Farmborough Heights Road winds up a large hill, lined with weatherboard homes, standing for years. Small front yards, fronted by low steel fences. Views over the back, across to the mountains and escarpment, and down to the steel works lining the coast.
At first glance, it seems like nothing has changed. The odd brick house stands at the side of the road, some old, some replacing houses torn down to make way for something new. My old primary school stands in the same place.
In the past, the lollypop lady would stand guard over the school crossing, stopping traffic with her sign on a pole. Laughing children crossing to hop on the bus, waiting to take us to homes at the top of the hill. Now, yellow road markings declare that this area is now a 40 kph zone during those times. I hope that there's still someone there to carry that sign to the middle of the road.
So many things that I thought I'd forgotten are coming to the surface, drawn out by the visions coming to me now. Down the right of the side, hidden by the houses, I know the road drops to a small creek. Winding its way down the hill, until it eventually vanishes into a large drain pipe. Some of the kids were brave enough to explore further, disappearing into its dark, underground depths. Floods, rats, snakes, a feeling of being trapped...these things always stopped me joining in. Further up the creek was a kid's wonderland though. Pools of water, teeming with tadpoles, were a favourite past time. Collecting them in an old bucket, and seeing how long you could keep them for in the hopes that maybe, one of them would turn into a frog. I don't know anyone who ever managed to achieve this elusive goal - the challenge was always there though.
I've driven up this road other times in the seventeen years since I called Wollongong my home, but always in a hurry. Taking in the sights, the changes - but never really noticing how much remains the same. This time, I park my car in at the shops at the top of my old road, get out, and walk.
A park sits behind the shops, stretching down to my old side fence. There used to be a steel rocket, ladders climbing between its three levels. A slide came from the bottom level, as well as the top (if you were brave enough to handle the height). The concrete slab it rose up out of is all that remains of it today - towering rocket ships deemed too dangerous in an age where litigation's the result of a child stumbling. A prefabricated plastic piece of playground equipment has been built instead.
You can't dream of rocketing to the moon on a plastic bridge.
Still, the trees that I remember remain, towering gums surrounded by green grass. To the side, kids yell and laugh, kicking a football around. A dog rushes from one group to the other, shadowing the ball all the time. The t-shirts they're wearing are different to what I remember all those years ago, but the laughter hasn't changed.
A little further down the hill, and I come to the reserve I remember so well. Still overgrown, lantana crawling around and over everything. This was where my best friend Andrew and I would come to play, in our own private jungle. Much more than simply a mess of tangled plants and trees, it was our own Star Wars universe. Mighty battles took place here, but somehow we always managed to win. Toiling for hours, we built our own BMX track, jumps and sharp corners twisting up and down the hills. It's long gone, but others have recognised the potential, because there's a strip of wide dirt, a small earth jump at one end, and a big jump constructed from a large drain pipe, and plywood. Much more professional than anything we ever made, I can imagine a group of kids, pedalling madly as they each try to go just a little faster and higher than the others.
There's graffiti on the plywood, painted in silver spray-paint. 'Fuck off pig'.
I look down at my old home, built by my father so many years ago. There are pictures of me, standing proudly on the frame as dad worked to build my family's first home. The yard seems smaller than I remember, and there's a new carport on the side of the house. At some stage, the gravel drive has been turned into concrete. But the small shed dad built for us to play in, like a miniature house in the back yard, still remains. The place where my sister's impromptu hairdressing salon opened, for one day only. The concrete and brick retaining walls bordering the neighbour's properties are still there. In the summer, they were covered in the shells that cicadas had left behind - like a small suit of armour, no longer required.
I wander back up to the shops, and into the little grocery shop to get something to drink for the drive back home. Mornings before school, this was where everyone would come for a bag of mixed lollies. Twenty cents got you a bag full, chocolate and jellies, snakes, chocolate and liquorice bullets. Some kids got fifty cent bags, and it seemed like the bag they left with was huge. It was always more than I could afford though. The place where you'd go to buy packets of football trading cards, smelling sweet from the stick of bubble gum inside the packet.
It barely seems like anything has changed. The lino on the floor must be the same that my small feet used to tread, although the counter's in a different place. Still, you can buy lollies, even if a bag's more than twenty cents now. I walk outside, and look over to the park where the bus used to pick us up for the trip down to school. It's gone now, new houses have gone up where trees used to stand.
The car starts, and I drive slowly back down the road. I'm in no hurry to leave - somehow, it feels like for a short time, I've come back home. I know the feeling's an illusion though.
The streets seem the same. But I've changed.