Sydney Is For Strangers
by NATHAN JOLLY
I am book-shopping to fill a few hours before I meet Mickey at her place of work — a coffee shop in the city that makes coffee far too hot to drink quickly. If I enjoyed the café culture that place would be great. But I am moving too fast, and have become too scattered and urgent in my thoughts at the moment to sit idly amongst strangers in a café, watching a girl I am dating rush around in service to these impatient ingrates. If I was an old Italian man I would welcome the slow, steady plod of this morning — the pleasant bite in the air that signals winter is cutting through the trees like a warrior, soon to arrive brandishing swords and sweaters. The casual conversations blend beautifully in the air. The sound of the coffee machine whirling and the pleasant hum of the nondescript machinery sit awkwardly next to the square grey of an ugly pie oven that totally undercuts the bohemian vibe that the owners were going for. A Who Weekly in a library. A sampler in an orchestra. Stark, bland reminders of who and where we really are.
Which is why I was in the second-hand bookshop — this would be the highlight of my day, I thought in pathetic resignation. A week ago I wouldn’t have thought that way. Last week every corner hid an adventure, a girl to trigger a thought, or a pub full of life and endless conquests. I was James Dean careening around a rugged, sharp Californian corner, where one wrong turn could send you plundering to a Technicolor death. With the wind in my hair I would match, fight, kill anybody that wanted to match, fight, kill me. But a week ago I was different, and now I needed the quiet therapy of books and wine and marijuana to wrestle my mind into joining again.
I absent-mindedly opened a novel and looked at the first page, a habit I acquired long ago. Inscribed next to “$2", in the kind of handwriting I imagine belongs to a minister’s wife (all these Salvation Army ladies write the same way: like a spider dove into a pool of ink and crawled out scrambling and flailing, legs kicking ink around until it died, restless and messy; all instinct, no feelings) was a message from a mysterious benefactor named, fittingly, Margaret. The name matched the imaginary federation pale pink walls, mothballs, glass ornaments and doilies.
I hope these tales bring back fond memories of your time at the beautiful Yorkshire dales.
With much love.
Such love, discarded. These bookshops are littered with passionate exclamations, packed in bags, plonked thoughtlessly in boxes and dropped into Salvation Army bins around the city. Little orphan inscriptions. I wonder what had become of Margaret and Shirley (I imaged they had long since died; ‘Margarets’ and ‘Shirleys’ belong in history books not on dance-floors.) Was there a bitter falling out between the two, or was this book just another present from a well-meaning but annoying reader-friend to a mother too busy for leisure, too tired to do anything in her few brief moments of respite but sink into a sofa and numb her thoughts with television and lukewarm instant coffee? Drowning in that sea of suburban responsibilities was Margaret’s inscription, proof that although people say "it's been far too long", we only momentarily have time to miss others.
These inscriptions always make me feel more than a little sad. It is similar to when you find an album full of old family photos in an op shop: it feels like looking at ghosts, like spying on neighbours with a telescope, reading an ex’s diary, like boxes of love letters left for the garbage man. I thought back to the books I had given lovers and friends and wondered if I had ever written an inscription. There were a few I was sure, and one I remember less for the girl than for the timing — I met her at a party in one of those small beach towns that pepper certain areas of Sydney. I was numb-shopping-trolleying around a number of these events after a particularly brutal breakup. Ecstasy had a brief resurgence and seemed to be everywhere that winter: empty warmth that feels so real and will do just nicely when the real thing is lacking so sorely. Synthetic smiles still twinkle, and this girl was lovely, chatty and brash, spending that winter writing a complicated thesis that she had long lost the love for.
The morning after we first slept together she got up early and bought me a book from the market while I was sleeping, and wrote a lovely inscription, which I memorized and won’t share because a nineteen year old wrote it, and another nineteen year old liked it, and love and life is transient so fuck you. A few days later I returned the favour in an underground bookstore when we were passing through the tunnel at Central Station. I can’t remember the book, or the author, but like a sorcerer I pulled out the pen I always had on me, held the book against the wall of the tunnel and vertically scribbled a silly, sweet message trailed with x’s, later slipping it into her bag at the Irish pub we frequented because you could order pints there and all the British bands we adored drank pints and therefore so did we.
Now I wondered if anyone would read that message in a Salvation Army store in the future. Possibly my only written work to make it into a bookstore. How glib. How gloomy. If you write your name on a five-dollar note, will it ever make its way back to you? Will anyone ever say your name out loud?
Walking back to the coffee shop that called itself a café and held itself like a bakery I was hit by that confused décor, and the clumsy baristas who handle your dirty change and then your food. I watched this process, realizing with a sense of both horror and relief that I really didn’t give a shit these days. It is like when you realize you are happy to: kiss a stranger; drink from tables; have unprotected sex; slurp from a bathroom tap at 2am in some vomit-sprayed tavern (so Victorian when you call it a tavern, so American when you call it a café instead of a coffee shop). There is a sense of freedom from realizing these things don’t matter to you anymore that can almost drown out the emptiness.
Mickey was in the middle of it all, perfectly charming and sweet. She seemed so natural in this environment that I wasn’t sure where she began and the hospitality training ended. The thing about Mickey that first made me realize we had a definite expiration date was how comfortable she seemed in any circumstance: chatting with strangers while at a bus stop; going for drinks with a group of people she had just met; fitting in instantly at any workplace. Mickey was dangerously adept at cushioning anyone in warm security: opening up, laughing easily, shooting questions and quickly rounding down personalities until she had zeroed in on enough talking points to make the rest of the evening entrancing. Such found familiarity seemed like an enviable trait to me before I saw it for the empty parlor trick that it actually was. Mickey made friends with anyone; such an undiscerning eye made me feel like I could be almost anybody and she would find a way to adapt and love me in that way that only those who have never loved can.
After a fortnight I had turned this into a game, weaving and ducking from predictability or familiarity with chameleon-like regularity. I hid my favorite books and songs away from conversation, and instead dropped a multiple of clumsy mismatched reference points in order to be the one that she couldn’t easily reduce or disarm. Soon my game became a work of art, which is why I had deliberately bought an Arsenal soccer jersey for two dollars at the Salvation Army store near the bookshop I was at, displaying my proud red herring as I walked up to greet her. I was in a rather depressed state after reading Are you there Shirley, it’s me Margaret, and such silly games cheered me up.
Sadly, the disingenuous manner in which Mickey acted around people had started to grate on me, and although her sweetness and light should have lifted me out of whatever state this was, it actually served to make me resent how cheerful she always acted — except I wasn’t even sure it was an act. My Machiavellian game play was the only way I could deal with her upbeat manner and attempts to dismantle my personality. In a few more weeks I would almost certainly be looking for an exit strategy, but for now I enjoyed Mickey’s company enough to continue the charade. She was cute, and she did have a certain charm about her that served to distract me when I let it. And if I didn’t let her get close to me, she couldn’t get hurt. It was all surface attraction: I was a placeholder for whoever she met next, and judging by how she handled people, almost anybody could save her from being alone. I began to see this as an enviable trait once more.
The winter was beginning to thaw out, and the first hints of spring was dangling in the air. I enjoyed the walk back to Mickey’s house for the first time; her small-jacketed arm linked with my arm, her small-waisted body pressed into my body. For the past three months, I’d had to constantly carry an umbrella around town, dressed in coat and cane, imaging myself as a Victorian doctor on his rounds as I walked briskly but confidently, swinging under the dripping elms and balconies, blocking out the 7-Eleven signs, fearful that the world would implode with such anachronisms creeping into this fantasy. This, plus the rain providing me with a constant, ongoing excuse not to socialise, were the only bright spots to this season. Winter is a great excuse that too often backfires: it looks like mugs of warm Milo and open fires and American snowflakes and girls wearing adorable faux-fur jackets (real fur is way more punk-rock), pulling the sleeves of their sweaters over their cute little hands — but if you look closer, you can see that it’s just fucking freezing.
"Early November" - Miranda Lee Richards (mp3)
"Hidden Treasure" - Miranda Lee Richards (mp3)