Hills of Queenie

AND A SPECIAL CHEERIO TO THE LADIES AT CARDIGAN FLATS

My mother’s family immigrated from the Netherlands in the fifties. They ended up in Queenstown for the mine, where Opa was an engineer. Oma was a disc jockey for 7XS West Coast radio and she studied to be a teacher librarian by-distance at the kitchen table, her four children circling.

When they moved into their house in McNamara Street, she took one look at the ornate Victorian mantelpiece, mirrored and carved, and asked the mine to have it replaced with something easier to clean. She told me she could still see it in all its beauty, dumped in the back garden.

Mum and her siblings boarded at The Friends School in Hobart for High School and my grandparents eventually moved to farm cattle in Deep Bay. Mum was the only one who returned to Queenie to live, years later, with us.

THE BARE HILLS

I wish I could remember making that first journey from Glen Huon to Queenstown. I can picture the drive through the Gormanston hills and then down the looping road into Queenie but it’s unconnected to a specific time: Lake Burbury, flat and strange, the ruins of the Linda hotel, the Gormie houses, the naked brown hills, the changeable waterfall of Roaring Meg, signifier of the weather, and the new signs that popped up one day, illustrated with cartoon hills that my mother thought looked like penises.

I feel betrayed now if I go and the hills are greener than they used to be. Mum used to feel the same way about the Queen River, which when I was a kid was orange-brown and flowing, but when she was a kid was grey sludge.

I lived there with my family for four years, up until the new millennium.

Queenie is alive in a very particular way. I feel a kind of tension there, between the rainforest and the buildings, like the town might be reclaimed, like there’s constant risk of sinking into the green, being flowered with mould, my own tentative footholds sinking away. I’m pretty sure I’m talking about the town that exists in my memory and not the real thing.

CENTRAL SCHOOL

In the final years before its closure, it was in Cutten Street. I was eight when I started, the same year I decided I didn’t like my smile. My teacher told me to smile more but when I tried one, she told me it was a smirk.

It seemed cavernous after Glen Huon Primary. It had an upstairs. I had wrong hair and wrong clothes and loved horses. Where I was from, there were no footpaths. I was used to drifting around paddocks and swimming in the river. I’d done ballet. In Queenie, the kids had footpaths to slope around which gave them a sophistication and a coolness I could never quite tap into. In Queenie, you could walk from your house to a shop with coins in your pocket and buy things.

There was an outbuilding at Central called ‘the mouldy’ where we’d go for assemblies. I never saw mould there. A couple of years in, I learnt it was actually ‘the multi’, short for multipurpose room.

I found my group late, in Grade Six. We pushed our desks into an island of four in the classroom. Unfortunately, my mother was our class teacher and Grade Six was the year we had Sex Ed.

We were pitted against the convent school across the road and, with Central’s closure, I’m worried the traditional insult is gone forever.

So, for the record:

Convent dogs
Sittin’ on logs
Eatin’ maggots out of frogs

They used to respond with something about Central pigs and that, I condemn to oblivion.

CHICKEN SALT

It’s called something else now but in my day, the main street takeaway was called Axel’s. It had red-topped tables and a mini jukebox we’d feed coins into. The song titles were on plastic sheets behind Perspex and we’d soberly press the button below to flip through and choose what to listen to while we ate chips with chicken salt and tomato sauce. I can’t remember what we chose but our favourite bands were Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and 5ive.

When they got a frozen raspberry machine, we went more often. Chicken-salt chips with sauce and sucking all the red flavour from your ice. As a moment, this still exists somewhere.

SPORTS

I was always in trouble for feet in netball.

I tried hockey and racquetball once. I was given a handicap of sixteen points and still lost. The canteen sold mini bags of Cheese and Bacon Balls though, so swings and roundabouts.

THE PIONEER CEMETERY

It was up a strangled staircase that got quieter and quieter as you climbed. Angled stone monuments with ornate, rusted fences sloped into the green. We moved in a muted huddle, picking out the names and ages of the dead before losing our nerve and pelting away. We hadn’t known it was there and from the day we found it, the cemetery’s presence bulged against the trees every time we went by.

TARZAN SWING

We discovered it somewhere in the rainforest, a piece of wood at the end of a rope of indeterminate age, knotted to a branch high above. It was at the bottom of a short slope, complicated with roots. The slope ended in a sheer drop—all below and far off into the distance was the green sweep of trees. You put the swing between your legs, backed up the slope and launched. No one died.

DOWN SOUTH

There was no up north, but there was down south. It had two shops: Greens and Sharmans. Mr Green called us ‘duck’ and Mr Sharman called women ‘woman’.

To go down south, you walked or rode your bike along the line. The line had a quiet, densely-vegetated section where the banks rose up around you. It’s a real line again now, for the restored railway that carries tourists to Strahan, but back then, there were no tracks and it was just a wide path.

Once, one of my friends and I were chased by a skinny man who fell into step behind us and pushed us faster and faster into the dark and vegetated section of the line. My friend and I scrambled up the bank and dipped through a shortcut to her aunt’s house.

My friend’s aunt was the best baker. She made our novelty birthday cakes. We all went for Teletubbies for our twelfth birthdays. We were, at times, intentionally regressive.

ARKS

‘No offence but can I arks you a question?’

I started saying it too. No one was fooled.

HAIR MASCARA, ADIDAS JACKETS AND DOC MARTENS

The best colour of hair mascara was red, but they’d sold out at the gift shop and I got green. Adidas jackets had to be black or navy blue and mine was a light marle grey. My boots were vinyl rip-offs and too big, and had black instead of yellow stitching. One of my friends, who had real Doc Martens, took a long, careful, scrutinising look at these boots when I first wore them to school, crouching down under our desks to see them properly. She emerged, settled back into her chair, and said, ‘They’re just like Doc Martens because they’ve got the stitching.’ It was a kindness I have literally never forgotten.

TIME CAPSULE

I was leaving Queenie at the end of Grade Six, so my three friends and I decided to bury a time capsule. We made a spit shake that we’d never dig it up unless we were all together. I had a heart-shaped tin that was to be the capsule itself and we each wrote a short letter and chose some treasure to include. I think mine was a miniature teddy bear. There was someone’s dolphin bracelet and someone’s glass stone, I think, and something else.

We buried it in the mossy ground of the rest area halfway up Spion Kopf and checked on it a couple of years later when I was back for a visit. It was already half-gone to the mould, the paper of our letters wet and limp, our writing illegible.

After Grade Ten, another of the girls left Queenie and I think at some point we gave the two remaining from our group the special dispensation to look for it without us. I don’t know what came of that. As far as I know it’s still down there; a tiny, mouldy hollow under the hill. I can’t help but draw a line in my head between it and the bodies in the pioneer cemetery, which I picture as human-shaped blossoms.

SOUTH SCHOOL

The school had been closed down years before we moved in next door but our house was the old schoolhouse and we had a gate into the school grounds. I used to rollerblade back and forth in a mini-dress, around the poured concrete and bitumen of the grounds, tracing the paint remnants of the complicated grids of play: handball squares, netball courts, rectangles and boxes. A friend and I once found our way into the school building and prowled along a Laminex corridor, trying doors. We reached a dead end in a room with an accordion vinyl door and a disconnected landline phone on a small table. It was all very orange.

My mother taught there in the seventies. It was her first teaching job. She said they all used to fill the staffroom with heavy clouds of cigarette smoke and it was divine. I still have her individual staff portrait from that time, somewhere. She’s beautiful, really beautiful, with soft brown hair and a quiet expression on her face. Her eyes looking at something just off-camera.

I remember once, more than a decade before she died, she picked that photo up and said, ‘Where is that young woman?’ At the time, I was still youthful enough to know everything and I informed her that the young woman was not gone, but she was still my mother, only more, you know, more experienced, more knowledgeable.

Now, I’m just old enough to have circled right back to her uncertainty. When I look at photos of myself in Queenstown, I can’t really connect the girl in them to myself. A jukebox? A time capsule, a forgotten cemetery, a gang of kids tearing around a half-rainforest-ed, half-denuded town on their bikes, the quiet agony of not-quite-fitting-in, the belly sweep of a deadly swing, the icy sheets of ancient rain that slam down on you the second you pass the ‘Welcome to the West Coast’ sign, and don’t abate until you leave?

PLACE

I have this idea, which is not real but a composite of memory and, probably, sentimental American movies, of what I think of as The Place You Are From.

Over the years, you’ve brought friends and partners to The Place You Are From and now you bring your family and surprise them with the strangeness of it, the jukeboxes sinking into the rainforest, the time capsules mouldering in the thin pockets of earth suspended over great empty scoops of mine below. You go back and there is at least one parent there waiting and a circle of extended family radiating out and people who know you because you, like they, began there and grew there, the fixtures of the place shuffling aside to make room. Your bedroom is there, maybe with some of your mum's sewing things set up, but ultimately intact—same damp blue walls, same chips and craters where your Spice Girls posters pulled the paint away with Blu Tack, same eddies of curried chops and water cordial from the kitchen. It feels like it could be in some other fold of reality, up there in the corner of the ceiling, coexisting with the jukebox and the time capsule—the place that was yours and still is, the place you name when people ask where you’re from, where you will go back to, permanently, in the final drifting of the mind.

Kate Kruimink

Kate Kruimink was born in Hobart and divided her childhood between the Huon Valley and Queenstown. She is the author of the 2020 novel, A Treacherous Country, as well as short stories and a novella. She lives in the Huon Valley.

Header photo by Jack Robert-Tissot

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The Unconformity acknowledges the palawa people as the original and traditional custodians of lutruwita / Tasmania. We commit to working respectfully to honour their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections to this land.