By Merlene Fawdry
I should have worked it out the first time I drove into town and I would have if I’d seen the sign. But there was a heavy mist that day, the type I came to know so well after I moved in. It was a dampness that gathered on the highest peaks of the nearby mountains and rolled down onto the plains below, where it blotted out the warmth of the sun and the spirit of the people, stolid survivors of twentieth century progress, who held firmly to the past and tried to maintain life in the dying townships of rural Australia.
And that’s where people like me came in. City people. City bred and city smart, or so I thought. But I was no match for the residents of this small town, this valiant group who enticed and lured with their picture-book perfect town, until my purchase had saved another house from neglect and decay, and then I was on my own. To live among, but never with, them.
But I wasn’t to know that on my first visit. I peered through the eerily diffused light, and managed to read the sign that proclaimed, ‘Welcome to Illawura’, but the graffiti scrawled below the neat print was hidden by the mist, so I never read those telling words – Leading the fight in the war against trees.
When I did see it, on a bright-sky day after I’d signed on the dotted line, I noticed an absence of trees above shrub height. The single story rooftops of the township cast the only divergence to the elevation, a vista of leeched out wheat and sheep plain that extended in a 360 degree arc to the horizon. I knew then there were some basic philosophical differences between me and my new neighbours and it was unlikely my intended bush change would involve much bush at all.
Even my small environmentally friendly, pollution reduced car stood out amongst the beaut utes of the natives. Petrol guzzling, exhaust emitting V8s, all adorned with fifty centimetre mud flaps and the obligatory anti-Sheila, pro-beer and Bundy stickers. I took to walking everywhere, not difficult in a town of two hundred habitants and half a dozen streets. I wanted to blend, to integrate, to meet with the hands that looped back the dusty lace curtains as I passed by and communicate with the eyes that stared and followed my progress, as I smiled and nodded to the empty faces I encountered on daily walks.
Loneliness cast a chill over my life so I decided to take action before the freeze of winter set in. I asked the local shopkeeper, an outsider of thirteen years residency, for advice on neighbourhood activities. He suggested the ladies craft club, run by one of the town’s four churches and gave me a contact number. This would be my salvation, leisurely speaking that was. My enquiries led to a discussion with one of the town matrons who gave me a rundown on who was who. This is what I learnt about the Christian persuasions of Illawura.
There were the Jehovah’s witnesses, commonly known as Jo Hos, and they stuck to themselves, which was just as well she said, because they were an odd lot. Then there were the Catholics, but these were in a minority and had no real standing in the community. The Lutherans practiced their own brand of Christianity and mainly lived out of town anyway, and then there were the Baptists. There was no Baptist church in the town, but many families of this faith traveled to the next biggest town for their worship.
The Uniting church had all but closed down, since most of their aging parishioners had passed on to the next life and usually only opened for funerals. The remaining port of worship was the Anglican Church, most famous for being the venue of a celebrity wedding some forty years earlier. This church, I was told, was where I’d find the true Christian spirit of the town. She then added, sotto voce, that new people were usually only invited once and it would be social suicide to decline the invitation. I wrote down her directions to the church hall and prepared myself for the next craft group, understanding this would be either my social debut or demise.
The following Tuesday I opened my front door to a mist so dense I could not make out the words on the welcome mat at my feet. This wasn’t a good omen but, intrepid countrywoman about town that I’d become, I pulled my coat tighter around me and ventured forth.
The first leg of the journey was slow going as I felt my way, hand over hand, thorn over thorn, past the rose bushes that led to my front gate and into the nothingness beyond. I’d heard of black holes, well I’d just stepped into a white hole, a solitary place of no direction or time and an exaggeration of senses. I wandered in what I thought to be the direction of the hall, hoping to meet up with a fellow craftsperson who’d walked this misty promenade before, but I was on my own.
I never found my way to the hall and I never found my way to social acceptance and companionship. The white mist that enveloped me that day remained, a permanent shroud that endowed me with invisibility to the good people of Illawura.