The migration of the amateur poultry farmer’s daughter

Verity Bell considers her home of Australia from a long, long way away

Source: Flickr

David, the duck, had died.

My little sister’s text glowed white against the late night library desk: “Mum’s really upset.” A dog had got him, apparently. At least it would have been quick, I sensibly counselled; he wouldn’t have known much about it, being a duck. I played at being grown up with the kind of unfeeling conceit that could only have been mustered by a law student with important exams next week.

“No, she’s like, really sad”

A pang of shame knocked me low into my seat, as I reeled from the acute awareness of the distance between us. Had growing up meant necessarily growing away, I wondered?

I had swapped the messy, tropical suburbs of Brisbane for the dreaming spires of Oxford, barely conscious of the space I had left behind. When, ecstatic, I received the offer for which I had worked so hard, my parents never once suggested pursuing higher education nearer to home. If the thought of allowing their eighteen-year-old to spend three years on the other side of the world bothered them in the slightest, they never let on; they were nothing but proud of me. In Australia, it is almost unheard of to move even interstate for undergraduate study. When well-meaning family friends heard I was off to Oxford, their reaction was not one of congratulations, but of pity. “Oh-ho” they would muse, “How does your mum feel about that?”

My mother quickly dismissed them; she too had moved away from her parents. Once for university, up to Sheffield in the North of England from the South and decades later to Queensland, emigrating for my father’s career with my sister and me in tow, aged two and nearly six. To this day if I ever feel irritation rise at the wails of sleep-deprived children on long haul flights, I push for a feeble attempt at atonement. This was you once, and your mum bore all twenty-eight hours of it. At my grandfather’s funeral, she thanked him for his unfailing, unquestioning support spanning the continents. In our family, enduring great separation is itself an act of love.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots. I recognised the supermarket chains and damp smells of England from the times my parents had flown us back for childhood Christmases. Much of what I remembered of those holidays came from what was glimpsed looking out the window along motorways and roadside convenience stops: the impressively wider variety of potato chip flavours called ‘crisps’, the greenness of the trees and fields, and the way it started to get dark in the middle of the afternoon. But these trips were always brief, and always temporary. Aunts and uncles would object to my sister’s broad vowels, but accept that the battle was fruitless; we were Australians now. Only she had the accent to prove it.

Yet back in Blighty I was, clutching a list of criminal law pre-reading and a sketchbook my school friends had filled with photographs. Textbook facts about the country came easily—it has a House of Lords instead of an elected senate, Queen Anne had been pregnant at least seventeen times but survived all of her children, the Guardian is the left-wing newspaper—but everyday familiarity did not.

In those first few weeks I felt like a fraudulent tourist, ordering coffee with an English accent but with tell-tale Australian phrasing and intonation, rising upwards tentatively at the end of every sentence: “can I grab a flat white, please?” instead of “may I have?”. I was obsessed by the prim voice of the self- service check outs and the very existence of The Archers, the inexplicably popular public radio serial (yes, radio!) involving cows and rural gossip. It routinely astonished me how much time in a day was devoted to pulling on heavy coats, and laboriously taking them off again. Feeling so foreign, it was strange to be berated by Australian schoolmates about how ‘pommie’ (English) I sounded.

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I still hesitate when people ask me where I am from. Home can seem wherever I am not currently. With two passports, I perpetually migrate. My dual nationality emerged as ‘an interesting fact about yourself’ during the obligatory getting-to- know-you games of Freshers’ Week, and “But you don’t sound Australian!” became the refrain of my course mates. Convinced I was an admissions mistake, I was consumed by a confusing cocktail of imposter syndrome and homesickness, despite living in the country in which I was born, surrounded by extended family. I retreated into my books. If I couldn’t be English or Australian, then I would be a lawyer instead.

The news of the chickens came first, then the bantams, then the ducks. Less than a month after I’d moved to the UK, photographs of the coopwooden, with ‘Chook House’ picked out in friendly letters, handpainted red, began arriving regularly. I wanted to name the first two after Roman jurists, but the rest of the family were having none of it.

“No-one shouts ‘Ulpian! Ulpian! Come and get your birdfeed!’ within earshot of the neighbours and still lives with themselves.”

Mum probably had a point. They were, after all, female chickens who were expected to earn their keep at some point by producing eggs. My sister christened them Dawn and Beyoncé.

We fill our time with hobbies—cross-stitch, crossfit, gardening, contract law—when searching for something more absorbing than our own pain. Over that long first year, ‘how the girls were doing’ became a proxy for all those things my parents’ residual Britishness prevented them saying explicitly. “I was out watering the plants with the girls this morning”. “The girls laid us two lovely brown eggs yesterday!”. My sister and I had been ‘the girls’ in Christmas letters and emails before we grew up and moved away: ’With love from Debbie, Mark and the Girls’. Now we were women, and the girls were poultry.

Margaret and David came next: two lily white ducks, named for Australian film critics. Watching At the Movies with Margaret and David on a Sunday evening with my Dad was something of a ritual growing up. It functioned as a barometer for how well we had assimilated, measured by how accurately we guessed the number of stars they had awarded films. My friends appreciated the duck photos carefully curated across my social media accounts. Of course they wouldn’t get the joke in their names.

“So they replaced you with chickens?” “And bantams, yes.”

I boasted about the menagerie I had left behind to the excruciatingly cool student actor I fancied in a hopelessly misguided effort to seem more interesting: ‘bantam banter’, if you will. Bantam eggs are only small and don’t come nearly as frequently, I informed her. They’re really just there for cuddles and looking lovely, waddling around the garden and showing off their fluffy bottoms. She pretended to be suitably impressed.

I became hyper-aware of the control I possessed over how much of my life I shared on either side of the planet. Showering English friends with Australia facts as though I was zealously selling a holiday package, I guiltily stemmed the flow of details the other way. When I video-called my mother for the first time after cutting off all but a few inches of my long but hardly inspiring mop of hair, she flinched away from the screen at her end. By then I had stopped running my fingers over my bare ears and catching glimpses of the shape of my skull in shop windows. I’d forgotten it was news to her.

“Really suits you, darl. You don’t even look like a lesbian!”

My mother carefully avoided my glance sideways, as one of those well-meaning family friends cooed over my haircut upon my return to Australia for Christmas. She would chastise me later for making poor Caroline feel guilty, as I had hissed back that this was the desired effect.

As it happened, I was indeed one of those short-haired lesbians my mother’s friends looked upon with a mixture of pity and discomfort. My foray on tiptoes into a queer sexual identity was accepted without comment in College. But when my parents Skyped me the morning after the inevitable romantic disappointment of my second year, they were told that it was a ‘Howard’, not a ‘Hannah’, who had caused all the snot.

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I would not awkwardly come out to my parents, over the phone in a noisy café, until I had almost finished my degree. I have never been sure whether telephone would have been my coming out medium of choice had I remained in Australia. A phone call manages to be less sincere than a letter or email, while more cowardly than speaking face-to-face. The words ‘fine’ and ‘lovely’ until any meaning they might have conveyed dissolved into phoneline static. Years would pass before my sexuality was mentioned again, even in jest.

The night terrors which woke up my housemates, me screaming the names of legal cases while sound asleep in the weeks leading up to my final exams, were difficult to relay. The debilitating weight of beliefs about my inadequacy was a burden, I convinced myself, which was best carried alone. The law offers little comfort to those who have difficulty categorising themselves.

Roman law is a map, my tutor had said. Once you know the landscape, you are never really lost in any jurisdiction or context. You could be studying tort law in Barbados, property rights in outer space, sixteenth century shipping law; you’ll always have some idea of how a sprawling web of rights and obligations can hold its shape. Roman law provided plenty of guidance about how to sue one’s neighbour in the event he stole your chicken, and speculation as to whether bees were by nature wild if they had the habit of returning. Nothing about where on the map I ought to be classified.

Flying the nest for everyone inevitably involves coping with a new kind of distance. Some families speak in code, with a tacit appreciation of the fact that there are darker and more difficult aspects of life than the debacle over the neighbour’s fence or Philomena getting broody. A shared fiction is no less intimate for omissions, but an acknowledgement of emotions too intense to share when apart. Egg counts served as tokens of my parents’ love, unrelated to my academic successes or failures.

Ironically enough, there was a pair of wild ducks who would visit my College year on year in the summer, around the time my English friends would scatter back across the country for the holidays. It was difficult not to avoid the conclusion that they had been sent deliberately—a physical reminder of the home I was missing.

It wasn’t until the first Christmas after my graduation I met Una and Fergus, the ducklings my mother meticulously hatched under an incubator light. A bird’s nest, whilst beautiful, is always a temporary structure. I was back in Brisbane to bask in the sweaty summer, having decided that returning permanently would be yet another seismic shift too soon. Despite the painful, dull confusion that had been the months leading up to my final exams, I could dimly recall being sent videos of a pair of fluffy chickens peep-peeping to each other in a familiar kitchen sink.

“They come running out to greet me, you know. They think I’m their mum”.

Two months at home, Brisbane home, came and went. My mother always bakes when my sister or I fly anywhere, right from the moment we take off until we land. Delightfully sloppy orange and almond cake, magazine-perfect raspberry soufflés in little copper pans. It is the most delicious, endearing coping mechanism I have ever witnessed, love whipped up in mixing bowls and baked to feed others. To use up the eggs, she insists.