One of the warnings given to us when first contemplating a tree-change was that it would destroy all our old friendships, with no guarantee of any compensating closeness from the locals of our new home town. I particularly remember being told the dismal fate of one who gave up the bright lights of Sydney for the shadowy reaches of Tasmania: “Never seen again.” Enough said, apparently.
What actually happened when we upped-sticks seven years ago and decamped from the Illawarra region of New South Wales, with its green, volcanic hills and tumbling surf, to the romance and sheep-dotted tablelands of New England? Well, the nay-sayers were right in one respect: the flood of curious visitors from Down South gradually dried up to a bare trickle, so that now the only regulars from our past lives are Kari and Jack — who actually come from Brisbane so that doesn’t count — and Gerry.
I write these words in the knowledge that Gerry is about to descend on us again and so we are girding our loins, as they used to say, for his directness, an admired quality in the free-wheeling Illawarra to be sure, but quite unknown in staid New England. It’s not for his directness that we brace ourselves but rather from not wanting to hurt his feelings should the obliqueness of social relations in this region have rubbed off on us.
But the other side of the forbidding ledger, that there would be no compensatory friendships among our fellow New Englanders, has been a curious experience to say the least. Because it didn’t take us long to realise that the demographics of inland Australia were working against us. In NSW regional towns, the most striking observation is the skewing of the population towards the very young and the very old, with the intermediate cohort, those between, say, 25 and 60 very thin on the ground. Except among those few working in the faltering services occupations, like lawyers, shop assistants, tradies, teachers and nurses.
The thing about service occupations is that you only make contact with them when you’re in need of a service. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine a conversation along the lines of, “Yes, Mrs Wetherell, I would like a kilo of those Guyra potatoes and would you like to visit us next …” I’m much too reserved for an opening gambit as bald as that and I think she would be, too.
It’s then you realise there is truth in a modern take on an old saw — not about familiarity breeding contempt (as our parents often liked to say) but in being the oil of human relationships instead. All the old strategems trumpeted by booster organisations like the local chambers of commerce, for example, such as ‘say hi to a neighbour’ or delivering ‘welcome wagon’ baskets of goodies or joining a hobby group, seemed to open doors, it’s true, before closing again, even faster. For it is an inescapable fact — glossy television ads for retirement resorts on the coast to the contrary — that the deepest friendships grow out of protracted contact in a shared endeavour, for we are, ultimately, social animals, are we not?
From our experience, unless you have kids of school age or you fluke a job, tree-changing is not necessarily going to replicate the social order you enjoyed in your old life and which you turned your back on in tree-changing. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not whingeing about isolation, just tempered by what we found in regional Australia once we stepped through the boosters’ portals. We have great neighbours — in fact, the best we have ever had — and a nice range of friends, once we understood where we fitted into the general disposition of New England society, but it isn’t the same as the open-armed Illawarra. Which leaves us with Gerry.
Gerry is a one-off. Not only is he a meticulous carpenter, a real craftsman, but he is also a motorcycle nut. And he is forever buying bikes on the net, then flying, invariably to somewhere in Queensland, to finalise the deal, before riding his new big toy back via the inland route (and, I suspect, giving the speed limit a run for its money), before pulling in at our little nest for a pit stop along the way.
After an absence of 14 months, will Gerry sense something in us he can no longer recognise? I don’t know, really. What I do know is that he will be shocked by the transformation that has occurred in what was once a show-piece of New South Wales. He will see the empty shopfronts scarring the streets of the CBD. He will see the few customers in those that are still open. He may even conclude that this might be caused by people having no money in their pockets or, if they do, hanging on to it in fear that worse is yet to come.
But what he is certain to notice are the ravages of the drought when he goes into our backyard to gaze fondly on his masterpiece, the elegant verandah he built in the first heady weeks of our tree-change. It’s not that everything has died, but that everything has gone. What was once a lush lawn is now bare brown dust, the billowing gusts of which might add an unexpected coating to his lungs. And should he cross the road to say “Hi” to one neighbour he will see the huge, ankle-breaking sink-hole that has suddenly, inexplicably, appeared on the nature strip. If he waves to the other neighbour, he will see the 12mm-wide cracks now scarring brick foundations and retaining walls.
If he stays here long enough he may even sense the swirling rumours about closing public swimming pools, trucking in water and evacuating residents, as though we were at war. But I think he may decide it’s better to hit the road as quickly as good manners would allow, aiming like an arrow for the comforting embrace of a more familiar NSW — Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong, that is.