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.