I left home at 23, moving first to another state and for a while overseas. But in those early months and years, home was still a weatherboard house in a country town thousands of kilometres away. I went back as often as I could afford the airfare, which on a student grant wasn’t often enough. Being an immigrant in parts of the country and the world that knew nothing about where I grew up only reinforced my sense that “home” was somewhere else.
A few years later, I took my future wife to see it. It was Christmas, so I promised her good weather—“It’s always the best weather then,” I told her; “once it was forty degrees.”
That Christmas, the south-east copped a freak cold front straight from the Antarctic, and my state saw the worst of it. It rained almost every day we were there. The waterfalls were in full flow; the rivers came up to the arches of bridges. We had a fire in the fire-place on Christmas day.
It rained so much that our paddocks became water-logged; so much that part of our ancient hedge gave way; so much that the mulberry tree down near the chook shed split in half. It rained so much that the decorative almond that stood near my bedroom cracked and drowned.
It was already an old tree, maybe fifty years old—one of a pair. My brother and I had a tree-house in the other one—well, a tree-platform—which we reached by climbing up some large nails laddered into the trunk. The one closest to my room had shed its leaves every autumn, sprouted pink blossoms every spring, and sheltered my room with fresh green leaves every summer; and now it was dead, although we wouldn’t know it for a while yet.
Later the following year, on another trip home (alone, while my girlfriend spent time with her folks), I slept once again in my old bedroom. It wasn’t exactly a shrine, but it was still half-full of my stuff; I couldn’t afford to ship all of my books interstate, so I’d left them in place along their shelves made of square grey bricks and planks of chipboard painted Seventies orange. Lying alongside them one night, I stared at their spines, reading the titles of the books I’d grown up with.
And that’s when I noticed: the Penguins looked a bit less orange than they should have. The Tintins looked a bit less red.
I took one down. The front and back covers were fine, looking the same as they always had, but the spine had faded dramatically. The summer sun shining through the room’s yellow unlined curtains had bleached it, and others like it, until all of my books’ spines were off-white.
But they’d sat there for a dozen summers or more, and had never faded before. Why now?
It was the tree—the almond that had died last Christmas, still standing as a forlorn skeleton while Dad gradually chopped its branches off for firewood. Without the shade from its new summer leaves, my books had aged prematurely like a Queenslander’s skin.
At that moment, the books, my bedroom and my home moved into the past. I’d already left home, and now home had left me.
But it’s okay. I still visit them from time to time.