Preliminary disclosure: I am a city cliché in the country. Everything I am about to say probably attests to this fact, but I still want to make the point that I do know how – ahem – green I am in the country.
So. Le Grand Tour has begun, admittedly in the most unexpected places. In the month since I last posted, it’s fair to say we’ve had a hell of a time. Actually getting out the door turned out to be a huge, unrelenting, laborious undertaking, so much so that we’ve left Sydney without saying goodbye to practically anyone, including close family and friends. Depleted doesn’t really capture the prevailing mood by Moving Day. All this really deserves its own post, and I hope to get the chance soon to write one, but right now we’re at Llew’s uncle’s farm, Kerang, outside Coolah, and I find I must first tell you about that.
I’ve just returned from my first run since Palm Beach, where Llew and I both took shameless advantage of the presence of Master J’s grandparents by going for nice long runs each of the two mornings we spent there decompressing. Since then we’ve spent two nights in Tenambit, near Maitland, staying with friends, and another in Merriwa (pronounced merry-war, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) at the carefully restored and wonderfully welcoming B & B on Bettington, run by the indefatigable team of Pam and Pete. More on both stays later – for now I want to talk about the run.
I just ran on a sealed road for 40 solid minutes – the main road in these parts, between Coolah and Neil Rex – and was passed by ONE vehicle. One. A single car: white 4WD obviously, as they are practically compulsory once you cross the Hawkesbury River. And while part of me definitely appreciates the profound change of conditions, there’s always another response too whenever I’m in the country, and it’s the one that feeds my fundamental unease. I completely understand how those pink-skinned wives of early settlers, fresh off the boat from London or some other crowded English city, must have recoiled in horror upon being delivered to the dusty isolation of the Australian bush. While I am more than capable of looking around all these vast open spaces, taking a deep breath and happily surrendering to the awe-inspiring scale of the landscape – it’s an inevitable part of one’s response, I think – for me there’s always a flipside. The magnitude of silence – though of course it’s never silent; I mean more the absence – becomes vaguely menacing to me. In the absence of more vehicles – as in more people – that single 4WD seemed potentially threatening.
‘Who would hear me scream?’ I asked myself as the car thundered past.
That kind of warped thinking is absolutely typical of my country paranoia. Where other people find peace and tranquility, I silently calculate all the many ways I might die out here. Long grass is a very fine thing in the country – it means there’s been rain, and it means there’s plenty of food for the animals – but I still get jumpy whenever there’s too much long grass and too few people in the area available to search it. ‘They’d never find me,’ I think. Yep. There it is again.
In my defence, I am not the only one who’s nervous out here. Cows grazing along one of the roadside fences thunderously bolted at the mere sight of my running by. Sheep in the next field looked up at the sound of my approach, stared dumbly at this inexplicable sight and then ran off, en masse, in the opposite direction. Galahs and cockatoos screeched warnings down the line of trees, with the occasional noisy takeoff signalling a herald’s departure to deliver the message further afield. A desultory eagle soared overhead then vanished, its abrupt disappearance disconcerting in the open skies. Along the roadside, creatures unseen kept rustling leaves; everything out here as skittish as me.
The air out here is completely different to Sydney’s humidity. The heat is so dry it rasps at the back of my throat. Suddenly copious snot blows thick and green into the many balled tissues I have accumulated since we first left Sydney. Unfortunately I think Master J has inherited my sinuses – right now he too is little more than a headful of brilliant lime mucus. I thrive in tropical heat; here my breathing labours and I begin to feel the tightness asthmatics must live with every day. My sense of being out of place here is acute.
And yet its charms are many, and I find my first reaction of yesterday afternoon – sour dismay at the thought of a Whole Entire Week Out Here with Absolutely Nothing to Do – has already entirely receded. It is peaceful. And while I was solely responsible for shattering the silence last night – when flushing the toilet dislodged two frogs, one of them gigantic, who suddenly slid into the bowl from their hiding place under the rim with a fat sloppy splash I won’t soon forget – the calm stillness has been all but unbroken since, and I find it begins to calm and still me too, as the country casts its spell over my reluctant city self.