Monday 17 March, 2014
It was an odd feeling, like something tipping on its axis. As the plane lifted from the runway I felt my body surging forward in real time, while simultaneously I was moving backwards, travelling into an imagined past.
What would she think of me making this trip? My search for her in a city that no longer exists. I think a part of her would have been deeply flattered, she would have smiled to think someone valued her history. She liked to tell stories of living in Sydney in the 1950s & 1960s; mingling with bohemians in the Arabian Café, shopping for gloves, shoes, dresses and chocolates in the main street of Kings Cross. She spent her nights ‘table hopping’ at Sammy Lee’s nightclub, posing for photographs at The Roosevelt, catching a show at the Silver Spade. She would have liked that I wanted to re-trace the steps she made through the streets of Kings Cross and Potts Point over sixty years ago.
But, another part of her would have been cautious, maybe even alarmed. There were also memories she struggled to come to terms with; betrayal, deception, whispered promises made in the dark night that evaporated in the first trace of morning light.
Ten years ago I made this same flight to help arrange her funeral, to sort through the boxes stacked against every wall in her small house, to enter the private place of her bedroom and choose the last outfit she would ever wear.
In the damp gloom of her bedroom, carefully preserved in a packing box was a carton of champagne glasses. They were beautiful, each perfect coupe in a separate compartment, nestled like fragile eggs in straw. I held one by the stem to the light and as I turned it a rainbow of pearlescent colours bled over the curve of the bowl. I wondered if they were a wedding present, maybe an extravagant gift from a lover. Looking back, they were one of the last remaining fragments of a very different life; other items of value had long ago been hocked.
Tuesday 18 March, 2014: Sydney
I awoke in her sparkling city; the scent of frangipanis filtering through the open window. I was excited to find a hotel apartment in the very same street where she had once lived. She moved here in the early 1950s with her first husband, an Industrial Chemist, a ‘stuffed shirt’ who didn’t think women could tell jokes. Lying in bed, an arc of spring sky in the window, sun flooding the room, it was as if time collapsed. I am sure she would have woken to a still moment like this.
Last night, after I checked-in, I went for a walk along Springfield Avenue looking for number six where she lived with the Chemist. The apartment block was missing; number five and seven were still standing; but no number six. It was disconcerting, more than a gap in the google map, it was like a chunk of her history slipped off the page. This morning I checked again, hopeful I had just overlooked it in my tiredness. But it is gone, swallowed up into a redevelopment of square flat-faced apartments on the other side of the road.
But she is still very much in these streets: in Springfield Avenue; in the London Plane trees lining Macleay Street; the rows of art deco apartments with their etched glass-front doors. All around me are traces of the landscape where she re-invented herself. Arriving as an 18 year old girl, the youngest in a poor Irish family from East Perth, she was smart, quick to learn, ambitious. When she separated from the Chemist she set her sights on earning a good income, scored a job as a script clerk at the Sydney Stock Exchange, later drew on her experience to write financial articles for the Daily Mirror. She strutted along the fashionable streets of the city in kitten heels and tiny-waisted dresses. In 1967 she bought her own apartment in an Art Deco block “Wychbury”, an achievement for a single woman at that time.
In a café directly across the road from her old apartment I gazed up at the fifth floor window. The morning sun hit the front of the building in a solid block of light. I took out a polaroid I had brought with me, lined it up with the same window across the street. In the milky light she was balanced on the low wall of the balcony, wearing a blue bikini, a patterned blue headband held back her straight hair. Behind her the blue water of the harbour, the length of the Woolloomooloo docks, in the distance the lacy curve of the harbour bridge. I don’t know who took this photograph, but from the look on her face I have a pretty good idea.
When she worked at the stock exchange she met a lover. I imagine her excitement at Jack’s phone call to tell her he is leaving the office and is on his way. In her bedroom she is putting the finishing touches to her make-up, a cocktail dress hangs ready on the wardrobe door. I imagine him walking quickly down Macleay Street, zipping around the corner, knowing she is waiting, willing him closer. He arrives at the etched glass doors and rings the buzzer; waits for her soft voice to answer. He feels pleased with himself, he is almost 20 years her senior, and has managed to slip away from his wife for the night.
It is there that the picture suddenly drains of its gloss.