I’ve been here a year now, give or take.
A refugee from the dank fugue of a New Zealand winter and a country disappearing into the fog of its own little obsessions and dramas. A place where you knew exactly who was around you on the street, day or night, and breathed a sigh of relief if all your stuff was still there when you got home. Where live a full battalion of bitter people whose job seemed to be to write in and tell you how bad you are at your job. In my part, the driving stats were so bad one colleague described his 40-minute round trip as like flying a bomber mission over Germany during World War Two.
It was not rare to be the only person in the room not using anti-depressants. The office girls would swap their pain medication on a Friday afternoon, with extra tips on how much to drink with it to feel the least. An old friend died, probably full, certainly full-speed and weaving into the back of a truck.
Arriving in Cairns, it was hot. As a rule of thumb Cairns at 2.30am in winter is at about the midday high in NZ. Locals were having fires and wearing jackets and not using their pools because it was too ‘cold’. I sweated from pores I didn’t know I had.
Jobless and bored, about the first thing I did was go to the Cairns annual library sale in a cavern of a building in the showgrounds. What was on offer wasn’t rubbish; solid texts and worthy tomes and bright kids' books and stars like Rankin and Patterson and Reichs who travel at the front of the jet and sell a forest of paper per year.
Kids, and hippies, oldies with glasses and just stock standard ordinary people were there to hunt. There was a little artistic cabal; a woman in a pillbox hat and a hot woollen skirt their leader, and out of place and silly if she wasn’t so pretty. But everyone had a comfortable grace – the slow Tai Chi and gentle collisions of the bookstore wanderer en masse as they flicked through a thousand or more of the three dollar hardbacks and two dollar soft backs that carpeted the trestles end to end.
Some of the books could be righteously judged by their cover. Treating Satanist Abuse just trumped in its sad stupidity by The Threatening Storm - the Case for Invading Iraq. The cover of a James Lee Burke novel said it’s “…so far above the prevailing standards of crime fiction that it is pointless to make the comparison.” Probably true.
Burke’s descriptions of Arizona desert and near tropic Louisiana have always seemed as abstract as LSD before coming here. The Cairns birds are not the dun animals of home. Instead drawn by a child full of improbable designs and determined to use all the crayon colours in the box. Things grow fast. The hot sun seeming to suck trees and plants straight as arrows right out of the ground. It hadn’t rained but the bricks on a cobbled street were indiscriminately dark and light, as if the pavement has been sweating in patches.
They brought more books out all the time. A library woman said all the ones unsold would be offered to charities and then re-boxed and put out again at next year’s fair. This might have been a twist on the story told to kids about old dogs ‘going to live in the country’, but she seemed straight up. It was all too new to know how Queenslanders lie.
There were books about dynasties; the Murdoch and Waterhouse family histories. So short when absolutely right next to a book called Ancestors – 900 years of a Chinese Family. Near it, but lost in a cell phone was an Asian woman pushing a fat Eurasian baby. Incredibly, it seemed engrossed in a kids’ picture book, only looking up to smile, without artifice or reason. Apart from it was so very delighted in our new land.
Reprinted with the author's permission