It’s very quiet here. I don’t know where the neighbours are. Asleep, away, averse to being public – Hobartians are quiet people.
Downtown Hobart, five minutes away, is humming with Dark Mofo sounds. But here, in the pale winter sunlight, the air is still, and yellow, and silence imbues everything. Above me, clouds drift in, where yesterday a red rescue helicopter flew slowly to somewhere remote, to winch a tourist from a rock crevasse. Next to me, a five-year-old makes careful notes of the birds she spots in our garden – wattlebird, plover, seagull, magpie, rosella – and asks me to show her their place in a reference book, where we find others, invisible now, extinct.
The air is thicker and bluer at the northern horizon. Later, the smog will move in and make my asthmatic chest tighten. In recent months, the northern suburbs’ regulations on lighting fires in backyards have been relaxed, so that people can save on heating bills and warm themselves on cold nights. I learned this from a bus driver heading out beyond the invisible ‘flannelette curtain’, said to divide Hobart’s suburbs on the north-south axis, along a line somewhere between New Town and Moonah.
Living ‘north of the line where the latte runs out’, as poet Tim Thorne put it at a Tasmanian Writers Festival in 2000, used to mean living in North Hobart, but the real estate boom here keeps moving ‘the latte line’ further and further north. Maybe it’s now beyond the Moonah Arts Centre, where the literati and culture vultures venture, mingle, and even buy houses, and where the new order is hipster flannelette, and organically grown, ethically sourced latte.
For me, much of Hobart is a palimpsest; layers upon layers.
The further north from Hobart’s city centre you go, the more you notice the thinly veiled poverty lines criss-crossing Tasmanian society from every angle. Go to Bunnings near Glenorchy and you’ll see the newly sprung tents of the homeless; a little further and you’ll find David Walsh’s MONA, an island of opulence on an island of contrasts. On Dark Mofo days, and in summer’s Mona Foma season, the locals get to see the latest fashions from overseas modelled on the slick and languid bodies of tourists, with boots and coats and hairstyles not seen in shops here. Exotics come in search of the wild exotic, in quick day trips. The tourists are identifiable by their new sports shoes and leather belts or twin-coloured jackets, huddled over maps, standing just slightly off centre from the main drag – easily missed as it is only two square blocks in size. That said, the town’s got the feel of a city now, with an H&M store near the newly rebuilt Myer. Cranes dominate the city’s compact skyline. Everywhere, No Cable Car posters stamp images of a wild kunanyi/Mt Wellington on an increasingly concrete landscape.
For me, much of Hobart is a palimpsest; layers upon layers. Having lived here for thirty years, I easily slip into localese, recalling earlier attempts to build a cable car. I still refer to the nearby newsagent as ‘Irwin’s’ though it’s long since changed hands. In my mind, the cul-de-sac I live near is ‘Green Lane’, as it was known to an old poet and former soldier. He told me of its former glory, with overarching trees where he’d ridden a horse drawn cart as a child, delivering bread from the corner bakery. The bakery was down the road where now a new boutique called ‘Days of Summer’ sells ornate hand-woven fabric, dresses and jewellery.
Tasmania is a place where people, in Frank Moorhouse’s words, ‘bake their own curtains and weave their own bread’ – words spoken at a literary reading in Cygnet, one of many villages nestled into the idyllic scenery of the Huon Valley. The scent of Huon Pine comes to mind as I write. In my crammed urban garden I try to grow an Esk River pine, endangered, slow-growing.
In the Green Lane of my mind’s creation, I walk the narrow track where the branches of huge trees quiver with birdlife. The council has turned Green Lane into a proper street, pouring tarmac over the home-made road my neighbour constructed as far as his own driveway. My neighbours’ carefully guttered pavements sport neat, antiseptic squares of mown grass. Our section of nature strip is the exception, with its veggie patch on the verge and sprawling native plants spilling towards the road. Four tall trees overhang our stretch of nature strip, with its ever shrinking area of grass patiently mown by another neighbour. He and I do battle with the marauding Cape weed. The 40 kilograms of pumpkins I grew last summer are never pilfered, no one picks the herbs or kale or spinach I grow. But dozens of birds visit the tall crab-apple trees each day, and on their behalf I wage a silent war with someone’s cat.
Ice silent nights will sometimes put on a show of the Southern Lights, or hint at them with a neon green glow at the horizon. A bell from St John’s Church in New Town sounds the hour through the night air. In the silence I still imagine I hear the freight train near the river wailing plaintively in the night, though the trains have long since stopped running. For me, everything I see and hear reminds me of a son who is no longer here.
In the silence I still imagine I hear the freight train near the river wailing plaintively in the night, though the trains have long since stopped running.
The echoes of Tasmania’s history, and the transgressions perpetrated against its Aboriginal people, are never far away, especially near Port Arthur. At White Beach on a summer’s day, a friend of mine saw little Aboriginal children dancing in the glittering shallows of the sunlit water, even heard them laughing. But the beach was deserted. Some of the recent past’s travesties are still visible – drowned Lake Pedder’s pristine beaches have been photographed, far below the dam water, seemingly untouched. Seeing through the surface beauty to the deeper stories of Tasmania is not hard if you look slant, and if the lens is personal.
My mind’s Hobart palimpsest is forever anchored to one building, the hospital – now a seemingly endless building site, with cranes and concrete slabs suspended over the busy streets, yellow or orange barriers blocking lanes. But in my memory the hospital of a decade ago is imbued with a grey light. On a side street, there was a portal, demolished now in the rebuilding, with a door that is not a door, flanked by two pillars like an Egyptian tomb, and a metal plate above saying Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit. Another sign said, This is not an entrance. In the cold shadowed recess of the portal, you could sit on the bench and wait for the doorbell you’ve rung to be answered. If you are the right person – a parent, a partner – the door will be opened to you.
I’m here as parent, though I feel like a child.
Inside, there are officials, sad-eyed, with badges. The sun, disappearing over the cityscape for the afternoon, lights up the glass door briefly.
I watch my shoes as I sit still, waiting to be let in. I am here to see my son. He has been here for some time.
The hospital of a decade ago is imbued with a grey light. On a side street, there was a portal, demolished now in the rebuilding, with a door that is not a door.
Once inside, I’m in a waiting room, where there’s a reception desk, walled in with glass, with four office chairs. Only one worker is there. Her phone does not ring. She’s typing.
Opposite me, there are doors to cubicles – interview rooms. Sometimes they open and people come out. Inside these tiny square rooms are two low velvet armchairs, and a low table. Nothing else, not even on the walls. Opposite the door you’ve entered by is yet another, leading to the inner workings of the psychiatry ward. Where the psyche is treated. Where the psychiatrists are. Where visitors cannot go. And where those visited have a small room of their own. Another young friend who was an inpatient told me it was comforting in there, cocooned in the pink light of a protective bubble.
Back in the waiting room where no one is waiting, I ask to see my son’s psychiatrist. I’m taken to another room, a perfunctory space, a mere passageway, with doors at either end which face each other as if their backs are turned against each other. Three men – I am surprised to see they are wearing white coats – come in and talk with me. Because of the awkward design of this room, we’re in a row, facing quite literally a blank wall.
Later, my son is moved to the general psychology ward, down a labyrinth of passages that would be sunny if there were windows. There’s a smoking courtyard where a dull green sunlight filters down from a transparent skylight roof far above this locked hospital ward. Visiting one day, I recognise someone – this is a small town – but I try not to see him so he will not be embarrassed. I sit down next to a thin, energetic man who is praying, or reciting something. Nervous people stub out cigarette after cigarette, in layers and layers.
Today, beyond the concrete slabs and glass walls and cranes, a new psychiatric ward is taking shape. Let’s hope for sunlight for its patients, for the possibility of soft fabric even if it’s flannelette, for freshly baked bread, and yes, even a latte. Hospitals and houses need to grow here faster than any palimpsest our memories can make.