It began as a loose congregation in Victoria Park. The Parramatta Road smog stifled by the last bout of rain and the air smelt like fresh laundry. The plan was they would march down Broadway and George Street and loop around. Gradually, more arrived and were met with warm embrace. Some were in Day-Glo workwear, others in sequined box pleat skirts, cable knit sweaters inappropriate in this humidity, severe balaclavas. A red and black banner unfurled on the pavement that bore the question:
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
Pamphlets and buttons were distributed. A young woman with a megaphone thanked them all for coming and acknowledged whose land they stood on. She said that they lived in a system that drained and spent you, toyed with you on the floor and – to whoops and fevered applause – she said that they had had it up to here.
The tram wound past Blackwattle Bay as Steven paced its length. For the last few minutes, he had been watching a moth try to escape by darting into the carriage’s windows. It bounced off the tinted glass at jagged angles before slipping into an air-conditioning vent.
‘Just checking tickets, please,’ he said.
He wore a standard-issue TransCo beige button-up and held an electronic reader outstretched so people could tap their travel cards. Whenever anyone boards, they quickly and blankly scan the other passengers’ faces before taking a seat. He’d come in an hour late this morning but no-one was around so he clocked in and made his way to the Eddy Avenue terminus. He’d been at TransCo for about two months, which was still technically within the probation period, and a managerial rebuke was incoming, he knew. His immediate supervisor nursed a grudge against him ever since he objected to being paid training wages after the first fortnight. A florid ex-parole officer with hands the heft and colour of chuck steaks, you could imagine the man’s ears literally perk at the thought of calling Steve into his office just to have a quick chat about his performance, mate, that’s all.
Steven padded up and down the scuffed aisle like some caged thing, navigating the prams and walking frames in the courtesy seats, the pivoting joint in the vehicle’s centre that rotated slightly whenever they turned.
‘Tickets,’ he said in a breezy lilt that was also standard-issue.
When he completed his round, he slouched on the carriage’s back wall and took out his phone. He checked his bank balance – out of habit more than anything – then began scrolling through house listings, maximum price set low. Where he used to live was a neglected three-bedder in Petersham until the owners finally got the zoning permit to knock the place down. Notice of eviction, emails back and forth, ambiguous legal threats. Enemies came in the night to cut off the power, the water: a siege. The whole messy thing was pending review at the tenancy tribunal but for now – and though he hated how melodramatic it sounded – Steven was homeless. He had been staying at his sister Liv’s for the last few weeks while he looked for a new place. Try getting to sleep on time with all that aswirl, on a second-hand couch you can’t lie flat on, too aware of how soon you need to traipse into work in the frigid AM while the sky is the colour and texture of graphite, and every twenty minutes a motorbike slurs down the road outside. This was not his excuse for the late arrival this morning – obviously, he needed something more substantial, more concrete – but it was the truth.
A tunnel yawns ahead and the carriage momentarily grows dark.
By the time they reached the Harris Street intersection, the crowd that had assembled in the park had doubled in size. The wind was picking up. While the police permit did not extend that far, they agreed that they should march up to Parliament House. The momentum was there. For some, the idea that they still needed a bureaucrat’s blessing at this point was almost comical, the established order at its most banal. Passers-by seemed to understand intuitively why the people marching were doing what they were doing and joined them. Darkened foreheads and white knuckles. Their stamping feet set off car alarms all the way down the block.
As soon as Liv was accepted into the grad program at Pfeiffer, Weiß & Crawford Media’s Australian subsidiary, she moved into a second-floor unit just off King Street. It was small, but clean and warm. She furnished it with indoor plants, devil’s ivy and ficus, and vowed never to live in a student house again. If you asked him, Steven would say he was at least happy to stop having to pay what he had been for his old place, for its withered plumbing, for the warped and rotting wood of the backyard fence, how the ceiling bulged in heavy rain. Weeks like this, the kitchen would flood and the black mould you thought had been exorcised last summer would re-emerge, stronger. Last night, he dreamt that he’d breathed some of it in, that the spores had metastasised in his stomach and become very, very sentient there and for a whole REM-hour he’d fretted about this knot of fungi, coiled and writhing, watching with its single blind eye, ready to erupt if someone happened to leave raw meat lying around or made a sudden move – but Liv had woken him up around midnight when she came home. The front door caught on the carpet and could not be closed quietly.
‘Sorry,’ she said as she pulled off one heel with her forefinger.
‘All good,’ Steven said, getting up. ‘I couldn’t sleep. You go out?’
Liv placed her keys on the side table and walked into the adjoining kitchen to boil water. For opaque HR reasons, she had been rotated into the company’s advertising division and had been stuck the last month writing ‘native content’ for PW&CM’s wealthiest clients. They were just normal ads, she had explained, but written so they appeared to be real articles and then snuck into the independent press for a fee. Because the modern 18–35 y/o is so cynical and guarded and less receptive to traditional marketing duplicity – any guesses why? – the trick these days was you had to fool them into thinking that no-one was trying to sell them anything. Liv did not spend four years and $50,000 on a journalism degree for this but slogged through it anyway, hoping to one day do the greater and more meaningful things the university prospectus had assured, things that floated above and out of reach like navigational stars.
‘Some of the people there, honestly., she said. ‘Christ. There’s one guy who won’t stop talking about how good his high school was. And then he asks you about yours. I’m like, you’re twice my age. Why are you going on about this?’
She was a bit drunk and Steven chuckled sympathetically. There are professions where you have to commit to a certain amount of restrained boozing and pandering every Friday night to get anywhere. Depending on the kind of person you are, this is work. The kettle popped and Liv made some tea.
‘Any luck house-hunting?’ she asked. ‘We can be neighbours.’
‘Nothing around here I can afford,’ Steven said. ‘But I have a few interviews lined up on Wednesday.’
She plucked a bent cigarette out of her clutch and walked out onto the balcony. Her eyes were closed and she held the mug with both hands, as if receiving sacrament. A lace of peppermint steam trailed behind her. Like the other grads, she ate dinner at her desk, was mildly dependent on benzodiazepine, and whether she’d still be on staff come January was anyone’s guess. She did not like smoking around her little brother but tonight was just one of those nights.
Their voices were strained with urgency, freighted with a rage that Steven had felt but had never articulated, a throbbing in the diffuse red behind closed eyes. Their demands were few and simple. A slightly softer world. To draw breath instead of drowning.
The text he was anticipating: ‘Just saw that you came in at 7:45 this morning?
Then: ‘What’s your timetable say? Remember what we said about this?’
In face-to-face conversation, his supervisor did speak in chains of stunted questions, but he did not want a response, you soon learnt.
‘I’m getting Will to take your Sunday and Tuesday. Timetable reschedule.’
Steven swore under his breath. He briefly imagined the man running down an endless hallway as the Petersham mould chased him down, carried him home in its teeth. They had a whole suite of these reprimands, he’d been told on his first day. One was the shift reschedule. Or consecutive random piss tests. Another thing is they made you manually time the walking distance between stops. Or they put you on market research, meaning that each time you asked for someone’s ticket you also had to poll them on your personal service, on a 1-10 scale, with each level of quality denoted by a little, yellow, increasingly enraged face. And if you were on the job for less than a month they fired you. Though dull in every other way, TransCo management did not want for creativity in this department.
They stop at the Star City Casino and most of the tram’s older passengers exit. While losing the shift and the overtime was frustrating, any other time it would have been desperate. He was not a stranger to borrowing money from his housemates or his sister or foregoing dinner but, at least this week, he had no rent to pay. It was a perverse silver lining but it could’ve been significantly worse. Here was something Steven had caught himself thinking a lot recently: it could’ve been worse. A platitude that became a mantra whenever things went wrong. No worries. I’ll live. This optimism seems hard-wired, almost practical, to move and thrive in the kind of world we live in. The alternative is to feel constantly thwarted, undermined by forces you can’t control or apparently change. We have to believe that that’s life. We must believe this too shall pass. Is there a point when
stoicism can congeal into complacency? If we knew that things didn’t ever get better, what would we do? Would we do anything? And why isn’t our default response fury, simple and unalloyed?
They took turns holding a lighter’s flame to the papier-mâché. The foam and straw stuffing caught easily and sent up snarls of orange fire. The effort had been worth it. A parade of bloated coal barons and haemorrhoidal bankers and leering demagogues. The effigies were so large that it took two or three people to stand them vertically. An amateur photographer’s snapshot made national news and pundits were quick to point out the tableau’s almost fateful resemblance to the six marines raising their flag high on the stony cape of Iwo Jima.
The tram passed the fish markets. Seagulls pirouetted above the rib cage of stalls and store-houses and outdoor eateries. Most tram and streetcar networks in Australia are built over excavated freight lines. When they operated, they would have trafficked goods and produce from the closest harbour into the city and its surrounds. Steven had never seen the appeal of the place as a tourist attraction. More than anything, it was the frozen displays that made him uneasy, the rows of vacant eyes which conjured up reluctant Sunday trips to the Cooks River with his stepfather or uncle Wes and sometimes Liv or their mum. His stepfather taking each rust-coloured bream or mulloway and playing ventriloquist, making it ask Steven questions in Looney Tunes voices – what he’d learned at school, whether there were any girls he liked – as the ten-year-old winced and recoiled. The river’s estuary opened out into Kingsford-Smith Airport and Port Botany and its banks were lined with emphatic signs warning people not to eat anything they caught. He never tried that on Liv though who once screamed at him until their mother ran over and said it was time to go home. She’d always been like that. Growing up and even now, if anyone crossed her she’d ensure that they personally made reparations, would breathe fire. Liv, who reported the owner of the café where she last worked to the Ombudsman, took him to court. Who hurled herself like a berserker at Mick Wallace when he pushed Steven onto the playground’s gravel, padding the scrape on her brother’s knee with a balled-up tissue saying it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay.
He had never told her this, but he often tried to imagine what she’d do if she were in his position. She’d write to his supervisor’s supervisor, maybe. Follow the man around to get some compromising photographs. Threaten to send them to his wife unless he made things right. Or she’d take it all the way to the top, Mr TransCo himself sitting behind his big oak desk, fingertips pressed together in a steeple. But making a fuss over something so petty always made things worse, Steven knew, of course. And one slack-shouldered apology now could save you a whole lot of grief later. Plus, there was a small, locked-up part of him that thought maybe they were right – that his problems were there only because he felt entitled to things he hadn’t earned or toiled for. He did come in late today after all. He could own his mistake. Maybe they were right and adult life had always been like this – like they’ve been saying all along – always one fuck-up away from missing rent or meal, walking a highwire and being one fuck-up from falling, ridges of callous forming on your bare feet, uphill both ways.
Kitchen-hands, bar-staff, students, professors, cyclists with takeaway Indian food in their insulated backpacks, cabbies coming in from Circular Quay, wharfies, overalled brickies, tough girls with fluorescent hair, the wretched and the hungry, the shivering sick, legs peeking out from under polka-dotted gowns, couples with their hands clasped desperately, small children holding balloons aloft. Even a boom operator from one of the TV news vans covering the story left to join the demonstration. Black clouds seethed overhead, brought in fast and low by an offshore gale. Sydney storms take you by surprise.
The first coin-sized drops drummed a rhythm on the tram’s steel roof as it passed the Haymarket Novotel into Chinatown proper. Red brick, carved golden arches, multi-level carparks loomed above. Voluptuous steam sighed out of grilled kitchen windows. The carriage canted slightly to the left as they turned down Darling Drive and the standing passengers had to hold onto something for balance. A woman joggled her baby on one leg. A teenager unwrapped the foil on a kebab to take a bite. Things will start looking up, Steven thought. The arc of the moral universe tends towards justice. An elderly man struggled to hold several canvas bags full of tinned vegetables and it looked like he was preparing for some sort of imminent crisis. Soon they would reach Central Station and then circle around again. A computer voice advised customers that, for their own safety, if they saw any unattended baggage they should report it to someone, anyone, immediately.
Steven would go home tonight. He’d have tinned tuna on multigrain, a drink, two, lie supine on bed or couch, laptop heating up on his stomach, then sleep. And once more with feeling. Other days he’d get paid, have a big night. He’d be employee of the month if that’s something they still did, or maybe find a house, or make enough bolognaise to eat for three days straight, supplant his supervisor and sit in an office all afternoon with an excel spreadsheet minimised, or even come in one day to find himself replaced by a ticket-checking robot with a sharper smile. Let the sun flit up and down in the sky on fast forward. Embrace a degree of passivity and the phrase ‘life goes on’ takes a very literal meaning. Or it would’ve except that today the driver hits the brakes, to the surprise of everyone on board, and the tram comes to a halt.
A canister hits the wet ground with a siss – a fist of orange sparks, the smell of sulphur, a concussive pop! – and that’s when the NSW Public Order and Riot Squad rushes in.
Steven entered the tram’s front compartment to see why they had stopped. The driver shrugged. Said there’s no way they’re going through that. Dense orange smoke is all there is. Most of the action was obscured but Steven could hear it. Shouting, the dull thump of wood on a heavy thing. A few passengers had gotten out and begun filming whatever was happening on their phones. Steven’s eyes stung and it was either because the wind had kicked up pollen or that was tear gas. The wipers smeared beads of rain and ash across the windshield as the haze petered out and the scene began to resolve. Later, he would come to realise that the arc of the moral universe doesn’t tend toward justice by itself. You push and stretch and twist and beat it there. For now though, he could not believe what he was seeing.
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