Memoir

Sydney and me

FROM THE BEGINNING to the end of my twenties, I hated Sydney. It was a city whose high prices dictated the terms of its inhabitants' lives: a week of fast-paced, stressful labour, ending with a short bout of frenetic spending. I was trying to be a writer, an occupation that gradually consumed more and more of my time until there was scarcely any left for work that earned money. At my desk, I knew that what I was doing had value; away from my desk, in my capacity as, for example, a job-sharing receptionist at a disposable nappy delivery company, I was worth approximately one hundred times more than I was as a writer – though it soon turned out that I was not worth even twelve dollars per hour, and I was sacked, either for incompetency or for not wearing deodorant, or both.

In a relationship, especially one that is turning bad, certain trivial events or exchanges can come to represent everything that had previously been formless, though unsettling. In a moment of apparent clarity, something all but material is born out of the swirling miasma of nameless emotions – a boyfriend sits in the driver's seat without asking whether you would like to drive, proving his latent male-chauvinism; a girlfriend – proving her self-absorption – buys a block of Old Jamaica, although you have often told her how, ever since the year 12 after-formal party, you can't stand the flavour of rum. These pieces of anecdotal evidence are recounted for the edification of a close friend or a psychiatrist – a partisan listener only for, although these pieces are supposed to conclusively reveal the truth about a third party, they ultimately provide insight into no one but the speaker.

I collected a catalogue of evidence that, I believed, strengthened my case against Sydney. Here is one commonly cited piece: the state of vacant lots and abandoned houses in Glebe. While I was growing up there, an abandoned house had lurked in every second street, a cause for crossing to the opposite footpath if it were dusk or, if it were a bright day and you were with a friend, a cause for an explorative expedition dissolving, on discovery of a dead cat or a used condom, in a squealing, giggling retreat. A pianola had stood immovably in the front room of Hereford Street's abandoned house, a ghost had been sighted in Boyce Street's, junkies in Bridge Road's, and an ancient man or woman, practically a ghost, had stood unseen in each of the numerous houses that just looked abandoned.

Then there were the vacant lots – the city child's equivalent of bushland – where the growth of castor oil, fennel, asthma weed and pampas grass catered for every activity from building a cubby house, to finding gay porn magazines and playing spin-the-bottle. For years, there was a vacant lot – this phrase having a similar sinister, bureaucratic ring to it as "terra nullius" or "reclaimed land" – in the middle of Glebe Point Road, so spacious that in season a pond appeared, complete with bull-rushes, frogs and waterbirds. Needless to say, eventually it became a shopping court, and the other vacant lots became expensive apartments, while the abandoned or derelict houses were – my most hated word – renovated.

I would appeal to my listener: "Can't you see?" It was clear that this attitude towards land – that earning potential must be fully exploited – would soon be applied to me. A passing developer would cast a merciless eye into my own overgrown and ramshackle landscape of thoughts and ideas, and peremptorily level out this unprofitable mental space to make way for a full-time job and a craving for car and a new kitchen.

 

MY HATRED FOR Sydney exploded with the approach of the Olympic Games, as the last vacant or forgotten public spaces, like the man-hole on the corner of Liverpool and Pitt Streets in which, on bending down and peering through a broken glass brick, you could see a large fern growing, were hastily cleaned up. I moved to the central west of New South Wales, where I could find land that was free – free to carry something as unremunerative as a temporary frog-pond or a cubby-house or a tree. Abandoned houses, unthreatened except by possums or an escapee sheep, rotted peacefully in paddocks everywhere, including ours.

To those I had left behind in "Sydney 2000", I declared: "I'll come back when they have a ticker-tape parade down George Street for an Australian who's just won the Booker Prize."

Living away from Sydney didn't soften my stance against it. In rural New South Wales, where inhabitants were vigilant against the pull of the capital that we revolved around, partisan listeners abounded: "When I was in Sydney last month, I got a haircut and it cost me seventy dollars!" The drivers were angry, and everyone was always in too much of a rush (country people are always busy, but without rushing) to talk to you on public transport or smile as you passed each other on the street. Cities didn't have to be that way; take Melbourne, for a moment – strangers there were always starting up conversations on trams.

After a few years in the central west, I moved to Melbourne, via a sojourn of two months in Sydney where I was victim to such outrages as spending $10.50 in Watson's Bay on a takeaway sandwich, so excessive that I could only eat half of it, and was forced to leave the remains behind on my rock ledge, hoping that some hungry animal would not let it go to waste. Melburnians talked to me on trams and, judging by their clothes and hairstyles, expected to spend their weekend in small galleries or discussing, in a friend's lounge room, a provocative comment posted on mono.net, rather than on a schedule of activities that started in a nearby café with the Big Breakfast plus coffees and juice, progressed to a yoga class, then a bikini-line wax, accommodated unscheduled sallies into incidental shops, took for granted petrol and sundry parking meters and the odd bottle of cold water – the type of weekend that, in a couple of hours, would exhaust my entire weekly budget. And even when, after nine months, my excitement over this new city was tempered by a few episodes of disillusionment, my affections didn't begin to wander back to the place of my birth; only on two points did Melbourne's shortcomings illuminate Sydney's advantages – water and hills.

"You have to understand," I would say apologetically, "I'm used to going for a walk and coming across a sudden view over a dozen suburbs." I had come to expect those panoramic views that are regularly produced for Sydneysiders in all sorts of unlikely places – layers of hills visible from the train to Hurstville, North Shore buildings and the moon rising in an surprising direction at North Bondi, and even, crossing George Street at Central and turning my head to the west, the wide and occasionally trafficless curves, up and down, one of the city's most well-worn thoroughfares. And although the only event at school swimming carnivals that I'd ever had a chance in was the cork scramble, Sydney's muscular waves and its tidal bays that emptied twice a day to a floor of silky mud and oyster shells had still always been part of my life. In Melbourne, I kept it to myself that in the gridded CBD I had walked all the way down Swanston Street only to feel vaguely bewildered when it hadn't ended with a choppy blue harbour.

 

SO I FURTHER condensed my personal possessions and boarded a plane to the northern hemisphere. I got to know other cities with water and hills. I could have started a life in any one of them; home was no longer a unique relationship that bonded me to a single place, but it was the book that I was reading, the album that I was listening to, my guitar, my diary, my writing. Home, like marriage, was just the chair you chanced to sit down in when the music stopped. We look back in wonder and gratitude, some time later, on all the apparently random steps that were incrementally leading us to our destiny, unwilling to consider that it was but one of a million scenarios which, had another eventuated instead, would have seemed equally fated. You could just as well be living, in a comparable state of happiness, irritation and loneliness, with your husband's brother, or his friend, or his Icelandic pen-pal from whom he hasn't heard since Fifth Class.

And so, arbitrarily, I didn't extend my stay in one of those European cities, but returned at the end of the year to Sydney, which I found, as I stepped off the plane, that I hated as much as ever.

My hatred was now compounded by the fact that, after living away from it for five years, I had only two remaining Sydney friends, had forgotten the names of all the streets, and didn't know anywhere, apart from the perennial chew-and-spew food courts in Dixon Street, that would provide a dinner for less than ten dollars. The footpaths that I had trodden for the first twenty-five years of my life were familiar in the most tedious way, yet barren of the fruits that such familiarity is supposed to bear – going to the right place without having to think about it, and finding your friends there without having to organise it.

I was unhappy in Sydney, so went as far away from it as I could – to Pittwater – and took to coming back only when my groceries and pleasure in my own unrelieved company were exhausted. Filling up my basket from the aisles of the Glebe IGA, I at least acknowledged that it was an improvement in my life that the only stressful moment of grocery shopping was waiting for approval of my EFTPOS transaction. Memories were still vivid of requiring food in locations such as the island of Rügen, and the mild trauma of first finding shops, second identifying the supermarket, third translating, with the aid of a dictionary, the words on the packets and, after ten or twelve other mini-crises, including avoiding any banter that would publicly uncloak my imbecilic grasp on the German language, attempting to distinguish fünfzehns from fünfzigs and responding in time with the appropriate Euro. I could see how taking things for granted, which is generally considered a crime – especially when that thing is the person with whom you're having a relationship – was actually an essential element of a productive life. Mental exertion that is not spent on figuring out whether you're looking at a packet of rolled oats or a packet of kitty litter can be directed at more lofty endeavours, such as writing novels.

In Sydney, I could speak the language, it was true. I could find water and hills all over the place. And having two friends to meet up with wasn't so bad after you've spent time in places where you have no friends. If, as I had concluded, home was just a matter of sitting down, then why didn't I sit down in the chair marked "Sydney"?

I felt incredibly depressed at the prospect, as though I had made the first major compromise of my life. I fled back to Pittwater, safely separated from the city by a two-hour bus ride and a ten-minute ferry trip. When I wasn't writing, I was applying for arts grants that would involve relocation, or falling precipitously in love with anyone who didn't live in Sydney. And yet there was another project which, without conscious intent, was beginning to take shape; a second body of evidence was slowly amassing – this one in Sydney's defence.

An aunt moved from the north-west to a flat in Glebe. I visited her with my family, and we admired the view from her balcony – in the foreground were gum trees, and across the low, former mangroves of Wentworth Park was a view of city buildings, their windows reflecting the late-afternoon sun. She pointed to the right: "You can see the clock-tower of Central Station."

"Oh, how nice!" I had always loved the country trains hall at Central, possibly because I associated it with journeys to places that weren't Sydney.

She realised that I had missed her point: "But, you know, our father had his office in the top-left-hand corner of the building there."

The view from her balcony altered. The city skyline was no longer dominated by the tall, glassy structures, but by the shorter buildings of brick or stone. When she turned to speak to her brother, she could have been addressing the boy with whom she had once shared the family home, rather than the sixty-year-old he had grown into. I thought of the house in Hereford Street, whose owners must see its heritage colours and low-maintenance, landscaped garden while I, walking past, see only a defunct pianola standing in an otherwise empty front room.

 

NOW, AT THE beginning of my thirties, I found myself in conversations with people who embraced Sydney rather than rejected it. After speaking to a historian, I saw Sydney in terms of its bridges and its five remaining functioning vehicular ferries. After meeting an elderly woman on a bus – perhaps, in my twenties, my face had worn on public transport a certain belligerent expression that repelled all friendly advances – and ending up with her at a Starbucks, selected by her for the outdoor tables which lent themselves to a cigarette, I caught a glimpse of Sydney as it was at a quarter of its present size, when it was possible to find a mutual acquaintance or a family connection with every member of a crowd. I talked to Glebeites who wouldn't live in any other suburb, and Bondi boys who rarely even stepped out of theirs. I saw Sydney in terms of its fishing spots, its surf, its potential for kayaks and for party-girls and graffitists. I saw Sydney from the top floor of the Four Seasons, and from the tunnels – now the domain of the light rail – bored through Glebe and Pyrmont. There are four and a half million inhabitants here; there are four and a half million different Sydneys, its meaning simply the result of what one inhabitant chooses to see and not see.

My set against Sydney had been dismantled. The city no longer exerted a force over me that I had to resist or succumb to; it was, at last, just another city, where every characteristic was negotiable except its topography.

If I were looking for a fixed truth, perhaps I didn't need to look further than water and hills. I was standing at the end of the wharf at Palm Beach, looking across Pittwater to the sharp, dark-green hills that were my destination. On the wharf with me were children burning their mouths on hot chips, adults strolling in casual clothes licking ice-creams, a family frantically unloading a week's worth of camping provisions, their disorganisation increasing as the wooden ferry approached.

There are so many changes in just one human day. The ice-cream is eaten, the children are rounded up, the mood turns from Edenic to quarrelsome as dinnertime is nigh sometime around the traffic jam at the Spit, the sun sets, the night is grey under streetlights, the children go to bed, the house is quiet, a book – enjoyable last night – is picked up, only for one page to be read in fits and starts, the mind unengaged, jerking instead between subjects that leave a melancholic emptiness, until the bed lamp is switched off and blinking eyes close at last.

After a decade, we have been through so much change that a few carefully selected memories are all we have left of who we used to be. But when I am standing at the end of the wharf, I know that time is an experience so different as to be an entirely other, unimaginable substance for the water and hills in front of me. A couple, holding hands, steps up to the white-painted rail at the end of the wharf and looks out across the water. The man licks his ice-cream then says, as though it is the first remark that he has made in the past hour, and possibly even his final word – why not? – on the whole afternoon, "This is a nice part of the world."

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