We exit the plane via the metal stairs in the drizzling rain, fighter planes roaring above our heads. The sky here is grey; the air though moist is temperate, absent the cloying heat of the north.
Newcastle airport is small – unchanged from what I remember. The arrivals board lists few destinations, Brisbane, Melbourne, Cobar. A single baggage carousel shudders into life and we retrieve our stuff quickly.
On the drive from the airport we whiz down highways and across bridges past the city’s industry: plants, refineries, pipelines, ships. Finally, we pull off the two-lane highway and into a Best Western.
Our room is basic, clean, perfunctory – with the luxurious addition of a balcony. The third floor view consists of a wall of bush protected by the hotel fence-line and empty grass below. Two grey plastic chairs sit tilted against the outdoor table to allow for rain runoff.
I open the door and let the outside air flow through the flywire. The room feels moist even with the air from the battling AC.
Overnight, we sleep beneath the sheet, the quilt bundled at our feet.
In the morning, I wedge the electric kettle under the bathroom tap, ready to make use of the stock of teabags and instant coffee sachets. The girl at reception provided us with a mini bottle of fresh milk when we checked in and cheerfully encouraged us to ask for more should we run out. They have even left us a couple of complimentary bickies to have with our cuppa – completing the trifecta for true-blue Aussie roadside motel hospitality. I wonder if they will restock the bickies each day as well as the tea and coffee. They do.
The morning traffic denotes the start of another work day. Cars whiz by at 60kmh before coming to rest in a beachfront carpark where they will remain until 5.30pm, until their owners are permitted to free themselves from their box-life offices.
Waves crash against the dark rocks which line the shore. The water is peppered with surfers, some wearing wetsuits even though it’s February.
We spot a pod of dolphins their fins emerging briefly amongst the waves before they break. I do my best to hide my excitement, the wind whipping my hair, my eyes squinting behind my sunglasses as I try to glimpse more.
At Merewether we order coffee from the cafe bar and wait until the server calls our name. Friday morning trendies mooch by in their activewear, accessorizing with cardboard coffee cups and exorbitantly priced strollers.
In the afternoon we head to the lake and cast fishing lines into the water in the hope that a flathead or bream might nibble the stinky scrap of bait. Michael’s shins turn red from the sun, even though it’s overcast. I slather my arms and legs with sunscreen and wade into the cool lake until the water laps up past my ankles.
A multitude of casts later but still no fish, and the familiar tune of Waltzing Matilda beckons on the breeze. We turn our heads to see Mr Whippy’s ice-cream van tinkling towards us. Shoeless, I pick my way across the grass, swampy in places but bare in others, prickles spiking the soles of my feet. Like a child I order a soft-serve with multi-coloured sprinkles. The vendor hands it to me, the ice-cream already melting towards his dirty fingernails. I slurp it quickly as I make my way back towards the water, offering bites to Michael’s bushy beard, his hands still fully occupied with the fishing reel.
In the grey, rainy morning, we open the door to the rectangular balcony and sit on the chairs with our brown paper breakfast bags from Baker’s Delight. A kookaburra materializes immediately on the railing, eyeing my freshly-baked spinach and fetta danish with its sharp eyes and pointed beak. Cautious, we take the paper bags and continue breakfast inside, tossing a few crumbs over the railing as we do so. The kookaburra takes the hint, swooping down to the soaked grass below to retrieve the offering.
We spend the evening in our friends’ backyard, beneath the patio party lights, to the forgotten sounds of Joshua Kadison and the not-quite-forgotten Offspring. A slow-burning mosquito coil smokes quietly nearby, as we munch barbecued sausages and tomato sauce, my stemless glass of chardonnay never quite hitting bottom.