The River, by the silent sea

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about the feelings engendered by modern life

Submitted: April 29, 2008

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Submitted: April 29, 2008

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The River
 
At night we decide to go down to the river. Brisbane’s late spring humidity has been rising and the incessant stream of vile television is as oppressive as ever, so we close up our apartment and make ready to leave. She locks the front door while I check for the keys by jangling my hands in each pocket and then we make our way down the intermittently lit stairwell. We arrive on the ground floor, smiling to each other in idle chatter and enjoying the release of the cooler air.
 
We hold our hands tightly together and continue with our smiling and all the while overhead the sky is darkening. A few stars are strong enough to push their way out of the city light haze and make themselves feebly known. In Milton it is far too close to the city for any of the trappings of celestial majesty to be unfurled at night. The great river of the Milky Way is drowned by the fluorescent ocean of banal advertising and over-zealous illumination. From the driveway of our apartment block we see out across the dirty railway tracks to the lingering sun painting the blackening sky with a soft pink glow above the dark slopes of the immodestly named Mt. Coot-tha and surrounds. We walk and talk and swing our hands together in our happy way as we go down to the street, past the row of blue garage doors and the letterboxes overflowing with junk mail and junk magazines which spill down onto the pavement.
 
We turn left at the base of our driveway and make our way up Gordon Street, facing towards the city now, the light pollution creating the illusion that the sun is rising, colouring the underside of the sparse clouds with a taste of red. On the left side of the street are apartment blocks much like our own, crushing the spirit with there similitude, and on the right are apartments disguised as houses with trees and lawns and other overt signs of domesticity. We puff as we make our way up the slight hill, cars roaring past only to make spontaneous U-turns moments later to return towards Park Road.
 
We reach the crest and let our hands drop, the cars are now more tightly parked and the glow of the restaurants lights up the street. A hideous imitation Eiffel Tower is blaring and in the distance a large digital clock reads the time out slantwise above the city. We continue with our walking, raising our voices slightly above the rising din bubbling up from the restaurants. We check backwards and forwards and then She goes and then I across the road to get closer to the river. She laughs as she turns back and notices my pointless hesitation as I wait for a slow moving car creeping its way along the street.
 
We make it to Park Road and the happy eating talking noises are loud and cars move quickly in both directions for no good reason, thudding music pushing away the air in periodic pulses. Blatant wealth is displayed in the form of parked exotic cars amongst the more everyday sedans and four wheel drives of suburbia. Across the road a strip of motorbikes rest with their heads turned meditatively outside of coffee shops. The inside of these establishments are packed with people, eating dinner noisily and talking and braying at each other.
 
Our pace subconsciously quickens to escape from the fumes and the predictable conversation discharging out onto the streets. Before we notice we are away from the restaurants and their clanking, gulping, laughing noises and bad taste lighting and amongst the deserted shops in their nocturnal respite. The cars still surge in all directions, hindering our easy progress away. I push the button and we wait and she smiles to me sweetly and talks about her fears. I try to be reassuring but I don’t think I’m very good at it. She understands anyway and I know that she knows that most problems are not worth worrying over. It’s just difficult to train yourself not to think obsessively about the little things. The change signal beats out its crossing-time rhythm, and cars impatiently still hustle around the corner to avoid the inconvenience of ever having to stop. I curse a quick “fucking idiots” as I step back from my aborted crossing and she just smiles in a half amused and confused smirk. We cross together after and I hold her hand tightly now as we skip across the road.
 
We reach the other side and a strange drumming lingers on the air, carried on currents as the slight wind gusts from the south. We puzzle to each other about the music and I say that I have heard it before and she thinks that maybe she has also and we wonder where it might be coming from. We walk further down Park Road and the drumming becomes stronger and the rhythm develops a discernable flavour and no longer needs the wind to travel. It seems to be coming from down a street to which we rarely venture, due to its featureless facade when viewed from upon Park Road. The distinctly South American nature of the drumming and the barely audible accompaniment intrigue us further and we spontaneously decide to investigate.
 
We cross the road and walk down a little, the music is strong now and seeming to come from a lifeless building and we cannot imagine why. The building is wide, a few stories tall, has a poor rundown warehouse look and no obvious opening to it. We look to each other and discuss what might be happening inside, it sounds more like practice than fun so we guess it must be some sort of marching band rehearsing. Beside the building is a set of stairs, with an overhead sign stating that it leads to some sort of café. I strongly proclaim that it must lead to wherever they are practicing and if we follow the stairs we will be able to find out definitively what is going on.
 
We agree to ascend and the further I climb, the more a strange sense of apprehension possesses me. It is inexplicable and foolish, I rationalise to myself on the dark staircase with the growing music. There is no reason for me to fear anything that could eventuate in any possible circumstance leading from this situation, but still a strange sense gnaws at me. I cannot see a direct link from the staircase we are on to the building containing the music and this makes me hesitate. On the building there is a window and through it I can see partially obscured people moving in time but not looking happy. I ask her if she can see anything better than I can and she says that she can and that it is some sort of band rehearsing as we expected. For some reason I don’t want to go up further and look inside myself, the thought of the people looking back at me as I look in through the window disturbs me in a way I don’t understand, so I let it all go and make my way back down the stairs. We finish with some nothing remarks to each other about the band and their purpose and continue down around the road to Coronation Drive.
 
We follow the curving road around in the lit dark street and see that the building from which the South American music was played was peculiarly a Polish club and any sense of mystery instantly dissolves into a vague sense of déjà vu. We keep walking, with little talking now, and make it to the busy Coronation Drive. We sit wearily on a retaining wall that is not made for sitting, to rest our legs and chat.
 
She looks beautiful to me in the night and I tell her so and I kiss her briefly on the side of her face and I smile. I hold her hand and we sit and look out onto the busy street, the hard wall digging into our buttocks and making rest laborious. She remembers that there are some better seats further around and I feel slightly stupid as I ride past this place everyday as I commute to and from the university. We make our way over to the seats and fall about wearily and merrily. She remarks sarcastically about the beautiful view and I smile and say something pointless back about it not being about the place but just getting out of the apartment.
 
Her comment makes me look out over the view in quiet repose. From where we are sitting the road stretches across multiple lanes wide and straight in both directions. There is a lull in the traffic at this hour but it is by no means quiet, as all manner of vehicles fly past both towards and away from the city. Across the road lies the silent river, twisting its murky way and cleaving the city in two. Behind the river and waiting in the darkness lie some anonymous factories, which look as if they are in a half dreaming state, not quite going but not exactly shut down. To the left are the bright lights of the central business district, all tall buildings of glass and concrete burning up the night. To the right and in the distance is the less extrovert Toowong offering up its own share of kilowatts into the sky. Between the two glide a pair of CityCats in their surprising swiftness and humming, carving up the dark water as they go by. Their wakes lapping against the shore as they pass, the sound carries up from the river and across the traffic to where we are sitting, arriving in gentle waves.
 
The cool breeze gathers strength and I hold her as I sit beside her and the city is as quiet as it becomes, with the growling of passing cars and the lapping of the water. I think about this place and all the others places I have been and it strikes me how this city doesn’t have any ghosts for me. It doesn’t quite make sense to say it, but compared with the other places I have resided the strongest feeling I get is one of no feeling. I can look at this place with its good and its bad and yet I feel no weight of history. Maybe I don’t know it very well as I haven’t lived here for long, but a happy mindlessness is all I get looking around and thinking about the place.
 
I think about the island of my youth and the terrible feeling I get whenever I return. That place cannot feel like anything but death to me anymore. The cold nights walking alone and the air feeling full of dread and dread thoughts burning in my head and a creeping claustrophobia that crawls right up through me. Any stranger encountered in the night looks grim and I feel distrust and suspicion and all the angry faces that fill the cars and walk the streets of the city make me wish to leave. I pray to a type of god I don’t believe in to not see any of the faces of my childhood as I go about the streets, yet I call this place home whenever people ask me. I suppose it is the fragments of my dislocated family that make that place my home, a home to which I shan’t return.
 
I think of our move here and its suddenness, having returned from a drawn out whim overseas to the island of my youth, we found ourselves trapped by the inertia and joblessness of the place. After two long months under the soft yoke of staying with family she found a job she didn’t want and we speedily flew to a place we knew nothing about. To southern folk of the country the image of Queensland as a bogan Shangri-la rules, with thoughts of endless beaches and impossibly clement weather luring us like moths to the bright lights. Then of course the reality is different. The city isn’t actually so close to any beaches and it’s still cold on winter mornings. And your illusions are destroyed, but you nevertheless talk to your friends back in the cold land about how much better the weather is and you stay.
 
We haven’t always stayed. Neither of us have ever lived a long time in the one location. I feel that my whole life has been one of movement and separation. Our first move together was towards the great Australian harbour city, again for no good reason. The place is undeniably special, like some tremendous force with the ability to bestow great favour and just as quickly snatch it away. It seemed impossible to me to live there for very long, my simple ways are not accustomed to moving to the pulse of money and my delicate constitution cannot stand the endless discussions about property values. I have fond memories of the beach however, of slightly scared swimming after work in the strong surf at Maroubra. But against these memories are also those of the awful attitudes of the people about work, about the homeless man in Kensington with three foot long dreadlocks who always sat in a sad silence in the same place near the supermarket, smoking cigarettes and huddled under his enormous amount of clothing and of the slow girl on the bus. A woman we stayed with had told us that she had the devil in her. We were secretly horrified at this as she seemed so benign. Sometimes she would just be walking around and sometimes she would be shouting about Coke. One day on the bus she told us that some boys had asked her to take her pants off and she had.
 
I often think about the street characters you meet with a mix of fear and sadness. My mind leads along the river and I think of the others with whom I have crossed paths in this city. One of my earliest memories was when we were walking together back to our apartment from Spring Hill and we passed to man muttering “violence” under his breath to himself. We laughed in confusion. There is the man with too many hats in Fortitude Valley. There is the poor man from Laos who talked incessantly without looking up and kept asking me if I came from Melbourne and asked me for a lighter for his cigarette. My mind goes back to the similar feelings of my youth. I remember the similar people and their local mythology. We had a man who always carried a video camera and seemed to be filming everything. Creatively he was known as “the cameraman” about whom the stories were said. Like that one day someone had somehow seen inside his camera and that there never was any film inside. There was also a well known man with a brain injury, who the stories said was formerly a policeman who had somehow suffered some damage to his head. From then on he only talked about his fondness for baked beans. Again this gentleman was creatively labelled as “the Baked Bean Man”. As a child I treated these stories with no scepticism and yet listened as the stories were told by others in all sorts of diluted and convoluted retellings over the years, with great dollops of fiction mixed in with each new edition. I try to imagine what stories are told in this new city with its own mythology separate from the one that I know.
 
I talk to her as I have these memories, retelling the stories because they unnerve me, asking her for anything she had heard as a child that was similar so that I can feel that my thoughts are normal or at least acceptable. She can’t really remember off the top of her head. I ask her if she has the same feelings of fear about these people and she mentions some things that start a new train of thoughts in my mind. I think about the unease that is unique to cities. The feeling of walking out of a train station to a crowd of drunken strangers, all talking like braggarts and swearing misogynistic curses. It feels the same in every city, you hold your partner closer and walk quicker and think haven’t they got anything else better to do with their time, clenching you fists to the pulse of your thoughts and hoping they will say something because then you would have an excuse.
 
I realize that I have foolishly made myself angry with my thoughts and laugh to myself. She looks at me confused and asks me what I am laughing about, I say dismissively that it was just my own stupid thoughts and to not worry about it. I ask her about the weekend and of what we should do and where we should go. I feel like I try to fill up my time to stop myself from thinking. I think and realize that we have done a lot of things since we have moved here. We talk about going for a ride on the motorbike out to somewhere to get away from the city and she retells an account of yet another co-worker telling a disapproving tale of the dangers of motorbikes. I think about the danger of being a dickhead. I think about the people I’ve known who have died.
 
At my high school we had an accident where a few people died in a drunken speeding midnight car crash. I didn’t really know any of the people and had a strange guilt about my lack of feeling at losing those peripheral people during the subsequent memorial services. The same feeling has repeated itself over and over again throughout my life and I have had to reconcile it to being some sort of selfish normal. I had a teacher who died from cancer, which appeared to happen quite suddenly to us students as we had not been told of her illness. The thing I remember thinking was that she seemed as though she hadn’t been happy for quite some time prior to her death and also feeling an unusual kind of relief. I remember that the students had not liked her and given her quite a difficult time in the weeks leading up to her death. The principal had told us that we could go to the funeral as long as we were genuinely mourning the loss of her and not trying to get off school. I also remember talking to someone about where old classmates had gone and being told that one of them had died years ago in an outbreak of meningococcal. I couldn’t understand how someone could have died and not a ripple of rumour had moved over the surface of the small city in which I lived. No-one else I knew who had known them had said a word. It seemed like, and still feels like, they couldn’t possibly have died. I think of family friends and heart attacks, I think of grandparents, I think of cancer and old age, I think of the covered body on the ski field and the beautiful whirling snow, I think of the old man lying down with panicked chest compressions on the side of the road in the glorious bush as we drive past in a borrowed four wheel drive. I think of the feeling of utter emptiness I used to get when I was a young boy, believing that god was for the stupid and then realizing that I myself was going to die. I look back to that feeling now and for some reason miss that I don’t get it any more. I long to feel the enormity of nothing with a superstitious awe again, instead my rigid old brain no longer dreams the same tremendous daydreams. Instead I feel my mind just flowing like the river over these ponderous obstacles, only turning and twisting to the needs to this human world of everyday problems. Like the banks of this river, the path of my thoughts is no longer free, it has been turned and stopped and diverted by the mundane requirements dictated as essential for everyday living. Where will the money for rent come from? What would happen if I lost my job? What would people think? Where will we go? What should I say? Does it matter that I’m not talking to them?
 
And a party boat sails up the river drowning the stillness with bad music. And I think that all of our rivers are dying. And I wonder why nobody seems to care. I smile to her. She smiles back to me. I take her hand and she asks me if I am ready to leave. I tell her that I think I have been out in the wild world for long enough.
 
We walk back towards Park Road. The traffic has abated somewhat with the passing of time. You could not tell this from the sky, as the city lights still make it seem as though the sun is rising, making the passage of time imperceptible from the environment. But who tells the time by the sky? I ask her how long we have spent and she looks at the watch that I bought her and replies that it has been a while. The cafes are still busy and I consider going to buy cake and coffee to satisfy my raging addiction to sugar, but think better of it and we continue walking. The drumming has stopped now and the restaurants seem to be in the process of clearing up, with the staff moving chairs about and cleaning up the sections that are empty. A few customers are finishing off their meals and most look contented. I ask her if she is interested in going to the new one that has just opened up sometime soon. She says that we should watch our money but it might be nice to go sometime.
 
The two roads that we must cross are easy to go over now that the traffic is sparse. A few young men in loud cars roar about trying to impress someone and we look about and dash across the roads without pressing the buttons and waiting. We round the corner with the bank towards Gordon Street and notice that a running store is open. I watch with bemusement as a shop assistant peers at a man’s feet as he runs a few paces, turns and runs a few more paces. They both then go back into the store in serious conversation. Beside me she looks in through the window to see if there is anything that we might buy. I consider getting money out of the ATM for tomorrow and ask her if she thinks I should and how much money I should get. She says to not worry about it because we can just get cash out with EFTPOS when we buy some groceries tomorrow.
 
We walk up the hill past the parked cars and the quiet apartments. On the street cars still seem to be performing spontaneous U-turns, even at this late hour. In the distance the hills and sky are as dark as they get in the city lights, the light from the setting sun having long since faded. We make our way back to our apartment, stopping to get some of the junk mail to look at advertisements. A large cockroach scuttles along on the concrete and into the darkness in front of us. We press the button for the lights for the stairs and slowly make our way up. I fish the keys out of my pocket and try to quickly find the right one before the timer on the light runs out. I open the door and we both go in and take off our shoes and sit ourselves down on the couch. We turn on the television and desperately try not the think about work.


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