We packed some things into the car and left on a hot morning, early. The wind was already hot and already dusty. We headed west.
You take the Western Ring Road and then you take the Western Highway. There's no confusion. You can't go wrong and you're out of the city soon. But it used to be sooner.
Melbourne sprawled north and east, but it never sprawled west. To the north, artists followed the river, enchanted by the light and the mists and the nightlife at other artists' places. Then the bohemians followed the artists and then everyone else followed the bohemians and built suburbs. Orchardists and farmers looked east, enchanted by the Blue Dandenongs, and settled in the foothills or built houses right up there under the tang and crack of the soaring eucalypts and the pines and rebuilt them every few years after bushfires.
But no-one went west. Melbourne stopped at Sunshine, which was named after a manufacturer of heavy machinery. Beyond Sunshine was a dusty plain as flat as a breadboard and about as interesting.
But then developers, being developers, realised the potential of a flat, dusty plain and built Caroline Springs. There were no springs, but it sounds nice. They built Taylors Lakes where there were no lakes. They built Cairnlea where the only lea is the astroturf on the minigolf range in the mall. That's the thing about new suburbs. They sound beautiful. Old suburbs don't. Toorak sounds like someone coughing.
We drove past the largest advertising hoarding in the southern hemisphere. It sits facing the Western Ring Road and in letters larger than a bank executive's salary, it reads: Every generation should live better than the last. There was a photograph of someone having a better life than their forebears, and a fat red Westpac Bank 'W' logo at the bottom, like a giant kiss. See? The bank loves you. Now take out a $300,000 mortgage and a $20,000 credit card and live better than your parents.
It got warmer. I turned the airconditioner on. In the back, Thomas slept and William sang a soft song with a lot of 'th' sounds in it. Alongside the freeway, earthmovers were adding yet another lane and dust was drifting across acres of brand new houses, some still unroofed, their timber frames like the skeletons of dead animals. Soon we left Caroline Springs in the rear vision mirror and there was nothing except the flat plain, dead from the drought, and the Western Highway.