Written and narrated by Nick Gadd. Music performed by Jack Gramski. Williamstown Library, Australia, April 2016. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Andrew and Reuben Maskell. Photo by Alan Attwood: Jack (far left), Nick (centre).
Altona, Sunday afternoon, September 2015
In the suburbs,
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving
It’s a hot heavy Sunday in September, and I’m in the car park at Bunnings Altona teaching my daughter to drive. It’s quiet at that time: the sausage sizzle guys pack up, the weekend rush slows down; the torrent of consumers of paint and sheeting, nail guns and tomato plants, hoses and woodchips abates to a trickle. The car park’s near-empty. We’re good to go.
We tape the L-plates to the windscreen and back window. Gen eases her way into the driver’s seat – the driver’s seat! – adjusts the seat position, the mirrors, wiggles her feet on the pedals. I give her instructions, trying to invest my voice with the gravitas of an airline pilot, more to calm my own nerves than hers. We move off.
We begin with a small circuit of the block: out of the car park, left into one empty street, then another, then another, and back into Bunnings again. I’m content with this route but after 15 circuits Genny is keen to range more widely. So next time we take a right and head towards the main road, stopping at the lights. Snorting trucks rampage towards us from both directions; I visualise rebel bikie gangs, petrol heads, and Mad Max-like scenarios of doom. It’s all I can do not to grab the wheel. But Genny is doing fine. When the lights change she eases forward into the correct lane. The speedo touches 30, 40, 50. I start to relax. A song begins to run through my head: The Suburbs by Canadian band Arcade Fire.
We have been driving this road for more than a decade now, on our way to netball matches at the Altona Basketball Centre. Saturday afternoons meant the car loaded with two daughters, netball bibs, balls and drink bottles; the sounds of squeaky shoes on polished floors, whistles, sirens, cheers, occasionally tears. Scalding tea from an urn and pies from a pie-warmer. There were long afternoons, but plenty of drama: the first time they scored a goal; that grand final we lost by one. The infamous ‘blood in the pool’ water polo match between Hungary and Russia at the 1956 Olympics was nothing compared with our rivalry with the Altona Fireflies Under-11s.
We drive on, towards another landmark: Melissa’s café, where we used to go for coffee and ice cream after the game, when we still had June with us. The fog of Alzheimers was closing in but she still enjoyed the games, sitting serenely on the sidelines, watching the young girls bounding and leaping, not sure which of them were her granddaughters, but enjoying their energy, their life, their youth. June’s gone now and we no longer have much reason to go to Melissa’s.
Past the Altona refinery, that surreal landscape of white drums and silver towers, a palace from an industrial fairy tale, belching fire and smoke. On a summer night, from a distance, it looks oddly magical, its flames burning the sky as if wizards had summoned them.
There are other places of lights around here, too: we know these streets from long summer evenings before Christmas, when it’s our tradition to drive around admiring dwellings adorned with fairy lights and candy canes, inflatable Santas and squadrons of reindeer straddling suburban roofs, garages converted into stables for the baby Jesus and his entourage. We have our favourites, places we’ve visited ever since the girls were little. One house was decorated by an elderly couple every year in memory of a lost daughter: over the door were the words ‘For Maria’.
So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young
Want to hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done
It’s nearly dusk so we turn for home, under the Westgate Freeway, along Francis Street and back towards Yarraville.
There is the clothing factory where our neighbours used to work until it closed ten years ago, all the jobs offshored. A developer’s been sitting on the land for years, but there’s been no development. In the meantime, the place gets demolished in stages and what’s left falls into ruin. Unexplained fires break out in the middle of the night, but by the time the firies arrive, those who lit them have fled. The boiler house chimney and sawtooth roof are silhouettes against the evening sky, like the relics of a lost civilisation.
Over the coming months we’ll gradually expand our range. We’ll visit Williamstown, Newport, Footscray; we’ll drive over the bridge and explore Port Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda; one day we’ll venture into the madness of the CBD. If all goes to plan, Gen will pass her driving test and won’t need me beside her.
Beyond that, our children will head even further — onto new roads, other cities, new continents. All that’s in the future. But they’ll carry the suburbs with them when they go. These streets of stories.