By Andy Connor
Edited by Veronica Sullivan
My revenge against Wang has been to reduce it to a series of humorous anecdotes. I know just how to tell them.
There’s the one about how the local technical college used to be called Wangaratta King College, which they eventually changed because … wang-king college, you get it.
There’s the one about how I was there when our first and only cinema opened, which is an anachronism that makes city people’s eyes widen like moons.
There’s the one about how Nick Cave got expelled from my high school – and how, with almost artful pettiness, the music department still excludes him from their dingy Hall of Fame because of it.
There’s the one about walking home from a youth theatre rehearsal, and having the Under 21s break from training to yell “POOFTER” and break a beer bottle on my head.
Nobody ever guesses that I grew up in a country town. I don’t sound like I did, which isn’t an affectation I picked up later in life. Even while growing up in Wangaratta, I didn’t sound like I was from Wangaratta. I’ve always sounded nerdy and effeminate, stuttery and cerebral, pedantic and strangely Canadian. Wangaratta, on the other hand, sounds like a Brucks truck hitting a bike. It sounds like a muffled domestic violence call in the house next door. To me, Wangaratta will always sound like a chorus of disbelieving guffaws as glass shatters around you and blood begins trickling down your neck.
There are tactile pleasures to the place too. The furnace blast of hot wind when you open the front door. The slow squishy pedalling of a flat-tyred bike on melting tar roads. The pushy resilience of scratchy yellow grass.
The clean Blu-Tack-coloured concrete of St Michael’s, which my older brother tried to skate on before getting told off by an elderly parishioner in pressed brown slacks. (My brother gamely argued that Jesus would have wanted us to skate.) Three Mile Creek, with its sad floating condoms and quasi-mythic tiger snakes. The duelling milk bars on Appin Street, one of which solid Fizzos while the other stubbornly sold Fads. The Wangaratta Table Tennis Association, filled with the pock of middle-aged fascists rallying under corrugated iron. The rows of single-storey houses, sunk low and wide by the heat. The whole connoisseur’s spectrum of gravel. The sky plastered on your eyeballs. Splinters from the playground.
The truth is: I remember the things that helped me escape from Wangaratta better than I remember the place itself.
I can remember every single route in Pokémon Blue in vivid detail, but can’t recall the names of the actual streets I rode to school every day. I can recite the names of every random Ravenclaw mentioned in the Harry Potter books, but have forgotten the names of most of the kids I actually went to school with. To me, all the bright lines and harsh sounds of Wangaratta faded in comparison to our dumpy beige Amiga 500 computer, with its black-and-red joystick and tinted plastic container of floppy disks, each elaborately hand-illustrated with blue biro supercars and street fighters. Once every few years, our dad went and bought a new shopping bag full of games, all illegally cracked for us by a guy who lived in a trailer at the foot of his mum’s property.
My childhood ambitions didn’t extend much further than one day becoming that guy. Imagine having a trailer all to yourself, I marvelled, and every Amiga game. I stood nervously behind my dad as he paid for the games, not saying anything, taking in the Star Trek bedspread and goofy plasma ball as if it were a vision of unfeasible paradise.
When all your fondest memories of a place are of the ways you escaped it, the place itself starts to flicker and dim. I don’t know how to think about Wangaratta outside of how I experienced it. It’s the place where I was small. It’s the place where I was scared and arrogant and self-involved. It’s the place where I was still trying to be a boy.
This warps my memories in utterly predictable ways. I remember Wangaratta impossibly wide and flat. I remember it unflowering and imposing and impassive. I remember it seething with masculine threat.
People want to think that violence only lives in the moment of it, but it doesn’t work like that. It leers and sprawls across your whole life; it changes the way you hold your books. One night at the Table Tennis Association, I was curled up on one of the threadbare old armchairs, reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda between my matches, and a paunchy middle-aged man came up behind me. He grabbed the book out of my hands – “What are ya reading?” – and the old paperback immediately flew apart into a bunch of different pieces, scattering across the concrete floor. He laughed and said, “Whoops,” leaving me to piece the book back together as he sauntered off.
This was a negligible incident; on the Richter scale of small-town violence, it barely registers. But the analogy between this man and Mr Wormwood, Matilda’s book-hating father, was not lost on me. Reading made me a target, just like it had her. Unlike Matilda, though, I had no power in my eyes (beyond short-sightedness) and no stomach for revenge. I just had to awkwardly hold my copy of Matilda together every time I read it after that, and tighten my grip on my book whenever I sensed someone walking behind me. It took me until a few years ago to even try to unlearn that tic. Even now, I occasionally catch myself doing it.
That’s the sort of thing I keep with me from Wangaratta, toting it through every move of house like my leather-bound folder of Pokémon cards.
There are only a few objects I’ve kept, and they’re a weird group. There’s my brother’s inexplicable ‘Rocklord’ toy (basically like a Transformer action figure, but one that, instead of turning into a car or truck, transforms into an inert rock, presumably striking terror into the hearts of scissors everywhere). There’s a small cheap plastic bear with “JEANS” printed in red text in the place where his actual jeans might have been on a less synecdochic toy. There’s the folder of curiously mumblecore comics my friend Adam and I made about our teddies in grade one, sixteen years before he’d kill himself and I’d avoid his funeral.
Some things you keep, and other things you lose forever.
At five years old, I was crawling under our veranda, inhaling dirt and tears in the horrified search for a teddy I’d never see again. At 11, I was frantically scanning the streets as the sun drained away, trying to find the class guinea pig who had mysteriously vanished on my watch. At 14, in the boozy dusk of a theatre after-party, as everyone else was laughing and singing along to Queen, I saw an older guy I’d admired drunkenly grope a girl my age. I never spoke to her about it. I never spoke to him again.
The last time I headed back, it was for a friend’s 21st. I was able to get a lift with my parents, so I was in the back seat, sunk deep in my book and my headphones the way I’d always been on trips like this. It was late afternoon, and sunlight slanted through the car. I hadn’t looked up once the whole trip. I was going back for a person, not for a place, and I wanted the place to know that.
When we turned into our street, I didn’t look up. When we pulled into the driveway, I was affectless. Only when the car stopped did I stretch slightly, put my bookmark in my book, and – grumpily, dispassionately – opened the car door.
Instantly, the smell overwhelmed me. Before I’d even stepped foot on the ground, it had flooded into every corner of the car: crabgrass and dandelions and dust. Eucalypts and smoke‑stacks and wattle. Horse-shit and bloody knees and boredom. I hadn’t even realised that Wangaratta had a smell, let alone that it smelled like my entire childhood.
I had every reason to loathe this place, but my senses overwhelmed those faculties. It was like a dog smelling its owner after years away. My whole body, inchoately yelling home! Before I knew what was happening, I’d started to cry.
How do you feel nostalgia for a place you never felt you belonged?
Your body does it for you, it turns out. Over your objections, and under your skin. Like a second, horrible, silent heart.