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  • Writer's pictureKate O'Connor

From The Outback, With Love

Explaining life on the land is no easy feat, for anyone. My whole life I’ve loved to watch people’s expressions and reactions as I’ve told them about the way I was raised, two hours from the nearest town and with only my parents and siblings as company. They’re always amazed and fascinated by the outback, and interested in how different things were for us, especially when it came to normal everyday things like school and grocery shopping. But the most fun I ever had explaining my life was just after I’d moved halfway across the world to London. I would spend two years away from my family and friends, in a very different country (both culturally and environmentally), and I was hell-bent on making every moment count. That’s how I found myself turning up for my first day at my new job, working for a national newspaper in the centre of rainy London, a far cry from the dry paddocks and river beds back home.

“Welcome to the Guardian!” Laura, my new boss, smiled at me and motioned for me to follow her through the security gates. “This is our first floor of offices, and the canteen and deli are also on this floor as well. You’re going to be working up on the fourth.”

I followed her through a set of glass doors that would only open once you pressed the white switch next to them, and into a lobby of four elevators. I was so nervous I was shaking, an outback girl in the big smoke: London. Smoke doesn’t get much bigger than this. My home in Australia was a long way away (16,128 kilometres, to be exact) and my new life couldn’t be any more different from my old.

I walked out of the lift on the fourth floor and followed Laura through another door that only opened with a security pass. We entered a massive open plan office area, and I was immediately struck with how much it looked like a movie scene. Banks and banks of long desks covered in computers, and more people than I could count working in front of them. It was intimidating, to say the least.

Laura led me to one particular bank of desks.

“Everyone, this is Billie. She’s our new team member. She’s from Australia, don’t hold it against her. Billie, this will be your computer so put your things down here and make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.” Laura walked away further down the office to speak to a tall man in a dashing blue suit with a shining bald head.

“So, Billie. You Australians and your weird names for girls.” A curly-haired guy grinned at me. “My name’s Joshua, a normal name for a boy, as you’ll notice.” He laughed and I knew he was only playing with me.

“Then how come you got named Joshua?” I shot back at him. The rest of the team laughed, including Joshua, and they all took turns introducing themselves.

“So Billie, where are you from in Australia? Are you from Melbourne?” asked one of the older men on the team. He pronounced it Mel-born.

“Oh God no,” I said, “I’m a country girl. From about as outback as it gets.”

“Ah, the outback, mate. Should’ve known,” Joshua said with a terrible fake Australian accent, “Do you get television out there or are you guys still waiting for that?”

I ignored him.

“Wow, the outback!” the only other girl on the team exclaimed (I think her name was Tammy), “So do you, like, live on a farm or something?”

I laughed. “Yeah kinda, except we call it a station because it’s somewhat bigger than most farms you see.”

“And how big is your farm then?” Joshua asked.

“Um, roughly 175,000 acres. It’s me, my parents and my oldest brother most of the time. Sometimes my sister comes home with her partner, but she mostly lives in Darwin.” I felt a pang of sadness, thinking of how long it would be before I saw any of them again.

“Wow!” Tammy exclaimed again. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure she was all there, maybe a few roos loose in the top paddock as we’d say back home.

Just then Laura came back over to us. “Now I’m sure you all want to get to know Billie, but we’ve got work to do. We can have welcome drinks for her tonight at the Stonemasons bar downstairs if you’d like.” Everyone murmured their approval, and turned back to their computer screens.

I spent that day trying not to get distracted by the amazing views from the floor-to-ceiling office windows, and trying to memorise all the different programs and processes my team were in charge of. By the time 5:30 rolled around, I was definitely looking forward to a drink.

“You coming down Billie?” Tammy smiled at me as she switched off her computer and picked up her coat.

I grinned. “Of course. Can’t really have welcome drinks without someone to welcome.” We headed downstairs, making small talk about the day and grumbling about the sales executives we’d had to deal with. I’d finally settled down in a comfy seat in a sunny part of the pub’s beer garden, glad the weather had turned out, whiskey in hand and ready to relax, when Laura said “So Billie, tell us more about the outback. It must be a massive shock to the system coming from there to a place like this.”

I laughed. “I’m fairly used to massive changes. I still think the change from home schooling to boarding school was the worst.”

“Home schooling? Like some kind of hippie?” Joshua snorted.

I glared at him. “No, home schooling like it was the only option for us because my family live 200 kilometres from the nearest town. My brother and sister and I did school of the air, basically lessons over radio. We’d get to talk to the kids in town and others on stations around us, and have a lesson daily with our teachers. But mostly Mum taught us.”

“Your mum? That’s…. that’s amazing!” Paul exclaimed, the teams oldest member and their token gay man.

“It’s pretty normal where I come from. Some places had governesses, like young women from the city who come out looking for work and end up teaching the station kids. But it was always Mum for us.” I smiled as one memory in particular came back to me; Mum leaving the schoolroom to answer a ringing phone, and my siblings and I climbing out of the window and running away to ride the horses. It had been all too easy, but there was always hell to pay when Dad got home.

“So what was that for? All of school or what?” Tammy was staring at me, eyes wide.

“No, it was for Kindergarten to Year 6. Years 7 to 12 I boarded at a boarding school in Sydney. We had to board regardless, and my dad had gone to school in Sydney so my oldest brother wanted to go to the same school. So we all ended up over there. Which meant a wonderful 18 hour bus trip twice a term.” I used to hate the bus trips, but I’d already begun to look back on them with nostalgia.

“18 hours?? How far away from Sydney do your parents live?” Laura asked.

“It’s roughly 1500 kilometres. It’s basically the distance from the bottom of England to the tip of Scotland. Fun and interesting the first time or two, but 8 times a year for six years is a bit wearing.” The length of the trip had also given me a lot of time to dwell on being away from home for another term; I’d suffered the most horrible homesickness for the first three or four years of high school, until I’d been moved to a new school.

“Wow. That’s completely fascinating,” Paul said, “so what was it like growing up out there then? What about food? It’s not like you could just duck down the road to pick up a few things.”

I laughed for a moment. “Yeah our idea of ducking down the road was a 400 kilometre round-trip to Broken Hill, our closest town. It’d usually be a day trip, and we’d go in and pick up groceries, maybe have a doctor’s appointment, catch up with friends, pick up parts for motorbikes and cars we used on the station, and then drive back home. If we forgot something, we forgot it until next time. Although, when I was young, we used to be able to just send a fax to Woolies with our order, and the mailman would bring it up the road every Thursday.”

“I…there’s so much in that sentence I don’t understand,” Joshua marvelled, “What’s a Woolies? The mailman would bring stuff up the road? All the way out there?” They all stared at each other like it was a completely insane idea.

I sighed. It was always the same with city people. It was hard to explain to them the way rural life worked. I never got tired of it though. “Woolworths, it’s one of our supermarkets. Like Sainsburys or ASDA for you guys. And yeah, the mailman drives up the road twice a week and delivers mail, and on Thursdays he’d bring any food orders he had. Now we mostly do the whole Click and Collect thing whenever we’re in town for the day.”

The team was staring at me like I was an alien from outer space. I supposed I sort of was, to them. These were people who’d lived their entire lives inside the M25 highway that encircled London, venturing out maybe once a year for a holiday to Ibiza or Spain. Me being Australian was nothing new in a city like London, but being an outback Australian (the stereotypical Australian) was fascinating. I had a fleeting moment of understanding of what it must be like for animals in zoos to be gawked at all day every day. I hoped their fascination wouldn’t last too long. (As a side note, it did last. It lasted two years, until the day I left. In fact, maybe they still talk about me. I hope so. I still talk about them.)

“So….like, what about milk?” Tammy asked.

“Yeah,” agreed Joshua, “Doesn’t the milk go off on the long drive?”

“Well, no because we have longlife milk. We don’t have fresh milk. In fact, I hate the stuff. Never had it as a kid growing up so I can’t really stand the taste.” I smiled.

“Can’t stand the taste of fresh milk. What a strange person you are, Billie.” Joshua was grinning as he spoke.

I laughed. “I’m the same with seafood. You can’t really get it fresh where we are, so I pretty much hate the taste of all seafood. All we get is seafood extender at Christmas time, and that stuff is awful.” I grimace, remembering how it took Nan until I was 16 years old before she remembered I didn’t like seafood, and made me a Caesar salad as my starter for Christmas lunch while everyone else had a seafood cocktail. Up until then, I’d just handed my seafood cocktail off to Dad and waited for the main course.

“Well it sounds absolutely amazing, Billie,” Laura said, smiling at me, “You’ll have to show us some pictures some time, if you have any.”

“Remind me in the morning,” I said, “I can show you our house via satellite image. Google Earth shows a pretty good picture of it.” Everyone nodded and agreed to remind me, and we each went to buy another round. After that, the conversation moved on to who was shagging who in the office, and who was brown nosing for a promotion. I sat back and let the whiskey and the conversation wash over me, and tried not to miss home too much.

The next morning, Joshua was at my desk before I’d even pressed the power button on my laptop. “Good morning Bill, where’s this satellite image you promised us?”

I smiled and powered up my machine. I brought up the Google search page, and typed in my family’s property name: Jambock Station, New South Wales, Australia. After a few seconds, the map came up on the screen, with a dot noting the requested location somewhere in far west New South Wales. I clicked the button to turn the map image to satellite image, and it immediately changed to varying shades of red and brown, with sporadic patches of green and blue where there were lakes and creek beds.

“This is it,” I said, “My house is just here.” I pointed out the homestead, surrounded by a large fence and two huge lawns (a pain in the arse to keep going over summer). Nearby was the house dam where we got all the water for the house from.

“……You’re taking the piss, right?” Joshua was staring at the screen. “No one lives there. That looks like Mars! You’re kidding, right?” The rest of my team was starting to move towards us to see what was going on.

“Nope, that’s my house,” I said, “And that’s the shearing shed, and the shearers quarters, and that’s the house tank where we get all the water from for the house.”

The team was speechless. They all stared at my screen, and I heard various murmurings of “…got to be taking the piss… looks like a different planet…. how do people survive out there?” I smiled to myself, remembering how I’d had very similar thoughts about city people when I’d first moved to Sydney for school.

“Where’s your nearest neighbour?” Laura asked, coming up behind me.

“Um ….. about ….here.” I said, pointing out a house about 25 kilometres away, “That’s my grandad’s place. He has the property next door to us. Across the road is one of my aunts. Another lives about an hour up the road from us, and my uncle lives about an hour down the road. It’s kind of a big family area. All Dad’s brothers and sisters stayed around after school and bought their own properties. We all help each other out with stockwork and everything.” It was always a great time whenever we all converged on one property for a couple of weeks for shearing or cattle work. Whenever all the cousins got together, some kind of trouble always seemed to follow. Whether it was short-sheeting everyone’s beds or leaving worms under their pillows, we always found something to get up to.

“Wow, really? I bet you miss them all.” Laura smiled at me, and I felt that pang of sadness again. I missed them so much. Two years suddenly seemed like an eternity.

“Yeah, I do. But I’ve been out there my whole life. I wanted to experience the other side of the spectrum. Do something completely different for a while. Get out and have some adventures, make some memories, you know?” Despite the sadness, I reminded myself the real reason for this move: to find myself as a person, to stand on my own two feet, to be independent, and to experience life. I knew I could do it, it just seemed hard without my family around me like they always had been.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” Joshua said, grinning, “London has everything you could ever want, and even more things you wouldn’t!” The team laughed.

They marvelled over the satellite image of my family’s home for another 20 minutes that day, but I spent the next two years staring at it and dreaming of home. I travelled to fifteen different countries, rode camels, drank cocktails, went sailing, visited more museums than I could count, and through it all I kept that satellite image in my head. London became another home for me, but Jambock was in my heart and soul.

Now, two years later, I’m finally home again, sitting on the veranda and watching the sun set over the flattest ground I’ve ever seen. The sky is a deep shade of blue, melding into varying oranges and pinks and reds, and the warm breeze hints at another hot summer. My dog jumps up into my lap, a place she’s spent most of her time since I got home, and I give her a big cuddle. Inside, I can hear my family talking and laughing as they prepare my welcome home dinner. We’ve all converged together again, and it’s just the way it was before I left. As they come spilling out of the kitchen door onto the veranda, laughing and joking and handing out drinks, I just know that when I go to bed tonight, in my own bed in my own bedroom for the first time in two years, my bed will be short-sheeted and there’ll be worms under my pillow. I love that.

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