The man I climb past to reach my window seat smells of sandalwood mixed with something herbaceous and fresh. It’s the kind of scent you buy in amber glass bottles from minimally lit shops; the kind that can somehow be simultaneously soothing and stimulating. The flight to Melbourne is little more than an hour long, and I’m glad I’ve squandered flying points for a seat in business class. It’s not where I usually sit, but the plane is full. I booked at the last-minute to attend a funeral: this isn’t a holiday, more the business of the living, I reason.
My neighbour isn’t young, but he’s not yet old either.* The skin on his face is like a walnut shell buffed to a pearly shine. His frame is spare in a way that makes me think he is a runner who practises yoga and mindfulness and committed to veganism some time ago. I’m mostly right. He works in borders and biosecurity, and he is traveling south to sit on a panel that will appoint someone to a senior government job. It’s a rare work trip since he took leave six months ago to care for his terminally ill mother. He is interested in the different ways people approach death, he says. An old friend has recently died without rancour. His mother is another story.
‘It is like she is afraid and won’t accept it. I have often meditated on death; I don’t fear it, it is something that happens,’ he says as we wait for the plane to move.
A pilot I know once said the most dangerous moments of a flight are take-off and landing. Yesterday the country’s dry centre had shed a layer of dusty skin and sent it to Sydney in a giant red cloud. Planes across Australia were stranded on tarmacs for hours or cancelled altogether. When our plane starts edging forward, the tension that normally spreads involuntarily through me at this moment doesn’t come. I only feel relieved.
My neighbour, now 60, tells me about his life. When he was a teenager his Italian parents migrated to Australia after one of his cousins was kidnapped. ‘There was some wealth in the family,’ he says, without elaborating. In Australia he became an academic, and then he went back to Italy and taught at Bologna for many years.
When he returned to Australia he taught at another university before becoming one of those who left higher education in the waves of restructuring that transformed the sector in recent years. The payout let him buy a small farm on the outskirts of Sydney. That and caring for his mother had left him with ‘no desire to go back to work,’ he tells me. ‘My wife isn’t interested in going back to a career either. She has opened a yoga school and does some consulting.’
He tells me he has climbed Everest (though not to the peak), sailed to New Zealand, and is now getting his pilot’s licence. There is something in the square lines of his face and deep-set eyes that remind me of my father. My great-great grandfather was from northern Italy, but the known history of this Cerruti (later Cerutty) starts when he moved to Tavistock, Devonshire. There are no romantic stories to share of family from Verona or Trieste. But I haven’t told him the purpose of my visit today and I’m glad not to talk about myself.
The plane arrives at Tullamarine only a few minutes late, but I don’t have any minutes to spend. I call an Uber to take me to the home of friends I’ll travel to the funeral service with. The airport traffic is barely moving. Cars crawl around the bend to the public pick up area in front of the hire car outlets. My driver sees my panic but remains calm. I stare ahead and try to concentrate on not flooding his car with the two coffees and water I drank on the plane. I can’t ask him about himself, I’m too busy squeezing the grab handle above my window like a labouring woman holding on for the hospital. I know though that if I saw him innocently walking the streets with friends late at night Peter Dutton would try to frighten me with stories of African gangs. The rain starts when we are still one kilometre from my friends’ house. He offers to stop for me, but we’re too late already. I start planning how I will salvage an outfit if I piss myself. I manage to hold on; the clouds, however, won’t give up until later that night.
It takes another hour to drive across Melbourne to the Springvale Botanical Cemetery, and we arrive as the service is about to start. It’s confronting when your knowledge of a person expands exponentially on the day of their funeral. But I had not lived in Melbourne for years, and I hadn’t seen Jozeph Gasper, my oldest friend’s father, since my friend and I were at school together. When Suzie stands to speak she gives a eulogy with her customary elegance and grace. The bright smile on her face seems as much about making everyone else feel at ease as it is because she is remembering her father’s love for her and her brother. He was born in Cimahi Indonesia on the 6th January 1937, she tells us. Within a few years the war arrived on the Island and his father was taken away to a prisoner of war camp.
He told Suzie a story about finding food for his family when they were escaping the conflict and passing a ravine. ‘Something told him to go down there and he found a banana tree with a big bunch of bananas which fed the family for a few days.’ Later, in Melbourne, he would become a gifted gardener. There was beauty too in his life on Banda Island. ‘The way my Dad talked about Banda I felt like it was a magical place,’ Suzie says. ‘He’d describe how the island was in one of the deepest oceans in the world, so deep it was black, an island shaped like a mushroom, with abundant sea life and turtles, and dotted over the landscape, the ruins of old Dutch fortresses.’
In 1961 Jozeph sat a test run by Australian ambassadors looking for bright South East Asian students. Suzie describes a scene shortly afterwards when Jozeph was working in a night market, running a gambling table for one of the Chinese stall holders: ‘One of the other students selected was looking for him at the fancy fair waving the telegram. He said to my Dad: “forget about fancy fair, it will be fancy fair every day in Australia.”’
Jozeph came to Melbourne to study architecture as part of the Colombo Plan, a scheme created in 1950 by Commonwealth countries that was either (depending on your point of view) a great humanitarian initiative to support development in Pacific and Asian nations, or a self-interested attempt by Western governments to create a bulwark against the spread of communism. Whatever the historical-political calculations behind his arrival, when Jozeph came to Australia he remembers ‘he was treated like a king—as an ambassador from Asia,’ Suzie says. Colombo students ‘were escorted by limousine and stayed with Australian host families in the country for the summer holidays.’ At one point during those student years he lived in a flat on the corner of Palmerston and Lygon streets in Carlton, and it was here that he first saw the woman he would marry. Aloisia had recently arrived in Australia from Hungary and lived with her parents, her sisters and brother in a Housing Commission tower that had recently been built across the road.
Jozeph remembered the sixties an exciting time. It was also a time when it was possible (although not indubitable) for two people who came to Australia fleeing war, political persecution or poverty to meet each other and create a richly lived life: a deep circle of friends, a nice home in a good suburb, children and opportunities for education and jobs. By the end of the 1960s Suzie’s parents were living in a blond brick mid-century house on a corner block in Bentleigh. There was breeze block panel on the veranda, a mango tree on the side. The walls inside were filled with paintings of scenes from Europe and Asia. Fifteen years later my parents moved a few kilometres down the road to a house in Bentleigh East. Suzie and I met in year eight on the bus that travelled down Centre Road to a private girls school in a beachside suburb, a trip where the homes grew grander with each kilometre.
We weren’t the only ones who bussed in from the far away: there were many girls who, either because of scholarships, assistance from grandparents or parental ingenuity, were attending a school that, strictly speaking, didn’t have us in mind when it was built. My parents sent me because my father was an Anglican minister: heavily subsidised schooling was part of the deal for otherwise lowly compensated clergy. The girls who did seem to belong were future car dealership heiresses or surgeons’ daughters with names like Kirsty and Bronte. Girls who appeared in the social pages when they were 16, and who would keep turning up in the same pages for decades. But that’s not an entirely fair description of the student body. I had friends who came from newly prosperous middle-class families from Melbourne’s south western suburban developments. There was a girl who came one year because her family was escaping bombs in Lebanon. One of my friends did live in a mansion; she had dark mod-styled hair and introduced me to Everything But the Girl and private school boyfriends who dressed like they were auditioning to be the Sex Pistols’ support band.
Our year eight history teacher was from Great Britain and she taught us that History meant knowing your kings and queens. But there was also an English teacher who, in year twelve, urged us to attend anti-nuclear rallies on Palm Sunday. A small, white haired woman called Mrs Cave, meanwhile, was quietly conducting a feminist insurgency in the library, slipping copies of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women into the hands of readers like me. Those of us who were already searching for something more rebellious, musically speaking, than the Culture Club were impressed when we discovered her son was the lanky, black haired singer currently transitioning from the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds (and if we’d read Mrs Cave’s reading list more carefully, we might have kept more distance from the Nick Caves of our future lives). At university a few years later, it occurred to me Mrs Cave and our English teacher were single-handedly responsible for the seemingly implausible proportion of girls from my school lounging in the women’s room or painting anti-war banners in the student union courtyard.
Suzie’s parent’s—particularly her mother, who always seemed to look like she had just stepped out of the frame of a Godard film—were outgoing and popular with teachers and other parents. A clique of matrons from the seaside suburbs, women who could only see money, or the lack of it, struggled to comprehend the kind of class that couldn’t be purchased. For my part, although my own family wasn’t objectively poor, I often felt an excruciating embarrassment at the gap between my life and the lives of the bayside families. One weekend one of the school mothers offered to drive me home after a weekend drama rehearsal. I directed her past our small 1950s Vicarage and higher up the street, to a friend’s 1980s-era home that looked, at least to me, a little wealthier.
The school uniform did what school uniforms do best and functioned as a social leveller of sorts, but civvies clothes days were a kind of torture. Ruffled shirts Princess Diana-style and stretch jeans were in—I felt surrounded by willowy girls who carried them off as breezily as the sea air that flowed through their houses in the evenings, but my Irish/Welsh/Italian ancestors had won the battle for my short and curvy frame and I never made the style work. At a party to celebrate the end of a school play I spent the evening anguishing over wrongness of my chain store woollen jumper: the green shade too garish, the yarn grade too coarse. These things rated among the most important life questions then, but in retrospect such dramas were minutiae I’d misclassified as monumental.
My capacity to parse the trivial from significant was woefully undeveloped, and when Suzie’s mother left her father when she was still in high school, and when my own mother left her own marriage a few years later, it seemed about as momentous as a bad flu season. They were always liberated women, our mothers, but Women’s Liberation, the movement, was born at the same moment they birthed us, their daughters. The timing, in retrospect, was always going to be difficult. It was Suzie’s Dad who stayed in the family home and cared for her and her brother Andrew. There was no question about staying until the funeral rites for him were complete.
As the funeral party leaves the chapel it’s still raining; we climb back into cars to drive to the gravesite. As I’m staring down at my feet, looking for grass islands in the mud, a woman’s voice screams with terror. One of the funeral attendants has slipped as she tried to centre the coffin and has tumbled into the grave head first. Within moments a steel ladder appears; the attendant is resurrected unharmed and alive. Later I see her in the bathroom wiping mud from her shoes and the bottom of her blue dress. ‘I just feel terrible about ruining the funeral,’ she says. I’m touched, and a bit amused, by her suggestion that a funeral—a day no one could sanely wish for—is something you might consider capable of ruin.
Aptly enough today is Black Friday. Over the past week my inbox has been full of sales messages. My son has begged me to stop at computer warehouse that sells parts he wants, and which happens to be in the suburb next door to the cemetery. I take another Uber there, and then another to Suzie’s family home. The second driver is Greek-Australian; as a kid he lived in Richmond, but he’s now moved to Templestowe. I wonder where the Greek families who had moved to South Oakleigh, when it was still a satellite city of Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s, have gone. They are still there, he tells me, but now many Vietnamese families have migrated to the suburb too: the pho and banh restaurants lining our route back up his words. New too is the elevated rail crossing at Clayton and Centre Road, a soaring concrete sign of the Andrews’ government future-building project. ‘Not much else has changed,’ he says, seeming to want to reassure me.
At Suzie’s father’s house, her partner, brother, sister-in-law and two cousins have gathered to share stories. We trade old stories about the families we knew. I have a soft spot for the one about the girl in our year who woke in middle of the night to get herself a drink, saw a burglar and went back to bed thinking he was just a member of the staff she hadn’t met yet. Suzie’s brother Andrew has a new story for me too, about the year Suzie and I followed his father’s example and ran a stall at the Bentleigh market (Suzie’s dad was something of a prescient inventor—he created a formula for mould-resistant roof paint that was later bought for a song by a major paint company). Suzie and I had decided to screen print tank tops to sell—I remember one design was a Japanese style wave print, Suzie remembers a Keith Haring-style design and Andrew remembers a purple one with a bat design. Our vision was nothing if not catholic, which probably explains our failure to sell a single item. ‘I wore the bat one to work when I lived in London and worked in a shop’, Andrew now tells me. ‘Nick Cave walked in one day and said “Where did you get that top? I want to buy one.”’ It takes me a moment to digest this late news and contemplate our alternate lives as fashion designers had Mrs Cave’s son visited our markets store and diverted me from the path his mother set me on.
Later that afternoon I drive with Suzie and her partner Matt to his Northcote home. We pass an architecture school with the slogan WE’RE MAKING CITIES SAFER WITH GENDER-SENSITIVE DESIGN posted in large letters on the skin of the building. I’m reminded again we’re in Melbourne: the capital of a state with a gender-sensitive premier. Yet there is something about the use of the word gender here (and everywhere now) that drives me crazy. The way it is vaguely defined in a ‘we-all-agree-what-we mean-here’ way. The box ticking exercise of invoking the word without bothering to argue what you mean by it. I’ve always agreed with the argument, made since Simone de Beauvoir and even before, that gender—or woman—is something made and remade every day. And I’m exasperated that both conservatives and many progressives keep talking about gender as if it is something real: conservatives believe gender is something attached to particular bodies, while some on the so-called progressive side believe that gender floats free. Both positions assume gender is something that exists a priori: before culture or history or anything else. There is plenty of time to contemplate this on the slow trip north. The road is clogged with more cars than I can ever recall seeing on one Melbourne drive. How many, I wonder, belong to people who’ve come to this city to flee war, persecution, poverty—kidnappers? Looking for a good home, a good education, a safe place. Love.
We’re almost in Northcote when a text message from Sydney warns me that more storms mean all flights into Sydney have been cancelled. I check my flight home and find it’s been rescheduled for the next day. I buy some toiletries and surrender to the prospect of an improvised night in Melbourne. The following day is the state election. I wander through a Brunswick primary school booth and see a long, quiet queue (in the line, out of the corner of my eye, I see a man I spent a chaste evening with another life ago, and the woman he has been with forever. Some things are unchanging. And any pretence this city is in any way my home still seems more ludicrous than ever). The line of many forming across the state waiting politely to inflict life threatening wounds on the state’s Liberal Party. Voters would respond to Matthew Guy’s efforts to husband fear and anxiety in a full and stressed city by turning on him.
Hours later, a taxi, plane and train return me to Sydney. Coming out of my train station I step into a city that has been washed of its red dust cover and is now still. The footpaths are covered in Jacaranda flowers, as if that morning the city had seen the kind of rain Prince sang about. On the television at home the ABC’s election coverage says Declan Martin, the 19-year-old Labor candidate for the seat of Brighton, might just take this forever-seat from the Liberal Party. So impossible was the idea of Martin winning he’d organised no after-party of his own. He was heading down Centre Road, in the direction Suzie and I travelled after school, to crash the victory party for Nick Staikos, the neighbouring Labor candidate for Bentleigh. The weather is changing again.
For Suzie and Andrew.
*Any resemblance to an actual person is subject, as always, to the vagaries and failures of my recall