I wasn’t in a good place when I went down to the train station but being in a crowd seemed to help. I took up a waiting position, leaning on the wall. Next to me, a girl sat on a bench playing with some silly putty. It was the same kind of putty that I had as a kid but remarketed with gimmicky packaging so that when she squeezed it down a small cylinder to oozed out of a freaky face of cut out eyes and a smiling mouth made hideous.
She was about 10, shy, puppy fat and freckles, and when I commented on it she wordlessly showed me what it could do a few times; till the attention attracted her younger brother who had to get his two-bits in and show off his too. Their dad was trying to keep them contained and read his phone at the same time. And the kids were good, really. The dad, a handsome but tough looking man, seemed to be overly cultivating the image. His short sleeve shirt looked calculated to reveal his tribal design tatt and smooth sculpted biceps. The little boy was all soft edges like his sister, younger, about 7, and cheeky. He was in a coarse looking North Melbourne footy jumper and his hair was buzz-cut with criss-crosses around his ears, though it was longer at the top and down to the nape of his neck. Their cheerfulness, gentle warmth and simple ordinariness bolstered me a bit. Maybe it’s odd to feel relief waiting for a train on a stuffy underground platform but compared to the day I’d had, it did.
I’d spent the day at a writer’s conference surrounded by publishers and aspiring authors. Some work of my own had been assessed by an editor who had politely found it wanting. I was numb from a grief born of utter existential angst, confusion and self-doubt. If they were my people, if that was my world, why did I feel so alien and out of step? What sort of writer was I? How did I fit in? My brain spun with all the assertions, stories and advice, the contradictions of what gets published, the reality of what sells, the competitiveness of the market, the steepness of the odds of success. How was I supposed to get up, brush myself down and keep going? What I really wanted was to just walk away. It was all too hard. Maybe I didn’t have ‘it’, the talent or the grit. Maybe I should give up, become a nurse, or a florist, something actually useful. I wanted to hide, from the anger, and grief, and humiliation, and insecurity. Disappearing in the crowd was as good a place as any.
When it finally came, the train was pretty full, day trippers and shoppers and fans heading home from the footy. The train was dressed with Collingwood supporters, a wad of whom stood next to me in the doorway of the carriage discussing the prospects of the team. The man closest, short, stocky, convinced of his own authority, muttered incomprehensible stats on goals up and points down amid a continuous torrent of faacks, faackin’ this and farcking that. His mobile chortling the team anthem. The family from the platform swayed next to them too, the buff-armed dad furrowed his brow, uncomfortable with the blue language. Still, his son was oblivious, as he swayed with the carriage and his green silly putty, tumbling ungraciously and playing up the slap-stick potential of every wobble underfoot.
When I finally got off, it was growing dark. The sky was a pale autumn grey. It was one of those times when the sky above seem like a silver cloche, and the air carries the lives of those around us with the clarity of a cathedral. Not a breath of wind. The twilight was the smell of mown grass and cool air.
It’s a rare moment when I am alone and can dissolve into that around me. I pondered the day. Who did I want to be? As I crossed the tracks and walked through the park on the other side toward the street I passed the local gun club. It was a Saturday night and the first time I’ve ever seen the door open. Inside were friends; their camaraderie was palpable. The rear of a skinned head nodded with that of another man of bulk as they consulted papers on a table. An old radiator fitted to a fibro wall glowed at the end of the room. It was filled with second-hand, squishy vinyl lounges and unassorted chairs. A middle aged woman sat on an armrest among the gathered men, smiling over one of their shoulders. People and their clans.
Cars slowly passed me once I reached the street. Distant kids shouted from the park, a man calling encouragement, the familiar thphwump of a footy kick. The train crossing dinged. Another approaching train sighed and squeaked to a stop. Lights came on in houses. A security light blinked to life as I passed picket fences and rear windows, someone cooking a heady garlic and oregano bolognaise, whiffs of wood fire, dampness under the trees. I smelt a woman putting on a leather jacket earlier that day, a rush of wet earth and hay and horses, that deep smell of leather. Apparently you can’t actually recall smells, you can only know them when you smell them.
Clumsily, I dug out paper and pen, compelled to note the memory, writing in the yellow drift of an awakening streetlight. I was thinking about what the hell is a literary voice anyway, my eyes drawn to the dirt where an unseen cicada vibrated within its soft earth hole.
The suspension springs squeaked loudly from a neighbour’s BMW SUV as it turned out of our street; for such an expensive car it always sounds pretty shit. The darkening sky blended with silver corrugated roofs, becoming one slate. Night gathered, drawing up its velvet. Dogs barked distantly, a peewee cawed, a Vdub van stuttered through it’s gears.
Across the street, a woman walking her Jack Russell stopped to check out a red sold banner slapped across the auction board, where I supposed a million-dollar frenzy had occurred a few hours earlier for what was a rental place of damp and decay. I wonder what it went for. Another reminder that I needed to get a real job, everything is far too precarious. A chorus of Indian minors chirp in the gloomy branches above me, shitting on expensive cars.
Pen in hand, in the dark, I felt oddly at peace. Momentarily free from trying to fit into a predefined category. Be yourself, they said it over and over. Tell the story you want to tell. Yet all the while what would be successful was defined and dissected. Fit through the eye of the needle, authentically. For so long I’d been trying to fit into an abstraction, like standing in a changing room trying on new identities, considered and criticised from myriad mirrored angles, a reflection of likenesses, bouncing off one another. But they were ephemeral, flickering. I was tired of it all, the second guessing. I can only be me.
I stood outside my house, knowing my children and husband were safely tucked inside. A pandemonium of smells, sounds and intentions awaited, stories saved up, garbled greetings and blurred blinks would look up from glowing screens; sensations that would bombard, overwhelm and deflect me. I paused in the quiet.
It was time to put that mirror away, to quiet those reflections, face them down on the table. I don’t need to speak into a construct. I have my own voice, even if it is only murmuring in the twilight.
I tell myself I can write. I just don’t know the story yet.