When I was a kid we escaped the Melbourne winter on an annual pilgrimage up north to Queensland. My highlight wasn’t the sunshine or the beach or the hours shrivelling in the pool: it was the giant ice-cream sundaes at the Big Pineapple. Each sundae was served in this beast of a glass with fresh pineapple chunks and passionfruit seeds layered between balls of flavoured ice cream; all covered in a tower of whipped cream and chopped peanuts.
My brother and I took days to decide which sundae we’d order, and it was pretty much the only thing we could talk about on holiday. While my parents lay in the sun burning under their layer of Reef oil, we planned our visit to the Big Pineapple.
Recently, I took my own two children to Queensland for a holiday. My mum died three years ago, and the trip was an attempt to find pieces of her; to find memories still living. But chasing memories is a dangerous occupation.
I had no intention of taking my children to the Big Pineapple, but I think some sort of nostalgic homing device took over and we suddenly found ourselves pulling into the car park. I was giddy at first. My favourite tourist destination was still standing. It was the lost link to my childhood and one I could share with my own children, who were delighted to spy a giant fibreglass pineapple they could actually climb inside. So we did.
Five steps in, it all looked wrong. Almost like a piece of Super 8 film starting to burn along the side, corrupting the image. Instead of children scampering up and down stairs to check out how pineapples are grown and canned, it was just us. Water dripped from the roof, the exhibits were falling apart, and the Big Pineapple felt forgotten and ignored.
But I’d already been transported back. After entering this sort of tropical TARDIS, I had to keep going. Each step I climbed took me further into the past, dragging me back to what it was like to be six and climbing those spiral stairs with my mum’s hand in mine: knowing that just outside an ice cream sundae was waiting.
My mum died three years ago, and the trip was an attempt to find pieces of her; to find memories still living. But chasing memories is a dangerous occupation.
We made it to the top, but as we stepped out onto the little metal ledge it seemed to wobble wildly, and as I looked down at what was once a thriving plantation – now a sort of dust pit – I was quickly ejected from my nostalgic moment and tossed very firmly back into the present. Hurrying my kids away from the wobbly ledge, we raced back down the stairs, speeding to the concrete car park where our hire car was waiting. Even my son, who normally travels at the speed of snail, moved fast. There were no tourist buses, no queues for sundaes, no little macadamia trains going around: just a big empty car park and a kiosk selling pies.
The Big Pineapple had changed for me. No longer a pristine purveyor of sundaes, it was a crumbling tourist icon that would probably not survive the decade. My memory too had been shaken. Images of Mum with her wide sunglasses and brown skin, stealing a spoonful of my passionfruit sauce, were corrupted with dripping water and dirty fibreglass. Back in the safety of the hire car, I couldn’t talk. I felt I’d been split in two. I had believed memories were stored away, intact and untouchable. Now, the childhood version of me, the one that took an hour to eat a sundae as big as my head, was lost and wandering around in circles trying to find her parents. And the adult version was sad because one of her favourite memories had just been crushed.
After a few minutes of reverential silence, my daughter leaned over and touched my shoulder. She was hungry. She’d heard all my stories about the Big Pineapple and now she really wanted an ice cream. Time to make new memories.
Driving out of the car park, the Big Pineapple disappearing behind us, I realised my memories of Queensland will always be flavoured by those ice cream sundaes. They aren’t as sweet as they once were, but I guess that just has to be okay.
Nova Weetman’s fiction has appeared in various literary magazines, including Kill Your Darlings, Island, Tirra Lirra, Wet Ink, Mslexia and Overland. Her young adult and middle-grade novels include The Haunting of Lily Frost and Frankie and Joely.