So, I realised rather abruptly this weekend that I was done with my weekly ‘best of’ posts – realisations are apt to hit me like that, so apologies for the suddenness. I am not sure what I will be doing in their place, but I do have this story for you, as promised. Birthday parties, country roads and disastrous driveways is a non-fictional journey piece that I wrote for my first writing subject at Uni last semester. I have just received the marks back for it (a High Distinction – my second ever and my first for this degree!) and thought you would probably enjoy reading it.
My daughter and I walked across the road from our house to meet my son at the gate of his small country school. He was running down the path to meet us, blonde hair riffled, the contents of his school bag tossed like salad in a bowl, waving a piece of paper.
“Look Mum! Taylor invited me to her birthday party!” he crowed triumphantly.
“Can I come too?” beseeched my daughter, grabbing at the invitation to see if she could see her name anywhere.
The children bounced ahead of me back up the gravelled driveway, sending feasting Rainbow Lorikeets squawking into the air. I followed behind, scanning the invitation to see how my next Saturday was going to be spent. Kids’ parties in the bush require the best part of a day and social interaction with a group of people with whom I had nothing but location and children in common. I didn’t normally mind, being a sociable sort of person, but as this would be the third birthday party we had attended in a two week period, my equanimity was wearing a bit thin.
The morning of the party was a warm, humid early autumn day, thankfully clear after weeks of rain and soon my children were soon strapped into their car seats, wriggling and giggling with excitement. I had one more look at the directions scrawled on the back of the invitation – the road was unfamiliar to me, but having spent most of my childhood here and now a couple of years as a returned adult, I was confident of finding my way without too much trouble.
The turnoff was only minutes past our own driveway, but it was with a slight feeling of trepidation that I steered the car onto Argues Road, a circular gravelled track attached like a limpet to the main road. The main road wasn’t much mind you, but at least it was sealed, fenced and signposted. Argues Road was single-lane at best, and after recent heavy rain, it was corrugated and deeply rutted. The Council obviously hadn’t been out with their grader to fix it up yet – I guessed that this little road wasn’t high on their priority list.
“Mum, hurry up, I don’t want to be late,” said my six year old son briskly.
Thus encouraged, I piloted us across the tiny timber bridge at the bottom of the hill, driving straight through a fresh cow pat on my way up the next rise.
The farmers who lived on this road, while having boundary fences to prevent their cattle straying onto their neighbours’ farms, didn’t see the need, nor were they required, to fence the road verge of their property. Teeth-rattling cattle grids were placed at the borders of each farm, and drivers were expected to negotiate cud-chewing cattle, frisky calves and the above-mentioned cow shit.
The road we were following led us through increasingly hilly pasture land, the country stripped bare of trees; even the grass seemed to grow reluctantly. On our left, the river painted a verdant, serpentine channel of glossy green vegetation; on our right, exposed paddocks disappeared into steep wooded hills, once red cedar rainforest, then banana plantations, and now forest re-growth.
Minutes later, the road split into two, with one road curving away to the left through open farm land, and the other road heading up into the forested mountain. I hesitated, glancing in the rear vision mirror at my children sitting in the back seat.
“I don’t remember Michelle mentioning an intersection on the invitation,” I said, grappling with the glove-box and peering at the directions.
“Are we lost, Mummy?” queried my daughter nervously.
“No, no – I’m just wondering which road to choose. Let’s head for the hills, shall we?”
The road ended abruptly minutes later at a gated driveway – realising quickly that I had chosen the wrong road, I found a place to turn around, more difficult than you might think on a single lane dirt road with a slippery gravel verge and grassy banks, and continued back the way we came.
Back on the right road, we soon came to the entrance of the property we were looking for, and I turned around and smiled at my son and daughter.
“Ready to party?” They both grinned and nodded, visions of sugared party food spinning around in their heads. “Right then. Taylor’s mum said that their driveway has three gates. Looks like this is the first one.”
As I closed the gate, I took one look at the rutted track posing as a driveway and slipped my car into four wheel drive. We pulled up at the first house I saw, a wooden shack just visible in a rolling sea of enormous long-horned bullocks. An intense smell of cow shit filled the car through my open window; as I watched, wondering if I should get out, a large man with wild black hair shouldered his way through the cows and stood there, arms folded and a forbidding look on his face. I didn’t get out. Straight ahead was a terrifyingly narrow, rustic wooden bridge just before another gate with a white van parked next to it and beyond that a house perched on top of a hill; I put the car into gear and drove on.
The hostess had neglected to tell me that their driveway was actually an access road that cut through three separate properties. As I found out later, the land had been subdivided after a communal living experiment failed, and the people whose house we were going to had bought the back block a few years before. I wondered if they had fully considered the logistics of a shared access road and bridge, three gates and recalcitrant neighbours, with whom they seemed to be constantly at war.
I pulled up at the second gate next to the white van and we all gazed at the house on the hill. It was very quiet, no cars, no people, no party. It seemed pretty certain that this wasn’t the house we were looking for, but there were no other houses either. The track that we were on curved around the right hand side of the hill, becoming the driveway to the house in front of us, and there was no other road that I could see.
“Are we lost, Mum?” asked my son, leaning forward in his seat so that he could see the time on the dashboard. “The invitation says the party starts at 11:30 and now it’s 12:03. We’re going to be late!” My son, even at six, had a highly developed sense of time and hated to be late. My daughter on the other hand, couldn’t give two hoots about time, but was starting to get worried, her lower lip poking out and welling eyes warning signs of an impending breakdown. Just then, the door of the van opened and a man emerged and walked over to us.
“Are you guys going to the Thompson birthday party?” he asked, hopefully.
“Yes…but I’m not sure where it is,” I replied. “Is that it up there?”
“Nup. I went up there, but nobody’s home. I’m supposed to be bringing the jumping castle, but I have no idea where to go from here.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Port Macquarie,” he said. I almost laughed, but decided against it – the poor man already looked like he was at the end of his tether. Port Macquarie was a two hour drive away. Already out of his comfort zone, he must really think he’s in the middle of nowhere. Which, come to think of it, he was.
A battered ute pulled up behind us and an enormous bald man climbed out, with a long white beard, rumpled King Gee shorts and a work shirt with the sleeves torn off.
“Looking for the Thompson’s?” he rumbled. The Jumping Castle man and I nod, hope returning. “You’re nearly there, just follow me.”
Back in the car, we watched as he drove his ute in an arc around us and then followed an invisible grass track around the left side of the hill, vanishing from sight. The van followed and we made up the rear, arriving at a gate festooned heavily with padlocks and a large NO TRESPASSERS ALLOWED sign attached to it.
“Don’t worry!” our bearded saviour shouted, “It’s not locked. Make sure you close it when you go through though. Sometimes there’s trouble with the neighbours.”
“Okay guys,” I said, turning around in my seat. “We’re nearly there. This is the last gate.”
I drove through, put the handbrake on and jumped out to close the gate. It had begun to heat up, and with the combination of getting-lost stress and wet-season humidity, my shirt was stuck to my back with sweat. The other two cars disappeared from view as they followed the driveway around an enormous dam, shaded by palm trees and decorated with pink lilies. I took a couple of deep breaths, listened to the bees humming around the heavy bunches of palm blossoms and began to relax. We’re nearly there, I told myself.
The driveway was narrow, and the gradient rapidly increased as we left the flat of the valley. Carved out of red clay, the road appeared to have borne the brunt of runoff cascading down the mountain, creating massive erosion, slips and gullies. The owners had tried to repair it using old tyres and bodies of rusted cars as part of the retaining solution; a perfectly sensible idea if you are a mechanic. The driveway became more and more corrugated with channels cut across the road at regular intervals – some of them so deep, boards had been put across them for the drivers’ convenience. The last part of the driveway was near perpendicular. I didn’t see the final trench, only alerted to its presence by a sudden lurch and a sickening crunch as the car’s front wheels landed heavily at an odd angle. Shit! I felt my blood congeal in my veins, my face start to tingle and a fresh batch of sweat break out on my back and under my arms.
“What was that, Mum?” both the kids asked at the same time. I pulled the handbrake on and re-started the car, which had stalled. Gingerly, I pressed my foot on the accelerator, lifted my foot off the clutch, and the car miraculously climbed out of the ditch and continued the ascent toward the house, now visible at the top of the hill.
“All good!” I reply cheerily. Motherhood has made a liar out of me.
The man of the house appeared, waved us around to where the other cars were parked, and I pull in with a combined sense of relief and disbelief. Our car was promptly inundated with a swarm of children that surrounded my two kids and disappeared with them around the side of the house. I sank back into my seat and closed my eyes, wondering briefly if anyone would notice if I didn’t come in. I remained in the car for a few minutes more, wondering about the mental soundness of people who would choose to live here and navigate that driveway every day.
When I finally emerged I was greeted by the hostess, a chatty, energetic woman, given a tour of her spacious and pleasant house and then taken out onto the broad, three-sided veranda where the adults were watching over the children (now clustered around the rapidly inflating jumping castle) while preparing food and talking amicably among themselves. I was quickly introduced and was soon chopping fruit and answering friendly yet probing questions aimed at uncovering the what, where, who, when and why of me and my family.
Throughout the afternoon, I found myself gazing, like a thirsty woman drinking from a fountain, at the immense panoramic vista beyond the busy conviviality of the veranda. Although I had lived in this valley for many years, I had never seen it from this perspective before. This house, wedged like an eyrie on the north side of an inaccessible mountain, had a view over the valley that literally sucked the breath from my chest with its beauty. I wondered to myself if the view made it all worthwhile. I guessed it would for a while.