Essay: Tom Carmenton Womerah Lane

Neighbourhood Watch, Womerah Lane

This is the first of a series of essays about Sydney by Sydney writers that will be published on the Sydney Review of Books in November 2017. We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.

We both sat up in bed.

‘What was that?’

‘I think it was a motorbike starting up,’ I said, unsure exactly what sort of sound had ended my dreaming.

‘It sounded like a gun to me,’ said Jan.

She reached for her phone from the bedside table, her sleepy face in blue light.

Bronwyn (our neighbour to the north) had sent a text.

‘She says someone’s shot Yannick.’

Yannick, an ex-bodybuilder in his seventies, lives downstairs next door. He is ‘known to the police’.

It was 4.30am. We crept down from our attic bedroom and peered into the narrow service lane, that separates our terrace houses from the 1920s flats in front. At night it’s a place to avoid, unlit, ending in a cul de sac. We leaned out from our first floor windows and saw pools of yellow light moving around, policemen with torches.

Jan opened the kitchen door that leads to the laneway and saw Yannick’s 21-year-old daughter shivering in just a coat. We invited her inside, made her a cup of tea, lent her clothes and a pair of thongs. She said she’d been woken to find Yannick in the hallway, covered in blood.

‘He’ll be OK. They’ve taken him to hospital.’

A policeman knocked, told us we weren’t allowed to talk to her, and led her back to the lane, still clutching the teacup.

Later that day Yannick was home again, with a bandage under his hat. He’d told reporters outside the hospital he didn’t know his assailant. The shots had missed. I assume he must have wrestled with the gunman and been cracked on the scalp. One neighbour saw a skinny guy sprinting away, and heard a car starting up, squealing tyres. The next day Yannick was back to his daily routines: smoking cigars as he read at a little table in his yard in the sun; underlining in blue biro almost every line of his science books; and getting up every half hour to do a set of chin-ups on a makeshift bar beside the laundry.

An online news service printed his story, under the heading: ‘Elderly man bashed in Darlinghurst.’

‘He won’t like the elderly bit,’ said Jan.

The lane was sealed off by police tape for most of that day, and we had to explain ourselves to a young constable before ducking under it to reach our door.

It wasn’t the first time Womerah Lane had been taped off like this, nor the last, I fear.

I’ve lived in Darlinghurst for more than half of my sixty-three years, and, since 1990, in a long narrow terrace house on Womerah Lane. I have, throughout this time, been a painter and a writer. Most of my painting and drawing is done directly, en plein air as they say. Until ten years ago, to subsidise my art, I worked part-time as a housepainter and brush-hand, often refurbishing inner city houses. I have drawn and painted many pictures of the roofs, buildings, and parks around here. Going out in all directions from our house, I walk and cycle on errands, to buy food, have coffee, visit friends, and just to experience the pleasure of moving slowly through the streets, observing my fellow pedestrians, listening to snippets of conversation, looking into shop fronts, and catching glimpses of other peoples’ houses and lives. I’m always searching out spots where I can paint and draw the things that I notice. While I remain a ‘local’, I would also like to think that sometimes I see things with the unfettered eyes of a newcomer, as a tourist. To me, the streets between Womerah Lane and the angular wall of the city are not so much an architectural terrain as a rich geography of people.

A worn stoop leads into the lightwell of our terrace house, the sandstone as curved as a hammock. I assume it was the doorway that once led to a backyard toilet. Our old tenant Les Jorgenson told us the lane used to have no fences, just a row of dunnies. I’ve often wondered about the people who lived in this house in the 150 years before we came here; what were they like?

I imagine men in braces putting coal on the small fire grates, women cooking dinners on wood-fuelled stoves, in summer sliding big rectangles of ice into the back of the cool boxes, painting tar in two-foot strips around the wooden floors where the rugs sat. I try to imagine also how the landscape appeared before the houses were built; rock shelves and angophoras, I reckon. In the 1870s the Gadigal people were still seen camping in Barcom Glen and fishing in Rushcutters Bay. And around that time, Chinese market gardeners were tilling plots of vegetables near where people now play tennis at White City.

Les told me that in the 1970s there were some heavy drinkers living here.

I know also that someone committed suicide in a room of our house, the one that I now sit and type in.  The man from the gas company told me so, in 1993, when he came to check our pipes.

‘Head in the oven … sad,’ he said, nodding up towards this first floor window, a glint in his eye.

Jan used to tell me that this room felt spooked but we like to think that the karma was reversed when our daughter Matilda was born, at home, on the floor of the adjoining room. Matilda’s two older brothers remember that event, not so much for the bloody arrival of their sister, but as the day they were allowed to watch Teletubbies for as long as they liked.

My brother David, an historian, has recently discovered a family connection nearby. Our maternal great-great-grandfather George Masefield, lived and worked just two hundred metres away. In 1864 he started a private school in a big house called Belvedere, near the crest of the hill to the west of Rushcutters Bay. Its site is now the base of a footbridge crossing over six busy lanes of New South Head Road. The school was advertised as having facilities for boarders, with a paddock and bushland attached. Two years later a series of calamities began to engulf George: a son and daughter died; he lost his 22-year-old wife to meningitis; a severe fall left him unable to work for a period; and in 1869 he was declared insolvent, the school’s contents sold off in a public auction.

George Masefield died in 1870 at Gladesville Hospital, his death certificate listing him as ‘Schoolmaster (lunatic)’.

I‘d like to think that, just for a short time, he found some happiness in that schoolhouse on the hill.

My first trips to Womerah Lane were in the 1970s when I used to visit a friend, an elderly man named Geoffrey Fox, who lived in a bedsit on Womerah Avenue. His house was part of an identical row of terraces two hundred metres long that ran east and west up Womerah Avenue. Nearly all were boarding houses then, occupied mostly by single men. Geoffrey supplemented his old age pension by working as a hawker, selling linen door to door in country towns. He bought his stock in Chinatown, and his arms were strong from lugging his two suitcases for miles down hot streets. He was a great reader and art-lover, and a homosexual, but careful to hide it from his neighbours, for fear of retribution in that sometimes violent neighbourhood.

His room was small and dark, with a gas ring on the floor, but on the wall above his stacks of books and suitcases he had pinned a Van Gogh print, a landscape  from the Arles period.

I now look across the lane to where Geoffrey’s bedsit was. I still have his letters and some books that he gave me, including Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry. Like Arthur Waley, who never went to China, I think that Geoffrey escaped that dingy room through his reading, and through that painting by Van Gogh, which glowed like a window.

Geoffrey died intestate in 1985, and Nicholas Pounder, a friend who ran a bookshop on Victoria Street, had a cedar urn made for his ashes. He placed it on a shelf behind the counter, among books.

We say that Womerah Lane is ‘where Ikea comes to die’. The lane is a place where people feel they can discreetly dump rubbish: mouldy carpets; rusty tins of paint; stained crockery and quantities of cheap and broken melamine and MDF furniture gets left here. As fast as the Council takes it away, more arrives to take its place.

In the early 1990s, when we first lived here, the laneway was a place of assignations. Prostitutes who worked the pavements of Liverpool Street would direct their clients here, and drug deals were done quite openly. We would distract our children when we saw a bobbing head in the front seat of a car.

It has become a more common sight these days to see an ice user frenetically sorting the disgorged contents of a tipped wheelie bin: straightening soggy plastic bags; making neat rows of empty cosmetic containers, eggshells and stained tissues – a caricature of futile work.

Womerah Lane is also a place where small acts of kindness happen, where we look out for each other, where we live and let live. When Janine next door sees a big grey storm front approaching, she takes in our washing. The Schwerdtfegers from Womerah Avenue leave eggs from their chooks in our backyard, and we leave all our kitchen scraps by their front door.

It is also a refuge from traffic flow. Neighbourhood kids come in to draw and make things at our kitchen table, to play our piano. Their parents borrow my tools. A fifty-metre walk to the corner store can often take half-an-hour as we chat and joke with neighbours en route.

Word has got around that I own a long extension ladder and I’m often called upon to help a neighbour break in, or out. An old Greek man used to live in the place at the end of the lane, an old corner store, which he once ran, with the plate glass whited-out. He would sit often on a small wooden balcony on the first floor of his house with a view right up the lane. If a turning truck came too close to his neat brick wall he would shout and wave his fist, like an angry figurine on a bowsprit. Before he had a stroke he drove a big brown 1970 Valiant sedan. He would loop a long metal chain around its front axle and the base of a nearby telegraph pole and secure it with a padlock. One afternoon he gestured to me from his perch, calling out ‘Ladder, ladder!’ The door had slammed and he was locked out there. I fetched my ladder, prised open a first-floor window, walked through a neat austere bedroom, and let him in. After that he always gave me a friendly wave. He told me his dream was to get a million dollars for his house and go back to Greece, which he eventually did. Before his departure he beckoned me into the house. He took me through to the old store and rummaged in a toolbox.

‘This is for you,’ he said, holding out the chromed tow ball from his Valiant.

Some of Womerah Avenue’s oldest residents have stayed in their houses, stubbornly independent, refusing help and company. Nick in number 98 lived with his sister, worked as a public servant and owned two houses. After he retired, his sister died and he sold one house, but kept all his money untouched in a savings account. He was stretchered out from his place by paramedics one afternoon, bleary-eyed in his striped pyjamas, his toe nails six inches long.

A very stooped eastern European man lived further along Womerah Avenue in a terrace painted glacial green to waist height. He’d shuffle incrementally each morning up the steep part of Liverpool Street clutching a Coles bag and would return half an hour later with milk and bread. Every few weeks he would take out a brown trolley and a large furled umbrella and walk an epic two kilometres to the bigger supermarket at Edgecliff. Each step advanced him just a couple of centimetres; it was like watching an ant struggling with an impossibly big piece of bread. He ignored offers of help and only occasionally would you get a whispered response to a greeting. There were no lights visible in his house after dark.

One day last year I saw police outside his green wall wearing latex gloves and I knew he’d made his last ascent of Liverpool Street. My friend Karl looked into the house when some people were clearing out his furniture, dumping it on the footpath. All around his bed upstairs were icons and crucifixes.

‘He was a very private man,’ his Portuguese neighbour told me.

Pat Geraghty, the retired head of the Seamen’s Union, who lived at number 57 with his wife Tess, held the slowness record for the hundred metre daily walk to get his newspaper from the corner store. He was delayed, not by infirmity, but because he liked to chat, not just to the residents, but to any tradespeople working en route. No matter how busy, he usually managed to engage them, so that they turned away from their drills and saws to face him, the genial storyteller with a head of  thick, white hair. I got to know Pat when he brought me a framed photo with cracked glass, a picture of him, sitting next to Nelson Mandela. They are both sharing a joke, laughing, relaxed. I cleaned and reglazed it for him.

Pat was an unrepentant Communist, proud to have a thick ASIO file. He told me about the time he saw Paul Robeson perform at the Opera House when it was being built, how the great man had turned away from the official audience to sing directly to the construction workers behind the stage.

On Sundays Tess, a Catholic, would walk up the lane to St Canice Church and offer, with a little smile, to pray for us all. Pat would stay home and study the race guide, or so he said. I painted four portraits of Pat, as he sat in our sunny kitchen, telling me about his life at sea, the rough and tumble of his work in the unions.

We have our neighbourhood fights too, mainly about noise and tree roots. In the 1990s it felt like we were one of just a few families bringing up young kids around here. The attendance at Darlinghurst Public School had dropped to just seventy students. Some neighbours didn’t like it when our youngsters jumped up and down on our small trampoline in the yard on weekend mornings, whooping and calling out. An old lady in the house opposite used to hide behind her paling fence and yell in a cracked voice, calling them ‘devil’s children’.  She offered to ‘cut their tongues out’.

A man two doors away felt the same way. He worked from home, decorating large mirrors with shells, gluing them on in elaborate patterns. He listened all day to Barbra Streisand, turned up loud while he worked. He had his speakers pointing outwards into the laneway, so as to evangelise Barbra to the rest of us. The double album, Timeless, Barbra live in Las Vegas, was his favourite. I got to know it well.

The only time he turned his music down was when he paced up and down at his open back door having loud arguments on the telephone. We passed him on the street often, and I would smile and say hello but he always turned his head away, and so I gave up trying.

One sunny Sunday morning at about 10am, Matilda our five-year-old daughter was jumping on the trampoline calling out to her brother, when this neighbour stomped angrily into his yard and screamed in our direction,

‘Shut that fucking kid up!’ Three times he yelled it, getting louder each time, until the whole laneway was hearing it. I soon appeared in our kitchen doorway and he shouted at me.

‘Shut your fucking kid up! Shut her up now!’

I am slow to anger, but I could feel the blood behind my eyes. The self-righteous father in me yelled back at him.

‘How dare you say that! Swear at my daughter, tell her to shut up!  We have to put up with your fucking Barbra Streisand every day!’

‘Your daughter is retarded. She will never amount to anything.  She will never, ever be a great artist like Barbra.’

‘And one Barbra Streisand is more than enough for the world!’

This response came, not from me, but our neighbour Adam, three doors up, who’d had been listening in. The shell artist stomped back up his stairs and slammed the door. Matilda sat silently on the trampoline, perplexed.

A few months later the man moved on, and, as he may have feared, more and more children have since invaded Womerah Lane. They rattle up and down its gentle concrete slope after school on their scooters and skateboards, yelling at each other. On summer weekends Adam and his brother Mark lay astroturf onto the concrete and fill a blow-up pool for their little girls to paddle in. The lane has become a designated ‘safe place’ for the annual Halloween night promenades, an event which even I find inexplicable.

Darlinghurst was traditionally an area where vice was accepted and perhaps encouraged so as to contain it within the boundaries of one suburb. That has changed, with drugs and brothels spreading to other parts of the city and into the neverworld of the internet. Even the word ‘vice’ – prostitution, illegal gambling and drugs – sounds outdated.

The drug addicts of the area, as one policeman described them to me, are ‘like a flock of seagulls, who get shooed on from one place, then settle down in another’. Near the mouth of Kings Cross Station they gather in the entrances of closed-down nightclubs, the Bada Bing, Playbirds International; where spruikers once hailed male pedestrians at all times of day.

The ‘class C’ drugs have changed in popularity and price over the past fifteen years, with methamphetamine or ice and the Oxycontin-type opiates rivalling heroin. These days the heavy drinkers are rarely seen slugging methylated spirits. My friend Ashe, who’d been a ferocious drinker herself in the past, used to give money to the metho drinkers who often sat in the doorways around Taylor Square: ‘Buy yourself some beer,’ she’d tell them, ‘don’t kill yourself with that stuff.’

A proportion of the street people are not drug users or drinkers. Their lives have just taken nasty turns, or they suffer from untreated mental illnesses. There was a man I saw a lot of in the 1990s – an unwashed version of Costa from the ABC gardening show. He would sometimes crawl through a small hatch to sleep in the sandy basement under our house, and those of our neighbours. I’d find his old magazines, newspapers and stubbed out cigarettes. Once I saw him walking through the cars-only Kings Cross tunnel shouting and gesticulating, and I feared for his safety. He would sit for hours in our local library poring over bird books. The lady at the corner store gave him a coffee with three sugars every day. Once he asked me if he could borrow two dollars. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ he assured me. I told him ‘don’t worry,’ but a few days later I found a two dollar coin slipped under our gate.

Street life is hard and you don’t see the same people around for more than a few years; like the man who lurched unsteadily out of a doorway as Jan was walking our sons to Crown Street School. Swaying, he told them he was a student there once: ‘Don’t play hooky, unless you want to end up like me,’ he croaked. Then he sang them the old school song: ‘Crownies Crownies dipped in gold. Crownies Crownies, brave and bold.’

On summer evenings I like to sit on the steps above the King Cross Tunnel and draw the city skyline. It’s one of those places where the seagulls settle and where backpackers sit and smoke while they scroll through their phones, where skateboarders, ignoring the warning signs, film themselves performing stunts.

The architectural fabric to the east and west of William Street has changed little since the Kings Cross tunnel cut a swathe through the crest of the hill in the late 1960s. The exception is Harry Seidler’s 1998 Horizon Tower, which rises forty-three storeys from the old ABC radio site. Like a white sundial, it swings a thin shadow over all the Victorian rooftops.

From these steps I can see the castellated top floor of the 1920s block of flats where I lived in the mid 1980s, 224 William Street. Washing still flaps on its rooftop clotheslines, sharp against the hazed silhouette of the city.

When I was there, and for a decade after, the caretaker’s wife, a thin lady with flame-red hair, used to feed a big mob of pigeons from her second floor window. She collected bread scraps from local restaurants and, at the same time every afternoon, threw them down onto the flat roof of Simonella’s Menswear shop next door. The pigeons would wait for hours, lining up on the parapet walls, jostling and shuffling. After she’d finished, her husband would lean out the same window and hose down their droppings, doing a thorough job, taking half an hour over it. It used to depress me, the swish of his hosing, at the end of each day. It seemed his life was about washing things away. Almost every Saturday and Sunday morning he had to mop up a yellow puddle from where some male reveller had stepped off William Street pavement into the private niche of our entrance hall, to pee under the front door.

The wildlife of Darlinghurst has evolved since the red-haired lady stopped feeding her pigeons. The previously estuarine ibis have adapted their long beaks to Sydney’s rubbish bins, and the Indian mynahs have muscled their way into dominance. White cockatoos have come to town also, in raucous flocks.

Stalwart bread throwers still support the pigeons, appearing at set times each day, near the Roslyn Street panel-beaters, under the Ken Unsworth ‘Poo on sticks’ sculpture, and at the entrance to Rushcutters Bay Park. The grey birds shuffle around waiting patiently for them, a few ibis and mynahs on the outskirts of their circle.

The palm grove of the Botanic Gardens was once home to thousands of flying foxes. They have been moved on now, and you no longer see the huge south-easterly evening pilgrimage against the indigo sky. It used to remind me of something my father told me: that during his last desperate year of internment in a Japanese POW camp, he would look up at the evening sky, and take heart, as thousands of bats passed overhead.

Until the 1970s many rats lived around the old fruit and vegetable markets at Haymarket, feasting on scraps and hanging around the alleys of Chinatown. When the commercial markets were moved to Flemington and their last refuge, Building 6, was demolished, an army of ‘vermin’ infiltrated the city. My first residence and studio in Darlinghurst, an old warehouse space above a French restaurant at 38 Oxford Street, was in its path. One evening the diners downstairs were disturbed by loud screams when a lady on the toilet had her ankles intersected by a rat. The restaurant owner handed me three big traps to install upstairs.

My space on the second floor, was reached by a long straight row of ill-lit grey steps. On a landing halfway up there lay a large wood-handled screwdriver. It was so big that I wondered what it was used for – maybe the hinges of the silkscreens that had filled the premises before me, Roussel Screen Printing. I left it there.

One evening as I trudged up to my level, I saw a big grey rat loping up the steps ahead of me. The screwdriver was there, right beside me, so I picked it up and hurled it. I’ve never been good at ball games and have trouble landing my smalls in the laundry basket, but the heavy screwdriver landed with a thunk and impaled the poor rat to the riser, five steps from my door. Its small eyes looked at me, surprised, dying.

The next morning I put the stiff carcass in a brown paper bag and placed it in an open street bin near the front door. As I walked on towards Taylor Square I heard someone yell out, ‘Jesus!’ I stopped and turned around. A grey-bearded man was stooped over the bin, holding my brown bag.

Darlinghurst, seen from above, is a spiderweb of streets leading out from certain institutional and architectural hubs: St Vincent’s Hospital; the National Art School;  the Chauvel Cinema; the Law Courts at Taylor Square; Mission Australia and Wesley Mission hostels; Rough Edges Café and St John’s Church; the strip around the mouth of Kings Cross Station; Watters Gallery and the Italian quarter of Stanley Street. I see these places as whirlpools: people are drawn in, congregate for a while, and move on: nurses plodding home after a long night shift; TV crews waiting for a criminal’s brief appearance from the courtroom door; country folk with weather-worn faces and polished riding boots visiting a family in the heart bypass ward; drinkers on their milk crates with a radio plugged into a power point under the light pole at Taylor Square; all-night revellers emerging from dance clubs into the bright morning light wondering who to go home with; art students with folders underarm; hospital visitors clasping medical imaging envelopes; construction workers in hi-vis with concrete-dusted boots; smokers spilling out from evening art gallery openings.

The way these places have been used has remained pretty constant during the four decades of my residence, but the few hundred metres on either side of Kings Cross Station are no longer so sleazy, and there is talk of more major changes. The cooking students with their knife bags and fashion students with rolls of brown paper no longer use the old gaol for their training. Many famous hotels, like the Sebel Town House and the Gazebo, have been repurposed into private apartments, and big terrace houses have become lodges for backpackers. There’s just one pawnbroker left in the Cross. The strips of shops down Oxford and Victoria Streets are less diverse – mainly fashion and food. The delicatessens and hardware shops have been swallowed up by Bunnings and the duopoly supermarkets. Andrea and Ati’s Hairdressing Salon, the last bastion of the teased beehive, has gone, although the ladies still give cuts and perms to some of their clients at home.

The growth shops of the 1980s – video stores and Thai restaurants – have dwindled, replaced by gyms and nail parlours. I was handed a flyer last week: ‘7 day free trial! A free start to a new you!’ for a fitness centre that is open 24 hours. A gym is allowed to stay open and yet the small bars and nightclubs now have to lock out new patrons at 1.20am.

The inner geography of many buildings has changed too. The Victorian houses, built to shelter as many occupants as possible from the harsh sunlight, have had their interiors gutted, transformed into shiny open plan spaces. In my painter’s overalls I’ve scraped back some of these Victorian walls, revealing old patches of colour, shaped like imaginary kingdoms: cupric green, deep ochre and fish-paste pink. I’ve scrubbed them with sugar soap and skimmed the edges with plaster before whiting it all out again. This embedded wall history is stubborn, and you need an oil or shellac-based undercoat to seal away the stains: smoke from ill-swept chimneys, pipes and cigarettes; cooking stains, burnt dripping and mutton fat. I’ve pulled up the old lino flooring, to discover newspapers, the Mirror and the Sun, with headlines about the Korean and Vietnam Wars, LBJ’s visit, ‘Darcy Dugan escapes again’. I once painted a brothel on Crown Street where the trend to open plan had been reversed, the interior room count was doubled by makeshift walls segmenting each into two narrow chambers. The pink-painted rooms smelled of cheap perfume and old ashtray.

The things people do when they sit on street benches, or when they walk the pavements, have morphed with time as well. Recently, I saw an old man seated near Llankelly Place hunched over a transistor radio, biro poised above the newspaper form guide – once ubiquitous, but now a rare sight. The plastic water bottle held in one hand is a common look now, and so are the professional dog walkers with three or four pets straining at leashes like helium balloons. Walking out from Kings Cross Station any evening, half the pedestrians have their faces underlit by phones, a thin white wire trailing from one ear.

There is one man I see often who walks the same route each morning, from north Darlinghurst to Taylor Square with one hand holding, not a phone, but a yellowed paperback, head bowed, engrossed, negotiating the footpath by  memory and peripheral vision. I have pretended to tie my shoelace as he passes, to guess the genre of his reading matter. My son Felix, during his obsessive Harry Potter phase, did the same thing and was bumped by a car as he walked out from Kings Cross Station, his head in Hogwarts.

I often see friends and acquaintances as I walk the streets: Neil, a doctor in the Palliative Ward who reads Russian novels during his lunch break in the park; or Jackie walking her three adopted dogs; or David the physio in his yellow rain jacket riding his bike to work; Bill the tattooed ceramicist who turns on his cochlear implant to speak to me (‘I wouldn’t turn it on for just anyone,’ he jokes).

Perhaps the most healing place in this area is Rushcutters Bay Park, a long-established public space that covers what must once have been a marshy creek mouth and beach. The amblers, the joggers, the elderly leaning on their walkers, invalids being pushed in wheelchairs, all traverse its pathways. Beneath long branches of old fig trees, exercisers in black lycra thwack their boxing gloves. During leash-free time in the early morning and late afternoon, dog owners stand around in groups on the playing fields, chatting, holding their plastic ball ladles, breaking off to scoop droppings from the grass. Their boisterous canines, outside at last, bound about and sniff each other. Backpackers sunbake, and young mothers sit in circles, their prams forming a kraal. Kids and adults throw frisbees, kick balls, hold impromptu soccer games, go through their tai chi and karate routines. Fishers come down to the seawall with folding stools and their gear in prams and only ever seem to catch blowies.

I used to kick balls in the park too, with my children, after school and on weekends. Now they’re grown up and I mainly go to Rushcutters Bay Park these days to paint. I sit there on the grass with my gear to one side, and try to make a tunnel of concentration between the subject I’ve chosen, and my painting. Peripherally, I feel the life swilling around me as I paint. The sun warms my legs. A dog sometimes tries to steal a brush, or I sense someone standing behind me, watching. Last month a magpie jumped onto my palette and did a quick Jackson Pollock before jumping off with blue and cadmium yellow in its claws.

I trudge home with my wet painting in a cardboard box, the afternoon breeze from the harbour coming up through the figs and plane trees, pushing me up the hill.

Diary entry: Tuesday 15 August 2017

Last night, or should I say this morning, Jan and I, and her yoga friend Nellie, volunteered for the City of Sydney’s homeless count. In the hours between 1 and 3am we zigzagged from the corner of Crown and Oxford Streets, through a skinny triangle of streets to the back of St Vincent’s Hospital. It should have been well-known territory for Jan and me, but the eerie quiet at this time of night made it unfamiliar. All the house lights were out, cars parked.

A man in umber clothes lay curled up, almost camouflaged, in the greasy back entrance to a restaurant. A young man and woman poked their heads out of a climbing gazebo in a children’s playground behind Burton Street and replied, ‘yeah, no,’ when we asked them if they had a place to sleep tonight. An agitated  skinny blonde woman with a backpack walked past us quickly in Green Park, calling out, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’. An elderly man with a long grey beard shuffled slowly, like a dalek, along the pavement in front of the Private Hospital. His stained white suit jacket was buttoned up tight and he clutched a plastic bag in each hand. Two people covered by sleeping bags lay under the bench in a bus shelter near the methadone clinic. At 3am the Council mini bus took us back to Redfern where we handed in our forms: total twelve homeless. We drove back to Womerah Lane, yawning, and crawled into bed.

At 4.30am I felt a slight chill and pulled the doona over our two woollen blankets, a small adjustment of comfort for which I felt more than usually grateful.

Old Habits – New Paintings by Tom Carment is on display at King Street Gallery, 7 November – 2 December.

See Tom Carment’s complete portfolio of Darlinghurst images.

This is the first of a series of essays about Sydney by Sydney writers that will be published on the Sydney Review of Books in November 2017. We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.