OUT OF THE fixed constellation of his friends, B_ falls to earth like a small white stone. He is a confusion of beginnings. Before this year nothing counts and nothing belongs. He is born at 24 and denies us all, his life tipped up and emptied: away with friendships, mentors, family, company. And yet we "keep in touch": he still sends emails. In a state of drift, he writes, "I wander the streets". I tap back to him: "You were once so happy, so careless of yourself, so free with your gifts, so biddable. Now you're solemn, even old." Glancing from my screen I want to add, "What secrets are you keeping from us?"
For three years we wrapped tight any misery we had inside us. We were four friends, most comfortable talking, lounging, smoking. North of Melbourne to Mount Macedon, or down to the coast where B_'s sister lived, motoring was a kind of lounging, good only for talk. Seated in a car you need not face each other. Four travellers, we saw only the talked-of things that lay before us: how the world would be made new with us in it. The windscreen was a cinema of landscapes to enter and delight us, with music someone had provided. We would change all that out there, our plans unravelling behind us.
Back home in Sydney, B_ rents a room at Dawes Point, close beside the bridge. There he constructs impossible questions for us, such as: "Is the world slowly dying? How could you be sure? Rays of death pour through a great hole in the air." It seems even the sunlight has turned sinister for him. There is not enough ozone in the sky, and too much in the streets. "Which one am I? Who ought I be?" Why does he waste his time with this? I click Reply: "You seem to have collapsed" or compacted inwards, travelling across the tiny distance of himself, his very own egoistic universe.
Summer changes him, or so he writes: "It's all too difficult, the newspapers pile up, people here surrender to the heat." He is "inside a new skin" of salt and suntan-tightness. After our sharp winters, he is immersed in his gentle harbour's air "as moist as breath". But wishing to start again, free and alone, only brings anxiety and confusion. "When I look up, I see small crowds all dressed in grey, chained together, standing in the sky where they can watch me!" as he lies baking on his level rooftop. Rank on rank of grey ones climb the bridge above his room and every day he wakes into their judgement.
Not everything he writes to us makes sense, for instance, "Each morning I try to be born"; or he warns us that to succeed at being his, he must fail at being ours. He doubts the notions we all learned together, and has become angry and glib about our books, our impure ambitiousness, the lecturers we admire, then befriend, and have become. His true beliefs dissolve inside the pupal skin. Neither juvenile nor adult, "I'm more like matter in suspension."
"Maybe I should just ignore him," I half-ask, turning from his flickering presence in my inbox, but you say, "Don't let go, not now; not yet. Keep messaging."
I key in my first thought. "I don't get it. Tell me exactly what you mean." Is this the one we thought unhurtable but quick to wound, irony's opportunist, bright and sharp? His hard reflecting mettle unreflective, steel all through, an instrument to measure others, examine then destroy, reliably for the greater good, impatient, clever, partisan? Who is our friend now he's in exile in his native city?
Who speaks to him? For company, B_ claims certain sounds: "Magpies on the asphalt roof, the two-note singing of my Frigidaire, the thundering railway overhead, a piano on the second floor." He has the net cafés, but has no phone. Writes to us, on our wet basalt coast, but talks to no one where he lives. Meanwhile, even sandstone walls, the trees or water may address him, to console or ridicule: "They know me, but withhold themselves. They have some wisdom for me." But what is the message in their crystals, sap or specks of foam? "They will call me through this door and stair cut in the sleeping sandstone, or let me climb this fig tree, should I enter their Domain." He glosses this, "I am afflicted by the landscape." It's no doubt our training that has made him sound so literary.
You say, "I wonder if it's just some complicated joke."
IN PITT STREET he sees a hole where a building was, rushes to the terminal, logs on, explaining, "In the hoardings are little windows to look through. Tall yellow insects gnaw the stone down there." He stares into the cubic excavated sandstone, all made gold and new, Triassic on Permian, running his gaze down layer under layer: where would be the end and the beginning of it?
Grains of sand are telling him, "We are the river that always flowed beneath you; we are its dropped particles, your dissolved Antarctic ranges. See in this cut surface our libraries of stone, our sloped stacks, volume after volume. Our ancient afternoons are all recorded here, precisely in the order we were accessioned: remember us! Once we ran end over end within the stream, millions like you, rushing, to be sifted according to our size and mass. We lay down, when the force was spent, in our slumped beds, she and me and the next; all our records are conserved here."
Statues, fountains and monuments may also address him. Some hero in his fountain pauses in the act of a beheading, while in the next street a little boar will bless him with its gleaming nose. Sullen Victoria stares down at B_, holding her orb of gunmetal: "Take this burden from me, let me down from here. I have become preposterous in this street, fixed in your long terrain under me and my longing to reign over you."
All these figures are our representatives, as B_ explains. I guess that makes you his Victoria: a joke. "I recognise one among you" (I suppose he must mean me) "in Macquarie Place, only you have been transformed into an obelisk that declares, 'Let every point henceforth be measured from me! Here I stand. Go forth and calculate! The Colony is ruled straight, now that I have come to govern you. Parramatta, you have been determined. Bathurst, I am watching. I communicate with peaks by trigonometry. Even rivers are tied down by me. I know the measure of all my subjects; therefore take your readings from my forehead!' "
He adds, running a finger along the loosened stone: "Poor obelisk, you would be the last to notice. Look. Even the breezes and the ants dismantle you." And much more of this arrives each day, for the benefit of our better understanding, of him or us or now or then, unsought by us but not unwelcome either; after all, he was our friend, we won't abandon him. We pass his emails on (but try not to groan, or cringe, guffaw); he's our special blogging correspondent with a readership at least of two, at most of four.
B_ SAYS "THERE'S nothing strange in any of these words". After all, he claims, we all can have our private twists and passages of a city, in a stairway, a stone cutting, a Port Jackson fig tree, a green dome of copper, a honeycombed rock that moves in and out of tides, a particular ferry's bench, public objects that are also wholly private. There is just the relation of you and (let's say) an arch of grey and yellow rock, while a thousand others may walk through it and admire it as they pass and believe it wholly theirs as well.
"I know it's just my selfishness," he writes me on a lucid day, his self becoming global, having grown to such a size that its horizon has pushed back every other thing. He walks for days, for months, and still he has not reached the edge. He is pitched along in Sydney's air, asking for understanding from mere stones. He kicks against the unforgiving wall, then bites hard on his finger bone: "Make me inanimate, then reassemble me, carbon to carbon; make me a blackness scratched along the rock, or a metallic spray of politics ('No personal solutions!'), or something intimate scrawled across the overpass ('Francesca, where are you?')". The street drags him along with it, his legs conveyed past shop windows, billboards, fresh graffiti, hoardings, neon signs. He must read every text, filling his head with its advice, warnings, smug flatteries and insinuations.
Approaching his "small square cave" on Hickson Road, B_ steps around the debris on the sandstone porch, "an abandoned armchair, a pile of clinker bricks, a rusted bike frame, two cardboard boxes peeling and collapsing". An almost empty can of petrol stands in the sun, the lid screwed tight. He puts this can in the cool darkness of the first-floor landing. Continues to his room. Twelve minutes later there is a sound like a pistol shot, then another, then scattered cracking noises. Later he explains, "Inside the can the cooling fumes would have contracted rapidly. I discovered that the can itself had moved: now it was turning on its side. Still crushing itself in, it bowed to me, then continued twisting on the narrow stair."
WE HAVE NOTHING from him in a month, then four messages that come together. The first of these is "I am well".
Then: "I have made for myself a superstitious ritual. Each new event must tell me something." He finds an explanation of himself in whether this gull will stay balanced on its railing or depart; or whether that wave will reach out to the rock he stands on when it next returns. He looks for signs in chance events, as if each circumstance, say a leaf detached, unanswered message or idling ferry is a card played or withheld by a deliberate providence.
He lets the context pull him along. "Something has fallen from my grasp down a crack between the rocks. I can only curl up here, out of the wind, and hug my knees, and look out at the level sea and wait for that thing to crawl out again."
So we read about him waiting for the ferry at Musgrave Street, watching the rocks below the water's surface. "It's true: there is a staircase that leads into the sea. The golden sandstone is encrusted with mussels." On some days the staircase has heaved itself out of the water and it flashes at him in the drying sun. "But today it keeps below the surface, not hidden, just shifting, forming and deforming: the stone blocks float among the yellowtails. I can see it all in there, opening and closing."
Then: "In this bay there is a yellow buoy. It keeps the place where my father's anchor lies. Today my father's boat is elsewhere: there is just this floating buoy to mark his place. When you throw the anchor over, you hear it slick down in the mud. But that buoy lacks the density even to displace water. A yellow ball rolls end over end, without end, a sphere has no end: is this all you can do with your days? What else would you signify, poor buoy?"
His father's boat is his home. A musician, his father goes to work each afternoon; first he rows the dinghy to the shore, where it is moored at the boatshed in Mosman Bay; then he takes the ferry. He will be gone nine hours. So one evening the son steals his father's dinghy, rows to his father's house, steals the house: lets the mooring go, starts the engine, he is free.
"Out of Sirius Cove I veer starboard round the green light at Cremorne Point, then under the roaring bridge-" And? What is he doing here, with all his father's things - the dog-eared Penguins, the tobacco tin, the greasy skillet - cut loose yet still attached: what's his destination? "The more you go up river, the shallower the reaches, where the mangrove flats turn into municipal parks. You run out of water there, you must turn back. You pull the wheel as hard as it will go-" and all his father's objects, his fishing tackle and the gramophone, are sliding while he turns; his dad rebukes him from the silent radio, the pocket mirror's face becomes afraid.
All those other boats are going somewhere: tankers, water taxis, ketches under power; but he steers his tight half-circle, heads into the wind again, feeling it on his face. Darling Harbour, the Quay, a twinkling on Sow and Pigs. B_ makes for the twilight's dark horizon, the richest bays draw back for him, great stone heads rise up before him, he is out in the Pacific, now that it is fully dark. The further the deeper. The surging under him alarms him. He is lifted, rides down the gully and over the next rise. Like an open road, but dangerous now. The propeller squeals whenever it's exposed. How much fuel remains? There is no gauge for it. He pulls the wheel again, turning himself to port. Macquarie's light transmits its pale messages; the bridge wears a red diamond on its forehead. His engine comforts him so long as it throbs under him. The bilge is taking water. "If my pump stops beating I am drowned out here. They will find me in a week from now washed up on Chowder Head. Watch for the bombora here. I am a nothing between two stars, one red one green. Ride the surge in; push at my back and surf me in."
ONE NIGHT B_ discovers a door in the base of a granite pylon, "strange as a door cut into a sandstone cliff": only on this occasion the door stands open, and out of the stone tower comes light and noise. Vehicles and machines are in the rock. But by morning, in the flat light of a city Monday, when he goes again to look, the door has vanished, its light sealed inside, and the granite has resumed its blank solidity. "So did I see it? What was it that I saw?"
Where the steel arch enters the earth there are simple nuts and bolts, as on a bicycle, but enormous. He touches one. Here is where the bridge is fastened to the earth. The pylons are his four Horatios. The first thunders at him, "We bear the burden. We are towers of strength, we hold your mile of life. They dragged us from Moruya to stand forever here for you."
But the second pylon nudged him, whispering, "We were assembled only to dissemble: we are four jokes in granite. Frankly, we're faking it. You may walk between us, inside us and right through us. This tower is only good for storage. That one is a ziggurat of stairs that leads you to an empty sky. The third is a stale vault of echoes. A grey rag of cloud flaps in my window. Each shamed pillar turns its back on you. Do not examine us too closely, or inquire into our masonry: your bridge stands only for itself."
The following night B_ walks the bridge's footway. The stems beside him could be a row of winter poplars on a country road. He begins to climb into the structure. He cannot spend enough of his young strength, he cannot waste enough of his long nights. "I was blown into the web, and saw where I had got to only after I had climbed around the barbed gate." That is, he is already above the traffic and he is too foolish to turn back. "Vehicles make the roadbed shudder; the suspended frame vibrates," and he trembles with it. Soon he is high in the steel rigging. The bolted threads hum in the wind. He looks down on the reflected moonlight but must keep climbing, until everything ahead is downwards, the vehicles reassert their noise, the steel river rises to meet him and his parabolic stone falls back to earth. Though his legs are bruised and his shirt is torn, he lies across a narrow bed too excited to sleep: he did something so dangerous and so pointless. Then he sees that this is not his mattress but the public road. He lies on Bradfield Highway while suspended from his pain. Wakes into a screaming van, a mask across his face. Wakes into a sunlit room, can't move his leg, his wrist connected to a murmuring machine.
"But what about me? The one you have not yet considered, but take for granted. I am fixed here and alone: no one asks after me! I do all the heavy lifting, holding in the sky your rolling lives, a foot on either shore, weighing in the balance every hanger-on that you have added or subtracted. Below ground I am corroding, while my grey skin peels into the ocean's mineral air. It's the tension, unbearable! And without relief, I can just withstand it, a spinal effort you find either technological or comical. If you could see how I sustain you all.
"When I was young and still unformed, I met another just like me, approaching yet so slow to approach. As I reached for her she reached for me, I took one step and so did she. Until one day each almost touched the other: then as we hovered over the empty waves your cables were released and we fell towards each other ...''
"... but I am here, I'm here!''
What is this hand lying next to mine, the fine fingers that turn a little way apart from one another, what is this finger with three rings of gold, what is this arm, this long yellow hair? This hand on mine is not my hand, and the voice is calm, speaking through the hand:
"Just grasp this: feel with what ease I pull you clear from there.''