Christos Tsiolkas: returning to the world again

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Enormous concrete pillars now dominate the skyline of my suburb. Depending on the weather, and depending on my mood, the sight of these giant Y-shaped structures rising from the ground is either beautiful or ominous. It is on overcast days that they appear most evocative, criss-crossing the horizon, and adding new lines of vision to the unrelenting flatness of the sky above Melbourne’s north.

Today, however, as I’m walking towards the station, the temperature is already in the low 30s and the sun reflecting off the concrete is blinding. There’s something dystopian in the elemental, unfinished brutality of these stone piers. It doesn’t look like a world to come. It looks like a world that is ending.

The piers are part of the station’s reconstruction. A major modernisation of the rail system in Melbourne had begun just before the pandemic. Level-crossings have been a blight on the city for decades now, and the cause of endless, frustrating traffic jams. There has been inevitable controversy: many people would prefer the new tracks and platforms to be placed underground. They complain that elevated tracks are ugly.

My station will be elevated. I’m just glad that traffic gridlocks will ease.

I’m catching the train into town. It’s 8am, the middle of peak-hour, yet there are plenty of empty places in the carriage. I sit uncomfortably on the edge of a seat, and the woman across from me crams her body tight into the corner, to increase the distance between us. She stares fixedly at her phone. I open my book.

Melbourne was locked down for a total of 262 days; there was a curfew, and it was illegal to travel further than 5km from your home

I’m reading David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. The prose is robust, direct, and though it is meticulously researched, his writing has propulsive narrative drive. I had found it on our bookshelves a few nights before, and when I opened it, I came across an inscription I had written to my partner, Wayne. Let’s hope the coming decade is sane. I had bought it for his birthday in 1990. I am halfway through it, and I am battling a cold fury as I read, of how the machinations of the European great powers had sown the seeds for the catastrophes of the 20th century.

I glance up, and the young woman is peering at the cover, attempting to read the blurb on the back. She adjusts her hijab and her mask, and her eyes dart back to her phone.

The train stops at Clifton Hill and an elderly man across the aisle stands up, wobbles, and departs the train. I grab my backpack, shift to the empty seat. The woman gives me a grateful smile.

It’s a brilliant sunny morning when I alight at Flinders Street station. It is a shock to look across at the glistening metal and steel of the skyscrapers on the south bank. It has been an age since I have been in the city. Even the unlovely muddy Yarra River seems sparkling in this light, and I am reminded of how much I love my city. Yet as I walk into the heart of the CBD, I am struck by the quiet. And by the number of windows that are empty, and the shopfronts that are boarded up. I cross the lights at Collins Street and turn into a small arcade. My favourite coffee shop has gone. There’s a peeling poster on the wall, of a comedy festival from three years ago.

The coffee shop across from the Town Hall is still in business. I order my coffee, and sit down and text my friend, send him the new location.

When he arrives, I find myself confused as to what we should do.

“Are you accepting hugs?” I ask him.

He grins. “Yeah, from you I am.”

By the second coffee we have relaxed back into our friendship. He lives on the other side of the city to me and so we haven’t seen each other for over two years. Lockdown here in Australia wasn’t only a matter of each member of the federation sequestering its citizens from other states. Melbourne was locked down six times, for a total of 262 days, and during those lockdowns there was a curfew, a prohibition on all visitors, and it was illegal to travel further than 5km from your home. I mention that the city still feels hushed and deserted. He tells me that there is only one other person in the office with him, everyone else is still working from home.

He chuckles. “We’re supposed to be wearing masks but after the first hour, she and I pulled them off. Her desk is 50 metres from mine. I think we’re safe.”

Having finished the coffee, we embrace once more, and then putting on his mask, he heads off to work. Instinctively, I reach for my crumpled blue mask in my shorts pocket. I decide against wearing it. The city streets are dismally uncrowded, and I want to indulge in an illusion of freedom.

“I don’t know how to return to the world.”

My friend had said this to me over coffee. He explained that he now finds himself avoiding debates and arguments, that he is increasingly weary of all the rage. The pandemic isn’t solely to blame for the increasing polarisation in Melbourne. But undoubtedly the lockdowns have exacerbated divisions. Social media is dominated by hostility and anger, and for many people, those digital spaces have been their only connection with one another.

Now that we are tentatively coming back out in the world, we are all feeling a little apprehensive. Every subject seems fraught, every issue requires an adamant position. Djokovic. Crimea. Partisanship in the media. The most heretical comment you can make is to say, “I don’t know, I need to think about it more.”

The cousin who chided me for being a ‘leftie’ . . . was there for me when I came out, when my father died and my mother got sick. The simple truth is I love her

I walk east towards Spring Street and look down at Parliament House. Over the past year it has become a site for protests by a loose coalition of far-right activists and those opposed to vaccinations. Yet among them there have also been anarchists, unionists, and other lone voices who are disturbed by the anti-democratic tenor of some of the more draconian elements of government policies during the pandemic.

In the middle of the last lockdown, I got a text from a cousin who had taken part in these protests. She’s a little bit older than I am, and she’s done it harder than I have. She’s a single mother, a worker in the service economy, and she’s raised three lovely boys who are now terrific men. She sent me a photo of herself atop the stairs of Parliament House, carrying a banner that read: FREEDOM.

It made me laugh. For the past 30 years, she has gently chided me for being part of what she calls the “rent-a-crowd leftie mob.” I have been protesting on Parliament steps from my teenage years, first as a young member of People for Nuclear Disarmament, then denouncing apartheid, and the inaction around Aids. I’ve protested black deaths in custody and the misery of our asylum-seeker policies. Attached to the photograph, my cousin had texted: Now it’s my turn to be an agitator, Christo! With three laughing emojis.

I texted back: Some of us lefties still believe in freedom. I wondered if it was true.

When I tell friends that she is part of the protests, some of them respond, “Why do you have anything to do with her?” I can tell them that she was there when I came out. That she was there when I was battling addiction. That she was there when my father died and when my mother got sick. The simple truth is I love her.

I go to the cinema, and afterwards I order Vietnamese takeaway and eat in the Treasury Gardens, under the shade of the elm trees. I had watched the new Almodóvar film, and for a moment, seeing Madrid, there had been a faint stirring of the desire for travel. It seems too hard. “I’m afraid we’re going to become even more bloody parochial.” My friend had said that too, over coffee. And I answered, “The last time the world seemed so far away, I was in high school.” Then, whispering it, shamefaced, he had confessed: “I don’t miss travel at all.”

On the tram back home there are plenty of seats. When I get off at my stop and look west, the half-finished piers look less forbidding in the softer afternoon light.

I drop off a card at a house on the corner of my street. The old man who lived there died last week. Long ago he planted olive trees on the nature strip, and most years they are full of the plump black fruit. Last year, in a narrow gap between lockdowns, he taught his young neighbours to gather the olives, how to prepare and store them. The young couple are university students, Greenies, and it was a joy to see them so eager to learn from the old man.

I know his widow is fearful of Covid. I have written in Greek on the sympathy card I leave in her letterbox.

Melbourne remains grim, even in the bright light of our summer. I think we are all a little punch-drunk, learning how to live with one another again, and how to talk to each other again. I am grateful I witnessed that moment of grace, that quiet, gentle communication between the old man and the youth. They were from different worlds, but they had found a way to speak to one another.

Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel ‘7 ½’ will be published by Atlantic on February 3

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