Since I was a kid I had always considered myself a local Warrnambool girl. I grew up playing on the shores of Lady Bay, slurped an infinite amount of Blitz slushies and lived for the days Mum would say ‘Come on kids, off to the playground.’ My brother and I would charge around the then-cool Lake Pertobe Adventure Park filled with flying foxes, tyre towers and massive cubby houses with slides as secret exits.
All this changed when my parents decided to uproot us and move over the border to Mount Gambier. Crammed into a class with kids I didn’t know and stuck doing Special Ed classes to correct my Victorian Modern Handwriting, I grimly held onto the fact — I was a Warrnambool girl through and through, and no amount of practicing unlinked zs and qs would change that.
If anything, the move cemented my deep passion for civic history. My hometown was cool for so many reasons — a rich history of whaling (the whales forgave us and now return each winter), countless tragic tales of shipwrecks and a big painted cement replica of the Mahogany Ship outside of the local McDonald’s. My cousins, Anthony and Megan, would whinge about going to the local maritime museum each year of school, while my brother and I would glare at them, wishing that we could go there too.
We longed for Lake Pertobe where one day we could be royalty reigning over the cubby house and the next we could be driving a car to Disneyland. Instead of embarking on these quests after school we spent holidays and many weekends doing both local and touristy things — Friday late night shopping, buying CDs from Capricorn Records, playing mini-golf and venturing around cliff tops overlooking the beautiful, but rough ocean. I collected jars full of seaglass to show to my friends back in Mount Gambier, who were always slightly in awe of their smooth texture once the glass had been washed countless times by the waves.
As a teenager Warrnambool became a place to run to — when a high school relationship ended or when I failed Year 12 (rather dismally I may add), it was the one place I wanted to be, to recharge my batteries and look at my life from a different view, preferably in a house with a coastal view and a well-stocked library of children’s books. When it got all too hard, you could just go to Grandma’s place where you would be greeted with a hug, a mug of Milo and a listening ear which didn’t always give great advice but cared all the same.
During one of these occasions, a small but significant problem began. I walked into the public library to use the Internet over summer. “Are you a local or tourist?” the librarian asked.
I felt stuck all of a sudden. “I used to live here.” I say, feeling more like Winnie-the-Pooh who ate too much and became stuck in the hole that was Rabbit’s doorway. She frowned slightly — the lady didn’t want a story, she wanted a straight answer. “I am staying at my Grandma’s for a few days, so I guess it is kind of a holiday.”
“Ah, okay, just write down ‘tourist’ when you sign in then.” She handed me a clipboard and it hit me all at once. I didn’t really belong here anymore. I wasn’t a member of the library, no one sent me mail here and, come to think of it, I really didn’t have any friends there either. What was I doing there? My face betrayed me by burning bright pink. I busied myself with email for a few moments and quickly logged off, avoiding eye contact from the local students surrounding me.
Out in the fresh sea air I took some deep breaths, still feeling a little like Pooh, only this time when he became skinnier and could escape from Rabbit’s place. I began to make my way back home to Grandma’s in order to hunt down that favourite story and to ask Grandma what I actually should have written down on the form.
I unlocked the door and I could hear my grandmother dozing in her favourite armchair. I left her to sleep and began to track down the book, though with all the bits and pieces she has stored, it took awhile. Grandma’s house is a memorial to lives once lived. There’s Megan and Anthony’s old toys, boxes of them, because Grandma says they’re worth a lot of money and she wouldn’t throw them out, even if Baywatch isn’t cool anymore and the remote control never worked on the boat anyway. I mean, there’s no Mitch doll to go with it. Or CJ for that matter. For some reason there’s old baby clothes, an assortment of boogie boards, beach towels and an exercise bike that used to be Mum’s. All these people are still alive and well, they just left part of themselves behind.
Grandma’s house sits in South Warrnambool. She and Pa built it themselves, one room at a time. They lived there when it wasn’t the most desirable place to live: it was the Woollen Mill side of town, it was swampy and it certainly was not close to the shops. And yet, they stayed there and lived a happy life. Each day Pa would walk over to the Mill where he was a foreman and he would come back to have lunch with Grandma. Now South Warrnambool is trendy — there’s town houses where a scrappy old shed once sat. The Woollen Mill is now a swish estate and the local Milk Bar has been converted into a house. Life is good in South Warrnambool but one fact remained, my life was not to be lived here.
After some Pooh philosophy and another one of Grandma’s Milos I decided to pack up my car and hit the highway. Grandma never asked why I didn’t stay at the library for long, and to me this was a relief — I knew that she really wanted be to be a Warrnambool girl again. The only problem was I had applied for an Arts degree in Adelaide and it was there that I really wanted to be — not somewhere full of old memories
Soon life got in the way. My visits home to Warrnambool became less frequent, and holidays were spent in Adelaide and its surrounds. I made for myself a new life, with new friends and new passions. Sure, I called Grandma every day, but I rarely had the desire to walk down to Pickering Point and scour the rock pools for sea glass. I didn’t buy clothes from Taylor’s Surf Odyssey and although I missed the free bananas Materia’s Fruit and Veg used to give out, one thing remained the same — I wasn’t local anymore. And maybe I never really was.
The truth of the matter was that as nostalgic as my trips to Warrnambool were, as beautiful as the coast line was and as tantalising as East Warrnambool Fish ’n’ Chips could be, I was living a life that was never meant to be mine. Despite my best intentions to keep my cursive and my accent, none of those things really mattered anymore. I would always be different, whether I came from Warrnambool or not. Let’s face it, writers, musicians, artists — we’re all misunderstood, I was just aching for a reason behind it. Where I had grown up could not define my life forever or be my reason behind my difference.
What brought me back the very last time was a new friend who wanted to see the Great Ocean Road. We travelled to Warrnambool to begin the journey, and I felt instantly puffed up with pride. I told tales trips to Shelly Beach, the Sound and Light show at Flagstaff Hill and Bo Jangles Pizzas being amazing, and also highly reputable because my Dad worked there once. Suddenly it no longer mattered that I was no longer a Warrnambool girl. The whales were in town, the surf wasn’t be up, but it was be wet, windy and more Warrnambool like than ever during a cold July.
I found myself awake in the early hours, lying in a double bed. I’m tempted to track down Winnie the Pooh but I am far too snug. I’m sleeping on a sheepskin rug and a barely-warm hot water bottle, wrapped in a towel is at my feet. The train whistle blows — it is the 5.40 train to Melbourne. I feel a pang of nostalgia — how many times had I heard that sound as a child and longed to be on that train? As an adult I have caught it many times, but not today. Today Grandma has heard my rustling around and is waiting at the door with a warm mug of Milo. I am home and today there are new memories to be made.