Centre of the Universe13 March 2018
The centre of the universe is starting to combust. It’s not a bright flash of light that rips through all existence—it’s a slow, quiet disintegration. Potholes widen. Trees drop branches on cars that have been parked in their shade for years. The Uniting Church lacks a congregation so it’s sold off and purchased by a private buyer. A cat is hit by a truck in front of the post office. No one claims the flat ginger body so my brother scrapes it from the bitumen with a shovel.
There is a sign which welcomes people to this town; it’s large and blue and has bullet holes in it. Someone stuck ‘CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE’ on the sign years ago, and now the young kids believe that this place, with its empty main street and plastic playground, has solar systems revolving around it.
My mother owns the post office here. It used to belong to my grandmother—she still works there. It is the only place she has ever worked; she began as a switch board operator and still recalls the number of each residence. If I am behind the counter, I am mistaken for both of them. I have a chin that marks me as theirs—a dint in the middle that I hated as a child.
I was two towns over when a woman grabbed my face and asked which Dean I belonged to.
“Is he one of Donald’s boys?”
“Tell them I said hello.”
The main street of the centre of the universe is called Main Street. The street running parallel to the creek is called Creek Street. Flood Street floods and Short Street is short. There is a caravan park, a public pool, a rec ground, a motel with three rooms, a bowling club, a town hall, a self-serve petrol bowser, a mechanic, a show-ground and my mother’s post office. There is a three teacher primary school and a preschool. There is a concrete slab where the pub used to stand. There is not much else.
My childhood fits neatly in the confines of this town. I spent years trekking up and down Main Street after school, passing the rose garden of Bill the bus driver, an alcoholic’s mongrel dog swinging from its too-short chain on a verandah, the open-two-days-a-week hospital, my school principal pushing coins into the slot machine at the pub.
My siblings and I would spend mornings and afternoons on the school bus and weekends playing sport. We kept our bikes in the back shed of our grandparents’ house and would pedal up to the common together. There we would climb rocks, run from rustles in the tall, dry grass, leap across corners in the creek, dangle from the swinging bridge and swim in flood waters our parents forbid us to go near. Summers were a haze of picking blackberries, dodging brown snakes, and water fights; winters were spent building cubby houses in trees, baking apricot pies and naming the impossibly clean calves which appeared in the paddocks. We left graffiti in drains, avoided magpies with ice cream bucket helmets and explored back lanes and the overgrown tennis court. We were never bored. Until one summer we were.
Slow afternoons turned into slow days. Slow days turned into hot, slow weeks. We had climbed every rock, stolen fruit from every tree, played with every feral puppy and snooped over every back fence. We stripped down and waded into the deepest stagnant pool of the creek and waited for leeches to stick to us. And then we left.
Small towns like this dread the disappearance of their youth. They need us to deliver the mail, to do the plumbing and the lawn mowing. They need us to man the bar at the bowling club, to baby sit, to join the Rural Fire Service. We see this, we know this, we hear the creaks of the town as it ages, but boredom drives many of us east to the coast, or south to the city. The ones who stay have babies, get married and live next door to their parents. Those of us who leave talk up our childhood to strangers in bars, despite attempting to cut all strings with the town.
But we still have strings. When people die we come home for the funerals. When we run out of money we come home to be fed. We get homesick and hate that we are homesick. Christmas rolls around and we travel back to stand in the little church where we were christened, where our parents were married, where our grandparent’s funerals were held. We sing Christmas carols while sweat trickles down our spines.
The pub burnt down when I was living in London. I had hopped on a plane after graduating high school; craving a place where no one would recognise me by my chin. Sipping coffee in a café in Oxford Circus, I watched over Snapchat as the pub on Main Street was swallowed by flames so bright the stars drowned. My dad was devastated. I was nonchalant. It was the place of his first legal schooner, not mine. By the time I came home, drunk on jet-lag a year later, I had forgotten the pub was gone. Driving past that empty lot for the first time left me misty eyed in the passenger seat. I blinked away those tears with frustration—this town was no longer the centre of my universe and I would not cry over a burnt building.
I write about this place frequently, but I never name it. It does not need to be named. Visit any town with a population of 400 people where the internet doesn’t quite reach and there’ll be another centre of the universe. There’ll be the people leaning against the counter of my mother’s post office and the man telling her that, “First they stole the word gay from us, and then they stole the rainbow, and now they’re trying to steal marriage from us.” There’ll be the old woman with the milky eyes who went blind because she looked at an eclipse when she was young and the farmer’s skinny work dogs, barking on the back of his ute. There’ll be the woman who shares a cigarette with her 14 year old nephew before he gets on the school bus and the kids in dirty uniforms playing chicken with semi-trailers full of sheep and pigs and cattle. These people aren’t unique to the centre of my universe, they’re in every small town that’s on the way to somewhere else. But that’s not really why I leave it unnamed. There is a part of me that cannot bring myself to fully denounce this place for reasons I am not quite sure of; blind loyalty or sentimentality perhaps.
It used to be that if I was asked where I was from I’d immediately drop the name of this town and then spend the next couple of minutes listing off other larger neighbouring towns and cities. The person who asked usually shook their head with a blank expression on their face.
“Well, you know Sydney?”
“Oh, you’re from Sydney?”
“About four hours north west of there, yeah.”
Now I just say I’m from Melbourne. But somehow conversation always gravitates back to the centre of the universe, and I find myself clarifying to confused acquaintances why I know obscure sheep facts or how I could drive a manual ute at age eleven. After establishing that they’ve never heard of the place and will probably never have reason to visit, I feel obliged to sum-up: “It was a great place to grow up. I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.”
Small towns across Australia are dying. There is little work, and the work there is depends on the rain. When it doesn’t rain, the work dries up. When it does rain, people slouch against the counter of the post office and complain that their feet got wet on the walk over. The centre of the universe used to have three hotels, five stores and three churches. Now there is one school that can hardly conjure enough people to pitch in at working bees, a pool that struggles to find a supervisor each season, and a definite sense of fraying and splintering.
Seventeen year olds start to crash their cars on the roads that snake out from the town. They completely miss the sweeping corners or they hit kangaroos at dusk. They are driving too fast because driving fast makes you feel alive in a slow place like this. My sister drives with one hand on the steering wheel. She doesn’t crash her car, but she drives like she wants to.
My mother starts to make half-hearted plans to sell the post office. I try to imagine someone else acting as the pumping heart of this place, but I can’t. I wonder what will happen when she does sell it. The mail won’t be delivered on time. The milk will become even more expensive. The woman behind the counter the locals lean on won’t be as sympathetic. Maybe eventually I will come back and won’t be mistaken for her or my grandmother.
I am in the centre of the universe as I write this; home for the holidays. Four weeks is a long time here—I get restless after one. I work at the post office. People mistake me for my younger sisters; at first I correct them, but then let it slide. I swim at the pool with its over-chlorinated water and go to Mass on Christmas Eve in an outfit my mother deems appropriate. I visit old neighbours. Friends come back in dribs and drabs and we eat chips and dip on the verandah, while our parents drink and laugh in the kitchen. I count down the days until I can get on the train that takes me far away from here. I swear that I won’t be back for a while—six months at least. Maybe not even until I graduate.
But as soon as I’m gone I feel those strings start to tug. And before I know it I’ll find myself standing on Main Street once again, wondering if this town really is the centre of the universe.