Homeward bound (DNA)

This article was originally published in DNA Magazine.

"And over there, that's where he learnt to swim."

It's around 3pm on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, and the small, sunburnt town of Ayr has closed down for the week. Fields of sugar cane stretch out into the hazy distance, smoke billowing from the occasional sugar mill. Harvest season. I smile dumbly at the passing view; it's this kind of family-owned farming land which forms both the heart and agricultural backbone to Australia.

Driving down the main road, the only signs of life are two messy-haired boys lying topless on the burning pavement and typing sleepily on their iPhones. It's one of the few wifi hotspots in the area, but they don't seem to mind. I watch as their sunken chests rise and fall with the calm certainty of nearby tides. The days move differently here; dripping rich and golden, like honey from a butter-knife.

It's been seven months since I first met Brad, a world away in the crowded streets of suburban Sydney, and we've just reached his hometown in Far-Northern Queensland. His mother, Sharon, sits in the drivers seat, eagerly narrating the nostalgic backdrop. I notice the way her kind yet matriarchal voice occasionally cracks and falters. She's nervous, too. This is the first time her son's brought a boy home.

"That's the church we go to on Sundays... Oh, and that's where you had your school dance, isn't it?" Sharon turns to Brad, who nods his confirmation from the passenger seat.

Cramped between suitcases, I find myself strangely overwhelmed – not by the company, nor the unfamiliar rural landscape, but by the realisation that the man I love existed so completely prior to our meeting. These were the cracked footpaths he'd skipped as a child; the trees he'd climbed, the rivers he'd swum.

This was the town that raised him.

We soon pull into a long, sandy driveway, and it's clear that we've arrived. Number fifty-one, this is home. Patterned beach towels hang from a rusted Hills Hoist and the surrounding yard is decorated with overgrown clusters of pot-plants and rogue pieces of fishing gear. Their family has lived here since 1983, with evidence of love, tears and laughter etched into each uneven surface.

"It's very old," laughs Sharon as we step inside, and I catch Brad grinning at her apologetic nature. He loves her, even more than he lets on. I pinch the palm of his hand, moist with sweat from the growing heat. It somehow feels like we've just met; as though the familiarity of routine has quietly eroded, leaving only the gentle vulnerability of two strangers holding hands.

In the living room we're greeted by David, Brad's father – a tall, hard working, and quietly proud man who doesn't feel the need to speak when there's nothing to say. He shakes my hand sturdily in welcome, a glimpse of Brad's smile in his.

"How are you enjoying Queensland so far?"

"I love it, thank you."

My voice breaks a little (just as it had when I was fourteen) and immediately shatters the first impression I'd long envisioned making; the perfect balance of resonant masculinity, with the warm  surety of a man who wouldn't dream of hurting another man's son.

Still, he offers a paternal wink - and I think I'm off the hook.

"That's Brad with his grandmother – and that's when he broke his arm skateboarding down at the park..."

We're gathered in a small semi-circle, flipping through the first of many old photo albums. I sit with my knees pressed to my chest, the pixels of Brad's past dancing across every page. The denim overalls, the botched haircuts, and the missing teeth. The scraped knees, the burnt cheeks, and the crackling marshmallows over late-night campfires. The great victories, and the small defeats. The long family road-trips down south.

I ponder the way visiting a lover's childhood home is much like reading the forgotten foreword to your favourite novel. It offers pretence to a poetry in motion; gives a depth and poignancy to the perceived normalcy of a person's character. Simply put, it fills in the blanks –  strings together each carefully structured sentence.

What initially attracts us to someone is the presented summary of their being. Love comes only from researching the fine print. With Brad, it's the way his face naturally rests in concern, not indifference (much like his father); his preference to sleeping at the very ledge of a double bed (as with the nook of his childhood single) – and his strong aversion to crowds or public transport (as here there are neither).

These are subtleties anchored in his youth – in the satiety of home. For me, these are the details which set him apart.

The faint chime of cutlery leaks in from the kitchen between snorts of laughter. It's approaching dusk and we're packing up a small picnic to enjoy on the nearby coastline; Alva Beach. It's a family tradition. Standing alone in the hallway, I curtain my naked body with a borrowed towel and struggle into a pair of shrunken board shorts.

I realise that I couldn't be further away from my home and the bustling lifestyle I've long held synonymous to it. And yet I'm convinced that I feel my horizons expand and weaken. My ideals, once stubbornly grounded, now bend and creak like palm trees in the summer breeze.

"You ready love?"

Poking her head around the corner, Sharon invites me to join her and David for the short drive. Brad promises to catch us up, and before long my ears are filled with the smooth crackle of local radio and the sharp, loving tones of marital banter. I wind down the passenger window as we pass a routine burn-off - angry flames engulf the surrounding fields, dwarfing the lone farmer who holds them cautiously at bay.

We arrive and settle into the salt-sprayed dip of a sandbank overlooking uninterrupted stretches of glassy clear water. I'm suddenly overcome by the sensation that I've been here before; sitting with Sharon as she pours herself a Southern Comfort, watching Dave as he cracks open a home-brewed beer. Slipping into the arms of nostalgia, I'm woken by the dull, unfamiliar rasp of a small engine igniting as Brad appears over a nearby sandbank.

"Ready for a spin?" He pats the leather seat behind him.

Wild bush turkey and kangaroo dart between scattered patches of dense shrubbery, avoiding our crooked path. With his bare feet at the pedals, and his hands steadily maneuvering the family four-wheeler, I manage to steal a glimpse of Brad at his purest. The daily anxieties of work and money don't exist here, and I can't help but wish that we didn't have to leave.

I wrap my hands around his waist in silent appreciation – for bringing me here, for letting me experience his youth - as we speed towards the never-ending salt pans and warm, setting sun.

Samuel Leighton-Dore