Fraser had just about had enough of Australia Day.
Not that he wasn’t patriotic, but it was just out of control these days.
Droves of bogans cruising the suburbs with miniature Australian flags hanging off their cars. The fixation with the forthcoming evening fireworks show on the river. The inescapable plethora of suburban barbeques dominating every public park, beach and foreshore. The slavish obsession of every radio and TV station with anything and everything Australian. To make things worse, it was also his birthday.
For decades he had tolerated it, but this year he wanted out. Just some sort of respite for the long weekend. Sure, it had its place, and served its purpose. But this weekend Fraser was going to escape completely. Leave the mobile phone at home and go Bush.
In years past it had never been this crazy. As a kid he’d actually quite enjoyed Australia Day. Growing up in Kojonup, about 250km down the Albany Highway, for him January 26 had always meant The Races. His folks, school teachers, weren’t massive horse-racing people, but the annual Wandecla Races was a community event he’d always looked forward to on his birthday. Bush horses, bush jockeys, bush bookmakers. A laid back afternoon that everyone attended despite the dust and the 45 degrees. The beer ran freely without anyone needing to behave like hoons. The CWA put on an amazing five dollar spread for lunch that was worth waiting for, and all the local kids ran riot.
Fraser hadn’t been to Wandecla for over 40 years, since the family re-located to the city, and only by chance had seen an advertisement for it in the paper during the week. It was the perfect pretext to escape the Australia Day fiasco in Perth.
Heading his silver BMW down the highway, he felt a gradual sense of release welling within as he left Armadale behind. He knew the road like the back of his hand, and contemplated a toasted sandwich and coffee at the Williams Roadhouse in an hour or so.
He’d cruise on to Albany after the races and stay the night, before heading back the next morning after a swim at pristine Middleton Beach. He certainly wasn’t going to miss Perth this weekend.
Though he’d hardly returned to Kojonup since he was a kid, the overwhelming feeling enveloping him was that he was going home. It was a comforting sensation on that cool, near perfect summer’s morning.
The road was relatively clear of traffic and he could put the foot down just a little on the gently winding stretches of road, flanked increasingly by sheep and cattle making the most of somewhat sparse feed following an intense summer.
Fraser had tuned out of his usual FM station on the radio, in search of some racing news on the AM band. He’d had enough of the relentless, almost cringeworthy, Australiana that seemed compulsory on days like this. By contrast, the song of the race-callers coming in from Randwick, Caulfield and Morphettville was a much sweeter tune than the ubiquitous nationalistic musical fare he was trying to avoid. If he heard the riff to ‘Land Downunder’or ‘Great Southern Land’one more time he would go crazy.
On a straight stretch of road approaching North Bannister he fiddled with the radio, the reception on the racing station having become too crackly to decipher. There was usually a local station he could access but it was proving elusive. Persist as he might, he couldn’t seem to pick it up.
All he could recall was a loud, ear splitting bang, before he woke up on the side of the road slumped over the driver’s wheel, gatheringhe must have briefly lost consciousness.
In the far distance behind him to the north, he could just make out through the dust a road train, gradually correcting itself from the wrong side of the road, and pronounced fresh skid marks on the road, still smoking. His car had come to a halt up against a massive ghost gum. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, unsure as to what may have happened. Whatever it was, it had been his own fault, and he had been extremely lucky. A strange and unfamiliar feeling of relief and elation filtered through his whole body.
A cursory look at his vehicle showed, remarkably, no damage to speak of, and the car’s engine turned over like clockwork. Fraser again thanked his lucky stars and pulled out onto the highway again. He’d need a beer when he got to Wandecla, that was for sure.
Somehow, the radio had clicked into gear and was coming through loud and strong on a classical music station. It seemed odd, almost surreal, but it was strangely uplifting, despite the fact that he had little interest in the classics. Fiddling with the radio settings was, however, not something that he was going to try again in a hurry.
It seemed only a matter of moments before he was in Kojonup, at the Wandecla turnoff, despite it being over 100km from where he had stopped. He had no recollection of missing the Williams township. His craving for coffee had gone.
In a towering cathedral of trees, so tall they threatened to blot out the afternoon sun, stood the historic Wandecla racecourse. The coolness and tranquillity of the place on what had promised to be a searing and bustling January day was eerie. A hint of Norfolk Pine and Eucalyptus, evoking sensory memories of childhood days on Rottnest Island came powerfully to him through his open windows.
The place bore little resemblance to his childhood memories of a massive converted farm paddock encompassing some rough-hewn polo fields, with a crude dirt racetrack without a running rail in the middle.
It was now significantly grander, shadier, almost antique. Pristine in every detail – and stately, with white picket fences, arched grandstands and manicured lawns and roses. Something, he imagined, akin to a miniature Flemington in the newsreels he had seen of the days of Phar Lap from the 1930s. Whoever was running the club these days had certainly done a brilliant job, he thought, as he drove toward the entrance. He was exhilarated with anticipation as the gatemen waved him through and gave him a race book. No charge, no entrance fee.
Strolling into the enclosure, the first thing that struck him was the costumes. Men in JFK suits, thin ties, fedoras. Women in flowing floral dresses, magnificent hats, parasols. It was obviously a heritage day, he surmised. What a magnificent effort everyone had made. To a person, they had all come to the party. They were there in their thousands, which caused Fraser to pause; this was without doubt the best attended bush meeting he’d ever seen. An absolute triumph!
A bugler suddenly called the horses to the track for the first race. Old style jockeys, riding long in the saddle, without helmets, just cloth caps. Not sure what the Perth stewards would make of that, he thought, as he turned to the betting ring where 20 or more bookmakers animatedly called the odds from stands displaying chalked prices on blackboard betting boards. Not a TV screen in sight.
The first horse onto the track, a stunning black stallion, sported a set of brilliant green and yellow silks which seemed vaguely familiar.. Fraser was no horse-racing historian but he instantly recalled them from an old picture he had often seen in his Uncle Doug’s barber shop as a kid. Aquanita. The champion Perth galloper who’d won the Cox Plate and run third in the Melbourne Cup in the ‘60’s. His old uncle had loved that horse and often recounted its deeds to anyone who would listen whilst he cut their hair.
Fraser did a double take and checked the race book. There it was: Aquanita, rider F.Moore. The weights he then noticed, were in stones and pounds. The distance of the races were in furlongs not metres. He moved quickly over to the fence to take a closer look. As the magnificent horse cantered down the straight right past him, the rider turned his head and winked in his direction. The same rider who for years had stared blankly down at him from the hairdresser’s wall as he waited for his turn in the chair as a very young boy.
Fraser was becoming increasingly uneasy. There was something wrong here. Something extraordinarily wrong. There wasn’t even any dust.
He glanced again down at his program. The date was January, 26, 1962. The day he was born. This was all too much, and he started to shake. He needed a drink. Badly.
Approaching the bar, he saw the only beer on offer was Swan Lager. He hadn’t had a draught Swan for as long as he could remember, but it hardly mattered. He ordered, and reached into his pocket for some notes. Placing them on the bar he saw that his money was in strange, unfamiliar denominations. Green one pounds and brown ten shilling notes. He froze.
He ran aimlessly and desperately out of the enclosure, through the rows of gleaming antique Holdens and Fords, struggling to cope. The decision to leave his phone at home for the weekend suddenly seemed like a serious mistake.
He scrambled into his vehicle and to his enormous relief it started immediately. After pausing to get his breath back, he negotiated the circuitous way out of the course with little difficulty, the car seeming almost to be on automatic pilot. He set out rapidly for Albany and an escape from the bizarre half an hour he’d just endured.
As the road levelled out and changed from gravel to bitumen, Fraser began again to feel the same euphoric sense of freedom and release that had enveloped him an hour before on the highway near Bannister.
The road now became smoother, the presence of his vehicle on the road becoming increasingly light. He lay back in his seat and the BMW seemed to take over from him.
In the distance the horizon had become enveloped in banks of massive, ghostly, sunlit clouds spreading brilliant rays of pale pink and gold everywhere. It seemed to Fraser that he was now somehow being called toward them.
If he hadn’t known better, Fraser could have sworn that the car was ever so gradually floating up from the road, just as the radio chimed in with a crystal clear reception of the racing station.
Aquanita had hit the front, the caller said, and was racing away. “Put down your glasses folks. He’s home”.