Sombre Swedish Porn

It’s one o’clock on a sticky Wednesday morning and I haven’t been able to sleep.  I’m all hot and bothered, praying for any kind of release from wakefulness, and there’s nothing to do but put this churning mind in neutral and let my feet sneak me out of the house. There’s a little place these dirty feet of mine know by Central station. In a twenty-five minute stroll they get me to a steel doorway with its spluttering neon tube and gum-pocked turnstile. With great cunning my toes fish money out of my pocket, disturbing me not at all. Without me knowing (I swear) they pass the grubby blue ten-dollar bill to my sleepy fingers, paying the sallow gatekeeper before trotting me down some worn stairs. Once down there I’m half aware again. Goodness me, am I here? Yes, I am!

I feel around sweatily in the dark and flop down into a rancid seat. I’ve landed on my ass in the basement, hoping for a piece of my favourite genre, the Puerto Rican Prison Pic.  The scenario of the PRPP varies but the theme is always the same. Hapless hunky inmates, brutalized by their big white prison guards, turn the tables and show those sneering starchy uniforms who the real funky bosses are. The bad nasal acting evaporates after a while and equilibrium is restored. It invariably ends in joyous delirium, a carousel of manly merriment for all involved where everyone ends up a homeboy. But (oh bugger!) I’m late or the show times were wrong. The closing credits, accompanied by monotonous grooves on a cheap Casio keyboard and drum machine, are rolling on Live Hard Or Die. It’s a typical Chandler Waxwurst production, featuring the brutal and languid Rusty Springstains in combat with the astounding undercarriage of legendary Latin former soap star Don Quidique. Hot Damnation! I’ve missed it.

The joint I smoked fifteen minutes earlier (it must’ve been my toes that rolled it, put it in my sleepy mouth and lit it) is beginning to take effect, my eyes and ears prick with sense data, my brain is now a nervy horse flaring his nostrils.  A few shadowy figures lurk in the background and hover in the squeaky cigarette-burned seats to my right and left.  Something quite different unfolds itself on screen.

The dialogue is Swedish, and subtitled. As the forest scene opens two tall blond travellers have come to a sort of clearing and have collapsed on the moss. They lie quietly listening to their own breathing. The camera zooms in to a close up of tanned skin, golden chest fuzz, and the sound of heartbeats. The forest is wild and impenetrable. Eskil the vessel of God gazes at Eugen the noble. Eugen gazes back at Eskil. “Soon dawn will come, but the heat continues to hang over us like a smothering blanket” says Eugen dreamily. Round one starts with a delicate stroke around a nipple, and two fingers snailing down a polished belly of steel.

“Mmmmmm. These are like wild strawberries from the forest,” murmurs Eskil. “I have never seen such large ones. How they smell!”

They look up. A workman in the forest is watching. Hadrian the raven-haired is leaning against a tall tree. “I feel that something is going to happen to me, but I don’t know what,” he whispers to himself as we gaze up at his foreshortened chest, lips and aquiline nose.

Fifteen minutes later the scene ends with three bangs and a whimper. The strawberries have been polished off and all the cream lapped up.

The actors are superbly chiselled Nordic gods of chilly countenance. The director (I missed his name, is it Lars von Queer? Or perhaps it’s the notorious transsexual auteur Ingrid Bergdorf-Goodman) must love art, because now the lads are in a palace garden, grouped on a marble terrace under a pavilion of Ionian columns standing in a parterre of roses and yew trees. Arne the eagle and Andreas the strong have joined Eugen, Eskil and Hadrian. The five are grouped as naked statues in a Nazi Academy of Art pose d’un tableau vivant heroique. The camera circles the pavilion to strains of Schubert, and then moves in for the kill as the action gets going. Stylised arm wrestling and head holds become sweatier groping further down the virile chain of command. The sculpture has come to life, like some wobbling perpetual motion machine.

They’re like a vision of Munktell’s Swedish Steam Engine of 1853 sculpted in meat. The wet blanket of neoclassicism has been ripped aside to reveal great glistening cylinders huffing and puffing, with greased pistons pumping away at rubber gaskets. The camera surges in and rears back, the action broils as though in an oven. Now the tableau transforms into a carcass of beef on a spit tended to by adoring cooks, pounding and basting, licking and tasting. The hole where the meat had been skewered is like a tight little mouth opened in slack-jawed amazement. After another fifteen minutes of vigorous ministration balls and whistles all go off at once. The five of them whirl that smothering blanket of heat and hurl it sticky and damp right off the screen at our faces flickering in the dark. The scene fades into a lactic mist, to the heavenly lengths of poor syphilitic Schubert.

The camera pans across the broad parterre to a pair of old palatial doors. Eugen, still the beautiful and lonely nobleman, greets Eskil, now playing a delivery boy. You may imagine the clipped, quietly modulated Swedish, “ah, Eskil, arriving as you always do, when the warm melancholy evening sinks into the sadness of night.”  They gaze into each other’s icy blue eyes like two cool hells yearning for heaven.

Eugen and Eskil have this 18th century chateau to themselves. It seems deserted apart from them. They walk from room to room. There is only emptiness and a quiet echo. Outside, the rain is heard roaring noisily.

The boys have wandered into a huge, taffeta walled drawing room, and set themselves down on a yellow silk covered empire chaise longue.

“Your smile is like brandy. Your eyes like blackberries.”

“And your manhood, like a great brain sausage.”

A zipper is heard grinding its gears slowly down to the ground.

“Ahhh, Eskil you are so perfect, in your perfect imperfection.”

“Why do we torture ourselves this way Eugen?”  They collapse into each other’s heaving skins, chewing tongues for thirty-five seconds. The third glorious duel has begun.

And the music! This round of the action is carried on wings of song, a chamber version of Chopin’s piano prelude in B minor. Lento Assai, with clarinet, flute, cello and piano querulously warbling away. The music, interwoven with every subtly understated thrust and gobble, rises and falls in sad, sad strains. Da-de-da-de dumm, dah, de-daaah. Up, two, three. Down, two, three. The actors’ bodies sway in peachy-cream pie-in-your-face slow motion against the mustard silk taffeta. In, two, three. Out, two, three.

I can’t help giggling at such paradox, a koan of Calliope and carnality, of Erato upending Eros. Back down here in the smelly seats my nervy horse brain tells me that the guys groping away in corners are glancing at me sharply. I think they think I’m laughing at them.

Suddenly there’s a rat-tat-tat of guns, and five tall slender Swedish soldiers burst in. Birger the rescuer and Enar the warrior now accompany Andreas, Arne, and Hadrian. Eugen and Eskil unshackle their engines. Eugen rises from the chaise longue and demands, with insinuating hauteur, that the soldiers strip. The men are cocked in a Swedish standoff, the steam still rising from the muzzles of Eugen’s and Eskil’s guns. Their fate is sealed.  Heat and gravity drags them all down together on the Aubusson carpet in a mad, mad whirl of manhood. They’re like seven golden seals brawling gloriously on a silk tasselled beach.

And over it all, like a troubled Baltic sky the narrator intones . . . “The hot day has become night. Singing and howling can be heard from the distant inn.  In a hollow near the forest, the light still lingers. Now, a soft gleam of light strokes the hilltops, a last reflection from the red clouds over the sea.  The plague is spreading along the west coast. People are dying like flies.”

There’s a final close up to the noble lips of our two heroes. “Who watches over us Eugen? Is it the angels, or God, or the Devil, or only the emptiness?“

“Oh the emptiness, the emptiness Eskil.”

Milky fountains splutter and flow.

Herre Gud, such art, such impeccable, exquisite taste! This is porn to be pondered, Cinema Perversité for the delectation of philosophers and cultured gentlemen. Could it even be possible that in a hushed, sky blue and gilt rococo recess by the back stairs of Stockholm’s Royal Palace, a certain descendant of Queen Victoria would be titillated unto his little death by this offering? If not amused?

Ahh, but it didn’t do it for me. I sit there in the sweaty gloom, fending off the darting, farting shadows, not yet exhausted enough to let my feet take me home to sleep, waiting for what comes up next. Some new offering from Ballywood? Or a sardonic Sardinian romp? Where the hell are Rusty Springstains and Don Quidique when you need them? Up on screen a didgeridoo begins droning under the tinny chords. Saliva! Australian Outback? No, just a trailer. The drums start beating. It’s Saliva! Vanuatu – Island of Fire.  I settle back. A trio of good sex, coconut oil and bad music is a form of homo-pathic medicine. It will cool me down eventually.

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

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The New Year’s Cadence

November 20, 2005

It’s only the middle of November, but a new year is beginning.  I’ve had the same list of assessments and resolves for ages—haven’t we all.  Occasionally there’ll be something fresh, and something I considered important might be excised from the current draft.  The same big issue items appear every year, moved up or down the page depending on whether health, wealth or wisdom are uppermost.  But New Year’s Resolutions are for one’s inner committee to debate and agree upon on Saturday morning after a big breakfast and two cups of strong coffee.  Resolution embraces resolve, synthesis, clarity and rest.  A night away from everything, no matter where or how you spend it, allows resolution to speak as though from nothing.  It arrives like a small furry creature that creeps across the grass towards you when sleep has become deep and soundless.

***

On a beach near Torquay
I’m three hours south of Melbourne, parked on a lonely stretch of beach on a dirt track off the highway, with the van I borrowed hidden from view by a couple of sand dunes.

Putting my picnic things away in the dark I’ve banged my ankle severely on the tow-ball of the van.  I get such a shock I begin to shiver violently.  I’m shaking as though my body is unzipping itself. With all my body zippers slowly ripping down and the flesh falling off my bones.  I stumble into the driver’s seat and sit there shivering and holding my shape together.

The invisible prison rises and breaks across the sky.  I can see the bright half moon in the deep well of heaven between thick arms of cloud.  I wonder what the moon would look like seen through a glass of red wine?  I have so much wine but no glass to pour it into.

In the right hand corner of my field of vision appears a small half circle of peachy orange light rising from the beach town up the coast.  The clearing sky is brightly black.  Silhouetted against it is a long low stretch of thick dead-black bushes.  They have a little bit of shape and dimension to them.  Under it is a band of grey beach gravel.

In the left corner of my vision there’s a small shed on the far side of the parking area.  It’s a little broken down toilet block with two doors.  One door painted white is closed.  I sense rather than see its whiteness.  The other door is open, flapping in the wind, an inky hole, banging and winking.  As I imagine, inside that door a naked man is seated.  There is writing and strange symbols all over the walls.  The naked man is still alive but he has been half eaten.  He may have been eating himself to death.  I can see the stump of his arm reaching out of that doorway.  It is the image of a man not yet ready to let go of his debts, paying his devil the remaining interest due on past transactions.

The shivering has left me.  I’m drawn for a second or two into deep and soundless wakefulness, a cool and dry clarity, not hot and humid and decisive.  Questions dissolve.  Tiny bubbles, perfect little answers, float to the surface of the cup and foam for a moment before they burst and disappear.

Waiting for the complex to be simple again
Anything new that strikes the heart-mind has no image yet, because images are formed out of what I already have.  In the first confusion, what strikes seems too big and too complex to cope with at face value.

I could fire up my school brain to reduce it to something intelligible, something theological.  But maybe I’d take the life from it by doing so.  Theology is like attempting to build the model of a waterfall out of a Meccano set, or to construct a feathery wing of cirrus cloud out of Lego blocks.

I’m learning to sit with what I cannot see.  Whatever it is will be made visible through what I already possess.  It will be a rich and tangible truth for as long as the form is needed, before it resolves back into an unknown and total presence.

Where is the seat of faith?
If the seat of faith is the mind, is faith threatened every time the hinges of the mind are broken open by a prying question?

If the seat of faith is emotion, are joyful, hopeful feelings the truth of faith, and dryness and despair the absence of faith?

Can I see, touch or taste faith?  Perhaps faith rests where it cannot be expressed at all, but where it might influence the architecture of thought and the effulgence of feeling.

How do I imagine God?
Do I mean the God I constantly refashion in my own evolving image?

What else can I know?  All I know is, my God prefers honest shit to “pious ejaculation.” At worst, he averts his nose from pious crap.  No, no, God does not avert his nose at anything.  That’s what I do. It is we, the proud ones, who avert our noses at things.

The God I sense loves best our clumsy loving, our naked, foolish hearts.

Who am I?
When someone asked, “define yourself,” and I rattled off an answer, I was describing a mask.  I don’t have these answers any more, though I still have my masks handy.

A proud man or woman, bluffing against the terrors, says firmly, “I know myself.  I can look myself in the eye, in the mirror any day.”

Someone who accepts that they possess no full self-knowing might say, “I cannot always look myself in the eye, and I must wait.”

What is vanity?
Vanity gazes into the mirror, searching desperately for signs of ugliness and decay.

How will I end?
I will not die alone.  I must take my self with me when I go.  How long I spend with this self at the time of passing will depend on how well I know and how much I have come to accept.

***

I fall asleep, and wake up at 4.30; pull on some pants and a jacket and walk away from the salty rumble of the ocean, lifting my legs over a slack barbed wire fence to get onto to some fields with a few sheep and cattle in them.

Before dawn the Otway hills are made of cloudy glass.  There is a soft dreamy solitude about the dawn.  As the sun rises the land is like a wet painting.  The dewy grass looks like frosted glass in the chill early morning.

The mist lifts its white tendrils off the water of a muddy dam, the water flat, not yet ruffled by a breeze.  The tendrils of mist rise like a chain of ballerinas in gossamer tutus slowly dancing Swan Lake on a brown linoleum stage.

I pass a scraggly patch of bush, and then a broken down wool shed.  Its timbers are no longer hewed from trees, but cast in pewter.  In the distance big black rectangles of cattle, their tails sticking out, graze and shit.  The grass is sage-blue in shadow, and like butter where the sun shines across it.

And so back to thoughts about the New Year, and quiet resolution: After a messy climax, during which dissonances have begun to untangle and relax, I’ve arrived at another cadence, one of several in life that are regional, oblique, and plagal.

Resolution is hidden in these cadences.  The perfect one will be the final return from dominance to tonic.  This cadence, which is the resolution of life in all its meanings, is always present in the air, more easily sensed at night under an open sky.  You can also feel it in the ground underfoot, in the prickle of thistle and gravel in your heel after you’ve kicked your shoes off.

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

Cosmic Dreaming, Church Hopping

 

Melbourne 2006

As far as you can tell, creation manifests a rounded shape, perhaps a sphere, perhaps an egg, or, as a cosmologist might put it, a curved surface on which existence plays like a shoal of fish in a net of dimensions. 

You see light, like mist: a glowing and dark gas.  For a tiny span of time you see every particle of it.  You are quite a way outside this sphere, or glob, and can see it, whole and in its parts, because you are not looking at visible brightness, which has not had time to reach you, but sensing its existence. 

You are still within and a part of the realm of the sphere, having been thrown out onto a dangling thread floating away from the dimensional net. 

Your sight is drawn toward what you know intensely.  This is everything.

***

A few Sundays in December-January I went to St. Mark’s, Fitzroy, my inner Melbourne neighbourhood church.  These forays into the church world arise not so much from an inner, unspoken prompt, but from a reawakened desire for music and company.  St. Mark’s is a big bluestone building from the 1850s, with a grassy square and a wrought iron fence, a very High Anglican church with a good small choir and a fine old English pipe organ that purrs like a Rolls Royce.  They’re all very nice, a typical small Anglican parish.  There are a few middle-aged and elderly stalwarts, a married couple with small children, an ancient retired vicar who sits in the front pew and one or two quiet, very conservative looking papery young men who cross themselves and bob up and down with shy fervour.  They never stay around to say hello to afterwards.

When I’ve got my good manners on I get on well with elderly Anglican ladies. 

“Doooo have another champagne dear, and one of my very own Scotch finger biscuits,” says one of them after midnight mass, her grand-maternal bosom-shelf swathed in a garden of green and blue silk.  And I usually don’t put big foot in sharp mouth until the uneasy feeling trips me up; that I might be exuding the charms of a well-read Teutonic gigolo (and one no longer young). 

One of the silver foxes on the Parish Council had asked me to lunch before Christmas.  I got quite tipsy at his party, and in my rather innocent (liberally urban American Catholic) way gave him a brotherly hug as I departed.  I sent him a thank you note on a card with a painting of two Grecian muses holding up a watery world, and just to be amusing I scribbled little black beards on their faces.  I was invited back for a little supper a few evenings later (me, still clueless).  He had one of the other parish people over too, an ex nun who likes to hike.  Interesting, I thought.  But after a drink and some church gossip, she left, saying, “it’s time for me to leave you two to your supper.” I became less clueless. 

My new friend was lonesome.  His lover had died years earlier.  He didn’t know what he believed, as far as religion went, but he loved being a part of the church.  After dessert, enjoying the silver fox’s mellow company I agreed to stay and watch an old black and white movie. 

“The TV’s in the bedroom.  You don’t mind .  .  .?”

Well, I didn’t want his loss-of-face to end the evening, so I sat up on the edge of his bed with him.  He was a perfect gentleman.  I think I dozed off for a little while before I apologized and went back to my studio apartment, too much wine and too little sleep.

I got the cold shoulder after that.  He didn’t need another friend he needed a boyfriend.  Perhaps I’d come across as a tease.  After so many years abroad I had forgotten how British the social culture is in Melbourne.  So no more tipsily grateful brotherly hugs or funny thank you cards until I know the score. 

The vicar of St. Mark’s is a pleasant Englishman, though very traditional and a bit stuffy when robed.  He’s a monarchical priest.  He exhales the gracious attention and dignified indifference of a Viscount—Viscount Fitzroy perhaps.  In accordance with his rank in the sacerdotal aristocracy of the First Estate, this would be his style and title.  The vicar presides over the Eucharist and pulpit like a solemnly hieratic and gravely masculine Noel Coward, and he has a good steady baritone too.  But at the door after church the first couple of times we shook hands he was all blushes and smiles, though he had forgotten who I was from the time before. 

“And what is your parish?” he’d ask, plummily. 

“Oh, I’m a bit of a vagrant,” I’d reply with a grin. 

St. Mark’s Fitzroy is like a little Hanoverian court.  I am at one of the Deity’s minor palaces, at the Sunday morning levee, when the masters of the bedchamber gently awaken the King, the Prince Royal, the Presence, while gentry and servants look on.  In some courts the queen mother drops in to lend a kindly maternal ear.  One church I sang at a few times, St Ignatius of Antioch on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was so steeped in the incense of 18th century English custom the vicar ought to have gone the whole way by wearing a powdered wig and red-heeled court shoes.

Why do we need gilded rooms?
And stained glass? 
So we can assign a tangible value on our love and look safely through to the light?

Do we erect very high ceilings to remind us of the loftiness of our imaginations, and to keep the elemental, transforming creator as far away from our bare heads as possible?

In order to get some conversation going I emailed the vicar a hello, attaching, as an introduction, the short essay The New Year’s Cadence which I’d done a couple of months earlier.  I never heard back.  He may have been scared off.  Many bachelor priests find themselves wary of the type of parishioner who arrives to vex them with an interest in devil’s advocacy or their private persons.  After a couple of chats with the music director and a bit of wavering I agreed to sing with the choir for their concert at the end of this month, but not commit to Sunday mornings.

Sometimes you need to feel welcomed in from the burning sun, or the heavy rain, or the darkness of a cloudy night, or the busyness of foreign streets, or the barrenness on your pillow.  You find the ritual and symbolism human and nourishing, in small doses.  Your heart and mind speaks this language, when there’s language to speak.  But you’d become ill and constipated if these rich, pre-cooked spiritual dishes were to take over your natural diet.  This must be why you still long from time to time to be accepted at court, but insist on bringing your rude, out-of-doors notions with you. 

“The soul of man cannot live on cake alone,” you mutter to no one in particular. 

***

You turn around for a moment, and there is nothing but void.  Terrifying, void is.  It extends nowhere.  It is nothing, not even space.

You must fight hard to turn your back on it; to turn back in order to see existence.  Why is void so frightening?

Void is end and void is not.  End is never.  Never is, and never was.  I mean, never isn’t, and never wasn’t.

It isn’t ‘The Void’ because there is no such “thing”, and there is no such “place”. 
What did you not see when you turned around? 

This is the point at which horror arises.  You wonder if one day you will be terrified of death. 

***

The more elegant forms of Church-ianity (ones I love too) are kept in stasis by a particular spiritual tyranny; the hurt and reproachful feelings of the elderly when faced with any breaking open of the protocol of their religious observance.  I remember my octogenarian landlady, Miss Nimmo, supported by her friend Miss Cannon, standing up at St. Gabriel’s annual parish meeting in Pimlico, complaining in hurt and horrified tones about the phrase “seen and unseen” having replaced “visible and invisible” in the Nicene Creed.  Clearly, the language of God, set down in the 17th century, had been affronted and perverted.  The responsibility to see or not to see has been placed on us. 

Many priests will accede complacently to the demand that nothing must change.  There’s no point rocking the boat, and a modestly good living and secure sense of self depends on not doing so.  This observation is, of course, as unfair as it is true of many of life’s vocations.  The protokollon of religious observance contains the glue that holds faith together.  If there were no protocol, faith might fall apart for a lot of people, and more wars might erupt, so the reasoning goes.  But I wonder if the gospel message is really a gospel of glue, or one of breaking open into new life?  And doesn’t growth germinate from flesh that falls apart?

On one of those Sunday mornings I’m sitting in silence in my pew at St Mark’s, after the vicar’s irritating, psychologically uncomprehending sermon.  He was mildly self-deprecating in his opener, but grew very firm about the tradition and authority residing in his position.  He went on a bit about people these days creating their own versions of religious truth.  Us and Them, it seems.  I find myself in a curmudgeonly, Cromwellian mood about the whole lot of them. 

Suddenly, I am taken to task by the Jesus of my Anglo-Catholic imagination.  A shimmering Christ hovers before his mahogany and silver gilt cross, creamy hands outstretched, showing me his delicately sculpted puncture wounds.  He is so beautiful: quiet, tall, noble, his visage gravely joyful, slightly melancholy, as though he were Ingrid Bergman in the lean body of a man. 

“Lorentz,” he sighs, his lilt could be Aramaic, or Nordic. 
“Suffer the little old ladies to come unto me.”

***

It was only a fear, of the eventual terror of death, which frightened you.
Existence is beginning.  Beginning is always.
The comforting constancy of creation is always beginning.  It is not a preserved thing. 
You are often captured by the wise blind smile of a newborn child.

 

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

Melburniana

 Image

John BRACK, Australia, 1920–1999. Collins St., 5p.m. 1955, oil on canvas. 114.8 x 162.8 cm.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Purchased, 1956 © National Gallery of Victoria.

Once, when living in Portland Oregon, I was acknowledged at a party by an elegant old wag who asked, in patrician, Rocky Mountain-Oxbridge tones; “Larry, where is it that you’re fruhhhm, exah-ctly?” He went on; “I’d wondered whether you were from New Zealand? Or South Africa perhaps? But of course you speak High Australian, don’t you?”

On a couple of occasions during years lived in New York, having a coffee or a drink in one of the bars around Mulberry Street staffed by sniffy actor-model types, my order had been briskly taken by some young woman discreetly suppressing a mild kangaroo twang. On each occasion, the order taker wouldn’t quite look me in the eye. As if to convey, “you don’t mention it, and I won’t either.” I’d keep quiet until it was time to pay, when I’d inquire, murmuringly, “so where in Australia are you from then?” To ask was dismally gauche, I knew. In both instances, they were Melbourne girls. A quick flash of the eyes told me to piss off before I ruined their dreams.

On other occasions, in a train dining car crossing Montana, or after an uptown choral concert, I’d find myself meeting people visiting enthusiastically from Down Under.

“We’re from Brisbane. I’m Pearl and this is my husband Merle, my daughter Fleur and her boyfriend Barry. We’ve just been doing Europe. We met so many people from back home, didn’t we Merle?  What’s your name? Lorentzo? You don’t sound that Australian!”

Well, I acquired my accent during formative years in Britain and Norway, and it’s now become High Melburnian.

Melbourne is Australia’s classy city, fairly mellow, less noisy and frantic than Sydney. Sydney’s glorious cliffs and sunny inlets were seeded with convicts and soldiers. Melbourne, with uninspiring weather and a broad, muddy bay, was settled fifty years later by farmers and bankers. Melbourne grew rich and splendid on gold. It was going to be the capital of Australia, but due to rivalry with Sydney it was decided that the federal parliament should reside halfway between the two, in the dry yellow sheep runs of Canberra. People from New South Wales thought of Melbourne as being slow and dowdy, but Melbourne has managed to keep its air of superiority quietly to itself, as wise snobs do. People here are agreeable, if not particularly welcoming.

*****

A weekday morning rush hour on the tram. I’m on a shiny new white and green number 96 going from Fitzroy, through the city and down to St. Kilda on the bay. A woman in pink track pants carrying a laptop computer bag blocks the middle doors of the tram with her massive rear end stuck out like a boulder in a stream. People resort to sucking their breath in and squeezing around her, both men and women trying to avoid groin-buttock contact. She stands there, like a stubborn cow blocking the barn door with a resentful look on her face. No one dreams of telling her, “move your fat arse lady so we can get by.” Not even “umm, excuse me, could you step in further, we need to get on board.” That’d draw a ghastly amount of attention to ones self.

There does appear to be room to move beyond the big pink-swathed bum. There’s even a seat down the end, which no one will take. The two chalk-faced suits nearest to it ignore that empty seat. Others glance resentfully at bodies blocking easy access to its green pad, but no one will move. I speak up, “If someone takes the seat, there’ll be room for another person to stand there.” I am ignored. I push through, excusing myself as best I can, and take it. Muted glints of passive hostility are now transferred onto me. But by the top end of Bourke Street the tram has half emptied.

As they do once in a while, a posse of ticket inspectors wanders through, polite in dark blue uniforms, big and chunky with clumpy black shoes. I present my ticket with a flourish and a smile, and they thank me and move on to the next person. I’d noticed a tall skinny dude with a little chin beard and street-hip scruffy clothes sitting behind the middle set of doors, lost in his Walkman. He sees the ticket cops just as I do and dashes up to the coin operated machine on board the tram, grabs some coins from his pocket, punches in his request and grabs his two-hour ticket, quick as a flash.

So what do I feel? I feel there’s something dirty and rotten about this scoundrel, something shifty, sneaky, embarrassed and shameful. Because of course, like many Melburnians, I’ve jumped on the tram a few times without paying, risked a quick free ride with no pebble of guilt to ripple the placid surface of my conscience.

Down the other end of the tram the ticket inspectors have stopped, hemming in a young bleach-blond fellow, or maybe it’s an older man with white hair. He has his back to me so I can’t judge his face. The ticket cops are earnest and polite as they write up their note pads, giving him an infraction notice and a lecture. Pity the wretched underdog who’s been caught without a ticket. This contrasts with the displaced sense of shame and disdain I felt over the fellow who got up sneakily to purchase his ticket in time, and with the solidly righteous feeling of having bought my own ticket well in advance.

“Nest e-shtupp As-shol Strict,” cries the swarthy driver from his cockpit. The tram shudders to a halt at the corner of Russell Street. A crazy man gets on squirting a bottle of water around. It’s hot outside, so no one is roused with bother. He’s got no clothes except some army shorts. He’s yelling, “Who’s got mah corn bread”. He goes on with pretty good imitations of Tweety Bird and Thylvethter the cat.

A forty-something woman in an all-white ensemble with sun glasses bigger than her face gets on, sees the crazy guy waving his water bottle, and with a huff steps off again before the doors close. An old lady sitting just below the crazy guy’s protruding belly button taps herself on the knee and starts talking to the lady next to her about the good old days on TV when they had cartoons on before the news and not that awful Seinfeld, so whiny, “but he’s a Jew, isn’t he though?” she says to the other with a raised eyebrow. The other, much nicer lady turns her head and looks out the window, ignoring her.

I’m dragged out of the present, to a visit with my elderly godmother more than thirty years past. She lived in a lovely home in Glen Iris in the Eastern Suburbs. She was speaking about a trip to India and Thailand. “Asians are such lovely, lovely people,” I remember her saying in her delicate, quavery, high Melburnian kindness. “You know Lorentz, you can leave your handbag on a cafe table over there in Asia and no-one would dream of stealing it.”

The shiny new 96 tram trundles along its eighty-year-old rails. It’s gotten chilly in here now, nearly empty of passengers. A wispy young man gets on, another eccentric, a pale fellow who hasn’t broken a sweat outside, even though he’s dressed in silks and a black swallowtail coat.

He sits opposite me. His face is as white as an alabaster Christ in a Baltic church. He’s got a prophet’s beard and ringlets down each cheek, a waistcoat of silver scrolls, baggy pinstriped pantaloons belted high under his ribs, a blue business shirt and a woven tie, white gloves on thin fingers, and his pale, veinless feet are shod in glossy black slippers.  His vestment is crowned with a Satmar-style fur hat.

The tram squeals very slowly around the corner onto Spencer Street, and as it does so a heavy silver crucifix the size of a handgun slips out of his waistcoat. He notices me noticing him and looks blankly uncomfortable. I’d love to talk, but I’m shy too. Perhaps my inquisitive, bacony bigness is a threat. He floats out of his seat and tiptoes down to the empty area at the other end of the tram. As he sits down again he fishes a transit ticket out of his waistcoat pocket, holds it in both hands and gazes at it, muttering something, a cleansing prayer perhaps.

*****

Later that afternoon, on a long walk up the beach path from Brighton back to St Kilda on the northern shore of Port Phillip Bay, the sky is thick with smoke from the bushfires raging in the mountains to the north, fires which have burned three quarters of a million hectares so far. The office towers a few kilometres to the northwest can barely be seen because of the haze, they seem like mile-high skyscrapers in the distance, though the tallest of them is a thousand feet.

The land around the bay is flat. Heat ricochets off the sand. The black tar soaks it up. Flies are dancing all over my face. Dozens of small boats tack across the bay. A couple of bulk carriers shimmer in the nebulous distance. Cyclists whiz north and south in their super streamlined silver and neon sports gear, high on the saddles of their racers, with mixed expressions on their tightly drawn lips, of chilly concentration and environmentally conscious scorn.

A bent-over Japanese lady trudges slowly by, her face crunched up like a salted plum to protect her eyes from the hot breeze. She’s pushing a koto in a shopping trolley. I happen to look down as she passes, and just off the kerb a lost button melts into the sticky black road.

Quite a few sun worshippers and picnickers are taking the day off work. One couple catches my eye. Agog and culture stunned, I cannot help but look again. A young man, dark brown and lanky with a thatch of black chest fur, oiled up and lolling around on his beach towel, wiggles his tight little bottom in electric blue bikini briefs, adjusting his limbs to the burning caress of the afternoon sun. Sitting close by him on a rug, a young woman feeds him with her fingers, doling out morsels from a picnic basket. She is swathed, nun-like, in a tent of black cotton, with a cream-coloured hijab covering her head and shoulders.

I spend the last part of the afternoon wandering up and down Acland Street St Kilda, avoiding the pastry shops, and checking out bric-a-brac and New Age jewellery stores.  After a meat pie and a diet coke I walk down to the gardens by the beach, to read and doze under a dusty Phoenix palm away from the crowd. The breeze has changed by dusk and it’s cool again. I wander back down the coastal path a mile or so, to where it’s really quiet. The fishermen won’t be here until well after dark.

Evening on the bay: the water is flat, smoky and oily. The red-hot cast iron sun has set over Williamstown on the invisible western shore. Whatever colour there was has wasted away. There seems to be no sound left either, apart from the sluggish retch of brine, leathery weed and black garbage puking slowly over flat sheets of sand.

*****

There’s plenty of cosmopolitan tinsel to make Melbourne a diverting place: elegant little arcades, a Chinatown as old as any other, galleries, cobblestones, cafes, gypsy musicians at the old Vic market, Turkish rhythms wafting out of kebab shops, operas and ballets, imposing Victorian wedding-cakery and elegant post-modern towers. But a bourgeois British chill, discreet and charming on the one hand, blinkered and dull on the other, still deadens the marrow of Melbourne. Back in the 50’s, John Brack set up his easel on Collins Street in the city and painted the office crowd going home after work. Grim, gimlet eyed, weary and grey, like New Yorkers without the buzz of caffeine or jazz, or Londoners without their brisk, well brewed opinions, the army of businessmen, clerks and secretaries marched down to Flinders Street station each weekday evening to catch suburban trains. No one paid him any attention, the artist later said. It was as if he wasn’t there.

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

Battlers, Ferries and SydneyWorld

July 8th, 2005

Up at six-thirty, a rare foggy Saturday morning, toe-curlingly cold the first hour. Time to put the kettle on for a cup of milky brick-coloured tea and potter about with the oven on high to warm the kitchen. Had another long wakeful stretch before dawn, so I’m heaving my usual Sisyphean grumble up the lower slopes of the day. My mood is like hot air pouring out of an open oven door, rising into the high-ceiling chill as one warms bitterly to one’s subject. It’ll roll back down and dissipate during the cool reflective evening. This morning’s portion of text: good old raw Aussie gold, transmuted into the base metal and refined polymers of the New World Order, just like everywhere else (Book of Negativity, Chapter 6, verse 13).

Sydney at its most obvious is like a party person who exclaims “Wow”, or “Exactly”, or “Fabulous, isn’t it FABULOUS!” The city’s boom-era grab-and-go cheeriness is enough to wear you out. It is one reason why the right sorts of Melbourne people claim to despise the same class of Sydney people. In Melbourne the salonistes prefer to resonate discreetly. If Melbournian pretension could be likened to very old balsamic vinegar, the luxuriant smugness of Sydneysiders is like virgin olive oil the colour of money.

“Think of the possibilities!”

The aspect of Sydney that flashes its front at you is like this: a not-so-young couple at a party, carefully dressed in dark, retro-metro angst-chic, sharp, knowing, but tanned and super positive, talking fast—about her hip-hop semiotics thesis, his stressful job and expensive habit, their artist friend who’s a Torres Strait Islander…. But they’ve got nothing to say. The bright, cotton-tufted Sydney sky seems this way too.

I ought to put a sock in it, sitting here at seven o’clock in the morning like Eyore, dropping the damp rubber remnant of a blue balloon into my empty honey jar, looking at it, and fishing it out again before looking at it some more. I should get out and enjoy the crisp air and creamy winter sun, go on a ferry trip maybe.

The usual photogenic Sydney ferry trip crosses Port Jackson to Taronga Zoo, or through the churning rip between the inner heads to Manly, “seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care.” You cross the busy Corso, get some fish and chips and a beer and sit on the beach. Today I’ll do the commuter trip from Circular Quay up the Parramatta River as far as my Red Zone weekly transport pass will allow, to Kissing Point. I’ll have a look round out there and wait for the return ferry.

A half hour walk takes me down the crowded Glebe hillside past the greyhound track and the fish markets, across Pyrmont to Darling Harbour, which has been revamped as an Expo-Sydney style tourist hub. After crossing the old drawbridge, another half hour’s walk down the city’s George Street canyon will get me to Circular Quay.

I remember crossing the battered Pyrmont Bridge from the city to the Inner West twenty-five years ago, when Darling Harbour was stray dog’s crotch of abandoned wharves and sooty warehouses with broken windows. Pyrmont and Ultimo were still grimy and cheap, the last redoubt of the inner city Little Aussie Battler.

“Battler” is an iconic, almost scriptural title. It started out as a put-down. A woman who loitered on the street corners of Kings Cross so she could earn a few extra quid for her old man was a battler. So was a bloke who hung around the racetrack, without the cash to make a bet or the inclination to find any. Later on the Aussie Battler was remembered as the little bloke who struggled in a low paying job, with few prospects and fewer complaints. Little Aussie Battlers could never quite fight their way out of the psychological chasm between the bugger-you-mate swaggering colonial larrikin and the primly resentful ledger clerk of Aussie bureaucracy.

The River Cat backs out of the Quay, turns to face the choppy harbour and zips past the Opera House, a glowing three dimensional puzzle of lunes, segments of a sphere balanced together like sails (the travel brochure simile), or like several pairs of hands, a family of fingertips together in prayer, or a sun bleached nautilus shell peered at through a kaleidoscope.

As soon as you’re out on the water life becomes a holiday and the wind gets wintry. The ferry-catamaran is full of weekend trippers. We “ooh” and “aah” under the grey steel harbour bridge, past the waterfront warehouse lofts, back around to Darling Harbour, the next inlet on the journey inland.

Where are we really? Is this the Embarcadero San Francisco? Is it South Street Seaport New York? The same international mall in plate glass and steel girders, palms and potted Ficus trees, with minor local variation: home baked cookie outlets, wallaby skins, opals, tea-towels, didgeridoos made in China, billboards and menus of gangly, quirky, laconic Crocodile-Dundeediness laser-written, laminated and slapped down on the plastic tables with the roo burger and fair-dinkum-fries specials.

Entertainment halls, airport terminal style, crowd Cockle Bay, the back end of the little harbour. From here they look like molars in a wide mouth stuffed with sweets. A Monorail loops the complex and touches the western edge of the city. (“I reckon we orta have a Monorail.” “Yair, a Monorail.” “Hasn’t Tokyo got one?” Seattle’s got one.” “We orta get one.”) A vision realised so modestly is useless as transport except for tourists to pay and be led by the nose on.

The ferry pulls in at King St wharf, next to the “Sydney Showboat”, made up of sheet metal and Perspex windows, with a fake paddle that trails at the back. Bloody Sydney World.

The Aussie Battler kept his nose to the grindstone, occasionally waving his little ragged flag, sticking it in the face of Officialdom and its rectilious punctitude. The wives, when they’d finally had a gutful of it all, could summon up a red-faced rage against the machine (usually in the form of their hapless, mumbling husbands) before settling for a cup of tea, a Bex and a bit of a lie down. The men retreated to their sanctuary, the beer garden on Friday and Saturday nights, where they’d talk about the oats they could’ve sowed, but didn’t quite have the courage to, all the while cultivating their beer bellies together like market gardeners nursing prize watermelons.

Other snapshots of battlerdom:

A little girl sits humming “hi ho the mary-oh,” kicking her sandals against the planks of the old wooden dunny box in the outhouse at the back (our dunny had a shingle with “Pooh Corner” scratched on it).

A freckled boy has his picture taken, head hanging bashfully to the side, mouth open in a pained grin and eyes screwed up against the glare of the sun. Seems like everyone had this expression on their face in the old days when they had their picture taken outdoors, peering quizzically into the heat. I’ve even seen a picture in an old Woman’s Weekly magazine of some grey Prime Minister escorting Elizabeth II in rubber boots on one of her royal rambles, across a paddock full of sheep shit. Both Minister and Queen squint toothily into the morning glare.

Our Battler was also the backbone of the Labour movement during the early to mid 20th century, when Australia and New Zealand led the world in women’s and workers’ rights. The White Army, Australia’s pre-war fascist sympathisers, threw their net out and fished up some battlers too, but they appealed to a more nervous stratum, those battlers who had made it across the chasm and finally had a bit of something they feared they could lose. Militant Right-ism fizzled out quickly though. Aussies are gung ho fighters and can be as lazily intolerant as anyone else, but we’ve always hated being told directly which way we ought to march.

The ferry half-disgorges before gobbling up a group elderly Japanese tourists in identical plastic rain jackets and sunbonnets. The Japanese tourists point their tiny silver video cameras this way and that. The railings are crowded. I move back for a small smiling couple. The old man extends a little bow, and I acknowledge his thanks with a High-Melbournian inclination of my upper torso.

We well-exercised, educated new-centra-lefties living in the former Little Aussie Battler districts of Glebe, Pyrmont, Balmain et al., have to deal adroitly with the thought that the contemporary Battler (whose grandfathers we claim as our spiritual grandfathers too) is now more likely to be a Liberal voter, which in Australia means nationalist-conservative, and is as likely to be South East Asian or Middle Eastern, living in Cabramatta, Blacktown or Emu Plains, out in those Western Suburbs where no one from the Inner City ever goes, and where the frothy head on the Aussie dream is to live like a Burgher King in a McMansion and own a home theatre system and a speedboat. Sound familiar, international brothers and sisters?

Inner Eyore is at it again. At least we occasional grumblers can’t do too much damage to the world, not like those dangerous utopian types who get doctoral degrees in Life so they can Think Things Through before telling us grumblers what to do. Ahh, shuddup and let Inner Piglet have a squeak. We’re on a ferry trip.

Darling Harbour is not all cheap. The Chinese Garden of Friendship, a wooing gift from the Peoples Republic of Doing Business, is tucked away next to the Convention Centre. It’s a set of pavilions with roofs that curve like the line of a ballet dancer’s beckoning arms. Behind its austere walls weeping willows and watercourses dapple prettily in the sun. It’s an enchanting place in which to curl up read on a day of soft, cobwebby rain.

Away from the shops the jetties are full of ships, retired naval vessels and square-sailed replicas that don’t look fake. There’s the Bounty, of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian fame. Its hull is a fat cucumber of varnished, rivet-pocked timbers with three masts like crossbow bolts held down by pyramidal webs of taut and twisted rope. The next jetty has the restored colonial barque the James Craig, and up by the maritime Museum is the Batavia, the tallest masts and widest spars of all, a tubby and piratically rakish hull with a jutting prow and high quarterdecks rearing up like a saddle on a horse’s bum, caprizoned in gold and blue. The original was wrecked off the West Australian coast in 1629, with an aftermath of mutiny, starvation and massacre. Inner Piglet squeals with glee at such tales of ships and history.

The River Cat speeds out to the middle of the harbour and turns west toward the suburbs. But if you got this far, dear reader, and still want to chug up the river with me to Kissing Point and back you’ll have to wait for another instalment, as I’ve nearly run out of my allotted gallon of wind.

We pass the container port on the long side of the Darling Harbour dogleg, under the towers of the Central Business District. There’s just one cargo super ship today, clean and graceless. It looks like a big white freezer welded onto an orange speedboat hull. What’s missing here is a rusty old tramp steamer from the grimy glory days of shipping, the sort my dad was first mate on after the war. If I ever bought a Powerball ticket and won I’d scour West African and Indian ship graveyards until I found one and got it towed back here, battered and reeking of salt and soot. But a development committee would vote to have her cleaned up and turned into another casino wouldn’t they?

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

Glebe Point Road

28th February 2005

It’s eight o’clock, the muggy end of a hazy day, but a thunderstorm’s chance of achieving coitus with the city has already peaked and died. The dirty white sky has darkened bluely, but the day’s heat still bears down as though it were a dinosaur lumbering slowly inland, its tail end crushing the city and suburbs as it drags itself west.

I’ve just got home. I start the fan and open the windows to let the mosquitoes in and the fetid, wet towel air out. I grab a wine glass, one of those big Pinot Noir balloons, toss in six ice cubes, half fill with soda water, and top it with cheap red wine from a cardboard box. Two big gulps and I can put it down for the moment. I type this and wonder what’ll come next.

An hour later the ice has melted, so I pick a tiny black insect out of the watery dreg, gulp it down and fix myself another. Sometimes I’ll add a slug of port to the wine to give it back its kick. Sometimes I mix a tablespoon of warmed honey into the glass bowl as the ancient Egyptians did, and the wine swirls heavily and glows as though in candle light, syrupy, and potent as gasoline. I’m now too sleepy to cook, too tired to toss a salad. I lie down with a vegemite sandwich on the sofa bed in the kitchen and stare blankly at the ten o’clock news.

*****

It’s nearly midnight and I’m awake again. I brush the crumbs and the sweat off my chest and shove a plastic chair out onto the porch, my little walled-in trapezoid of space on the corner of Pendrill Street and Glebe Point Road. I can sit here under my washing, lean back and look up at heaven, beyond the trees and stately sandstone piles that rear above. Tonight the clouds are enormous grey garbage bags bloated with humidity. They drift in from the Tasman Sea, washed up onto the beaches by late afternoon. They swell and rise, and slither out of the sea and across the foreshore and harbour. Pushed by the air that moves so slowly and heavily, I roll and light a cigarette and suck in the dry heat. I drink another half glass of wine with the last of my ice cubes in it and then I roll another smoke. For a minute I can see five faint stars above me through the silver branches.

Up the road a couple of backpackers from the Youth Hostel are out on the street shouting hoarsely in a foreign tongue, over a girl perhaps. I hear a beer bottle roll and clatter into the gutter. A car revs and roars off toward the city. There’s a brief spasm of young male laughter before all is quiet again. Quiet except for the hiss of air sieved through leaves, and the occasional rustle of big black bats tossing and turning as they hang in their sleep. They dangle like giant drops of water wrapped in black silk in the mulberry and eucalyptus trees behind the high brick wall across the lane.

A bit later the breeze accelerates, a cool relief tells my body it might soon be time to lose consciousness. The huge creeping cloud-sacs speed up and burst, as though matted grey kapok stuffing were being pulled out of old mattresses and flung raggedly across the sky.

I hear a tiny whiny miaow coming up the lane. I miaow back, and Tiger, my landlord’s cat, hops onto the brick wall and down into my lap. He’s a big muscular marmalade eunuch, a bossy boy on the street, but a manipulative toddler when he comes to see me. He visits me every night for an hour or two, sidles in, massages the sweaty pillow on my sofa and settles down with his paws in the air for a sleep or a cuddle before raising his tail and marching to the front door to be let out again.

*****

My home is a small studio at the back of a peeling mustard coloured mansion on a rise just above this crooked finger of Sydney harbour. The mansion was built a hundred years ago by a sugar baron. My landlord, a friendly, nervy little Cypriot named Louis lives in the main house with his wife and three kids. His parents bought the house decades ago (way back before Glebe was rediscovered by money and good taste) and Louis has lived here nearly all his life. He rents out the old servant quarter, this studio, for $190 cash each week. It’s been a nice little deal. The large room, divided by a big stone hearth with an electric stove in it, has a high ceiling and is relatively cool. The kitchen half of the room is spacious and there’s a narrow bathroom with cracked terracotta floor tiles, but the carpet smells sour when it’s muggy, and the sunlight hits the north windows for only a couple of hours each day in summer.

The Glebe was a tract of land given to the first English clergyman in the colony, who in the late 1700’s sniffed, “four hundred acres, for which I would not give four hundred pence.” The parson applied for more land, made a fortune and sailed back to England when his tour of duty was up, full of tales, no doubt, to shudder the bosoms of parish ladies. A hundred years after him, big Italianate mansions lined northern Glebe Point Road, and the post-colonial robber barons moved into them. Some of these buildings still wear a patina of age and stylistic neglect from Glebe’s 50-year working-class interregnum. Since the 1980’s most of the buildings have been redone. They gleam with new Victorian chimneypots, restored iron lace and fresh paint in “original” 19th century ochre, beige, sage green and peach tints decreed by the heritage-police that dominates the local council (I’m breaking their rules by hanging my washing where it can be seen!). The southern, busy end of the street, near the raging traffic torrent of Parramatta Road and the elegant Oxonian battlements of Sydney University, is clotted with trendy, slightly-more-interesting-than-usual eateries (“Angus, Rhea, darlings shall we do Nepalese, South Indian, or Brazilian tonight?”). There are many bookstores and coffee houses (among them Badde Manors Café and Sappho Second Hand Books and Café), where the well-heeled artsy set sit with their well-mannered champagne-socialist neighbours and drink macchiati, blithely agreeing on the evils of the current stolid government. “Low income housing? Better transport options? I approve, no, I demand! But Not In My Back Yard.”

A few years ago on my last aborted trip to Australia, I lived in an even trendier neighbourhood, in a much worse, much costlier hovel, a sojourn during which I found only two months work, and broke up with my partner. We lived in a tiny house on Rose Terrace in chic Paddington (I thought it would be good to be close to everything gay). It’s a cul-de-sac like you’d find if you got lost in Greenwich Village, with stone and brick townhouses and worker’s cottages built in the 1840’s and 50’s. That particular lane makes a dogleg in and out of South Dowling Street, and its triangular common-garden is large and lush with tall tree ferns, Jacaranda and Frangipani. The place cost $320 a week, with a downstairs room and kitchen, and two small upstairs rooms. The bathroom was peeling and mouldy and the toilet was in a lean-to out the back. Thank God I signed a six-month lease and not a year. It was the last un-renovated house on the block and had soggy walls under the stairs. You could wipe the paint and plaster off with your finger from the damp, and cockroaches teemed by night. Almost all the aged inner Sydney housing stock seethes with underworld cockroach metropolises. They’re either tiny reddish brown things, like peanut skins scattered on a linoleum floor, or enormous, like those long bronze painted fingernails of the size applied in Brooklyn beauty shops. Sometimes they tip toe over your shoulder as you sleep. They say it’s got worse since the Eastern Distributor toll road was dug, disturbing the earth and sending fetid hordes to the surface. But that sounds like the horrors out of an HP Lovecraft tale. In the mornings, and after coming home from weekends away we would hear them scurry off, and find the kitchen full of droppings, like tea dust from teabags scattered across the shelves and over the counter tops. The place stank as sour as a tramp’s armpit. We had the windows open all the time, and incense going round the clock.

There are few cockroaches here in my studio on Glebe Point Road. The ones I sweep up from under the sofa bed, or by the toilet, are enormous and dead on their backs already. They enter through the air vents searching for comfort, and the chemically treated walls and skirting boards must murder them before they have time to breed (thank you Rentokil). But I wonder if these poisoned walls are killing me softly with their pong?

A sense of life comes back under heavy rain. Sydney gets diluvial downpours after most hot summer days. The rain slams down like water pouring over the edge of a cliff. It thunders like metal bolts over the iron and tile roofs, down mildewy concrete walls, churning gutter garbage down into the big straining nets that cover the mouths of canals and culverts around the harbour and beaches. The water streams over the arms and thighs of eucalyptus boughs and the fleshy fronds of vine and fern. Thunder rages and lightning cracks several dazzling dimensions upstream in the clouds. The hail will break your arms and smash car windows. After a storm the air is cool and for several hours the clinging damp is refreshing and full of oxygen. What relief, but not tonight.

*****

I sit, at one a.m., glass in one hand, Tiger dozing on my lap, looking at my Monstera vine that has bloomed at last. Over the summer it has grown into a cancer, a tumour squeezing the light and life out of my tiny courtyard. Its brawny biceps grow up the wall and its gnarled forearms reach out to grab the open space. Its fists hold three-foot fronds, large many-fingered fans that look like they’re made of vinyl, a scabbed and pockmarked green vinyl that might cover a sofa in a grubby plywood office of a car repair shop in a dusty outback town. The flower is a big wan globular gothic thing, a sickly moon-coloured blister of leathery skin cupping a pistil the size of a corncob. It has the faint, flaky, mouldy-dry fetor of poor-man’s scalp. I won’t miss it or its four furled, unborn siblings. I’m going to chop it back to the wall tomorrow.

I put down my empty glass, rouse Tiger and swing him up onto the wall, then flop down again for a moment. Tiger’s tail waves a question and disappears from view as he pads down towards the front half of the house. I look up one last time. My five faint stars reappear through the ragged cloud. The thick sleek boughs swing heavily in the breeze. A homebound bat sails silently overhead like a black pterodactyl, and a couple of cars swish down Glebe Point Road with a sound like surf rolling up a beach. A clear, timeless heaviness has descended and stemmed the flow of mind. Maybe I can get some sleep. I go back in to weather the warm air, to stand in front of the fan and let the sweat evaporate. It takes a deliciously cool five minutes, and then I settle myself onto the narrow mattress in the sitting room, where the air has enough space to swirl and rise and fall.

So here I lie: a tall naked man on a crumpled sheet, under a mosquito net dangling from a brass light fixture. I’m too long-limbed for the camping mattress and the diameter of the net billowing in the fan’s delicate breeze. My feet clad in thin black socks poke out from the bottom end of the bed. My face is masked against the coming morning light. A few mosquitoes ignore the heat rising from the gossamer tent above my torso. For a moment I hear them lazing around my armoured ankles before I sink once more un-born to the bottom of a humid night.

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