by James Wall
As an original experience, Melbourne will soak into you and make you feel
as though you are stepping from the bus, the train, the plane, into a sort
of post-Orwellian wet dream. People will tell you it's a city, but really
it's just a town trying to be a city, and doing an okay job of it, Spencer
Street Station a throbbing example of a metropolis that has forgotten its
responsibilities, the Crown Tower a poignant reminder that regardless of
where you are (London Paris New York Munich), enough money will always buy
you a few thousand tons of steel, glass, marble, and a place by the river.
The people look much the same as people do anywhere else, the cement that
has created the footpaths is the same, the traffic lights still go red orange
green as they should, the drivers still palm their horns if those lights
have been green for a split second longer than they should be and they still
aren't moving. Six months of the year it's cold and windy and the record
stores still have the same old stuff: The Clash, Frank Sinatra, Powderfinger.
The women on the front covers of the magazines are gorgeous, the clothes
and perfume and shoes and appliances beneath that cover are still more than
you could afford should you even want them. If you land an okay job, you
can be eating sushi once a week with the best of them, getting your mercury
levels up and composing yourself for the same clubs, the same shops on the
same streets, the same faces, the same sky. A Melbourne sky you can find
anywhere in the world, at least, anywhere in the world where the people
dress in black and carry umbrellas all the time, because they're smart and
they've been standing waiting for the tram (Europe, America...they have
those too) and the heavens have opened up and God has emptied his swill-bucket
down on the world.
The homeless people are still homeless. Instead of asking you for money and giving you a good story, they just ask for money. If you're lucky they'll say it's because they need to get to a funeral/wedding/job interview/operation in Bendigo and you'll give them a dollar, because what the hell? Overseas that dollar will buy you a few jubes, a newspaper maybe. The government stinks and the felafels are crummy. The protests are the same, bunches of people with no idea fighting for a cause that doesn't exist, a rape here and there. The coffee is so-so if you go to the right place, but the place where the coffee is good is the same place where the muffins aren't.
Basically I'm saying the town isn't original, but neither is me saying that. People write whole essays on how Melbourne is no good and nobody pays much attention to them, nor will they to me.
Anyway I was there, just down from Sydney, yeah, the bus trip was okay, stopped at two a.m. in the god damned middle of nowhere and had a Chicko roll that had been sitting in the pie warmer since the same time yesterday, a carton of milk with a brand name and flavour I had never been exposed too, boy, it's a bit brisk, isn't it? and the taxi man didn't speak English but knew how to get me to the hotel I wanted, so I paid him off and got my bags, checked in, next thing I knew I was in my room like it was a big surprise and then I had a shower, washed the day off me, and then I was tired so I slept.
Ten hours later I was awake and it was five in the afternoon, at this rate I'd have to check out again soon if I wasn't careful, so I hit the Bourke Street Mall and figured I'd buy a toothbrush, some underwear, maybe a pornographic magazine and some cheap nasty-looking sunnies, got the paper too for the employment section, sat down and read it and had a bad coffee and a good muffin, and that was the day well spent and I was already fifty bucks out of pocket from those few meagre purchases, had a red pen with me so I circled some jobs that looked okay, in places I'd never heard of (Kew, Moorabbin, Sunbury) and figured I'd get some train schedules, plan my next day a little more economically, so I got every train schedule there was from a guy at Flinders Street Station who'd come over from India just the week before for the express purpose of being an unhelpful son of a bitch, parted with nine dollars for that dubious pleasure, and went back to my room, sketched out on a blank page of the room Bible the places I'd be going tomorrow, lay my head on the pillow, and cried.
The next day I woke at eight and used the phone to call the characters from the Bible, lined up only one interview and that for three in the afternoon. I had a book with me, the screenplay to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and it was kinda brief in the reading content so I left my crummy room and found a secondhand bookstore on Elizabeth Street, tried to explain to the frumpy woman there that I was after the novel Hunger, I kept saying "by the German guy, he's dead now" and she finally told me it was Knut Hamsun and that they didn't have it, and that I probably should stop bothering her, so I did.
The interview didn't go too badly. It only took fifteen minutes and ten of those consisted of me sitting around waiting for the guy who was supposed to interview me to show up, and I didn't have a portfolio or anything so I gave him the number and address of the hotel I was in and he said sure, thanks for coming, we'll call you. So he didn't and I never expected him to, and at the dole office they asked me why I had moved from Sydney to Melbourne and I said personal reasons, so they wanted to know what kind of personal reasons, so I told them and the girl I was talking to looked at me for a long time, and when she lowered her head to write something I watched her neck, the curve of her neck, and she swallowed hard and didn't look at me again.
That night my mind was empty as I watched a movie I didn't understand in a theatre I wasn't in. I lit a cigarette and nobody seemed to mind.
I had recourse to walk back to the hotel that night and I did so, briskly, and it was raining, the sort of screaming rain that daggers itself invisibly into your eyes and face, drives you near insane, and no matter which way you turn or what direction you walk in, it's always pushing against you and it's always in your eyes and mouth and soaking the front of your shirt and pants. I was chattering like a wind-up toy by the time I got back to my room and I peeled off my clothes and fell beneath the blankets, staring out the window and at the flickering lights, listening to the rat-a-tat-tat of the rain against the glass, still in front of me, never behind me.
The weeks and months trickled past and I had a small bedsit in East Melbourne and all the glass and steel and flesh and blood around me, and it was there, and I was there, and one day the clouds fell apart and the sun dribbled through, and there was a discernible silence as traffic stopped and then people started going "aah", like sunlight was an Iced Vo-Vo and not a God-given right, and I understood that you didn't need anything to be happy except sickly light after a fevered darkness.
A corroding sense of reality, speed and smack pumped into you, a drip of each on both arms, leveling you out, your mouth dry and parched, lips crackling like an open fire. Each breath your last and each exhalation your first, eyes watering and stinging, a tinge of blue, hallucinating because you're too afraid to blink, if you blink what's left of reality will decompose completely, and then where will you be?
I sigh and heft myself out of the couch, too much altitude, already a headache, barely enough coffee in the can for a small cup but you want it for the warmth, not for the caffeine. I want to turn on the radio but last night in a fit of something I tore the thing open, pulling out the speakers, wiring like some creature's intestines, a loud screeching noise and I wasn't scared of being electrocuted because there was no power, no phone, no hot water, no gas, no go. A few deep breaths and it's all okay for a while, I smile and everything's okay, it's fine, life is peachy, why should anything be wrong? You have your own problems you have to deal with, don't worry about mine, please help me overcome this, don't touch me. People moving around upstairs, laughing, talking, Miles Davis playing softly but loud enough for you to hear it, to make you jealous. My vision is getting blurry but sounds are more distinct, a cricket chirping somewhere in the walls, cliché, sure, but familiarity shouldn't always be passed off as a cliché. Someone in the world just died very painfully and you're still standing, you're still okay, nicotine stains burned into your fingers. How droll. How could that be a rattlesnake? There are no rattlesnakes in this country. Oh, it's just you world falling apart around you, nobody understands, nobody believes anymore, your hand on the cool softness of her face as it grows colder, colder, paler, no pulse but your own and you're not even sure of that. A moist vagina like a drooling baby's mouth. Stop loitering in this room of your mind and move back to the beginning, the mezzanine, the foyer, start it all over again.
I end up reading too much Bukowski. I start having these crazy dreams.
"Bunch of shit," I told him.
"No, no, look," he said, "Look, it's all here. Comprehensive! Exhaustive!"
"I don't have any need for all this crap. Why would I want all this crap?"
"It's so useful," he went, close to orgasm.
"I'll jam it up your ass!"
"No, see! Just watch! Pick something at random! Anything!"
"Pick something else."
"Show me what it says about valves."
"It doesn't really have an entry about valves."
"Hah! See! You beady-eyed little son of a bitch! What happens when I need information about stuff like that?"
"Why would you?"
"Who the hell wants to know about valves? Ask me about Afghanistan!"
"How much is all this, anyway?"
"Only three thousand."
I sucked on my beer for a moment.
"Tell you what," I said, "I'll give you eight hundred."
"Oh you have to be kidding," he brayed, "Eight hundred? It's worth twice that much!"
"So I'll give you sixteen hundred."
"But it's three thousand."
"You just said it was worth twice eight hundred, which is sixteen hundred. I'll give you that."
"There's my commission on top of that."
"You get fourteen hundred dollars commission on a sale of sixteen hundred?"
"What kind of goddamned expenses?"
"Fuel for my car. What about food? Huh? Huh? What am I supposed to eat? What am I supposed to eat, you shit?"
"Look, I don't think I want the encyclopaedias, buddy."
"You will buy these fucking encyclopaedias!"
"Whoa, I don't want them."
Poor guy started to break down right there. He just broke down and wouldn't stop wailing. I didn't know what to do. I mean, what do you do when an encyclopaedia salesman has an episode on your couch? So all I could really do was sit there, and I did, I sat there and I finished the beer I had, then I went and got another, and when I got back he seemed okay.
"You okay?" I asked, and I handed him a beer.
"You don't understand how hard it is," he sniffled.
"Hey, buddy, it's okay. I understand."
"It's just so hard."
"Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it."
"If what's worth it?"
"This. This. Don't you see?"
He was waving the beer around, spilling it.
"Settle down there, buddy," I said, and he did.
"Listen," he said, "Can you just buy them? Even if it's only a couple of books. Just to make me feel better?"
"Hey, sure, sure. Shhh. I'll buy some."
"Give me A and B. If I like what I see, I'll come back to you for more."
"Remember to ask for me! Remember to ask for Frankie!"
"Hey, no problems, Frankie. I wouldn't buy a volume of the encyclopaedia off anyone else."
"Hey," he said, brightening up, "How about this comprehensive index?"
"There's an index for an encyclopaedia?"
"What kind of shit is that?"
"It's just to save you going through all the books."
"Lemme get this straight, buddy. This encyclopaedia you're selling me, it's basically a big index, right?"
"So it's got an index of its own?"
"Only because it's so big."
"So why not compress everything down and put it into the index? That way, only one book."
"Hey, man, I don't write this shit."
I lit a cigarette. It was getting late and I was hungry.
"Okay, Frankie. I'm going out to grab something to eat. You want to come?"
"Yeah, I guess. Where we going?"
"I dunno, just up the street."
"Okay. What's your name anyways?"
"Can you spot me ten, Harry?"
A two-litre juice bottle, plastic, half empty, fetching the deep orange glow of the gas heater that burns your legs and keeps the rest of you icy cold. Disillusionment provokes self-absorption and there's pain somewhere in your body, your mind is telling you something hurts, but there are no visible marks, no bleeding, a teardrop maybe but that's about it. In the end I'm the only one I can trust and I don't want to, I'm not a big enough fan of myself to do that. The couch is comfortable enough but you'd rather be in bed, asleep, but this pain is keeping you awake, a pain you can't identify and therefore have no cure for. And even if you could cure it, would you want to? The pain is the only thing telling you that you're alive. I look down at my arms and most of the scars have faded away but some are still there, vibrant, obscene. Wish you had the guts to finish it but it's all pretty scary.
Traffic on the main road. People awake even before you, or perhaps they are going home, finally, to sleep, after a long night. Nothing useful is ever open at this time apart from the 7-Eleven, where the Slushee machines have been marked as "Out Of Order" for the past six months. Not that I would buy a Slushee even if I could. Vodka still in the bottle but not enough to make it worthwhile. Mersyndol? Sure. Sitting around and not much is happening and it comes to you that this is your life, as good as it gets, so you get used to it and don't have ambitions anymore. Feelings? The only feeling is hollowness, the gutted sensation you get when something has gone terribly wrong, when you're found out, when you've made a mistake so large that it can't be ignored, but if you go around with that singular feeling for long enough it's all you have so you're not worried anymore, it doesn't bother you, you set fire to a house, kill some school kids, and you walk away and you're fine and you have a drink, maybe a slice of pizza from that little takeaway joint up the road.
Living in a small apartment in a city you don't even know, a city that is constantly cold, overcast, it doesn't help. Crack open a fresh book and stand on the edge of beyond and try to loose yourself in somebody else's self-pity. Everywhere there's self-pity. Movie and rock stars feeling bad about themselves, bookshops filled to bursting with manic-depressive autobiographies, which are bestsellers so there are either a lot of really happy people out there who want to know what it's like to be sad, or a lot of sad people who want some perspective on what they are feeling. You pop another handful of…something, and continue to shuffle about the place, inspecting personal items as if they were a surprise, like you're wondering how they got there, who they belong to, because in the back of your mind it doesn't matter, you've lost too much already so you don't get attached to anything anymore.
Breathing deeply you relax a little and after a few hours your heart rate has returned to normal, you feel less like a zombie and more like a non-zombie (I hesitate to say "person"), so you pop open the milk carton, take a swig, and put it back in the fridge where, for a time at least, it will remain cold and white.
In a roundabout way I suppose I had it made. Now and then I would catch a fleeting glimpse of someone I thought I knew, or someone I wanted to know, someone who might know me. In the end I just sat there in my room. The only difference I made was to my landlord. I was as ordinary as anyone or anything else. You can find people like me, in places like this, in any city in the world.
Someone knocks on the door. I don't answer it.
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