THERE WAS A CASUALNESS to those times. A casual ambience that seems to have dissolved into thin air. It was a perception, a feeling sitting so far in the background of life that it went unrecognised. It wasn’t something you could reach out and touch. It was like Thunderclap Newman said in the popular song of the time — there was something in the air (and here). We would only become aware of this casualness to life many years later after society acquired that edgy, panicky sense that comes with uncertainty. To see something that once was you need something new to draw out the comparison.
Casual. Yes, she was that. Casual but not lackadaisical. Casual and capable. She was smart and intelligent, that young woman who steered her Kombi along the winding road that connects Murwillumbah and its surrounding cane fields with Tyalgum. Her browny-blonde hair cut short and worn with a fringe, she was a latter day version of how she had once described herself as “an old Cronulla surf dog”.
“Old” didn’t refer to her age, it was obvious. It meant something like ‘one-time’, something that had been a phase in her life that she had moved on from when she left that beachside suburb but that still existed somewhere deep down in her psyche. She might have left Cronulla far behind but she retained that slim, fit looking figure that she had all those years ago. That might also have had something to do with her once being a competitive basketball player and an instructor at a sport and recreation camp.
Casual was the way I had met her. I was working in the adventure equipment industry, the same industry I had worked in in a southern state before returning to the city. It was supposed to be a filler job, something to provide an income while I figured out what to do with my life, but it was to persist for a time — such was the casual attitude so many took to life then. One day, she walked into the shop where I worked and that’s how it started.
The road enters Tyalgum and presents us with a T-junction. If we take the left turn we will soon run out of asphalt and end up in the backblocks of the Tweed Valley. So we take the right turn and end up in a different part of those backblocks where the Border Ranges rise steeply from the farmland of the valley. But, first, we take the not-difficult-to-make-decision to stop at the Tyalgum pub for a cold beer. It is a hot summer’s day, after all.
Jeff had told us where to turn off the narrow asphalt strip and cross the ford across the shallow stream. We do this and, eventually, come to the old farmhouse, its timbers worn, weathered and greyed by the decades, its big farm dam immediately in front of it. Picturesque in that pastoral sort of way that appeals to city folk who would rather be out here in a place like this instead of in their house in the suburbs from where they commute to their uninteresting jobs in town on weekdays. Appealing it might be but few find the courage to turn their dreams into goals.
The farmhouse is not our destination so we drive past and follow the track up the slope. Do this, Jeff had told us, and you will come to an old cow bails. That’s where we live.
Home — an old cow bails that had been the milking shed when dairying had sustained the earlier occupants of that old house below. Those days were long gone as were the farmers for whom dairying had been a livelihood. They had been replaced by a new generation seeing a different way to live on the land. That’s Jeff and Kay and their two young children, a close family renting the cow bails while they search for somewhere to live their own rural life. That won’t happen just yet, but it is one of those dreams that had become a goal and that would eventually be achieved, and not all that far away, either.
A casual approach
Like my companion, it would be accurate to describe the family’s approach to life as casual. Nothing seemed to perturb them, not their moving around the region from place to place, not Jeff’s sojourn and only partially-successful periods in the city to work to bring home needed funds, not his periods in and out of work. Far from lazy, this was the experience of many who had left the city to live in the subtropics of the north of the state. The family had a goal of settling but no coherent plan to move towards it. It was a spacious, casual approach to life that seemed to fit well with their contemporaries hereabouts and, somehow, with this green landscape of farm, field and mountain.
We too — my companion and I — were on our own casual and vague search for some better way of living outside the city. She had told me not all that long after we met that she used to live in these parts in the small regional city, small though still the largest in the region, a little to the south of where we now were with Jeff and family. She had been on the search then, too. She still was. Undefined it was and finding that new way of living was an elusive pursuit.
As the years went by she lost some of that casualness she had when we met, something I put down to her finding a livelihood doing what she liked doing but for which she created something of an ambitious and intense workload. Its started consuming more and more of her time.
Although I lived for awhile in the popular coastal town up Jeff and family’s way, not far from where my companion had once lived — a town with its population of surfers and counterculture folk — we never managed to live there together. Her city job and no local replacement for it resulted in our finding no homeplace up that way.
Jeff now has his own place to practice his casual approach to living — his sailboat. And my companion, that smart woman who had driven her Kombi along that winding road that connects Murwillumbah to Tyalgum — now she is looking to leave her work and leave this city. Now we look not north to the subtropics but south to the cool temperate region of a big island hanging off Australia’s southern coastline. There we plan to resume that casual way of life that we, and so many others, once had.