Once upon a time when I was a commuter …
The 19 tram is a fickle beast, prone to fits of madness, rage, and the inevitable delays of Melbourne public transport. For the most part, I like my tram route because it goes up Royal Parade past Princes Park and glides up Sydney Road spewing commuters onto the pavement and into the many bars and cafes along the way. It’s like a Mallee Ringneck feeding the road with tiny morsels of consumerism.
I can’t remember my first ride on the 19 tram but I do know that I’ve used it almost every day for the last nine years and I can even hear it clanking away at night, as I eat my dinner up in my wee flat amongst the trees.
I think it was the Bedroom Philosopher who wrote about the 86 tram a few years ago and he captured the spirit of the journey perfectly and some of the pretentious shitehawks who use the service. The 19 tram has a slightly similar ambiance but it’s also different in many ways. The main difference being that the 19 tram has a strange sense of nobility, particularly if you watch it stop and start, as it makes its way northward up Sydney Road from Brunswick Road. I love watching it slowly crawl up passed Blyth Street and disappear into the Land of the Hookah, the sun reflecting off its back windows. It reminds me of being a kid in Scotland, watching my Dad walk up David Street with the day’s takings tucked under his arm, in an old biscuit tin. Just a reassuring feeling of familiarity that makes us all feel at ease when perched on the edge of perpetual trepidation.
However, on a bad day, the 19 becomes my biscuit tin of nightmares. I only catch it a few stops down the road but when I see it approach my stop with its windows misted over and people packed in around the door I’m filled with dread. Why not walk I hear you ask? It’s only a few stops down the road. I’m constantly running late, so I end up having to squeeze myself in and just take it like a commuter. It’s that feeling of impending doom as I mount those stairs and squeeze myself into that jigsaw puzzle of arms, legs and torsos that pisses me off the most. Being stuck next to the person with a bag that’s far too big for what they really need to do that day. Music from earphones that’s too loud and never my cup of tea. Sour coffee breath, cheap deodorant, bullshit conversation, and that erratic pulse of unease from people just like me.
Poor morale is infectious and a bad start to the day.
But on the whole, I like the 19 tram. No, I love the 19 tram. It’s frequent, double carriaged, has mostly un-vandalised upholstery, runs most of the night/morning on Friday and Saturday nights and there’s something reassuring about coming home on the tram and getting off on Sydney Road and navigating your way across the road to Barkly Square. Crossing Sydney Road is an art form and is definitely an example of real life Frogger (see Seinfeld, season 9, episode 18).
So, next time you’re on the 19 tram have a think about its strong links to Sydney Road. It dominates that strip of road, which unfolds between Brunswick Road and Bell Street; a huge metal worm muscling its way up the asphalt in all its glory. One of the few trams in Melbourne with a soulful journey, as it passes through the ever-changing history of Brunswick and Coburg, disappearing into misty mornings and reappearing somewhere just beyond the Phantom Tollbooth.
And now, a poem about the morning commute on the 19 tram, by Bianca Frost:
The steel spine of Sydney Rd
as night gives way to yawning day
the e-class grumbling awake
into the electric current
inertia into motion
soiled steel bones grating scapular over knee
out of the old depot
resentfully onto old road Sydney
shuddering sputtering spat
the hacking paroxysms
mimic the percussion of smokers
splattering oily phlegm pocked
pearl purple green
with petrochemical carcinogens
on the daily lug every morning
up and down
arterial route 19
stop starting staring weary down the hill from Coburg
the twin lumbar spines of Moreland
stretching each articulated vertebrae
along the track
like a great glob of cholesterol
choking the straining heart
of commuters up the rabid carriageway
festooning turning rims with sprays of carbon grit
as it meets the expectant faces
of passengers ready to ride
not such a bad way to start the day
rumbles the tram with pride
Image of 19 tram courtesy of Bianca Frost (2015).
The supermarket is now a dangerous place to be. People who might be sick move up and down the aisles searching for hand sanitizer, pasta and a way to wipe their arse. It’s a depressing sight, watching people navigate their way through a human obstacle course. However, today I’m not going to dwell on the doom and gloom of a pandemic, instead, I’m going to write about something that brings me joy.
There’s a coffee shop, well a window, down the road from me that sells coffee, cakes, and muffins. And yes, it’s an open window right on the pavement that’s part of a residential property. Apparently, it used to be a DVD nook at the east end of their lounge that’s been converted into a takeaway coffee shop. You’d never know. It’s now called Capulus and Co.
It’s run by a family who make the best coffee I’ve ever had (I write this with conviction). They’ve secured the beans, the good stuff, the primo brown gold, and I’m one of their caffeine disciples. Most mornings, I walk 100 metres to pray at the altar of their divine brew. I order a regular latte, and after a wee chat with the barista, I respectfully maintain my distance from the other disciples on the pavement and attend to my emails.
After a couple of minutes, the barista gives me one of the highlights of my day, a regular latte in a brown and tan cup. Then I walk home slowly enjoying each sip until I reach the stairs that lead me to my place of isolation, where The King of Queens seems to be playing on repeat.
But those 100 metres to the window and back keep me sane and I’ll always remember that walk and the life-affirming coffee, as something that got me through this thing.
We all need something like that walk in the morning because it’s those slivers of joy that give us something to look forward to. And when this is over, I’m going to give the barista a big hug, hail a taxi, and get the fuck out of dodge.
Capulus and Co can be found at 9 Sydney Rd, Brunswick, Victoria and is open from 7am – 2pm, Monday to Friday, and 8am – 2pm on Saturday and Sunday.
“If you can hear me, open your eyes,” the voice says as I come to with a sharp breath. My head is spinning, lying here on this bed in a room that immediately fills me with the frustration of not knowing where I am. Everything hurts. The woman tells me that she managed to get me back into the car before we escaped.
I glance over my arms to see bandages and gauze blotted with seeping blood. My cheek is swollen too. She tells me not to move. I’m breathing heavily and my eyes begin to dart. “Breathe”, she says, “breathe”. It’s happening again but I know it’ll pass. I don’t know what’s happened to me this time. All I can remember are glimpses of my former life, a house, a job, an existence that was somehow leading me to this point now with the outline of a woman I don’t know telling me to take it easy. It gets worse and my eyes squeeze themselves shut. A few other memories flash in front of me before my breathing starts to slow. A few more breaths and then it passes.
“You’re safe,” she says, but I want to know where I am. “In my house,” she answers. “No one knows we’re here.”
I try to get up to get to the window, but she raises a hand.
“We’re well off the track. No one can see us for miles. It’s thick bush out there. We’re safe.”
I lie back down. She stares at me for a moment and moves to touch the bandage on my arm but I pull back. I look at her in a way I’m not used to.
She tells me that she doesn’t know much about me. I don’t answer. I killed my best friend not so long ago.
She’s removed my boots, which I don’t like, and I fumble to put them back on. She tries to stop me, but I react. This bothers me because I used to be a different person. I tell her I’m sorry, I’d just like to put them back on. I don’t lie down again, but I thank her anyway.
I can see a dim light squinting through the blind. It’s either early morning or late afternoon. I ask her if she has any food and she hands me a tin of beans. I’m careful to not eat any more than half for now. I can see she notices.
“Do you have any family?” She asks.
I tell her no.
She’s silent, thinking something over. “We were building this house together,” she says, “when it happened.”
I nod a few times.
“I was a school teacher. I used to love my job.” She has dirty hands and she wrings them. She adds that she doesn’t like seeing kids treated that way. She says she’s not happy with herself that she had to leave them like that, but everyone has had to let go of everything normal.
Before this everyone liked to think that they’d always do the right thing. Everyone worked so hard to find meaning, to live a life that would seem complete, to be noticed, to be respected, to be taken seriously, to be liked and loved. But most of those people are dead now, with nothing left behind but a memory.
It’s easy to think you’re one of the good guys if you’ve never been challenged, but with a gun at your head you’ll find out pretty quickly where your strengths lie. The blood and guts wash away, but that moment will stay with you forever.
I’ve lost touch with who I used to be.
I realise the woman and I have been staring at each other in silence. She barely flinches when she hears the car approaching in the distance. I keep looking at her until eventually, she says that we were followed.
I’m already halfway to the door when I tell her she needs to come with me. But she doesn’t move. Her voice is shaky when she says, “Maybe they’ll reconsider.” As I exit the door I catch one last look. I see her slowly turn her head to the sound of the car and then I’m gone.
They pursue me for three days. I don’t stop running. I take them through the thick bush, into the hills where they can’t follow me by car. It rains one day, thunderstorms the next but they stay close. I can hear them moving at night and it scares me.
By the third day I need to stop. I find myself on the edge of a cliff where I prop myself down against a tree. They’re behind me somewhere but I haven’t heard them in a long while. I don’t know if it’s over yet or not. The wind on my face calms me. It’s strangely peaceful.
I stare out over the cliff, emptiness and beauty, loneliness, and hope. I start to drift off and I let it happen. Wind and trees. Another time in my life long ago.
When I feel something touch my face I don’t have the energy to jump. I open my eyes to see a dog sniffing my cuts. I brush his snout with the back of my hand. Good boy. I had one just like him. Slowly he sits down next to me and together we watch the sunrise.
Cam’s a very good friend of mine and a great writer. He has a dog called Mickey and he gets up at 04:30 every morning to run 37 kms. Cam’s strength of character is an inspiration to me. One day he hopes to have a Peregrine Falcon, called Patrice Mersault.
Photo compliments of Nadine Ross
The taxi ride home from the civil court was civil. Emma sat in silence, wringing her hands while I stared out the window at homes, I would never live in. It was my second trip to the civil court in six months and I vowed never to return. But when you’ve just taken restraining orders out on each other, a trip to the civil court is in order. Three months in jail if we’re caught together. Three months of Dostoevsky and sexual enslavement. Emma picked a piece of loose skin off her thumb and flicked it out the taxi window. Sometimes she’s so beautiful I can’t look at her.
Back at our house, I poured us both a large vodka and soda with ice and real lime. Emma retreated to the backyard for a smoke. We had rats. One of them had eaten an entire tube of Berocca and I imagined him freaking out in the walls doing chin-ups ‘til, he collapsed and puked his rat guts all over the plumbing. When I was a kid, we used to wrap rats in electricians’ tape and throw them off my mate’s 6th-floor council flat balcony. He’s now a famous parasitologist in America and he denied my friend request on Facebook because we grew apart and he’s ashamed of what he did. People do that.
I went out the back to join Emma. She was crying again. The first time I saw her crying was on a bench next to a drive-through bottle shop. We’d been together for two weeks after meeting in a writing class called Writing through trauma. She was crying because she’d dropped the bottle of gin we’d just bought. I wasn’t that bothered because the bottle shop was still open. I asked her why she was so upset, and she said something about a guy called Liam and a trip to Sydney. She was incoherent, so I bought another bottle of gin and called a taxi. Always taxis with us.
This time, as I went into the backyard, I knew why she’d been crying. It was my fault. Her cigarette butt was covered in red lipstick. Emma reminded me of the women I worked with at the Royal Hotel when I was fifteen. They all smoked cigarettes in the kitchen and left lipstick marks on cigarette butts and glasses. I find it reassuring, like the click of pool balls or heavy traffic when I’m trying to get to sleep. I sat next to her and put my hand on her right shoulder. Emma would never survive in this world if she stopped being a victim.
Later that night we watched House of 1,000 Corpses. We were drunk by this stage and used the film to avoid talking.
Teddy’s love muscle
Emma used her teddy bear’s nose to masturbate. She’d been doing it for years, but the bear’s nose was ok. I’d been suffering from acute psoriatic arthritis, so I was glad the bear was around to fill in the gaps. The bear was threadbare, and ochre and his eyes looked like they’d witnessed a genocide or two. I was never surprised by the bear’s sexual function because that’s the way Emma had always been. Idiosyncratically tragic. She was consumed by psychoanalytical interpretations of fairy tales and I was the limping, well-read thug. Every week her mother rang to plead with her to break up with me. Emma called her Mummy and promised to break up with me, but it only brought us closer together. I asked Emma why she didn’t follow her mother’s weekly wish. She told me that her mother was lonely and out to get her.
I came into the bedroom to find Emma in bed, eyes closed, knees up and Teddy’s nose gliding up and down her rock-hard clitoris. I was holding two cups of Lady Grey tea. She opened her eyes and told me that she and Teddy had already started and that I should join them immediately. I put down the teas and explained that my arthritis was painful and that I would not be joining in tonight, but I’d be back in the saddle in the morning after the anti-inflammatories had kicked in. She closed her eyes and kept rubbing Teddy’s nose into her clit.
I got into bed and picked up my book.
Emma had a little white fluffy dog who she loved more than me. His name was Snuffy, and he had a red collar. I used to take Snuffy to work. The dog adored Emma to the point of morbid obsession. He used to frame me for things I didn’t do, like broken glasses and piss on the bathroom floor. I’m a very careful urinator. Snuffy also had a dubious relationship with Teddy. The two had co-existed on Emma’s bed for eight years without incident. Snuffy was like the friend who’s giving and compassionate when it’s one-on-one but turns into a prick when other people are around. He reminded me of myself. The relationship was harmonious.
We were drunk again watching more TV to avoid more pressing issues. Drinking and TV are a wonderful combination for the couple who are not meant to be together anymore. My own parents have based their entire relationship on this ritual, and I have a feeling that Emma’s parents followed the same guidebook, locked into their mud-brick fantasy on the hill, a cigarette burning in the breezeway.
Snuffy had been gone a long time. I assumed he’d gone outside to do a quick perimeter recon or stepped into the bathroom to set me up for a fall. After some time had elapsed and Emma was nodding off on her Chesterfield, I got up to have a look for him. I checked the backyard. The toilet. The side of the house. The spare room. I even tried calling his name and shaking his chain but to no avail.
I walked down the corridor, the big red door getting more and more Jack Nicholson.
I opened our bedroom door. Darkness. I switched on the main light. Snuffy the dog wonder had chewed Teddy’s face-off, leaving only the precious nose, which he was now attempting to extract from Teddy’s mutilated face. I shouted at him and he stopped and stared at me like I was interrupting an ancient sacred ritual, foam, and splinters of wood smeared around his mouth.
I shall fear no evil, for I am an evil motherfucker
Emma insisted that her ex-boyfriend take Teddy to the doll hospital to have his face sewn back on. His name was David and he lacked social skills. Emma liked to keep him around to perform tasks like this. He was her plan B.
‘Let me present, FISH BOY!’
Work had been hectic. I’d taken on too much again, mainly to avoid thinking about my life. Work, TV, and drinking were my salvation. If they’d been taken away, I’d have stripped naked and plunged a screwdriver into a tram driver’s neck. I sometimes pictured myself after killing the tram driver, crouched on a seat like a psychopathic Puck, knife in one hand, erection in the other and probably fantasizing about Monica Bellucci in Irreversible. I spend so much time keeping my shit together by imposing banality into my routine. One sniff of freedom and I’d be famous for at least two weeks.
When I arrived home, I could hear loud, forlorn music from the 80s. I opened the door and the noise shifted the skin on my forehead, slightly to left and maybe half an inch upwards. Emma was standing in the middle of the lounge room swaying with a glass of red. I shouted her name. I turned off the music. Nothing.
Over dinner Emma abruptly stopped eating and told me that the best thing ever had happened today. That today was the best day of her life. She told me to go to the bedroom. My arthritis had cleared up, so I was hoping this meant we’d fuck like normal on a Wednesday night in the most livable city on earth. I left her staring at her last piece of steak and went to the bedroom.
I have seen some fucked up stuff in my life. It all started when I pulled a nail out of Douglas Boag’s foot and blood sprayed all over my neck. Or when I shot a raven, smashed it with a brick and its guts flowed from its arse and into my face.
Teddy was back. He was sat against the double pillows on Emma’s favourite white Egyptian linen. His face had been sown on again but it was lopsided, like a victim of Bell’s Palsy or that Teddy had murdered another Teddy, carved its face off, and attached it to his own as a vehicle for poetry.
My breath was trapped in my throat. The only part of Teddy that was still part of Teddy was his nose. That round black marble surface, glinting under the chandelier. The piece of Emma’s childhood that allowed orgasms to flow through time, colliding with atoms and nova stars and airborne disease. The best part intact. I removed my clothes.
I’ve changed the name of my blog to The coronavirus diaries until this thing blows over. So, if anyone wants to send me a story they have to tell about self-isolation, coping with self-isolation and basically, anything to do with their experience of this time in our lives, send it through and I’ll post it for you.
A few top tips for writing a blog:
- Keep it short, no more than 800 words (less is more when writing a blog, many of the greatest blogs I’ve read are only 500 words long, or shorter)
- Use simple language
- Try to work out what the intention of the story is
- Give it an edit once it’s done for spelling and grammar etc, and
- And remember that everyone’s story is an important part of this historical event
If you do send me your story, please include a very short bio of 50 words and a photo of some description to: firstname.lastname@example.org
During times like these, it’s important that we document and share our stories, especially if you’re in isolation and feel like you need your voice to be heard.