walking slowly downhill
Eightieth Day, December 1, Melbourne
The day is splendid.
Something feels like change, but it’s hard to locate its source.
First day of summer!
Hard to believe.
I fill the large pan with cold, clear water and carry it to the plants outside the front door, then I pour the water into each pot in equal parts and watch it slowly be absorbed by the parched earth.
I can almost hear the geraniums thanking me in a slow, soft, green voice.
The nasturtiums do in a higher tone, cheery, like that of a child whose voice has broken before the body has grown into its support role as a perfect sound chamber.
Before the evening comes matters take a turn for the better; there’s a softening of attitude on the part of those who can make far-reaching decisions and somehow those decisions are made.
There’s only now some days to pass together quietly but efficiently, accustoming each of us to this new order, to this radicalizing of our lives that inevitably will take place.
Tonight I even allow myself to go to the cinema, trusting that things will be all right at home.
And they are.
I can’t remember much of what I sat through in the dark, but it matters that I took the chance to allow the world to unfold in the only way it can, in the way it must.
It’s late now and I’m sitting in the silence of the kitchen with only the regular tapping of the keys to mark time, to keep a beat resembling that of my heart.
But gradually Cagean sounds begin to fill what had seemed to me to be a void; the fridge motor gurgles into life with its usual drunken monologue, its mad poetic raving in an as yet unknown, indecipherable language.
The neighbours’ television is on and another, fragmented language seeps through their window onto the damp garden and beyond.
‘Don’t leave me’ says a tremulous woman’s voice.
Trams rumble, wind stirs leaves, water pipes moan.
And then eventually, as with everything, there’s an all too sudden silence.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-ninth Day, November 30, Melbourne
In the morning I drive back to Melbourne.
To my left the bay is a flat and shimmering deep aquamarine all the way to the pyramidical You Yangs, fading to patches of cobalt blue and viridian green closer to shore.
The pier is empty, the spectacle unobserved.
I join the queue of anxiously speeding motorists hurrying their way through the flotsam and jetsam of the freeway-river to the madness ahead.
We all know what awaits us there but, as though swept along by irresistible, primal winds, we urgently sail to our destination ignoring the final cost, the inevitable reckoning.
Soon I am deeper in its waters and then, like all the others, I reach my destination.
The jacaranda tree next door has laid a carpet of violet blossoms on the footpath.
I imagine them floating down onto the thick green of Patagonia’s grasslands or on the shallow water of an unimaginably remote drinking-hole somewhere in the Kenyan wilderness, so remote that no animal has yet reached it.
I pick one up from this Clifton Hill pavement and look at it closely.
Its edges are frayed and its deep violet hues have been rubbed dull by the constant friction of the asphalt on its velvetiness, as it was blown and tossed since early this morning by a fierce northeasterly.
Suddenly as I hold it in my palm I am conscious that I am here still and that the jaded petal and I are not so very different.
Like the jacaranda I have also been transplanted and I now wonder if what falls from me, what I shed, would become less worn if it fell onto a street in Trieste, or onto the stone pavement of the pier jutting out into its azure gulf.
Indeed, perhaps not; the world is all-of-the-world, irrespective of its small-minded regionalities, its local and seasonal flavours and its unpredictable weather fluctuations.
Anyhow, such speculation can never be adequately satisfied; no petal nor human nor thing can be in two places at once, in order to compare the relative effects of different kinds of friction on our tender skins.
He, or she, and I can only be where we are for a single moment and then something as yet unknown unfolds, and keeps on unfolding.
I bend down and place the petal again among its brothers and sisters, among its extended family of migrant blossoms, comforted, I know, simply by their proximity.
I stand and turn and slide the key into the lock.
I wait for a moment; then I push the door open.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-eighth Day, November 29, Melbourne
I’m driving to Dromana along the freeway in the middle of the night.
I’m in a dream.
Nothing much makes sense, and shouldn’t it by now?
Perhaps, perhaps not; it’s all a cycle and it depends what spoke of the wheel you concentrate on.
I can her them now, those Toyota Hi-Ace wheels, spinning round and round on the Peninsula Link’s hard surface.
Finally the Dromana exit sign appears and I veer left.
The apartment feels silent and immobile.
An ancient, quiet nest.
All the photographs are still lined up on the sideboard; what did I expect?
The shower is hot and strong, my bed is firm and the sheets are cool and smooth.
I stand upstairs on the balcony watching the faraway lights of Corio Bay twinkling at different rates to the shipping lane signals that intermittently light up the darkness beyond the pier.
I close my eyes and drift into instantaneous sleep while clutching the balustrade.
I open them and I look up at Arthur’s Seat so close, following the transit of a car’s headlights here, another’s there.
I turn the house lights out one by one; then I undress and lie flat under the sheets thinking of what book I will read.
But I don’t read any book.
I simply lie there until dawn breaks, until the delivery trucks wake me from a dreamless sleep, as if it had suddenly overtaken me last night in the deep gloom of the pier and I had just now woken above a flat sea and immediately plunged into its tide-less mourning.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-seventh Day, November 28, Melbourne
Parsley also grows in this garden, though its leaves are sparser, paler, flatter and larger than those of the dense green parsley sold at Mecca’s Fruit Shop.
There’s something so uplifting about walking home carrying vegetables and fruit bursting with life.
The range and power of such uplifting lasts about an afternoon, perhaps a whole day when in the late evening the sky also clears in the west and you suddenly remember how a neighbor smiled encouragingly at you after glancing at the contents of your bag.
I think all this as I water the little garden in the early morning.
And then I think; might this be the day I finally get to have a game of tennis at the Veneto Club?
And I do. I’m the first to arrive, so I sweep the lines and then water the same court I’ve played on since 1973.
Lou arrives, then Paolo, then Tony and then Renzo.
The last to arrive has to wait until the first set is finished and then the losers step out and allow the latecomers to replace them.
The race is on to win the first set so that there is no interruption to playing.
The same things have been said to the same people by the same people every Saturday afternoon for the last thirty years.
But we continue to gather together and speak our language and make fun of each other and compete fiercely, as only ageing men trying to prove a point to each other can.
We’ve seen each other get older and slower and heavier and though some of us have already departed we pretend that our physical deterioration is only temporary, and reversible if only we could be bothered to do the right thing.
But we make do, we say to each other.
It’s ok as it is.
And most of them retire to play cards and drink beer afterwards, in the lounge upstairs.
I always make an excuse and leave. But before I can Paolo asks me how the walk is going, have I found myself yet?
Oh no, I retort, that’s not possible, but I like looking!
He leans against the bonnet of his car; why do I not care about such things, he asks.
I’m not sure whether he’s asking himself or me.
For a moment there’s genuine curiosity in his eyes, but it fades quickly.
He changes the subject.
I’m going to Thailand in February, he says. He has a younger Thai wife with whom he runs a Thai take away food place in Rowville.
I’m hard, he then confesses, looking down. I don’t know if I’m cold or strong, but such things don’t move me; but you’re an artist, you love to search.
He looks up and he waves his hands in the air, alluding to the great spaces beyond.
But is he alluding to what lies beyond Bulleen? Or beyond the world?
I ask him that.
He smiles, then blurts out: I’m going upstairs to play cards.
Come on, he says, you come too; I’ll buy you a beer.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-sixth Day, November 27, Melbourne
I’m chopping some parsley very finely.
Then I suddenly stop and look up through my daughter’s kitchen window into the garden next door.
I miss walking far more than I’d expected.
Perhaps more than the walking itself, although my body craves it, it’s the structure of the day that I miss, the predictability of the broad sweeps of time that are then filled by totally unpredictable unfolding of events as I traverse unknown terrain, both physical and mental, entirely at my own pace.
The rate of my movement through the space I so inhabit cannot be accelerated, or at best only minimally.
Consequentially it’s impossible to leave myself behind or to distract myself with all of the devices I usually have at hand.
This implies that I eventually need to negotiate the subsequent loss of control, even though paradoxically I might seem to be completely controlling my day by reducing the number of actions I engage in.
But it’s the immense space inside the boundaries of each action that cannot, must not, will not be controlled.
That’s what I yearn for; the sense of spaciousness and the absence of any determination I might have upon it.
I recognize some of myself in such spaces.
The shards of my forgotten, perhaps hidden selves, those that normally accumulate in the corners of my life, can here be held up to the light of day and examined.
Away from the spaciousness I fragment into shards; inside it, as if by some gravity other than the one that regulates our known universe, I accumulate together into the form I’ve always known.
So I continue to chop the parsley; the water in the pot is now boiling so I turn the gas down.
But out of the corner of my eye I catch something moving, or perhaps laying immutably still, there, just in that corner.
Or perhaps it’s in this one, over here.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-fifth Day, November 26, Melbourne
They’ve been so many.
I am most sublimely practiced in the art of hospitalizing.
So many of us need so much care, for so many reasons.
And how expertly is it showered upon us all?
With a smile.
Humans at their best.
But at the end of the day, when late spring dusk falls upon the Exhibition Gardens it’s good to leave it all, the order and the good sense, and get out into the random world where humans are what you’d expect them to be.
Shall I speak about the vulnerability of a loved one in that context, and how one must fight tooth and nail to cram one’s emotions into some kind of container we carry just for that purpose, otherwise the world as we know it would cave in?
Well, the container is strapped to one’s chest, and one simply pops the lid open, located just under one’s neck, and jams it full of what normally could not be contained inside the core of the self.
There’s no regular collection of whatever accumulates inside the containers and so I’m not sure how all that matter is ever dispersed.
It’s enough to say that there always seems to be enough room to cram more; maybe the stuff leaks out gradually as we walk around our world.
I don’t know.
All I know is that I could not have done without such a container strapped to my chest today.
Or yesterday, or the day before; or all the days I have ever spent in such places.
And now, if I put out my hand to my chest, it’s gone.
I have no idea.
Yet, sure enough, as I step through the Emergency Department’s red door tomorrow morning it will certainly suddenly appear, perfectly adjacent to my chest and ready to go to work.
But, it’s enough to know that that’s how it is.
No need to ask why, or how.
Why the sunrise, how the sunrise?
No. I just love the sunrise, love that container.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-fourth Day, November 25, Melbourne
It’s my sister’s birthday today.
We were born almost eighteen months apart; she came after me but in many ways she’s so much more worldy-wise.
I want to go and see her today but I can’t.
I try and imagine the late November day she was born in.
Trieste autumn; November 1948.
The golden leaves all piled up on Viale XX Settembre, all the way up to the Giardini Pubblici.
Autumns can be bitter in Trieste.
I’ve never thought of all that before, the month she was born in, how it might have been for my mother.
Cool damp sheets on the birth bed, the same one I also saw light from on my first day here and then slept in until the day we left for Melbourne.
She was always wilder than me, more courageous, keeping true to the arrow’s path.
She fell from the top of the stairs and split her chin, leaning over too much trying to see what was happening downstairs; then months later she disturbed the pot and boiling water poured over her.
Big brown eyes followed the nurse’s hand as each month she expertly peeled dead skin away from my sister’s four-year old foot.
Then the departure, summer’s warmth easing the bewilderment of it all.
So, what happened to us between then and now?
She’s still wild, Artemis with a walking stick, spouting ancient wisdom interspersed with the most current profanities.
How much can I learn from you, o my sister, before our time comes too?
We are the only ones left now, you and I, the rest are all gone.
You’ve achieved so much more than I ever could, because you picked up all the shattered shards of the crystal and pieced them together in new and remarkable ways.
What did I do?
I pretended that nothing had been broken, or lost, and that all was as it always had been.
That’s why when the southern gales blow now they suck each living thing from the core of me, riddled as I am with missing parts.
Those same icy winds simply roar around your seemingly frailer frame, but they cannot penetrate the architecture you have wrought.
No man was ever more privileged to be so sistered.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-third Day, November 24, Melbourne
I wake to a clear, beautiful late spring day.
But nevertheless melancholy is in the air.
Do you know what I mean?
Like no matter how beautiful the world might seem, no matter how many reasons there might be for happiness or how many conditions might be present that would normally generate joy, everything in me says, as I address the world around me: no matter what you might weave, whatever you might seemingly casually sparkle upon, whatever you can think up, none of it can change this. You’re not fooling me today.
And don’t forget that I normally, without letting on, simply allow you to. Don’t forget that.
Because today I know what’s really happening; today I know what it is that lays behind the veil, no matter how wondrous the embroidery that shields it all from my eyes might be.
Today is one of those days where everything appears as it really is; no sweetening memory or wish or hope or stern order or even pragmatic compromise can change any of it, or make it feel embraceable.
Today there is separation.
Today no one is at home.
Or at least none of us are in our own home; others occupy it.
Today we are all dwelling elsewhere.
How long will this go on? It’s difficult to say.
But it’s Tuesday.
I say that to myself as though it might explain something to me.
I wait for the effect to take place but there is none.
As I walk home, or towards my home-for-a-day, I look for a clue, something that might trigger a shift.
Normally I might at this point simply sing.
Today I kick stones into the gutter; Messi, Suarez, Vardy, none could do better.
The seventh ‘goal’ is the trigger I’ve been waiting for; it’s the one that finds the narrow angle between the disabled parking sign post and a woman’s shoe that’s been left behind, or dropped, or thrown out of a passing car’s window.
No matter; the angle is sharp, the impact with the stone impeccable, the goal sublime.
The crowd roars, I savour the moment, my teammates jump for joy around me.
And suddenly everyone is home again.
Not only that; they’re so very glad to be.
I can feel their joy from here, from here near the touchline.
If I look down I can see the individual drops of dew now clinging to each blade of grass.
Oh, it’s so good to be playing on such a wonderful surface, where every touch is true.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-second Day, November 23, Melbourne
Last night I dreamt about walking towards a river to build an iron bridge, painted deep blue in colour, to commemorate a friend, an artist of Italian origin, who departed long ago.
I was entrusted with this task by another friend, also an Italian artist.
I named this bridge after them both by combining their surnames together; in my dream the structure spanned the river elegantly and its deep blueness distinguished it as a sinewy mechanical articulation spanning the water’s azure flowing.
But this morning I awaken to new and different sounds; birds sing differently in the city, joggers run by my window in pairs exchanging information about the previous night’s activities, car engines start and stall and start again, distant trams clank and rattle and low-flying airplanes bank to the right towards their destination over the suburbs to the north-west of where I lie in a new bed, looking up to the wooden ceiling’s many malformations.
I need to hear new music, but I haven’t any.
There’s never enough of that; it’s like an endless thirst.
I resolve to water the courtyard garden instead.
I run the hose under the wire gate, then I walk through the house to the footpath, pick up the end of the hose and stand in the street flooding the large pots, filled with wilted and faded nasturtiums, that stand on either side of the front door.
When the water overflows carrying with it gritty soil I turn the jet towards the footpath, clearing all I can see, soil and leaves, fragments of paper, butts and tiny twigs, all into the gutter. And then further downhill, far away.
By now the pots require another flooding, and I immediately oblige.
But it all feels like a rearguard action; the battle was lost a long time ago and this skirmishing at the edges, except for the grateful gladness the faded nasturtiums must feel, means little to any final outcome.
The sky clears and the plants stand a little more upright, look a little greener.
After all, that’s all that can be done; water the plants, wash the footpath clean, clear the gutters.
Just to love one’s local universe is at times all one can do, even if up above in the western sky the heavy clouds gather.
And if it does storm then the water will fill the plant pots, won’t it?
And so on. And on.
walking slowly downhill
Seventy-first Day, November 22, Melbourne
I watched as my eldest daughter’s world was packed into boxes, patiently and lovingly by my youngest daughter.
I have done it before so many times with all my own things that I simply couldn’t move.
It took me an entire month to pack my parent’s house after my father died and my mother moved to a nursing home.
And then a month to pack my own house, all of it densely layered with thirty-five years of many of my lives.
So, incapacitated, I sat and talked or walked around; oh yes, I made lunch for us all.
And my youngest said she’d so love to have one of my salads and that her mouth was watering even when she was in the other room, just the fragrance of it all, perhaps even the memory of the fragrance, I don’t know.
So as the music played we ate with the relish that’s fuelled by anticipation and love and then afterwards we were able to pack together.
And soon the studio was all inside stacked cardboard boxes. And then afterwards the precious sedimentations on the window ledge followed; fragments, moments, illuminations, at last all inside one cardboard home, darkened for the sleep that will eventually come during the long night ahead.
Then it was the glass cabinet’s turn to be emptied of the various landmarks and milestones that had lit as well as littered the way; children’s first milk teeth, scrawled notes, books, fragments of hand made cups.
The last tiny object that had sat in the darkened corner of the cabinet’s top shelf for God knows how long finally emerged, almost forgotten except for the sun’s late rays filtering through the leaves of the olive tree outside the window, right in to that corner.
And they revealed a tiny slingshot, its elastic sagging slackly, probably excitedly and inexpertly made by a very young boy a very long time ago.
My eldest daughter picked it up ever so gently, handled its forked twigs as through remembering something, and then placed it in its resting place amongst the other relics, box ready to be taped closed.
‘Camberwell market…’ she said with a tired smile, and looked past me to the window, through which the stray late ray had probed, searched for and found the boy’s handmade treasure.
I suddenly wanted to lift the slingshot out of the box, carefully pick up all the pain in her eyes, every last throbbing jolt of it, place it on the tiny piece of leather made for stones, walk to the front door and then right out into the middle of Hodgkinson Street, point the slingshot towards the setting sun and fire its load right over the Collingwood Pool, past the Merri Creek, up and beyond Rucker’s Hill, right into the orange yolk of the setting sun, all the while in my heart beseeching our nearest star to receive it, embrace it and consume it in its house of fire, never to be traced again.
But I didn’t.
No one is home, I thought instead.
I had this thought: no one is home.