If I were pitching this story as a Vogleresque 12 Stage Hero’s Journey, this part would be Stage 7, Approach to Inmost Cave. I’ve Crossed the Threshold, met my Allies, made some enemies and now I am taking my leap into the great unknown. I am resolved not to sit in my room at the Dolphin Retreat Youth Hostel, eating peanuts and cheese spread on flatbread and drinking water from a tooth mug, which is what I usually do in the evenings when I travel alone. I have had a fantastic day riding the Balingup-Nannup road, looking for the Big Apple and drinking excellent coffee and now I am going to go into a pub and buy myself a proper dinner and a pint.
It may sound daft that I am making such a big deal of this. Going into pubs is not difficult. Or, it’s not difficult in your own country. Although Australia is hardly in the same league as Syria or Cuba for culture shock, the clues that unconsciously inform my choices in the UK are missing or misfiring here. For example, I know at home that Giraffe is kid-friendly and that going into one of their restaurants and asking for a table for one might lead to anxious looks from over-protective parents. All Bar One, on the other hand, is a great place to go for a solo dinner. What is the equivalent here? I can’t tell.
I walk around the town centre and find that Bunbury has lots of restaurants but mainly they are full of big groups, all having a lovely time. I start to lose my confidence, because this scenario is the one you would create if you wanted to kill me. Winston Smith’s biggest horror is rats. Mine is everyone else in the world having a wonderful time and deliberately leaving me on the wrong side of the glass.
In the end I pick the Rose Hotel because it is on the street back to the hostel, and because it looks pretty. The Victoria Street bar is all wood panels and high, lazy fans. It’s nearly empty – there is a table of fifty-something men talking loudly about somebody they work with but don’t like, and me. I order a bowl of wedges and a pint, carry my pint to the table, sit down with too much gusto and bounce my head off the mantelpiece behind me. My attempt to pretend it didn’t happen is foiled by one of the businessmen asking if I am OK. Wedges and a pint cost 15 dollars. I think for some time that the barmaid must have charged me for a full meal by mistake but it turns out beer in Australia is upwards of £6 a pint. Not quite such a lucky country after all.