Monday, August 15, 2005

Muffled

There are two layers to my return to Perth and, like my feelings about leaving London, both are so powerful that my life seems to be lived in stark black and white, yet strangely muffled, as if they are cancelling each other out. The culture of Perth leaves me cool and bored at the moment, the mentality of blending in at all costs has already rendered the strangers on the street faceless grey extras, nowhere near the endlessly fascinating tapestry that Londoners were for me. The weather may be beautiful, but the physical man-made environment is unadventurous and too familiar to intrigue me and the natural wonders of the outback and bush are only mine when I have money and a car.

So the pubs and the clubs issued their siren call of alcohol and dancing, sexy bodies and frantic posing and on Saturday night I went out to Subiaco, the upper end of the nightspots in Perth. There was a long line for the club, a strict dress code of ‘fabulous or forget it’, tall AFL footballers swaggering straight in as VIPs and plenty of youthful attitude. It was my reintroduction to the gorgeous girls and guys of Perth, in their fastidiously fashionable clothes that are supposed to make them look individual, and instead make them indistinguishable from their competitors. A tiny room of identikit beauties lounging with drinks, being admired, desired and waiting to be seduced.

That day I had been in town shopping with my 15-year-old cousin for her first grownup dress for a formal dinner dance. Her mother had bought her a dress but it was not the same as all the dresses the other girls were wearing, so we were on a mission to find one the same as the rest. How well I remember that painful, youthful need to fit in, to keep the boat steady, to be accepted. We went from shop to shop, draping her towering but sturdily athletic frame in clinging blue fabric, making her shake out her long blonde hair and posing her in high heels. She was dressed the same as all her classmates, in the clothes of a woman, but her big blue eyes were far too innocent to pull off the plunging neckline and the miniscule skirt.

I saw those very dresses later that night on women ten years her senior and they carried them off admirably, their stunning figures, poker straight hair and free moving energy lending the skimpy fabric all the aplomb of small-town trophy wives. I stood in the middle of interchangeable beauties, shod in vertiginous heels and dressed either in disappearing dresses or skin tight jeans and floaty silk tops, and they were so homogenous I could not summon the concentration to distinguish them as individuals from the blur of tanned skin and rich colours.

Even the much anticipated boys bored me within a few seconds, their bland good looks, schoolboy-rebel upturned collars and their lazy eyeing up of each other’s pink shirts making me feel like I had just been given the choice of vanilla, vanilla or vanilla for dessert.

The almost forgotten incurable socialite and compulsive shopper that was Claire pre-London shifted slightly in her hibernation and muttered sleepily about going shopping for new clothes. The mirrored walls reflected me standing in the middle of the heaving dance floor, short and wide, dressed in black from head to toe, without a hint of heel, looking like a horrified crow amidst a party of peacocks. I had momentarily capitulated in less than an hour to the forces that rule Perth – blend in, look good or become invisible.

I’ll tell you what amused me:

#1 I had forgotten my passport for ID and everyone shook their heads and told me I wouldn’t get in with the zero tolerance policy. Dressing like a grandma has its uses it appears – twice all my mates got asked for their ID, twice I just strode straight through and I don’t think the bouncer even registered me.

#2 I was so bored with the endless cookie-cutter perfect beauties on display that I was almost blind to people I knew. My best friend from high school spotted me in three minutes and flew across the club to say hi, but I barely recognised the polished creature descending on me - all immovable hair, glossy eyebrows and elegant hugs.

#3 The only guy who tried to pick me up was English, a rugby player on scholarship from Southampton.

But goddamnit I was dancing with people that I adored and I was so bloody happy I could have cried. And this is the flip side of the coin, the glorious amount of time I get to spend with people I missed for two years, slowly feeling our way over the landscape of two years apart, filling in the gaps that the emails left, slotting back into comfortable bantering with the slight edge of having to have some of the anecdotes explained all over again to me with all the inevitable laughs of retelling.

The elder of my two brothers was there, enjoying being the only boy with four women, and it was only afterwards when he mentioned it that I realised that it was the first time he had ever been out with a group of older women, especially with this group of women who do not see him out socially and who only remembered him as a Claire’s little brother. Before I left Perth I would never had thought to go out with both my friends and my siblings as one group, but after mixing all people of all ages in London, I just hadn’t had a second thought about it.

In fact, my moment of fashion consciousness on the dance floor ended when I realised that the only other non-fashion slaves in the joint were my little coterie, including my little bro in Dad’s 70’s trousers, black shirt and his smooth ballroom dancing moves. If your little brother isn’t scared of the social police, why should you be? The other girls I was out with hadn’t voluntarily talked to each other since school six years ago, and it worked surprisingly well. Once again it was only because I never assumed they would mix because of deep seated social hierarchies from school that I never mixed them before that night, but we enjoyed ourselves by gossiping madly, trotting out our new dance moves, making fun of bad / drunk dancers and having to have my brother protect us from amorous jailbait.

It’s only been a week, and the dislocation will last for a while as I establish myself, but the time between talking to friends is flat and stifling, muffling somewhat my enjoyment in the return home. Maybe I should just shop the pain away …

Originally posted on Exiled Britophile, a blog I updated for about twelve months when I returned home from London. Due to it's frank discussion of how horrid I found Perth, these pieces had only been read by my London readers until 2011.

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