A VIEW OF THE FOUNTAIN
Certain places have peculiar powers. Momentous events unfold there as surely as if God had created the spot solely as a backdrop for mischief. Returning to Sydney after a long absence, I decide to tempt fate and test whether the evil eye still operates in the seedy strip of the city known as King's Cross.
At the airport as we wait on the shuttle bus for a driver to appear, two young women in the seat behind me argue about the wisdom of getting out for a cigarette.
"The minute you light up a snake," says one, "he'll turn up."
And of course, he does.
After the round of smart hotels, I am the only customer left on the bus. The young Maltese driver eyes my black linen suit and quizzes me about my choice of accommodation.
"Is there something wrong with O'Malley's Hotel?" I say.
He waggles his curly head and speaks into the rear view mirror, "The hotel's all right. But you know it's in the Cross?"
Thirty years ago when I busked in Fitzroy gardens with my guitar, there was no McDonalds here. It's the first thing that strikes me as I flutter in like a homing pigeon and dump my bag at the hotel. O'Malley's is almost in the shadow of the iconic Coca Cola sign at the top of William Street and when I lived around here in the early seventies I wouldn't have been able to afford one of its neat en-suite rooms.
A literary mentorship has brought me to Sydney for a meeting with the author Rosie Scott, but my hidden agenda is to locate the room where I lived after the break-up of my first marriage. It has been decades since I gave that disastrous relationship a second thought, but the rundown block of flats off Roslyn Gardens is the last place I saw my father. He was a noted songwriter in Sydney throughout the sixties and in true showbiz style died ridiculously young. Thirty-one years on I am still wishing I had been at his bedside.
My relationship with Kings Cross turned serious one afternoon in 1972. Droopy beneath a fake lizardskin hat, I pitched up toting a shoulder bag that bulged with belongings gathered at random as I fled my collapsed marriage. In The Village, where a few years earlier I had gossiped with school friends over tea and lemon pancakes, I sat on the steps outside a leather shop and thought about buying an ice cream. There were fifty-three flavours: it was impossible to choose and I had pondered the problem for several hours by the time a bloke in a pork pie hat popped out of the leather shop and struck up a conversation.
Italian Tony looked old to me but his face was kind. He bought two paper cups of coffee and as we sipped, enquired about my plans. I shrugged and studied the people coming away from the ice cream counter clutching weird-coloured cones. Tony removed his hat and ran a hand over his thinning hair, it was getting late and the daytime shops were closing.
He shook his head, "You can't wander round here at night."
I shrugged again. With my survival instinct temporarily disabled I had no clue what to do next and I think I was under the impression that I didn't care. Fortunately my guardian angel was on duty.
Italian Tony knew someone at the Metro Theatre who would give me a job, someone else who would rent me a room. To my dazed and drifting mind it sounded like a plan and within hours I was settled in the Cross.
The room was in a scruffy block on Kellet's Lane, an ugly room with dusty floral carpet and dustier curtains that looked out on drainpipes and stained plaster. By turning the wardrobe at ninety degrees to the wall and pinning a poster to its back I managed to create a tiny flat out of the drab space. There was a kitchenette with a gas ring where I cooked the simple meals of someone who had lost all appetite; in the evenings I ate alone at the laminex table, barely glancing at the plate. An acoustic guitar and my cat Sassy were the only homely touches, but after three days Sassy's white paws had dulled to grey from her exploratory trips in the back lanes. I was broken-hearted at the sight of them, broken-hearted for myself, too, the lonely determined tenant of a drab room where the carpet was pitted with other people's cigarette burns.
My husband and his girlfriend were shacked up nearby on Macleay Street. Each morning when I drew the curtains on the drains outside my window, I wondered if the room where they slept had a view of Fitzroy Gardens and the luminous dandelion-head of the El Alamein fountain. At night, with my music career abandoned and replaced by this anonymous limbo-land into which I had slipped, I ushered people to their seats in the theatre to watch Oliver Reed in The Devils , while my husband played bass in a club on Darlinghurst Road. The Coconut Grove was a basement dive for American servicemen and his girlfriend was one of the topless dancers, reportedly on the verge of leaving because of the way the customers stared. I can't believe I didn't laugh when I heard that; instead I remember dying to spit that the solution was obvious, surely only a question of keeping her clothes on, but at the time I was so crushed by their affair that I never worked up the courage.
Late at night when the Metro Theatre closed, I dawdled home past Les Girls and the strip clubs with their noisy spruikers. Street girls haggled with American servicemen in doorways but no one ever bothered me. Perhaps I looked too respectable or dull to be of interest; certainly the mirror in my shabby room reflected a lost soul with the remote expression of a migraine sufferer. Some nights I dared myself to detour past the Coconut Grove; bass-heavy music pumped from the club's doorway as I skittered along the pavement in the dark. The building where they lived was on the way to the Metro so I had to detour to avoid it, although it was always in my thoughts.
In the Craftsman Book Shop in The Village I read a book on spells and one night, staying over with my friend Beverly in Glebe, crept out of bed to write the name of my husband and his woman on a piece of paper and put it in a tray of water in the icebox. Beverly said she found it months later when she defrosted the fridge, the blurred names still visible on the pulpy paper.
Revived, I head for the Internet cafe to pick up my mail: in the UK, my husband is renovating our bathroom while my daughter, away from home for the first time, is silent. I email to remind her I am alive and thinking of her and set off up Darlinghurst Road towards the fountain.
When we first moved to Sydney my father deposited the family in Kings Cross while he house-hunted on the north shore. Touts outside the strip shows offered my nine-year-old brother free peeps as he walked his dog, and in the evenings an old man with tame birds put on a show beside the fountain. By day the streets looked battered and grubby; at night they bubbled with a witches brew of drugs, sex, and gambling. Vulnerabilities were on show; tawdry lighting and a few sequins were the extent of artifice, for the streetwalkers had long ago given up pretending and their customers - young American GIs on two weeks of R&R from the war in Vietnam were far from home and reckless. There were no smart restaurants, only the fast food joints, the moneylenders and the peep shows, squashed between basic providersa ne wsagency, a liquor shop, a supermarket.
The American servicemen have vanished, but as far as I can tell, little else has changed.
Early next morning, warm rain spots the pavement as two young female police officers rouse an Aboriginal woman who has slept in an entrance a few doors up from O'Malley's. She comes to with a comic start and makes a grab for her few belongings; I am anticipating trouble, but the policewomen are gentle, "Have you got anywhere else to go, Love?" they ask.
As I stroll to the Kings Cross Newsagency to buy the notebooks I unearthed last evening amongst the piles of dusty stationery at the back of the shop, a young white girl with bleached hair is sobbing in the company of a group of Aboriginal women - some drama is in play and the tribes are merging.
I call at Global Gossip Internet Cafe to fire off a second email to my daughter, she who is always threatening to go to dangerous places. As I tap in a message urging her to be careful in the tough city where she has chosen to study, I picture her wry smile at my surroundings. But despite barely disguised drug dealing and reports of people being gunned down in the street, Kings Cross doesn't feel dangerous for me at my age and even when younger I never felt threatened. As my words of caution spin off towards her Hotmail address I study the other customers, young backpackers composing reassuring emails for the folk at home. Their smooth limbs and optimistic faces make me realise that the really dangerous places were always inside my own head, just as they are for my daughter.
Sydney's city blocks were once honeycombed with lovely shopping arcades: Her Majesty's Arcade, where I bought my tie-dyed wedding dress from a beautiful hippy seamstress, was demolished in my time; the Imperial Arcade, where I went for extravagant hairdos before important gigs and to hang out with friends, appears to have lost its buzz, but the Strand Arcade - the fifth and last of the arcades built in Victorian Sydney - is the only one that remains intact. I wander in and eye a plate of frog cakes in the baker's window, finally settle for tea and inch-thick cinnamon toast at a cafe table. Cinnamon toast, ubiquitous in Australia, is unknown in the frozen north where I spend so much of every year. I munch slowly, committing every mouthful to memory, as I study the pattern on the tan and blue tiled floor.
In Australia Square shoppers lunch amongst jets of water and jazz, while a homeless man arranges his belongings in a patch of shade. I drop a dollar in his cup and say a small prayer: if I'm ever to be homeless, let it be in Sydney. As a bag lady here I might still own beautiful things; the bronze statues of Apollo and Diana on the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, where Moreton Bay figs arch over the pathways; the gothic fancy of St Mary's Cathedral; the harbour of course, with its architectural and natural beauty.
Rosie Scott has arranged to meet with me at Cafe Otto in Glebe. Despite the sticky weather I choose a table on the pavement so as not to miss her. She appears on cue and for a couple of hours I have the rare indulgence of discussing writing with an expert. My novel started out with another structure and has been through countless drafts, the latest under Rosie's mentorship. Now she urges me to summon the energy for one final, intense, all-in-one-go read.
"Choose a clear day," she says, "and read with all the force of your intelligence."
As we talk I realise I have been holding on to sections of writing have no narrative purpose.
"Letting go always makes the work stronger," Rosie says, and she urges me to become a savage critic of my own work.
Tingling with the quiet confidence Rosie has somehow substituted for my usual rampant self-doubt, I resolve to go home and chip away the last traces of the original work.
When we part I browse in Gleebooks, a tasty independent bookshop on the main drag, while I await the arrival of my oldest and dearest friend. As if by magic, Beverly is in Sydney for the week and turns up all hair and smile. Like mine, her curly hair is bush-like in the humidity, frizzed beyond frizz. She points at me and laughs.
"Now I remember why we left Sydney," she says.
The straight-haired sixties were hell for us and looking back I see that we escaped all kinds of fates worse than death by the simple usefulness of having the wrong hair. We laugh until our eyes water and joke that since we are both here on the east coast for the first time in thirty years, it is a one in a million opportunity to make a break for it and start new lives in Cairns or Byron Bay. Beverly's eyes turn dreamy for a moment, but we both know we could never do it. We're too old. Too involved.
"It's too late," she says wistfully.
Too bad it's true.
Beverly had not yet moved back to South Australia when I sailed from Sydney aboard the P&O ship Oriana for a working holiday in New Zealand. It was a sunny afternoon and my mother was waving from the dock along with a couple of cross-dressing ushers from the Metro theatre, a couple of nine bob notes she called them. Looking back at my mother's fluttering handkerchief I had no way of knowing that my life was collapsing behind me: when my father died unexpectedly two months later she would pack up and move back to her parents in Adelaide and I would never again live in Sydney.
Businessmen with their shirtsleeves rolled up sidle into Porky's Night Spot, while an Asian gentleman in a white coat inspects his fingernails as he waits for customers under the harsh yellow lighting in the Acupuncturist's rooms. His doll-like receptionist lounges in the doorway smoking and gossiping with a friend: business must be slow tonight. It is dark by now and a young man has passed out on the concrete at the supermarket entrance. His arm stretched above his head exposes a series of small tattoos and the faint smile on his face has the whiff of drugs. A takeaway food container is crushed against his side. McDonalds is everywhere.
Inside the supermarket an elderly woman with exaggerated eye makeup - crayoned tiger-stripes around her eyes - shops for strawberries and cream. She is cigarette-thin in her summer dress but the makeup, picture hat, scarlet lips and nails, give her an appearance of mummified decay and I have to force myself not to stare as we queue at the checkout.
My final day in Sydney dawns hot and overcast and the street already hums with traffic by the time I emerge with the residue of last night's chardonnay souring on my tongue. If I am to locate my old lodgings it is now or never. On Darlinghurst Road a fruit stall is stacked with giant avocados. Across the street The Pink Pussycat's pink neon sign is unlit and The Venus Room in Roslyn Street seems to have replaced Les Girls . On the corner of the street where I once lived, a black woman sells what looks like crack to a middle-aged man in moleskins; in a doorway, a thin girl in a mini skirt and boob tube sells herself as I scan the street for signs of my old life.
I last saw my father on a winter's day, steel coloured with a sharp wind swirling dust and stirring rubbish in the soiled alleyways. I was leaving for New Zealand in a week and we stood on the broken concrete of the forecourt outside the flats to say goodbye. I don't remember what I wore but he was in his old bottle green cable-knit jumper, V-necked and unravelling in a hole at one elbow.
"I love you, Darling," he said and hugged me, before driving off towards the Blue Mountains with Sassy crouched on the back seat of his battered Fairlane.
I turn right off Roslyn Street, retracing my late-night route of thirty years before, but what used to be a cul de sac has been opened up, which is confusing. At the end of the street I locate what looks like my old building: the entrance has been painted terracotta pink, but peering through a side window into the gloomy interior the old tiled hallway looks familiar. The flats have buzzers now and I loiter, hoping someone will open the door. No one does.
A ribbon of sky gleams between the buildings. The clouds part and a ray of sunshine warms the brickwork as I rewind and replay the parting with my father. Sadly, there is no feeling of him here. His lopsided grin has been erased from the bricks and mortar of Kellet Lane and the old forecourt has disappeared, our last embrace and Sassy's paw prints sealed forever beneath a layer of bitumen.
I am photographing the spot where my father hugged me for the last time when the crack customer appears. He aims a considering stare at my camera and as he walks towards me his bored expression hardens: perhaps it would be as well to leave this empty street. I slip the camera out of sight and summon a nonchalant smile as I stride away towards Fitzroy Gardens and the fountain.
Police are moving through the Cross with a sniffer dog. Girls are doing deals. It's eleven in the morning and suddenly I miss my family so sharply it hurts behind my ribcage. I trudge back to the Internet Cafe and log on. This time there is mail and I can hardly wait to open it, but the blood drains from my face and I feel about to faint as I read. My eighteen-year-old daughter has bought a home pregnancy testing kit from Superdrug, she says. The test was positive.
Back in the Cross after all these years and here it is, the sickening thud as soft stuff hits a fan. Maybe even coming here was courting disaster. I totter out into the sunshine and sit in Fitzroy Gardens facing the fountain. As I mop tears from my cheeks the ancient blonde with the crayoned eyebrows settles on a bench to my left. She is slender as a girl, wearing strappy stilettos this morning with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. On my other side an old bloke, whiskery and thin, is finishing up a can of beer. As the three of us contemplate the view,h the water in the fountain dies. Now the structure looks more like a dandelion than ever, a mass of bronze spokes, dribbling water at the tips. I must have seen it naked before, but only remember it spouting bubbles, or blue dye during Rag Week stunts. I am too stunned to take a photograph.
Walking back to O'Malley's for the luggage I have a fleeting urge to find that feckless creature I was once married to, just to show him I'm not such a pushover these days. I eye a public telephone but manage to resist this pointless exercise and anyway, my sick feeling proves otherwise.
In the hotel I pack, shower, and flop in front of the television with the last glass of chardonnay. Leaning back against the pillows an image of my lovely daughter flits through my mind: of all the dangerous destinations she could have chosen she might have gone to darkest Africa and returned with fewer scratches. But mourning the loss of dreams and possibilities will not change her situation and meanwhile, in shabby rooms and side streets all around me, worse things are happening: perhaps I should be grateful.
Hard-eyed girls in skimpy clothing are doing deals for cash outside the club called Playbirds as I stick out my arm for a taxi to take me to the airport. Luckily the driver is not the sort who wants to talk. As we spin through Paddington I stare at the lace-edged houses and bid a silent farewell to Kings Cross, one that pays reluctant homage to its powers. Right now I feel I'll never risk returning, but perhaps in years to come the tug of memory will draw me back.
As we move into the ugly industrial streets around the airport I fumble for dark glasses and the taxi driver turns on the radio: in Perth a statue of the Madonna has started crying, a newsreader says. And yes, I saw it last night on the television news, a small plaster statue with glistening cheeks, the tears a mixture of olive oil and some perfumed watery extract.