Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.
—Michel de Certeau
In 1836 Colonel William Light surveyed Adelaide, as an elegant grid delineated by parklands and squares, and set North Terrace as its northern boundary, a wide and gracious promenade, with plantation gardens.
High above the terrace, on the roof of an old bank, now a restaurant, I celebrate an insignificant birthday with sweet wine and sticky cakes, surrounded by friends and salsa music. I lean away from the crowd, into the cooling, early-spring air, to scan the space below, east then west. I project myself into groups of stragglers walking between tram stops. As the dusk space empties, a panoptic Government House lights up.
I consider the terrace, de Certeau’s ‘theoretical simulacrum’, with its grand Italianate buildings, its cultural leanings, and new meta-modern, silver medical buildings—SAHMRI and RAH—rising like spacecraft in the west. From the balconies of the Old South Hotel, Barry Humphries once famously proclaimed North Terrace ‘the nation’s finest boulevard’ (Lloyd). ‘Only New York’s Museum Mile and Berlin’s Museum Island come close,’ argued State Library director Alan Smith (Lloyd).
I descend. Ordinary citizen me. To speak the terrace with my feet. To walk in layers of hyper-reality. To know whether the terrace is timeless. To spatialise.
‘Terrace’, an old French word, carries weight and elegance. It means balcony, gallery, derived from the Latin for ‘earth’. Not ‘avenue’ along which pedestrians arrive, and yet people do, in tram, train and automobile. Adelaide City Council tracks them, by Austraffic (direction and volume), Bluetooth (time and duration), Ladar (count and flow) and microwave (at intersections) and is trialling IMEI sensors (registers mobile devices) with a 98 per cent capture rate (Bennett). Planners strategise.
North Terrace draws pedestrians—my grandmother Carrie, my daughter, me—along its wide pavements to converge at traffic lights and entrances to cultural buildings, to zigzag between university, gallery, library and railway station.
We apply tactics, de Certeau says, not strategies, to swerve from the crowded promenade into laneways and through doorways, to study music, mechanics and narrative. We take for granted spatial relationships in the streetscape even as we narrate them. We dream of making stories, rhapsodies and bridges. Outside the paradox of time, our stories loop and run parallel, enact hypothetical, spirographical collisions.
Carrie flees across the parklands because trigonometry rather defeats her. Eucalyptus spikes her tailwind. In no time at all she lands on the terrace and the sky opens above her in shades of mauve and taupe.
Near the Destitute Asylum, she sees the soldier, sunning on a stool, one leg sticking out because he doesn’t have another, crutches resting on his canvas chair, a poetry book spine up at his feet. During the war, on Violet days, her mother worked for Lady Galway, selling cheer-up badges for fellows like him, now coming home in dribs and drabs. The soldier rubs at his trousers and stares at her in an agitated way. He wipes his eyes on his sleeve. Usually she places a penny in his cup. He never says boo.
Through a jumble of buckboard, charabanc and bicycle traffic, Carrie rushes, meets the Government House wall—an ‘interdiction’—and waits (de Certeau).
Finally, Lydia stomps up from the river where she has been rowing in her eight. ‘It was awfully wet by the boatshed. My shoes are squelching like penguins.’ She kisses her friend. ‘What? Are you sad?’
‘I passed our soldier.’ Carrie frowns. ‘Crying again.’
‘Oh, you silly.’
‘He’d been reading Wilfred Owen.’
‘… only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle …’ Lydia recites the verse like a tongue twister and flings an arm around her friend’s neck.
‘I felt so shamed that he’d been over there in the mud, fighting Huns while we …’ Carrie’s face crumples ‘… made music.’
‘My cousin Harry screams half the night, Aunt says.’
‘They both returned at least.’
‘Yes, and here we are, on the terrace, none the worse for your encounter.’ Lydia pulls her along.
As they walk east towards the Conservatorium, a baboon in the Zoological Gardens starts up—whoops as if in the thick of battle. Music will set everything right. When Freddie sings the opening bars of his famous ‘Admiral’s Broom’, they will fan their faces with their handkerchiefs. At certain crescendos, Carrie will remember the soldier and her throat will thicken with distress, but at ‘Zuyder Zee’ they will stomp their feet on the boards.
I step onto the footpath, my feet aching with tiredness because, yet again, I have ‘resisted’ buying a frock in city boutiques. Of course I made a plan, after my mother placed a ten-dollar note in my hand with strict instructions—‘not too short’—prodding my knees with a jam spoon, clutching my baby sister higher on her hip.
Instead, I had made my way to bookshops on the terrace. Under my arm, in shameless triumph I carry a book; my pithy change from the note paid to the barrow man on the corner, for a paper sleeve of violets, which I lift to my face and inhale. They smell of sweetness and independence. As I step along I dream of boyish hauteur—flat chest, narrow hips, no flesh—someone who can think and walk where she pleases.
Crossing the road to Elder Hall I think I hear Carrie singing ‘Sweet Violets’, enjoying the obfuscation of the censored rhyme—‘There once was a farmer who took a young miss’—oh it is vulgar. I imagine her striding along, kick-pleats flouncing, pivoting on the pavement, prelude to a Charleston perhaps, or a vampish foxtrot.
Carrie and Lydia fold up their music stands and slide through the side door onto the terrace. Two orchestra members pass them on the footpath, weighed down by harp and double bass, shoes squeaking: not paid for, Father would say.
‘Stay on the terrace to dance, girlies?’ the moustachioed one calls out. ‘We’re playing Twilight Jazz at the Palais.’
Carrie tugs her embroidered jacket tighter across her throat. Lydia executes a dainty soft-shoe routine they have seen at the Grand Theatre. ‘What time do you open?’ she shouts back but the men have already moved on.
As dark descends, Carrie paces east along the terrace. Lydia glides. Near the Exhibition Hall a jazz-ball of a moon shines down on them. Short, drop-waisted, with hidden pleats, Carrie’s dress looks the bees-knees. At its neck, Mother has sewn hooks and eyes and a bodice zip. The sandwich board outside the Palais announces four summer dances. But Carrie has never learnt to dance.
A spruiking man with a cigarette tray grins and waves her in. For a moment she thinks she hears her brother Will shout, Father cranking the Chev to go in search of her, Mother crying over the scullery board. She recognises the soldier as soon as he hops towards her, waving one crutch for the ‘Dardanella Fox-Trot’. Even without giggle-juice, even without dancing they will look ridiculous, so they move back and forth to the music in their hobbled way. Lydia makes a face.
I enter the terrace from the east, Carrie from the west, see her stepping from a bus, fingertips touching her opal earrings, straightening her pleats. I approach at a cracking pace, ducking and weaving between pedestrians, whacking the air with my imaginary tennis racquet. Walking speaks (de Certeau). Along the pavement in equally phatic expression she taps emphatic arpeggios with her walnut walking stick. At first sight of me, her blue eyes light up. Carrie’s 1920s studio portrait could be me: short brow, strong chin, serious expression in repose. We favour the androgyny of flattened breasts, flying skirts and uncinched waists. Together, today, we will choose her dress for my wedding.
In the ladies department a skeletal woman wearing black crepe runs back and forth between change rooms and racks. ‘Brocade, Madam. Structure flatters.’
Chin tilted, Carrie surveys her body in angled mirrors, calculates. ‘I prefer softness.’ A half-hour and we’re done and descend carpeted steps towards the service desk where the assistant waits to fold our purchase into acid-free paper. Her arms are scarcely long enough to hold the frock aloft, to display its cloudy blue fabric flocked with cream, threaded with silver, its elegantly draped cowl neckline.
At the last step Carrie misses her footing and down she goes, a small round thing gathering momentum, hurtling across the emporium floor. I swear she somersaults, as if practising physical-culture at her iron gym in Woodville. I bend, arms outstretched, but she beats me, jack-knifing into sitting position, legs akimbo. Face droll. Uninjured, she stands, brushes down her cardigan. Later we laugh like loons over Napoleon cake and a pot of tea.
Carrie sails into my wedding as regally as Queen Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Pimpling with nerves—ninon over none on—I arrive at the ceremony with my lover. My braless dress, purchased off the peg for twenty dollars, dips alarmingly low at the back. I speak for myself. I refuse to be that parcel passed from one man to another.
The silk of Carrie’s drawers feels wet with exertion, and something else, because she can’t dance swing, but manages somehow, ahold of the soldier’s crutch. Later she is in the Botanic Gardens dangling her shoes. Leaning up against a magnolia tree, her soldier looks thin as a broom, his dark, angular face louche and temperamental. Cigarette smoke trails from between his fingers. Narrating long stories about going AWOL in France, he leaves out difficult bits, becomes emotional, pins her against the tree. ‘Hotty tot.’
‘Bank’s closed,’ she says, pushing back.
Gloomy, he guides her back onto the terrace where she refuses absinthe in a dark coffee lounge, then misses the last train home. Heart full, she tracks along the terrace—a space recently vacated—time suspended. Flits west through the parklands. A possum skitters. An owl screams out, go home, go home, as she rushes past the jail and veers towards the sea. Perhaps alarming sounds in the bushes are people swept by government from the terrace; people she knew as a bush girl: Afghan Ali who sold jelabi sweets, and his Aboriginal wife; the Chinese man smoking something sweet in a ditch, who called out Missy, Missy.
The day after the dance, the sky shards like glass, the wind chops and swans huddle near Plane Tree Drive. Carrie fingers her hair. This morning she spent her last guinea at the barber shop near the station. Funny little Zaid from Syria shaped her hair into a bob. She should feel free as a flapper but the soldier’s melancholy haunts her.
Lydia arrives in an equally terrible mood. Swans whistle and clump towards her and she parries with her brolly. What can be wrong? But it is the usual. Violinists completely ruin their necks. A doctor on the terrace near Morphett Street has told her to stop practising, which she cannot do, because in the spring she needs to audition in Germany. Carrie massages her shoulders and shares her mutton sandwiches. All the while dying to hear how Lydia got home from the dance. But she has clammed up due to the ecstasy of the massage.
Without doubt, Carrie would disapprove of the government replacing the Jubilee Exhibition Hall, an architectural fantasy with the drab Napier building, the ugliest on campus, where I workshop creative writing. At age 11, wearing modest grey with white collar and cuffs, she sang ‘Prudence is a Quakeress’, and therein, at 23, purchased a ruby drinking glass, gold-embossed with her name, at the Royal Show.
After Monday class, I pass Elder Hall and my eyes dart up the steps, where apparitions of Carrie and Lydia appear, arms draped like snakes around each other’s waists. I walk on towards the Art Gallery café, where I will eat a club sandwich with my daughter in the pale sunshine outside.
She is late but eventually I see her striding up from the Engineering labs, a little breathless as she passes the union office. ‘I know what I want to do,’ she announces. ‘For the rest of my life.’
‘Wonderful’, I say. I think she must want to increase her volunteer hours for the NGO she’s been working for. ‘I never really had a clue.’ She throws down her bag.
‘What? What do you want to do?’
After lunch we make our way across the Barr Smith lawns, passing students shouting into a megaphone about the Iraq War.
‘Will you march on Saturday?’
‘I have no time’, she replies. ‘They’re Arts students.’
‘It will be the biggest street march since the Vietnam War.’
I lean in to kiss her. Register her exhaustion, her eyes dark-rimmed—one small female from an aggregation of young men. In the distance, I hear the town hall clock strike three. Between now and Saturday, she’ll bend over her computer, calculating loads and joist spans, perhaps while I march.
The air is fixed, sticky, enervating. They are rehearsing for a benefit concert. Miss Maude throws up the heavy sashes on the windows along the terrace, causing people on the footpath to swing their heads and alter the beat of their feet.
Carrie first accompanies Lydia on piano then sings the solo part of ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Elder Hall’s acoustics will never be perfect. When Carrie looks up at the hammer-beam roof her voice wobbles in the upper octaves. Next year she can apply to study at the London Royal College of Music but fears she has not the talent.
George, the master from Scotch College, lately bedevilling her footsteps, turns up, making her self-conscious. He writes clandestine notes on his concert program. Poetry and cello remain his passions: more than her, to tell the truth.
Sometimes he reads Baudelaire to her, on a cast-iron bench. He sometimes speaks like a flâneur. But the aimless wanderings of Walter Benjamin cannot much apply to her, even on the terrace. Carrie wants to stride away into evening crowds, fingers practising arpeggios and scales and marching counterpoint to her feet.
At eight o’clock she and Lydia hurry from the recital room, score sheets clutched beneath arms salt-stained with perspiration.
‘You were jolly good,’ George says, arriving by her side.
He kisses her hard on the mouth and Lydia laughs. Blow George.
My grammar boy holds the lapels of my coat when we kiss. He smokes clove cigarettes and, once a week, drops a tab of acid. He lives in the basement of a dilapidated mansion, a bower of draped fabric, cushions, smoking patchouli and ylang-ylang sticks, books spine up on a makeshift bed, in which he spoon-feeds me his vegetable and lentil curries, fills my wine glass, appears to worship my body even when it is engorged with blood. Have I descended creaky stairs into an opium den?
Does he embarrass me, stealing from the University Bookshop, slipping books into the inside pocket of his army-surplus coat and expecting me to cover him?
‘Property is theft,’ he says and chucks in his economics degree a month before final examinations.
‘Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ I wrongly quote Huey P. Newton.
Do we mean it?
At the top of the Mitchell building he confides that his school principal fiddled him up, beneath the same blanket of stars. So badly do I want to act broad-minded that I barely raise an eyebrow; in any case, he stops talking and frog-marches his fingers up the legs of my denim hot-pants. From our bird’s-eye view, we see wind herding pedestrians. They pull down their hats and lean forwards, rebutton their duffle coats and brush drops of water from their stockings.
I emerge blinking from the public library, arms loaded with books on Black Power. I hear a roar. Police greys dance on the gutter edge and I follow them along the terrace, a boulevard so wide that it cannot be barricaded by students. A crowd sweeps into the intersection, baying in an Australian way, clotting laneways along to Parliament House. The unconstitutional sacking of prime minister Whitlam by the governor-general, an old pisspot in cahoots with conservatives, fills me with rage.
Memory can be a tricksy thing, overlaid and edited within an inch of its life but Carrie appears—surely not—wearing the silk braided coat that appears in studio photos, taken two doors from the intersection. Imagination?
She tugs my arm. ‘Dangerous to mob, darling.’
‘Whitlam was robbed,’ I tell her.
She purses her lips. ‘But do not make a spectacle of yourself. On the terrace.’
I lean in to kiss her withered cheek, faintly smelling of Shalimar.
‘I shall catch the Glenelg tram in the square,’ she says. ‘Tell me later how it plays out.’
Carrie sees the soldier crash from the doors of a terrace hotel at six o’clock. Coat flapping, he hesitates, glances over his shoulder for demons invisible to her, wobbles on the gutter boards—then staggers in front of the east-moving tram. Brakes screech. When struck, he retracts like an accordion. Metal-rimmed wheels grind into his flesh. Water glistens on the rail. This suffering is surely worse than mud, worse than gas, worse than loneliness?
Uncomprehending, she springs forward and squats beside him. Blood seeps into her Louis-heeled, goat-skinned shoes. She touches the delicate arch of his eyebrows. An ambulance appears to whisk him down the terrace to the hospital. Someone in the small gathering crowd whispers, ‘fractured skull’. Carrie weeps as she plunges back into the terrace crowd flowing in the opposite direction towards the railway station.
Her brother Gordon waits outside Parliament House, hopping about like a buffoon, his school uniform stained with mulberry juice from the trees near the Royal Adelaide Hospital. She hugs him. He pushes her off. On he capers, gibbers a chant from the sports meeting he has recently vacated:
‘Ika, ika, allah, allah. Whiskers on the gobba gobba.’
She shouts, ‘Stop it!’
‘What’s up, old thing?’ he asks.
She walks faster towards the platform.
In the staff cafeteria at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, food looks as tired as the doctors. I retreat with my book to the old nurses’ building. During breaks he visits me. Mostly I sleep. At 3 am a hopper window clangs open and, in a blast of cold air, a stranger drops into my bed.
‘Get out,’ I shout. ‘WTF.’
He startles. ‘Oh Christ, sorry, matey.’
The person retreats; the window rattles on its chain. At four my doctor returns, stupidly exhausted.
‘Not happy,’ I complain.
‘Calm down,’ he murmurs. ‘He probably forgot to book a room?’
‘And what if I thought he was you?’ I cry. ‘What if he wore aftershave instead of stinking of rubber gloves and sweat and I became thoroughly aroused?’
He grins. Men shout on the terrace.
‘Are you staying long?’ I close my eyes.
He angles his body over mine. ‘Should be safe to go back. In 20 minutes.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘A and E patient threatened to blow off my head.’
‘They had a gun?’
‘They left to fetch it from the car park. Time for a tea break.’
‘Really? Why? Didn’t you give them what they wanted?’
Fingers slide beneath my shirt. ‘The government don’t want me giving out morphine like lollies.’
As I leave a young woman in tracksuit pants and hoodie passes me, lugging a heavy bag. Hair skimmed back from her face with a rubber band, face drawn. I catch a glimpse of pyjamas beneath her clothes. Am I hallucinating? My throat emits a little squeak and she looks back before turning through the gates near the Engineering building.
Two boys call her name, pick up their pace to join her and she turns, face wry, lifts her hand in greeting. One slings an arm around her shoulders, another carries her bag. Years later, as I struggle to submit an academic paper to a deadline, she tells me, via Skype, from the northern hemisphere, that each all-nighter costs me one year of my life.
A plane appears above the terrace. Its drone sets Carrie’s teeth on edge. People stop. Heads angled, eyes shaded, shopping loads shifted, they turn as one. From the pilot’s perspective, she supposes, the terrace looks different, more mathematical, pedestrians swirling like slime, a collage of bobbing hats attaching, disengaging, creating patterns, swelling for a moment around entrances to the institute, the library, the museum, flowing on. The plane’s engine sputters over the Adelaide Club, revenge on old boys who dodged the Great War.
Wearing goggles, earmuffs and a bomber jacket, can the pilot see the undulating crowd or, in particular, Carrie’s cloche hat? She feels part of something larger but also insignificant. The plane banks, dips and climbs, circles the buildings and flies west across the lowering sun. What glorious freedom. Faster than walking or riding—one day she will fly.
During the March state election campaign, I step through the choke of cars, blokes in hi-vis with jackhammers and heavy earthmoving equipment tearing up the median strip. My nerves jangle with sounds, my feet trip over obstructions—flags and posts.
North Terrace is ‘the jewel in the city’s crown’ says Mayor Haese, ‘the Champs Élysées of Adelaide, if not Australia … it must hold itself to the highest standards’.
A Big Issue man beckons me from the corner. I have a tooth abscess, but I stop. ‘I’ll catch you on the way back from the dentist.’
‘I’ll be gone by then,’ he says.
‘Did you write something for this issue?’
‘No. Last time.’ He glares. ‘About work experience at Big W.’
‘Brilliant,’ you say, proffering your last 20-dollar note. ‘I’ve never had a story accepted by the Big Issue.’
‘How much change do you need?’
‘Enough for coffee,’ I say.
‘Next I’m gonna write about fighting in Afghanistan. And how my wife left me.’
All right. I push away the change he offers. He smiles. Lost his dentist, too.
De Certeau again: ‘Perhaps cities are deteriorating along with the procedures that organized them.’
Carrie doesn’t learn to fly, marries a farmer—neither George nor the soldier. For the convenience of wedding guests, they choose the Grosvenor, a North Terrace hotel situated by the railway station that surpasses in popularity the poor old South, now in desperate need of refurbishment.
The bride, who was given away by her father, wore ivory charmonte satin, tunic style, trimmed with lace and pearls. The train, which was fastened on the left shoulder and right side with a spray of orange blossom, was also satin, underlined with pale blue ninon, and edged with silver lace …
The bride travelled in a frock of mascara in saxe blue and mole, with a hat to match. She also wore a beautiful white Thibet fur (Adelaide Advertiser, June 1925).
A renegade King William Street tram erupts into North Terrace and hurtles to a stop. The air fills with recriminations. German consultants advise shattering concrete that encases cables, to locate and rectify signal faults. Workers replace metal handrails to prevent public electrocution. Mayor Haese wants to ‘fix the city’s boulevard of broken dreams’. The trams come, the trams go. Parliament House broods over its culpability in the confusion. Passers-by, ‘proliferating illegitimacy’, traverse and enact the space (de Certeau).
Mayor Simpson believed that ‘town planning determines the destiny of a city. Where it exists it fosters an artistic state, civic pride, and patriotism. It makes better citizens and colonists.’ At night, when the terrace empties, homeless people move between doorways, feeding off detritus and dreams. Walking signifies their lack of place (de Certeau). Their syncopated footsteps leave only traces.
Before we all leave the terrace, disperse, Carrie graduates from Elder Hall, my daughter and I from Bonython. My grandmother and I drift north and my daughter settles in another hemisphere. The Kaurna people resume custodianship of the terrace gardens, to dance and renew stories. Eventually, perhaps, they will settle near the river, like black swans returning from exile, the white ones torn apart by foxes.
Meanwhile, in the ‘lived space’ of the terrace, in everyday acts of walking, pedestrians and Uber-eats vehicles sweep across traces of myriad footsteps that cannot be counted—including Carrie’s, my daughter’s, mine. Outside the paradox of temporality, pathways loop but never need collide: ‘intertwined paths give … shape to spaces’ (de Certeau). Will the terrace always exist, as a synecdoche for education, culture and pleasure, for girls, especially—shapers not spectators—arriving in the early light of morning and departing after dark? Is the ‘concept-city’ decaying? (de Certeau). Can it exist as more than an idea? •
Gay Lynch is an adjunct researcher at Flinders University. Her recent essays and stories have been published in Edições Humus Limitada, Meanjin, Westerly, Bluestem Journal, Meniscus, Griffith Review and Best Australian Stories. In 2019, she was longlisted for the FISH Short Memoir prize.
Note: This creative nonfiction essay includes my personal memories and some imagining of my grandmother Caroline Aitchison in the early twentieth century, drawing from her hand-written account, ‘Kinship of Caroline Aitchison’ (2007), pp. 1–38.
Daniel Bennett, draft update of Adelaide City Council 2001 Master Plan; exchange of personal emails, April 2018.
Michel de Certeau ‘Walking in the City’, in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley, LA, and London, 1984, pp. 91–110.
Martin Haese, quoted in Dan Jervis-Bardy, ‘Boulevard of dreams preparing for a dose of renewal reality’, Advertiser, 22 February 2018.
Barry Humphries, quoted in Tim Lloyd, ‘Cultural boulevard northern star’, Adelaide Advertiser, 29 May 2015.
Peter Morton, After Light: A History of the City of Adelaide and its Council: 1878–1928, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 1996.
Alfred Simpson, ACC Annual Report 1915, ‘The City of Adelaide a Thematic History’, SLSA—North Terrace B4220 1927.
Alan Smith, quoted in Lloyd, ‘Cultural boulevard northern star’.