Christ Tsiolkas: return to the world again

Huge concrete pillars now dominate the silhouette of my suburb. Depending on the weather and my mood, the sight of these giant Y-shaped structures rising from the ground is either beautiful or eerie. It is on cloudy days that they look most exciting, crossing the horizon and adding new lines of vision to the relentless plain of the sky over northern Melbourne.

Today, however, as I walk to the station, the temperature is already below 30 and the sun, which is reflected by the concrete, is blinding. There is something anti-utopian about the elemental, unfinished brutality of these stone piers. It doesn’t look like a world to come. It looks like an ending world.

The quays are part of the reconstruction of the station. A major modernization of the Melbourne railway system had begun just before the pandemic. The crossings have been a disaster for the city for decades and are the cause of endless, frustrating traffic jams. There was an inevitable controversy: many people would prefer the new tracks and platforms to be placed underground. They complain that the tracks are ugly.

My station will be built. I am glad that traffic jams will be alleviated.

I catch the train to town. It’s 8 in the morning, the middle of rush hour, but there are a lot of empty seats in the car. I sit awkwardly on the edge of a seat, and the woman in front of me presses her body tightly in the corner to increase the distance between us. She stares at her phone. I open my book.

Read by David Fromkin Peace for the end of the whole world: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. Prose is sound, direct, and although thoroughly researched, his writing has a propulsive narrative. I had found it on our bookshelves a few nights ago, and when I opened it, I came across an inscription I had written to my partner, Wayne. Let’s hope the next decade is reasonable. I had bought it for his birthday in 1990. I went through the middle and struggled with cold rage as I read how the machinations of the great European powers had sown the seeds of the catastrophes of the 20th century.

I look up and the young woman stares at the cover, trying to read the ad text on the back. She adjusts her hijab and mask and her eyes roll back to the phone.

The train stops at Clifton Hill, and an elderly man on the other side of the aisle gets up, swings, and leaves the train. I grab my backpack, move to the empty seat. My wife smiles gratefully.

It’s a brilliant sunny morning as I get off at Flinders Street Station. It’s a shock to look at the other side of the shiny metal and steel of the skyscrapers on the south coast. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in town. Even the ugly muddy river Yara looks sparkling in this light and I remember how much I love my city. And yet, when I enter the heart of the CBD, I am struck by the silence. And by the number of windows that are empty and the windows that are nailed with boards. I cross the lights on Collins Street and turn into a small arcade. My favorite cafe is gone. On the wall is a peeling poster from a comedy festival from three years ago.

The cafe opposite the town hall is still open. I order my coffee, sit down and send a message to my friend, send him the new location.

When he arrived, I was confused about what to do.

“Do you accept hugs?” I ask him.

He smiles. – Yes, I’m from you.

By the second coffee we relaxed again in our friendship. He lives on the other side of town for me, and we haven’t seen each other in over two years. Locking up here in Australia was not just a matter of every member of the federation isolating its citizens from other states. Melbourne was locked up six times in a total of 262 days, and during those blockades there was curfew, a ban on all visitors and it was illegal to travel more than 3 miles from home. I mention that the city still feels quiet and deserted. He tells me that there is only one other person in the office with him, everyone else is still working from home.

He smiles. “We have to wear masks, but after the first hour she and I took them off. Her desk is 50 meters from mine. I think we are safe. “

After drinking coffee, we hug once more and then putting on his mask, he goes to work. Instinctively, I reach for my crumpled blue mask in my shorts pocket. I decide not to wear it. The city streets are gloomily deserted and I want to indulge in the illusion of freedom.

“I don’t know how to get back into the world.”

My friend told me this over coffee. He explained that he now found himself avoiding debate and controversy, that he was getting more and more tired of all the rage. The pandemic is not the only culprit for Melbourne’s growing polarization. But the blockade has undoubtedly exacerbated divisions. Social media is dominated by hostility and anger, and for many people these digital spaces have been their only connection.

Now that we are hesitant to return to the world, we all feel a little scared. Every topic seems tense, every question requires a firm position. Djokovic. Crimea. Partisanship in the media. The most heretical comment you can make is to say, “I don’t know, I need to think more about this.”

I walk east to Spring Street and look down at Parliament. Over the past year, it has become a protest site for a loose coalition of far-right activists and those who oppose vaccinations. But there are also anarchists, unionists and other lone voices who are troubled by the anti-democratic tone of some of the more draconian elements of government policy during the pandemic.

In the middle of the last block, I received a message from a cousin who had taken part in these protests. She is a little older than me and made it harder than me. She is a single mother working in the service economy and has raised three wonderful boys who are now great men. She sent me her picture at the top of Parliament’s stairs, carrying a banner that read: FREEDOM.

That made me laugh. For the past 30 years, she has gently rebuked me for being part of what she calls a “left-wing crowd-rent mob.” I protested in the footsteps of Parliament since my teenage years, first as a young member of the People for Nuclear Disarmament, then condemning apartheid and inaction over AIDS. I protested against black deaths in the detention and misery of our asylum policies. Attached to the photo, my cousin had sent me an SMS: Now it’s my turn to be an agitator, Christo! With three laughing emojis.

I replied to the SMS: Some of us leftists still believe in freedom. I wondered if it was true.

When I tell friends that she is part of the protests, some of them say, “Why do you have anything to do with her?” I can tell them that she was there when I went out. That she was there when I struggled with addiction. That he was there when my father died and my mother fell ill. The simple truth is that I love her.

I go to the movies, then I order Vietnamese to take home and eat in the treasury gardens, under the shade of the elms. I had watched Almodovar’s new film, and by the time I saw Madrid, there was a slight urge to travel. It seems too difficult. “I’m afraid we’ll become even bloodier parishioners.” My friend had said it over coffee, too. And I said, “The last time the world seemed so far away, I was in high school.” Then, whispering to him, embarrassed, he admitted, “I don’t miss traveling at all.”

There are many seats on the tram at home. When I got off at my bus stop and looked west, the half-finished piers looked less threatening in the softer afternoon light.

I put a map in a house on the corner of my street. The elderly man who lived there died last week. He has long planted olive trees on the natural strip and most of the year they are full of black fruit. Last year, in a narrow gap between the blockades, he taught his young neighbors how to harvest olives, how to prepare and store them. The young couple were students, Greenies, and it was a joy to see them so eager to learn from the old man.

I know his widow is afraid of Kovid. I wrote in Greek on the sympathy card, which I leave in her mailbox.

Melbourne remains gloomy, even in the bright light of our summer. I think we’re all a little drunk on punch, learning how to live with each other again and how to talk to each other again. I am grateful to have witnessed this moment of grace, this quiet, tender communication between the old man and the young man. They were from different worlds, but they had found a way to talk to each other.

Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel “7 ½” will be published by Atlantic in February 3

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