Chapter 19: Down Under
from the 1981 album “Business as Usual” by Men at Work
posted at 09:23, 11 March 2019
Do you come from a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder?
I have six ways of imagining the stars.
I never really paid attention to the stars when I was growing up. Living in a city full of skyscrapers, with lights and buildings blocking every view of the sky, you don’t get to think of it much. Maybe an occasional trip into the countryside, sometimes a high-exposure photograph — I didn’t think of it much. But since moving to Melbourne: oh my my. When you’re in a place where the skies are everywhere, you only have to look up to see the universe And now — five months after arrival, three hours before departure — I find myself recounting the ways that I’ve seen them in the sky.
I sit on the steps of Federation Square, the day slowly dying before my eyes. The skies are a complete melange: so much of it seems an uninterrupted canvas of deepening indigo, yet as your eyes are drawn towards the horizon, there’s an almost capricious change in colour: white, yellow, the deepest shade of orange you can think of. You can just about see a glowing ball of fire at the river’s end, playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds that dot the sky, setting alight to the streaks of water vapour strewn across the heavens. It’s still too bright to actually pick them out up there, but I can already imagine the stars settling into position, waiting patiently for the veil to withdraw.
Cross the street and take a few photos on the edge of Princes Bridge, taking care not to dip my phone in the fresh birdshit spattered across the stone parapet. It’s not an easy task: the bridge is packed, everyone jostling to find a way to shoot the sunset yet again. I can barely picture what it’s like for the travellers who are seeing this for the first time — but then again, I’ve been here in Melbs for six months and still it has never gotten old for me. There’s a little girl down here, tugging at her father’s hand, and going “LOOK DADDY LOOK AT THE CLOUDS”, her eyes wide with amazement. I can see where she’s coming from.
There’s just so many people here. Princes Bridge on any evening is usually packed with people, but tonight the place is almost impassable, and everyone seems to have come out to play. Strange to think that there were rainclouds just an hour ago, rainclouds that are even now escaping over the horizon, fleeing towards the sea. I suppose I should have gotten used to there being four seasons a day by now, but lately the weather seems to have changed — specifically, seems to have gotten worse. Every day it was clouds, rain, and more clouds. Even when there was a bit of sun, it always counter-resolved by afternoon, as if to spite us deliberately. Yet someone up there must have decided it was enough rain for the week, that even clouds would be too depressing an ending for November. You should have seen the grin on my face when I got off the Parkville tram and noticed — wonder of wonders! — that it had cleared. I guess miracles do happen, after all. Even if it’s a small one.
I have places to go, so it’s down the small staircase that juts out from the corner of Flinders Street station, taking care to step on the wide bits — Christ, this staircase is such a trip hazard. A train clatters onto a nearby track as I step onto the banks of the Yarra. “The next train to arrive on platform 13 will be the… eight… sixteen… to Sandringham.” The memories flood my mind for an instant, and I wonder: wouldn’t it be nice to get on one of those, get back to my hostel in the suburbs, or go somewhere that I’ve heard of but never been. Someplace with an elegantly evocative name: Werribee, Emerald, Ripponlea. But no: my visa expires in three days, and like it or not, I have to go back to my cramped, seething hometown again, to face life as it hits me in the face. I sigh as I look at the commuters, hurrying inside the station, briskly concluding the day.
If only I were them. I’d like to stay. I’d love to stay.
Shaking my head and taking a deep breath, I hurry down the closest bridge. Sandridge Bridge used to be a railway bridge for trains to the seaside, but now they’ve all been replaced by tram lines that glide effortlessly through the suburbs, so there’s no chance of us walkers and cyclists being steamrollered by a large diesel engine. The hollow iron sculptures lining the bridge glisten in the twilight, and through the transparent boards that pay tribute to all the immigrants who’ve flowed into Melbourne throughout the years I can see the morning star finally making its exit, slipping behind the horizon and leaving behind a trail of dim red clouds. On the building next to me I can see the Australian flag flying proudly, the Southern Cross flapping in the wind alongside the Union Jack. I’ve never really seen the stars that make up this constellation, but I imagine it’s something cool, something that makes the Australians feel at home.
“Hey Elliot!” I hear a voice in front of me and turn to find Kate standing behind me — or more accurately, towering over me, even in her sandals.
“I thought you’d gone already! Aren’t you going back to your hometown?” she beams. Australians always sound extraordinarily chipper when they talk to you, like they’ve got a trick up their sleeve. Another thing I’ll miss.
“Yeah, my flight leaves in three hours, actually… just thought I’d take one last walk.”
She looks past me into the night. “Ooh, nice… it’s a lovely night for it. Loads of stars.”
“Really?” I look up into the sky. Perhaps she sees something I don’t, but all I can see is an endless patch of deep blue. Maybe she’s imagining it tonight, too. “What about you? You out on the town tonight?”
“Yeah, I’m off to the bar down there,” she says. “The Spain tour’s planning the itinerary and we thought we’d get together down there…”
“Ooh, Spain! I remember you saying something about that… Madrid and Valencia, right? Sounds awesome… wish I could come.”
“Aren’t you excited about going back?” She arches an eyebrow.
“Well… kind of. I’ve never really liked the place, actually, and everybody just seems so rushed back home. I’ve liked learned how to slow down here, and yet I just know I’m gonna relapse into old habits sooner or later. I’m gonna miss this place real quick… I’m ALREADY missing Melbourne, damn it.”
“Aww.” She laughs softly. “I’m sure there’s plenty of great things about your place, as well. It still sounds like a great city, from what you’ve told me. And even if it isn’t…” she shrugs. “Well, you’re always welcome to come back anytime, you know. We’ll still be here. And Melbourne isn’t going away anytime soon.”
“Yeah, I suppose…” I gaze back at the sky once more. I’m not so sure, but I hold my tongue. “Anyway, see you later?”
We hug ever so briefly and then, with a wave and a smile, we turn away and exit each other’s lives. It’s probably the last time we’ll see each other, but I don’t want to jinx things. Maybe, just maybe, she’s right.
Passing the Casino, a bright orange glow lights up the twilight, and I instinctively look up. Behind me, they’re shooting huge pillars of flame into the night sky, ten, twenty, fifty feet high. It’s like a meteor falling to Earth in reverse, but it’s gone as quickly as it came — they must be short on the gas tonight — so it feels like something I’ve hallucinated, something that the disoriented me imagined after dinner. But then I rub my eyes, and there’s only the navy blue of the twilight above me. I never noticed how dark it was getting: only a thin blue line peeking over the horizon reminds me that it’s not quite night yet. It’s a really weird effect, but then this is Melbourne for you. Always finding a way to surprise you with another brilliant visual scene.
Not far to go now. Through the South Wharf and continue down the riverbank. The crowds, so everywhere until now, have dwindled to nothing by the time I approach the underpass for the highway. I am alone here. A shadow moves in the dark, and I freeze for a moment. A homeless person, or a burglar? The notes from my cancelled bank card are still in my wallet. And if there’s nobody here to help me…
And then the young couple walk out of the shadows, not even a side glance cast in my direction. I can’t help breathing a sigh of relief. I should know better from Melbourne, but then again old habits die hard.
Just one more bridge to see. I walk into the shadows of the underpass. When I come out, it’s almost as if the world has suddenly exploded in a kaleidoscope of light. The haphazard design of the Webb Bridge stands proudly in my way, its glowing latticework — built like a whale’s skeleton, hoops of steel painted a bright, pure white — a sudden twist of elegance. It’s a weird contrast with everything else around me: the place is dark and dimly lit, and there’s only the sound of the waves, gently lapping at the marinas as they spill into Victoria Harbour. This place is such a shock: it’s like stumbling upon a portal that takes you far into the future, a sensory volte-face that invites you in nonetheless.
The skeletal framework tapers out halfway, the brightness of the steel hoops surrounding them all fall behind. Even the lights that illuminate the path seem to grow dimmer the further you go, the more you explore. Then all of a sudden, you find yourself facing nothing but the pitch black of the heavens, no passers-by to And for the first time, all by myself in the deathly silence off the bridge, I find myself no longer needing to imagine the stars — for there they are, in all their glory, lining the skies. The veil. Looking up, I silently mouth their names: Orion, Sagittarius, Capricorn. Look for the stars of the Southern Cross — at least I can figure that one out right? — but it proves frustratingly elusive, my view blocked by the large emotionless building that bestrides the banks of the Yarra.
When at last I remember that I need to keep walking, to get out of the portal — the landing is eerily quiet. Coming from a place where life continues at a frantic pace, 24/7, the sense of unease is palpable as I step into the quiet Docklands: by day the beating financial heart of the city, by night a disorientingly empty hall of mirrors and identical glass facades. But somehow that solitude, that quietness is a relief. The only sounds I hear are the wind whistling through the gaps of the buildings, and the faraway siren call of the waves in the Harbour. And above me, I can still see the stars: right in the middle of the city, uninterrupted by glaring streetlamps. It’s simply beautiful right here, and for a few moments I feel my nose prickling, my eyes pooling up. Rub them hastily, and then I move on.
Almost time to go. Opposite Marvel Stadium, I take one last look at the Australian skies and the stars strewn across it, chaotically ordered like the universe. Tomorrow, I’m gonna have to face my family and the hustle and bustle of my hometown. But I know that even as I take up that summer job, ease myself back into that oppressive city life, the memories of the Southern stars will still be there. I’ll keep on imagining them, even as they fade away behind the harsh glare of home. And as I look at the wide open sea, far beyond the yachts anchored in the Harbour and the majestic promise of the Bolte Bridge, and I find myself uttering five silent words to myself, a vow that I know I’ll keep the moment it escapes my lips.
“I’ll be back. I promise.”
Ran out of ideas, so I thought I’d incorportate something from my trip down South for this one! I know, my sunny stories aren’t really up your street but I just feel like it’s worth trying to lift up the mood, no? You’re stuck in that lighthouse all night, and it can’t be very fun up there by now…
Talking of which: if you’re really struggling, you don’t have to do it. I’m just using these as a way to pass the time (and you said you liked writing), and if you don’t feel the spark’s there anymore, I don’t think you have to force it through.
(at 13:11 that day)
That said… I actually kind of wish we could keep it going? I know it’s probably cause it’s me who came up with the idea, but I kind of like doing this — telling stories, having someone to talk to. You tell good stories, you know, better than me. I’d like to keep it going.