It’s good to know your place in the world. I recently found myself in a very good place in the world: Walhalla, Victoria. Getting to Walhalla requires a gruelling drive the length of Melbourne’s south eastern freeway. If you live on the cheap side of town and you’re by rights too cheap to pay the toll road it requires a tedious shuffle through city traffic. You go through hell but you wind up in heaven. An abandoned gold mining town hacked into a damp mountain valley, lit up with European ferals: elms, poplars, maples, cottage gardens. “We even welcome agapanthus here,” said Russell who worked at the hotel and drove the town fire truck and led the gardening group who planted all the beautiful un-Australian trees, which changed colour like cuttlefish and filled the town with the comfort and innocence of a child’s painting. The population was 19.
Walhalla has the world’s prettiest campground, set next to the gently trickling Stringer’s Creek. But for once we wouldn’t be camping in the cold with the plebs. No, I was in town on serious journalistic business, and we were put up in superb comfort at the Star Hotel. Would sir, mam and child care for dinner on the house? A glass of the Mornington Peninsula’s finest? Free tickets for the historic steam train journey to the Thompson River? Mints on the pillow, brandy by the fire, this was most definitely my place in the world.
The next day it rained and we started the torturous journey back through hell. The kid got car-sick. The wipers made a terrible screech every time they swept across the windscreen. Dickhead drivers made the freeway intolerable. Traffic banked up as we inched our way through well-to-do Kew. I did the sums. If we got a good run we’d be home in time to put on some soup and run a hot bath. Then, the clutch went.
Our shitty, 17 year-old car was now hanging limply in the middle of an impatient intersection. I jumped out to push and we corralled the stricken thing off the main road and down a small, residential street. I surveyed our predicament and made a measured pronouncement: “Well, fuck this.”
The owners the house we had washed up in front of arrived home in their BMW and started surveying their own predicament, which was a newly-arrived family of wet gypsies flayed out in front of their house, their life’s possessions sprawled on the nature strip (we had unloaded the car in anticipation of the inevitable tow truck). The Ralph Lauren-shirted man of the house could have issued a decree similar to mine, but instead he took pity and gave us generous run of their outdoor furniture, evidently on the proviso we play endless games of fetch with their dog and his glistening, saliva-coated ball. After a series of dreary phone calls requiring credit card dictation, plus a visit from a mobile mechanic who issued a death certificate at 4:37pm, we watched our heap of metal get yanked on the back of a tow truck and sail off into the west.
Where was my place in the world now? From first-class pampering in Walhalla to this, getting our sorry asses kicked slowly and resolutely all the way back to where we belong, to the listless western suburbs. I’ve always hated reality checks.
The next day my dad rang with some advice. Get a better car. Get a new car, a flash car. It’s about perception. It’s about image. “You’re an accomplished journalist,” he said. “You don’t want to be seen turning up to interviews in a shit box car.” It probably wasn’t a good time to tell him I normally turn up to interviews on public transport.
I hung up and headed straight to the cupboard, reached deep and pulled out a delicious can of Campbell’s pumpkin soup for lunch. I knew it was there somewhere. It’s good to know your place.