HEART OF DOCKNESS
Old Dock, New Tricks
When Angela and I moved into the barely habitable rear of the crumbling warehouse across the tracks from Spencer Street Station, there was real self-deprecating irony in the big, black letters daubed on the neighbouring wall: ‘Docklanded Gentry’.
Maybe the graffiti is still there. It’s even possible the warehouse has survived. But as for what might now lie between them …
A couple of months in, our decision to cohabit seemed to have been the right one. Angela was clearly more confident about the relationship. Confident enough to remark, as we lay in bed, ‘Have you noticed that café around the corner?’
‘If I ever see another oversized pepper grinder …’
‘Don’t you think it’s odd?’ Her tone was tucked in at the edges.
‘Psychedelic stained glass is not odd – it’s bloody awful.’
‘Well, yes. But I’m talking about the way it just appeared.’
I couldn’t help myself: I had to push that big red button labelled Do Not Push. Always, every time. ‘I told you, sweetheart, this place is about to explode.’
(Yes, I’m sure those were my words. I prefer to regard it as an unlikely coincidence rather than consider the alternative: that I might have accidentally invoked some kind of curse.)
In the heavy pause that followed, I braced myself for a well-deserved telling off.
Then Angela sighed. ‘That’s not what I’m talking about. Yesterday it wasn’t there. I mean there was nothing, not even a vacant block. I’m sure of it. The two empty rail sheds on either side used to sit next to each other.’
‘You don’t believe me,’ she said quietly. ‘You think I’m crazy, right?’
‘Sounds like it,’ I said. ‘But I knew that already. Why else would you be with me?’
Angela made the dry-retching noise she reserved for such comments. But a moment later she pressed closer.
At first even the tabloids hedged around the issue, with headlines like ‘New Kids on the Dock’, ‘In the Boom Docks’ and ‘Record Rise in Activity’.
To the casual reader, those early, carefully worded reports would’ve sounded little different to their predecessors. For some time, there’d been wild speculation about the coming redevelopments. Every second day we saw others like ourselves, and even legal occupants, being forced out as immaculately tailored figures watched hungrily from a distance. The inner-city community newspaper (this was before Docklands had its own dailies) regularly ran articles on the difficulties for those fringe dwellers who’d once found sanctuary there, before talk of luxury townhouses and upmarket apartment towers.
I was already becoming inured to the sudden outbreaks of construction and, almost overnight, the hideous aftermath. Sometimes it was a struggle to recall the particular weed-infested lot or derelict building of former days.
If I was more frequently missing trains, I considered it an index of domestic bliss.
The Dock’n’Dole Lifestyle
‘Your dinner’s on the camp stove.’ The back of Angela’s freshly shaven head bristled at me. ‘It was ready an hour ago.’
‘Sorry. I just went for a walk around the block. But I got lost.’
Her shoulders drew inwards beneath the layers of jumpers and cardigans. Spread before her, across the concrete floor, were mock-ups of the slogans we’d begun compiling. Our plan was to print T-shirts, then copy the text onto prominent walls, and then sell the T-shirts to the growing flocks of gawping visitors. We didn’t consider this antisocial but rather our own form of private enterprise, based on the theory that if you’re fined for it, it’s graffiti; if you’re paid for it, it’s advertising.
‘You should be happy.’ My remorse smouldered into resentment. ‘You were the one with the aspirations. I didn’t care where we squatted.’
In the absence of an answer I could argue with, I turned and stomped back towards the front door. It didn’t occur to me, till I was standing on the far side, Angela might not intervene.
I headed for Footscray Road. Where six months before only an access road had separated our house from the security hut on the corner, I now passed a café, two fashion boutiques, another café, a fitness centre and cosmetic day surgery, a drycleaners, a vintage music store and several corporate-looking offices whose exact business was unspecified.
By the time I reached Footscray Road I was out of breath and my temper had cooled. I turned and trudged homeward, feeling ashamed of myself.
The Best Explanation I Heard
‘It’s obvious,’ said Damon, brandishing his stubbie for emphasis. When I first relocated, Damon had politely insisted we catch up in the city. Of late, he had taken to ‘just passing by’ more regularly than the city loop trains. It was as if I’d moved into the Hollywood Hills.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Not what,’ he corrected. ‘Why – why this is happening.’
I waited sceptically while Damon drained his beer. He fancied himself a raconteur and enjoyed building suspense.
‘It’s all in the name,’ he said. ‘Think about it: Dockland. Like Disneyland or Wonderland or …’
‘Swaziland?’ I suggested.
‘Fine, take that attitude. If you’re not interested, I shan’t scatter my pearls …’
‘Sorry. Please continue.’
‘Well, land in all these examples indicates this is the place where it all happens, right? Now think about the word dock. It doesn’t only refer to a carpark for boats. It also means to cut or reduce. And there’s a lot of that about nowadays – they dock your pay, dock public spending, dock benefits. But remember, matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, just redistributed. So’ – his voice rose in polemical triumph – ‘Docklands must be where everything that gets docked ends up. And there’s so much …’ He beamed and made an expansive gesture.
‘Another beer, Einstein?’
‘Love to, but God knows how long it’ll take to get back to Footscray this time.’
Damon picked up his wallet and keys. ‘By the way, are things with Ange on the mend? Where is she?’
I shrugged. He patted me on the shoulder.
The Worst Explanation I Heard
After Damon left I opened another beer, slumped onto the couch and switched on the radio. I didn’t want to think about Angela or her possible whereabouts. But it seemed that every music station was playing sad love songs. In desperation I turned to Sunday afternoon sport. One station had a special on Docklands’ bid to host the next Olympics. Another was broadcasting the debut game by AFL’s newest: the Docklands Rabbits.
‘They might be a rookie team,’ one of the commentators chuckled, ‘but they’re finding as many openings in the opposition defence as in their home suburb.’
I gave up and switched to the ABC. Ordinarily, Angela would spend the afternoon parked on the couch listening to the arts program.
The host, whose voice had that well-rounded quirkiness I associated with cultural studies graduates, was addressing one of her guests. ‘We’ve heard the “Docklands effect” described as a kind of urban cancer, like the overproduction of certain cells in a living organism. It’s also been suggested in books such as the best-selling Docklands for Dummies that this is another symptom of the collapse of the natural order due to human meddling -‘
She drew breath to continue but a smoky male voice cut in: ‘I’d say those comments are classic examples of the kind of knee-jerk panic-mongering you’d expect from certain quarters.’ I could almost hear the elevated eyebrow. ‘Frankly, I’m sick of this black-armband view of geography. Clearly we’re looking at a new natural resource, with immense practical advantages including increased economic activity, international interest …’
‘But how do you account for this extraordinary phenomenon?’ the host enquired.
‘I’d take issue with a sensationalist term like “extraordinary”, which simply means unfamiliar. In fact, it’s a term used by a tiny minority of career panic-mongers to disguise their own irrelevance and their fear of genuine progress.’
The host coughed delicately, but her guest was undeterred. ‘And in answer to your question, as I argue in my forthcoming book, The Docklandscape of Tomorrow -‘
I killed the radio. The beer found room temperature in my hand as dusk fell prematurely under the shadow of the neighbouring megaplex.
My clothes had somehow strewn themselves across the unfamiliar floor. ‘I’d better get going. She’s started asking where I’ve been.’
Sheets rustled behind me in the gloom.
‘Yeah, whatever,’ Tess said, with what sounded like a yawn. ‘I’m going to be pretty busy for a while anyway.’
‘Me too,’ I lied.
‘But just for the record, if we were both to find we had some free time in the future …’
Outside, from habit, I glanced up and down the street, before remembering this was unnecessary. The scooter was where I’d left it. It came as something of a shock: this was still how things worked in other areas. I was still coming to grips with vehicle ownership – but Angela and I had decided we had no choice but to buy one, with the distances we travelled growing daily.
I opened my top button, hoping any lingering scents of infidelity would be blown away, guiltily relieved to have a ready-made excuse for my tardiness.
I couldn’t say exactly when it dawned on me that I’d actually become disorientated. I had grown adept at spotting landmarks even in altered surroundings. And I was certain I’d just passed the supermarket located (by now, for the time being) half a dozen blocks past the Crown Casino. I swung the scooter around and headed back to see if I’d missed a new turnoff. But when I reached the supermarket I couldn’t be sure if it was the same one, or another member of the chain.
I took a deep breath and continued back the way I thought I’d come, but after several turns I lost track of my approach route. Nothing in sight had existed eight months before. How had this happened? It wasn’t the rapidity of change that terrified me so much as the realisation of how rapidly I’d come to accept it.
I pulled to the kerb and unclenched my fingers from the damp handlebars. I was parked outside a dusty milk bar. I opened the storage compartment and grabbed the Melways. Almost two decades out of date, it had nevertheless been perfectly adequate for Docklands when we’d first moved. And there seemed no point investing in the recently launched Dockways, despite the offer of discounted monthly upgrades.
The bright-eyed elderly woman behind the counter smiled knowingly. ‘Sure, I’ll have a look. And while I’m at it, would you like to buy my last copy of today’s paper?’
I handed over the money, pushed the newspaper to one side of the greasy counter, and pointed at my map. ‘I need to find my way back here.’
She lowered her head over the page.
‘So when did you arrive?’ I asked, hoping casual conversation would quell my rising panic.
‘Me? Too long. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here since the first ship came in. Just a sec.’
She flipped to the front cover and then burrowed below the counter, emerging with another battered Melways. ‘Thought so.’ A stick-like finger tapped the number on the front. ‘Same edition.’
She flipped past the first few pages, and I found myself gazing upon the cartography of a Docklands that bore little resemblance to anything I knew. The hooked claws of dread sank into my stomach. Doubt gave way to certainty: the conviction that I would never again feel at home in the world.
‘Sorry,’ said the woman. ‘Best of luck.’
I was already halfway to the door, having abandoned newspaper and directory. Outside, I hunched in the gutter for several minutes, willing myself to be sick. When it didn’t happen, I climbed back onto the scooter and rode on, turning into and out of streets at random, in a daze.
Nothing mattered now except the yearning to be back with Angela, cooking or playing Scrabble or adding little touches to our humble abode. How had I forgotten how much these simple, magical things meant to me? Had she forgotten, too? If I could only have another chance, I’d get it right for sure.
What’s Up, Dock?
I don’t even recall how we got onto the topic. It was just one of those aimless after-dinner conversations you have when you’ve talked about everything that needs talking about. And for some reason or other I mentioned the mural opposite the stadium.
At first I thought Angela was pretending to have forgotten it. I didn’t think her joke was very funny. In fact, I found it rather insensitive. Nevertheless, I persevered cheerfully.
The mural was definitely not a recent arrival: I’d noticed it on our first reconnaissance mission, when we were still nervously nosing around the area. Though I said nothing at the time, I had winced inwardly at the garish, upbeat depiction of local history since European settlement. It didn’t even have the charm of naïve art; it looked like 1970s urban renewal, Disney-style. Nobody with Angela’s sensibilities could’ve remained oblivious.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Honestly.’ Angela clapped her hands in a manner I recognised only too well.
I should have let it go. We’d survived so much worse, and things were improving. I guess I was so used to feeling in the wrong that I wanted to cling to this one instance I knew I was right.
‘Listen,’ I said carefully. ‘You cross the bridge from the station, you pass the town hall, and the next thing you see …’
‘Stop it!’ Angela shrieked. ‘Stop playing mind games.’
We looked at each other. I think we were both struck by the same thought, and we spoke at the same time.
Angela said: ‘Maybe I’m not that observant.’
I said: ‘Maybe it’s not that obvious.’
There was no conviction in either of our voices. And although there was one fairly straightforward way to settle the issue, neither of us dared suggest it.
A minute died in glassy silence. And another. And with each second we might have said something, done something that would’ve put us back in the game with at least a hope. Instead, the absence of these things took on a terrible, intoxicating momentum of its own.
I remembered Zeno’s paradox. Somewhere up ahead was a place where things would again be okay. But before we arrived there we had to get halfway. And before we could reach that halfway point we had to get halfway there, and what was I doing, thinking of Zeno’s paradox while my relationship was already more than halfway up shit creek?
‘I’m sorry,’ Angela said.
‘Me too.’ I swallowed. ‘I’m not being funny, but I think we need a bit more space. From each other. To get things back in perspective.’
After a moment I continued, ‘My parents have been asking me to visit. I think they’re worried …’ I didn’t have the heart to go on.
I can’t explain why, when I flew out from the domestic terminal of Docklands International, I took my few valuables with me. I certainly never expected the illness that flattened me, a day into my visit. It was weeks before I even understood what had happened. During the worst of it, as the specialists fiddled with their biros and gradually downgraded my chances, all I knew was the sensation of dissolving in an endless void.
Then the fever broke. I found out that Angela hadn’t tried to make contact. Even so, I considered calling her, if only in the hope of making her feel ashamed. I promised myself I would when I’d made a full recovery. In the meantime, I was quite enjoying being confined to my old bedroom in my parents’ modest home where nothing much ever seemed to change.
My first job here – in the municipal works department, where the foreman was a mate of my father’s – ended within the week after an unfortunate misunderstanding when I happened to mention where I’d come from. I’ve since learned to remain silent on the subject, falling back on vague lies when necessary.
Nowadays, like everyone else around these parts, I find myself thinking about Docklands in the same way I think about distant wars, natural disasters and suchlike upheavals: as barely perceptible knots and frayed threads in life’s marvellous tapestry, existing primarily to confirm our superiority because such things don’t happen here.
This story is illustrated by the wonderful Matthew Dunn, a Melbourne-based comic creator/illustrator who can be found at www.matthewdunnartist.blogspot.com.
Andrew Morgan is a Melbourne writer, originally from Newcastle NSW.
© Andrew Morgan
Overland 196-spring 2009, pp.62–68