Tag Archives: Shepparton

The anniversary

A crescent shape of twinkling lights blocks my vision and makes me feel nauseous.  This is my first migraine since returning to England.  There’s no reason for the sudden attack. I had felt fine only five minutes ago.  I tell my colleague and place my head on my desk until the worst of it passes and my full sight returns.  I make it through the day but go to bed at 8pm with a bruised head.  I wake bright and early and look at the date on my phone:  18th January.   I hear a voice.

Voice:  Hello? 

Me:  Um, hello.  Who are you …. and why are you interrupting my quiet pre-dawn thoughts?

Voice:  It’s me.  I’m you.  Well to be precise I’m 15-year-old-you. You don’t recognise my jet black hair, gothically pale skin and fit young body? (The teenage Simone judgmentally looks me up and down). No, I don’t suppose you do. 

Me:  Alright, alright.  I may not look as good as you, but I have managed to acquire skills you don’t have.  Anyway, I don’t have to justify myself to you.  What do you want?

Voice:  It’s the 18th of January.

Me:  Yes …. ?

Voice:  So it’s his birthday!  Which means that you now know why you had a migraine yesterday …    

Sigh.  Ah, yes.  Sebastian was my best friend through high school and the 18th January is his birthday.  In 1993 on the 17th January Sebastian had just returned from a weekend with his uncle in Melbourne.  We were sitting in the foyer of the Shepparton Capri Twin Cinema.  It was out-of-character for him to be nervous.

Sebastian:  I have something to tell you.

Me (nodding):  Okay?

Sebastian:  Uncle Andrew has offered to pay for me to go to boarding school.  I start next week.

I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach, stabbed through the heart and kicked in the head all at the same time but I smile. “Oh that’s fantastic!  You must be really pleased?!” 

Me at 14, looking overly dramatic and about to go to our formal dance with Sebastian (Mum wanted a photo of my hair so told me to look straight ahead and not smile ...)

Me at 14, looking overly dramatic and about to go to our school’s formal dance with Sebastian

The next day I go to his house to spend his birthday with him.  I give him a drawing I’d done in art class; he’d cried with laughter at it (because it was so appalling) and he’d asked me to give it to him when we eventually left school and went to university.  The gift is two years premature but fitting – one of us is leaving (our) school.  I’m wrenched apart inside, but I show none of this to Sebastian and we have a fantastic laughter-filled day.

It’s a scorching summer and three days later we sit in Saint Brendan’s Church to get five minutes of cool relief on our walk to Sebastian’s home from the town centre.  Suddenly, cantankerous old Monsignor Bones yells from the refectory and then chases us out* which horrifies and tickles us.  We race home giggling like the teenagers we are, but our hilarity abruptly ceases when it’s time for us to say goodbye. I have to go home and Sebastian moves to Melbourne tomorrow.  We sense the gravity of the moment but don’t quite know this is the end.  After spending every day together for four years, this is the last time we see each other.  We write to each other daily for ten months, but our final year of school takes over and with it, our friendship ends.

Since then I’ve been sick (in varying forms) on every single 17th January.  I never remember in advance of the date, it always occurs to me later.  The anniversary of that bad news has been with me for twenty years; literally, a sickening memory.

That wasn’t my last experience of loss, but thankfully it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced grief or crippling heartache; my body’s not as young as it was and I don’t think it can take it!

Afterword

*Sebastian had been singing the then-current hit song “Detachable Penis” which I couldn’t possibly have found funnier (I was 15!) so Monsignor Bones was wholly justified in chasing us out ….

Foreign

26 January, 2004, Ealing.  At a formal ceremony in the Town Hall, I shake hands with the mayor as he presents me with a Certificate of Naturalisation – I’m now technically British, though I understand I’ll always be foreign.  

26 January, 2012, Canberra.  In a hire car I tackle the city’s countless roundabouts and visit its political and patriotic landmarks – I’m now a tourist in a place I once knew intimately. 

Through sheer coincidence, the day I officially became a British Citizen was the 26th January … Australia Day.  Precisely eight years later I’m in Canberra.  Nicknamed Legoland, the much maligned national capital has a reputation for being boring and sterile.  It’s populated almost entirely by civil service employees and university students.  Here, in the nineties – before wifi, google or even email – I completed my undergrad degree.

My week has been spent visiting friends and Canberra’s hotspots.  Yesterday, in a contemplative mood, I went to the Australian War Memorial.  A group of Japanese tourists noisily took photographs and were sternly shooshed by the tour guide.  The War Memorial is recognised as a place to be quiet, in acknowledgment and appreciation of the history of the nation, and to reflect on those whose lives were sacrificed to protect it.  The building itself impressively balances grandeur and reverence.

My friend Simon went to the toilet, enabling me to look quietly at the remembrance plaques.  A man next to me struck up a conversation and we briefly chatted about World War II.  After letting me know he was from Queensland, he asked where I was from and a perplexing conversation took place.

Me:  A town called Shepparton, in Victoria.

Him (loudly):  Oh Jeez, I thought you were a bloody Pom!

Me (smiling):  I’ve lived in England for 13 years, but I’m definitely Australian.

Him:  Being Victorian’s bad enough, but ya sound like a bloody Pom!  Ya’ve got one of those fuckin’ annoying accents.

Me (smiling light-heartedly, despite the blatant insult and offensive language)Well I can guarantee you my friends in England definitely think I sound entirely Australian.  Very much so.

Him:  Ya sound like ya’ve got a pole up ya arse.

Hmm.  I know he doesn’t want my opinion of what he sounds like … I say I have to go to the toilet and walk away.

The State of Queensland is in the north of Australia, while the State of Victoria is in the south.  There’s a supposed rivalry between the two; Queenslanders view Victorians as intellectual and pretentious, Victorians view Queenslanders as boorish and parochial.  After all these years, I’ve forgotten these inane perceptions and I’m shocked by the sudden assault.  Poor Simon had to hear my astonished account of the conversation all the way home (presumably in my “fuckin’ annoying accent” ….).

The attack leaves me feeling negative about Australia, but then I remember an incident in London last year.  As I walked along the street in Chiswick, a man stopped his car to ask me for directions.  When I failed to help him, he drove off snarling, “Fucking foreigner”!  Inexplicable hostility happens everywhere.

I wish I wasn’t now also foreign in my native country but, as I sit here in the beautifully imposing National Library of Australia, I’m grateful that during my absence many things have positively changed.  Sixteen years ago I was in this quiet reading room, receiving pitying looks from onlookers as my tempestuous boyfriend screamed at me.  Frantically photocopying books and articles, he had (again) exploded with the stress of an assignment deadline – his mood wasn’t improved when he was physically escorted from the building for disruptive behaviour.  Today, after a lunch I could not have afforded during my university years, I’m here contentedly sipping coffee and using the wifi on my laptop to email friends.  I may not belong in either my adopted or birth country, but my little life is unquestionably better.