Walking to Wollongong
by Nikki Crutchley
Nana and Grandad are visiting, and I know to put Australia on the table tonight. It never fits right, a square tablecloth for a rectangle table, too small, and so triangles of oak remain uncovered. There’s a giant mustard-coloured pineapple and bounding kangaroos. There’s beaches and cities and sunburnt wide-open spaces. In profile, there’s an Aboriginal man, eyes squinting, looking west.
Places are taken around the table. Grandad by Townsville. Nana, Darwin. I sit on the west coast, and Mum takes her position, purposely depositing her plate on top of Wollongong. Wollongong isn’t part of our stories, even though the cards I get twice a year come from there. I try to decipher more from the few words inside them: what he’s like, if I’m like him, how his stories differ, if he thinks about me often, even though an ocean separates us.
The place names and words that make up Nana and Grandad’s road trip stories sound musical and make-believe: didgeridoo, billabong, Walla Walla and Kakadu. Grandad points with his knife, a gelatinous blob of gravy falling onto a koala’s head. Opal mining in Coober Pedy; the knife travels across the linen to Alice Springs and Uluru. Talk of survival in a landscape that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Some of his other stories lurk at the edges of my dreams, threatening to turn into nightmares. The woman whose baby was taken by a dingo. Backpackers never seen again. A stolen generation.
After dinner I shake crumbs onto the deck then lay it out on the wooden slats. With forefinger and middle finger, I come from the east, past the red wine stain painting part of the Pacific Ocean pale pink. I forge my journey with my fingertips, walking towards Wollongong, in search of my story.