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Steve Evans

Steve Evans left a career in business management (BEc, CPA) to undertake an MA in creative writing at Adelaide University, and he is now completing his PhD in English at Flinders University. He is an editor and reviewer with a particular interest in contemporary poetry and prose. Steve has published eight books, including Lift Off! An Introductory Course in Creative Writing (with Kate Deller-Evans). His latest titles are the poetry collections, Luminous Fruit (Bookends Books, 2003), Useful Translations (Picaro Press, 2003), and Taking Shape (Five Islands Press, 2004), and the poetry anthology, Another Universe: Friendly Street Poets 28 (Friendly Street Poets & Wakefield Press, 2004; co-edited with Kate Deller-Evans). He is currently working on novels, a non-fiction book, and a further collection of poetry, while teaching at Flinders.

 
   
 

The City-Bay Tram
by Steve Evans

The City-Bay tram wants to be Trinidadian, sweet metal music like a steel band, but the sound of it passing is a wall of tin cans falling, a thousand scissors sharpening, an argument that ends with a cutlery set being thrown down a flight of stairs. I lie in my bed at night, two houses from the track, and listen to its clattering song repeat every few minutes until midnight. By sunrise the Doppler refrain has started again, often with trams on the up and down track trams syncopating as they meet. The familiar calamitous noise, that ungraceful percussion, better than any softer tune.
     In the morning I grab breakfast, then close the front gate and walk to the stop. The sun is still weak in an overcast sky. The headlights of the next tram to the city are bright dots down the track, so far away they seem not to be moving. I pull my coat tight and walk briskly, listening for the tram approaching behind me. The bells of the nearby crossing clang like persistent dinner gongs. I speed up and reach the stop just as the tram arrives. Its accordion doors fold back and I step up into the lacquered wood-trim of a paneled board-room, embellished with the chrome flashes and vinyl seats of a 1960 Holden Special. I find a place beside a large woman in a purple cardigan. She is flicking through a magazine and ignores me.
     Where are you now?
     Autumn morning is schoolbags, handbags, newspapers and still-damp hair. The day’s first rush is over but now there are dozens of school kids on an excursion. We’re all squeezed in, no room for knees. The backs of seats are fronts flipped for the return trip. The kids discover this and want the seats in constant motion despite the crush. The tram jerks, shaking like a sleep-out in a storm. The kids chatter. They twist and jostle in their seats. The adults sit still, shoulder to shoulder, crowded and alone. They seldom talk to each other. The man nearest the rear door has a small patch of dried shaving cream on his left earlobe. When the pretty girl opposite him looks elsewhere, he drinks her in.
     Despite the children’s noise, I hear the woman across the aisle minutely dissect the scandalous life of a talk-show host. A man like that! His wife is pregnant and he’s having a fling with that woman from “Blue Dream,” the tall one, you know. And not just one mistress but two! There was that designer he was seeing back in Perth. How can he carry on like nothing has happened? Her companion nods and responds but her answers are half of a different conversation. Her son is leaving home. Her husband doesn’t listen to her any more. She laments the weather in her bones. The rest of us eavesdrop, bury ourselves in books or look outside. If you were here, we would have exchanged a whisper, dug elbows into each other’s side.
     The private is made public in backyards by the tramline. Limp washing and weedy kingdoms, corrugated iron roofs with a rash of red rust, lean-to laundries and riotous gardens, old sheds and slow-moving men in cardigans who will not be leaving for work. Excited dogs leap at fences as we pass. When the tram climbs the bridge over the railway track, I look down into Ingham’s Plaster Works. The concrete floor of the yard is dusted with white icing sugar. Two men in overalls stand there like odd figurines on a wedding cake. They are pale with plaster powder to their waists where their true colours begin to appear, as if they have been partly dipped in flour. Then they stoop, lift a long flexing piece of plaster and carry it to a drying rack under a shelter. Large ceiling roses are already stacked like ornate plates.
     The tram’s a corridor ten kilometres long which the conductor walks every day. Any fares? Any fares? His leather bag a paunch for change and tickets. I buy my ticket and look back out the window. I’ve marked every day of your absence on the itinerary you stuck to my refrigerator. I’ve known exactly where you were every day for two months - each city, each gallery and museum you visited, even without postcards. Writing just isn’t me but I’ll always be thinking of you, you had said. I squint over the horizon and see you in Rome, hailing a taxi to the airport. Your hair swings in a ponytail, your one bag is slung on your back. How do you manage to travel so light? Then you’re sinking into the seat as the long jet peels away from Italy and Europe and over a dark bank of clouds. You don’t look out. Then I see you putting down a magazine and closing your eyes. By now your plane is only hours from home.
     I wanted to meet you at the airport. I hate airports as much as you hate writing letters but I was going to be there. You warned me off. Too many delayed flights, you said. You’ll get all wound up waiting and you’ll be in a mood. I’ll just get in when I get in and catch a taxi, you said. It’ll be better that way.
     I check the address of the book shop. It’s windows I want. Books about windows. Especially those on paintings of windows. Before you left you hung your newest work, a vast painting of a window in my lounge room. Hung it over a real window that faces my street. Now I have a permanently mid-afternoon view of a harbour with water like wet paint instead of the real fence, the real trees, the real cable which guides the City-to-Bay tram past our house. Small white boats against all that blue. I think it’s a picture of a harbour in Spain but I don’t know why. You were a long time in Spain during your last trip; didn’t want to come back.
     When I rang and told him what I was after, the owner of the shop was sure he had something special you would like. It was expensive but I said yes straight away. He put it aside. I plan to leave it on the bed, so it will be waiting for you when your taxi arrives. I'll find a picture that I hope you will like and I'll open the book and leave it there like a window into some other world, a hole in the bed we can both fall through.
     Just before I left the house I rang the airline and checked your flight would be on time. I imagine you walking into the terminal this evening and suddenly I want to see you so much. I think of going to meet you there after all but I know I won’t. Not when you’ve said no.
     The conductor returns, swaying with the movement of the tram as he calls for fares. At my feet is a trap door with a ring handle. It looks like the one I discovered in the kitchen floor at my grandmother’s house. The unused cellar. Below me the spoked pulley wheels of a treadle sewing machine drag the ground away. On the roof are metal antlers, antennae that siphon blue electric juice from a long slack-wire no one ever walks.
     The woman alongside me pulls an orange from her bag and slices it into quarters with a small wooden-handled knife. She’s done this before. The quarters are cut into eighths. She lifts a little arc of bright flesh to her mouth and it disappears, everything. The skin of the orange is in there; thick, glossy, unchewable. But she chews it. Then the next piece. Eating everything. I think of you, and honey.
     The tram approaches the terminus in Victoria Square, the middle of the city. Kids scrabble for their bags and jam the aisle. I wait for their mad exit to finish. The cold bites as I step down to the ground. Winter soon. In the middle of the city square is Queen Victoria’s statue. She is sensibly layered in a heavy bell of dresses and petticoats. She scowls at the modern fountain across the road where sculpted figures of men and women stretch themselves naked and wet under arcs of water. The wind lifts spray into the air and across the worn paving. My shoes slip on the surface as I walk towards the shop.

I find it in a narrow street near the Central Market. The large glass windows are tinted to protect the books from sunlight. How would you like these windows? I remember a painting in Los Angeles that took up the whole of the side of a building opposite a vacant lot that was used as a car park. The painting made the bare brick wall into something else. It became a modern glassy office building that reflected its surroundings. In the painted reflection was a view of the future, where the parking lot was empty but for the burnt shell of a car and two sheep picking at weeds which had burst through ruined asphalt.
     No one is at the counter. I ring the bell and an elderly man appears from a door at the back. He is over seventy, tall, upright, dressed for something much more formal than selling books. His jacket is hound’s-tooth, his shoes gleam impossibly, his tie speaks of a club I'll never know. He is friendly but he is not the man I spoke with on the telephone. When I ask for the book of window paintings there is a flicker of hesitation before he turns to a shelf behind the counter. He rummages among books wrapped in brown paper, books with slips of paper saying “Heathcote Tuesday” or “Jensen Friday pm” He goes through them twice. He is sorry but his son is normally there and had to go out and he doesn’t know what could have happened to it. Paintings of windows? A large book? His son will be back tomorrow. He casts a sorrowful look over his shoulder at the shelf of books put by for promises. We both know it isn’t there. I can’t tell him tomorrow will be too late. That would not make the book appear.
     I pretend to browse, hoping the book is still in the Art section. Perhaps it has been put away by mistake. It’s not there. I leave the warmth and step into the street. The next few shops I find don’t have it either. Sales assistants consult their lists and ring each other but I can’t give them enough details to convince them the book exists. There are a couple of maybes and some we-could-order-this-one-and-see-if-it’s-what-you-wanteds. The morning passes in walking back and forth across the shopping district, following fruitless suggestions.
     The owner of First Editions, a small place reached by two flights of rickety stairs, listens politely but after a minute something in his eyes shows he has lost interest, that it is just too hard. The bookshop at the Art Gallery has nothing even close to what I want. I buy a coffee and cake at Café Buongiorno and sit in its shelter for a while, working out where else I can look. The assistant at Back Pages raises her one eyebrow as if to say I have just won Stupid Question of the Day. Her green fingernails slowly drum the counter and I retreat, glancing across the shelves as I leave, in the vague hope that something will catch my attention. The shelves at Artworks are full of books of paintings. I tell myself it will be here. The manager crooks an index finger across his lips and thinks. Windows. You don’t mean Hopper? I wonder if he is making a bad joke to test me. No, I say, not Hopper. And not Magritte. It isn’t just one artist. It’s a whole book on paintings of windows by all sorts of artists. He shakes his head.
     The sun is striking biscuit tones on the stonework of the old government buildings in King William Street and I still have three more shops to go. There is a glimmer of recognition at one but it turns out to be another book on church stained-glass. Two hours later I’m back in Victoria Square.

The tram home is a box of windows that fractures light across shuddering fences. No morning horde of clamouring kids. Just half a dozen strangers being chauffeured home in a long lurching pram that's going lickety-split. There and back, there and back; its rough rhythm loose as the rhyme of a half-remembered song. I’ll be home with less than an hour to spare before you’re due and I have nothing to give you.
     I used to ride the tram on summer afternoons as a kid. Fishing rod and bucket balanced against my shoulder for the ride to Glenelg, breeze through the window tossing my hair about. The tram seemed old and frail even then, a beachside shack that had grown wheels, a big billy-cart trundling to the sea, coming to salt air, to tribes of ice-cream wielders, to fish and chips in old newspaper, to scalding sun, and a lurching halt at the jetty.
     When I step off, there is a hint of rain. The tram hisses into the distance, a blue cascade of thorny sparks running the wires the rest of the way down to the sea.
     There's a letter sticking out of the box, one end damp from an afternoon shower. It's so long since I've seen your writing, it takes me a moment to recognise it. The house is dark. I pull the curtains, turn on a light and set the letter on the dinner table. I stare at it a while, wanting to open it, afraid to open it. Instead, I make the bed, then cook tea and leave it warm in the oven. I move the letter to one side while I set the table for our first meal together again. I try the television news but it's all politics and football, so I turn it off. The rumble of trams plays in the background as I clean up the house. I lift up the letter again and smell it, but there's no trace of your perfume on it. I switch the oven off and go to sit by your painting. White boats and blue water. Like your stamp, I realise. There's been no tram for an hour.

 
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