The river there is like a blindfold. It is a child’s game that spins you around and around and then asks you to find your way without stumbling. You can see across it plain enough and you can see the edge of the west end. You know it’s just across the water, but when you run through in your mind the way you’d have to take to get there it seems impossible that you could end up opposite where you’re standing now. All the way into the city and across the bridge; past the new gallery where it perches desperately above the mangroves; down the boundary road (shiver, here, at what that name evokes) with its underground car parks for the families who come on humid weekends to swim at the fake beach. Then it gets hilly and you are in trouble. Disoriented.

Those hills must be a metaphor. We lost our way often when we lived there, and we were surely lost in spirit during those days, a small household of girls who had just left home. We had come there from the west: beef country; the rodeo capital. To get to Brisbane, we had navigated such significant zones as the Great Dividing Range and Cunninghams Gap. We would not go back.

We were as one. We shared our wardrobes and our grand romantic plans. We wiped up tears and vomit and hunched together over cleaning rosters and household budgets written with a purple sharpie. We studied at the kitchen table as the ceiling fan rocked and groaned above. On the hottest nights, we dragged our mattresses out and slept fitfully together on the deck, surrounded by a glowing ring of mozzie coils. There was not a boyfriend between us, nor any knowledge of how to find one.

Our house was porous and I guess that we were too, back then. We let it all in: the heat and afternoon storms; the wild and rampant green of the garden – morning glory, Moreton Bay fig, choko vine and pittosporum, with its cloying night-time sweetness; the sounds of the couple next door, crying out all day, it seemed, in anger or pleasure, as if to warn us of everything to come; the newness of it all.

That city felt as precarious as we did, as if it was just holding out against the force of nature. I imagined it being picked around the edges like a giant scab and flicked away. Underneath would be the whitened stalks of grass and stunted shoots, like those beneath the blue shell paddling pool in our backyard. Pretty soon, after a month or so of sun and rain, the grass would spring back up to green. The tiny sprouts of fig trees would push towards the bright blue sky.

As befitted such a place, we coexisted there with other creatures: translucent geckos in the corners of the rooms; fat grasshoppers on the deck; fruit bats in the dusk fig tree; brush turkeys skidding across the road; and George the white cat, slinking in with something not-quite-dead between her dainty teeth. If we left the louvres open, a big brushtail possum climbed in to share our food, crouching like a squat grey Buddha in the fruit bowl, a banana clutched between his sharp front claws, a contemptuous expression on his toothy face. He would only clamber out when we shook the furry end of the broom at him.

In the spring, Molly’s cousin came to stay. He was from Melbourne: as exotic as a cloudy day. In the mornings, we tiptoed past his sneakers – so big and smelly – in the lounge room doorway, and put on bras for breakfast. We cooked him all our favourites, the tinned tomato pasta and overseasoned dal. We bought the more expensive cask wine, turned on the fairy lights on the deck, lit candles in empty tomato tins with holes punched into them in the shapes of stars.

On Friday night we made sangria and took him out to steal mangoes. We brought string shopping bags and a coathanger taped to a broomstick and he lifted us on his shoulders, dangerously close to lighted windows, and we giggled as the unripe fruits thudded to the ground and ran to catch them as they rolled downhill. We roamed the streets for hours, ’til our bags were bulging. We were careful not to get lost: we were his guides.

Or maybe he was ours. On Saturday morning, his shoes were outside Gabby’s door, and when he left on Sunday, we found that a terrible separateness had replaced him. Our tears were kept for our pillows, and now we saw that there was only one person in this world who would truly die for each of us and she was far away and busy with that life we had left behind so eager blithe and heartless free. One of us may have run from the house and been willingly lost among those hills. Another may have torn a photo. A third may have stood a long while in the shower, reflecting on her body. That was when I found the ache and thrill of loneliness. That was when I found it: I.

We gathered almost 50 mangoes that night but we did not eat them. They were not ripe and would never ripen. One of us attempted chutney but its astringency curled the tongue and could not be eased with sugar. We left them in the sunroom in their bulging string bags, hard green reminders of something we did not care to talk about. Perhaps there is a metaphor there, too.

I thought there was no romance in that place until I left it. In Melbourne, I talked only of its heat and the crassness of its saturated colour palette. I used words such as monoculture and nouveau riche. But I find my mind turning back there, to those river-city hill-lost days that would not consent to taming. They were fierce and brazen eager as a group of girls and as doomed as youth itself. I long for them sometimes, now. I long for us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Brisbane".

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Emily Bitto is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize. Her second novel, Wild Abandon, will be published in September.

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