Barbara Brooks

from The Vertical City  

 

Small space

This small space, this balcony, this window.

I could live in one room with a view like this. Across the harbour, past Garden
Island, to the Bridge. We stand for a moment on the balcony above the
magnolia tree, above the park, suspended, hanging out into space, almost over
the water. Actually, above the black bituminous roof of the flats in front.

After weeks looking at flats with underground rooms, and mould on the walls,
I sat there for an hour, then walked back up the road and signed a lease.

In Elizabeth Bay, the average unit of accommodation decreases in size. Houses
shrink into studio apartments with roof gardens, verandahs become imaginary
spaces, strung out in air suspended in front of windows. Gardens disappear and
reappear in different places, as small parks, pots on balconies and windowsills.

 

Morning

Across the still water of the harbour, early sunlight turns the windows of a
North Sydney office block into mirrors, grey rectangles floating above layers of
mist. You leave, and the day shapes itself around me, with newspapers on
the floor, tea in white mugs, papers piled on the desk.

The bus turns into the loop.

 

Betty Bay Women

The woman on the bus has a check coat and a raffish hat and Parkinsonís
makes her face twitch a little.

She asks me, Are you a journo?

Ö

Oh, a booko.

What about you? I ask her.

A person who lives on her meagre means, she says. When I found this place
forty years ago, I thought, thank god. I donít have to live in the suburbs.

Another woman gets on at the bus stop, perhaps seventy, carefully dressed,
gold jewellery, silk scarf, stockings. Iím off to the butcher to buy my
cackleberries,
she says.

Do you walk round by yourself? I asked the woman on the bus.

We have to walk around by ourselves, she said, because we live by ourselves.
If a man looks at me strangely I just say, hello sonny.

These are the women from Betty Bay. The six daughters of Alexander Macleay
lived in Elizabeth Bay House in the 1850s; one was called Kennethina. Six girls
with long red hair and disembodied hands stitching homilies on pincushions.
Mary Gilmore lived at the top of the hill in the 1920s; she was back from the
Utopian colony in Paraguay, and writing for the Womenís Page of The
Worker. Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard held salons for writers in
Orwell Street in the thirties. Then there were the Aunts up the Cross, and
Rosaleen Norton, painter and witch, and other nameless eccentric women with
brave wild unknown lives in single rooms. Some, like Juanita Neilsen, stepped
over the line and disappeared.

They say lots of writers live here, M said to me, but you never see Helen
Garner on the bus.

We live between the yacht club and the brothels, between the Olympic sailing
events and the shooting galleries. Between a past we donít usually feature in
and a real estate boom that might squeeze us out. Thatís capitalism, thatís
economic rationalism, folks.

The men with mobile phones are still selling women and drugs, in cafes along
the crest of the hill. Up the hill itís live and die in the streets, needles and
condoms in the gutters, dead Koreans outside the restaurant, and working
women in doorways with alert eyes. A womanís body was found in an
alleyway, jammed between an old fridge and a dryer, bruised and strangled.

Greetings from the Republic of Women, in the vertical city. From well-dressed
older women waiting at bus stops, young women tossing their hair and walking
small dogs, middle-aged women walking purposefully up hills, disappearing
into art deco buildings, women with careers selling immaculate flats with huge
floral arrangements on the table and nothing to eat in the kitchen, widows
with money and stylish cars in rented garages. Women in suits or fancy dress,
in red hair and tutus, jogging gear, female singles and couples, women who
donít conform.

 

The Parks

The bus comes down the hill and round the corner and everything goes quiet,
the water is metres away, the road loops back on itself. The park in the middle
of the road has old fig trees that fill with fruit bats at night; and in the daytime
the lorikeets swarm in the red flowering gums.

Holdsworth Street runs down to the old sandstone steps into Rushcutterís Bay
Park. On weekdays, backpackers lie in the sun and write letters home, young
women with children sit in the cafe in the middle of the park, and you see
women straight out of Patrick White novels. In the evenings, the dog-walkers
arrive, their dogs swim among lumps of red algae. At the weekends there are
couples having picnics, and three gay men, their arms around one another,
laughing, on a bench.

 

The walks

This is one of my walks, the Yachtie walk, through Rushcutters Bay Park, past
the tennis courts and across the ditch and round in front of the Cruising Yacht
Club to flat sandy Yarranabbe Park and the public jetty.

Walking around Onslow and Billyard Avenue, through the park in front of
Elizabeth Bay House, where you can sit on a bench and look out over the
harbour, and feed the fish in the pond: this is the Retirement Walk, moving
slowly from park bench to bus-stop seat.

Thereís a secret walk here: a detour down a narrow path between blocks of
flats, under trees, to a grotto under the sandstone cliff. It should have a statue
of a virgin, and flowers.

Thereís the Hate the Rich walk past Boomerang, which changed hands for $30
odd million recently, past Lachlan Murdochís house, and the new waterfront
penthouses with the reflection pool on the roof.

Roslyn Gardens: there are no parks or gardens here. This is a risky walk. We
never liked this street; bad feng shui or something. The nursing home on the
high side, boring flats on the other side. Paul Keatingís house in one row of
three storey terraces, a model agency in the basement of another. We walk
along here to Cafe Hernandez, for the best coffee around here. Then across the
overpass to Darlinghurst, Restaurant Gulch. We were robbed in this street,
walking home on a rainy night. Footsteps behind us, then someone ran past and
grabbed Tís briefcase. While we were still discussing what was in it, a car with
no headlights came towards us, someone whistled and threw the briefcase out
the window. Nothing gone except the Walkman. His wallet was still in his
pocket.

 

Beare Park

The bus turns down Ithaca Road towards Beare Park. A Korean man lives
here, heís been there for years, my friends tell me; he always looks clean, heís
been sighted on the bus and in the local cafe. He wears a baseball cap and track
pants, eats takeaway food, and keeps computer discs in a plastic bowl under
the palm tree. At night, he howls at the moon, while someone plays bagpipes at
the other end of the park.

Someone wrote a poem about this park, life and death in one rush, on rotting
mattresses, under old fig trees.

This place carves out a small public space on the waterfront of the rich,
occupied by gay men reviving their tans, junkies doing deals, Telstra workers
having lunch, and locals having picnics.

 

The waterfront

The cars of the rich appear and disappear through automatic gates. Trees hang
over the garden wall. The wrought iron gates open and the black Porsches slide
out noiselessly.

The apartments of the rich are absolute waterfront; nothing comes between
them and their desires. Space, light, water. Boats moored at private jetties.
Water taxis to the Opera house. Politicianís mistresses on the balcony.

Our bus grinds around the corner. A gardener vacuums leaves off the paths.† A
Latin American woman gets off the bus outside the waterfront apartment
blocks: a generation of refugees escape fascism to come to Australia and clean
rich peopleís houses.

 

Halfway up the hill

Itís lunchtime. The bus is halfway up the hill, outside the real estate office,
opposite the cafe that spills out onto the street, beside the corner store, the
bookshop with the S&M and rocknroll display in the window (minor subjects:
tarot, art film, drugs, buddhism), and the Japanese restaurant. Prayer flags on a
balcony in Roslyn Street, tourist buses outside the hotels.

A Chinese man on the bus talks about getting a gun; a man with brilliantined
hair complains about bogong moths flying into his ears.

As the bus turns into Darlinghurst Road, I see a manís arm stretched across the
window of a ground floor flat, a hand turning on a tap. We pass the Fountain,
Porkyís and the shooting gallery, the Bourbon and Beefsteak. There are
women working from doorways, men with mobile phones in Hungry Jackís.
The pavements, the fruit barrows, Japanese spruikers selling sixpacks of koalas,
internet cafes, a shop full of telephone booths, blonde German backpackers in
pavement cafes, seedy British backpackers smoking and drinking beer inside.†

Inside the bus someone is talking about the axe murderer, heís been sighted in
the underground supermarket.

Get off the bus and walk. Around the corner, everything changes, the video
shop, the pawnbrokers, the travel agencies offering cheap bus tickets to Byron
Bay and Cairns and Broome, the backpacker hotels with towels hanging out
the windows. Itís lunchtime at the Pad Thai with tables on the street.

Slabs of spare ribs in the windows of the doner kebab shops, and more flesh
downstairs. Plastic cartons of take-away Thai, mobile phones on the cafe table,
needles and polystyrene coffee cups on the station steps.

 

Afternoon in the street

In Kings Cross public and private merge: the street is an office and the doorway a
bedroom. Men with ponytails and numbers tied to their trousers talk to the
street about live acts on stage. Passing Porkyís I hear a woman miming
orgasm, ah ah aah aaahÖ thatís all folks, she says, huskily: how publicly
intimate, in the afternoon street.

Women on the streets wear short skirts and keep their faces blank. The large
blonde woman with notable breasts is talking to a young Aboriginal man. On
the pavement near the telephones a man is creating instant airbrushed art,
across the road the Christian rock ín rollers play near the condom shop.

In Darlinghurst Road, people eat, sleep, crash in doorways, hustle, shoot up,
nod off, do business in doorways, crouch among plastic shopping bags, hesitate
and get robbed in doorways. A woman with legs in black tights, graceful like a
dancer, stretched across the doorway, looks relaxed from the window of the
bus, but close up I can see sheís got the shakes.

Off the street, other people lean on windowsills, pause on balconies, read
newspapers in cafes and parks.

Sometimes, the Cross is quiet. Say, in January, in the afternoons. The axe
murderer walked into the police station and gave himself up one Friday night.
The Korean groceries are out of sticky rice, the yachts have left for Hobart, the
tourist shops are empty.

But along the strip itís always four oíclock in the morning and the Coke sign is
always flashing.

 

Afternoon

Yellow light floods my room in the middle of the afternoon. A mandala of
lorikeets and answering machines. The low hum of traffic all day, punctuated
by buses grinding around the corner. Dinghies gliding across the bay, a sound
of ripples against the sandstone wall.

Small rainstorms cross the harbour in the late afternoon.

Pink sunsets, sudden gusts of wind.

 

Evenings in Victoria Street

The travellers patrol the street at dusk talking softly; they sit in cafes drinking
and writing letters home. In immaculate white uniforms, the men and women
from the naval dockyards on Garden Island filter through local traffic and
layers of history: past the high walls of the convent, past the huge blocks of
flats where the developers won battles thirty years ago, the old terraces that the
residents fought for and saved, Mick Fowlerís Steps down to Woolloomooloo;
past Joeís Famous where men in gold neck chains with mobile phones hang on
the pavement, past the Korean cafes serving Ďthe chefís special intestinesí, the
antiquarian bookshop, the second hand clothes shop, the hotels along Victoria
Street, to where the streets converge near the hotel with the Ginseng Baths and
the Cocacola sign.

 

Going Inside

Inside our rooms, we inhabit calm spaces, we stand at windows in the warm
evenings, listening to fruit bats squabbling in the tops of the trees. We
rearrange still lives, in endless mirrors, in double beds.

Take away the walls, and we are stacked, head to toe, on different floors of
apartment buildings, ready to float out of our bodies, ready to merge and
separate, to dance away again, out above Betty Bay.

 

Night

At night, I move around the room slowly and come to rest in front of the
window. I drag the bed across the room to face the view. The red navigation
light flashes on the bridge, ships in the dry dock are lit up.

At night, thereís a city in the sky. Not like Augustineís city, more like Danteís
purgatory. There are lights along the hill, above the black space of the water.
The blue mosque-like roof of an office building visible through a gap between
buildings on the hill. Across the still black water, the lights of cars driving to
and from the naval depot, and slow moving ferries. US warships visit in the
nuclear night.

The Korean man sleeps in his corrugated cardboard shelter. Beside the freeway
the taxi drivers, students and security men at the end of their shifts cruise into
Cafe Hernandez, open twenty four hours a day. Up the hill itís sex and money,
down the hill itís fun fun fun, men in tight leather trousers on Mardi Gras night,
diving in and out of taxis. Cats on heat, short glossy fur and leopard skin tights.

Windows in the sky are lit up all night, and lights burn in mirrored foyers. The
shift changes around five in the morning, the late home-comers meet the early
workers as first light hits grey streets.

 

Leaving

Walking back through King X at 5.30 on a Friday evening, I watch the drag
queens in the beauty parlours having their fingernails razor tipped and the home
boys talking on their mobile phones on the corners. I pass the hair salon called
Anysex in Kellett St.† Two girls walk up Roslyn Street, laughing and talking,
with bright pink and blue hair. The Maori warrior with his satin cowboy shirt
passes me in Ward Avenue, and the tourists are piling in and out of buses in
front of the Gazebo and Sebel Town House.

The evening is soft, a sign itís nearly spring, and the clouds are dark grey,
behind the harbour bridge and the city skyline. For a moment thereís nothing
but the sound of the water and childrenís voices from the park, then the bus
goes round the Elizabeth Bay loop, and a car starts up, and two birds wheel
overhead; and the evening starts to whirr again. Winter is over. Iím leaving
Kings X.

(April 99 / March 03)


Bio: Barbara Brooks writes nonfiction (Eleanor Dark: a Writerís Life, with Judith Clark), occasional fiction, but mostly a kind of hybrid of the two (Leaving Queensland, Sea Cruise, 1983; essays and stories in Australian and overseas anthologies). She lives in Sydney but has gypsy tendencies and recently spent six months in Barcelona.


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