CDLHA Revisited: Live Long and Proston

Earlier this year there was a callout from a local book publisher for autobiographical stories about growing up in Australia. Turning this blog into a book is The Dream, so I took two of my stories from it, expanded on them, combined them, and submitted it as one piece. It was rejected, which sucks, but hey, it happens all the time. Buuuut I did work hard on it and I’m proud of it and I want to share it. If you’ve already read my blog or seen my show (available on YouTube!), these are stories you’ve read before with slightly more detail. If you’re new here: welcome, and yes this is all true.

By the time I was 33 years old I had moved house 60 times. The bulk of this pinball-like existence happened when I was a child, growing up in various country towns, mostly in Queensland. As an adult I have slowed down somewhat; I am 40 now, and only up to 66 house moves. But I have catalogued every single address, with the intent of telling a story from each one. 

This is a story of the time I spent in the South Burnett region of Queensland; but to get there we have to start in Darwin.

Darwin is where I lived at the end of 1993, with my mother, stepfather, brother and sister. I had just turned 13, and our home environment crackled with hostility: partly because I was the age where my every thought, word and deed was powered by raging hormones, and partly because my stepfather was an evil drunken brute; he beat my mother in secret and tormented me in the open. It was decided that the best way forward was for me to move back to Queensland and live with my grandparents for a while.

I had lived with them before: From mid-1991 until early 1993, on the Sunshine Coast. Originally we had all lived there—grandparents, mum, siblings, drunken brute—in a town called Tin Can Bay. At the time I was in a school I really liked, so when the drunken brute decided we were moving to Townsville, I stayed behind with my grandparents for some stability. Considering I was only in grade six and already attending my twelfth school, the ship may have sailed on “stability”. 

Besides, living with my grandparents wasn’t “stable” so much as “rigid”. Vicious people by nature, and gripped with terror that I might turn out to be gay (they were bigots, but they were perceptive bigots), they had spent those two years trying to mold me into “a real man” through various forms of yard work and social isolation.

By the time I moved back to Queensland, they had long left Tin Can Bay. I ended up in their new home, in a place that for many years I assumed was the worst place in Australia: Murgon. 

I say I had assumed it was the worst place in Australia because for the short time I lived there it felt like a joyless, empty vacuum. (I have since realised that my grandparents themselves are joyless, empty vacuums and I should never have blamed an entire town. I hope they can forgive me, and we can let Murgons be bygones.)

So it’s 1994, I live with my grandparents, my grandparents live in Murgon, and they hate it. It’s important to note they moved there of their own free will, choosing it over literally hundreds of options available to them (if you hated cities, loved dust, and enjoyed the freedom to be as racist as you wanted in public, rural Queensland in the early ‘90s was your Valhalla). They chose to live somewhere they hated, which should tell you everything you need to know about my grandparents.

To really marinate in their misery, they make sure they never go anywhere or do anything. Their only social activity comes in the form of their two friends, Don and Barb. Don and Barb were capital Religious with a capital “God”. I can’t remember precisely what their particular flavour of divinity was, but whatever their religion, it was against it to watch TV or listen to the radio, which instantly made them terrifying to me.

Imagine, then, my growing terror when Don and Barb agreed to assist my grandparents in their never ending quest to experience unnecessary hardship: by renting out their old house to us. Barely three months after I moved to Murgon, I ended up moving again, to an old ramshackle house thirty-five minutes west of Murgon, to the outskirts of a town called Proston. 

Here’s some history on Proston. When the town was first settled in 1910, it was almost impossible to survive. The land was rough and inhospitable, the land was acidic (kurosol soil has a pH of under 5.5!), and water was scarce. The history books casually mention that a railway was built 13 years later which gave the town a lifeline, completely glossing over the fact that means those initial Proston residents JUST RODE IT OUT FOR THE FIRST THIRTEEN YEARS. “It is hot, rough, and dry, and nothing grows here: I tell you what, Mavis, I can only take a decade or so more of this!” It blows my mind. Why did they stay? Where does “admirable tenacity” end, and “cantankerous obstinance” begin? 

The truth is, the grey area in between those two is the cornerstone of the Queenslander spirit. And look, it’s not like Proston didn’t succeed. By the time the railway was operating there were dairy farms, which led to the construction of a butter factory, and legend has it at one stage Proston had its own cinema. So maybe the tenacity was worth it? Small towns and I have never been the greatest of friends, but I have nothing but admiration for the first residents of Proston. 

By the time we moved there, in 1994, the butter factory had been closed for 20 years, the railway had been closed for one, and the cinema was but a whisper on the wind. Nevertheless, 300 residents remained, patiently waiting for the next boom. 

Tenacity/obstinance.

The house we moved into, fifteen minutes outside Proston, had been built by Don and Barb as their newlywed project. When were they newlyweds? Couldn’t say. It could have been five years earlier. It could have been fifty. Maybe they were among Proston’s first residents and they’re immortal, in which case I regret not paying more attention to their religion. Whenever it was, 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 factory-second front doors: ornate, shiny timber slabs with big stained-glass panels in the middle of them. This would have caused a privacy issue, had my grandparents believed in privacy. Every door was adorned with a huge faux-crystal knob: gaudy blocks of perspex made to look like cut diamonds. 

The kitchen looked like someone had torn a kitchen into seven pieces, thrown the pieces haphazardly into a pile, and perched a rangehood on top once the pieces had settled. Every shelf, surface, and gap in the furniture was filled with long-since discarded knick-knacks and books; 85% of them religiously-themed. The house was 30% time capsule, 30% haunted house, and 40% cartoon. If I had lived there under better circumstances, it would have been charming and excellent.

But I wasn’t living there under better circumstances: I was living with my grandparents, in an ecclesiastical shanty perched on ten acres of acidic dirt outside a town so quiet even the train stopped going to it. Do you know how hard it is for a train to not go somewhere? They’re on rails! They usually have no choice!

The worst part of all—the part that made living there a near-nightmare—was there was no TV aerial. Well, why would there be? Don and Barb had never had a need for one. This meant when I was at home, my only connection to the outside world was my battery-operated clock radio, which didn’t pick up any radio stations when I was inside the house. Out of desperation I started taking the radio out of the house, and through trial and error I found the one spot on ten ten whole acres that picked up a signal. It was a small hill with a tree stump on it, and if I sat on the tree stump, held the radio in my right hand and rested my right elbow on my knee, could pick up a very staticky AM station from an unknown source. It was in this Rodin-like pose I first heard Marcella Detroit’s “I Believe”, a song that still fills me with emotion 27 years later because it was, for a short time, the only proof I had the rest of the world even existed.

My grandparents were unphased by the detachment from the world. Forever committed to cosplaying as martyrs who suffered through a difficult life, they thrived on it. They doubled down on it, deciding that we as a family were better off without the “idiot box”; that we would learn how to be “real people”.

So we did the old jigsaw puzzles that came with the house. We read the old books that came with the house. We played that old table-top test cricket game that came with the house; I played it about as successfully as I did the full-sized outside version, much to my grandparents’s dismay. 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 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 just asked if the Queen had ever fingered herself on camera. They were like monarchist sleeper-agents; triggered into action by my impertinent question. The lecture that followed was so intense, and so long-winded, it broke the hitherto completely unbreakable “8:30pm bedtime” rule by twenty-five minutes. 

I still don’t understand the connection, and may never. Outback Queensland is the opposite of Buckingham Palace in every single way, and that’s not hyperbole: that’s just mathematics. 

And even The Queen watches television.

That wouldn’t be the only time my grandparents and I would find ourselves not 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 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, partly because teenagers are little shits, but mostly because the bus was only built to hold 64, and from memory by the time we got to school there were 700 kids on it.

As I lived on Proston-Boondooma Road itself, my options were to either be ready to catch the bus at 7:05am as it began its circuit, 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. 

To cut a long story still pretty long, the bus was essentially a daily riot on wheels. It was bedlam. The bedlam reached its zenith after The Great Milk Carton Incident, when a carton of Nippy’s Iced Chocolate was pegged at the head of someone at the front of the bus. It missed by almost a metre, instead hitting the driver on the back of the head, ricocheting off his head and picking up spin so that when it hit the windscreen it burst, sending a spray of chocolate milk all over both the windscreen and the driver’s recently whacked head. 

Understandably, the bus driver quit that day. And when your town only has 300 residents, spare bus drivers are hard to come by. So the school faculty 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. Teenage hormones or not, I was a goody-two-shoes, and I had been given a task by an authority figure. 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, for the result to 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? That meant tacos, obviously. But why? I don’t know if I’ve properly established this, but my grandparents weren’t in the habit of throwing about “favourites” with abandon. 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 the principal and we found yours, you clever boy.”

Turns out all the “anonymous” 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 Mister Linegar “well this one has to be Christopher’s!” and he agreed. You were the only one with any sense! Everyone was so selfish, you were the only one with any consideration for the bus driver.”

She brought a carefully folded sheet of paper out of her handbag and handed it to me. Not that she needed to, 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]

Without even considering the implications, I corrected her.

“I didn’t write that.”

When I die, I want to be remembered for two things. My honesty, and my stupidity.

She stopped dead in her tracks, halfway to the oven, tray of taco shells still in hand. She stared at me coldly.

“What do you mean, you didn’t write that?”

“I didn’t write it. This isn’t my handwriting. It isn’t mine.”

You wouldn’t have noticed that her grip on the metal tray had tightened, were it not for the fact the curved-side-down taco shells had started rocking.

“But that…was the only good one.”

“They told us there were no good or bad answers. They just 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 flung the tray on the counter, sending the brittle taco shells to their doom as they hit the cabinets, the fridge, the floor and our feet. 

“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 like it owed her money. And while I can’t exactly blame her for thinking I’d write something like that, on accoun t of me being an insufferable goody-two-shoes with a trauma-triggered need to please adults, I did have limits. 

“How dare you,” she continued, without looking up from the book. “There we were, singing your praises to Mr Linegar, 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.

“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.”

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 too, but she was on the other side of the room, committing to her role of tantrum-throwing crossword murderer.

“Why would you write something so stupid?”

“It wasn’t stupid, it was my opinion.” 

“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, signalling the end of my freedom to reply without reprisal. My chain, temporarily slackened, had been yanked back into place. Meanwhile, my grandmother buried herself deeper into the recliner. The conversation was over.

After about half an hour, my grandmother quietly put down the battered crossword book, which had started solving itself just to end the torture, and silently returned to the kitchen to continue making the tacos. Well, the taco shells were all on the floor in shards, so it was more of a lettuce-based beef salad. Not because she felt 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, and by the time we drove there it would also be closed. 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. I never did get a second school bus though, so, swings and roundabouts.

We ended up living in Proston for about three months, after living in Murgon for about three months. After Proston, we would move to a town outside Toowoomba called Crows Nest, where I would stay for about another three months, before moving back to my mum in Darwin.

For about three months.