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