A few years ago I spent some time in a small town in rural Western Australia. I’ve written about it for Cool Perth Nights before, but it’s been on my mind lately, as I’m heading back to WA soon to live within walking distance from the ocean. So here is the story of my time in the town.
After living in Melbourne from age 21-26, I got a one-way ticket back home for a friends wedding – my mum paid for it, and I couldn’t afford a return ticket – so I ended up staying west and taking a job in a hotel in this country town, because I was sick of the city, and I wanted to do something different.
This country town is positioned along C.Y. O’Connor’s pipeline, on in-between-er mining/agricultural zoning on Kaprun lands, home of the Kalaamaya language. The town has a population of around 700 people, a number that has decreased massively since the mining boom days, and it seems to be kept from becoming a ghost town (like many others around it) because the highway between Perth and Kalgoorlie runs right through it. That is where the hotel I lived and worked at was situated: on the highway.
The town was lined with empty shops owned by one man, the man who owned the hotel I worked at, and the shops were all empty because he wouldn’t reduce the rent on them in order to encourage small businesses to flourish. In the windows of these shops, there were printed and laminated signs that helpfully reminded passerbys to smile. The town used a lot of water to keep the ornamental plants healthy, but the fruit and veg they imported to sell in the local supermarket was expensive and nearly rotting.
One time while I was working, I met a guy who was riding his bike from the eastern states to Perth. His face was red with wind+sun burn. He was the only person I met who came through the hotel who was around my age and not a bogan or a businessman. I bought a six-pack after I knocked off work that night, went to his room, knocked on the door, and invited him to sit on the pipeline and share the beers with me. He told me about his travels and we got along fine, though I remember worrying that I was too much of a downer to be asking a stranger to join me in beers and conversation.
I got to know the guy who ran the junk shop on the main street; he was the only person in the town I could talk to about permaculture without being scoffed at. He was lovely, worked for the council, had a little mine somewhere out of town so her could fossick for gold, a little extra income, and he taught the local kids how to play chess. We drank wine and smoked ciggies in his shop and talked about philosophy, spirituality, writing, music and art. He wanted to meet my mother, and gave me a gift to give to her when I left town.
I spent some time with a lady who volunteered at the museum; I think she liked me at first because her grand-daughter and I share the same name. She drove us around to show me some of the local sights, told me about growing up in the area, told me about her mother being taken away from her family’s lands near the Nullabor, showed me how to recognise a kangaroo resting spot, allowed me in to her home and showed me the photos of her family that completely cover the walls of her loungeroom. She was kind and gentle, but fierce.
One day, in a moment of frustration during one of my visits, she told me that the father of her children takes advantage of his role as a social worker in Kalgoorlie: he and his brother would supply some of the women who come in from the remote areas with booze and cigarettes in exchange for sex. The way she spoke about it was telling, and heartbreaking. Not only was she disgusted with the behaviour of the man, but she was also disgusted with the women. She spat the word “Black” when she described them, even though she too was an Aboriginal woman, though of more Caucasian heritage than the women she was speaking of.
In another conversation, she told me she suspects that even though she has won more Bowls tournaments than any other member of her Bowls Club, she will never be promoted from Vice President to President, purely because of her skin colour. She is the only Aboriginal lady in the team. I sighed, nodded my head, then shook it, and told her I think that is unfair.
A young woman I met, granddaughter of my boss, told me about some people close to her. The boy she most recently kissed at the time of our conversation witnessed his father stab his mother to death. He lives in a tiny room behind the local chemist. She brought food to him most days. I saw him riding his BMX around the town every day, always alone. She also told me that her brother’s girlfriend stabbed her step-father because he was physically abusive to the girl’s mother and sister.
When I first started working at the hotel, my boss told me I wasn’t allowed to go to the other pub in town, and at first I saw no reason to, so complied. But then I was invited by my new friends, and I went there because I do what I damn well please, and I experienced the revelery that was lacking in my workplace, the freedom of stories being shared, the personalities of humans that one can only see after the sun goes down and blood streams flow with booze.
The town suffers, a lot, but there is beauty amongst the pain, the monotony, the failing crops and shut down mines. I just wish the people there weren’t so fucking stubborn so as to completely ignore ideas about sustainable localized food production, but I feel like maybe the junk-shop owner will teach the local kids more than just chess skills, and then maybe things in the town will start to change for the better.