My daughter took two bridesmaid dresses to Darwin. Although we were attending a wedding, this seemed excessive, especially since she was not a bridesmaid. There weren't going to be any bridesmaids, I explained; the only kids involved in the ceremony would be the two belonging directly to the bride. But, faced with her indomitable certainty, I gave up. Weddings are formal events, I told myself. The inexorable etiquette of the occasion will overwhelm her and she'll fall into line. But in this, I underestimated the power of the six-year-old will. Not to mention the power of Darwin.
Darwin, you see, is a place where people go to be someone different. The first white man to come close to where the city now stands was a Scottish surveyor, John McDouall Stuart, who rode his little mare, Polly, across the desert and washed his face in the Arafura Sea. Why? Because he was driven by a desire to be not simply the fifth son of a junior army officer from Fife, but a visionary explorer. He died less than two years later, his health destroyed by the trip. But ever since, people have gone to Darwin to start new lives; escape old ones; remake ones half-way through. Like the Japanese hotel PR rep I met who wants to be an early childhood teacher; the German student who wants to be a Korean barbecue expert; the co-dependent hairdresser who wants to learn to live on his own.
Perhaps this works in Darwin because it's so oddly intense, so weirdly exotic. In this – and in no other way – it reminds me of New York. The crocodile-haunted beaches, the World War II sites, the Cyclone Tracy stories: the rest of the world feels as if it's simply dropped into the ocean, along with the setting sun. People in Darwin do things in a particular way. An extremely relaxed way, while wearing minimal footwear and holding beer in plastic glasses. On the way into town from the airport on a weekday afternoon, we passed a great many people in beer gardens and cafe courtyards and under big shady trees. All of them seemed to be holding plastic glasses, and many of them – including people in business shirts – appeared to be wearing thongs.
At our hotel, everybody spoke a language apparently consisting of only two words: "too" and "easy". "Too easy," said the barman as he handed us our beers. "Too easy," said the lady at the swim-up bar, unwrapping my daughter's ice-cream beneath the "Over 18" sign. "Too easy," my daughter might as well have said as she dripped chocolate casually into the pool. "Nobody here is going to destroy my bridesmaid dream."
And she was right. Least of all me, because I was living my own Darwin dream: that of being a wedding florist – or, as I prefer to think of it, a Floral Artist. The bride (my sister-in-law) had bought her own flowers to decorate the wedding venue, but she needed someone to make up the bouquets. I tried to look casual and Darwin-esque about saying yes, rather than big-city crazy-woman yes, but for the next few hours, surrounded by exotic blooms and low-key Darwinites happily acceding to my outrageous Floral Artist demands, I was perfectly happy.
As was my daughter the following day. Somehow, she understood that, in Darwin, there would be no church or aisle – only the beach in front of the guests and the buffalo grass behind. There would be no ushers or officials – only her uncle watching for the wedding car. And most importantly, therefore, there would be no one to stop her, in her empire-line silk dress, from simply taking her toddler cousin's hand at the crucial moment and walking ahead of the bridal party. Meghan Markle – or Charlotte Windsor, rather – eat your heart out. In Darwin, you can be whoever you like.