Sun. May 29th, 2022

Enormous concrete pillars now dominate the skyline of my suburb. Depending on the weather, and depending on my mood, the sight of these giant Y-shaped structures rising from the ground is either beautiful or ominous. It is on cloudy days that they appear the most evocative, crossing the horizon and adding new lines of vision to the relentless flatness of the sky above Melbourne’s north.

Today, however, as I walk to the station, the temperature is already in the low 30s and the sun reflecting off the concrete is blinding. There is something dystopian in the elemental, unfinished brutality of these stone muscles. It does not look like a world to come. It looks like a world that is about to end.

The piers are part of the station’s reconstruction. A major modernization of the rail system in Melbourne began just before the pandemic. Crossings have been a plague on the city for decades and the cause of endless, frustrating traffic jams. There was inevitable controversy: many people would prefer the new tracks and platforms to be placed underground. They complain that elevated tracks are ugly.

My station will be elevated. I’m just glad the traffic jams will ease.

I catch the train to town. It’s 8 o’clock, the middle of rush hour, but there are many empty seats in the wagon. I sit awkwardly on the edge of a seat, and the woman across from me presses her body tightly into the corner, to increase the distance between us. She stared intently at her phone. I open my book.

I read David Fromkin’s A peace to end all peace: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. The prose is robust, direct, and although carefully researched, his writing has propelling narrative drive. I had found it on our bookshelves a few nights before, and when I opened it, I came across an inscription I had written to my friend, Wayne. Let’s hope the next decade is healthy. I bought it for his birthday in 1990. I’m halfway through it, and I struggle with a cold rage as I read, of how the mechanisms of Europe’s great powers sowed the seeds for the disasters of the 20th century.

I look up, and the young woman peeks at the cover and tries to read the blurb on the back. She adjusts her hijab and her mask, and her eyes flash back to her phone.

The train stops at Clifton Hill and an elderly man across the aisle gets up, staggers and leaves the train. I grab my backpack, move to the empty seat. The woman gives me a grateful smile.

It’s a brilliant sunny morning when I get off at Flinders Street Station. It’s a shock to look over at the glittering metal and steel of the skyscrapers on the south bank. It’s been a century since I’ve been in town. Even the lovely muddy Yarra River looks sparkling in this light, and I am reminded of how much I love my city. But as I step into the heart of the CBD, I am struck by the silence. And by the number of windows that are empty, and the storefronts that are embroidered. I cross the lights at Collins Street and turn into a small arcade. My favorite coffee shop is gone. There’s a poster that hung on the wall, from a comedy festival three years ago.

The coffee shop across from the town hall is still in business. I order my coffee, and sit down and text my friend, send him the new location.

When he arrives, I find myself confused about what we should do.

“Do you accept hugs?” I ask him.

He grinned. “Yes, I’m from you.”

By the second coffee we relaxed in our friendship again. He lives on the other side of town for me and so we have not seen each other for more than two years. Joining here in Australia was not just a matter of every member of the federation sequestrating its citizens from other states. Melbourne was locked six times, for a total of 262 days, and during those restrictions there was a curfew, a ban on all visitors, and it was illegal to travel further than 5km from your home. I mention that the city still feels quiet and deserted. He tells me that there is only one other person with him in the office, all the others are still working from home.

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

After we have finished drinking the coffee, we embrace one more time, and then put on his mask and go to work. Instinctively, I grab my crumpled blue mask in my shorts pocket. I decide against wearing it. The city’s streets are sadly unfolded, and I want to feast on an illusion of freedom.

“I do not know how to return to the world.”

My friend told me this about coffee. He explained that he was now avoiding debates and arguments, that he was getting more and more tired of all the anger. The pandemic is not only to blame for the increasing polarization in Melbourne. But the restrictions undoubtedly exacerbated divisions. Social media is dominated by hostility and anger, and for many people, those digital spaces were their only connection to each other.

Now that we’re back in the world for the time being, we all feel a little scared. Every topic seems loaded, every issue requires a determined point of view. Djokovic. Crimea. Bias in the media. The most heretical remark you can make is to say, “I do not know, I need to think more about it.”

I walk east to Spring Street and look down at Parliament House. Over the past year, it has become a site for protests by a loose coalition of far-right activists and those opposed to vaccinations. Yet among them were also anarchists, union members, and other lonely voices disturbed by the anti-democratic thrust of some of the more draconian elements of government policy during the pandemic.

In the middle of the last restraint, I received an SMS from a cousin who took part in these protests. She’s a little older than me, and she’s had a harder time with me. She is a single mother, a worker in the service economy, and she raised three beautiful boys who are now wonderful men. She sent me a photo of herself on top of the steps of Parliament House, with a banner reading: FREEDOM.

It made me laugh. For the past 30 years, she has gently rebuked me for being part of what she calls the “rent-a-crowd leftie-mob.” From my teens, I protested against the steps of Parliament, first as a young member of the People for Nuclear Disarmament, and then denounced apartheid, and the lack of action around AIDS. I protested against black deaths in detention and the misery of our asylum seekers policy. Attached to the photo, my cousin sent an SMS: Now it’s my turn to be a stirrer, Christo! With three laughing emojis.

I sent back: Some of our leftists still believe in freedom. I wondered if that was true.

When I tell friends that she’s part of the protests, some of them respond, “Why do you have anything to do with her?” I can tell them she was there when I came out. That she was there when I was struggling with addiction. That she was there when my father died and when my mother became ill. The simple truth is I love her.

I go to the cinema, and after that I order Vietnamese takeaways and eat in the Treasury Gardens, under the shade of the elm trees. I watched the new Almodóvar film, and for a moment, when I saw Madrid, there was a faint agitation of the desire to travel. It seems too difficult. “I am afraid we will become even more bloody parochial.” My friend said that too, about coffee. And I replied, “The last time the world looked this far, I was in high school.” Then he whispered it shamefully and admitted: “I do not miss travel at all.”

On the tram back home there are plenty of seats. When I got off at my stop and looked west, the half-finished piers seemed less forbidding in the softer afternoon light.

I hand out a card at a house on the corner of my street. The old man who lived there died last week. Long ago he planted olive trees on the natural strip, and most years they are full of the plump black fruit. Last year, in a narrow gap between locks, he taught his young neighbors how to gather the olives, how to prepare and store them. The young couple are college students, Greenies, and it was a joy to see how they were so eager to learn from the old man.

I know his widow is scared of Covid. I wrote in Greek on the sympathy card I leave in her mailbox.

Melbourne remains grim, even in the bright light of our summer. I think we’re all a little punch-drunk, learning how to live with each other again, and how to talk to each other again. I am thankful that I saw that moment of grace, that quiet, gentle communication between the old man and the youth. They were from different worlds, but they 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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