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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.