It is Boxing day and as the excitement of Christmas fades, it is replaced by the sweet anticipation of a summer trip. It is a summer trip that will not take us south to a popular seaside spot, but one that will take us north to Albury, to the other side of the Victorian and NSW border… the better side according to Pa. Albury is where our grandparents live. They have a pool.
The suitcases are packed with shorts and T-shirts, thongs, smart clothes for Sunday mass and bathers… swimmers, or togs according to Pa. The cases are strapped to the roof racks of the cream coloured vehicle, a Ford Fairmont rego LWA 659. The family pile in, all eight of us as Mum initiates a Hail Mary, not just for a safe trip, but as a plea for the suitcases to stay put.
Space is not abundant. My parents sit up front in the deep faux leather, cream in colour, bucket seats. One of the ‘little ones’ sits between them, on a wedge of cushioned sticky plastic; it serves a dual purpose in adding an extra seat, but also serves as a lid that covers a deep receptacle for loose change, cigarette packets for some, or perhaps, as in Pa’s Holden, a not so secret hideaway for for what we kids called ‘granny lollies’.
Another three of us sit across the bench seat behind our parents. And behind us in the rear backward facing seats sit another two, and the murderous energies of young brothers, yet to hit double figures.
Our trip sees us reverse out from the driveway of our home in Sunbury. It is a large acre block that is a patchwork of grass and concrete, of salt bush and pretty perennials, and of antique furniture and weatherboards.
From Jackson Street, Dad turns left into Macedon Street and heads southeast towards Bulla, the Tulla Freeway, and Sydney Road which will then become the Hume Highway as it hits the cities edge.
In the mid 70’s the Hume Highway consisted of single lanes, one for each direction. It was lined with gravel cuttings and pot holes that often led to broken windscreens and terrible accidents. It meant tow trucks, semi-trailers and slow drivers. It meant driving through country towns such as Seymour, Euroa and Benalla. The highway cut these towns into two with long strips of stores lining each side – menswear, ladieswear, babywear, and haberdashery. These towns had petrol stations with restaurants.
As the trip begins the radio is tuned to the sound of Ritchie Benaud commentating on the first day of play at the M.C.G Boxing Day Test match. The brothers sit wistfully dreaming of being the next Chappell or Lilly. We may be confined, but we are seemingly content.
As we reach The Great Divide the reception begins to fade, crackle and eventually die. The tape deck is rendered useless as the loosened reel of a Charlie Pride tape begins to melt and coagulate in the glovebox. The heat of the sun bearing down upon the dashboard is rising.
The only sound we can hear now, is that of vehicles swooshing, passing us, heading south, so closely, and that of the incessant thrashing of air that hammers the suitcases above us when we wind the windows down for some relief. The noise drowns out the sound of the feuding brothers up the back and that of the grizzling baby tearing at his restraint next to me. It saves my parents from having to make small talk. It relieves them from having to parent.
As we approach Wangaratta, or Wang to some, highway signage sprouts up along the verge imploring us to refuel and to take a rest at a nearby roadhouse. They boast of having motels with colour TV’s, and as we drive through the towns outskirt we notice the letters R-E-S-T-A-U-R-A-N-T… it is spelt out in large, golden yellow letters on a blue background.
It is a Golden Fleece Roadhouse and Dad pulls in. He cleans the windscreen of muck and checks the oil and water levels. He fills the tank with petrol and us kids with lemonade icy poles. I want to know why we can’t eat a meal in the restaurant or to stay the night in a motel, the one with the pool and the colour TV.
“Because, we are nearly there, and your grandparents have both a pool and a colour TV, that’s why”, says Dad. Some time later the Albury Monument appears like a mirage through the summer haze further down the highway. Dad was right. We are nearly there.
We celebrate the crossing of the border, and the great expanse of the Murray river. There is always fanfare as we leave one state and enter another. We pass cars whose number plates have suddenly changed in colour, from black and white to yellow and black. We pass Noreuil Park, the Albury Tigers football ground and the Albury Olympic Pool that is teaming with suntanned bodies darting about on the left, and a little further up the picnickers lolling about in the shade of the Botanic Gardens.
Dad turns left here and into Dean Street and then takes a quick right into Thurgoona Street. He weaves the hot and lumbering vehicle up a steep hill until it reaches Yambla Avenue where he makes a sharp right hand turn. By now we have attracted the attention of the neighbourhood dogs who chase madly behind us, whilst Bess, one of the neighbours, waves from her green perfectly manicured lawn. It is adorned with all manner of blooming flora.
We arrive at 704 Yambla Avenue Albury, ph 213637, the home of my grandparents. They know that our arrival is imminent as Dad takes some pleasure in the sounding of the cars horn upon our approach. They burst through their front door brushing aside the fronds of the Staghorn ferns growing from a plaque nailed onto the cream brick veneer at the entrance to their home. The Ford Fairmont breathes a sigh of relief as the engine comes to a spluttering stop, beneath the carport.
It is so hot we can’t wait to get out of the car. We want the pool. We want to cool off. We want to play and to see the cousins and the kids over the back fence. We want chilled slices of watermelon and peaches served to us on the buffalo grass downstairs.
We want Anzac biscuits. We want meals made within twenty minutes with only three ingredients found in the upstairs brown fridge. We don’t want brown rice and pineapple, but we do want the SSW ice cream for dessert.
We want to lay our wet bodies on the poolside patio; to dry off under the hot sun whilst listening to the gurgling of the pool filter as it struggles with the summer load.
We want Pa’s porridge for breakfast and my grandmothers homemade bread from the bread maker. She can’t recall the last time she bought a loaf from a shop. We want to sit at the breakfast table as she retells a variety of stories, whilst simultaneously listening to Pa reading out headlines from The Border Morning Mail.
We want to know where we will be sleeping, will it be the room with the big mirror or the one with the chenille bedspreads and the sliding timber veneer doors. Or better still, could we sleep downstairs on the fold out divan and be completely self contained with our own kitchenette and purple bathroom. Down there you can hide and rummage about the musty space beneath the house and send messages to those upstairs through the air vents.
Most of all though, we just want to have a swim, but, we can’t just yet. Why? Because we need to undo our scorchingly hot seat belts, to peel our sweaty skin away from the vinyl seats and to remove the battered suitcases from the roof racks.
We need to greet our grandparents, and answer a myriad of questions ” How was the trip, and the traffic, and where did you stop for a cuppa, what? you didn’t pack a thermos?” and ‘Heavens above, look how you have grown”. My grandmother rattles off a list of names until she hits the right one. We soak up her curiosity and take delight in her muddling up our names.
It was just as well we did not stop at the Golden Fleece restaurant back in Wang. Had we done so we could not have headed straight down to the pool for a our swim. Pa’s rules were never negotiable, and there was to be no swimming for at least one hour after a meal, any meal.
After the chaos of greetings and unpacking we realise we are right to go. With togs and towels in hand we run though the front door, allowing the fly wire to slam shut behind us, through the kitchen with the brown fridge, out through the laundry and down the steep concreted staircase to the pool. Together, we dive into the pool at the deep end and make one enormous splash.
We have arrived.
This is a piece I wrote in 2011 not long after my grandmother died.