On a long drive once, in a hot summer, on a stretch of the Hume where rolling, sheep-ravaged hills the colour of bone gave glimpses of a long train full of wheat, my father-in-law explained train wheels to me: how they ran, how they turned, how they stayed on the tracks. The rim on the wheel, he said, was less important than its shape. ‘They’re conical – do you know why?’ I didn’t. ‘The circumference increases towards the outside of the wheel – which means they’re constantly engaged in differential course correction.’ He took his eyes off the road for a moment and scanned my face to see if that had gone in. ‘It means if one wheel starts to leave the track, the other wheel resists it.’ He shifted his hands on the wheel to demonstrate, making the car swerve; from the backseat my mother-in-law called his name sharply. ‘It means the force is constantly adjusting itself – the wheels are always finding their centre.’ Awed by this, I offered a tentative summary: ‘So the train runs on a contradiction – a train is a circle married to a line?’ Possessed of his own remarkable powers of self-steadying, my father-in-law shrugged good-naturedly: ‘Sure.’
Like so many materially oriented people, like dressmakers, lawn bowlers, midwives, engineers, my father-in-law had to hand a set of analogical keys capable of picking almost any intellectual lock. He’d given shape and structure to a feeling I’d been quietly but persistently trying to describe since I’d arrived in Sydney from the country to study – something about the peculiar internal weather of the trains I’d been riding, to work and everywhere else: their mixed sense of stillness and liquid movement, a balance of contradictions inside of which I was lulled into mental sleep, held in a dream of luxurious (un)motion, a wheel always finding, but never quite having found its centre. I spent the rest of the drive thinking about it, even as we crossed into Victoria, passing in and out of the wind-shadows of semi-trailers and cattle trucks full of dull-eyed sheep.
The first conscious association of motion and travel with calm I can remember is driving with my father on the Bald Hills road, between Hernani and Deervale, Gumbaynggirr Country, at the far eastern limits of the Northern Tablelands. My father, emotionally volatile and occasionally violent, was always at his best on this drive, his perpetual restlessness and existential discomfort matched and soothed by the miles, the starkness of the ravaged pastoral landscape, the extremities of wind and light. Here we saw eagles perched on fenceposts and flying overhead, and Hereford cattle, with their strange death’s head masks, marching in solemn procession, coming down from the hills they’d fattened on to the yards and the trucks that would take them away – red cows wearing red tracks in the red earth. Finishing the circuit, turning home with the failing light, my father’s mood would darken as the distance closed, as the wheels slowed and he returned to consequence – to what he’d done to us and his life.
When my mother left the first time, she took us with her. I was in my third year of school, and the novelty of having her arrive in the car, looking strained but elated, made my heart leap up. We drove to Urunga, left the car at the station, and took the XPT, the rural passenger train service that ran and still runs the vast distances between Sydney and Brisbane, south as far as Melbourne, west through Armidale, Dubbo, Narrabri, Moree – beachheads, port cities, regional centres, inroads, inrails – enclosing and disciplining the earth. Pulled up at the concrete station flanked by coral trees, snub-nosed diesel engine struggling to be heard over the shrieks of the lorikeets, gleaming silver trimmed with white and two shades of blue, it was every bit of it an emblem of an analogue future already past – as anachronistic a piece of social democratic decency as the still-working phone box glowing orange across the street. Ghosts of a public service past, both the train and the phone box were the reserve of those who needed such things, or were habituated to their use – the old, the young, the vulnerable, the poor.
In my family we called the XPT the Welfare Express – because we were on welfare and we used it, and because by some residual, probably Whitlamite, ordinance, anyone in receipt of Commonwealth support – pensioners, single mothers, students, the disabled – was entitled to a certain number of free trips per year. For our extended and several times broken, mended, and re-broken family scattered up and down the north-east coast, the train was a temporal and physical link to Sydney, tracing and retracing familial lines of flight, the migratory paths of the white working class then, from Berala, Brookvale, Crows Nest, Hurstville, to Wauchope, Kempsey, Nambucca, Sawtell – through Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr Country (though no one seemed to know, or care to know, or know to ask this then) and on northwards to Bundjalung where I was born under the shadow of Wollumbin/Mt Warning, and where my Allambie-born father had fallen in, inexplicably, with the Hare Krishnas. I was to take this train many times, in company and alone, over the next twenty years, until the flights cheapened and the Pacific Highway was transformed into a multilane superhighway, with every hill, plateau, and decaying regional centre bulldozed or bypassed.
Boarding that day with my brother, while my mother looked over her shoulder with an anxiety I grasped at but didn’t fully understand, I remember the calm descending by stages. The hushed atmosphere, somewhere between a school bus and the branch of a country bank. The smells and sounds of the machinery: carpet dust, the odour of no odour, of odour-remover; the faint residuum of hurried platform cigarettes; the mellow, accordion wheezings of the linkways; the quiet order of luggage racks; the sweet, curtain-shaded security of an allocated seat. Here was a fortified inbetween, an interregnum machine, a place where time and space met in perfect equipoise, its passengers reprieved, spared from the rigours and ravages of each – or so it seemed – with a dining car that stretched to vegetarian meals, and eight long, impregnable hours ahead. Past Wauchope, past Taree, in the doldrums between Fassifern and Dungog, I spent blissful, weightless hours in a state of near-perfect float – a small wheel finding in that forward motion a still centre – the green land passing in creeks, bridges, and the skeletal limbs of ring-barked gums. Then Gosford, Woy Woy, and the breathless exhilaration of spanning the Hawkesbury – stands of casuarinas, mangroves, the eruption of sandstone, cloudshapes, gulls, a glittering plain of waters at the train’s left hand – and on through cuttings, tunnels, climbing, climbing, house and streetlights appearing on ridges and sidings, towards Hornsby where my grandmother met us on the platform, waving unashamedly in a corduroy jacket and hat, smelling, beautifully, of cloves. The calm pleasures of that trip stayed with me, even after my mother relented a week or so later, and we took the same train back.
When the parental poles reversed – when my father moved back to Sydney and became briefly stable again – I took the train both ways every holiday. The XPT was the first train I got good at – the first mass transit system that came to function for me as a kind of floating world, however shabby, however bureaucratic. In some ways the threadbare authoritarian order of the thing helped: the sense of a multitude meeting under a regime of loose rules that were interesting even when they weren’t sensible, a platform for tame rebellions and sensible contingencies, everyone looking out for lost luggage, everyone lending everyone money for the phone. I met people; I mixed and passed for things; I tried out identities. I rolled cigarettes for a young guy on his way back to Kempsey – he’d had to have surgery after an accident at the timber mill he’d worked at, his good wage having cost him two and a half fingers, though the surgeon had saved his thumb – we swapped fishing stories, and he told unanswerable jokes about tying knots with half a hand. Out of money and too proud to ask, I had lunch bought for me by a single mum in the seat in front, who sensed my hunger and ignored my protests: ‘Gotta eat, bub!’ I did my best to work it off by reading to her kids, doing all the voices, helping with the bags. I spent a breathless few hours sharing headphones and having my fortune told by an impossibly cool older girl who studied fine arts at COFA, on her way back to pay tribute to her parents in Taree. It felt impossible to contradict her when she confidently asserted that I was protected by a strong fatherly presence, so I told it all otherwise; in a cadence and vocabulary she seemed to find as soothing as I’d found her safely inaccurate tarot reading. The fantasy lasted just as long as the wheels stayed in motion.
I got good, too, at not meeting people – at learning who to avoid, how to show no interest, to dodge glances, go blank, dim even the faintest glimmer of interest or sentience in my treacherously friendly eyes. The worst for me was the patrician curiosity of those early, wealthy retirees who boarded at Hornsby in creaseless jeans, who filled in the Heraldcrossword with medical company biros, breath whistling softly in their nostrils, and who always asked, in the impeccable accents of Richard Morecroft and the upper North Shore, what I was reading – then found ingenious ways to tell me why this was wrong. These men took the train not because they needed to – they could afford to drive or fly – but because thrift for them was habitual and moral, a sort of observance, a matter of identity and faith.
There were genuinely frightening people, too – vulnerable, or violent or both – but in my many trips I only witnessed one genuine ‘incident’: a long-limbed parolee with a broken, insinuating smile grasping after the young girl he was seated next to, caught before he started by a strident, terrier-red man in the seat behind, who chased him out of the carriage and off the train at the next station (Eungai) howling after him as he leapt the low fence: ‘They’ll fucken catch you, you bastard!’ The XPT was above all full of the lonely elderly, shuttled Lear-like between families and homes, keen to fix you with a mariner’s eye, desperate to play cards. You did your best to listen patiently, or you took refuge in your headphones (even if the worst happened and you ran out of batteries), though this was often not enough. More than once I had old men yank them off and accuse me of not knowing how to play gin rummy – and then teach me no matter what answer I gave, licking fingers as they expertly shuffled and dealt the cards.
On a good day, on a smooth run, when there was no-one to talk to, manage, or placate, I passed hours in a drowsing, neap-tide calm, a timeless, nerveless reverie, luxuriating in what Keats – that moon-watching proto-slacker who wrote his name so beautifully in water – described longingly as ‘The feel of not to feel it’. Lost in translation, in the debatable land between departure and arrival, I floated out of time and space, revolving and standing still, all choice suspended so long as the wheels kept finding their centre, an undefined quantity endlessly gathering potential, a voltaic battery that need never stop spinning or deploy its charge. To arrive at the end of a journey like this – either to endure my father’s mad possessive love, or to return to the structured boredom of home and school – felt like falling from a treacly, amber-caught grace, an opiate stillness I’d later find in Keats’s Odes and ASMR. To arrive was to return to gravity, consequence, necessity – to history and what happened to happen, and the choices that had to be made as a result – choices that gave way to limits, limits that gave way to finitude, mortality, and time. To arrive was, in some small sense, to die – though if I felt this then I didn’t know it as anything other than a light-falling solemn sadness, counterpart to Sydney drizzle or the sweet coastal rain, as I stretched, shouldered my bags, and squared up to the demands of arrival – to once again account for myself, my possessions, my future.
What cushioned me most then, I think, was a sense of trajectory. Like most rural kids who did OK at school, I had a fundamental sense that I was on my way somewhere – even if it felt better, sometimes, to be nowhere at all. Being young and having time – seemingly endless amounts of it – there was no regret in wasting it. On the contrary, it was often at the heart of pleasure – ‘A treasured and luxurious gloom’, wrote William Wordsworth, in a poem I would soon read, ‘the mere/Redundancy of youth’s contentedness’ – a stolen season, after which life would start to happen at me, and I’d begin to be interpolated into a newer, richer, and more complicated equilibrium. Time was a thing to be gotten through. When I got the offer to do a BA at the University of Sydney – as humble, in the scheme of things, as that achievement was – it felt like confirmation. I had less than a week, the letter explained, to accept my offer in person – and so another trip on the XPT, the same trip but a different feeling this time – impatient, excited, scared, eager for the change, begrudging the stagnant country we seemed to make no progress through – but my nan, once again, on the platform (my father having long since moved back to haunt my final years of school) wearing the same cap, still smelling, beautifully, of cloves. I had the sense of a closed circuit – a process completed – and of something falling away, jettisoned in the launch.
It all stalled so quickly. Arriving in Sydney in the early 2000s, having just turned eighteen, with no money and barely any politics besides the vague, hippyish notion, so easily conscripted, that ebullience was at the heart of good life, I was in time to witness the city’s final, fitful resistance to neoliberalism but didn’t have the wit or learning to see it. I was afforded fugitive glimpses of the world before: the squats, the pubs where bands still played, the unsanctioned public art, the long-running share-houses grown gnarly and strange as old trees – all of them endlings, hold-outs, lifeboats onto which I could not, and did not know I would need to clamber. And always and everywhere Howard’s dead hand on everything – on the gentrifying neighbourhood I moved into, on wages, on welfare, on the pitiless ratchet wheel of negative gearing, raising prices, raising scarcity, raising rents – on my shoulder, holding me down.
If I didn’t know it, I felt it. My first year in the city was a strange dream of hunger, melancholy, and exhilaration: the shame and desperation of mismanaging my money, so that dinner at a friend’s became an imperative rather than a choice, and the loss of a small note meant walking instead of catching the train or the bus; the flat weight of unstructured days in which I could afford to do nothing, especially not fall further into a depression I was keeping from my housemates and myself in the way a person might insist on working through an illness, or an injured pet crawl under the house. And under and entangled with it all the fierce joy of being there – of being suddenly possessed with an apparently inexhaustible flow of talk, matching arguments in tutorials with the children of the rich, making them laugh or look foolish, making them friends – of finding the most ‘difficult’ books were open to me – of a gathering intellectual confidence and instinct for tracing an author’s or interlocutor’s line of thought – of finding I could follow, with pleasure, the most tangential of lecturers, pen-hand racing as I sat half-in, half-out of the afternoon sun.
I started work as quickly as I could, helped into a job by my older brother, selling high-end sneakers out of a blaring, frenetic shop with faulty aircon on the Corso in Manly. The job was, in the way of all retail, somehow both contemptibly easy and punishingly hard, the straightforward act of supplying shoes in the right size bonsaied into a baroque courtier’s game of sales targets, competitive rosters, and the constant need to keep on the right side of a series of sub, assistant, and area managers – a snarling, shelter-dog hierarchy topped by hands-on owners who presided over their chain of shops with the capricious brutality of Tudor monarchs. Ten-hour shifts with a half-hour lunchbreak, no time to sit or stand still, poisoned with Windex and bad house music, using every trick of language and logic I’d picked up from my studies to close sales and rack up commission, hungry enough that an extra twenty in my pay packet meant something. Half a week of this, half a week of study; no time afterwards or in-between. Work, study, work, study – these two wheels kept me locked to the track, my stability the product of their counterpoise. So long as they revolved, so long did my sense I was going somewhere.
In this constant revolution, it was the commute – the passage between the two sides of my life – that offered a necessary moment of reprieve. I came increasingly to depend on these interludes, and worked, half-consciously, to draw them out. Waking early in Darlington in that first year, I had choices. If I was quick out of the house, I could cut through the still-sleeping suburbs to Broadway, past the corner pubs breathing beer and cigarettes, the streets of Chippendale pleasantly shaded, cats and bicycles on balconies, the trees alive with mynas in shrieking parliament, the leaves falling, turning brown. Crossing Broadway, husbanding my umbrella against the wet autumn wind, I’d flag a 440 bus, hand over my coins, take my scrap of ticket and hope to find a clear seat that fit my legs.
(Not long after my first rides single trip paper tickets were phased out, making way for travel passes and Travel Tens – paper cards with magnetic strips I still find in the leaves of the books I read then – and the unmistakeable sound of the machines that received them – a triple movement, dip-pause-rise – as the card went in, was read and stamped, and came out again, sometimes bearing the elegiac message: NO RIDES LEFT. In this short-lived utopia a student travel pass could take you almost anywhere, by any means – buses, ferries, trains – as often as you wanted, for the cost of twenty dollars a week. Even better, Travel Tens (and twenties, and, I was assured, higher) could be shared – you could dip for yourself and a friend who was short of cash or from out of town, and be dipped for in return. The Opal, with its requirement of one card per passenger – or ‘customer’, as the Transport for NSW announcements sibilantly insist – did away with these shared rides and upped the cost.)
And then on towards Central, past the bricked-up toilet block at Wattle St, lure for desperate travellers, uphill to the reassuring eyesore of the UTS tower, swarmed by pigeons, comfortingly brown. At Central office workers from the trains and other bus lines piled on in black coats, yawning, applying make-up, clouding the glass with resigned, bovine sighs. From the top to the bottom of George St, Sydney was a long room with rain pressing at the windows, a squalid, unevenly furnished gallery of settler-colonial ambition or its lack, sloping towards the harbour and the white-sailed horses it rode in on, past the sandstone edifices of Town Hall and the QVB (its royal namesake commemorated in bronze, accompanied by a dog with the voice of John Laws) to the city’s true centre and terminus, Circular Quay, its green and shadowed waters turbid with the backwash of ferries; gulls skirling over the bins.
Riding the bus, I was convinced that, with enough time, I would eventually puzzle out the city’s hidden structures, the secret mechanisms that both operated and explained it, and that would allow me a place in it, just as soon as I found them and deciphered their workings. From the central trunk of George St, I saw the city as a series of branches, vines, suckers, and shoots, radiating outwards, diverging, converging, forming new trunks, only to divide and ramify all over again. Close attention to that central trunk, to the movements of people and shop fronts – who boarded, who got off, what closed, what stayed open, what folded, what lasted, what remained only in remnant, as residue – might yield insights that applied to the whole network, a glimpse of total knowledge, total absorption, total embrace. And in a way, it did. To see the suits get off at King St, streaming down the hill towards Darling Harbour to be fed to the consultancies, the lawyers and bankers to Martin Place; the gradual extinction of small shops, arcades, bars, making way for chains and Justin Hemmes; the growth of World Square and its metastases, glass towers with precipitous rents, gleaming apartments full of international students sleeping ten to a room; the grizzled hold-outs at Haymarket – restaurants, army disposal stores, imports, adult shops, pubs powered entirely by the whirr and gabble of the pokies and their desiccated eremites, fingers passing over the buttons in something like prayer – to see all this was to be given a glimpse of the fractious, destructive movement of capital, and the gradual but accelerating dominance of property as the alpha and omega of the city’s economy and its afterthoughts – culture, society, human and non-human wellbeing.
If I woke late, or was running behind, it was quicker to head up the hill to Redfern Station, crossing at the junction of Abercrombie and Lawson St, past the redoubtable edifice of the Glengarry where I drank sometimes, where the barman laughed at my vocabulary, and where a retired boxer once crushed my hand in his, growling, ‘Shake hands with the hands that shook The Champ’, before helping himself to my whole pouch of Drum. Who the Champ was nobody seemed to know. When I landed in Sydney, this junction was the ragged edge of inner-city gentrification, a sweeping re-invasion and re-colonisation of Redfern that seemed to march in lockstep with the surging police presence after the Redfern Riots, sparked by the appalling death of TJ Hickey, the Gamilaraay teen impaled on a fence as he fled on a bicycle from the paddy wagon that pursued him down a pedestrian laneway. Witnesses saw the wagon clip Hickey’s back tire.
My sharehouse was only blocks from the station, but we heard nothing on the night – something we found disturbing and indicative, even at the time. But the violence was unignorable, acute, and ongoing. Walking to the train early on a bright February morning, I watched a team of two constables crush a young Aboriginal man’s face into the asphalt on the corner of Lawson and Little Eveleigh, his arms pinioned excruciatingly behind his back, the contents of his bag strewn across the road. Where did he think he was going, the two constables wanted to know, their faces twisted into chimpish fear-grins, an expression I recognised, years later, on the faces of the riot squad as they prepared to break a legal picket my colleagues and I were trying to hold at the University of Sydney. The man on the ground replied in burning italics, his voice serrated with rage and pain: I’m – just – trying – to go – home! Seeing this, I froze, my foot halfway off the curb, my mouth half open – until an older woman in a business skirt took my arm and guided me across the street and into the station, saying something like ‘Nothing you can do, mate – don’t get involved.’ The violence, the mendicancy, the terrible poverty, the overt signs of systemic racism and oppression – all these commuters like the woman and me had learned (or had to learn) to metabolise and ignore, nursing our consciences like bad teeth, gradually numbed by repetition – the familiarity of the station, the train arriving, the day ahead, capital needing to be serviced – the everyday workings of the settler-colony.
From Redfern the train was a plunger-shot through a series of switches and underpasses, under Cleveland St, past the old Regent St station, still standing like an ornate pissoir on a hill, then sweeping down into Central – Ultimo, UTS, the grand station clocktower to the left, the bulwark of the dental hospital to the right – long, raised platforms reaching out to meet us. A second pull of the plunger, a brief glimpse of Haymarket, plane trees, Elizabeth St, the lower reaches of Surry Hills, then the train pinballed left or right into the City Circle. Left – to the utilitarian tiles of Town Hall with its peculiar smells, then Wynyard, tricked out in retro-futurist stripes, so euphoniously named it felt as if its portals should lead somewhere other than George St or a damp and overshadowed park – or right – to the fussily preserved heritage fonts and advertisements of Museum, speaking in the decorous accents of the old Commonwealth, then St James, the line’s pocket jewel, issuing out into the green reprieve of Hyde Park, with its horny classical fountain and stately lines of mature, municipal trees – most of the journey was darkness, the spectre of my morning-tired face hanging in the train window like a photograph ripening in a darkroom. To land, re-embodied, at Circular Quay, the train parallel to the water, the Cahill Expressway roaring and shuddering directly overhead, felt like returning to life, the best part of the journey still ahead.
Passage to Manly was by Freshwater-class ferry – hulking, double-ended vessels, their slab-like hulls painted green, their imposing superstructures gold, their engines, when cruising, producing a deep-throbbing, timbrous whine. To board I crossed a double-wide gangway that looked better suited to the movement of livestock, though in summer, in high season, tourists and travellers easily filled it, piling on in crowds, eager for the quintessential Australian beach experience Manly was marketed as providing. I’d spot them on my lunchbreak, slumped under the Norfolk pines, watching the water lap, overheated and appalled by the bathos of the place, having arrived expecting – what? Certainly more than a sleazy shopping strip, rowdy pubs, caustic locals, and an overcrowded beach patrolled by frantic, angry lifeguards.
The pleasure was in the journey. Pulling out from Circular Quay the ferry seemed of a piece with the high imperial span of the harbour bridge, built to a similar scale and with a similar, muscular confidence. Through the bridge, framed as if for posterity, Sydney’s working harbour – cradle of organised labour, where my great-grandfather had been born in a tiny worker’s cottage full of pipe-smoking Scots – was passing into history, undermined or actively sabotaged, burnt out by the dry fire of Howard’s austere zeal – given over to cruise ships, realtors, and leisure, the demented face of Luna Park leering in nervous complicity. From Kirribilli House, opposite the Quay, Howard would set out on his clerical walks, steadying his nerves for another day of purging public assets, mongering foreign wars, dressed with deliberate plainness in tracksuit and trainers, every inch the quiet Australian, keen reptilian eye half-hooded, on watch for the press. Rounding Bennelong Point the extraordinary modernist eruption of the Opera House put such studied littleness to shame, the nacreous curves of its sails opening out to the moving eye like vast mouths, the cathedral gapes of baleen whales.
Then on past Pinchgut, Fort Denison planted with palms like a crusader’s castle, Goat and Garden Island, the naval yards haunted by bull sharks and Operation Sovereign Borders, out across a shining plain of waters, wind-stirred, effervescent, the lighthouse on South Head, North Head’s daunting cliffs, and between them nothing but blue expansiveness – that old colonial sublime, the world a blank page, an open tab. Each working day I’d contemplate it, sunlight playing on my half-closed eyes, as the ferry crossed the heads, imagining that this time, this journey, we might, instead of turning in, pass out, beyond the tinnies and the pleasure craft, the flotilla of boats pursuing a humpback and her calf, to the Pacific, Melville’s ultimate ocean of ‘mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries’, beyond work, beyond study, beyond action and consequence, beyond myself, my ambitions, my fumbling efforts to make and inhabit a life. So that when the time came – when the ferry backed water in a thundering rush of foam against the bulwarks and the gangway came down with a terminating clang – I would struggle to rouse, eyes dazzled with the movement of waters – until I thought of the rent.
(To work on the ferries is surely to exist eternally, in a special zone beyond time. The late Peter Kingston captured this fantasy and the floating world it inhabits best in his paintings of the harbour and its ferries, going so far as to imagine himself as a ferry worker in ‘Self Portrait as a Rope Thrower’ in 2004, the year I arrived in Sydney and began my commute. When he passed away last year, I wondered if we were ever co-passengers – I still hope to meet him one morning or evening, on a ferry, crossing the heads.)
Years passed like this. Costs rose and wages flatlined. And so more work, more concentrated study, and no time to imagine different lives or ways of living. Instead, the consolatory space of the commute, and my half-conscious attempts to stretch it, make it wider. Waking early to catch the all-stops bus, lingering over a bad coffee at the bottom of Elizabeth St, traversing the last few blocks on foot. A double journey on the ferry, there and back and there again, lost in my headphones, blind to the view. Reading Robert Burton, ‘mine hopes were still frustrate, and I left behind, as a Dolphin on shore’; reading Charlotte Brontë, ‘certain accidents of the weather … woke the being I was always lulling, and stirred up a craving cry’; reading Charles Lamb: ‘Negation itself hath a positive more and less; and closed eyes would seem to obscure the great obscurity of midnight’. Missing my stop on purpose on the train home, landing at Macdonaldtown, stark and empty as the moon. Winding home along Wilson St, passing yellow windows, night-blooming flowers, wrought iron, fig trees, stars. Deferring arrival in the way I’d defer the writing of an essay: anxious-indulgently, to preserve possibility, reserve judgment, exist in pure potential, live inbetween. Years like this, through a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, a PhD – selling shoes, short-contract teaching, selling books – all the industries I’d dreamed of joining shedding jobs, casualising, falling into decay. And so, inevitably, that through-line, that trajectory, the track the twin wheels of work and study held me to so unerringly, began to bend, until it became the circle it was married to, and the point of all that motion was to perpetuate itself – to carry me, a fading commodity, around and around; the time I was using – the time I was wasting – hidden in the constant traversal of space, a sentence endlessly commuted, so long as I kept moving – around and around.
Until one night, coming home from a long shift on the 144 – the godforsaken, deeply unreliable bus that runs from Manly to Chatswood, full, on this summer night, of drunken boomers and thuggish, wealthy teens – after a long time standing, the bus emptied enough that I could take a seat. In the seat in front a badly sunburned teenage couple were shivering in swimmers, taking swigs from de-labelled bottles with something blue in them. In the seat behind, a pair of aged-care workers – two men about my own age – discussed a colleague in loud, unselfconscious voices. I reached into my bag for my headphones, hoping to drown them out. ‘He’s like one of those guys who just hangs around’, one of the men said, dismissively. ‘Doesn’t care, just makes his wage. He won’t last.’ I stopped to listen, my hand still in my bag, a strange, electric squirming at the base of my skull. ‘Right?’ said the other. ‘He’s a what d’you call it. A slacker! Always killing time. But you don’t kill time, bro – time kills you!’ Both men laughed. I saw red cattle, and my father’s face in profile, red in the westering sun. I closed my bag, stood up, and pressed the stop button. The bus, which had just started down the hill for St Leonards, juddered to a halt. The door opened, I leapt to the curb, and began to run.