought I had hit it with the ball. I screamed and sprinted back to the house, sobbing in terror: when I got there I was immediately berated for running away. Look, yes, I know I should have stayed perfectly still, because if it had bitten me, running would have pumped venom through my system so much faster, but on the other hand go fuck yourself, I was eleven years old and terrified of snakes. Maybe ask if I’m okay first, then start shouting at me for “being a bloody girl”.

IT’S OKAY TO BE AFRAID OF THIS. ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE ELEVEN YEARS OLD AND NOT WEARING ANY SHOES AND HAVE ASSUMED YOU’VE JUST ENRAGED IT BY CLIPPING IT WITH A CRICKET BALL.

(For the record, it wasn’t a black snake I had hit with a cricket ball, it was two black snakes, and I hadn’t hit either of them. They were mating; angrily and passionately. They didn’t even notice me. This is great from a “child not wanting to get bitten by a venomous snake” perspective, but TERRIBLE from a “trying to tell a dramatic story full of hurt and fear” perspective.)

The only reprieve I got from full-time Becoming A Man training was weekends spent with my Dad down in Brisbane. Every few months Dad and my stepmother Fran would drive up to collect me, and I’d spend the weekend being an actual kid. They’d take me to normal kid places: The movies. McDonalds. Movieworld. (I’m sure there were places that didn’t start with M too.) These weekends were fun. And they felt so decadent. They were like booster shots of pure joy. I wish it had occurred to me how much better it was with Dad than it was with my grandparents; I would have asked to stay with him.*

But it didn’t occur to me. Because—and this is perhaps the worst part—I thought it was normal. I thought I deserved the constant haranguing, the pressure to be different. I thought there was something wrong with me that needed fixing.

And, for the record? I was already a pretty good kid. I was a straight A student. I never got into trouble. I was sent on an inter-school writer’s camp “for gifted and talented children” (yes, I did a little hair toss as I typed that). I graduated as Dux of Tin Can Bay State School. But none of this was enough. I was never enough.

So, did my grandparents succeed in “making” “me” “a man”? No, because that’s not a thing that can be done. I did grow up into a man, but they get little to no credit for that. They get credit for teaching me to to chop wood and light a fire and change a car tyre, for which I’m grateful. But gender is not binary and activities are not gendered: being able to do those things doesn’t make me a man, it just makes me useful.

And if the goal was to make sure I only did “Man” things to steer me away from “Woman” things? Well, I also know how to crochet and apply eyeliner and make fudge, and in the last musical I did, I learnt to put on my own bra, so: suck it.

*Apparently it had occurred to my Dad. The depressing epilogue to this story can be found here.

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17) 1991. GROPER Street, Tin Can Bay QLD 4580

Leaving Marlin Way was difficult. Not because I’d grown any great attachment to the flat, but because we were moving to “GROPER” Street. GROPER. One who gropes. It’s not even spelled the same as the fish. THE STREET NAMES WERE SUPPOSED TO BE NAMED AFTER FISH.

Because my family members are all mature and reasonable and would never let a thing like street names get us down, we took to our new address with grace and humility. Nah just kidding, we all sulked about leaving Marlin Way 24/7 and refused to say GROPER St properly, choosing instead to only ever spit it out in a guttural bark: GROPER. That’s why it has been written in all-caps since the story heading. Tradition. Grace and humility. GROPER.

tincanbay2

I fail again: I can’t find house we lived in. Instead, here’s a map showing all the lovely street names available in Tin Can Bay. There’s Marlin Way, obviously. But Emperor Street! Coral Trout Drive! At the top there, Squire Street becomes Oyster Parade! Such magical whimsy! But no. We were on GROPER. I’m still not okay. I will never be okay.

While I had clearly failed as a casanova at Tin Can Bay State School, I had miraculously managed to find some social footing within the student body. In fact, I had had more success at this school making friends and not being a total outcast than I had in many years. It must have been the sea air; everyone was super chill. Even the three coolest kids in school—Scott McLeod, Aaron Hall, and Damon Stiller—gave me the time of day (I’m 33 and I still remember their names: that’s how cool they were.)

Perhaps this sudden rise to popularity—okay, popularity adjacency—went straight to my head. Because it was during my time at GROPER Street I briefly tried on a new in-school persona: hero. This is the story of the first (and only) fistfight I ever got into.

A new new kid, Justin, had arrived at the school. Quiet at first, he turned out to be the worst bully Tin Can Bay State School had seen in a while. And he wasn’t the bulky, push-you-around kind either. He was the mean, wiry, thuggish kind. He was a fighter; all hard-faced and scrappy.

But he didn’t scare me. I had no need to be scared: I had a close-knit band of friends people who didn’t actively avoid me; I was untouchable. Even though I was, at the time, the shortest person in our combined year 5-6 class (and I was in the year 6 half), I had the confidence, I had the calming sea air, and I had the popularity (adjacency) to entirely avoid being a target.

But what of those kids who were targets?

One afternoon I was walking across the oval and I saw Justin attached to the back of another kid, piggy-back style, and was hitting the kid about the head using the kid’s own arms. This would be the ultimate test to my new zero tolerance policy on bullying. Though, if I’m being perfectly honest, it was the first time I had ever witnessed bullying as opposed to being the victim of bullying, so I’m certain I stood staring for longer than I should have, just thinking “wow, so that’s what it looks like”. But I was snapped out of my daze by thoughts of all the times I wish someone had helped me when I’d been bullied, and decided I would do that for this poor kid.

I stepped into the fray. Coolly  and calmly. So cool. The epitome of cool. If, at that moment, something had exploded behind me, I wouldn’t have turned around.

Me IRL

Striding forward, I peeled Justin off the kid’s back and yelled at him to leave [whatever this kid’s name is, he never thanked me anyway so what do I care] alone.

I’ll say this much: technically it worked. I got Justin to stop harassing [whatever this kid’s name is, he never thanked me anyway so what do I care]. In fact, it was almost as if Justin forgot [whatever this kid’s name is, he never thanked me anyway so what do I care] existed. Because all of his attention was focused, with a white-hot rage, at me.

Actually that’s not quite true: most of his attention was focused on the punch he was throwing. Which is probably why it hit me so squarely, and so hard, right under my left eye.

He punched me so hard I lost my balance and fell over.

And this is where I mention that we were standing at the top of a hill.

I rolled down the hill, leaving a tiny trail of cheek blood and tears all the way down. Not that you’d need either trail to find me; you’d need only follow the sound of me wailing, sobbing, howling as I rolled. Like a cross between a car alarm and a hundred guinea pigs.

On and on I rolled, on and on I wail/sob/howled.

Would I ever stop rolling?

Would this indignity ever cease?

Still rolling, still falling, still tumbling ever downward. Gravity is a cruel mistress. Would this hill, a punched face, and the awesome power of Newton’s Laws of Motion carry me straight to hell?

No, I would eventually come to rest. But only because I would roll, spine first, into a pine tree.

pinetree

This is not the actual pine tree that hit me. I assume the pine tree that hit me was cut down. That’s what they do to trees that attack people, right?

Wait, there’s more: the pain in my face and the pain in my back were intense enough that I didn’t even notice that the force of my body hitting the tree had jostled out a dozen or so pine cones, which then rained down on top of me.

The good news is that Justin only threw that one punch. But that’s probably only because he couldn’t find me to throw any more: I was so far away. Down the bottom of a hill. Buried under under a pile of pine cones.

16) 1991. Marlin Way, Tin Can Bay QLD 4580

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.

The beautiful Tin Can Bay. No tin cans in sight, because the name has nothing to do with tin cans: it’s a bastardisation of the Indigenous name “tuncun ba”: “tuncun” meaning “dugong” and “ba” meaning “place of”. (Meanwhile: OMG did I just impart *actual* knowledge on this nonsense website? AM I ELIGIBLE FOR A WALKLEY NOW)

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?

marlin

They bloody LOVE a big front yard in Tin Can Bay.

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.

IMG_0706

L-R: Lauren, Robby’s new(ish) daughter Taren, me, Tommy. Also pictured: the best school uniform I have ever had. The school emblem is seafood! And that was the FORMAL uniform! And it was in my colour! BEST UNIFORM EVER

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:

Dear Chris,
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
Vivienne

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”.