After two decades spent as a legal alien in the UK and US, Madonna Deverson returned home to Australia with no fixed address. When the welcome back parties dry up, she finds it not at all like the home she imagined.
I am upset. There are refugees on Nauru, false narratives about African gangs and typos in The Age. Google doesn’t work, Amazon won’t deliver every little thing I need, neither will the local sushi place. I must physically shop, going from store to store before they close at 6pm. I can’t find places open for lunch after 3 or dinner after 9pm. Something called the NBN is coming soon, any day now, hopefully before I throw my laptop out the window. I am geo-blocked from the world.
I am curious. Why do I need private hospital insurance and an ambulance membership when I have a Medicare card? Why can’t I get my unfinished restaurant meal in a doggie bag when I have paid for the food and there are homeless people on the streets? How do old people do their banking if they don’t have a smartphone or computer? If Aussie kids are Weet-Bix kids, why is there a Weet-Bix for Kids range? I tweet #justasuggestion at companies which makes me feel better but won’t fix anything.
I am frustrated. I can’t get the prescriptions I need from a GP as they’re controlled substances but I can buy codeine over-the-counter, “not for much longer” the pharmacist reminds me as I travel widely to stock up my supply. I can’t buy e-cigarettes but people still smoke real cigarettes in outdoor dining areas. Retailers complain of “exorbitant rent” for floorspace but sell the same products rather than differentiating their stock. I need replacement heads for my Philips electric toothbrush, “we only stock Oral B,” says the Harvey Norman man. Ribena bottles are a different shape, Summer Rolls have less coconut, and steamed dimmies are now called South Melbourne Dim Sims.
I am a fibber. To the sales assistant when I don’t know about payWave or tap-and-go on the EFTPOS machine. To the vigilant tram inspector at the South Melbourne exchange when I don’t know what a myki is. To Yarra City Council when I can’t download the PayStay app to park my car on Smith Street, Collingwood. To the bank teller when I get fined for going over my credit limit twice in a statement month even though they let me. To the police officer who pulls me over for allegedly applying “lippy” while driving (I wasn’t, I was holding a pen). I say “I’m sorry, I’ve been living overseas for 20 years and just got back, I won’t do it again.” I play dumb and flex my #whiteprivilege.
I am proud. My dachshund survives quarantine and quickly makes friends with the resident border collie. Mum and I save the dogs from a snake near the pool, grabbing shovels and shepherding it away before chopping off its head. I ask Dad what to do with the dead possum in the backyard, “plastic bag and in the rubbish bin” he says and “well done country girl” when I do this without fuss. Mum still does aqua aerobics without getting her hair wet or smudging her mascara. We keep a tally of how many blow flies we kill, and dad yells “ripper!” if I’ve had a particularly good run. I still barrack for Carlton.
I am nostalgic. I know each radio station frequency and lyrics to Oz Rock songs on Gold 104.3FM. I smile at the hum-buzz-ding-rattle-squeak of a tram and fondly acknowledge old stomping grounds along the route. At dinner parties, I am asked again which school I went to and whether I remember how to drive on the left. It’s the only thing people really ask, “what’s it like driving on the left, you know, the right side of the road?” they joke. Then they discuss Trump, terrorism and mass shootings, “I don’t know how anyone could live there,” they say. I respond “it’s a big country, not everyone is like that.” I smile at how much their properties are worth and listen to their long-service leave travel plans. They’re glad to have me home and I’m grateful for old friends. We continue conversations as if I’d never left, as old friends do.
I am here. I don’t talk about my achievements or experiences and no one really asks. I can’t tell stories of my life before, I don’t want to be a bragger. I can’t complain, I don’t want to be a whinger. So I don’t. I bite my tongue. I stay silent. I wear black again. I fade into the landscape. They say no matter where you go, you take yourself with you. I am an alien in my own country.