We travel to come home

On Friday afternoon at the end of the first week of a new year, already exhausted and barely begun, we packed the many bits and pieces required for the passage of days into our car and drove.

We drove through the late afternoon, later than we had intended, so the light as we left was syrupy and golden, hazy with smoke of bushfires blown from somewhere far away.

We stopped a few times on the way, the baby and our weak bladders requiring it. Once was at one of those bare roadside rest stops but one that looped away off the freeway and out of sight, setting us down just on the edge of Lake George, a vast expanse of grassland shimmering bone-white under the sun, skeletal wind turbines turning on hillsides in the far distance.

We looked for kangaroos near a big painted sign telling us to watch out for snakes. Jack had only one shoe on, so we carried him. He picked a stem of dry grass and carried it back to the car.

Half an hour later we stopped again on the main street in Goulburn, avoiding the café that claims historic status and charges $16 for a sandwich in favour of cheap fish and chips and a burger that included egg and bacon and pineapple and beetroot, messy but delicious.

When we finally drove into Sydney it was late in the evening and Jack was wide awake, seemingly mesmerised by the stream of lights and colours, cars and streetlights, huge lit billboards, and planes taxiing alongside and passing low overhead as our GPS decided to navigate us directly through the airport. I joked that maybe it would direct us to leave the car in the long-stay carpark and catch a plane on some unexpected international journey. It looped us back out again and finally sent us down a series of increasingly narrow one way streets to our destination.

The thought of travel and the actuality of it are always different, but even more so with a toddler.

A weekend away was a weekend of not being able to look away from the baby for more than about thirty seconds for fear he would fall down a tall flight of concrete steps or off the balcony or wander onto the road or break some expensive and fragile thing in a house that was not ours.

We trudged in the fierce summer heat, pushing the pusher through crowds of people past the Opera House and along Circular Quay and through the Rocks, desperate for coffee and needing to find somewhere to feed the baby. We tried to get him to eat packet sludge with a plastic spoon on a patch of grass under the Harbour Bridge, while trains rocketed overhead, the noise making him climb and cling to us like a frightened monkey.

We spent brief but refreshing pockets of time with relatives and friends who we do not see often enough. I had a piece of the most spectacular cake I have either seen or tasted: watermelon and strawberry, sprinkled with pistachios and layered with rosewater-scented cream and light sponge, on a fine biscuit base. (Black Star Pastry. Get some.)

I called my big sister from Circular Quay. She lives on an island in the Hawkesbury River, close but not close enough to visit. We wished one another a happy new year. We promised another visit, soon.

I had the joy of seeing our friend’s four older children taking turns to play with Jack, delighting in making him giggle and squeal, teaching him how to high five, carrying him and tickling him and playing peekaboo.

I bought lots of nice wine with the full intention of drinking it but fell asleep putting Jack to bed instead.

And finally, sunburnt, and out of clean underwear and bananas, we headed home.

Jack slept most of the drive but woke and became increasingly restless towards the end. When we finally arrived, and unlocked the door, his first reaction was to fall into desperate sobs, as if he could not believe we had travelled so far only to be back here again. And then, after some cuddles and toast with peanut butter and some more cuddles he began to explore, happily rediscovering the house and his toys, while we collapsed on the couch knowing we could let him wander for at least a few minutes before anything terrible was likely to happen.

And I felt that bone-deep happiness that comes from having left and returned that I sometimes think is really the main point of the journey. That and the memory of cake.

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