I drift inexorably towards my conclusion. I trust less and less the prediction made by Caroline the op-shop lady. Back in early April, she assessed my personality, and judged that I “function better by working towards a deadline”. But here we are, with only two days to go ’til my exhibition, and I’m still blundering about like Mr Ryder, the pianist in Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled.
The entire time I’ve been working on the ‘sham, I’ve been reading this novel. And I feel like it’s had some powerful yet subtle influence over my writing, not to mention the way I move through time and space in the suburb. In The Unconsoled, Mr Ryder arrives in an unspecified European city. He’s a famous pianist, and is booked in to do some sort of presentation on “Thursday night”. Trouble is, everyone seems to know what he’s supposed to be do except Ryder himself. Worse still, it appears he’s agreed to countless minor appointments between “now” and Thursday – none of which he can recall. He rushes, flustered and irritated, to make each meeting, only to be waylaid en route by someone who has been expecting him somewhere else. In fact, he should have been at that encounter more than half an hour ago. And so on. Each journey bifurcates, and every subsequent path is itself diverted… After four hundred and thirty seven pages (I’m not yet at the end!) Ryder still hasn’t arrived at Thursday night.
In novel time, less than three days have passed. But for me, it’s been more than fifty days. And although most of my days in Petersham have been nowhere near as frustrating as Ryder’s, to a certain extent I share his feeling, that I’m not quite master of my own destiny. And even more: the absurd sense that the looming deadline is somehow rather meaningless. In my case, all the more so, since my exhibition is going to take place in Camperdown. And still, I allow time to wash over me, moving me closer to the end.
Yesterday I met another Caroline. Like Alex, Caroline is a reader. She contacted me through the comments section of the blog, offering to take me for a walk and show me “the house she used to live in”. We agreed to meet outside Big Brekkie at ten am.
Tuesday was cold. Word was, it was snowing in the Blue Mountains. I put on my thermals and scarf and big black jacket, topped it off with my old man hat, and set out. I arrived a little early and stood with my hands jammed in my pockets on the street corner. Before long, a tall thin woman with a pram approached.
We shook hands. Her two year old, Polly, “looking like a bag lady”, was asleep in the pram. Caroline said she’s experimenting with letting Polly dress herself. Actually, she looked pretty cool. Plenty of layers in various pinks.
As with Alex, meeting Caroline in the flesh was a little like two penpals coming together. I wouldn’t say it was awkward. In fact, if anything, things were surprisingly easy. The conversation flowed smoothly, we had an immediate rapport, I think it wasn’t too hard to like each other. In fact, it quickly became obvious that we were from very similar worlds. As it turns out, we both studied art at the University of Western Sydney, finishing within a year of each other. And we have many friends in common. In 1997, Caroline even attended my 22nd birthday party at a house called “Trumpet Week” in South Newtown. It was an “underwater” theme (I dressed up as a Kreepy Krauly). Despite all this, we’ve never actually met.
So what was it that was odd?
My theory (and bear with me, I’m only just working this out as I sit here and type out these lines) is based on the idea that relationships (of any sort) are solidified through shared experiences. We need to actually “undergo” something together. It’s not enough to tick all the boxes of “interests in common” – that’s just stats. All the right vital statistics and you could still end up with a mismatch. But when we actually do something together, and when that activity runs its course in a satisfying way – or even in a frustrating way – then we can feel that we have “had an experience”. This can be built upon. (Equally, it can be evidence enough that no more building is desired.)
At any rate, the shared experience is something that we own together. Something that belongs to us no-one else. And before our walk, Caroline and I lacked that. Perhaps this lack was emphasised by the fact that our lives are so similar, and we’ve been living under each other’s noses so long.
Whatever the case, we were on our way to having our first experience together – even one as simple as strolling around Caroline’s old neighbourhood, snooping in driveways and grubbing up memories. She took me down Albert Street towards a house she used to live in. On the way, we stopped at a huge mansion which looks like it’s been divided up as a boarding house or cheap flats. There’s a lot of that goes on in the ‘sham. Caroline said that there used to be dozens of cats living under the house, they accessed the basement through a broken panel under the patio.
But when we got there, the panel was boarded up, a fresh coat of paint had been applied, a tradie was carrying a ladder to his ute, and there were no cats in sight. We stood there looking over the fence, slightly stunned. Caroline, incredulous that her pre-existing mental image didn’t match with current reality. And me, not sure what to think, trying to map Caroline’s image of cat-chaos onto this site I’d never seen before. There was definitely something odd about this moment.
Further down the hill, she showed me her old house. Apparently it had a somewhat shady history. When Caroline and her partner moved in, they found evidence that an underground room had been used as an intensive dope growing enterprise. Holes drilled through the floorboards and cupboards for electrical cables, tell-tale paraphernalia still lying about. The clincher was an $800 unpaid electricity bill. Her next-door-neighbours, on the other hand, were do-it-yourselfers of a more upstanding-citizen kind. They were Portuguese, and had an extensive little market garden happening in the back yard. Purple and white beans, tomatoes, vegies of all kinds. They even produced their own potash for fertiliser. Caroline had really liked living there. But eventually, the landlord evicted them. For no reason. One day, a letter arrived stating, somewhat absurdly, that “the tenants were not happy”, and therefore the rent had to go up. Utter nonsense, but a self-fulfilling prophecy, to be sure. So Caroline and her partner and their kids lowered their standards and shuffled to Stanmore, just across the border.
We turned back, and sat down for a little while in the park on the corner of James and Albert. Caroline had brought a thermos of tea, and some very chocolatey cookies the kids had helped make. Polly was still fast asleep in her pram. Mayhem had told me that in this park is a herb garden for blind children. But there was little on the go. A bit of lavender, perhaps, but not much else. Caroline told me about a pole poster someone had put up in Stanmore, advertising a lost shoe. That beats even the crazy “poisoned parsley” poster on Fisher Street Vanessa found last week. The reward for finding the shoe is fifty dollars, and you get to hear the story of how it was lost.
After a while, we picked ourselves up and walked under the shadow of the old water tower. I took Caroline and Polly to see the cat house on Maria Street, then we popped back in to my place, where I picked them some herbs and a small pumpkin.
Tonight, Caroline emailed me some pictures. Last night’s dinner: “Super yummy pumpkin and roasted garlic soup with ricotta and sage stuffed mushrooms”… and a photo of the lost shoe of Stanmore (it’s an RM Williams).
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Footnote: some of the half-baked ideas about “having an experience” come from a chapter of the same name in John Dewey’s 1934 book Art as Experience.