FIFTY FIFTY 

FIFTY FIFTY 

Reflections on growing up... at fifty.

ARRIVAL

 

THE last time I traveled through the suburb of Springvale, in Melbourne. it wasn't as Asian as this. It was more ... Australian. Actually it was downright British. My memory turns the steering wheel and the car finds its way to the Enterprise Hostel. The car winds its way through a forest of new trees. I'm alone in the car but there is a little boy giving me directions. I'll never forget how to get there.

 

Gliding up to the driveway, the buildings jump out of my subconscious and place themselves one by one in front of me. Not a plate of glass is left intact and the sun glistens on the shards. Weeds pry the tiles apart and the old recreation hall, where Arturo, the boy from Puerto Rico, taught me to draw ships, has been burned out. The reception area is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern airport after a bomb blast.

 

One foot steps out of the car, the door stays open and the engine is running as my eyes drag me out. The perspective of the buildings is wrong, everything is too low. I crouch down to the height I was that day and the rush of memories knocks me to the ground.

 

The airbrakes squeal, the bus comes to a halt. We step down on to the wide reception area, out of the rain. My sister and I, new gabardines, holding hands. My mother and father are standing nearby, unable to take in all the new sights fast enough. It is 24 May 1972. In two days I'll be 10 years old and this is Australia. The four of us, two suitcases and a trunk, our whole world. Our whole world.

 

My sister's eyes look out from under her hood; the resemblance to my five-year-old son who is now the same age as she was then is astounding. My father is the same age I am now. My mother looks around, "What next?" A cleaning lady walks past, looks at my sister and says "Hola! Hablas Español?" My parents' faces light up and for a brief moment the fear - yes fear, that's what it was - leaves them.

 

The doors are locked, and through the broken glass and the weeds and the tall grass lay the basketball court and the walkway that leads to our room, Red B 13.

 

The cafeteria is a cavern of lino and debris. The smells of newly discovered dishes are gone but I'm still there holding up my tray, mutely pointing at different meals, signing to the lady behind the counter. Tea and water, as much as you could drink. I know Corn Flakes are poured in a bowl with milk because on the plane the airhostess showed me how to eat them when she saw me eating them out of the little box like potato chips.

 

At the far end of the hall the word "wogs" has been graffitied on the wall, and I smile at the irony of the word in my own life. I imagine the young kid spraying it on the bricks, and the faces of ghosts looking up from their trays watching the word form. W. Perplexity. O. Spoons float in mid air. G. Heads tilt. S. I think: "We left a long time ago; found lives, destinies. You, young man, are still here." The hiss of the spray can stops and the young man stands to admire his masterpiece, but the ghosts have gone back to their meals.

 

The word "cheese" lays on the floor in the foyer. Cheese was number two and it used to sit up on the board under ham, number one; curried egg was number five. We used to line up here before school to pick up our school lunches. The system was simple in English. Five brown paper bags with two columns printed on them. One column for the number of sandwiches, one column for the corresponding number of the 10 choices of filling on the board.

 

The system was never translated and, more often than not, we collected empty lunch bags that the lunch lady quickly filled with spare sandwiches while she explained the system once again in English.

 

The word cheese is on the floor, written in stick-on letters on a Perspex strip, but that's not the board I remember. On the wall now is a face sheet of card with the ten fillings written in Texta. It seems they had to replace it a few times.

 

The covered walkways lead to the different wings. Green, Red and Yellow. The colors have changed but the little boy is already halfway down what used to be the red block, and I arrive at the bottom of the stairs, down the second floor corridor to the room. Red B 13. Regardless of the new number on the door, it's this room, no question about it. One small bedroom to the left, one to the right, a toilet, a hand-basin.

 

The cupboards and the desk were fitted to the wall in the small living room and were made to last; they're still here but it was a bigger living room, I'm sure it was. The desk where my father put his typewriter, our first purchase in the new country. A typewriter?

 

The mattresses, one in the small bedroom, are not supporting each other against the wall in the living room. My mother and sister fell asleep on one of them that first afternoon while I went exploring and my father went searching. They awoke the next morning. How many people had spent their first night on those mattresses? How many had laid awake that first night wondering what they had done, what now? Staring up at a blank ceiling.

 

The view from the window remains the same, if a little tattered: graveled driveways that haven't felt the weight of cars for some time and have gone flabby. The trees block the view now as they did then, offering little information about what lies beyond them. The hostel is empty, physically and spiritually. It was holding back for a pause in life. Existence had just ended or was about to begin. It supplied food, shelter and human contact filtered by a foreign language.

 

I'm back in the car, in the driveway where the bus pulled up that day. I don't know why the hostel has been left to ruin or if there are plans for its future. As the car pulls out to the West Road I thank it; I know I'll never see it again. The little boy is gone, no longer in the seat next to me; in his place is a Perspex strip with the word "cheese" on it.

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