Wrapping paper, red and green napkins, silver tinsel has collected in drifts up and down the side streets. It’s the wind that’s put them there; this hot, dry north-westerly blowing where the doctor should have been, arriving just after Christmas dusk, falling over the town like exhaust. It blew and it blew and it’s still blowing now, throwing the tops of trees around, gathering up the holiday debris.
You wake with the sort of hangover that presents itself in stages. Open your eyes, feel okay. Notice the light is a little too bright and grainy and uncomfortable, like dry grass on bare skin, or an itchy collar. Move your head further into the sheets, ﬂinch. Lift it, or go to turn over and find you are too heavy to lift, and far too delicate. Release a small groan on the breath out. Lie still as possible.
Now there is some consciousness: an awareness gingerly piecing itself together, but with the confidence all gone out of it. You begin the struggle to recall, in reverse, the evening before: how you got to bed, how you got home, where you were before that.
The journey downstairs is unsteady and bewildered. Small evidences from the night before begin to present themselves—again, in stages. The shorts you pull on are covered in salt marks from swimming. A pair of thongs discarded at odd angles on the bottom steps, blood marks on the toe of one of them. Blood on your foot too, dry split flesh just beyond the nail. Your housemate on the sofa downstairs with his head in his hands. Your bag in the dirt outside the front door, full of sand.
Suddenly, you are sick with the familiarity of all this. You hate the intimacy with which you know this sort of morning, know these seasons and the celebrations that go with them, the people you celebrate with. You are sick of those conversations, of having nothing left to say. Soon you will be gone from here, and it’s most of what you can think about. Things will be different somewhere else.
Outside, the wind batters at the walls, jiggles the doors in their frames. When it’s windy, this house sounds like a ship at sea. Outside, what’s left of Christmas collects in the gutters with the leaves.
A different hemisphere, the same season, some other year, and you are in a bar with all the other Australians you can muster. They’re not hard to come by. Usually confined to a giant island so far south of anything else, the rest of the world is discovered through TV sets and newspapers: mediums of fiction. Australians travel to find out if it really exists.
It is two hours into Boxing Day and you are throwing dollar bills at the roof. It was the first thing you noticed about the bar—the thick carpeting of hard, US currency above everyone’s heads—and the man leading the pub crawl had promised to show you how to get them up there. So now you’re standing mid bar-room, throwing messy collections of pins and dollar bill and weight upwards as hard as you possibly can.
The man leading the pub crawl has been leading pub crawls for a long time. He has spent the past three Christmases and four New Year’s Eves drunk with travelling strangers, showing them around the bars of the city that he now calls home by default.
‘You must have one of the best jobs in the world,’ you tell him.
‘Yee-up,’ he says, and quickly changes the subject.
At this stage of this evening, the bar is populated only by you and other backpackers like you. On the other side of the world, at home, it is most of the way through tomorrow. You think briefly of the families, absent a son or a daughter, playing cricket in the sun or sleeping off Christmas lunch leftovers without them. Outside the bar, the rain turns softly to snow.
Christmas lights in hot weather, the beach over your shoulder, and you could almost be home. You compliment the Mexican guy next to you on his culture’s talent for celebration.
‘Usually, it is much more party than this. This is a quiet year,’ he replies, thickly accented and passive in the warmth of the evening. The two of you balance beers between your knees and watch a pair of girls walk circles around the jardín, a group of boys playing soccer on the street. Smoke rises from barbecues tortillas steam on hotplates. People lean over their food, perched on the edge of cheap plastic chairs, eating with their fingers.
‘Most years I come here, we are drinking all of the night and all the day too. Crazy,’ he continues. ‘We really are killing ourselves.’
People pick up babies and speak rapidly with one another in Spanish. Children light firecrackers and run from them squealing. They explode, loud as gunshots. You don’t even jump at the sound any more.
‘But it is not only good, like you saying.’ He lifts his beer to his lips, tips and swallows. ‘In history of Mexico, there always are other people arriving to here. Many times we are pushed down. The Spanish. The United States. So many times we are invaded.’
A stray dog lopes between tables and gazes up at the food. Utes crawl by, men and boys jolting in the tray, drivers leaning out of windows to call to people they know.
‘So now, we are having parties like there will not be tomorrow. We are partying like to destroy ourselves,’ he says.
‘Drinking to forget,’ you say and he nods.
A band starts up on the stage at the end of the street. People start dancing. The speakers are mostly busted and the band is all brass, but the people dance anyway. Children and dogs swarm the sidewalks in packs. Music and light, persistent barking, roosters not yet asleep, conversation in a language you do not know, dust and laughter and yelling, life and its joy rise up uninhibited from the square. On the other side of the world, in Australia, it is already next year.
Outside the window, the plane has hit landfall and you can’t stop staring. Australia is the colour of something browned in a pan. It’s perfect water, and then desert forever. You can see the heat. The plane bumps to the tarmac and outside is dry and brown and summer, familiar as your own body.
You notice things that tourists notice. The sky seems bigger and bluer than anything you’ve ever seen, though you have grown up under it. You notice the soundscape, the spread out crackle of it. You notice the sound of screen doors, their screech and hiss and flimsy metal smack. The distance between things is suddenly profound: between houses, places, people. Suburbia is a wasteland stretching far enough to be swallowed by the curvature of the earth. For a while, it’s home that feels like the foreign country.
In your mother’s house, the Polish cleaning lady fusses around you as you sit staring absently at the cricket.
‘You go to Poland, when you are travelling?’ she asks.
You shake your head. ‘The States, Canada. Mexico. Went down into South America for a bit too. Didn’t get to Europe though. You go back home much?’
You haven’t met her before this. She was hired in the time you were away, which was enough time for her to get to know the house better than you do.
‘No,’ she says, leaning the cloth into the kitchen counter. ‘Is too much expensive.’
‘Do you miss it?’
‘Yes. I am missing it. But my husband, he is working and we are here more than thirty years. We come to here when is very hard in Poland. Is better now, in Poland, but still is difficult to make money. Is better in Australia.’
‘Yeah,’ you say. The cricket bubbles on in the background, another instrument in the soundtrack to summer.
‘But I am missing it,’ she says. ‘I am always from Poland. Never I am Australian.’
‘You’ve been here thirty years, but.’
‘Yes, but never I am Australian. People they should stay in the places where they are born. I think. Where you born is place you are living. Otherwise, you are never belonging in this place. Always you are stranger.’
‘Yeah,’ you say. ‘Maybe.’
© Zoe Barron