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Balcony

BalconyWhen Moody came round here for the first and only time he called this my ABBA balcony; I still don’t know exactly what he meant by that but it might have had something to do with the fact that the pediments and the rail continue along the front of the sitting room windows where there’s no place to stand or put a pot plant or anything else either: pure façade. This was after Chris and Paulene moved back to Enzed—he’d come around, triumphantly, to show off pictures of the house they’d bought, after years of living and saving in Bondi, in Dunedin. They still live there, I still live here. I mostly grow succulents because they’re tolerant of long periods without water and also take on interesting shapes and colours as they seek the sun. The aloe vera, for burns; the jade tree, for grace; the money tree, for prosperity. Lamb’s ears for tenderness. Donkey’s tail. Cactus. Others whose names I do not know. The hibiscus, which flowers into pink rosettes, is called a Suva Queen. That rock is a piece of quartz I picked up in Bendigo. I used to have a little two seater floral pattern sofa out here but the weather got to it and the wooden legs rotted and fell off. Then one day I saw outside the medical centre on the corner one of those tall beds with an adjustable head rest and a place to put your nose in when lying face down—they ones they use to do examinations upon. And in fact I think this might be the very one I lay upon while the doctor examined my prostate with one of his rubber gloved fingers and did not find there the roughness that is a clue to cancerous growth. Anyway my younger son and I carried it back here and you can sit upon it in the sun or lie upon it and read, if you want to, in the afternoon; as he almost always does when he comes to stay. The green metal frog my sister gave me sits on the windowsill that leads into the kitchen; it has a citronella candle inside its belly which, when lit, will keep the mosquitoes away. These days it’s so dry we hardly ever get them anymore; though there was one in the bathroom this morning, along with a big antediluvian silver fish, neither of which I killed or even tried to kill. Some years I’ve planted marijuana in pots out here but it didn’t thrive, becoming infested with red spider mites which suck the chlorophyll out of the cells of the leaves and make the plant sicken and go yellow and die. I first remember them from Thomas Street, Golden Grove, c. 1981, nearly forty years ago, and realise I must somehow have carried them with me, or at least their spores, ever since. To Glebe, to Pyrmont, back to Glebe; to Darlinghurst, to Pearl Beach, to Summer Hill. They infected the leaves of the frangi pani tree I had growing in a pot out here also and nearly killed another succulent, one with the spear shaped leaves and delicate purple flowers. Both are downstairs now, recovered from the infestation with blasts of clean cold winter air. This is also where people come to smoke, either dope or tobacco, or both dope and tobacco. I have a ceramic water jar with a few old dried out stems of banksia flowers in it and that’s where I direct them to throw their butts. I like sitting out here at night gazing into the noir. There’s the gothic steeple of St Andrews in the distance; an araucaria; a tall palm which has a spray of flowers upon it and is desperately trying to put out a viable frond of leaves as well: a daily struggle I observe but can do nothing about. The topiarist’s garden always looks mysteriously active at night, like a Robert Delvaux painting which has come to life, without the naked women but with a white cat; or one of Le Douanier Rousseau’s sculpted jungles. A black saloon car parked under the streetlight shines dully in the night, its windows like mirrors or like holes in the darkness. I know there’s nothing sinister about it but why then does it look as if it belongs to operatives who have me under surveillance? Men from Canberra? This longing for the significance that fancy brings is strange: I remember one Christmas night, home alone after attending festivities in Randwick, drinking the Green Fairy, I persuaded myself that I could see cuneiform letters inscribed in the sandstone cladding of the steeple in a place I called, for the purposes of that excursion, Sumer Hil. They painted the whole building a few years ago, that’s why the pediments of the balcony are still that splendid white colour. The single capital column too. A kind of red wasp used to hover among the branches of the Suva Queen, for what purpose I do not know, nectar perhaps; and there are any number of little skinks living in the cracks among the brickwork. They too encourage the nourishing of illusion, sometimes resembling dinosaurs as they make their way through their lizard Lilliput. They come inside too, once I found a dead one, limp and cold, in the creases between the cushions on the sofa. Garden cockroaches sneak under the door on hot nights; or, if it is open, fly through in that hectic blundering way they have which seems random but is perhaps directed, say by the smell of fruit from the fruit bowl or some other more arcane scent, some pheromone only a cockroach would be attracted by. I chase them out because if I don’t they’ll set up shop, either in the kitchen or in the bathroom, and begin to sing the song of generation there; which isn’t a bad song to sing, even in the diminuendo’d, uncultivated, heedless way my balcony sings it.

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Sitting Room Windows

Sitting room, afternoon

The sitting room has three wooden-framed four-panelled sash windows looking out over the street and then into the west. The Venetian blinds were here when I came, in this and in the room next door, which is the larger of the two bedrooms and which I use as a study; but the ones in the study fell down and are now in the laundry down below. The blinds in the sitting room, however, I still use, even though their fins are encrusted with dirt which is mostly the result of tree pollen, petrol dust or muddy rain water blowing in the windows during southerly storms. I’ve thought of cleaning them but the labour would be immense and would have to repeated at intervals in the future; whereas if I leave them as they are they won’t get any worse or not much. The table under the window is where I sit to eat and where I entertain guests, if I have guests. From the chair at one end I can see out into the street below and watch the passing show. I’ve been here so long I know most of the locals by sight and many of them to talk to too. I also remember those who aren’t here anymore, having shuffled off this mortal coil, or just moved elsewhere, into aged care perhaps. Alan, who shook alarmingly with Parkinson’s and, with his big head and obdurate stance, resembled the poet R A K Mason, used to make his way down to the wineshop most afternoons and come back with his canvas over the shoulder bag clinking with specials. He was a war correspondent and a stone mason who’d known Vladimir Tretchikoff in Jakarta in his youth. Or the fellow (I never knew his name) who’d worked as a mercenary in Rhodesia and walked around with his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans and his skinny body leaning backwards in a kind of rictus. You hear bits and pieces of conversation rising from the street: once one of two wog boys said to the other: Look at us, a couple of sad fucks, walking through Summer Hill. When I first lived here Cosmo, a retired Cossack dancer of Greek ancestry, used to park his big green Rambler Classic out the front and run the motor for twenty minutes or so every few days to keep it in tune. Now Lucy the Florist’s grey Hyundai iLoad van parks there and, if it has to move, one of Lucy’s sons brings his black BMW saloon to act as a place holder. The van is quite new but filthy and covered in dings; when a branch fell out of the tallowood onto it last winter I went and told Lucy I’d seen it happen and would testify if she wanted to make a claim on the Council; but she just looked at me. Obviously they don’t consider cleaning or superficial repairs necessary to the maintenance of the vehicle. There’re apartment buildings either side of this one and over the road as well. Mostly deco, built in the 1930s; or, like this building, slightly later, from the post-war era, perhaps the 1960s. You wonder what was demolished to make way for them. Once I met a man in the street who grew up around here; he was showing his wife where their impromptu cricket pitch had been, leading from the driveway of this building across a dirt road to a grassy space between the former Early Childhood Centre where the Pilipino topiarist lives with his sons and the old Undertaker’s and Embalmer’s building which an IT guy, his wife and their five kids have now. People come and go constantly from these apartment buildings, on six month or year-long leases: young couples saving up for a deposit perhaps, other itinerants with more obscure agendas. Just up the road is a boarding house where single men rent rooms. Ian is tall and thin with a penchant for wearing tight black jeans, leather ankle boots and blue-lens sun glasses; and a loose, rocking walk. He was born with two club feet and endured years of hospitalisations, a series of operations, before he learned to get around on his own. Years of derision and abuse. He’s full of stories, many of which culminate in a stand-off when he gets out his shotgun and sends someone on their way. He’s a skilled and meticulous artist who copies imagery from mainly Japanese sources and reproduces the faces of Samurai, of Kabuki actors, of chrysanthemums, which he’ll show you photos of on his phone if you ask him. He keeps notebooks full of rhyming slang, which he speaks fluently, and also acronyms he’s invented to describe the various makes and models of cars you see upon the road. Among those who aren’t around anymore is Phil, an Englishman who lived upstairs at Number 4 for a while. He was a song writer, Tin Pan Alley style, whose unachieved ambition was to write something Cliff Richard might sing. And indeed Phil did in his person somewhat resemble Cliff. He used to buy his own uncured rolling tobacco and would occasionally bring some over for a smoke. He fancied Jules, the stylish French woman who runs the Red Door gallery up the road but she couldn’t stand him. She thought he was a creep and maybe he was. He told me once, without shame, that he used to go and masturbate beneath the Brazilian’s window when he was fucking his girlfriend(s). Phil, who had money, moved up to Thornleigh to live with his son; he used to call me every few months for a chat and then one day he said he had some kind of cancer and after that there was just one more phone call. Whoever built this building also landscaped the plot it stands upon. Hibiscus trees, a bottle brush, camellias, a palm, the people’s rosemary, jade trees, even a pomegranate (dead now) and a whole lot of bush rock sculpted into not very interesting shapes around the dry pond. It also has a name, a piece of twisted black lettering on the brick wall below the study window which I’ve never been able to make out. Blacklock? Blainey? Or is it Baiame? It must have some meaning. Maybe I should go back to the Deeds, maybe the name will be there; and then everything else would fall into place as well.

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Stairwell Window

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In September 2006 I moved upstairs into the flat directly above the one where I’d been living for the past eighteen months; which had just been sold. I was quite upset but before I could look for a new place I had to go overseas for work; when I came back, on a Sunday night, there was a note under my door from the woman upstairs saying her parents had bought her a place and she was moving out and would I like to take over her apartment? Well of course I would. Curiously, she had the same surname as I do, only with the addition of an ‘s’ at the end. I saw her again, years later, when she pulled into the taxi base I drove out of in Haberfield in tears one afternoon after someone side-swiped her car on Parramatta Road. I don’t think I’d ever been up the stairs until I went to view her flat, which had exactly the same layout as my one down below; without the massive built-in wardrobes in the bedrooms but with the inestimable luxury of a bath tub in the bathroom. I remember the stairwell, and especially the corners of the high yellow windows halfway up, wreathed in ancient webs. I also remember solving two mysteries. One was the identity of the person I called the Coughing Man—not a man at all, it turned out, but a retired ACDC groupie and biker’s moll called Gillian (hard g) who spent half an hour each morning clearing her lungs of the gunk accumulated during the previous day’s smoking. She lived in #5, next door to me. And next door to her, across the hall in #6, was the person I called the Fucking Man and he was indeed a man, a tall handsome young Brazilian whom I hardly saw but heard regularly. Or rather, I heard his girlfriend, or girlfriends, whom I hardly ever saw either, having rhapsodic sex with him. Come in me! I want you to come in me! she cried one sultry night. I think what happened next was his apartment, which he rented, was also sold and he had to move on. The first I knew about it was the day I came home to find two old silent people with buckets and mops and brooms cleaning spider webs and leaf litter and other accumulated dust and dirt from the stairwell. They were mute because they were deaf. They were not the new owners, however, but the parents of one them, either the large Irish woman or her husband, a thin, northern Italian with designer glasses called Fabio who was at first thrilled by the quietness of the building, he said, but turned out to be a Noise Nazi almost as bad as, if not worse than, Gillian. Both of them, at different times, called the police on me when I was playing music, not loud, on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning. Taj Mahal, probably, or Little Axe. Blues, anyway. When the Irish woman gave birth to a baby boy it seemed that grace descended upon them; but after a year of blissful quietude they embarked upon a course of controlled crying of remarkable savagery. Some nights the kid cried hopelessly for so long that he was hiccoughing sobs, as if fitting and about to choke upon his own tears; and still they would not go to him. Despite this nightly atrocity unfolding, Fabio continued to police the neighbourhood, spitting with rage at Josh, the clothes designer who lived next door when she had one of her parties and the queens and the rest of them screamed and laughed and played music until dawn. Eventually Fabio’s ménage moved on as well, though he still owned the flat, which he rented out to another couple with a child, a daughter this time, a charming and fanciful little girl called Frankie who used to light up the hallway. Now two young women live there; I thought they might be gay but one of them seems to have acquired a boyfriend. They might still be gay of course. Emma’s a Green Activist. As for Gillian, she made such a nuisance of herself, complaining about the noise from the café over the back as well as the music coming from my flat and who knows what else that Lisa, the English woman who owns the flat beneath hers and is a power in the Body Corporate, arranged for her to go into a home around the road which specialises in housing single older women. When Gillian died, not so long ago, of lung cancer, her husband Russ, who’d been a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band and later a postie (‘letter carrier’, the Americans say)—he didn’t cohabit with her, before he was forced to re-locate to Ashfield he had his own flat in the building next door on the other side—breathed a sigh of relief and went back to live with his brother in Madison, Wisconsin. Sharnie was in Gillian’s old flat for ages but she’s bought a place in Croydon Park and moved out there; I don’t know who has it now, only that he drives a late model VW Golf. Once I knew everyone in the building. Lisa moved to the Blue Mountains, Mr and Mrs Long went to Stanmore; when their son married his wife didn’t like the apartment so they sold it to a woman who is an events manager and whose boyfriend drives a black Hilux. I think she keeps rabbits. I don’t really know who the people are in #2 either although I do know the guy’s name is Martin. #1, my old flat, was renovated by the new owner and then renovated again by the new new owner, who works for Qantas and makes jewellery. These days the Body Corporate employs people to clean the common areas of the building at the same time as they mow the lawns. They even wash the stairs. The spiders the deaf people cleared away never came back again.

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The End of the Corner Store  

20190606_115135The other day when I was going for a walk I saw that the corner store, which closed last year, was being gutted. There were two blue bins outside and three or four men ripping out the shelving and the other accoutrements of a shop which had been there, I believe, for twenty-three years. It has the words ‘Growers Market’ in peeling letters above the façade but no-one ever called it that; ‘the corner store’ was a term you sometimes heard but only from those who weren’t regulars. Everyone else called it Tom and Tina’s, after the couple who, with the help of their three grown-up sons, ran it.

It’s a long low flat-roofed undistinguished building erected hastily, I am sure, after the demolition of some grand Victorian edifice which must once have stood in that prime position. The verandas are festooned with signs reading ‘Lycamobile’ and ‘Quarter Case Fruit Bar’—two old sponsorship deals I suppose—and round the corner there’s a blank wall and then a mural showing wild animals, including a frog, a rhinoceros, a tiger and an eagle, in an unconvincing landscape. There’s a weedy laneway behind and sometimes, on hot days, Tom would leave the roller door at the back of the shop open so that a cool breeze might blow through.

He and Tina are Vietnamese and how they came to be here I never found out. Boat people, perhaps. Tom was always affable, occasionally sardonic, with a penchant for proposing harmless non-sequiturs which, if you followed them, made him roar with laughter. He often wore a T shirt saying: ‘I Have the Body of a God’; and, underneath the image of a naked fat man: ‘Unfortunately the God is Buddha’. You could have long and entertaining conversations with him. He liked to boast that their shop was open 364 days a year—every day except Christmas. Tina hadn’t quite learned to speak English properly yet and was inclined to complain about her lot, though never in a way that seemed objectionable to me. ‘Too tired’, she would say, ruefully. Sometimes Tom would get impatient, and rebuke her, at which point she would sigh theatrically and raise her eyebrows. She liked a good gossip. I was fond of her too.

When they announced their shop was closing, Tom and Tina held a sale at which you could buy very cheaply the odd things they had gathering dust in the window: mortars and pestles, statues of Buddha, incense holders, lampshades. They also sold hardware: I bought light bulbs there, batteries and fuse wire, candles, kitchen utensils. Anything, really. Otherwise they were the place to go for herbs and spices—especially spices—and also sold the best fresh produce around here. Tom went to the markets at Flemington every morning and he was proud of his ability, for example, to seek out the most peppery rocket, the sweetest of peaches or grapes, the most succulent figs.

The other thing they did when they closed up was hold a street party. Two, in fact. One was on a Friday night and for it they cooked traditional Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls in a delicious sauce, a green curry, and rice, which they served to passers-by on paper plates. I remember standing there with Doug, an Aboriginal man who used to live in a boarding house up the road, who looked at the exotic food on his plate then had a sip of lemonade instead. The other party was on Sunday arvo but I was away for the weekend and couldn’t go. It was their way of thanking us for hosting them all those years.

They were leaving to open a restaurant in Cabramatta and its name is still emblazoned there, in pink writing, on the front window: MiGo. Full name: Saigon Hu Tieu Mi Go. A council notice on that front window suggested the building would become a boarding house but the notice has gone now and I doubt that is going to happen. The word on the street is that the owner wanted to add two more levels on top of what is already there but that it’s not structurally sound enough to take the weight. I anticipate demolition and yet another noisy building site in this rapidly gentrifying suburb.

The demise of Tom and Tina’s made me think of other places I’ve seen disappear over the decade or so I’ve lived here. There was an art gallery across the road which always had interesting, if traditional, work on the walls. I saw a Shay Docking show there once. Max, the owner, is still around, walking with a stick and looking a bit more frail each time I see him. The Rio, the legendary milk bar, is now a bar of another kind, serving wine and beer and spirits but I am yet to go in there.

If I drink, and I do, I drink at Temperance, on the other side of the premises of Thomas the Tailor; who fixed my leather jacket the other day and, by the bye, told me he knew the man who made the green silk suit jacket I was wearing. His place was next to Our Lady of the Snows, underneath Central Station. I bought the suit at St Vinnie’s, just up the road, for not much years ago now. Francois, International Hairdresser, has also gone, driven by high rents out to Hurlstone Park. A pathologist has the premises now. I used to lease my parking space to Francois but twice he scraped his brand new Subaru on the bricks while negotiating the tight corner at the end of the drive and so gave it up.

Keshaw has moved the Post Office that was at the bottom of the street to smaller premises down the road (rent again) and the building is now a Physiotherapy Clinic; the old style salon where Ray, a rock ‘n’ roller, always had his hair cut, is now a Tax Accountant; the shop next door, which sold trissy knick-knacks, became a Diabetic Centre that never took off and is another hairdresssers, Tina’s, where the eponymous custodian waits all day for unwary hairies to come in.

Round the corner, where Rick Rack Retro used to be—fifties and sixties décor, with an excellent second hand bookshop upstairs—is a dog grooming place. Judy still has the business but runs it out of Newcastle now. The original Post Office building, which was a bicycle factory when I first came here, is now a high-class restaurant, too expensive for me to eat at; across the road is a salon which does foot massages and trims toe-nails. Next door but one to that, a woman who specialises in eyebrows. There’s another manicurist around the corner, where the picture framing shop used to be.

Also on the main drag, the Inner West Council recently installed plaques in the pavement commemorating the longevity of certain businesses: the Pub, the Dentist, the Butcher and the Chemist have all been here for yonks. The Plumber’s supply shop up past Temperance too. I’d add to them the Florist, the TAB, the Newsagency and the Wine Shop. The Bank, which some say will be the next to close. It has. A good, if pricey, fruit and vegetable store. There’s a Tobacconist still; the Toy Shop, but that’s closing too; and the Fish and Chip shop. Several other hairdressers. A chiropractor. An optometrist and two medical centres. And the mysterious Inner West Music School, which I’ve never been able to find out anything about.

Most of the rest is restaurants: three pizzerias, an Indian takeaway, a Japanese lunch place (Fujiyama) that’s started opening in the evenings as well; a Thai (Thai Garn) and a Nepalese (The Hungry Eye) restaurant, both excellent; a shop selling Vietnamese street food, a Burger Bar, innumerable cafes (actually, seven; I counted them). The old pie shop is still there—my friend Miro used to call it Pog Palace—but the three bakeries we had, which were all superior, have gone. One was called The Happy Loaf, one was a Michel’s and the third was run by a Cambodian couple who made French-style shell rolls fresh every morning and sold them four for a dollar.

That place, however, has re-opened as a sandwich bar called Amour and they are making a mint selling pork and beef and chicken rolls to the tradies working on the new apartment complexes being erected at Lewisham West to the east of here. They also make very good sourdough bread. The Trading Circle, run by Four Brave Women, has moved across the road and now serves Iranian, Georgian and Ethiopian food as well as selling Third World manufactures.

The shop I most regret losing, after Tom and Tina’s, is the nameless one that was where the Flight Centre is now. Peter the Russian sold second hand furniture, among other things, and had an eye for the oddball. He was always coming up with pieces of art which he believed, or hoped, might be lost masterpieces which would make his fortune. They didn’t, but they were usually works of integrity, forgotten style pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. Peter was the son of a Green Cab driver. He moved to larger premises, above a mattress factory at the bottom of Toothill Street, but the mattress factory burned down (most likely an insurance job) and I don’t know what he does now. I still see him around; but, as with Max the former gallery owner, we greet each other politely but don’t converse.

A few years back I saw a photo of the main drag as it was a hundred years ago. There seemed to be an inordinate number of shops selling boots and shoes, cobbled on the premises and displayed in great profusion on racks outside. I guess people walked more thenn than we do now, and if they rode, rode a horse or in a buggy, a tram or a train.

In my own street, once removed from the main drag, Sands Directory recorded there were, in 1908, a builder, a dressmaker, a boot shop; a costumière, a fancy shop, another boot shop, a furniture shop; an undertaker, a dentist, another costumière; a wood-turner, a carpenter and two grocers. Now, apart from the Medical Centre on the corner and those three other places I mentioned, it’s all residential. Though there could be lawyers, architects or accountants further up which I haven’tnoticed yet. Also the Red Door gallery, run by a French woman called Jules, of whom I am fond.

I don’t want to fall prey to nostalgia. What’s the point? Change is the only constant. And, as if to underline that fact, late on the afternoon of another day, I was walking past Tom and Tina’s again and for some reason stopped to peer through the dusty window: and who should I see there in the murk and the gloom—but Tom! Out he comes and we shake hands. He says Tina’s well and their sons are too. He says the restaurant’s going gang-busters, they have four chefs and stay open until eleven every night. It’s no different, he says, I still just work all the time. And he laughs.

I go on my way and as I’m approaching my building I remember an old chap I met in the street one day. He’d brought his wife round to show her where he grew up; and told me that the driveway, and the one of the one across the road, used to be their cricket pitch. Though creaky in the knees, he was still limber enough to demonstrate how he used to bowl his leg breaks; which his brother would on occasion smash through the window of the undertakers, opposite. It’s funny how, since then, that phantom cricket pitch has stayed in my mind. Along with the ghosts of all the other things I’ve glimpsed that were around here once and now no longer are; except, I suppose, as here, when they manifest, unpredictably, again.

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Galápagos Reading

‘I would suggest to people they read it while cruising around the Galápagos Islands.’

Euan Macleod, on Isinglass

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(image: In Island (2007/2011), Euan Macleod. Courtesy of Bowen Galleries)

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Other Worlds

This is happening next week, at the State Library of NSW in Sydney

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Dionysius Rising

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The elbow of time bends: here comes the de Chirico train. Into the slowly morning. Palm trees, arches, a stopped clock. Grey dust falls on the stones of the piazza. Ariadne, waking, finds Theseus gone. Dionysius rising. Her bloody hand, opening, discloses the glans of a penis. Whose? Ariadne, spider-woman, labyrinth-weaver, maenad, soothsayer. Tourists crowd the piazza, their phones alight, lithium cobalt batteries humming, taking photographs. Breakthrough in grey room. Word falling, photo falling. The dust is the Cantor Dust. You can hear it singing. In the violet interstices of the night, she wakes and finds her lover gone. Finds herself alone again. Dionysius rising. Crowds outside, ready for anything. All those exiled to the ghostly city. Drink the black wine. Dance, fuck, fall, die—into immortality.

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