Essay: Anthony Macrison Redfern

8 Turner Street, Redfern

I was reluctant to try share house living again; being thrown out of the Abercrombie Street house had affected me more deeply than I thought. My room in the Harold Park Hotel wasn’t a viable option either. It wasn’t the quality of the room that was the problem. When I first went to check the place out I’d braced myself for pub squalor, but to my surprise the room had been recently refurbished, in cheap synthetic everything, it was true, but at least it was clean and new. But apart from the bed there was hardly any furniture, not even a bar fridge, and even though the weather was mild, the milk I bought for my cereal – which I was just about living on – curdled overnight. Also, the pub was next to one of Sydney’s major racetracks, and it was impossible to study over the booming PA. I’d sit at the floor at the end of the single bed, surrounded by piles of library books on topics ranging from the cinema of Luis Buñuel to intermediate French grammar, unable to block out the voices of the race commentators. These delivered near stream-of-consciousness monologues that built to frenzied climaxes made up of the winning horses’ names – Sea Peony, Rusted Sunset, Achilles – manically repeated over and over again.

But what bothered me the most about the hotel was running the gauntlet of the shared bathroom with its row of shower stalls, each with a twist-lock door that said Vacant/Engaged. It was clean enough, the red and pink Pebblecrete surfaces smelling of fresh bleach and, thankfully, not much else. The bathroom was where I’d constantly bump into the old timers that lived there, no matter how much I’d try to avoid them. I’d see one in an old chenille dressing gown, a towel hung over his shoulder, his nose like an overgrown strawberry. Another was always fully clothed in checked nylon shorts and sports shirt, his skinny legs overshadowed by a huge beer belly. They always greeted me politely, usually a few words muttered at our reflections in the huge wall mirror. After I was there for more than a week, their glances said: what’s a young fella like you doing in a place like this.

I’d go for long walks around Glebe, pondering my next move. The hotel was situated at the bottom of a hill. Some mornings I’d set off up the steep slope to Glebe Point Road, buy a soft bread roll for breakfast from the local deli, then turn left to go down to Rozelle Bay. Rozelle Bay, Blackwattle Bay, Jones Bay, Johnson’s Bay, Pyrmont Bay, on and on they went, each hidden from the next by sudden twists and turns. One morning into my second week at the hotel I was sitting on a park bench, tearing at my bread roll, enjoying the view. Women pushed prams, dogs frisked about, a couple of student types lay on the grass, reading. I looked beyond to the mix of bridges, light industrial buildings and houses that crept right down to the water’s edge. It was the unpredictable lines of the bays that shaped Sydney, that made it such a mixture of order and chaos. This wasn’t a city built around a river, but a sprawling harbour whose meanderings lines shaped the city as a whole. One moment the streets were a neat grid, the next a tangle of crescents, cul-de-sacs and waterways that only a local could make any sense of. There was a slight tang of sea air everywhere, and in the early winter light, as clouds rushed through the sunlight on days of unstable, stormy weather, I’d imagine they were encrusted, lightly, with layers of salt. But it seemed to mock me, all this staggering beauty. It always seemed to be saying, raise yourself up, be as beautiful as me. And then it would wrong-foot me, trip me over, laugh at me lying in the dust, then wait for me to get up and try all over again.

Raise yourself up: that’s what Sydney said. That’s what the rustling trees said. That’s what the gentrified terrace houses said. That’s what the air itself said, with its tang of salt and sunshine. Raise yourself up, transcend yourself. Transcendence: everyone wanted it, everyone, it seemed, wanted to be something more. To be the best they could be. To stand out. To be special. The drive to transcendence: I saw it everywhere. There was the transcendence of the body. As I sat there on the park bench, I saw it in the fit young woman jogging past me, blond ponytail swishing as she passed. I’d seen it earlier that morning when I left the hotel: as I passed by the dimly lit bar, there they were, the dedicated drunks lined up silently at the counter, each with a tall glass of beer before them, an amber glow in the semi-darkness. This silent oblivion, wasn’t it a kind of negative transcendence? I remembered a boy at high school, one of my tormentors, a real thug. His obsession was rugby league. His dream was to kick a conversion, every time. As I left school for the day I’d often see him on the oval, alone, summer or winter. He’d line up the ball and kick it over and over, cursing himself when it went awry, his face beaming when it soared through the goalposts. I wasn’t into sport, didn’t understand it, was no good at it. But he was no different from me, I had to admit, I hated to admit. With every fibre in his body he wanted to achieve.

But my path to transcendence couldn’t have been more different. I was all mind and sensation. Novels. Poetry. Movies. Music. Art. Philosophy. This was why I had come to Sydney: to find a place where these things were valued, where they were done on a bigger and better scale than I’d experienced before. And didn’t Sydney deliver, with its universities, its theatres, its Opera House and museums and bookstores and cinemas? Right here on Glebe Point Road there was the Valhalla Cinema, which screened art house movies, and Gleebooks, which stocked the latest writers and philosophers. This was all proof that I’d come to a place where culture was valued. But like everything else in Sydney, they also seemed to mock and goad. I’d been in the city for six months, but still didn’t have anyone to go to a museum or movies with, or any money to buy books.

Besides, artistic transcendence was no easy path. I’d already suffered one failed attempt, as an art student. All that was left of that career was a series of performances no one would ever remember, and a pile of paintings and sculptures I’d abandoned under my mother’s house. And for every happy creative moment, there’d been a dozen fraught ones. Being a painter, a writer, an artist of any kind, there was so much to figure out, and not only in terms of making the art itself – there were also complex personal and psychological challenges. How to be equal to others, yet stand out apart from them. How to admire others’ achievements, yet use them to fuel your own, and to eclipse what you admired. You looked at a painting, read a novel – at some point, you thought, had to think, I can do that, I can do better than that. Which triggered the moment of feeling cheated when you thought someone might have already done what you’d thought of doing, or frustration when you found out that making decent art wasn’t so easy. The jealousy and anger and self-hate, the loss of confidence and the failure: I’d experienced it all on a small scale at art school. But the whole time I was making painting or sculptures or installations, I had known something wasn’t quite right, that my real abilities lay elsewhere. Studying arts at Sydney University felt right. I was acutely aware that this was no longer a dress rehearsal, that this was the real thing. But here I was living in a pub, hand-writing my assignments on my lap, with no idea how I could live. My head was in clouds, my toes barely skimming the earth.

Transcendence, I was also learning, was a luxury. You had to survive first, and I was not surviving. This was, I knew, my own fault. I flatly refused to do any paid work. I was pretty sure that I could supplement my unemployment benefits with some part-time work without reducing the amount, and even if wasn’t legal, there was always cash in hand. My refusal to work wasn’t pride, I told myself. I was no stranger to menial work. As far as I was concerned I’d started work at the age of seven, or even earlier, helping in the family shop. Most days after school I’d make chips, crumb fish, peel prawns. Every weekend I’d serve in the shop. It wasn’t so much that I felt above menial work, it was more that I’d had enough of it already. There was nothing dignified about it. Menial work was boring, mind-numbing, stunting. And there was another reason for my refusal to look for work: an educational one. It seemed to take me longer to do assignments than my peers. I was slowly overcoming my lack of basic academic skills, but it was proving harder than I thought.

But after yet another lunch made up of a cheese sandwich with a cup of sweet black tea, after yet another inspection of my clothes that revealed they were looking shabbier with every passing day, I caved. With maximum reluctance I signed up for a waitering course provided by one of the university’s job agencies. The first night involved folding napkins into bishop’s hats and twisting the wine bottle at the end of pouring so not a drop was spilt. I couldn’t stand it: the years of being on permanent call to feed random strangers flooded back to me. Perhaps I’d find something non-food related less aversive? I answered an ad for leaflets distributors. I dutifully phoned the number. The woman who answered described the job, then tartly informed me that she knew residents in the area who would report back – I’d better not get it into my head to dump the fliers in the nearest rubbish bin. She was so rude I hung up on her.

At the end of my fourth week at the Harold Park Hotel I was walking down Glebe Point Road, on my way to uni, when I ran into Christian, a friend of a friend from my Brisbane art school days. He was originally from Melbourne. In my last summer at art school he’d come up to spend time with his girlfriend, who was in my painting class, and we’d got to know each other. Back then he’d been doing arts at Melbourne Uni, majoring in English and Psychology. He was into Kerouac and Burroughs, Herman Hesse and Carlos Castaneda, and we’d talk books and music. He smoked a fair bit of dope but he never seemed a slave to it. He was a few years older and I felt flattered he took any interest in me. But what impressed me most about him was his personality. He was quietly upbeat, smiling from the inside. People liked him.

It was good to bump into him, to see a friendly face. We got talking. He’d dropped out of uni and come to Sydney to join a band. He played bass. They were getting regular gigs and it was kind of becoming full time. He asked what I was doing and seemed more impressed that I was living in a pub than the fact I was studying – I got the feeling any talk of uni made him a bit uneasy. I told him that I was finding the pub hard going: it was expensive, no fridge, no kitchen… He waited for me to finish then told me, a kind of shy look on his face, that he’d just set up a share house and that there was a spare room. It was mine if I wanted it, that is if I thought the room was okay. I could come and look now, his car was just around the corner. I stood there, a bit taken aback. Sure, I said, let’s have a look. He led me off to a nearby side street to his car. It was a beaten-up MG, dark green, low slung with a black soft top. As we turned into Glebe Point Road it occurred to me to ask him where the house was. Redfern, he said. Perfect, I said, I could still walk to uni. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the car’s wooden steering wheel, a golden hue, or the aviation-style gauges of the dashboard. I sat there in the cracked remnants of a black leather seat, feeling like a cat that had been rescued.

We turned into a narrow street filled with rows of cramped, run-down terraces. Eight Turner Street, the house the MG came to a rattling stop in front of, marked a level of decrepitude a few rungs down from Abercrombie Street. I didn’t care. On the drive over Christian told me who was living there: him, his new girlfriend Judy, and Sarah, who was also studying at Sydney. The way he spoke about everyone, his laidback, friendly manner, made him sound like a cool dad keen to set up a happy family. The house itself was a nightmare. The battered front door gave on to ancient carpet pounded into a grey mush; it was probably orange once. The cracked walls seemed to lean in and the cell-like windows of the living room repelled light rather than welcomed it. Christian led me up a steep flight of wonky stairs to the spare room above the kitchen. It was a dogbox but, to my amazement, it was a minor miracle. Light flooded in through the glass panes of the two narrow doors that led onto a tiny balcony. A previous occupant had painted the walls in a clever series of super-light pastels, each a different colour. The only things in the room were four upturned milk crates, positioned to support a single mattress. Apart from a small desk, that was about all there’d be space for.

It’s great, I told him. I’ll move in this afternoon. Christian smiled his coy smile. Don’t worry about any bond, he said, but the rent, that was kind of urgent. If he could have it later that afternoon, that would be great. To my great relief, the amount he told me manageable.

That night Christian put on a welcome dinner for me. I was nervous about it; I’d be meeting Judy and Sarah. I spent the rest of the afternoon going back to the hotel, picking up my meagre belongings, and setting up my room. My foam mattress was still at Abercrombie Street so I’d have to sleep on the floor until I could pick it up. I sat down on a milk crate and looked out through the open balcony doors that in turn looked out onto an overgrown backyard. At the end of the yard was a tiny structure of flaking grey concrete with a rusting roof: the outside toilet.

Then I did something I’d been putting off for the last few days – I got out the essay that had been returned a few days previously. I hadn’t dared looked at it. It was far from my best effort and I dreaded what the mark was. The marking spectrum was brutally simple: Pass, Credit, Distinction, High Distinction. By the end of first term my marks had been in the Credit/Distinction range. My goal now was to shift them to Distinction/High Distinction. This would be hard; High Distinctions were nearly impossible to get. I felt like I was flinging myself at a wall, but as yet to no avail. There was nothing I could do to control this ambition. I knew it was ridiculous to seek so much validation from an institution, that I risked turning myself into some kind of performing seal. But it was hard to overcome this desire to please, to have the great sandstone beast smile on you and bestow its favour.

I flipped through my essay on Bunuel’s short film Land without Bread to the last page, where my tutor’s hand had decisively ringed the all-important number: sixty-six. 66! Barely above a pass! It was the lowest mark I’d ever got. For a few moments I felt dazed, as if I’d been slapped. Then I felt angry. That Lithuanian. It was all his fault. He’d plunged me into a world of chaos, of instability. He had better not be around when I picked up my mattress. I had visions of rolling him up in it and stamping on his head. Once the anger had passed I felt like sobbing. Then I thought – stability. What I needed was stability. That was the key to everything, as least for me. Other people might be able to move house every three months and keep on an even keel, but I couldn’t. Besides, thing weren’t so bad. Hadn’t my luck turned? In the space of roughly six hours I’d been spirited away from loneliness and destitution in a sports car. I’d been given a second chance. I’d do everything I could to get along with these new people. I would study what I loved, get exemplary grades for true excellence. I’d immerse myself in great art, learn to understand it so I could learn to produce it. This was my ladder to transcendence. I wouldn’t let serendipity kick it out from beneath my feet.

I sat awkwardly at the kitchen table, a chipped slab of mustard Formica, while we watched Christian cook. Piled up in his hands were a number of frozen lamb chops, still caked with ice. These he dropped one by one into the large fry pan where the smoking oil awaited them. He swore gently under his breath as hot oil spattered his arms, but not for a moment did his quiet smile leave his face. Next to the fry pan was a saucepan full of furiously boiling spaghetti, the tips of rogue stalks curled around the edges, a few of them burning like sticks of incense. I sat awkwardly at the table with the girls, who looked on bemused. Bemused not only by the spectacle of Christian cooking, but also by their new, tongue-tied housemate, me.

‘Christian,’ Judy said, laughing, ‘that spaghetti’s going to burst into flame. You’ll burn the place down.’ She gave Sarah a complicitous glance.

‘Oops!’ He prodded the smoking tips back into the furiously boiling water.

‘Don’t do that!’ Judy scolded.

She glanced at the sole condiment on the table – a bottle of tomato sauce – and raised an eyebrow in our direction.

‘Have we got stuff for a salad?’ Sarah offered, feebly.

‘We’ve already got some vegetables on the table,’ Christian said. ‘Beer. That’s made out of hops. Hops are vegetables.’

And much of that had gone already. The two long necks of Tooheys were half empty.

It was the girls who were drinking, not me. My glass sat relatively untouched. Besides, I didn’t need it to enjoy the evening; I was already intoxicated by the situation. It was the first time in Sydney I had experienced something that felt like home, like friendship. Judy and Sarah overwhelmed me. Just to be in their presence, to be sitting there drinking in a rundown kitchen at a wobbly kitchen table with two friendly, attractive women around my age: it was all too much. Still, if I didn’t say something soon, I’d make a fool of myself. So I did what you should do in such situations. I asked them about themselves.

Judy had dropped out of art school in Melbourne to come to Sydney. She was a jewellery maker and had a stall at Glebe markets. She all but said she’d moved to be with Christian.

Sarah was from California, and was doing a master’s in sociology. Her thesis was a case study of the social factors that give birth to the record label Motown. It was an unusual topic, she said, but she had a supervisor who was fine with it. She’d come to Sydney to ‘babysit’ her dad. He’d been sent by his company to head up the Asia-Pacific division. She’d lived with him a while, but they drove each other crazy, so she decided to share. Now they were getting on fine again.

And what was I doing? French and Fine Arts at Sydney, I replied. I felt foolish saying it, as if I should be wearing a smock and beret, a baguette tucked under my arm. It wasn’t very masculine, was it? Is this what I wanted to be, now that I’d left my Brisbane art school affectations behind? More masculine? I was surprised at my own attitude. Before, in the comfort of my home town, I’d happily flaunt anything that made me seem different and interesting. But since moving to Sydney I was finding myself self-conscious, and often felt tentative and fragile.

‘Food’s up,’ Christian said. He slapped down the lamb chops, which looked surprisingly appetising. The spaghetti hadn’t fared so well; it was clumped and in parts burnt. We all eyed off the tomato sauce bottle at the same time.

Throughout the meal I did my best not to keep looking at Sarah, but my eyes wandered back to her again and again. It was hard to tell if she noticed. There was something detached about her, as if she wanted to be there, but also not there. For the next hour we all chatted and drank, although I more pretended to chat, and I hardly drank. I envied Christian’s complete ease with the situation, in this share house that he had created. The only false note was when Judy touched him. From time to time she’d run her fingers across his shoulder or brush a hand on his thigh. It was barely noticeable, but he seemed to flinch. And in a barely noticeable response a look of hurt would flash through Judy’s eyes.

The evening began with Christian, and it finished with him. After coffee he said he had to get to band practice, and the girls called it a night. No one seemed fussed about the washing up. I should have offered, but the day had worn me out.

I sat by myself in the living room a while. The dim globe muted the general shabbiness, but it couldn’t hide the distinct glamour of a couple of objects I hadn’t noticed when I walked in. Two bass guitars propped up in the corner gleamed expensively, as did the top-end hi fi equipment stacked on a designer glass rack. Clearly, it was Christian’s stuff. I found myself a little in awe of him. The sports car, the welcome dinner, living in a new house with new people, all into the arts… once again, I felt overwhelmed.

Then all I wanted to do was sleep.

Motown, I thought as I climbed he steep stairs to my room. Stevie Wonder, I thought. Songs in the Key of Life. A double album with bonus EP. It had come out when I was in my early teens. RAM magazine said it was a masterpiece, so I bought it. It was the most expensive album I’d ever bought, which meant I had to like it, no matter what. Fortunately, I did.

At some point it might make a good conversation starter with Sarah.

In my mattress-less room I spread my two blankets on the floor, put on my only winter jacket, lay down fully clothed and tried to sleep. As I lay there the impulse came to create something, to write something, to make something out of thoughts, out of sensations, out of memories of sensations. The swarming mass that went through me demanded to be poured into some kind of mould, to be given some kind of form. I had a notebook that I wrote in at moments like these, paragraphs that formed tiny doorways that begged to open out on to bigger things. Tonight I was too tired to be bothered, and lately I’d been writing in it less and less. Because I was studying, I found myself creatively paralysed: there was too much rushing in for anything to get out. I suddenly felt a sense of claustrophobia, of panic, as if an all-important life force was being blocked. Then I felt bitter and angry. I was a writer who had written nothing. By this stage I should have at least completed my first novel, some unpublishable piece of crap, no doubt, but I didn’t even have that. All I had was a notebook with some dubious prose sketches. I told myself to be patient, that one day I would get clear air, that I would be able to devote myself to creating a body of work. This promise to myself terrified me. What this body of work would look like, I had no idea. I only knew that it would be made of words. Cold, hard, mean words, kindling that was notoriously hard to spark into flame.

Lying there in the dark, it occurred to me that being a writer would mean spending much of my life in a room. To be a writer, I thought to myself, is to be trapped in rooms. It seemed a grim prospect, to seal yourself off from the world. To guard against this constant tug toward the outside, the room had to be seen as something that didn’t contain things, that didn’t trap things, but that allowed things to pass through, a constant parade of delights. Exciting thoughts. Sublime books. Wonderful music. And of course, a girlfriend. The room would have a desk and bed and when you weren’t writing or making art you’d be making love. The lovemaking would be tender and intimate and afterwards you’d have great conversations and ideas together. The conversations would range from the funny to the deep to the melancholic to spirited disagreements where you’d learn from each other and grow together. Yes, that was the another path to transcendence. Love. You and your soulmate. Sprawled together on rumpled sheets. Protected by pastel-painted walls. A universe of two, your thoughts teeming with worlds.

After a fitful night on the floor I woke up late the next morning, my body aching. I had to get that mattress immediately. I went downstairs and made the dreaded phone call: I could pick it up now, the Lithuanian snapped. Christian was in the kitchen, making coffee – did I want some? I told him my problem and he agreed to help out with the mattress. He wasn’t grudging about it, but as we drove over to Abercrombie Street I sensed it wasn’t the kind of favour I should ask on a regular basis. The mattress was waiting in the front yard when we got there, leaning up against the frangipani tree. A branch had broken, and creamy white sap was soaking into it. Christian got out some straps and we tied the sagging slab of foam over the roof of the MG. I was afraid the black soft top wouldn’t hold it, but Christian wasn’t worried at all. His mind seemed to be on other things.

As befitting a household of artists and thinkers – subtle, complex people – there was no policy on housework, food, or any practicalities whatsoever, apart from paying the rent on time: Christian was a stickler for that, and for that I was glad. The housework, however, could be a problem. The day after I moved in I cleaned the kitchen – it was quite a task – and got beaming thanks from my housemates. But it never seemed to happen again after that. The overall policy seemed to be that you picked a dirty item from the pile as needed, washed it (if you felt that was necessary), used it, then put it back in the dirty pile again. This commitment to minimum effort was applied uniformly across the kitchen (and the house), with varying results. The build-up of ice inside the freezer left virtually no room for anything. Suspended in the permafrost you could distinguish what might have been a half-packet of peas, and what looked like a lone raw sausage, preserved for all time. Then there was the rubbish bin, a plastic shopping bag that hung from the door handles, and that sometimes seeped stinking liquid onto the floor. The crew at Abercrombie Street may have been straitlaced, but at least they weren’t grubs. But I was determined to fit in. If squalor was the order of the day, I would embrace it.

I would also embrace everyone’s mildly annoying habits. As I settled in and the weeks passed, these soon became apparent. Christian liked to sit for long hours in the living room with a guitar and amp, the volume set, it was true, at a perfectly acceptable volume, only it meant you couldn’t go in there during that time. The house often smelt of the chemicals Judy used to make her jewellery, which she largely did in her and Christian’s room: hence his presence in the living room. And Sarah’s electric typewriter – an IBM golf ball Selectric that sounded like a machine gun – rattled out its rounds late into the night whenever she was meeting a deadline for an assignment. But there was nothing dramatic enough to create any major conflict. We all followed the tone Christian set for the house, friendly, but not overinvolved, with confrontation to be avoided at all costs. There were worse ways to live.

Over the following weeks I developed a full-blown crush on Sarah. She was from Southern California. She was small and slim. She had brown shoulder-length hair and her fair skin was lightly freckled. She usually wore white jeans and a light-coloured T-shirt on the slightly baggy side. She was Jewish. Her main quality was hard to pin down. She was quiet, but acutely present. It seemed hard to catch her moving: it was if she presented herself as a series of film stills. I’d see her sitting on the sofa, ignoring the TV she had put on at barely audible volume, staring down at her lecture notes or a book, a dreamy half-smile on her face. Or she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, one finger crooked around the handle of a chipped mug full of instant coffee, her gaze flitting between an open hardback and the notebook she was ready to jot down some notes in but never seemed to, even though the page was full of her angled handwriting.

Sarah, on the other hand, had no interest in me, or at least none that I could glean. Whenever we spoke the exchanges were friendly, short but not too short, and made up largely of platitudes. Even these had a limit, a threshold that sprung up between the general and particular. For example, if she said she was ‘taking the night off’ from study (she was very conscientious), it would never progress to any specific detail. Half an hour later I’d hear the front door shut behind her and she’d return at a sensible hour. If I said I was going out she would smile a measured, affirmative smile that said – good for me that I was going out! There was never any question of exactly where I might be going; a detail of that nature was somehow taboo. Our conversations (if they could be called such) usually ended with her saying she had better get back to studying. Then, from her bedroom door, I’d sometimes hear Diana Ross and Supremes, in particular The Happening, played over and over again, interspersed with bursts of typing. I heard other Motown acts: Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, The Temptations, and others I couldn’t recognise. Not once did I hear Stevie Wonder.

One day she left an essay she’d written on the sofa. I noticed that it had been marked. I couldn’t resist taking a quick look at it. It was immaculately presented and the lecturer had written nothing but praise in the margins. She’d got a High Distinction. It made me jealous. Where did people like Sarah come from? They seemed so comfortable with themselves, attained miraculous results so effortlessly. A few times a week she went swimming at Sydney Uni pool; from my bedroom window I’d see her modest black one-piece on the clothesline, pegged from the shoulder straps. I’d pass by the uni pool on my way home from lectures and through the glass wall I’d watch the students as they swam, doing their laps in quiet concentration. I could barely swim, hadn’t been to a pool since I was twelve years old; for me they were still places where you dive-bombed people and saw who could hold their breath longest underwater. Here, it was all about fitness and performance and being a rounded, accomplished person. I was not rounded or accomplished. I was all extremes, determined to be driven by inspiration, a highly unpredictable master. A part of me craved to be like these people, to have their effortless discipline, but another part of me didn’t want to be like them at all. At their most extreme, they were career-fixated robots. Sarah didn’t seem to be like that. She was conscientious but didn’t strike me as particularly driven. She did, however, seem to come from that sort of background.

This didn’t entirely explain why I was so intimidated by her. I’d come across rich kids before: art school had had its fair share of them. It took a while for me to find out why I found her so daunting. It was Christian who helped me come to the realisation, one night at one a.m. when I was down in the kitchen, in the process of tearing the foil off a tub of blueberry yoghurt. I heard his MG rattle up, the front door creak open, and in he ambled. He glanced at my yoghurt, gave a genial smile, and got one out of the fridge too. We stood there together in silence, spooning it down. We got to talking about Sarah. I could tell he could tell I was mooning over her. The conversation that followed was a minor masterpiece of indirection. Without explicitly stating anything, he made it clear that I shouldn’t waste my time. She was clearly out of my league. I was shocked that I hadn’t seen how obvious it was.

Every now and again we’d go out as a household. The events were always organised by Christian. We’d go see his band play at various pubs around the inner city. The pattern was always much the same. After dinner Christian, assisted by the drummer, would squeeze some gear into the MG, and we’d follow on foot to the venue. Judy, Sarah and I would sit perched on stools around tiny tables, not saying much, and watch Christian and co. barely ten feet away, languidly noodling on stage: it was clear that they didn’t want people thinking they were trying too hard. Much of the audience was made up of friends of the band, which didn’t amount to more than a handful of people per member: given that they were a four-piece, the numbers weren’t stellar. The faithful were outnumbered by the pub regulars, who were more interested in playing pool than listening to the music. Still, it was an audience of sorts, and there was enough clapping in the appropriate places to save the gigs from being tragic.

What was undeniably tragic was that I still had a crush on Sarah, and that Sarah’s disinterest in me remained a reliable, if painful, constant. I tried not to let it make me feel too worthless, but to some degree it did. One night, at one of Christian’s gigs, I plucked up the courage to have the Stevie Wonder conversation with her. She, of course, would have no idea what it meant to me, that it was a moment of courtship doomed to be stillborn.

‘So,’ I said, ‘you play a lot of Motown. But I never hear Stevie Wonder. He’s a genuis. Aren’t you writing about him?’

I’d had to shout it: the band was playing. It was a stupid moment to choose, but she heard me. She sipped her beer, looked thoughtful, then shouted back.

‘I could never study Stevie. I love him too much. That would ruin him for me. He’s in there, though.’ She sipped her beer again and gave me one of her measured, affirmative smiles. Wasn’t it great I liked Stevie Wonder! Her gaze shifted back to the band.

I looked over at Christian, thumbing the bass. Judy sipped her beer, cast adoring eyes on him. It annoyed me that he didn’t want to look like he was trying, that he and his band weren’t giving it everything they had. I felt a sudden wave of contempt for him. Its intensity frightened me.

Raise yourself up, Sydney said. Transcend yourself, Sydney said. But to transcend yourself, you needed the means to achieve transcendence. You needed somewhere decent to live. You needed money. You needed a satisfying way to make it. You needed friends. You needed someone to love, and to love you back. As an artist you needed to have talent, the discipline to develop it, the knack for matching your ambition to your capabilities, and an audience ready to bear you shoulder high. These things were elemental in their stark simplicity. Yet at this point in my life they were abstractions that I couldn’t seem to make real, despite their stubborn insistence on being realised.

When things got too much I’d go on walks around Redfern and try to breathe the salt air I’d breathed in Glebe, an air I’d found rejuvenating, but it wasn’t there. Instead the air seemed sullen, even on the sunniest of days. Down-at-heel Redfern wasn’t Glebe, and it wasn’t lost on me that I was living in a Sydney suburb with a strong Aboriginal presence: the black, yellow and red flag was everywhere. It was a daily reminder that we Europeans are squatters here, that the neo-Gothic spires of Sydney University weren’t so much modelled after Oxbridge, but Disneyland, a fantasy world where we dressed up not as Goofy, Snow White or Mickey Mouse, but as students and professors, as the future custodians of what wasn’t even ours. Seen from this perspective, and a host of others I didn’t dare contemplate, my chosen studies of French and Fine Arts seemed laughable, quixotic.

But these social and historical forces were simply too big for me to engage with, the whole confused mess of competing interests that was the Australia I had been born into, that I had to find my way through. If, at this point in time, writing essays about art and French literature were to be the proof of my abilities, then so be it. I’d put all my energy into these tasks, focus as I’d never focussed before. I was desperate for certainty, for hard evidence that I could achieve excellence somehow, somewhere.

But that excellence had to be meaningful. I didn’t want to be one of those robots achieving for the sake of achieving, intent on knocking off the competition along the way, all for a safe profession and the monetary gain that went along with it. Competition made me uncomfortable. I remembered a seminar I’d gone to back at art school about the German artist, Joseph Beuys. The visiting lecturer who gave it was an ageing American hippy, some artist we’d never heard of. Immersed in punk and Warhol cool, we thought he was a joke, but he said something that cut through to me, even though at the time I affected to think it was hippy shit. Beuys, the lecturer told us, despaired at what he called success aggression, the desire to achieve driven by competition, the need to triumph over others. True artistic success was about contributing to the positive energy of the world, about making things that captured the energy of inspiration and stored it in objects that in turn inspired others. As I listened, deep down I thought to myself, I saw a glimpse of something I wanted – to live a vital life, to live an authentic life, to live a creative life that connected everyone and everything in a cycle of inspiration. The very thought of it was totally exhilarating.

But no sooner did I think this than the opposite came to me. That this was all high-minded bullshit. I didn’t want to compete because I was afraid. Afraid to see how I stacked up against others. Afraid to confront what I was really capable of. Fear. It was as simple as that.

It was a contradiction I couldn’t resolve.

I put everything I had into my next assignment. We had to write an essay on three poems of our choosing from Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal. I chose ‘L’invitation au voyage’, ‘Harmonie du soir’, and ‘Élevation’. There was nothing original in my choices: they were among the most famous poems from a famous poet. When I’d first read them in my basic French, they didn’t seem anything special. But there was something about them that intrigued me.

The more I read the poems, the more beguiling I found them. I read the critical literature. I went back to the poems, memorised them. In language laboratory sessions I corrected the sounds I found the most difficult so I could pronounce them correctly. The degree of effort I put into these three poems was, literally, insane. I wanted to enter into them, to not be outside looking into them, but inside them, looking out. Once inside them, I could forget about everything else. I could forget I didn’t have a girlfriend. I could forget I didn’t have a car, or a wardrobe, or even a decent backpack; I was still using some piece of canvas crap from five years ago to tote my stuff around.

I shut myself in my room and, staring out over the overgrown jungle of the back yard with its mixture of plants both flourishing and blighted from neglect, at the rusting hills hoist slung with my housemates’ T-shirts and underwear, recited Baudelaire to myself. My favourite poem was ‘Élévation’. I loved the way its opening lines formed a line of flight that raised you above the earth in a single, steady sweep. In English translation it could sound pompous, overblown.

Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable.

But in French, once you grasped the language, it was fresher, lighter.

Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,
Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.

I toiled away on my essay, wrote five different drafts, barely spoke to anyone for days. When it was finally as good as I could make it, I ran all the way to campus to drop it into the department’s assignment box, five minutes before five o’clock.

Two weeks later I got it back. I received my first High Distinction. I was thrilled, thrilled to the core, by this ridiculous achievement.

There was no one to celebrate the moment with. I walked over to Glebe, to Blackwattle Bay, where I could breathe in the salt air. I sat on a bench and watched two toddlers chase after their Jack Russell. I watched a young couple jogging and talking at the same time. I watched a man flex his fishing rod and cast his line into the water. I watched the scudding clouds and the rustling trees. My gaze traced the shoreline. Sitting there, I thought about how each swerve of shore looped on to the next, how they all connected to one another, from bay, to cove, to the city beaches ringed by sandstone cliffs and pounded by ocean waves. Then I realised something I loved about Sydney, something I’d never been able to put my finger on. Perched high on those sandstone cliffs, Sydney was itself a city elevated, resting on a shimmer of ocean light, tilted that little bit higher towards heaven.