Notes from the other place (part one)
At the end of the Department Lounge they gather in twos and threes in front of the vast field of blues, greens, and browns. They lower their voices as they stare up at it, gesturing at its depthless oceans, its carelessly scattered spots of land. We're going To Fiji, where is it? Ten feet high, and fifteen feet wide - the same scale as some of Giotto's early frescos, the same scale as Chagall's largest stained windows. The map is our sacred artform, today, the place where we look to ponder the limits of our lives, and the largeness that surrounds us.
Skyler's hand traces the journey we are planning to make, across the unbroken blue of the Tasman Sea, up through the alternating light and dark greens of Victoria, into the olive green depths of central New South Wales, past a succession of sky-blue lakes, then east to the square full stop the map calls Sydney. Passengers on Flight 721 to Melbourne may board now.
The map lies, as all maps must. By using his colours to measure altitude, rather than vegetation or rainfall, and by choosing shades of green for regions of relatively low altitude, the cartographer has recreated the hopelessly speculative charts that Victorian explorers determined to find an Eden of grasslands, forests, and inland seas in the interior of the Australian continent showed to their patrons and sponsors. Most of the territory we will be crossing is either semi-arid pastureland or outright desert. The lakes which the cartographer has painted cerulean blue have not held water for five thousand years. Can remaining passengers on Flight 721 to Melbourne please board their aircaft now.
The map tells some truths, as all maps must. The cartogrpaher has acknowledged the vastness of a country that could swallow New Zealand thirty-two times. Although Skyler and I will be travelling for two weeks and thousands of kilometres, from Melbourne to Lake Mungo to Broken Hill to Sydney, our journey will be confined to the southeastern corner of the continent. This is a final call for passengers on Flight 721 to Melbourne.
For the first twelve years of my life, I spent my summer holidays in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon, where my grandparents had bought a villa after they retired from their farm in the 1950s. I am discovering that my memories of Melbourne are useless for the purpose of navigation. I am unable to guide Skyler from the airport to Spencer Street railway station; I cannot even lead her to the confluence of Bourke and Little Bourke Streets in the city's central business district.
My memories seem as though they were designed to be insubstantial, whimsical, impossible to authenticate. I remember my grandmother in her front yard, muttering to her beds of pansies, her back bent almost as severely as the faded green hose she held. I remember the hose dribbling and coughing, in the drought summer of 1983. I remember the enormous backyard of the house, and the out of control hedge that sealed the yard off to anyone not prepared to climb or crawl their way to the derilect barbeque, the head-high grass, and the overloaded plum tree that leaned against a sagging back fence. I remember journeys to the supermarket and the swimming pool on trams that would surge forward then stop suddenly and involuntarily, the way my grandmother stopped in the middle of one of the childhood stories she struggled to retell.
Most of all, though, I remember the book. I don't remember the book's name, or its author, or its conclusion, let alone the mechanics of its plot, but these things were not, I am sure, essential to the appeal it held for me. What I remember is the orange and red of the rocks and sand that covered the book's oversized pages. I remember the torn hull of an overturned truck, slowly capsizing in dunes of red sand. I remember a boy - I assume he was a boy, though he had his back turned to me - walking across the red sand, in the direction of a group of orange mountians, with a bottle of fruit juice in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. I remember, near the end of the book, a helicopter descending from a dusk-red sky, and planting its shadow on a huge orange rock. I knew that the book was about Australia, about another Australia, beyond the long grass and the plum tree in the backyard, beyond Essendon, beyond Melbourne. That other place was vast and faraway, but it was somehow present, as an absence, in the oak-panelled desert of my grandparents' home.
On February the 8th, 1983, the other place - the place of orange and red, the place in the book - came to Essendon. My brother and I were sitting in the lounge, between a large and very noisy electric fan and a television playing an old Western. With a speed which made me sit bolt upright, the galloping cowboys and brilliant American sky were swallowed by a deep red darkness. Stumbling toward the windows that looked out on Spencer Street, we heard millions of grains of dust striking and sliding down the glass, like an army of tiny insects driven by some instinctual panic or rage. Soon my mother, who had never quite been able to forget her childhood on an isolated farm in the Mallee country of northern Victoria, was dragging us under the grand old dining table that stood at the end of the lounge. It took at least a quarter hour for the dust storm to pass. When we were allowed out of our hiding place, my brother and I ran about the house, throwing open doors and windows and touching the miraculous red dust. Somebody had left a bathroom window a centremetre ajar, and so the bathtub and hand basin were coated red. My grandmother's pansies and the washing on her line had turned red.
On the news that night we saw men and women in fancy suits running down Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, towards the safety of offices and railway stations. Melbourne has never seen anything like it, said the newscaster. The Outback blew into town today.
I walk down Little Bourke Street into Chinatown, doging the touts for the Post-Mao Restaurant - the slogan is 'Cooked according to the Chairman's secret recipe' - and a strip club. It is a Sunday night, but the pavements are full of people, even when I turn left into Russell Street and the Greek Precinct, which seems to consist mostly of sweet shops and travel agents. I lean against the window of Parthenon Travel and watch the crowds roll past. According to the Melbourne museum, this city is 70% 'Anglo-Celt', 20% 'South European', and 5% 'Asian'. The museum doesn't venture into demography, but the Koori Cultural Centre on King Street tels me that 0.6% of the city's population is Aboriginal.
Sidney Nolan insisted that Australian Rules was a noble, aesthetically superior sport, and that it would therefore overcome its geographic isolation and its appalling name to become the most popular organised ball game in the world. Nolan's prediction seems, at this moment, to be coming true: a gaggle of Chinese wander past with Melbourne Demons scarves and flags, and a Greek family kitted out in St Kilda gear disappears into a restaurant. I step back ito the crowd, which may be returning from a game over the hill in at the MCG, and move slowly north. I am not practising the artfully aimless psychegeographic walk of Guy Debord or Iain Sinclair, or scouting locations for a meal, as Skyler asked me to do. I am not even walking for the sake of walking. I am walking in these crowds because I want to remind myself that I will soon be walking through spaces larger than any I have ever known, as I cross the salt flats and scrub lands of Outback Australia.
The roadmap I bought today excludes all natural features except rivers and lakes, in order to better concentrate on the troublesome business of recording the names of cities, suburbs, towns, and villages, and the shapes of the roads and railways that connect and dissect them. Around Melbourne, the names teem like insects: Fitzroy, Carlton, Footscray, Geelong...names of footbal teams, railway stations. Further north, though, the names are further apart, separated by spaces as blank as the undiscovered territories that the more conscientious Victorian cartographers placed on their maps of Australia. Pooncarrie. Lake Mungo. Cobar. The blank spaces seem about to engulf the isolated names, to obliterate them.
I wander in the crowds of Melbourne, savouring the prospect of the loneliness I will soon feel, in the same way that a man who is about to leap into a hot spring on a freezing night chooses to linger on the edge of the water, enjoying the discomfort he will soon lose.