The wheels of my black suitcase rattled along beside me and my Converse squeaked on the polished concrete floor. I power-walked through the international departures terminal in Sydney towards the Qantas check-in desk. I was going away. I stood in the queue jumping from one foot to another looking at my watch and at the woman at the check-in counter kneeling in front of her open suitcases as she tried to redistribute the weight of her clothes to avoid paying extra for her checked baggage. Eleven minutes went by. I walked up to the next free counter and handed over my passport. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, check-in for that flight closed seven minutes ago. We can’t get you on that flight.’
‘But the traffic was really bad and it says online you stay open until 30 minutes before departure. Isn’t there anything you can do?’ I would have sold my soul to get on that flight. But they didn’t want my soul, just cash. And as it turns out, in an airport, seven minutes costs thousands of dollars. I left later that day on a more expensive flight, because going home with a suitcase full of awaiting adventures for even one more night would have been unbearable. I had fought too hard and come too far and I was going to make my escape that day.
In hindsight I now see that I was overly optimistic. Two years ago I had been inspired to grow vegetables and own my own chickens when the topic of food security came up in my Environmental Management class. It was disheartening to discover that I knew relatively little about where food comes from, and that seeds bought in your local store were often modified to only flower once. I needed to find heirloom seeds; ones whose fruit would produce usable seeds of their own for the next generation. I needed them before the coming of my imaginary food apocalypse. And I needed chickens. I had a vision (which I now understand was a delusion) of going out into the garden, collecting three perfect eggs from the coop and pulling perfect carrots from the soil ready to eat. ‘The chickens will eat food scraps and we’ll get free eggs! It will benefit the whole family!’ I bought three chicks and, when I opened their shoebox-home in my living room, quickly learned I was terrified of birds – even the little fluffy kind. When they started laying my sister refused to eat their eggs because, ‘No way am I eating eggs from chickens I know. It’s disgusting.’ The fridge was full of eggs.
I planted pumpkin, coriander, beetroot and tomato seeds. Each day I’d gleefully go out and find new vines on the pumpkin plant curling out into large dark leaves. I found a satisfaction in gardening, in watching a planted seed come to fruition, like in any craft one might invest in, I suppose. It felt good to get my hands dirty. When the chickens grew larger they loved it too. They especially loved the worms in the soil. The dog loved the ground bone fertiliser, sure that if he dug deep enough, he’d find the meat he was searching for. Wearing slippers and pyjamas, I stood crying in the back yard one morning, cradling the shredded remains of stunted carrots that had been torn up by chicken talons. Their roots were broken and couldn’t be re-planted. I wanted to feed the chickens to the dog. I peered into the graveyard my vegetable box had become and assessed the damage. The few carrots that survived the attack had three more days of growing before the dog thought that that patch of soil might better serve as a safe hiding place for his old bone than my carrots. Defeated, I brought the massacred vegetables inside and served them at dinner. My family ate in silence that night, each of us with two small carrots on our plate. Despite their size and lives cut short, they were delicious.
Feeble attempts were made to deter the dog and feathered raptors I had come to loathe from the plant life I was trying to create. Despite the elaborate booby traps and even hazard tape wrapped around sticks nature always found a way. Possums and birds enjoyed the feast I laid out for them, and in time, the chickens were given away and the vegetable box was knocked down.
Months before I had made the shameful move back into my parents’ house that most 20-somethings dread. Very little money and the desire to go to university drew me back to Australia as I thought it was time that the carefree student life I had grown accustomed to in the UK over the past four years might be better spent if I was actually a student at the same time. I was restless living at home though. My brief foray into the world of gardening was both an environmental choice as well as one more deep-seeded in the hope that if I invested energy and time into something in Sydney, I’d be less likely to want to leave. It baffled me that anyone would want to stay here with so much of the world out there to see. With my recent defeat in a battle against poultry still fresh in my mind, the opportunity to go on student exchange to Colorado was too good to pass up. Any excuse to leave would have been welcome – it just so happened that my means of escape was deemed scholastic.
As with most things I set my mind to, there were complications. Call it three metaphorical chickens coming to mess with my shit but ten days before I was due to leave Sydney, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. With a clenched jaw and tapping foot, I compromised with my neurologist and postponed my ‘escape’ an extra week to have more tests done and get onto the right medication. My parents were concerned but knew better than to try to convince me to stay. My determination – and desperation – was almost tangible. My father said outright to the neurologist that ‘we’ could consider postponing the trip indefinitely, should that be the best course of action. Last time I checked, ‘we’ didn’t have MS – I did. And I was going overseas. So I left my nervous and slightly sweaty neurologist behind and farewelled my parents at the airport to embark on my ludicrously expensive flight as they stood half waving, half wringing their hands to say goodbye.
I was in denial about my diagnosis and drove myself forward with the intense desire to be anywhere but ‘home.’ The emptiness I felt in Sydney was suffocating. I had spent the first thirteen years of my life in Australia, but we moved often because of what my mother described in hindsight as her boredom. I had called seven different houses ‘Home’ and before the end of seventh grade we had left the country to move to England – another move initiated by itchy feet. Cue cards and leaflets for young girls moving across the world do not exist. When I walked into class that first day of school the disappointment was almost audible because I didn’t arrive wearing a bikini and holding a surf board. One of the first things somebody asked me was, ‘Why are you ginger?’ and it didn’t take me long to learn what the social implications of having red hair were. I spent the rest of my high school career as ‘the tall girl with the great personality’ who was almost as low down on the list of girls to have a crush on as Kerry, the overweight girl with hairy moles all over her legs. They’d never seen a red haired Australian on TV before, and I’d never seen just how bad English teeth could be. There are rewards and disappointments in many things in life. It would take a full school year until one friend said, ‘You know, I always thought you were such a bitch, but you were just joking the whole time!’
Over the next six years I kept my accent but adopted the demeanour of my English friends. I moved quickly from weekends rolling down grassy hills with my sisters in rural Brisbane, to going to the cinema, shopping, and talking about boys in a town south of London. Girls there had a desire to grow up faster than I ever wanted to. They asked me how many boys I’d kissed or how many boyfriends I’d had. To me, boys were still icky. Only the year before, a boy called Rhys had sat cross-legged, picking snot from his nose, inspecting it, and then eating it while the teacher was reading to us. I saw up his shorts that one of his balls had escaped his loose underwear. If that’s what boys were carrying around, I didn’t want any of that anywhere near me, ever.
I dreamed of a homeland that I had partially created in my head, looking forward to returning to a place where food was better, weather was better and people had the same sense of humour as me. I returned at eighteen, guilty of the same crime my English classmates had made in imagining a Neighbours-inspired Australia of sunny days at the beach and barbeques with friends. I had dreamed up a homeland in my head, one that I had never fully experienced and that could never exist the way I wanted it to. I had made it my business to play the character of the aloof foreigner and relied on my accent to be the conversation starter for six years. At the time I thought it was my only noteworthy feature. That social crutch I’d come to depend on sent me right back to the UK after barely a year living in Sydney. It was comfortable, and I embraced it. When I got to Colorado for my exchange, I made it work for me there too. Most people I met were not originally from the town the university was in, and I took that as a competition to have the best answer when people asked, ‘So where are you from?’ It surprised me that so many Americans would say, ‘I wish I had an accent, it’s so cool.’ They did have accents. They just weren’t foreign ones. I carried mine around like a trophy, one that I did nothing to earn except be born in Australia.
I needed to stop chasing the idea of my perfect home that I’d planted in my brain at the age of thirteen. That deep-rooted existence of growing up in one place with the same friends in the same town was something that I longed for. I had been searching for something external to signify home for me and to confirm my identity. My family have lived in Sydney now for eight years, but I feel no emotional ties to it at all. Since I first returned, I have carried around the disappointment I felt when I learned the Sydney in my head was fictitious. Without realising it though, I’ve made wherever I’ve found myself ‘Home.’ I’ve even felt like I was coming home to places I had never been before. Albeit while after physically and emotionally draining journeys to get to my destination, I’ve found my heart racing faster, tears falling, grinning constantly or overcome with emotion simply by looking out the window of the train, plane, or bus that I was on.
In Colorado on the bus ride from Denver Airport to Fort Collins I watched the sun set over the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, changing the sky to shades of rainbow ice cream. I knew that it was somewhere I could call home. I felt that way visiting a friend in Scotland after I moved back to the UK. When the train crossed the border into Scotland and I was an hour from Glasgow, tears filled my eyes. And it wasn’t because of the smell of the rotting jacket the man next to me was wearing. I felt like I was coming home. Views from the train window showcased my new home like a movie trailer. I was supposed to stay for two weeks and I stayed for two years.
‘Home’ is a transient idea. Home can be wherever I find myself. It’s exciting to be able to find and make a new home wherever I go, to feel that quickened heartbeat that sounds out to me, this could be it. I urge everyone to try it sometime. Once you learn which coins you’ll need to pay for your drinks at the bar, you’ll thrive. It would be a terrible shame to one day wake up thinking, “Now I wish I’d done that.” Sometimes things don’t always go as planned though. Sometimes a metaphorical chicken will come and shake you from the ground, unsettle your roots and leave you crying in your pyjamas for the neighbours to see. Humans are resilient though. I’m resilient, it just took me a little while to get there. I’ve been cursed with the blessing of having no roots to a particular place in the world. Having itchy feet is the metaphorical heirloom, passed down to me by my parents who got a little bored doing everything the same as everybody else themselves. After all, we’re all just trying to find the sun, feel the air in our lungs, and maybe even grow a little in the process.
Allysia Murray is a Sydney-based creative nonfiction writer. It was after winning a public speaking award in primary school that she realised her passion for storytelling could be a full-time pursuit. Her travels abroad continue to inspire her ambition to explore the landscapes and characters she encounters. She is currently looking for new excuses to leave the country.