‘Yeah my story’s completely different, right,’ she said to the room.
I’d forgotten her name. At one point the instructor stumbled while recalling an anecdote she’d mentioned earlier, and she’d told him to call her Gorgeous. He laughed a little, awkwardly, but carried on calling her that for the rest of the session. Her raspy, worn-out voice was matter-of-fact.
‘I was on a bender. My fella had left. I got so wasted that I wanted to end it, right?’ She paused, looking around the room, a little possessed. ‘I drove the car, and the cops got me. I was absolutely off my face.’
She was sitting half off her chair, pushing forward with one elbow on her knee, a finger pointing at nothing in particular, but clearly directed at the rest of us. An exaggerated gesture, as though her hand was mimicking a gun, her way of making herself heard. These are the things women do with their bodies, I reminded myself. We perform a ballet of sorts, a farcical pantomime at times, just to be seen.
We all nodded together as she told her story, an odd bunch of losers in a little glass room next to the Welsh Church on La Trobe St. A hefty spine of Melbourne named after superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe, who in 1839 travelled from Britain to put the colony in order, just like we were being put to order then.
The church was a Gothic Revival built in 1871, and somehow saved from the ‘Whelanisation’ of twentieth-century Melbourne. Block after block of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ came down in those years; the wreckers getting paid in the rubble. Whelan’s yard in Brunswick overflowed with salvaged pieces of colonial Melbourne; discarded majesty in the suburbs, strewn out of sight.
I intentionally chose this course, far from home, for the architecture; I wanted to get a closer look. After so many sedentary months, I needed that inspiration. People in the country can endure only half-lives without driving. Nowadays, swamped by office blocks and apartment towers, the church stands squat and absurd in the shadows, its sombre grey facade suited to the bluestone of the guttering, its fervour somewhat whittled away by the encroaching city.
Rats moved through the ceiling cavity, distracting me as the instructor sympathised with Gorgeous. He displayed an abstract indifference, tender enough yet cautious. A gentle push and pull that stopped her as she habitually veered towards detailing trauma, but allowed her to feel listened to. She needed him to listen.
I didn’t take much notice though; I was focusing on the rats. It sounded like they were shuffling in straw, trying to sort out their bedding, like dogs pounding the memory of underbrush into their domesticated beds; displaying a sort of a wild transference.
It’s a fairly new build, I kept thinking – one of those atrocious substandard redevelopments with flammable cladding that overpopulate the city. Why was it infested already?
These are the things women do with their bodies, I reminded myself. We perform a ballet of sorts, a farcical pantomime at times, just to be seen.
The story Gorgeous told was different to mine and that of the woman who’d started the introductory exercise.
She, a government worker in a sleek hot-pink dress, went first, taking her time to tell the group that she’d been caught out while cooking dinner, having two leisurely glasses of Pimm’s, which she never normally drank because she wasn’t really a drinker, when her daughter rang and needed a lift a home.
‘Who would have believed it? My parking light was faulty, and the police pulled me over for that’, she blurted out, as if exasperated by her own long-windedness.
Sighs of faux compassion spread across the room.
My story was next, and I told it quickly, like I do most things. As I spoke I stared at the tanned shins of the government worker, which were surprisingly, and almost refreshingly, hairy. Flaky brown skin complimenting the fuchsia of her dress.
‘I’m a habitual drink driver. Nothing major. I live in the country, it’s what we all do.’
There wasn’t much reaction.
Once we’d gone right around the room, listening to a dozen half-truths from dour delicensed men and women, our instructor berated us with subtle, quiet skill. His slight frame was draped in an oversized shirt and trouser pants, and he spent the following ten minutes nervously taping A3 pieces of paper over the glass wall as substitute for a projector screen.
As we packed up at the end of the session, a sense of impatient exhilaration in the room, the instructor cried out, ‘I don’t want you to forget – you might have sincerely considered yourself to be under the limit, but people will still be killed by your misguided sincerity’. He paused, before repeating himself, quieter this time, a little breathless. ‘Your misguided sincerity’. We nodded like we did when Gorgeous had finished her story, not sure how to respond to something so pared back. Not willing to hear it. For a few moments I sensed all of us shifting uncomfortably on our feet, until we snapped out of it and resumed stacking the chairs.
Misguided sincerity and death.
How well they fit together in these deranged times. Did he intend to touch on the crux of our failing human condition, or was this really just a comment on irresponsible driving? Can we differentiate these things anymore?
Every other detail about the course I quickly forgot, but this, and Gorgeous’ hand pointed out at us, vehemently, coaxing us to listen.
I wandered back along La Trobe St, moving slowly, distractedly, through the throng of businessmen, sidestepping one another in that often awkward dance. I screwed a piece of paper up in my fist absentmindedly; the certificate to prove to the road authority that I’d sufficiently repented.
I cut across the CBD to Spencer Street and caught the train home. It was a waste of a day in the city for just three hours, but I was closer to being relicensed. And in some ways it felt like a holiday to make the commute for something other than work. To sit in a room with people I would never see again, but to talk to each other like we would.
The train was peak hour, late departing. As we slid out from the platform a man stood from crouching near the drinking fountain and started to wander the aisle, scratching at the skin below his rolled up shirt. Up and down he went, almost stumbling. No one got up to assist him as they would the elderly or the blind. He had no bag slung over his shoulder, unlike the rest of them who patiently lugged work paraphernalia from office to home.
Watching him I noticed that every now and then he would stop to speak to various people. More often than not they responded to him with just a brief shake of the head and dismissal. A phone always at the ready to capture their attention when required, a clear hint that the conversation had been curtailed. Gestures familiar to city-dwellers who have no time to chat. We are, after all, a species of discretion.
Eventually, predictably, he came to me. They always do. He muttered something half audible about his day and a daughter far away in Gippsland with other family. He ran off a list of bush-birds, surprisingly enunciated. ‘Buff-rumped thornbill, white-browed scrubwren, shy heathwren, silvereye, rufous fantail,’ pausing between each one and nodding as though answering an important question I hadn’t asked. Unperturbed, he carried on, unflinching in his narration: ‘red-browed finch, diamond firetail, mistletoe bird, spotted pardalote’.
Once he seemed satisfied with his avian inventory, still scratching at his arms, he asked me for moisturiser. This was what he’d been asking the other commuters as he walked the carriage, his words eaten up by the hair on his face. I pulled out a tube from my bag and passed it to him. Nobody in the carriage seemed fazed by the man narrating bird names to a woman he doesn’t know; the only looks we got were from bookish types, sulking with furrowed brow that we dared speak in the quiet carriage. But I thought the bush bird narration suited the ambiance; it was sonorous, like a Don Watson audiobook.
The man sat down beside me, quietly, and spent twenty minutes applying the cream to his forearms, front and back. Steadily, with deliberation, I heard him unscrew and screw the cap each time he squeezed out some more. I didn’t watch him. I looked out the window at the endless sprawl of suburbia leaning out in a vast wave through the volcanic plains.
Each trip, I wait for the moment that those cheek-and-jowl houses touch the as-yet undeveloped grasslands. A very ordinary pine paling fence separates them; a liminal point, which rushes by so fast that I often miss it. All the houses have their backs firmly turned to the wildflowers that grow on land waiting to be released by the government when it decides it needs some easy revenue. The outlook of each vaguely intent on a sea view that our coastal cities presume; away from that endless interior, from the hoary sunrays, murnong and button wrinklewort.
Finally, the man stood up and walked toward the front of the train.
I called after him, ‘Keep the cream.’
He returned and pocketed it, silently. I was almost hoping for more birds. It was like a magic trick; an aviary pulled out of a poor man’s hat on an otherwise stifling train. His stooped body crashed into the aisle seats as he made his way, leaving behind him the scent of hand-cream; crushed wild rose. I knew he had nowhere to go.
I watched him for a moment, feeling ambivalent. The drink-driving course, the long commute, his list of small birds, his loneliness. Socks on both his feet were caught in the cuffs of his beige pants, leaving them scrunched up at the back. I turned away before he reached the next carriage; back to the familiar open landscape through the window. The scotch thistles in the foreground plaguing the dusty grass along the rail reserve.
It’s easier to see some things than others.
We were passing through junk space, between the fringe development and the next town. It was all busted up cars in paddocks with ponies walking around, and empty dams waiting for rain. There wasn’t much chance for wildflowers there.
I got my licence back, and drove out to the old swamp to check the water level, which I liked to do. A farmer owned it, and ran mobs of sheep across his generous acreage. A private property sign, ‘Keep Out’, was hung on the fence, next to a sign acknowledging the Indigenous owners of the land.
Each winter, early in the season, the rains fill the swamp up, but the summers draw the water right down below the earth, leaving parched clay cracking. I often drive by, on my way over Mount Franklin, and catch sometimes the gnarly river red gums dropping limbs on hot still days, and the sheep moving through nibbling frantically on the young saplings that come up by the million in their shadows. Thickets of green in an otherwise barren landscape at that time of year. It’s just eyefuls of yellow paddocks with roads slinking through, their reserves riddled with dianellas, everlastings and sundews if you stop to look closely enough.
We were passing through junk space, all busted up cars in paddocks with ponies walking around, and empty dams waiting for rain. There wasn’t much chance for wildflowers there.
I know about native flora because I live in the bush, near an old volcano and what was once an Aboriginal Protectorate Station. Not many realise the two are neighbours. Weekend tourists flock to the former, but most people have forgotten the latter. The place is saturated in memories. Geological, Indigenous, colonial. And the new ones that push in every day from tourists and treechangers.
In 1841 they turned a few thousand acres around that swamp into the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate, one of four established in the Port Phillip District at the time. A British Parliament Select Committee, which convened a few years earlier, decided it was necessary to offer protection to the Australian Indigenous peoples, the urge to be paternalistic provider outstripping the colonial enforcing of terra nullius.
A misguided and tremendously violent act of sincerity.
Two years after it was established, curious of the outcome, La Trobe visited the Protectorate and named the neighbouring mountain after Sir John Franklin, the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land. An island that today remains marred by excised histories of genocide that continued under his command.
A parasitic scoria mound on the western slope was named after the governor’s wife, Lady Franklin; a sign of the times. Our urban and rural landscapes remain wefted together by the names of colonial men, no matter how ignominious their reputation.
Recently, the sloping inclines of the mountain have been subdivided, and we’ve witnessed the fast work of bulldozers grazing into its ancient side, churning up red soil from under wallaby and kangaroo grass to make sites for houses. These are mostly vacant places, leased out on the weekends. Landscape memories erased faster than they move that scoria to surface new driveways.
Stiff angles jut out of the hillside now, like piles of Colorbond matchboxes on the otherwise smooth curve. These were part of Major Mitchell’s ‘Mammaloid Hills’; alluringly breast-like to the lonely explorer but reflective in fact of the fire-stick farming routinised by the Dja Dja Wurrung owners of the land.
After the closure of the Protectorate, the land was surveyed for sale and roads around the swamp were laid out in the shape of the Union Jack. And so today, as legacy, there’s a hefty intersection that gives locals a headache and many-a-missed collision. The cruelty of scarifying the flag of invaders onto the site of a Protectorate, of our own complicity in re-inscribing it with every commute, is not mentioned in the numerous requests to the road authority for improved safety measures.
When I drive through this intersection, somewhat dismembered all these years later and now known as the ‘five-ways’, sometimes I slow down so the kids in the back seat can catch the iron sign that marks the site. Erected by a local historian in the 1960s, it is modernist country-kitsch with a boomerang and the dates of the Protectorate.
Phalaris outgrows it now, though, so there’s not much to see.
The summer I got my licence back, we got swarming bees. The kids watched them at the bird bath, buzzing around making a racket. They noticed that when the hose was filling up the bath, the bees got more boisterous. It felt like we almost emptied a dam for those bees, so eager were the children to see them fly.
‘Look at their wings, mum. How fast they move.’
‘And the sacks of pollen on their thighs.’
‘It makes them look so muscly – saddlebags of gold,’ they laughed.
‘Why do we need machines when we have these perfect little beasts doing so much work for us?’
‘Yes, they’re like flying robots, tiny ones, very pretty ones, in tiger’s clothing,’ the five-year old said hysterically, as though she’d just figured out the meaning of life.
The swarming bees latched onto a wattle sapling, hanging like a fat Christmas stocking from the mantle.
The eldest one added, ‘That’s why we call them drones!’
It entertained them for days.
The swarming bees latched onto a wattle sapling, hanging like a fat Christmas stocking from the mantle. Every now and then a few dozen would disengage and fly to the water, drinking from the lip of the bowl. Some drowned from overzealousness, stranded in the depths. The children fussed over those ones, mourning them and placing them carefully out of sight. More often than not, though, they were quick to scoop up the flailing ones with gum leaves and place them on rocks to dry out, checking on their progress like dedicated nursemaids.
This was also the summer we first heard that the insects were dying. An Armageddon of sorts, the news reports said, with the rate of extinction eight times that of mammals and birds – which we already knew was reaching light-speed, considering all the damage we’d done. All the land clearing, the endless urbanisation, the monocultures, the relentless burning of fossil fuels.
I didn’t share this news with the kids. I revelled in our moment of excess. In their very simple pleasure. In their love of bees.
Some say it’s not the age of the human, the Anthropocene, that we’ve entered, but an Age of Loneliness. Entomologists, busy studying underworlds, urge us to consider the plight of the little animal. Without them, they assure us, humans will grow lonesome.
But even more sobering: humans won’t be here to ponder a world of only microbes and fungi, we’ll be long extinct as well. A reason not to worry too much, to carry on with hubris.
I still catch the train down to the city, even though I can drive again now.
Rushing through the crowded Southern Cross station, work bags over my shoulder, I sweep between two men, an older gangly one and a late-teenager in a hoodie, perhaps his son.
My foot catches the back of the older man’s heel. I turn and say ‘Sorry mate,’ as I hurry for my train.
‘That was my fucken foot,’ he says, stopping on the thoroughfare, loud enough for other commuters to hear. For a moment I can’t tell if he’s joking, doing that older man thing where they become suddenly authoritarian, dunking younger women down with humour.
I turn to him. ‘Yeah, and I said sorry.’
‘It’s a big fucken place, and you kick my foot!’ He’s not joking. He has long, lanky hair and a big belt buckle. He’s like a restless bull agitating in the chutes.
I stop and watch him. The boy behind him watches me, his hands raised in exasperation, mouthing ‘Yeah sorry’, noticeably embarrassed but unable to intervene. The gangly man pushes ahead, swearing, eyes forward, as though he’s forgotten it was me who caused his wrath and is trying to locate the source. He’s clearly not intoxicated. He’s just angry, so angry.
There’s no sincerity in any of this; in the violence we enact, in the aching for recognition we ignore. We’re all just kicking at heels.
I make the train, but the aggressive man’s heel haunts me. I think about blunt violence – not the disguised kind that kills off biota, that puts me behind the wheel after the pub, that redacts histories, that allows us to turn away from others’ loneliness and poverty.
I think about his violence. Where intent isn’t concealed, where rage is a hatchet searching for a soft body.
And I realise I’m probably wrong about it all, there’s no sincerity in any of this; in the violence we enact, in the aching for recognition we ignore. We’re all just kicking at heels. Relentlessly. Decisively. The weakest point – and before we know it, things fall apart, the whole world collapses.
Our children point out the beauty to us, playfully, patiently, and we don’t have the heart to tell them that it’s like meteors; these things have no future, we’re witnessing a trajectory already burned-out.
Species loneliness never seemed so real.
On the train, sitting window-side and watching the scotch thistles in suburbia, waiting for that pine paling fence that marks the open country, I remember a few lines from a W. H Auden poem about the shield of Achilles, the one they made us memorise in school:
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came…
Thinking about this hope for help, this hope without optimism, I long for the honesty of Gorgeous, for the stranger with his list of small birds, for memories of forgotten landscapes, and for the children’s love of bees.
In this pitiless age of almost unflinching cruelty, I long to not look away.