A Simple Life

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I met Alan Hillier today. He lives in a caravan park in Lightning Ridge, a small Australian mining town and the world’s richest source of black opal. He is sixty-seven years old and all that he is fits into two suitcases.

Alan’s life isn’t the romanticised existence he thought it would be. He places himself in the shadows of the community, amongst those who are now too old and weathered by the harsh rural environment.

As we spoke, the caravan was empty and quiet. The neighbouring vans sat close together but not close enough for people to touch. I felt guilty when he offered his last beer. I couldn’t help but think that people who have so little give so much.

What is obvious is that his dreams have been lost, his power has dissipated, and his life has been reduced to invisibility in a rented caravan. I wanted to make Alan more visible.

I met Victor Borkovic today. He came to Lightning Ridge in 1965 for a visit and never left. A very proud man, he tells me stories about Serbia as I sit in his living room chair sipping the glass of the plum infused brandy he poured for me.

Serbia is everywhere in the house. Even the delicate crystal glass that holds my brandy is from the city where he was born. When he talks about his old home his eyes fill with tears, but his pride is palpable as he describes the success he has found in Lightning Ridge. He met his wife Dobrila in the famous bore baths, and ran a tourist attraction he called the Drive In Mine, which has since closed down. He talks of the past with a kind of urgency, like he misses being the man that people flocked to for a piece of the Ridge.

I asked Dobrila if she liked Lightning Ridge. She replied, “Yes, except for, you know, getting old.”

I met Elwyn Steele today. She is a widow, and lives in the retirement ward of the local hospital. She has only a handful of family and friends, and spends her days removing dozens of buttons from bags of old clothes that never found new life in the nearby Op-Shop.

I sit next to Elwyn’s bed as she shares an innocent and playful gossip with me about some of the other residents in the ward; I’ve only just met her and yet somehow she makes me feel like we’re old friends.

As I help her sort through the bags of clothes, I’m encouraged to take home anything that I may like. Admittedly I struggle to see the value in any of the items I sort, but to my surprise, and honest delight, I leave the ward that evening smiling with a new jacket, shirt, and fantastic set of buttons in my bag.

Elwyn’s life may seem meager compared to her days served in the Navy, but there is a remarkable sense of humility and dignity that comes with living simply and enjoying simple pleasures.

By Nicolette Johnson and Joe Ruckli

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