(1996) - Extract
month into my Australian trip and I was still with the backpackers
Was this what I'd come to Australia for? To hear two sparks
from Bromley male-bonding with a cabinet maker from Cranleigh?
'Trouble is yer on the piss every night, trips and shit, soon
goes' ... 'Yeah, fucken right' ... 'Where you goin' next?'...
'Bali' ...'Oh yeah, we was there just before we came here, they
won't leave you alone, come up and try and sell you stuff and
I was back on the Greyhound, heading north into Queensland up
the Pacific Highway. Coming round the bend at Coolangatta you
can see Surfers Paradise on the horizon, the long row of high-rises
a depressing grey silhouette against the blue sky and sea. In
Sydney, people had told me endlessly about this place. 'It's
terrible - but you've got to see it.' 'The sun sets behind the
skyscrapers at three.' 'It's like a honeypot, we like having
it there, it keeps the Japs away from the rest of the coast.'
And from a man in London: 'If ever there wasn't a paradise -
that - is - it.'
At the bus terminal out got: me,
two American girls in sex-kitten sawn-off denims, a little Japanese
man in a day-glo baseball cap and the Bromley/Cranleigh trio.
We crossed the enormous shiny floor to the Backpackers' Advice
Centre. (This backpacker business runs like clockwork. When
you check out of your hostel at Byron Bay they give you brochures
for the next place you're headed, then when you've chosen, they
book you in and arrange for you to be met. All for $13 a night.
It would be entirely possible to go from Sydney to Cairns without
ever once lifting your pack to your back.)
I was picked up by Pete from the
Sun 'n Surf. He was a swarthy Pom - from Manchester - with a
ponytail and a huge infectious smile. 'Mark,' he said, picking
up two of my bags. 'Good to meet you, mate.' On the way to the
hostel in the minibus he filled me in: 'Basically, Sun 'n Surf
is a really relaxed hostel. We don't lock you up at 10.30 at
night. If you want to make a noise or scream and shout that's
fine. We like noise.'
He showed me to my dorm. It had two
Habitat-style pine bunks crammed into what had clearly been,
not so long ago, a dingy motel room. Nobody had even bothered
to redecorate. The broken phone fitting was still stuck to the
wall. 'There's a Puerto Rican bloke and two girls I think. That's
your bed, all right, mate.'
There were bras and knickers scattered everywhere. Through the
frosted-glass window of a battered sliding door I could see
the silhouette of a girl taking a shower. 'I won't be long,'
she called. She emerged, wrapped in a towel, long blonde hair
dripping, pretty as a Silvikrin ad.
She was Elin from Norway. This was
a good-fun hostel and Surfers was OK. No really, it was good
fun. She and her friend Margarethe had come for one night, 'just
to see it', and ended up staying three. She laughed, grabbed
some clothes and went back to the shower.
Came a knock at the door. It was
Ross, a Canadian with army-short dark hair. 'Elin,' I called
through to my new friend, 'somebody for you.' When she appeared
this time it was the Flake ad: flowing, kneelength floral.
'I'm OK, yes.'
'You had breakfast yet?'
'I'm making some downstairs.'
'OK, I'll come.
It had clearly been a long night of passion; now there was the
tricky business of making friends in daylight.
I went for a stroll into town. The
geography of Surfers wasn't hard to grasp. Three parallel straight
lines: the long straight strand of beach; above that the palm
trees and luxury high-rises of the Esplanade; three hundred
yards back from that, behind a legoland of hotels and apartment
blocks, the double-track Gold Coast Highway. At a right angle
in the centre was Cavill Avenue Mall, where you could sit outside
cafes which served flat whites and banana smoothies and sushi
and all-day breakfasts (NEW! KEBAB BREAKFAST! shouted a sign)
or wander into shops which sold Swatches and speedos and Rip
Curl boardshorts and Mako, Police and Porsche sunglasses and
jewellery and Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon and the Bob Hawke
Memoirs and cameras and real estate and turquoise T-shirts with
three embossed gold shells reading SURFERS PARADISE and even,
for the home-loving, a turquoise Cronulla Pottery teapot or
an Original Painting On Queensland Timber. Here was a shop called
Condom Kingdom; and here, outside one of the big all-Japanese
stores, was a giant furry koala: KANGAROO - $300 said the sign
round its neck.
Back in the tiny dorm I found the
Puerto Rican, lying on his bottom bunk wearing nothing but a
black moo-stache and a pair of very tight white scants. He was
in his thirties, brown as a walnut, smelling strongly of aftershave.
'Hi,' he said, 'I'm Carlos.' He was from Seed-knee and today
he was in a very good moot. He'd just got a job. Just washing
up, that sort of thing, at this place called the Hog's Breath
Cafe. 'But it's money,' he chuckled. 'So I can stay a leedle
longer with my friends at Surfers.'
I wasn't feeling like a protracted chat so I went downstairs.
It was late afternoon and a merry water-fight was in progress
in the pool. Two girls in Sun 'n' Surf T-shirts had been chucked
in and were screaming and splashing and oh, oh, OH YOU BASTARD
In the lounge area an Aussie with
the kind of physique I've always aimed for but never quite achieved
was boring a couple of flirtatious young Kiwis to death. Or
rather, he was boring me to death and - astonishingly - fascinating
the Kiwis, telling them how easy it was to get work in England.
'You've just got to show you're ready to work hard,' he told
them. He'd started by temping, gone on to the trading floor
of a Merchant Bank and ended up Just About Running A Recruitment
Upstairs, Carlos had been replaced
by - well, well - Margarethe, winningly attired in tight orange
hotpants and a not-quite-reaching-your-waist pink top. She had
cropped dark hair, huge dark eyes, voluptuous breasts and no
sense of humour.
Elin joined us. 'You two coming to
the hostel barbecue?' I asked convivially. 'No,' said Elin,
'we're going out for some dinner. Ross and I and Margarethe.
You must come with us.' I protested feebly, but she was adamant.
It was soon apparent why. I was to take care of Margarethe so
she could get cosy with Ross.
We strolled into town down the Gold Coast Highway. They were
trying, they really were trying not to be too giggly, touchy-feely
and overwhelmed by lurv - but they just couldn't help it. Margarethe
was putting on a brave face, especially as, with the fag-end
of the cold that had been with me since my frozen morning hitch-hiking,
my voice was deteriorating rapidly from Richard Burton husk
to frog croak.
None of them liked the idea of Japanese
food which was a bit of a shame as almost all the restaurants
were Japanese. Or Chinese, which Ross wasn't keen on either.
'I like to know what I'm eating,' he said. 'Hey, there's a Pizza
Hut over there!'
My turn to be difficult. I hadn't come all the way to Surfers
Paradise to go to a Pizza Hut. In the end, by that committee-system
of restaurant choosing which guarantees that you end up in the
worst, most expensive place possible, we settled for a pizza
restaurant that wasn't a Pizza Hut where, budget-conscious all,
we ordered a carafe of house wine and two medium pizzas to share.
I was now sounding like Barry White and wishing I'd stayed at
Then things took a sudden upturn.
Margarethe and Elin had been at the Backpacker Inn in Byron
Bay. (I thought I'd half-recognised them.) And guess who'd befriended
them? James, Tommy and Tango. 'No really,' Margarethe said,
'James was very nice. He drove us up to Nimbin for the day.'
I bet he did.
'And he took Elin out on his horse.'
'No?' I croaked.
Elin was laughing, hand over her mouth. 'I'm saying to him,
"I don't want to go on this horse," but he's saying,
"I want to see how you look on this horse."
'So she goes on this horse,' said Margarethe.
He just had the horse to pick up girls, I said. Of course, said
Elin, but then Tango had his bees. Hives full of them apparently,
at the back of the Backpackers. 'That's his thing. All the girls
have to get up early to see Tango's bees.'
We laughed; and then, quite suddenly, and for the first time
in my life, I lost my voice. Not a squeak, not a murmur could
I make my vocal chords produce. I was forced to sit in silence
as Ross told us in detail about his life back home in the countryside
round Calgary. They did this kind of country dancing. Like,
you know, you hold the girl and two-step. Elin was rapt; Margarethe's
enthusiasm for the evening was visibly waning. Voiceless, there
was no way of intervening in the Ross monologue, teasing, sending
him up, anything. Eventually I got so desperate I pulled out
my notepad and started writing.
'I've never lost my voice,' Ross
NOR ME! I scrawled. NOW I KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE DUMB.
'DUMB?' asked Elin, with the look of a kindly nurse.
'Stoopid,' said Ross. 'Now he knows what it's like to be stoopid.'
No, no, not that at all.
DUMB, I wrote frantically, MEANS (I underlined it, twice) YOU
'Oh right, OK,' said Ross. 'Like, he means, dumb like he can't
IT'S TERRIBLE (I wrote). NORMALLY
I'M A GREAT TALKER. SORRY!
Oh dear, oh dear (oh dear). I really can't bring myself to print
out all the things I found scrawled in my notebook the next
day. As I tried, increasingly unsuccessfully, to turn this sudden
handicap into an amusing ploy. They were all as sweet as anything.
Elin had a special whisky mix that would definitely bring my
voice back. When that failed, they all three waited patiently
as I scrawled my exponentially absurd and desperate interventions.
We ended up in a nightclub which
was swarming with every backpacker in town. Over the identical,
jostling youth, I spotted the Bromley lads, handsome Richard
going for broke with a chick in gold culottes while gawky ginger-nut
Dave titted around annoyingly beside him. Nightclubs are bad
enough when your vocal organs are working: yelled, disjointed
conversations over the deafening discobeat. Voiceless, I felt
like Harpo Marx squared. I went home.
Carlos was sound asleep as I crept in. Much later there was
semi-suppressed giggling as the girls came crashing back. Outside,
the Sun 'n Surf party went on and on. Laughter, chat, shrieks,
the occasional 'shsh'. Around five, just as silence had finally
fallen, an incredibly noisy dustbin lorry arrive to collect
rubbish outside. Seemingly for hours. At 7.18, finally, I crawled
up. Stumbled, brain-dead, to the Esplanade for a treble espresso
and some breakfast. Returned to find Carlos filling the tiny
room with the pong of his anti-perspirant spray. 'Hi Carlos,'
'Hi, Mark!' Carlos replied in an unneccessarily loud voice.
'You coming to the surf parade later. I'm just going to church
first but then I'm going to the surf parade. Just got to catch
the 9 o'clock service.' He carried on, not seeming to mind that
he'd woken the girls, or indeed Ross, who was touchingly curled
up with Elin on the lower bunk.
I left in a hurry. When he came down
the steps to the pool, 'Are you really going to church?' I asked.
I had a notion of going with him, if only to see who on earth
went to church in Surfers Paradise.
'No,' he replied. 'But I just like to talk in a loud voice in
the morning. Because if they don't res-bect me why should I
res-bect them. They come in and out all night. They bring men
in there.' He looked directly at me and his eyes flashed fire.
'No worries! See whaddimean? They come here for one night and
now they're staying three nights but I don't care because I'm
checking out. Today. This place is too much and I'm checking