I grew up in a small town called Kinglake where there is no lake. We would often have people drive into town towing boats and they’d stop and ask us where the lake was at. We’d be there, sitting on the wooden bench outside the milk bar, our BMX’s lying down in the dirt and we’d tell them there wasn’t one. ‘Nah, come on mate, don’t be a smart ass, where is it?’ When I tell this story, people think I’m making it up, that no one could be that stupid to tow a boat all the way up to Kinglake (it was a small town on top of a hill, about 45 minutes from any suburban area) looking for a lake that didn’t exist. I don’t know what to say, it happened, regularly. Like, at least once a month. Maybe people confused it for Lake King, and this was in the days before GPS, I don’t know. But it happened, dudes would ask us where the lake was at. Then we’d give them directions to no where – ‘…left at the roundabout, go as far as you can down that road, then turn right and follow that till the bitumen runs out…’ Who knows where they ended up.
I always had to explain where Kinglake was to people. Even people who lived half an hour a way seemed unaware of it’s existence when I told them where I was from. It was a process of elimination from that point – ‘do you know where St Andrews is? Do you know where Whittlesea is? Greensborough?’ moving closer and closer to the city with each example till they had some vague idea of which Kinglake was in. This got worse as I got older and started working in the city. I was working nights for a while and people were amazed, startled even, that I would drive an hour to get to work and back. An hour was normal for me so I never really thought much of it, though it did get long on those drives home at 8am after work. I did fall asleep at the wheel a few times, though not enough to be seriously dangerous. But now, everyone knows Kinglake. Ever since 2009, when half the town burned down in a bushfire. It was a strange dynamic, going from no one knowing anything about the small town I came from to seeing the Prime Minister shaking hands with kids outside the local fire shed. It became something sympathetic, to be from Kinglake, then respected, like you’d been through a traumatic event, even though I hadn’t lived there for years before the 2009 fires.
I was in Canberra when the bushfires struck. I moved out in 2003, my family moved out of Kinglake in 2008. My brother stayed and was one of the senior officers in the local fire brigade. I have several other relatives who also still live there. And it was weird seeing it all unfold from another state. The town I grew up in was all over the TV – I was watching the scenes on Sky News, the blackened streets and horror stories. It was terrible, I wrote about it here. I rushed back down from Canberra and got into town (they had blockades up and were only letting locals in) and caught up with my brother but by that stage there was not much anyone could do. Everyone was just walking around in a daze, weaving between Army and CFA and police officers with news crews roving round between. It was strange, the whole thing felt surreal.
One of the strangest things for me was that after that Kinglake felt a lot less like my home. I’d grown there, running round the paddocks, swimming in dams, playing in fallen gum trees. It was me, and I felt an ownership of the place. I felt like it was mine, in some part. But after the bushfires it all changed. New buildings came in, the landscape changed. Now when I drive around town, it doesn’t feel as familiar anymore. The family house my Dad had built (in the photo above) burned down, my brother’s house burned down (he built a new, better one on the same block and still lives there), everything became newer – better, I guess, for those living there, but one of the side effects of that day for me was losing my home town. I have so many memories of Kinglake and what it was, and I remember how it contributed to me as a writer, to the stories I want to write, so it was sad to feel the connection frayed. I still love Kinglake, I still like going up there, but it’s not the same as it was. It belongs to the people there now, like I can’t claim a part of it anymore, which is fine, and it makes sense, I moved away from there a decade ago, but it always left me a bit sad. That it, through necessity, had to change. I miss the huge trees in our old backyard on Victoria Road, climbing up them to the point where they thinned out and swayed in the wind. I miss playing basketball on my dirt half-court. Of course, people lost way more than a few memories or connection with their home town, it’s trivial of me to whinge about such minor things in the larger scheme. But every now and then I think about my home town and remember that I can’t really ever go back. It’s everything I was and everything I would be.
I remember writing on my Dad’s computer into the night while the rest of my family slept, losing track of time as I got absorbed into whatever story I was putting together. I remember looking out the curtains in the night, the dirt road trailing off beneath the streetlights. No cars, no traffic. Just silence.