The light changes to green, “Go on, get out,” it whispers.
The bus lurches forward, we sway in unison. Their minds have already jumped miles ahead. The present moment doesn’t exist for them, they’re thinking about dinner cooking at home, they’re scrolling through our phones envious about a friend’s latest trip to Bali, and trying desperately to get their minds off work – when they should feel lucky for having jobs. I can’t jump ahead, I don’t know where I am going and so I’m trapped in the present. And presently we’re coasting past the homeless squats under the railway bridges, I look in with morbid curiosity. In the daytime they are as humble as lambs, but now deep into the night, they cackle as their Gatorade bottle bongs crackle, smoke rising from their bubbling brews. No wonder all the commuters are afraid to look out at them, all except for one. He is old and although his weathered face wears a blank expression, written into the deep lines around his eyes are tales of splendour and misery. He continues fearlessly gazing out at the vagrants. The real fear goes beyond mere boredom, it is what the mind conjures to combat the boredom that is truly terrifying. I can feel it stirring within me now, a buried cask of memories mixing with emotions that have grown potent over the years. Substance will collapse onto style, style will drown in its own blood.
The city lights warp as they shine through the mist climbing out of Yarra, ghostly tendrils claw up the embankment like a swamp monster venturing out from the deep. A gull cries out, its agony echoes out of the fog. No need to imagine any new monsters, there’s enough in Melbourne. I’m leaving it all behind. Too many people, too many ideas. I’m escaping the whores, the fiends, and especially the family and friends – the ones you love hurt you the most. The drunken laughter from the camps fades under the steady rumble of the engine.
I’ll spare them judgement. Everybody has a vice, doesn’t make them a monster. Some vices are vague assortments of fetishes and sins but mine can be measured by kilometres per hour. My main indulgence is speed, distance over time, movement, the closest a man can get to achieving that buried childhood wish of flying and swooping among the birds. Funny that such a dream usually forms within a pram when a child can hardly walk, let alone fly. The sparrow’s swift flight always seemed to bring me feverish excitement despite their tiny size. They also brought me fear as I saw one weaving between cars and disappearing into the impossibly small cracks in the concrete. I feared if his flight were one millimetre off his small body would collide against the bricks, exploding like a firecracker into the same white cotton fluff that filled my teddy bear.
Childhood is over, get with the times. Get on the road. Get on with the job.
I chuckle to myself. “Yellow means accelerate,” something my larrikin Pop used to say when he taught me how to drive my first motorcycle. A few passengers around me break out of their trance and look at me with confusion. I guess I’m that guy now, the guy so isolated he can’t differentiate thinking from talking aloud. The old man blank expression remains despite my outburst. The bus accelerates, as the driver shoots through the intersection the golden bulb blinds me for a moment. In that short moment, I was taken aback to a far simpler time.
A pair of yellow eyes flickered through the undergrowth. She danced from tree to tree, her bright gaze seemed it might spark a bushfire. Her eyes were a surreal yellow that jumped out at you with their sheer contrast. They had depth and if you weren’t careful you could find yourself falling into them. Looking into her eyes I knew I trusted her. She trusted me, even though she was a bird and I was a boy. I wished to tame her but it was an impossible wish for she was wild. Wild from her dark velvet feathers to her twisting ebon claws. To tame her I would have to clip her wings and if she couldn’t fly then she would cease to be a bird at all.
Teasingly, she jumped from branch to branch, higher up the canopy. She too had an impossible wish I sensed, she wanted me to cast off my earthly fetters and follow her up. If only I could fly: to sprout wings and feel the sun’s warmth far above the winter clouds. The idea appealed to me. I have a hunch that perhaps the opposite appealed to her – that she wished to swap the vehicles of our souls.
To pluck hands, fingers, knees, and toes from her own body– just as she plucks worms from the earth moistened by morning dew.
To pluck all her feathers out except one, which she would dip into the ink as black as her last feather and scrawl a nearly forgotten tale about a bird who was once a boy.
The traffic signal is staring at me, its red angry eye looks so enraged it might just burst like a ripe old tomato, leaking pulp out over the asphalt. I flinch at the violent thought and turn my thoughts to the red cherry tomatoes my Pop used to grow. He would look at his plants through the sliding door while sitting in his grand wooden armchair. The sliding doors were so filthy and warped from the sunshine that you could hardly see through them. I remember skipping back and forth past them, I must have been around six or seven, cackling at my warped reflection and my Pop laughing with me.
He wore thick glasses that sat on his proud Italian nose, which was always pointed towards his garden. He still wished he could be out there rather than stuck in that armchair feeling his bones creak like the limbs of a great oak.
“Don’t get old,” he’d tell me half joking.
“Okay, I won’t.”
I can see his soft hazel eyes looking down at me. One second they could show love and the next moment his gaze could cut steel. It is the type of gaze you aren’t born with but is carved into your eyes by sharp moments of love and violence. My Pop saw Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and Libya. He fought through them, he fought for our way of life. I remind myself of this at crucial times, that my day-to-day problems don’t involve a fight against the spread of tyrannical fascism; the stakes aren’t life or death.
I don’t feel the common stresses of life while moving. The rush I feel from speed is not from moving towards something but the comfort of moving away. It’s a naivety, somehow I trick myself into thinking that the problems that haunt my life won’t follow me. I’ve wandered enough to realise that the problem is me, it is a painful fact which took me a long time to admit.
“Hurts like hell to get shot in the gut,” my Pop told me on my tenth birthday. He was shot on the high crest of a sand dune just outside Gaza. He didn’t have time to plug his wound because seconds later his best friend was shot through the head. Down the dune, he dragged his friend and his bleeding guts. Blood never loses its colour when soaked in sand, he recalled to me. So down the side of the dune, a dripping crimson dress was left draped in his wake. He dragged his bleeding guts back to Egypt and dragged his bleeding guts back to Australia. He dragged his bleeding guts to that grand old armchair and watched those cherry red tomatoes drag themselves up from the dirt, and you can bet they stood up straight – to attention.
His pain was worth it, I can only hope mine will be.
Green light. You can go now.