The doors open to let me out, and the smell of coffee in. Not long ago, self-opening door were only found in Star Trek, but now they are commonplace. On hot days the few metres from inside to outside are marked by a steep jump in temperature; on cold days – or as cold as cold gets in Melbourne – the shock is never as great.
In all but the heat of the summer, the smell of coffee is a greater challenge to walking than the temperature. The fine blend being perfectly toasted just over the road temps me stop and sample. The coffee shop’s logo has 1961 embedded in it, which may hint at funkiness, but only succeeds in making me feel old. The air is heavy with tortured aromatics, pushed from the beans by hot and tumbled air. Arabica? Robusta? Organic? (Inorganic?) Single source or blended? I’m sure some people could tell; but to me, its just coffee.
Two or three strides later the rail line I will follow home comes into view. Parallel lines that meet in the distance flow away from the station. Slight buckles in the rails caused by train brakes and expansion challenge the symmetry of perspective. Tannoy announcements speak of delays caused by the heat as if this is a novelty, or somehow unexpected in Australia. Fallen trees? Yes. Catastrophic signal failure? Yes. Heat? No.
I’m happy to be walking.
With a fence on one side and a borderland of weeds and old iron on the other I shadow the rail line. Leaves push through the fence and sprout from its decayed base. Cactus flowers, garden escapees, sun bleached grass. Bindweeds, with flowers the colour of cool wood smoke, purple and blue and grey, climb the trees and fences; their twisting stems snake up signal poles and trackside buildings. A scatter of discarded chocolate wrappers – most likely lifted from a shop rather than bought – distract the butterflies from their other tasks. Their wings open and shut, pulsing to a rhythm different to my own. On the concrete wall that holds up the other side of the railway cutting two generations of graffiti offer relief from the day-to-day grind. The paint of the older words flakes from the wall, revealing it age, showing the while “free energy may be coming”, it’s not arrived yet. On a wooden seat an abandoned bike lock has been painted the same colour as the seat itself, so it becomes lost in two ways. I pass these things every time I walk home, they become the way stations of a simple journey; they become the markers of distance.
I wait for the green man at the lights, imagining the curses of the paused commuters, and cross the road.
The graffiti artists have been busy tagging the walls of the cutting; names brightly sprayed on rust stained, crumbling, brickwork that seeps green moss in in dark corners. Some of the tags bring a kind of brightness, a newness, to contrast with the neglect around them. Trains clatter over misaligned points, and rusty wires sing in the strong north wind. The railway feels un-loved by a government so obsessed with cars that it builds roads, roads and roads, while the rail network groans to a halt. Politicians take whistle-stop tours and declare something must be done. And they build more roads.
I cross a solid metal bridge where the line divides. One to Alamein and the other, my line, out to Box Hill, Blackburn and beyond. The walls of the underpass are rippled with painted over comments – each layer making the tunnel thinner. On the platform students carry computers, sports bags, musical instruments. The boys carry larger sports bags, the girls more instruments: both carry the weight of their parent’s expectations. Some seem to sag. Both groups dance and flow around each other, splintering and rejoining, splendid in their school colours.
A low sci-fi hum leaks from a box square building, where electricity is stepped down from the deadly to the merely dangerous. Just below the roofline a few Art Deco lines and corners bring a touch of design to a building dominated by function. Dust swirls from the unmade track where, in the winter, mud gathers to cling to your shoes. Circling pigeons nod and bow to each other in another ritual dance intent of the passage of genes.
Beyond the dusty path the streets are line with plane trees, the branches cruelly cut to allow the passage of wires through their crowns. Some trees become amputees, one sided, off balance. Some spread their limbs like a catapult. All look gnarled and damaged, like the weathered hands of a gardener, bent by old age and twisted by arthritis. In winter, stripped of their leaves, they are as bare as an open gesture. What branches remain shed last year’s bark – showering the street with a counterfeit of autumn. The bark gathers in gutters and under wall edges, brandy snap tubes, delightfully crunchy underfoot, shattering as you step on them. Thousand upon thousand of pieces fallen from trees planted generations ago. In streets that are home to young children, there are no young trees.
I can’t help but wonder what secrets are hidden behind the tall hedges. The houses are set back from the road, out of earshot, behind garden beds that baffle the eye line. Some gardens seem over loved, other seem over looked. A tall tree, a liquid amber, lies in deep grass, its trunk cut an arms spread from the ground. The lawn is already claiming the fallen wood.
A Jaguar hides in a border hedge; it must have been a long time since it purred or roared. Ivy grows from its open nose. Its paintwork patched and dented. What is the story here, why is it abandoned, on the edge of extinction?
Between one walk and the next a house has disappeared. Now there is only the smell of smashed bricks and splintered wood. No matter how dry the land gets these broken houses still smell of damp. Maybe it’s the smell of fleeing memories or old ambition. The sign on the cyclone wire fence promises to build new ones from modern fibres and architect design. Black plastic bags emerge from the newly exposed soil, sun baked and fragile, and given rain and a week or two, weeds will soon start to smooth the out the machine tracks that criss-cross the block.
A massive oak tree stands at the entrance to the park, its trunk solid, its branches untouched by blade or saw. The canopy is dense and complete, barely a light spot speckles the ground around. Cool air gathers here and on a hot day the temptation is to linger a while, to pause and take in the stillness.
The sign that names the park is floral in the extreme – twee even – and makes no connection to the solid trees that stud the well-kept lawns. There are even young trees here and there, planted by dirty hands grown wise from the handling of soil. Two tree conspire – compete – to form a natural theatre; open to the front but otherwise surrounded by weeping branches that brush the ground. It’s a space that calls for Shakespeare to read aloud, or music to be played. A few years ago I spent an hour there spinning plates, failing to juggle and tangling a diabolo.
Across the main road, past the super-loo and the dance studio, is a rare pocket of industry. This may be a ghost from the time when this was the outskirts of Melbourne, where dirty work was done and things were made. These days it’s where coffee is sipped and things are bought. On one small patch of weedy ground dozen and dozens of cigarette ends await the rain to wash them into the drains and out to sea. It’s an unfortunate habit on all levels.
On my right is a vacant block, colonised by deep grass and stolen bikes. A cracked concrete path still leads from the pavement into the block. I walked up it once to see what was there; I decided to leave the bikes for other people. Rainbow lorikeets, drawn by a free lunch, chatter on the balcony of the house next door. I cant help but wonder why the block stays vacant.
By the station underpass tired parents collect tired children from day care. The walls are painted with happy faces and bright colours. If the kids stand still they blend in, but never quite disappear. In the winter you can hear the shouts and whistles of the elder siblings at footy training – running in the evening darkness, calling names, hoping the ball comes their way.
As I walk past the cadet hall with its poster sized images of children in uniform with guns, I wonder if the CCTV notices that I pass by twice or three times a week. Did it notice when I found a box of heat tabs, clearly labelled “explosive” on the grass? And did they notice when I flicked them, backhand, back over the fence? A rucksack, webbing and a pair of boots seem to have been returned in the same way – a change of heart maybe?
Just past the Bofors Gun and the Camp Safe Bravo sign I see a familiar face. I have no idea what this person is called, but we almost always say hello. I only stop to talk when I know I have 20 minutes to spare. Short conversations are not his strong point. I keep walking, past the weatherboard houses painted pastel cream with green details. The modern brick and tile houses look sharp and angular, lacking the flow of wood and iron. Even in the rain the gardens look dry.
On a good day the rail barriers hold up the traffic when I want to cross Union Road. On a bad day I have to wait for a dashable gap in the flow. The print works on the corner has closed in the last few months – its used to print the flyers for house sales. A niche market that seems to have closed. It used to be possible to watch the sheets of paper move through the presses, become more colourful at each stage. People would stand by the machines, ears covered in bright yellow cups, and stack the printed sheets. Now the windows are darkened and cobwebs form in the corners. I wonder what happened to the people who used to work there.
The park and ride cars are tightly packed into the car park. Manly 4WD’s bumper to bumper with tiny city cars. The drivers of the bigger cars often have to wait for enough space to drive the vehicle home. The city car drivers turn on a sixpence and leave at will. Train passengers and walkers weave between the parked cars, feeling moral and heading home.
It’s here that I walk up the only hill on the way home. It’s very short and end at a corner where people grow green beans in raised garden beds. Some of the plants grow beyond the bounds of the property and I scrump a bean or two. Snap. Crunch.
I could reach out and almost touch the trains that pass me and then head towards Box Hill, although it would be dumb to do so. On a small triangle of bare soil, twigs and branches from the gum trees gather – winter kindling that eagerly take the flame.
A newly smoothed road takes me home. At the last turn I think of a drink, cold or warm in season.
There are often parrots. There is often, but not always, laughter from inside the house.
The parallel lines have met.
The train line keeps going, but this is my stop.
* With apologies to Sir John Betjeman.