Konya

Excerpt from Turkish Diary

Thursday August 9th

It’s ten a.m. and not hot as I’d feared it might be, though the direct sun burns my face and neck. It’s a couple of kilometres’ walk north and east along wide but busy streets, past shops and apartment blocks, to the old part of the city. I am comfortable stopping people and gesturing a request for directions. An older fellow helps me out. He worked and travelled all around Europe in a trailer, he says in German. I understand enough to respond. We wish each other a good day and to his delight I manage to say, “teşekkür ederim, hoşçakal,” many thanks, and goodbye in Turkish.

The guidebook recommends a cheap and friendly place. After a couple of inquiries, I plunge into the side streets, past an old yellow-plastered mosque and a row of public telephones, looking for Çıkrıkcılar Cadessi in the knot of streets south of the main boulevard. I’m almost there when a tubby, jolly fellow trots around a corner and hails me crying, “Yes yes yes, Hotel Ulusan, I will be back in a minute.” It’s the place I have been looking for. It’s clean and newly refurbished, with grey tiles and chrome stair rails, but retaining the creaky old nineteen forties’ rococo furniture from its previous incarnation. He shows me a single, for 25TL a night. It’s more than I had planned to pay but I am exhausted and I take the room, have a long hot shower, neaten up my stubble and rest for a while.

Konya is a mellow place, with few of the insinuating touts or imploring street salesmen of the type trawling the tourist-choked laneways of Istanbul. I seemed to be the only traveller with a pack on my back. Walking down Mevlana Cadessi, on my way to finding the hotel, a fellow approaches me and asks where I’m from, and to direct met to his carpet shop. We chat for a bit. He stayed on Enmore Road in Sydney for a while. He looks disappointed when I tell him I am travelling and studying but not purchasing stuff this time, but he asks me to come up for tea sometime, so I just might.

There are a few Seljuk monuments around town. Over the trolley tracks, I climb past several flag-festooned tea garden grottoes and enter a low, rambling mosque on the top of Alaaddin’s Hill, Alaeddin Tepesi. It is a wide grey stone prayer hall with a timber roof held aloft with Roman and Byzantine columns, not like the later basilica-like Ottoman structures. A class of boys are chanting text in a side room. I sit there for a bit letting the cool breeze and the soft chant waft the sweat away. I will go to the Mevlana mosque and museum tomorrow, and pay my respects at the tombs of both Rumi and Shems. I can’t do much this afternoon except walk around, sip a lemon drink, eat a banana, and rest.

There are few other travellers here. A group of young French friends sitting in the internet room at the hotel do not return my greeting. They are happy in their own company. Exhausted, I go to bed early after drinking a shot of raki in half a glass of water to help me sleep.

*****

Sounds curl their tendrils in through my ear, deep into the well of sleep. An arabesque of light catches flecks of consciousness caught in the curve of the wall, and makes them shine enough to wake me. The sound is a white blast, streaming through the half closed window, shivering across the sheet in which I lie tangled. It’s a rage of bright noise, until I am fully awake and hear a melody soaring high in an imploring supplication. My fingers reach for the watch on the side table. It’s nine-thirty; I must’ve been a sleep for a couple of hours.

At ten p.m. the muezzin wakes me again. It is not the call to prayer, the opening phrases of which are becoming familiar to me, but a prelude, a holy verse from the Koran. Pouring off the minaret by the plain brick mosque I’d passed on my way to the back streets of the bazaar, it echoes around the hills, and the echoes bounce back and linger as though from very far away, perhaps even as far away as the granite outcrops outside the city. His recitation is brilliant and intense, not just a rising and falling scale, but a line leaping up and down, and trembling passionately on certain tones. He pours forth a sound which flies in through the window and drapes itself around my shoulders like a banner of green lace, and then a shimmering rope snakes over the wooden window sill, a cord of silk to bind me slowly. His muscular voice is as glossy as a leather bullwhip. The muscle in his voice raises the leather whip until it arcs, suspended above the pull of gravity, before he takes another breath and swings the leather thong forward, flaying the skin off my sweating temples. The sound becomes gravelly, like oil mixed with rocks pouring into a channel. Then he whispers, steam hissing from a vent, each smoky, shivering ornament is like a splay of bullets. His voice rises and becomes a ladder of milk to climb and drink from. It is an intensely male song, as is the Koran itself. I am ravished of course.

Some time later a more familiar cry begins, “Allahu Ekber.” From another more distant minaret, perhaps the large, baroque edifice on the other side of Mevlana Cadessi, the call rings out as well. This muezzin’s voice is harsh and frail, an old man’s voice, more nasal and less in tune than the master from the minaret close by. The master takes his time, long pauses between phrases, and his call continues long after the older muezzin’s call has expired.

*****

Friday August 10th

At five o’clock the call to prayer rouses me from the warm emptiness of perfect sleep. A couple of hours later the hotel porter brings me breakfast, a pot of fruit yoghurt, a toasted sandwich and cup of strong coffee. Today I want to visit the shrines, rest a while and think about where to go tomorrow.

The shrine to Mevlana is in the old convent, or lodge of the original Sufi order here. It is a small stone complex of rooms, with a mosque and a beautiful tower, a fluted cone gilded and veneered with turquoise tiles. There are very few western visitors among the large crush of pilgrims at nine a.m. when the shrine opens. A couple of older women, teachers, organize several groups of small school children into rows. They are mostly little girls of about seven, simmering with pious, barely suppressed excitement, each with a pink or orange flowery headscarf. As well as headscarves, many of the older women wear long tailored coats, like fully buttoned-up pinstriped suit jackets that reach the ground. There is a kiosk with a scalloped marble fountain, and around it, spigots for washing face, hands and feet. There is another small fountain, at which people line up fill cups and plastic bottles with holy water. I step up as well, wash my hands and take a drink from the spigot.

The lodge exhibit consists of mannequins in dervish dress: black-robed dervishes sitting at a low dining table, the cook in the kitchen, the novice in his corner, the master at his book, a diorama of monastery life. Then the river of people prepares to enter the tomb complex. No one takes their shoes off — there are so many people it would be impossible to organise retrieval of your shoes — but instead everyone pulls flimsy plastic sanitary slippers over their footwear and we all shuffle in through the modest little door.

Stone caskets of generations of Mevlevi leaders, each labelled, line the raised enclosure along which we all pass. Many pilgrims raise their hands to them in prayer. The high point, the main shrine, lies under a dome in the corner, the dome and walls and pillars covered in brown and black designs, with arabesques and calligraphy laid over the colours in gold. It looks like a room lined with embossed leather. The two largest tombs, that of Rumi and his son Sultan Veled, sit side by side under huge canopies of filigreed silver brocade, each with a tall felt cone wrapped in a green silk turban. Penitents approach and crowd around, hands raised to faces in prayer and supplication. A big middle-aged man turns, wiping tears from his eyes. It is hushed and moving, and exactly like being in a Roman Catholic shrine in a Latin country. Over all of us floats the haunting wail of the ney flute.

With the many hanging lamps of bronze and coloured glass, the gilded and shaded arches, the soft wail of the ney, the river of people moving slowly forward and praying softly, there is nothing but language and doctrine to separate this piety, this devotion, from any other.

To the left of the tombs is a room full of objects connected with the lodge. Copper utensils, several fine glass hanging lamps from Egypt, rosaries containing 900 walnut sized beads, Koran stands of carved wood, even one carved from a single block of jade. There are glass cases containing stiff, courtly robes of blue and green taffeta silk reputed to have been worn by Mevlana. They seem too grand, too priestly to have been worn by Rumi, especially after he had encountered Shems of Tabriz, renounced his official duties and gone quite mad with divine love. In another case lie robes associated with his son Sultan Veled, a red damask coat and a shirt covered in diamond patterns of calligraphy in red and black ink. There is also a thirteenth-century Seljuk silk prayer rug connected with Rumi, and a couple of blue and white, finely striped cotton quilted coats. They are in excellent shape for being 750 years old. There are incense cups, a braid of pearls, and several small clocks. I do not understand the significance of the clocks.

I see a couple of young men in wheel chairs, an elderly man in a fine black suit bent double with age being led by the hand by a museum guard. There are some old ladies in black with swollen bandaged legs walking slowly through the shrine on crutches. Most people are young though, families with children.

The old mosque room holds a collection of several hundred years of illuminated books, carpets and carved wooden doors. One of the carpets is ancient and fine, with a panel depicting the Ka’aba. The leaves of the books are dense with patterns and calligraphy, ink and gold. There are Korans, Divans, or discourses of Rumi, and copies of the Mathnavi, from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth. In most of the books the colour blue dominates, along with red and gold. There is very little green. Some of the later, Ottoman books have imagery, depictions of Mecca and the Ka’aba. The work approaches perfection in line and proportion. Tall, clean shaven young men in pastel-coloured shirts lean over the glass cases and lift their hands to their faces, praying silently over the holy books.

*****

On my way back from the shrine, I pass a man sitting on a straw mat by a shoe shop on the shady side of Mevlana Cadessi, with his bald head down and his hand held out. He is stocky and hairy, about fifty, sitting cross-legged on a mat with his wide and dirty trouser cuffs rolled up to his thighs. His thick, legs are burnt red and shiny with dirt. In both calves run winding canyons as big as a hand, gouged deep into his flesh. The jagged rims of these canyons are crumbly with dried skin, the upper layers fatty and yellow, and the lower depths courses of mottled red meat. I haven’t seen a leper in twenty-eight years, not since my encounter with the leper in Northern India. In a moment of shock I reach down and press some coins into his cupped hand. As I walk away I become fearful of the hand-to-hand contact. I wish I’d had a bottle of holy water from the shrine to give him. Maybe I ought to have gone the whole way and pressed my fists into his wounds.

Back at the hotel, I scrub my hands with soap and scalding water, and then head back out into the hot sun to find some lunch.

As I do so, the lunchtime call to prayer erupts from the loudspeakers above, and half the shops shut. Shutters are rolled down noisily. Windows are latched. Canvas sheets and cotton cloths are flung over stands of oranges, shelves of bread, racks of shoes, piles of children’s clothes. I will have to wait for an hour to get my chicken pide and cold drink.

In the afternoon I visit the archaeological museum, with finds from nearby Catal Huyuk, the first Neolithic urban settlement, and then from the Assyrian, Phrygian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. In the front garden lie several enormous Roman marble sarcophagi, of warriors, naked wrestlers, angels, foliage, which look as though they were carved yesterday. It’s getting very hot and I have to buy another one-and-a-half litre bottle of water to get me through the afternoon.

To the north of Mevlana Cadessi is the tomb of Shems of Tabriz, Rumi’s guide and passionate companion. It sits in a small old stone mosque. Inside is a simple and beautifully proportioned arch separating the prayer space and the mihrab from the raised platform containing the casket. The ceiling is of glossy wood, carved in checkers and squares. The casket is covered in green cloth, crowned with a felt cone and turban denoting his spiritual rank. I stand silently, not thinking anything, just to pay my respects. All the devotees and suppliants around the tomb are women, both old and young. A couple of men entered later. They halt at the main prayer hall, turn left and begin their prostration toward Mecca. Near the tomb, a couple of young girls, twelve and fourteen, perhaps sisters, squat on the carpet and gaze up at me with unflinching curiosity. They’re not veiled, though their mother, kneeling beside them praying, is. After a minute or so, an ancient custodian appears from a small side room. He clicks and clucks, approaches the girls with words, and hands them each a veil with which they unhurriedly cover their heads.

A young and very pious looking man, dressed in flowing tan cotton and wearing a skullcap, finishes his prayers towards Mecca, and approaches the tomb. He kneels there immobile, his hands raised, silent. The old custodian appears again with a plate of large white sweets, and offers them around. He offers me one, too. It is very sweet and a bit fizzy as I crack it with my teeth; powdered sugar and baking soda sherbet, a hint or rose, a hint of mint, crumbling in my mouth and melting over my tongue.

The pious young man rises from his prayer to Shems, turns to leave and hurries out of the shrine. His shoulders are hunched, aching in humility, perhaps aching with the burden of the gift he is carrying with him. His face is scrunched up and cast down, as though he had been standing too close to a fiercely burning fire. It is the way some people look when they leave the communion rail in church after having received the bread and the wine.

*****

Friday evening in Konya

Feeling a bit lonely after the intensity of the day. But kept the thought in my head, to feel the company of everyone around me. I wandered up to one of the pleasure gardens which flank Allaeddin’s Hill, found a small table under a tree decked with coloured bulbs, ordered a glass of tea and a pile of sugar lumps and sat, absorbed in Yashar Kemal’s novel. Half a chapter later, a small boy trotted up and hovered beside me hoping to get my attention. He held a piece of paper and as I looked up, began reciting questions from it, pausing for my answers.

“Hello, what is your name, where are you from, how do you like Konya, have you been to the shrine?”

I could sense his mother and several other women sitting with her at a table in the grotto behind me all beaming at him as he spoke. As our brief formal conversation ended I turned to them, smiling as well. “Ah, he speaks such good English.”

“Yes, yes he speaks a little English,” replied his mother, decorously shading her smile. But of course he spoke no English; the ladies were curious to know something about me and had devised a little scheme to find out.

Earlier, while I was eating lunch in the shady part of the main square, another little lad of about eight, who was selling bottles of water kept cool in a metal pan full of water, ran over to me. He had two small bottles left and really needed to offload them. But I already had a coke and a big bottle of water, which I showed him. He was very persistent sitting by me on the bench arguing his case in Turkish. I wondered if this was a school holiday job, or if he would ever go to school. I gave him a piece of cherry cake instead, and he trotted away contentedly.

I wanted a beer to drink with my evening kebab, but none was available. The day before, I had asked in a mini market for Efes beer, and the shop owner had directed me around the corner to another place, which was hidden in a small arcade off the street. The man there had beers stacked out of sight in a large fridge covered in a big cloth. He wrapped the can in newspaper and put it in a plastic bag for me. Konya is more of a religious town than Istanbul.

So I had a tasty meal and a cola and went for a walk up to the main Ottoman mosque, next to the Mevlana shrine. The place crowded with Friday night relaxation. Families sitting in the square and on the terrace of the mosque drinking tea, eating nuts, cotton candy, ice cream.

Later I spoke to a couple of Mexican students at the hotel. They have been studying film. Very nice and informative guys, and had just come from Cappadocia. Göreme was not as full of touts and tourists as I had read, and there were some great day hikes around the area. Most people only went on the first bit of a hike, to see a church or a monument, but if you pressed on, you could enjoy serenity. We spoke about Mexico (they are from Mexico City and miss home cooking), and Norway (one of them had had a girlfriend from Bergen). They were such nice intelligent dudes. Went to bed and had a shot of the raki in a glass of water to help me sleep. Awoke at four a.m., the monk’s hour, and did not sleep until the call to prayer rang out around the town at five.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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The Conscience of Brunswick Street

Our conscience is flailing, caught up in the breeze,
it  blows in the wind of the world’s tragedies,
whose agony deepens the depth of our ease.

Preening in empathy, our fountainhead,
but this sorrowful play will not feed the unfed,
though the pain of the underworld butters our bread.

We’re the high-minded froth on society’s beer,
distillations of rough life got free, then sold dear,
with guilty white holes underneath this veneer.

Are we merely the old regime letting off steam,
as we pour condemnation on scum and on cream
whose surplus assures us the safety to dream?

We’re projecting our recoil on those we don’t know,
throwing out bluster and sorrowful show,
publication today, no nightmare tomorrow.

It’s just as sincere as “anything goes,”
and the most brazen hypocrite calls it a pose
as we sigh over cocktails, in elegant retro clothes.

Melbourne 2006

“Peaceful Zion . . .”

Friday November 24th, Jerusalem.
The Mahane Yehuda market is furiously busy the hour before sundown. An officious orthodox in a large brown robe and fur hat is blowing a cornet through his luxuriously frizzy beard, trying to shut everyone down by the appointed time. Arguments erupt between him and stallholders who want to stay open longer.

*****

Having been a week with friends on Agrippas street near the market, I decide to spend some nights in the old walled city of Jerusalem. The Al Arab hostel on Souk Khan As Zeit Street has the cheapest beds in the Muslim quarter. The manager leads me up some steps to a large dormitory with half a dozen bunk beds.  There’s a pale thin Russian sitting in the corner. He’s smoking and drinking tea, writing pages of tiny script; a metaphysical thesis perhaps. He will not speak to me.

For the rest of the day I wander the souks of the old city, taking pictures with a camera and a telephoto lens. On the crowded steps outside the Damascus gate kids run up shouting, “journalista, journalista,” grinning excitedly, slapping my hand in high-fives. An old woman selling dried apricots grumpily agrees to let me take her photo for several shekels. But I should have taken the picture first because she turns her back and hunches into her shawl as soon as she has her coins.

I hike up Suleyman Street, to Sala al Din, East Jerusalem’s main road. A roiling mob of heads blocks a white van stalled in the middle of the street. Traffic has backed up and horns are blaring. I cross over and see that the left hand side window of the van, a Yeshiva bus that shouldn’t be here, has been smashed. Maybe the perpetrator had been taken to the police block, as the crowd of angry youths have surrounded it. A young Israeli soldier argues with one of the youths. The fact that they are arguing is a positive sign. I don’t hang around.

It’s quite a long walk up through the noisy cement block crush of East Jerusalem to the Anglican Cathedral, St George’s. I enter the gated enclosure to the church within, which has services in English and Arabic. It’s an oasis of Edwardian gentility. The Royal Arms and the standard of St George hang above the nave. Brass plaques line the walls under stained glass windows, recalling military men and their wives or sisters; wistful, time-stalled memorials to sweet Albion. I sit in corner, recalling the tune of that old Church of England chestnut; “Hark the songs of peaceful Zion”, and meditate for an hour or so before heading back to the bustle of Nablus Road, down to the Damascus gate again. I find St Anne’s by the Bethesda pool. This Romanesque crusader church has a vast acoustic. I try to croak out a tune but cannot due to a traveller’s cold.

It’s eleven pm back at the Al Arab. Time to sleep, but the Russian is still writing. He’s got no pack or bedding in this dorm, and it turns out he should be in another room. He won’t let me shut the lights out and he won’t leave. He’s nailed himself down in this cell and seems to be using it as his study, away from the hubbub of other backpackers. He speaks no English, but makes it clear that he wants me to leave him alone. I try to communicate with my hands: time for sleep, and lights off. He becomes hot and obstinate.

I go to the common room where Palestinian TV is blaring loudly, a repetitive montage of heroic music, banners waving over slow motion shots of curly haired little kids throwing stones, and young men hidden under scarves toting AK47s. A few Arab youths are lounging around drinking beers. One of them, tall and muscly and a bit flabby in tight Levis, seems to be the leader of the group. He’s a relative of the guy who runs the hostel. He snickers insinuatingly at the TV footage. He has one lengthened and polished little fingernail-scoop. His fatty eyes seem evil to me.

“The Russian, he crazy,” says the manager. “One more crazy, smelly Russian,” he says again with a weary, tolerant shrug. The Russian has been here a few days and he’ll have to leave in the morning. The manager tells him, in the language of hand signals and exasperated noises, that he’ll have to clear out of the big empty dorm he is using as his private study. But the Russian won’t budge. He sees the little flag on my pack, and starts waving his thin white hands and accusing me loudly as though he’s uncovered a crime; “aaah… ahhh… Australiye, Australiye… aaah…  ahhh…”

I get a bed in a smaller room with an elderly German, Michael. He’s been to Israel nineteen times and is studying scripture and cosmology. Michael is tall, quiet and friendly, with a deep, prophetorial beard. He says he’s devising a synthesis of the Old Testament and Einstein’s theory of relativity. He keeps himself busy working out prognostications for the future of mankind in the margins of a very large book.  Old Michael sleeps soundly, breathing quietly and sweetly, and there’s no snoring from the bunk below. Hope the same is true from me.

*****

The muezzin’s song wakes me at four, and it is the most beautiful call to prayer I have yet heard; passionate and classically restrained. I think to myself “he sounds so full of feeling and sincerity, this couldn’t be a recording, but I suppose it is.” The loudspeaker crackles and his sound bounces sharply around the stone towers of the city. His intonation and ornamentation are perfect, and this seems odd. I don’t hear the Arabic flattened notes. It is a pure, or Pythagorean scale. Other calls to prayer ring out in the distance. Together they weave sinuous polyphonies of yearning. If music is a sign, then the Muezzin’s call is to an infinite and mysterious God, and I feel the holy shiver of that. The singer finishes; his fingers fumble over the microphone, before the hollow “thunk” of the off switch, so it is no recording. I wonder if the sermons carry the same message as the song.

Alert and happy two hours before daybreak, I fix an instant coffee in the common room. I’m going to head out into the dark and find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Half an hour later I’m backtracking a shadowy maze of alleys trying to find the courtyard with the main entrance to the Church. I’m not expecting it to be open, and it’d be good to sit by the doorstep for a while before the inevitable morning bustle. Scrawny cats flee my footsteps down wet pitted paving stones smelling of vegetable wilt and sheep’s blood. Their scabby faces peek out from under empty produce carts. Passing from one vaulted alley to another I look up to see the white stone towers of the old city pulse bright and shrink into darkness as the black hand of cloud plays before the lunar lantern. Can this place be the centre of the universe?

I find the courtyard and the church, a shapeless pile of stone rearing out of the gloom. Its heavy, iron-shod door is open. The first mass is at five am. The interior seems vast in the darkness, chilly and still, with a jumble of dingy pews and chairs. Dusty Byzantine columns lie about waiting to be propped up again. In the arena under the dome sits an ornate wedding cake of a kiosk covering a chamber that was once a cave, the tomb of Jesus hacked apart by an enraged caliph a thousand years ago.

Armenian monks file in and start chanting in an alcove behind the sepulchre. An American Franciscan prepares to celebrate mass in front. It’s an odd heterophony; the priest’s bright Midwestern voice trilling around the altar while melancholy, stony melismas eddy heavily round the back of the tomb. I’m alone in the pews. The altar and the semicircle of wooden chairs before it guard a low arch leading to the tomb. Hidden by a curtain, its innards glow in lamplight.

Mass is over. The priest has packed up and gone. The chanting has stopped. I bend, kneel and crawl into the tunnel leading to the inner place. Glimmering in the buttery light of glass cups filled with oil, reflected in silver sconces and the silver frames of black icons, is a marble slab the size of a man, flat, pitted, glistening with generations of caresses, almost like a slab of marbled flesh in the soft halo of smoky light. How long has it covered the stone shelf that lies beneath? It’s preposterous and holy, and I won’t hinder the tears, which flow as I’m moved to bend and kiss the surface.

*****

It’s a cold grey day. I get chicken and chips for lunch in the cafe down the street from the hostel. I hear the temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, is closed but I’ll go and see if the news might be mistaken. Young soldiers turn me back. The platform is closed to all but Muslims. At some gates the soldiers say; “come back tomorrow”, at others, they say; “closed until the troubles are over.”

I speak to an Arab storekeeper on the empty, covered, Tariq Bab an Nazir, which leads up to the Dome of the Rock. He has three joints missing on his right hand, a sad smile and big accusing eyes; “yes, you all say you are sorry.” He thinks Arafat is no good. “Who is good?” I ask. “Hizbollah. They can make it good.” He adds, “Egypt, Mubarak, very bad man. Jordan? Jordan no good.”  I ask him what he thinks of Saddam Hussein. “He is good, sometimes I think so. . .” “Do you think Saddam Hussein is a good Muslim?” I ask. He pauses. “Sometimes I think no, sometimes I think yes.” He invites me to sit down, but I don’t feel sure enough to take this conversation further. Perhaps if I had the energy to discuss (or even argue) I might only make him sadder and angrier. So I offer my “sorry”, shake his chopped up hand, and move on. Then, enquiring about Roman signet rings, I speak to Khader, of Khader M. Baidon and Sons, antiquities dealer on the Via Dolorosa. The conversation takes the same path as the others I have ventured timidly onto. He is sad and resigned and bitter at Israel, the UN and the US.

There are a few Jews praying down by the wall on this overcast day. It’s quite a small section of wall really, not so broad or high as I’d imagined. An impressive old man sweeps past, robed in the pomp of cream brocade with a big cylindrical turban on his grey locks. He’s like an ancient Babylonian Exilarch surrounded by raven clad attendants. A few Hasids in black quilted coats enter the men’s enclosure to pray. A couple of them look deformed, with pink watery eyes and enlarged lower lips like the Hapsburg monarchs had. I saw many men in this condition when I lived in Brooklyn New York. What will two or three more generations of inbreeding do to them? Many Israelis refuse to mix with others not of their ‘kind’. It’s a fragmented society, and if the arguing were to stop there’d be more reason to worry. As the afternoon becomes evening the air sinks further into a chill and it begins to rain.

*****

Rallies erupt spontaneously all over the new city tonight, especially around Zion Square, due to Monday’s and today’s bombings. The orthodox are demonstrating outside the Knesset, and thousands of youths with flags and banners are singing and dancing, creating an exuberant party atmosphere in the blocked-off streets. The banners say “Barak, go home, before we have no home.” Everyone (of student age, that is) is revelling in the exhilaration of intense and memorable events.

I walk around the bars of Joel Salomon Street but don’t go in, and then find a solitary boulder in the Gan Ha’ Azmaret park. For a while I feel better. I’m never alone in a desolate spot. A few cats sniff the air and slink away. A drunken couple laugh it off down the hill under a lamp-lit tree. An Arab man wanders out of the darkness to talk, offers me a cigarette and sighs “where do you stay tonight?” I’m not talkative, and he floats back into the darkness. I’m alone for a couple of hours until it gets too cold to sit on a rock.

Back to the Jaffa gate, and as I pass under the floodlit citadel, I see this place for what it is: a city of religions, but not of faith. Has “Peaceful Zion” ever been more that an English daydream? Is this the black hole at the centre of our three coterminous universes? Every stone seems to curse the weight of the one above. Jesus had plenty of reasons to lose his temper here.

Under Herod’s turret and through Suleyman’s walls down the narrow stone streets taking me to my hostel bed. A large soft woman in a flowing robe is curled up on the rug in the TV room, reading. Her name’s Edith. The story is that she’s from San Francisco. She spent many years as a beach hippie down in Eliat on the Red Sea, then married an Israeli and had a son. After a while they separated. She then fell in love with and married a Palestinian. Legally it was bigamy, but her Arab husband and his family did not recognise the first marriage (to a Jew) as valid so it was fine with them. She became a Muslim, and then that marriage failed also. Her son was spirited away by her former Israeli relatives. She doesn’t say where the Palestinians are; maybe they’ve dumped her too. She lives at the Al Arab hostel, reading her Koran everyday, lonely and lost apart from her prayers.

The manager seems to have thrown in the towel. The Russian ghost is still here, furiously scribbling in ‘his’ study. He looks very pale, very hungry.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

Book review

Six Stories by Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee.

Gao Xingjian won’t carry you down rivers of luscious prose. His writing style is like crime reportage, spare, placing the world of China inside you as a cluster of fragments, snapshots using words. Gao has said that the art of fiction is “the actualization of language and not the imitation of reality in writing.” His prose may be intended to affect the reader as poetry does, by invoking sensation beyond narrative pathways.

Gao Xingjian was born in 1940, soon after the Japanese invaded China. He completed his studies in the People’s Republic and wrote prolifically during the 1960s and 70s. During the Cultural Revolution, with ever diminishing options for hiding his work and exhausted by the ever-looming threat of heavy punishment, Gao burned all of his writings. Then, in 1979 and 1980 he was able to travel to France as a member of writers’ delegations. He came to prominence in the 1980s as a writer of experimental fiction, drama and literary theory that stepped beyond party-dictated boundaries. Gao left China in 1987 and did not return. He eventually settled in Paris and became a French citizen. In the 1990s he won several prestigious French awards, and in 2000 was the first Chinese writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is also well known for his large black and white ink paintings, with which he largely supports himself.

The first five of these stories were written in Beijing between 1983 and 1986. The last one was written in Paris in 1990. The fifth story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, acts as a bridge between the lean, survivalist psyche of the first four stories, and the sixth story, one flooded with the messy complexity of unconditional imagination.

The book is like a small gallery with six paintings on its walls. The first four stories are short scrolls preparing the reader for the two larger ones that follow.

The Temple: A young couple is on a hard-won honeymoon in the provinces. They get off a train at an unscheduled stop and decide to wander. They see a broken down temple on a hill, just outside of town. There they meet a rugged old man and a small boy with him. They share cake and melons. Gao sketches a fragment of perfect happiness.

In the Park: The story unfolds as the sun is setting. It’s a chatty back and forth between a man and a woman strolling. It could be dialogue from a sentimental drawing room play. Gao draws our eyes away from the couple deeper into the picture. A woman with a red handbag sits on a bench. In the distance a number of people are walking towards us down the path. The exposition darkens. The man was forced into the countryside to be a woodcutter.  A forest fire once spread swiftly and with a vengeance, he tells her. The woman on the bench is becoming restless. It seems she is waiting for someone. It has grown dark. The couple talks about love and luck. A youth carrying a canvass satchel wanders down. The young woman on the park bench begins to cry. This is not the man she has been waiting for.
The story carries the mood of a Chinese water color, or a melancholy beach scene by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

Cramp: A swimmer worries about cramp. His vision shoots to the middle distance; the almost empty beach at dusk, stars, the grey black sea, the ink-green water. Gao’s short gasps of prose are repetitive and cinematic. He describes the panic of open sea and the claustrophobia of worry. This could be a millisecond in a drowning man’s life. He latches onto the sight of a young woman in a red swimsuit on shore. The sun sets behind the beachfront pavilion. He reaches the beach and gets back to the hostel where the poker players ignore him. A man can only rely on himself. A man can face, and escape death, and still nothing changes. He wanders back down to the beach and sees a couple with a small child. They’re laughing and swigging from a bottle of wine, ready to jump into the water for a swim. They leave their child behind to mind the bicycles.

The Accident: Again, Gao writes prose as though setting the scene for the opening of a play. Early spring. Early evening. A gust of wind. A swirl of dust. A radio repair shop. A small pale green car is trying to overtake a trolley bus on a not yet busy street. An aging man pedals a bicycle bearing a rosy-cheeked child on the back. He’s crossing diagonally. The trolley bus is closing in like a relentlessly moving wall. There’s gentle singing from the radio in the repair shop.
“You may remember our meeting in the mist, under the broken bridge . . . ”
There is a crash. The man on the bicycle is killed. Is the baby dead? Was this a suicide? The busy urban world swirls around the accident. It’s a play now, a whirlwind of speculation about relationships, as though a hundred pieces of a smashed mirror were flying through the air catching reflections from every angle. If you don’t die in an accident you’ll die some other way. Was the balding man with a child on the back of his bike the author of his own misfortune? Probably. The facts are a hard black line drawn swiftly from one corner of the page to the other. The nature of the world is the fog of wash swirling around the background.

The first four short stories are clearly representative of a twentieth century Chinese way of coping with life. The freedom he has here is the psychological freedom of a single person living in a world that is totally controlled as well as harshly unpredictable. His mind moves methodically in survival mode, employing the observation necessary to take each step forward.

The last two stories in this small gallery are longer, and drift, or plummet, into a different realm of language.

The fifth story, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, anticipates Gao Xingjian’s European experience. It expresses his flight from the necessity of fighting the daily absurdities of life with spare fact and observation. An individual who lived linearly, realizes his freedom to dream. This tale of the narrator’s grandfather and the narrator’s childhood home is woven around the purchase of an imported fishing rod. Gao goes deeper into memories as though abseiling down a set of cliffs, resting for a sentence or two, here and there, on an outcrop.
Memories combine and transmute. He is lying on a beach, digging his hand into the sand. He cuts his hand on the tail of a dead fish. He digs further. He strikes the remnant of the wall of the courtyard of his childhood home. He’s in the middle of the ruins of Loulan, an ancient city in the Taklamakan desert. He is observing the desert from a flight thousands of feet up while watching a game of Soccer on the video. He is back in the ruins of Loulan, attacked by mythical creatures all named Zhang the Third.

The last story, In an Instant, steps completely off the narrative road. It is a palette of shifting images. A man sits in a canvas deck chair, his back to the beach. There’s a strong wind. The sky is bright. The dazzling sunlight reflects against the sea. Gao shows us big wet iron doors. We hear a police siren. We see a woman’s back in a dark passageway. With these fragments Gao begins to spin a web of development and recombination, as though the story were a symphony of human leitmotifs and abstract language, or like one of Anton Webern’s brief sonic galaxies. A man is utterly free in a free world, and the world is chaotic. The story is an expressionist painting, or a dreamy collage of arty French cinema clips. In this last story the writing is almost as intense as the lush phantasmagoria of William Burroughs. But Burroughs squirts on colour until it slides off the page and onto your lap, while Gao suffices with several strokes of water and ink.

Character development seems slight in these stories, but Gao Xingjian imprints memorable impressions of the human condition. The stories move toward the unconscious. There is a powerful sense of release in each of them, in which you discern an evolving psychic freedom. You get a sense of what Western humanism shares with enlightened Confucian thought: a clear ethic of humanism and reciprocity. You sense this Yang dancing with a strain of deeper knowing, and the alchemy of language expresses a natural and simple inner disposition, the Yin of Dao perhaps. Read these stories, and then tackle Gao Xingjian’s large autobiographical fictions, Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

Disembarking the Lake Van Ferry

Excerpt from Turkish Diary.

An hour and a half later, at around 11 pm, the yellow harbour and foreshore lights of Tatvan have grown large, and nearly all the passengers have gone down to the vehicle deck. Achim has gone also, to attend to his bike, which he had tied to the wheel of one of the Iranian freight cars. As I repack my bags, the serious young man with the “Kombat Turkiye” jacket passes by me, and this time he returns my eye contact, and sits down near me to roll a cigarette. I smile, and he offers a sad little smile back, and speaks to me in Turkish, but I indicate I only speak English. He can manage a little, and I have my small dictionary if needed. So we greet eachother but do not exchange names.

I ask him where he is going. Is he in the military? He says yes, and that he is not returning home, he just left home. He is from Izmir, on the shores of the Aegean. He completed his three months basic training, and must now report to Bitlis for a year’s tour of duty. I ask him if he misses home, and he says he does, very much. He will get a one-week break after six months, and then he can go home. He says it will be very dangerous in Bitlis province. It is mountainous, and the mountains are full of Kurdish terrorists, very bad, with machine guns, and bombs and landmines.

So this is why he looks so worried, so seriously homesick, and why his prayers must be intense at this time.  It is also a little strange that he mentions these imminent dangers, as I have just spent time with Ihsan, Necip, and several other friendly Kurds, among them the seven Kurdish “butchers” who shared a meal with me on the banks of the Tigris river. Although there’s some social tension between the Kurdish population and Turks in charge, there seems to be no threat of violence. I wonder if conscripts are fed propaganda about the dangers, and therefore the absolute necessity of their service in the East, or whether Turkish news is silent about any trouble occurring in the mountains these days. I don’t speak to him about this, as we don’t have enough of a mutual language to safely bridge such a dangerous stream of talk.

I then mention that I had seen him pray, out on the deck earlier, and that I respect a man who prays.

He lights up at this, and asks if I am a Muslim. I find it odd that I have been asked this question several times in the past few weeks. I would think that Muslims here would assume that I, a Western traveller, would either be a Christian or a godless materialist. I tell him, that I am not a Muslim, but a Christian, which I have been.

He asks me, “So, what does Isa say then?” I think for a moment, trying to find a suitable quote, a grounding in essential Christianity. “Well, Isa, (Jesus) said the following: ‘You must love the Lord God with all your mind, and all your heart, and you must love your neighbours, all people, as yourself.’” I point to my head, and my heart, as I recite these lines, and add, “this is of course a very difficult task, but we must try, every day.”

He pauses for a moment, and says, “we know that Isa will come again at the last days. He has one task left to do, which is to judge mankind, and to bring all Christians to Islam.”

He then asks, “and was not our Prophet prophesied?”  I pause also, and reply very plainly, “no, the prophet Muhammad was not prophesied in the Christian books, as far as I know.”
I add as a way to soften the plainness of my answer, “in our hearts, in our intentions, Christians and Muslims are alike, even if we do not think alike.”

He replies, “yes, but the Incil (the Bible) was changed.”

I had read that Muslims believe that the Christian books were changed, changes which made a God of Jesus and destroyed any reference to the coming of the last and greatest prophet, Muhammad, and the founding of Islam. I suppose, to a Muslim, as Islam is the summation, the perfection of the Judaic and Christian religions, it had to have been heralded in the holy books that came before. It must be a sign of the deceitfulness of Jews and Christians that they would destroy such evidence. The evidence must have existed. I can only imagine that to discount the necessity of such evidence might well be to discount the greatness of the Prophet. Perhaps this has formed grounds for a considerable amount of suspicion and resentment ever since.

I add, “all books change. It is the nature of knowledge, that people change it over time. Islamic scholars understand that this also happened during the first two centuries of Islam.”

He went on to tell me a little about Islam.

“The Koran says all religions must acknowledge God as Allah, and must pray to Him, only in the name, the word, ‘Allah.’”

He is very clear, that he means the literal word, the syllables, ‘Al-lah.’ I do not know if this is the case with a portion of text in the Koran, or if is a misinterpretation of language and sense, which often happens with non-analytical and devoutly religious people of any faith.

I ask him which verse of the Koran states this, and he thinks for a moment, replying, “I cannot say which verse.” I then talk a little about language. I refer to ‘su’ and ‘water.’ One word is Turkish, and the other is English.  “When you offer me a cup of ‘su’ and I take it and drink it, I am drinking the water you have offered me. And when I offer you a cup of water, and you take it and drink it, you are drinking the ‘su’ I offered you. I believe it is like this with the words, ‘God’ and ‘Allah.’ ‘Al-lah’ or ‘el-Lah’ is the Arabic way of saying ‘the (one and only) God,’ is it not?”

I add, “in all religions, there is childish thinking, and there is adult thinking, and we must all grow from the one to the other, although many do not. Wise Muslims and Christians can surely respect one another, but the unwise cannot, they can only hate each other.”

He sits silently for a moment, perhaps acknowledging something, I am not sure.

I’m warming to my theme now, “And as for understanding anything about God. In my head, I cannot understand anything about God, I am just a man after all, but in my heart, perhaps that is where I can understand something about God through ‘iman,’ or faith, and this is where I pray.”

His face has lost all its brooding heaviness, and he looks at me directly now. “Muslims pray five times a day. It is part of our religion. So, how do you pray?”

I reply, “I do not pray five times a day, I have no formal time or method of prayer. Sometimes I wake at three in the morning, and I am praying. Sometimes I pray on and off all day, sometimes not at all. Sometimes I speak, and sometimes I just listen.”

He smiles, clearly moved. And then I see Achim bounding up the stairs from the freight deck, wondering what I’m up to.

As we get ready to part, I tell the young conscript, “When you are in Bitlis, I will pray for you, for your safekeeping.” And we part, both of us blushing at this dizzying little touch of holiness in our evening. With smiles on our faces and hands on our hearts, we part with “Salaam Aleikum” and “Aleikum, Salaam.”

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

Monday Morning Passing Babylon

The Williamstown-City train rumbles past at six fifty five as I leave my apartment block on the corner of Princess and Stephen Streets. A crow perched high on a flowering Century plant caws biliously as I pass, anonymous birdlings twitter round about. The dawn birds and the rumble of the train behind me are the only sounds on Princess Street, not counting my footsteps padding along the cracked bitumen veined with tar.

My block is a grid of weatherboard houses, cosy cottages, a few lemon trees top heavy with fruit, the lower branches long since raided by the neighbours. The culverts are clogged with small Japanese cars and muscular tradesmen’s vans. Wattles line the green strip, hedges of box and tea tree, roses, palm trees and eucalypts, a few spiny red banksias. I live in one of the ugly yellow brick blocks of flats put up in the late sixties. The balconies are bare except for mine where the spring herbs, potted vines and flowers are pushing up.

My neighbours are mostly young families, inner city types. They’re rather reserved, and they tend not to acknowledge the single strangers who live among them. There’s an old man two houses down who has a Billy goat and kid. He brings them out once a week to graze the green strip. The young couples walk by with their toddlers and dogs, now with a reason to communicate. Once in a while the local drag queen, in big hair and heels, totters up the street on her way to Seddon station, towing a small wheeled suitcase full of extra show gear. Once in a while a couple of skinny drug addicts wander down the street, heading from Footscray to Yarraville, arguing, sucking paint fumes out of plastic bags. The drag queen and the druggies add a piquant note to our bland and cosy corner. I wonder if my neighbours would agree.

****

I turn left on Hyde Street and descent toward the factory flat lands by the river, passing a couple of prefabricated Palladian business parks, and then a mouldy old weather board, its front yard overgrown with couch grass and nasturtiums. A couple of young women in pink leotards swing out of Fitness First. As I pass them they’re discussing work colleagues, project deliverables, meetings. The traffic picks up speed.

It’s October, and the crisp cerulean chill has given way to red horizons and sweaty clouds. It is spring time and the magpies are nesting. There’s one perched on a power pylon ten metres above me. It arches its neck and cackles. Will it swoop down? I am still unnerved by swooping magpies. I remember my first nesting magpie . . .

. . . I’m seven, it’s our first Spring in rural Victoria . . . hiding in the woodshed by the farmhouse . . . repeated swoops . . . the vicious flick of its black wing . . . I barely get into the house, trembling . . .

Middle-aged now, and I’m still afraid of its feathers, its beady eye, the iron-hard beak which might burst an eyeball. Why oh why did I forget my umbrella! I could unfurl it and flap back at that monstrous magpie. The terror recedes as I pass the first waterway of my walk, a muddy graffiti sprayed culvert, then down a lane toward the heavy truck traffic. A Jasmine vine camouflages a metal fence and the warehouse behind it. Its sugary miasma attacks my eyes. The almond-sweet reek would put me to sleep were I to dally. My legs and chest are warming up; joints, calves, lungs and aching arches no longer complaining. It’s a seven kilometre walk, and I can do it in under sixty minutes. How fury makes time fly.

On Whitehall Street the big rigs rumble from the western ring road on their way to the Port of Melbourne. There’s a hold up ahead at the red light and I manage to dance swiftly between two eighteen wheelers and get to the middle strip before trying again on the outbound lanes. A truck roars past. I’m just about to cross when a Toyota speeds around the truck behind it and I have to jump back onto the strip of grass. I won’t get another chance for six more trucks at least. The noise is deafening.

I’m on the pedestrian-bike path now, a narrow freeway snaking into the city. Truckies dangling cigarettes wander into the warehouse cafeteria to get their egg and bacon sandwiches, muffins and sweet weak coffees. The man from Nexus Concrete Pouring jumps out of his cab, smoking and listening to the whine of talk back radio. A big bruiser of a man, he reeks of vanilla-violet cologne as he cuts in front of me to get to his greasy breakfast. Five minutes later I’m at the intersection of Footscray Rd where I turn to face the city.

****

The bridge across the Maribyrnong River roars with trucks. The bike-pedestrian pathway narrows to a metre and a half. I press myself against the metal railings to stay as far away from the massive fenders and wheels as I can, cyclists whizzing past me in either direction. Two big rigs blow their horns in greeting as they pass each other. Diesel fumes choke the scent of eucalyptus and the brackish fug of the river as the air mass pushes me into the railings.

As they roll up to enter the traffic the trucks from the port rarely stop for pedestrians or cyclists. Then a driver stops three metres before the entrance to Footscray road to let us pass. I give him a friendly wave and speed across. The battered stretch of bike path with the eighteen wheelers roaring past on the bridge broadens to a bike-pedestrian freeway on the two-kilometre stretch past the Port of Melbourne. From this perspective the Eureka tower on the south bank of the Yarra river appears to stand taller than the purple neon crown of the Rialto Building on Collins Street, both retaining their relative height at such distance.

I think about the winter walks of a few months past: of the crisp, dry peacock dawn, the fingernail moon rising over Jupiter and Venus, and the counterpoise of deep depression and the glorious depth of field in the heavens. I’m much stronger now, mid-Spring, even though the sun rings brassy and mundane as it burns off the mackerel sky ahead.

****

I miss my two chunky cleaning ladies from the pre-dawn winter walks. I’d usually dash past them before the Maribyrnong River Bridge: small and large, wiry and tubby, like Laurel and Hardy. The conversation never stopped.
“Kim Kardashian’s got a big bum hasn’t she?”
“Trevor’s always reminding me about mine.”
In winter they were swathed in thermal clothing: beanies, scarves, padded coats like two Siberians crossing an icy steppe.
“I’ve never liked Passiona. Do you?”
“Oh I love the passionfruit flavour but there’s no lo-calorie version.”
“Oh a lo-cal Passiona would be pretty nice though wouldn’t it?”
“I’ve got Trevor on the low carb beer now.”
Clouds of steam issued from somewhere near the top of these two barrel-shaped mounds of clothing, as two sets of tiny feet trotted along below.
“What were those sausages like, the ones with apples in them?”
“Trevor says they taste funny with tomato sauce.”
“You just can’t do a sausage without tomato sauce!”
Now, in springtime, nearly summer, they’re gone.

I’ve reached the main unbroken stretch of path, the pedestrian-cyclist freeway running past the port, where one becomes lost in thought, burning off the angst. Gulls circle in alarm over Footscray Rd. Pink and grey galahs graze nonchalantly, ignoring the passers by.

Passing the docks, a chain linked fence separates the path from towers of shipping containers, rust red, green, grey and blue. Containers loom like the Walls of Babylon, partly demolished and rebuilt every week: Maersk, P&O Ned Lloyd, SunnyLog, China Shipping, K-Line. Behind them the huge sunset-coloured Hamburg Sud ziggurat dominates the walls. Behind that, the smaller, deep blue CMA CGM ziggurat pays tribute to its more powerful cousin.

Beyond the container city I see the funnels and superstructures of two big ships being unloaded. The new bulk carriers, piled high with containers, display no graceful lines. They’re merely steel boxes with keels: the blue hulled Rio Chicago out of Monrovia in the grip of massive red cranes preying like dinosaur mantises over a paralysed underbelly: the grey hulled Astoria Bridge out of Panama, loaded to bridge line and listing to starboard. Maybe they loaded the semitrailers on the right and the small cars on the left?

After a big spring wind the chain link fence is a sieve of rubbish, its crown of barbed wire decked with shredded plastic bags. They could be the torn off remnants of an old wedding dress, discarded and battered by rain and diesel fumes. I pass the last of the containers: the Hapag Lloyd tower, the Capital tower, and the metal rubble of Touax, Triton, Cronos, and Tex. The names sound muscular; successful, Teutonic, and on-time.

A lone container takes my fancy, a Yin-named object wedged within these battlements of Yang. It’s from “Florens.” What might the Florens container carry? Surgical equipment from Luxembourg? Herbal medicines from Macau? Maybe it carries harpsichords crafted by flinty old aesthetes in Bretagne? This, I decide, is my shipping container.

At the end of the port, past the Babylon of metal towers, the top-heavy ships and the cranes which prey on them, I pass a lone and shabby jasmine vine climbing one of the metal supports of the chain link fence. I’m pounding along at a good clip. Sometimes, as my mind races with the impending stress of the day, I don’t remember getting this far.

The cityscape is hazy. As the crown of the Rialto building now appears as tall as the taller Eureka tower behind it I know that I’ve made my halfway point, just before the freight overpass. The freight rail lines arc off to the right, into no man’s land between the port, the snaking freeways and the city of Melbourne. From behind me, bike chains rattle and squeak rhythmically as the cyclists pass, straining against the slope.

****

Some mornings I’m walking against the rain. Exhilarating, like being at sea in a storm. None of the young corporate warriors cycle in the rain. I walk alone with a few other Soggy Old Bastards on bikes. Where is the young girl jogger who always passes me right about now? And the tall, ropey footballer with the mane of flowing Saxon hair who lopes one way on his long legs, and who twenty minutes later is pelting toward me, heading back west, his tangled locks flowing behind him as he runs?

After the freight overpass the trail veers left, under the freeway on-ramp which coils toward the Bolte Bridge and the toll way. The grassy wooded patch under these strands of concrete spaghetti teems with life. Rabbits, galahs, small anonymous marsupials, and there might even be a fox or two living here. One day I see a dead rabbit. It embraces one of the white painted legs of the pedestrian symbol stencilled onto the path.

As I emerge from under the freeway, through a cluster of tea tree and Casuarina, the undergrowth strewn with rubbish, there’s a lonely battered park bench covered in bird shit. Did lovers ever sit here? Then I’m on the bridge spanning the Railway Canal where the pedestrian bike way narrows once more. The stretch of water is calm today, hammered like a polished Bronze Age mirror flecked with verdigris. On the other side I look down at the green swamp of water grass. Amid the rushes I see a couple of squished, stained diapers. Why does one find dead diapers in lonely spots such as these?

Passing the great metal hull of the Costco outlet I know my walk is three-quarters done. Back in the winter chill Costco reeked sickly sweet of cinnamon and vanilla as great stacks of muffins were baked for the day. Who might be slaving away in this neon lit satanic muffin mill: perhaps broad hipped Mediterranean mothers from out by the Western Ring Road, and lonesome South East Asian bachelors living in Footscray boarding houses?

After Harbourtown shopping and the less-than-impressive Ferris Wheel — will it ever be finished, this symbol of our Great Australian Mediocritocracy? — I reach the edge of the city, the bike bottleneck at Docklands Drive, a junction with a complex set of traffic lights where I wait with the cyclists, juggling my legs in a stationary dance keeping lactic acid build up at bay. The number seventy tram swings out onto the Esplanade. Tradesmen in minivans peer toward our corner, checking out the hot-looking cycle chicks in black tights.

I reach Victoria Harbour at seven fifty, the water lined with new office and apartment blocks and sterile upmarket eateries. Past the optical illusion building, then the football stadium, the sun has punched a hole through the dank, depressing spring clouds.

****

So I huff and puff into The Office, and down to the lockers and showers to freshen up and put my pinstriped prison blues on, ready to face the desk. The locker room is full. I’m an aging, breathless proseur amid the young power brokers. Spiny-eyed cyclists transform themselves into bankers and business analysts, mussing up their hair with styling mousse and tightening their sharky silk ties: men who care about the environment yet spray themselves with spice scented fluorocarbons before suiting up.

It’s eight twenty, and there’s ten minutes before I have to log on to Lotus Notes, iGrafx and SupportPoint. I head back out to the jetty by the building, settle onto an old cleat, roll a thin cigarette and light it. The sickly sweet heat sashays deep into me, nauseating and mellow.

For a few minutes I cast my gaze over the rippling blue and black; first at the ferries, the Indonesian pleasure boat and the huge arrow shaped, crow beaked cruisers; further out, at the trucks creeping across the Bolte Bridge; at the ships in the distance, the black hulled, red keeled bulk carriers; at the steam billowing from stacks next to the port.

I recast my gaze down into the water and resist the urge, the urge to heave my iPhone into the briny mirror of the harbour and walk home. There’s happiness in silence. There’s contentment in being alone with ones self, even on this treeless shore.

Melbourne 09-11-2012