It had been a year of tumultuous winds and wipe-outs, of relief packages in brown and green bottles or foils sent in from the western suburbs to stave off the drought for one more day. Hearts were sometimes cracked and arid and other times spilling over into each other with no warning like salt lakes fed by distant, swollen rivers. On soaking nights we screamed down Redfern alleys like nightmare ghouls with all our human bits cut off and only shriek and crow left, while all around in derelict terraces, mothers stroked their children’s hair and whispered there but for the grace of God …
He looked up from the video game when I left, but only for a second. Just enough to show me what I had begun to think of as ‘the impenetrable icing’, a lemon glaze that spread across his eyes and made it impossible to know the flavour of emotion underneath. He had his hand on his crotch and was squeezing it, not out of arousal but in the absent way of a little boy.
‘Get some smokes?’ he said and tossed me the keys, making it easy for me to steal the car.
Technically, I only stole his half. My own half was tacitly assumed when he took occupation of my room in the Marrickville squat and with it, half my mattress and my stash.
The video game made the room glow dull green and crackle with gunfire. Walking out was like abandoning a battlefield that had long since lost its meaning. By Thursday I was officially missing in action and felt more relaxed the more tar I put behind me.
I listened to News Radio as I sputtered down the Hume. It seemed like the first time I had tuned in for years and it emphasised my sense of a world expanding across the asphalt and scrub to other places and times, connecting with lives both like mine and completely unique. I had spent too long in a bubble, hearing only echo, my earshot measuring no more than arm’s length.
‘The death toll has reached three hundred and police are advising people to stay in their homes,’ said the radio, but it didn’t apply to me.
My home had become impossible, now I was driving into a place of citizenship. A real life. I had a job at a market stall when I got to Melbourne.
I’d be working outside. Witnessing the seasons. It would be a healthy job. I’d regenerate, soak up vitamins right out of the air.
I arrived for my first shift on Black Saturday to mountains of wilting cabbage and candying mangoes. All the light fittings in the Queen Victoria Market sheds had melted and the smoke trace made little children cough and cry.
Everyone was anxious, breathing shallow, checking phones for missed calls from family as they served customers who were too sweaty and distracted to notice. The lacklustre spruiks for cheap meat and sorrel rebounded off the walls and died in the hot air.
There was radio here too and Michael, the oldest of the staff, stayed close to it.
‘It’s a sign of the times,’ I heard him tell a customer, who nodded politely, carefully checking a carton to ensure it contained twelve good eggs.
I plunged my hands into an iced bucket of broccoli and felt my body temperature drop, felt every nerve and synapse prickle and waver with sharp sensation.
‘Do you have any people you need to call and check on?’ asked Adele, a thin vegan with a brisk manner.
‘No,’ I said, ‘No-one.’
‘Okay then. Well, on a hot day like this, I’d leave everything in the cool room and stock from there. You’ll pick it up fairly quickly. It’s just open, stock, pack down. The hardest thing is the early mornings.’
But a bright, demanding dawn was what I wanted most of all.
In March there were no eggs and everyone’s feathers were ruffled despite sympathy for all those charcoal chickens. Then the price of bananas skyrocketed, and customers cursed and walked out when you weighed up the precious hands. Still fragile in my new role, an aggressive customer could make me feel responsible for the weather.
‘I’m sorry, Queensland has had the worst flood in three years,’ I stammered, feeling underhanded as I spoke, as though I were exploiting survivor guilt in order to shirk responsibility for being understocked.
It was unsettling, how those news images—ground scorched to chaff, a graveyard haunted by the skeletons of homes, cars that are boats, stoic housewives bailing out their kitchens—had a bearing on things as banally intimate as what we ate for breakfast. The implication got under people’s skin. It brought disaster uncomfortably close to the city walls, showed our interdependence, disturbed the rural–urban equilibrium and with it, everyone’s concept of scale: your tragedy, my two-dollar banana.
I tipped grain into vats. Lined up spices like boxed holidays. A tight wrap of musculature had formed around my scrawny arms. My back had stopped aching in the evenings and I felt stable between my boots for the first time in years.
I had gotten to know some of the customers too—the stressed, skinny women with their endless recipes for green smoothies. The overprotective parents of tragically allergic kids. My favourite customer was the Penny Man, a gentle sixty-something who bought potatoes and chard, and quizzed us to pick the year on the penny.
‘While on Earth we feared nuclear Armageddon, a dog was the first to set paw in outer space and this penny bought a haircut, short back and sides please,’ quizzed the Penny Man.
‘Nineteen fifty-seven,’ said Michael, raising his hand to catch the penny.
‘So cruel,’ said Adele, adding, ‘dogs don’t belong in space, they don’t even understand it.’
I didn’t tell Adele that I too found infinity hard to grasp, that I couldn’t even define history in categories as finite as years. No matter how hard I racked my brain for reference, the penny never dropped.
After a few weeks the Penny Man took pity, flipped a coin and handed it to me. ‘It’s not as random as it seems,’ he said, smiling in a way that made me want to believe him.
We taped signs up to indicate the shortages and storms. We apologised for floods and fires and crops wilting in the field as though God were a capricious, drunken middle manager and we his diligent, overcompensating underlings.
As we worked Michael schooled me on Revelations. ‘Only the third horseman speaks to St John,’ he said. ‘You know what he talks about?’
‘The price of corn and barley,’ Michael said knowingly, as if letting me in on the conspiracy.
Adele rolled her eyes. ‘What does it say in the Bible about sustainable farming and climate change?’ she quipped.
‘More than you might think,’ muttered Michael.
‘Excuse me.’ A tall woman with a pretty keffiyeh draped around her shoulders stood by the legumes. ‘Do you have brown rice?’
‘No. Sorry,’ I recited the line. ‘We can’t get it at the moment.’
‘Oh? Why’s that?’
‘Apocalypse,’ said Adele bluntly, marching from out back with bunches of kale cocked like semaphore flags.
‘Sorry,’ I repeated.
‘People have no idea,’ Adele continued when the customer was out of earshot. ‘They get all outraged over the price of a red capsicum but they don’t consider how long it takes to grow one. How important the balance in the soil is, how many weeks you have to wait for it to colour.’
‘I suppose I’ve never thought of that either,’ I admitted, taking the time to correct the oversight, imagining rows of waxy peppers brightening in the sun, thriving in perfect soil, growing each day in response to the stimulus of the elements, with no conscious mind to grasp how delicate, how perilous their position and, eventually, how controversial their price tag. It was overwhelming.
‘Excuse me,’ said a customer. ‘Do you have Cox’s orange pippins?’
‘Ummm …’ I looked around for help.
‘First two weeks of spring,’ Adele answered, leaving me once more with the impression of an indelible order of things that one simply knows or, as in my case, does not.
Who was supposed to teach me all these things? Why didn’t I have the names of apple varieties tattooed across my subconscious? What was phosphorus, really? Which grains were alkaline and why did it matter? Perhaps the gaping void in my world view was due to some parental inadequacy or my lax style at high school. Or maybe I had filled my head with the wrong things, had learned the improper names first—the slang and swearing, slur and stutter. My mind was filled with attitudes without object or origin and I was now faced with the task of correcting my education.
I held a fuzzy yellow lump in my hand, brushing its itchy stubble off on my shirt.
‘What’s this?’ I asked Adele.
She looked at me disbelievingly. ‘It’s a quince.’
‘What do you do with it?’
‘You bake it in orange juice,’ a customer chimed in as though it were the most obvious thing on earth.
‘Yes, or blanch it with a teaspoon of jam,’ added Adele, sharing a look with the customer.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Michael later, taking the first-aid kit down from the high shelf and handing me a Band-Aid.
He showed me again how to cut the pumpkin wedges without injury while I blew on my finger, watching blood creep under the plastic to trace the lines of my palm into a complex map of unnamed rivers and estuaries, tracks, roads and highways that I have never been down. There was a terra nullius in the palm of my hand.
‘You’ll get the hang of it soon,’ said Michael but I wasn’t so sure.
Winter came on hard and fast, a callous backhand to the blazing heat of February. Some mornings, in between dream and alarm, I called his number just to hear it ring. I imagined rolling into another body, a sweating grotesque, with eyes like pinhole cameras and heartbeat as precarious as butterfly wings. I imagined returning to a world in which I might forget to breathe. Then I dragged myself from bed in pitch black, pulling on layer after layer of thermal-engineered fabric.
I had sold the car for bond money and rode an old pushbike to work on sleety roads through sheets of drizzle. This was not the dawn I pictured back in February when the world was ending.
I quizzed Adele about natural remedies for lethargy while I chipped frozen broccoli from polystyrene boxes with a tiny hammer.
‘Perhaps you have seasonal affective disorder,’ she suggested.
It sounded plausible. ‘What can I do to correct it?’
‘Exercise. Drink ginger tea. Bake wholesome treats,’ said Adele decisively. ‘If that doesn’t work, move.’
I considered the implications of the disorder. Could my impulsive, chaotic life in Sydney, my tantrums and outbursts, have simply been a chemical reaction to the hot front passing through me? The equation seemed as wrongheaded as weather versus responsibility.
‘But I just got here,’ I said.
Adele shrugged. The next day she brought me an apple cinnamon muffin and a recipe book called Oven of Life.
I went to the bathroom whenever the shop was quiet to run my fingers under hot water and listen to the Latin pop songs the cleaner, Leanna, played. Big women in white gumboots smoked cigarettes in the stalls. The smoke mixed with the smell of fish and disinfectant but still Leanna smiled and sang along to her radio, calling everybody darling, invoking the memory of the sun with her persistent cheerfulness.
I knew nothing about AFL. It was a problem. When I joined the tipping competition I foolishly announced that I’d make decisions in the order of the food chain. ‘So bulldog beats cat, but cat beats hawk and swan,’ I elaborated as I bunched Dutch carrots. ‘Of course, tigers eat them all up but a lion is much stronger than a tiger.’
‘Bombers destroy everything,’ added the Penny Man, placing potatoes into a basket.
‘So who would beat the Blues?’ Adele asked, unimpressed with my disregard for the tenets of both footy and veganism.
‘The Saints,’ said Michael, firmly.
There is quiet between the seasons. A limbo of expectation. A bated breath, a caesura.
A season is a rehearsal of sorts. It prepares us for eras, decades, epochs. It teaches us to compare characteristics and to notice as they fade away. One morning I woke and heard a bird. Outside, the cold was still bitter, but the air was sweet. I unlocked my bike and spotted a single poppy growing from a crack in the pavement, its pale petals tearing at the stamen as the wind blew. The winter had finally broken but it had not broken me.
I danced with Leanna, the cleaning lady. We joined hands and tango-marched up and down the toilet block to the triumphant flushes of water-efficient Royal Doulton.
‘Excuse me,’ said an early customer, ‘do you have rhubarb?’
‘October,’ I said with authority.
‘And how about apricots?’
‘Cavolo nero?’ she persisted.
‘Right next to the watercress,’ I replied.
Behind us, Michael whistled hymns and show tunes without realising and the simple melodies echoed across the tin roof and caught between the lips of other workers and soon we were all together whistling while we worked and the birds followed suit and the reticent dawn appeared to illuminate our song.
The Cox’s orange pippins finally arrived and they were the sweetest apples I had ever tasted.
By late December we moved a little slower, took our time with things, let the heat seep into our bones. I took mushrooms from their box and placed them one by one on the display. I glanced idly at the box’s newspaper lining, and then pulled it out to look closer. There, in black and white and covered with mushroom spores was the Penny Man. The box tipped and Swiss Browns bounced to the ground like lemmings from a cliff.
I handed the article to Adele. ‘The Penny Man is dead,’ I said. Adele and a few of the regular customers turned around, shocked. ‘He had cancer,’ I told them.
‘His name was Richard Bromley,’ said Adele. ‘He was born in 1940.’
‘The year that Trotsky was killed,’ said a customer.
‘The first year of the forty-hour working week,’ said Michael.
‘The year John Lennon was born,’ I said, not knowing how I knew but glad of it and certain that it was just one of many significant, unknowable moments of that year.
‘Apparently he was a pretty famous historian,’ Adele added, picking facts from the text, ‘a writer of “speculative philosophy of history”.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked, unashamed.
‘It’s to do with where we are all going,’ said Michael, ‘and what it ultimately means.’
I thought about Richard Bromley all day. I imagined him working in a well-lit room, his desk pushed up against a display wall of pennies, each one annotated and connected to others through diagrammatic lines representing narrative and event. Each penny was part of history as well as a souvenir of its unceasing progress, though each was discernible from the next only by the numbers, the face of an ageing king and a young queen.
Before they were writing on the wall, those pennies meant something different to every hand that spent them. A single penny could have been a hand of bananas, a pack of cigarettes, a punt on the ponies, a carnation pinned to a seersucker suit, a taste of powder that would change the way you experienced desire. Each penny made a tiny difference to everyone who, however briefly, possessed it. Only the Penny Man held on to the coins, lassoed them with significance.
I searched in the till and found a coin from 2009. I turned it over in my hand as though it could tell me something, could reiterate the year from the perspective of some future wisdom. I pocketed the coin and, on my break, took a walk to a payphone. I put the coin in and dialled.
‘Hello,’ said a sleepy voice, familiar as my breath.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘It’s me. I’m just calling to make sure you are okay, and to let you know I’m doing fine.’
Flames expire to cinders and new cities are built over ash and rubble. The sun beat down on the tin roof of the Queen Victoria Market, Spanish pop songs echoed in the toilet blocks, someone yelled out dollar bananas, get dollar bananas here.
It was the beginning of a new year and a new decade.