It was always a question of how well I would cope with the flies when we moved to the country. I loathe them. I truly, with every filament of my existence, loathe them. A solitary, revolting, juicy blowfly in our inner-city Melbourne home was enough to send me into a Rumpelstiltskin rage. When one of these filthy vermin flew into my facemask and buzzed around my lips for a while in the early days of mandatory mask-wearing, I vowed vengeance on them all. My family has been quietly observing my exchanges with the paltry, grotesque creatures since we moved to central Victoria three months ago.
We are urbanites who, like many other city dwellers, caught a hint of country air drifting across our claustrophobic lockdown homes and acted on a privileged, romantic whim of the promise of liberation and emancipation: the promise that gum trees or salty ocean might bring the happiness and rejuvenation that was now so tenuous in the city.
Like most in Melbourne at that time, we were grieving, fragile, and battered, staggering to the end of the proverbial, non-existent finish line. I had been reduced to a state of non-thinking, leaning heavily on the New York Times spelling bee and Susie Dent’s daily word porn to keep the mind from souring to cottage cheese. Susie deliciously offers names to unfamiliar feelings that serve to guide through strange times.
We sold our city home—a cramped, converted shopfront—in a frenzy of perspiration on the eve of lockdown 6.0, and relocated on the eve of Melbourne’s cautious reopening. We were starting a new life as custodians of a grand 130-year-old converted church, with masses of glorious buffalo grass and a canvas of open sky and infinite dreamy possibility. In the aftershock of six grueling lockdowns, we were going to emerge okay—not unscathed, but renewed.
It would be a richer life bright with simplicity. The kids would learn to run around on acres in undies and gumboots until they could no longer see their own hands in the dark and the mozzies started nibbling. We would replace Twitter doom-scrolling with planting heirloom tomatoes and native edible bushes. Of course we would get solar, maybe we could even dig for geothermal or our own natural spring that could feed a shipping container swimming pool! We had space for a Hills Hoist! We would provide a sanctuary for all our friends and family to gather around the fire pit eating slow cooked lamb and crispy Dutch Creams. Summer 2022 would be one, long, wistful celebration of campers coming and going on our land. We could even set up a glamping yurt. We talked about getting another dog or three, or maybe a pig because we adore Sam Neill’s vineyard yoga pig, named The Pig. We no longer needed to vigilantly follow the COVID case numbers because everything was going to be tickety-boo, especially in the country.
Leaving the family home, the bricks and mortar of lockdown shelter and security, wasn’t easy though. We had become lucifugous beings, with all the social anxieties and scars of our fellow-Melburnians.
Packing is also often painfully slow, with tedious cleaning amidst rediscoveries and ruminations on times past. Retrieving off-trend hats and high heels from youthful times from the backs of cupboards required pause in packing for mirror modelling; as did the sampling of sticky lipsticks found in idle handbags with bygone bus tickets and used tissues (I even found a snot-hardened, cotton hanky). Sorting out which dusty books to keep and not to keep ultimately ended in chucking them in a box and saving them all for deferred decision-making.
In my husband’s bedside table were some notes from his period of 20-something-year-old enlightenment when he surfed across Europe and fantasised about being Jack Kerouac and found Thomas Merton.
‘Thomas Merton—the New Man, pp.1-35.
To meet hope, we have to descend into nothingness.
For a man to be alive, he must carry on the activities proper to his own specific kind of human life.’
What was his state of mind when he scrawled these quotes? No matter! A sign! A form of nothingness was the current condition and it was time to feel alive! I stuffed the notes back into his cabinet.
Coated in multi-years-worth of fugitive beard shavings in a bathroom drawer, I found a snaplock bag with my first kid’s crusty umbilical stump. It was still attached to the pastel lemon plastic clamp they put on when it’s cut. What was my state of mind to keep a piece of dried blood and skin? It felt like some hippy maternal act, though not quite up there with eating a placenta. Nonetheless, another sign! Time to cut the cord from the warm womb of a house that had harboured us through our early parenting years and a shitty pandemic. I unceremoniously binned it. I retained the blonde clippings from his first haircut.
‘Good luck through your first winter in that church,’ the neighbours mocked with knowing winks.
There was a massive storm on the first night. Our trampoline air-lifted and smashed into my brother’s borrowed car. We slept huddled together on mattresses on the once-was altar until the sharp pangs of home sickness had worn off enough to set up the beds, several weeks later. The kids sobbed themselves to sleep for days as high winds howled through all the gaps and cracks of the old building and swept icy across our faces. We learned when the power goes out, the tank water can’t be used and it’s good to have some emergency goon bags of water in storage. We raced to the hardware store to buy flood torch lights.
‘The postie has hundreds of kilometres to travel every day and he won’t be personally ringing your doorbell to deliver your Christmas parcels,’ the post-office ladies rolled their eyes when I politely enquired why I only ever received the parcel notifications and not the actual parcels and was I doing something wrong?
‘You know that hard wood needs at least one year to dry out before you can use it, don’t you? And never put pine wood in your stove! It’ll clog the flue!
Naïve metropolitans have much to learn about living in the country.
We bought the kids Ugg boots for Summer and got ourselves some fingerless possum-fur gloves for computer usage to ward off the gwenders. In the cold snap of the early days, I slept in my beanie. I would have welcomed a balaclava. My husband retrieved his circa 1999 snowboarding pants and Quiksilver jacket from a sort-it-out-later removalist box and wore them to wash the dishes. The Nutella froze in the cupboard. The oven broke.
There are swallows roosting in the church eaves. One came inside. It flew amongst the ten-metre-high rafters for three days. It pooed everywhere, first a deep berry colour, then turning to white. We tried to bring it down with the kids Nerf guns and bullets. We forgot our parenting codes momentarily and the whole family became gripped with who could get the winning shot. We didn’t intend to hurt the lovely, annoying fellow.
A few days before, I felt a strange whoosh across my face in the night. It wasn’t the airstream. I considered it could have been a bat or a very large flying cockroach, but decided it was instead a ghost of church-times past and that made me feel better. The swallow then knocked a freshly dead, hairy microbat from a rafter in one of its mad flights. The bat was cartoon cute, if not for the fact it could have taken out my nose whilst I slept. Eventually, the swallow tired and we captured it in a blanket and set it free. We put the tiny bat in the bin.
We met a black snake just near the back door and under our kid’s soccer ball as he went to kick it in some overgrown grass. We beheaded it with a spade. We have a ride-on lawn mower but that’s broken too, so we bought an expensive electric mower but it blew up after one go. My husband had overfilled it with oil. We’ve never had a mower, or lawn, before. We’ve learnt some stuff about living in the country from First Dog on the Moon, including about snakes and grass, and how to check the water level in the tank using the scientific hot/cold touch method. To play the part of city folk in the country, it feels necessary to put on a Fedora or Panama hat prop to check the water. We had to get the water tested as there was concern we may be drinking lead or other toxic flizzoms. We got excited to replace the defunct septic tank motor and give that sludge a really good clean out.
It’s warmer now, thankfully, and with the warmth comes the flies. Zillions of them. And the rats. They came to a damp, mouldy spot under the stairs where we keep our cleaning paraphernalia and other essential but unsightly things in a home. We could hear them thumping around at night. At first, we thought we had a resident wombat. That could have been a little bit adorable. It turned out to be the dragging and eating of entire cakes of an intact box of yellow Velvet soap by giant rats. How did they drag them? With their tails? We had to spend our Christmas Bunnings voucher on rat bait.
There are a lot of jobs to do in the country.
After three months, we are laying low in our new home. RATS of a different kind are nowhere to be found. For a while, in the newness of it all, we avoided the news and internet. Now as COVID numbers swell, hospitals struggle and faceless, nameless people die, we’re back to Twitter scrolling and burdened with the mental overload of booster shot bookings, kid vaccination bookings, catching up on missed dental appointments, worrying about the start of the school year, and not knowing whether to expose the kids to the movies or the local swimming pool. We’ve cancelled all our Summer visitors and festivities.
Everything has changed and nothing has changed. We are still zwoddered and enduring the curfuggle created by a world and politics out of sync. All while we coolly crunch over the remnants of an indoor black bug plague and shrug at dragonflies the size of your head. We are doing what most of us are doing, trying not to get caught in the COVID rip and tumbled out to limitless sea.
Through Melbourne’s rolling lockdowns, I cried almost daily. I’ve only cried five times since we moved. I guess it’s all the distractions and novelties. I first cried when I hit a baby magpie on the country road. Second, when I thudded over a rabbit. The third time was when Mary-Louise McLaws, the soothing voice of science, calm and concern for us all through the pandemic, announced on Twitter her brain tumour diagnosis. Sometimes, things are just not fair. The fourth was watching the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, with tears for flippancy, failures and denials, and worry for the future. This was in stark contrast with the fifth time, an extended sob through the National Geographic documentary The Rescue, the unbelievable story of the cave rescue of thirteen Thai boys, and one of the most brilliant showcases of the generosity of the human spirit.
Thank our open starry sky for Susie, and for the fleeting pleasure of Wordle with all the promise a new day and grid of little blank cubes can bring. Wordle gives a benign space to feel the communal pulse. My path to BANAL in three glorious lines included GONAD. I giggled to myself. Of course, one line too many—depending on your personal threshold (mine is definitely no more than three)—and it can send spasms of hurt to already shaky hearts until the new dawn comes again. If only we could wipe it all clean, in one, fresh dawn.
A few nights ago, we woke to a thundering knock and torch flashes through the windows. We peered nervously into the country dark on our quiet country road.
‘It’s the police.’
We opened the door.
‘Don’t be alarmed. We just want to know if you have lost a white pony? There’s a white pony outside your gate on the road.’
Was the white pony here to heroically save us from the end-of-time?
‘It looks a bit hurt. Might have been hit. We’ll take it in.’
The poor white pony, likely run over, was now being arrested. Everything is beyond absurd for tears, mostly.
In the end, I’ve probably disappointed my family with my lack of theatrics against the flies that come in off the cowpats and vomit in the kitchen. I haven’t yet stomped through our decaying, possibly termite-eaten Baltic pine floorboards. I do occasionally give them the finger if I’m feeling especially annoyed. I whip out the Mortein or better, use my tea towel with a swift, firm flick of the wrists on the beady-eyed beasts as they land. I’m like a calm frog zapping its tongue faster than the blink of a human eye to catch its prey. Then I whisk the carcasses into my dustbuster. It would be great to invest in a Triffid-size Venus Fly Trap. Yesterday, I discovered a million ponging maggots under one of my indoor plants. I dry retched and then dealt with it with the sensibilities of a seasoned (almost) country woman. Eventually, I expect, the flies will cease to flap me too much.
Much of what we idealised about country living will likely remain as dreams as we face the realities of all the novel jobs we are yet to learn. At some point, we don’t know when, we will also have to contend with bushfires or floods or scarier storms and really be touched by climate change. It’s not Utopia, delivering us a pandemic salvation (even if we do live in a church); and we are not Lord of the Flies. We are still muddling along with the exhausted collective.
Even so, it’s really beautiful here. We are lucky to have had the chance to choose it. We lock eyes with a deliberate nod every morning to the magpie family in preparation for Spring. A kookaburra chortles each pink dusk from his perch high on the church cross and the valley echoes a whole joyful chorale in return. Perhaps his joke is on us, or he laughs at God, or maybe he is God—whatever the case, I don’t think we will ever tire of rushing outside to smile with him. There’s no better place for watching clouds race or applauding a brilliant lightening show. For now, our country home brings the space to reflect, to continue to grieve, to grasp the right words to get us through, to respair. Flies and all.