The city I grew up in doesn’t live there anymore. The juice ran out and left a husk on the edge of the world. They shot movies there for a while when there was still fuel for entertainments: sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, anything in the cowboy genre. And documentaries, the cautionary kind, until nobody needed to learn that lesson anymore.
When I think of it now it’s not as a place but as a location. Shiny and quiet with the wind blowing through. Sand drifts in under door ledges and everything tastes of salt.
My brother told me once if you’re on the open sea you can suck juice from a fish’s eye or fluid from its spinal column. The point being there are all kinds of ways to get water. As my city dried they drained the reservoirs, dammed the rivers, milked the artesian basin. They weighed up the ocean and built desalination plants at four billion dollars each. Four billion dollars was a solution then. It didn’t matter, the whole state was riding the back of China’s new empire. Mining and construction couldn’t get enough labour, every week there were new veins. People came west from all over and anyone who owned a house woke up a millionaire.
I’d moved away by then but I watched on TV when company men in hard hats predicted a thirty-year boom. The city I’d left behind was the future and it glistened in splendid isolation on the world’s frontier.
‘In the distance,’ marvelled the voiceover, ‘you can glimpse its shining spires.’
‘Yeah, both of them,’ said my brother.
He called it a pop-up town; a minor place so obsessed with reinvention that everything you remembered was already something else. When I attempted nostalgia on the phone he wouldn’t comply. That all-night deli on the highway was long gone, he said. It was a building site for a while, then a servo, a café, a building site again. I’d been away less than two years.
It wasn’t clear to me then why my brother stayed. Much later, when nobody was home in our hometown and he was just another refugee with a phone card, he talked with the same calm disregard about queues and queue-jumpers, rations, riots and the progress of his resettlement claim. I had sponsored him but with so much demand and neither of us rich, the chances weren’t good. His voice sounded parched though he denied it. Our conversations gave me nightmares in which his skin blistered and he choked on sand. But I listened to him and remembered a school holiday in the wheat-belt, before the salt took it back. They’d been waiting a long time for rain and then it came in time to save the crop. I stood in the top paddock with my friend’s family and watched the first fat drops shatter the dust.
‘That’s bloody wonderful,’ her father said and wept. I was a child then and afterwards I always sensed that wonder was a wet thing.
As the phone card ran out I thought I heard my brother crying.
‘I’m not,’ he said, ‘nobody cries. It’s just a waste.’
When the old civilisations fell to ruin, nature took them under greenly. The city I grew up in will never be overgrown but it is steadily becoming encrusted. I imagine it a mass of crystal on a dead horizon. Shining indeed.
We imagined all kinds of things when we were young at the world’s outpost; shiny things, more than I could say. But there’s no wonder in me now. No wonder at all.