By Callum McLean
Before I moved, those cardboard boxes in the corner were hard to ignore; they were the elephants in the room, waiting to be filled. I did not want to think about when I had to fill them.
Humbug Scrub, in comparison to the looming suburbs I was moving to, felt like the end of the world. There is one road in, and one road out. There is nothing there but the rural families who moved their kids out there to experience country life while the rest of the world went on without them. There was a pine forest, but it was logged, and all that is left is a sea of stumps and a few bent saplings that survived the chainsaws.
To me, Humbug Scrub is the ultimate symbol of broken dreams. The people who came to live here are the definitive modern incarnation of the British settlers who, unlike their convict counterparts in the East, came here in the 1700s intentionally with the sole purpose of making a life for themselves. Did they find, as I have, that nothing here was like they thought it would be? Did they discover that a life in the heat, removed from society, was totally impractical? Perhaps they were persuaded by visions and dreams of an idyllic life, like my parents were. I have long held the belief that Humbug Scrub is where the Australian dream – if there ever was such a thing – came to die.
If you go to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are plenty of examples of Australian patriotism. At the entrance, though, across from the Memorial Courtyard and inside the Hall of Memory, you can see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is not an Australian construct – the idea of tombs dedicated to nameless soldiers is represented across all cultures. As Benedict Anderson notes in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, ‘these tombs are […] saturated with ghostly national imaginings.’ Though the exterior purpose of the tomb at the Australian War Memorial is to commemorate the nameless dead of war, as is the purpose of every one of these tombs, the underlying implications run far deeper. It is filled with the national consciousness of Australia. The tomb is important precisely because it is empty, and it is empty because this country has nothing to fill it with other than half-baked ideas of an Australian heritage.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. I have a deep respect for such memorials for the dead, and whilst I am not an advocate for war, I do not want to sully the memory of those that gave their lives for Australia. But the country they were dying for was not yet formed; still clinging to Britain as the homeland, ‘Australia’ is something that is hastily defined. Devoid of any cultural background other than our European slave and settlement roots, our collective consciousness, our concept of being Australian, is entrenched not in the past but rather interminably attached to the present.
Twenty years ago, there was virtually nothing on Lot 5 Bassnet Road, Humbug Scrub – my childhood home. Apart from the wire fence marking out the boundary, all that existed there was the grass and the trees. The seeming idyllic nature of the property was the thing that drove my parents to buy it. They already had one child, my sister, and another coming – me. This was going to be the family home. Here they could live as if there were no fences; the boundaries of their minds were not marked, they were open and expansive, offering a surfeit of freedom and fresh air.
My father is not big on making grand statements, but if he were he would have called this place his legacy. He built the house to his specifications, eschewing the airless design of his own childhood Federation home in favour of an open floor plan. I grew up listening to stories about how my family had had to live in a tin shed for years before they could save up to build their “dream home”; one particular story saw both my mum and dad’s extended family standing in a line on the wire of one of the paddock fences for tension, while my dad pummelled the wooden posts into the ground. The hilarity this image conjured up was good fun for everyone but me; these were not my stories. They were before my time. I could never shake the feeling that the good days at Humbug Scrub had been before I was born.
Imagined Communities presents the idea that, whilst communities can have a physical dimension, they are also constructed concepts that exist within a homogeneous group – people who think alike, talk alike and act alike.
Australia, and the concept of what it is to be “Australian”, is arguably an imagined community. The white population of Australia all have, or are expected to have, a pre-determined way of looking at things and living their life; grow up, get married, get a house, have kids and settle down by the river with your motorboat and kneeboard. Idyllic, but entirely ignorant of the swathes of Australians who do not fit this mould. This is entirely up to personal opinion, but to my mind the modern Australian is less inclined to get married and have kids. Many modern Australians, due to their sexual preference, are not even able to get married. And it is important to note that today’s Australia is populated not only by white people, but a melting pot of races that come here for the benefits of living in a first world country and, arguably, to live the dream that our imagined Australia persists. The view that the entirety of Australian is a desert paradise is false. We are not a land of open countryside and sunny skies, and the view that Australians live in such conditions is ignorant of the vast majority of Australians who live in major cities and neighbourhoods. Australia does not exist in the country as our advertising campaigns would love to have the world think – it exists in the suburbs.
The day we left Humbug Scrub – “Moving Day” – started as any other, but quickly degenerated as we delayed actually leaving. As more furniture was loaded on the truck, I started to realise just how much we had accumulated over the years. It was extraordinary really. When our furniture was inside I barely took any notice of it, but when it was taken out and stacked carefully in the truck like a complex jigsaw puzzle I saw the past nineteen years very clearly.
In fact, the whole process of moving makes you see your house in a whole different way. You start noticing and appreciating things you never did, as if you were dying. On the very last night I went outside and saw the purple setting sun silhouetting the scrub, and thought to myself I will never see this again.
The room I had lived in all my life brought up its own groundswell of emotions. When everything was removed from the room, there were only the bare bones of it. The paleness of my blue walls struck me; I did not realise before how much colour the sun had drained from them. Why did I not notice this before? Reason tells me it is because I did not care before. But the former glorious blueness of my blue bedroom walls was all I could think about. I felt like this was my colour; this was where I started, and this was where I should have ended too.
I did not associate happy memories with this house, so I was left inexplicably dumbfounded by the fact that I was so sad to be leaving it. Is it that it has an association with nostalgia for me? It could be that this is the last link to a past life. A huge bracket for the past nineteen years – and a comforter; that no matter what happened, I could come back here. My dad always said I would bring my grandkids to visit him in this house, and in lieu of any other alternative future I assumed this was how things would pan out. I no longer have that comfort to fall back on; it is only empty space now. It is infuriating that the last time I saw my room it was a shadow of its former self.
When I think of my old home in Humbug Scrub, I think of the scrub and the heat primarily. I never think of it with pride. It was only when I thought of my own childhood home in comparison to my father’s that I started to feel the first pangs of sadness and regret. Unlike me, he did not have the (supposed) advantage of a country home. He was born and brought up in the midst of 1960s Australian suburbia, in Campbelltown. His Federation house was built to be cost-effective and affordable living for families who only a decade ago had been finally brought out of the long shadow of war. These were homes not necessarily to be cherished, but my father’s family treated their home with pride.
Only after the end did I treat my childhood home with the regard that my father must have considered his. Mine was never a dream. It was a house, a place to put my things, but even now I cannot associate it with any happy memories. The reason for why leaving it made me sad still eludes me, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that I never cared as much as I knew I should have.
I have long rejected the idea of Australian history or cultural heritage. I have always held the belief that we are still too young to have any established customs or cultural significance. But, like how the concept of what it is to be Australian cleanly ignores what Australia really is, I ignored the fact that in lieu of any heritage Australians had to make do. The reason for home being at the centre of what it is to be Australian is because home is all we have. I never realised that while I was in my first home, and now it is gone. This is perhaps my first true regret.
Moving day has been and gone now, and those boxes have since been filled and emptied. Already Humbug Scrub is far behind me. The memory of the place is already fading from me, although I think this is somewhat forced. I make a conscious effort to not think about the place at all – keep looking forward, I tell myself, and you will be fine.
My boxes are now sitting in the corner of my new bedroom – still unpacked, even though I have been living here for over a month and a half. I am happy living in the suburbs. There is a comfort to this kind of living, knowing that there are people everywhere, going about their lives unseen but unquestionably there. And everything is conveniently closer now; instead of a two-hour trip to university, it now takes me an hour and half, which I consider a triumph rather than a failure.
Like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier I poured a lot of importance into those cardboard boxes. When I filled them with my physical belongings, though, that importance was significantly outweighed by my vision of what the new house would be like. Nothing could take away from the excitement I felt of being somewhere new. It is a vision of what ‘Australia’ is. Trying to find the Australian dream is difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps the Australian dream isn’t dead – perhaps it is just four walls and a roof over our heads.
Callum McLean is a BCA Creative Writing student at Flinders University. He has twice received commendations by the State Theatre Company in their Young Playwrights Award competition. He primarily enjoys script work, though he has yet to write the script to his own life, which is random at best.
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