August 3, 2018
I have been catching the Sydney ferry for almost a year, and it has only ever been late once. Today there was a heavy fog. Fog is not a regular occurrence in Sydney so we’re ill-equipped to deal with it. Two ferries’ worth of people were waiting at the wharf, all huddled and confused, but I only had to wait about 20 minutes before the visibility was good enough for the boat to round the crooked bend of Mosman Bay.
My university routine hinges on precision, so in the wait from 8:06 to 8:26 I had just lost my time for morning coffee. I decided I would have to grab a takeaway flat white on the short walk to campus. There’s a groovy-looking café about halfway between the methadone clinic and a small playground on Abercrombie Street.
I like to read on the ferry. I like to read anywhere, really, but public transport is the most idle time I have in my day. Today I was reading a book written by my estranged half-aunt, Madeleine. (I thought about it and there’s really no better way to describe her.) My grandfather was her father, but her mother killed herself when Madeleine was only 16. A few months later, at the urging of friends, my grandfather went on a cruise to get over it; he got on the boat in Sydney, my grandmother got on a boat in Melbourne, they met in Adelaide and were married by Perth. My dad was their second child.
I don’t think Madeleine took it too well, but I didn’t ever meet her. The fact that she was a writer has always been used to discourage me any time I bring up the prospect of a career that involves making money from writing. I get the feeling that the idea is not looked upon kindly. “She was destitute, you know,” my mum will remind me from time to time. I’ve stopped bringing it up now, for fear that dinner will be waylaid and I’ll lose an hour of study to bedside apologies. Now here I was, my grandparents’ grandson, reading her book The Women in Black on a boat.
At the first stop I spotted a friend getting on the ferry. I know her fairly well, Katie, the best friend of a close friend’s girlfriend (again, sorry, but that’s the best way to describe her). She’s the kind of friend who you would see at a pub around midnight and exclaim, throw your hands up high and, spellbound, trade cheek-kisses, and then say something like “I’m going to grab another drink, are you right?” and she’d say something back like “I’m fine, love!” and you’d both keep circulating. Katie is also, and this is important, really beautiful. Like, wind-blows-and-it-looks-like-her-hair-is-resting-on-a-cloud beautiful.
There’s something turbulent about the simple act of seeing an attractive person. Suddenly it’s everything; too much hair gel? Not enough? My cousin got a nose job—should I? My skin feels dry. I hoped she wouldn’t come to where I was sitting, and I got lucky.
I had dressed for the cold—leather black boots, black jeans, a grey coat . . . I mean why the fuck was I dressed like a goth? I looked like someone who had been imprisoned in a Siberian labour camp for distributing pamphlets. I wondered if listening obsessively to Station to Station maybe hadn’t been such a good idea. I wished I hadn’t seen her.
I found the fog a welcome reprieve from the boundless blue skies. Sydney in winter is a strange affair. Everything feels dog-eared, on pause. We’re in the midst of a drought in Australia. Mum had to drive a few hours south for work last week, and she reported back vast plains of nothing but dust and sad-looking livestock in dire need of rain. Untrafficked roads in the middle of barren nowhere, the indigenous aridity of a yawning, empty continent. I read in the paper that farmers are selling thousands of their sheep because they can’t afford to feed them anymore. I’m sure that having to decimate your herd of sheep because of something like “marginal cost” is one of those harsh realities to which a farmer grows accustomed, but from afar it feels tragic. The paper said that lamb would be cheap for the next few months, but it’s not really the kind of situation that sends you running to the shops for chops.
My half-aunt had a line about that actually. She wrote, “No one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”
I tossed the novel into my backpack when we reached the city. My luck ran out—I alighted at the same time as Katie. We talked small between the wharf and the train, and I made her laugh once. It felt like I had, in some cosmic sense, broken even. I kept reading on the train ride toward uni, nestled away on the upper level. Suddenly I was surrounded by people speaking on their phones, engrossed in organising meetings and comparing babysitters and dictating shopping lists. It’s entirely possible that this is some vast government conspiracy to de-educate the masses by planting loud-talkers to distract anyone with the gall to try and read a book in public.
I’m a law student, and I had classes from nine until six that day (with two hours for lunch). I had to pack classes into three weekdays so I have time to work for the other two, but I don’t mind. I’m probably one of the few students in my cohort who is pretty cheery around uni. For most law students, there’s nothing attractive about optimism. It’s uncomplicated, and so they think it’s bad. That’s what happens to people drawn to ambiguity, people who are going to measure their professional life in six-minute increments, salary figures, and damages claims. Remedy all that is wrong with time and numbers. Still, I adore the campus vibe. The University of Sydney has eclectic architecture, a mix of gorgeous sandstone buildings and new-age auditoriums with comfortable red chairs.
Almost every day there are activists on the main university promenade trying to get you to sign petitions. Today they are getting signatures to try and end Australia’s revolting policy of whisking immigrants that come by boat into offshore detention camps. The biggest sign says in black-and-white font “TRUMP PUTS BABIES IN CAGES, SO DO WE.”
In class, I noticed my lecture room had one of those weird and hypnotic clocks where the second hand doesn’t tock so much as whir, smoothly, in a continuous motion. It rolled from second to second with none of the jagged ticks and tocks that you would normally associate with the expiry of time.
I met two friends at our favourite Vietnamese place on King Street. They had asked me what I was doing that day, and I coyly suggested lunch so I could avoid telling them that they weren’t invited to my friend Alex’s birthday party in the evening. The Vietnamese place has a $12 deal where you get a bowl of beef pho and a Saigon Special beer, and it’s perfect. Over lunch, one of my friends accidentally let slip that a girl we knew had been really struggling lately wouldn’t be coming to uni this semester. I pressed him, perhaps unfairly, to get the story. She had recently been told by the doctors that she was infertile. I found the news unendurable and had to fight the urge to just go home.
The two beers helped me coast through the afternoon’s classes. I learned about the clean hands doctrine in equity law, about the exceptions to the general rule that you cannot sue the directors of a body corporate, and about the evidentiary burden of proof in criminal law. I arrived at my Alex’s party at seven (via the twilight ferry), only half an hour late, wearing a more colourful shirt but the same boots and jeans. My mum told me I was going to be cold.
I had a few Asahis and then switched to rosé at the behest of Gemma, the ferry girl’s best friend. I told her I had seen Katie on the ferry that morning. She said “Oh!” and I realised it wasn’t a particularly interesting story. There were about 20 of us, and we had a big dinner with pulled pork and salad. I sent my mum a selfie with Alex’s mum, a friend of hers, and the next day I saw that in the photo I had a bit of blood coming out of my nose.
I nearly outstayed my welcome. I didn’t notice it was late until about two, by which point I was drinking wine with my friend, his parents, and about three other people on the balcony. Alex’s mum lit one of Alex’s cigarettes on a candle and told me not to tell my mum, and then laughed and took a long drag. It was too late for a ferry, so I got an Uber. When I got home, I went in to my parent’s room, as is my custom, to say I had got home safe. My mum complained that my dad had been snoring, and I took my cat into my room so I had someone to go to sleep with.